A Bagheecha (garden) in the city

This note is also posted at: All Things Pakistan

Bilal Zuberi

As readers of this blog may know, I recently got married. Among other things that came with my wife are a few plants that I now find myself responsible for. Now if you knew me, you would understand why having plants at home is a huge deal for me. The only greenery my house had seen for the past decade was in the form of saag paneer or home-made salads. Real life plants are a fresh addition.

Now that I am once again taking care of plants, I am reminded of my garden (also called lawn by my brothers, and bagheecha by my parents) in our house in Karachi. I have many memories of the bagheecha, and continue to add more each time I visit.

I grew up in a small house in very urban Karachi, but by some clever designing, and probably minor land grab, my family has been able to include a small garden inside the house and in a narrow fenced-in (read ‘grilled‘) strip outside the primeter of the house. It is is barely the size of my current bedroom, but serves numerous purposes.

It has carried our crop of dhaniya (coriander) and podeena (mint) for many years, and occasionally bananas too (before insects swarmed them). It once had a small rose garden, ducks swam in a makeshift pool in it when my dad one day showed up with two ducks as pets for us, we played cricket in it regularly, it has generously hosted our only mango tree (to which we tie cows during the Eid ul Adha season), and has served as the sacrifical altar during Eid for many many years. This is where we go to see the moon for chandraat, and where we serve meals when there are too many people inside the house during large family gatherings. Finally, this garden is also where I practised karate, when that became a fad in the late eighties.

Having a bagheecha takes quite a bit of effort in a relatively hot and dry city like Karachi. Finding a good maali in Karachi is almost (or more) difficult than finding a reliable, safe driver. I am sure we must have gone through dozens of maalis in the past 15 years or so. But somehow we always found someone to trim the grass every few months. Among the favorite tasks of all new maalis was to make us buy new gamlay (they must took commission from the sellers). Now we just paint them red ourselves and they look clean as new. Summers were tough because the heat, combined with lack of water, would nearly kill the plants. It looks its best right after the monsoon season.

Now that I think of it, it is interesting how Karachiites treasure their gardens, despite all the hassles associated with having one. The city is slowly transforming into a maze of high rise apartments and flats, and gardens are becoming quite a luxury (unless of-course you are among the rich few who don’t even know how many cars they actually own). I remember visiting relatives when I was a kid and they would always stretch out charpaais and gao-takyas to hang out in the open, but now its just stuffy drawing rooms and sheeshas/hookahs (which are a new fad in Karachi).

But wait, I am not done with gardens and cows! What’s up with all the cows grazing on the streets in Karachi, chewing away precious flowers as food. I haven’t understood the reasons for these cows’ existence as yet. We get milk from BhainsBaras, so what is the function of the cows that roam the streets? My family found a solution to this menace by welding little spears on top of the grills to keep unwanted guests away. It is just a sad coincidence that once my brother got stuck between them while jumping across to fetch a ball. He would kill me now if he knew that I was sharing his story.

Our garden is still holding strong, despite all the abuses it has seen over the years. Once it was run over by a herd of goats when some charsi (drug addict) stole parts of our protective metal grill. That was scary. The mango tree is still there but no longer bears fruit, unfortunately. The plants are doing well, though I feel they must feel jealous of the more beautiful flowering plants that now get housed in elaborate pots instead. The dhanya and podina are resilient, but since we no longer play cricket on the little piece of grass, I have seen it used to hang clothes now for air drying.

My mom is now fully incharge of the bagheecha, and she is doing a much better job of it than any of us ever did. I love spending Ramzan evenings there, watching the sun go down and sky change colors. Its just too bad that homes around mine have started constructing second and third floors, blocking golden views from my garden. Still, it provides a much-needed breath of fresh air in an otherwise dusty city.

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