Just Saying

Getting to know my mum in her garden

Mothers are more than just nurturers and deserve their own special places

I can see further than you think. I can see a woman from 4,214km away, past clouds and across borders, and through the rain.

There she is in the morning sunlight, a slim stem of a woman, 84 years old and on her haunches, in communion with her gardener as they sit in silent, planting harmony.

I am not particularly enamoured of Mother's Day but this is how my mother's day often begins: in a lovely green place, a place of her own, a place she chooses, not a place we, as men, decide for her.

My mother's garden is in the northern Indian town of Dehra Dun and it is best thought of as a small, elegant empire presided over by this benevolent, miniature Alexander. She would prefer if you looked, not touched. This garden - and she is not a great gardener but a devoted one - is not just a geographical place, not just a palette of blue and yellow and red, not just a shield against the violence of noise outside; it is also where I find who my mother is.

Perhaps because I am a writer, I am always investigating people, instinctively curious about their stories, trying to slip underneath their protective skin. It is the same with my mother. She is my parent but also a person, not some cliched nurturer but a human with a story independent of husband and sons and grandchildren.

Mothers, in movies, books and real life, still get shovelled into stereotypes and are reduced to cliches about cookies, caring and unconditional love. As if there it ends. But what do we know of their individual worlds, their places to retreat to, their private refuges, their quiet dreams, their little pleasures? Perhaps we rarely ask them.

In my mother's garden, we loll, play cricket, smack shuttles, putt golf balls, spill beer, read books and trample flowers, but we are simply visitors to this place. We enjoy it but we bring nothing constructive to it. We are calmed by the colours, but we don't entirely appreciate this garden's history, its labour, its life and, therefore, don't understand a part of her.

I decide, when I visited last month, to walk the garden with my mother, searching not for a story but for the ties that bind this woman to the earth. We stroll and she speaks of orchids and begonias, geraniums and petunias, bougainvillea and pansies, larkspur and yellow daisies, as if she is speaking of her second clan. She is the artist of this living landscape painting, but she doesn't like that thought. Quietly, she tells me: "Don't say I created this. To say that is to take it all away from nature."

Her garden is rectangular, framed by ancient trees which stand as crookedly as a gathering of old men, their branches extending like handshakes on which visiting monkeys do idle gymnastics. Ropes have dangled from these branches, tyres have hung, all for kids to play with. As these trees grew, they helped bring us up. Her, too. As a woman in Kolkata, she had four flower pots; now, she has 200. In this garden, to which she came 29 years ago, she has grown.

Gardens are like humans, they need water and care and loving, and are attended to with secateurs which are the nail clippers of the natural world. My mother cleans, weeds, cuts, trims and yet is never totally imprisoned by some perfect design. A neat woman, I realise, has more horticultural hippie in her than I thought. Her flower beds do not run like a symmetrical border along the wall but encroach into her garden like petalled intruders.

"I don't want order," she says, "I want a meadow." Not an immaculate, precise beauty but a gently unruly one.

There is no sign in this garden with her name on it, but its ownership is known. Mothers, like all of us, need something of their own and this is hers, a sanctuary where she needs no one and is best left undisturbed.

The garden, its lawn weedy, its enclosing walls tired, is where my mother walks to quieten her fears and put aside her worries. Places do for the spirit sometimes what other people cannot. Still, if this terrain is her classroom, the gardener is her teacher. We, the sons, do not like him much because he owns a power we do not have: she listens to him. Wait, he says, don't cut, not yet. She listens because he knows the earth from where life springs.

Butterflies abruptly dip and rise as if they have the hiccups, but like so much else on this planet, they are a dying tribe. The bees, once a regular part of the beautiful sting of spring, are far fewer and the earthworms are disappearing. When you work in a garden for 29 years, you can feel this vanishing.

As we walk, I smile. I am listening to a woman I have known for 54 years and I am learning about her. In her garden, I find her younger but that is what love affairs always do. Here, too, there is pain but also rapture. One morning, she sighs as the hail reduces her flowers to broken, bent ruin; another day, she lifts as she talks of a hundred violets blooming after a winter rain.

One thing I have understood is that no chocolate or cheese that my brothers and I take for my mother - however lovingly she receives them all - can alter the truth that it's the gifts from her garden that sustain her.

Patience: that one must wait for a green shoot to emerge. Reassurance: that mistakes in planting can be made. Gratitude: that in a crowded, poor nation, she has this space. Knowledge: that to grow or to build is to be faithful to a pursuit.

She tells these stories without embellishment and with an English teacher's crispness - as if each word is neatly snipped at the end - but it cannot entirely obscure the trace of wonder that creeps into her tone. "There's always something new," she says. "I turn a corner and I see a bud. I wait, will it be today that it flowers and I keep going to look at it. Then, one day, I look up and see, there it is, a flower as big as a plate. You know it's coming and yet nature's beauty is always a surprise."

As we sit on her cracked marble bench and speak of self-seeding plants and creepers, I think that if we stop looking at our mothers as cardboard saints, we might start to see them more clearly as humans. We don't need to intrude into their spaces but we can discover them through those spaces.

There is no sign in this garden with her name on it, but its ownership is known. Mothers, like all of us, need something of their own and this is hers, a sanctuary where she needs no one and is best left undisturbed. Often at home when the phone rings for her and she can't be found in the house, we only have to peek out of a window and there she is. Standing alone in the evening light, hands on hips, looking at her flowers. A woman in her garden, lost and yet found.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 14, 2017, with the headline 'Getting to know my mum in her garden'. Print Edition | Subscribe