Cicero famously once said, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” Some of my best memories are of reading a book through the night, then going out in the garden to watch the sun come up as the birds awaken, the sun rays catching the dew drops on spider webs.
Reading and gardens have a natural association.
Both reveal themselves slowly to those who are patient. Garden design almost always includes spaces that lend themselves to a quiet read surrounded by teeming life that seems to echo the words coming to life as we turn page after page.
Many writers have found inspiration sitting in their gardens or wandering the countryside. Charles Dickens had ‘a Pavilion room in the garden, with a delicious view, where you may write.’ More people read books than one would expect given the demands of life today, especially as digital formats are growing. Even in Pakistan, the literature festivals always surprise by the growing number of attendees. There is what I call the KLF factor, which is a look of camaraderie between fellow attendees.
There is an interconnectedness between gardens, literature and our desire for life
My sister, Faiza, is a bundle of activity, running the house, getting the phone fixed, the internet, the fridge, dashing to Maqbool Bhai at KE every time one phase is missing. And in the middle of all this she comes back armed with three novels from the library which she reads with the same dedication. Always a voracious reader, she also teaches literature and language, and is convinced that literature and essay writing are the most important teachers of life for her young students.
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies …The man who never reads lives only one,” writes George R.R. Martin, author of A Game of Thrones. We immerse ourselves in the stories of others, understanding the events and relationships that shape them. It would take many lifetimes to encounter the number of characters one meets in a book, and then one would be unlikely to achieve the degree of intimacy to know their thoughts and emotions. The novelist Julian Barnes writes: “Books say: She did this because. Life says: She did this.” He also says, “When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it.” One could say this of narrative art in general, whether music, dance, theatre, film or poetry. What books do differently is reveal themselves as quietly as nature pushing up seedlings.
Cicero believed the garden was the best place where the interconnectedness of the cosmos could be visualised and understood. Observing the growth and decay of vegetation revealed the rationality and order of things and a pathway for understanding the journey of one’s own life.
Chance the Gardener, the character of Jerzy Kosinski’s book, responds to all questions about economics, politics and life in terms of plants, which is all he has known, with phrases like: “As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.” In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden, life is brought back to Misselthwaite Manor by tending the neglected walled garden. Many writers use the theme of gardens as metaphors. Saadi’s compendiums of wisdom were named Gulistan (rose garden) and Bostan (orchard).
The link between the garden and literature also lies in the extensive use of metaphors of plants and trees, especially in poetry. Attainment of true love is to navigate the thorns to reach the rose. A Chinese proverb says a book is like a garden carried in one’s pocket.
Gardens do not just inspire poetry but are sometimes the venue for sharing literature: Allen Ginsberg recited his poetry in Washington Square Park and poetry gardens exist in many cities where readings are held. For Monet and Frieda Kahlo their gardens at Giverny and Casa Azul were like a palette.
The word Paradise comes from the Persian pairidaeza — a walled garden — suggesting it is not only a place of beauty but also a refuge.Paradise is secret and hidden like our innermost soul. Jannah means garden and also ‘that which is concealed’. The worldly garden then becomes a place for metaphysical contemplation. The Zen Buddhist Monk, Muso Soseki says, “When a garden is used as a place to pause for thought that is when a Zen garden comes to life.”
Eden itself is a garden where Man’s transgression removed him from his place in the scheme of nature and it is only through re-establishing the order of things through our actions that we will earn a place back in the eternal garden. We constantly seek to fi nd that paradise: “Gar firdaus bar-rue zamin ast, hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin ast” (if there is a heaven on earth, it’s here, it’s here) or recreate it with Chahar Baghs or Hasht Behesht gardens. We give our gardens sweet names like Angoori Bagh or Chehel Sutoon or weave paradise carpets to bring the garden in.
Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 16th, 2017