The Open Dosa

Consuming the Ordinary Differently

Lalbagh, our Beloved

Take Bangalore apart, like a Babushka doll, and you will find another Bangalore.

Bangalore, like all cities, is made of stories. There are tales hidden within the bark of the jacaranda trees, little poems underneath the footsteps of each child running in puddles, and novels folded under cement floors. For the longest time, I was scared of these stories. I was scared of the city and its vastness, of the noise the stories made as they fell down like a hailstorm. I was worried that I would not be enough for this city, with its sophisticated people and tales of grandeur. 

But if you tell your fear to sit beside you instead of in the driver’s seat, you start to learn that people are hidden in cities and cities are hidden in people. Each city holds secrets and tales of magic and little ships in bottles that fly around in the air. Bangalore, like onions and Shrek the ogre, has layers and each layer reveals something about the city. 

The story I am going to talk about today is one of these many tales, spun with words like straw into gold.

They call her Beloved.

The truth is you could just as easily call her Red Garden but that is such a plain name for one so majestic. I discovered Lalbagh in stages, the way you discover the inside of a Babushka doll in stages.

The first time, Mama and I came to Lalbagh, we walked near a hill. We walked around the hill and I thought that was the end of the park. Like a good story, I believed that Lalbagh started and ended with a hill. Half an hour later, Papa called us to tell us he had reached. This resulted in a very confused, “I’m at the gate! Where are you?” 

“I’m near the man on the horse,” Papa said.

“The hill! The hill!” We insisted. “Why can’t you see the hill?”

As I stood on that hill, I did not realize that it was nearly 3.5 million years old and believed to be one of the oldest rock formations in the world. That information came to me later, in the form of a book, a gift from A sir. Bangalore’s Lalbagh, A Chronicle of the Garden and the City by Suresh Jayaram, is a complete delight.

My copy of the book is opened to page 98, a photo spread, that makes me wish I was either a mermaid or an owl. On one side are small pictures of the birds of Lalbagh, among which is an owl. My soft owl, Pig, sits on my table as I write this, a present from Harry Potter World, when my uncle went. Extending from page 99, to page 98 is a purple moorhen over the lake. I am not an ornithologist and I know little about birds but I know this lake because it is my solace. It is the reason Lalbagh became my beloved.

It was the third time I went to Lalbagh, in my second year of college, that I realized that the lake existed. S, P, B and A took me there and surprised me with a cake and food for my birthday. We walked around and when I saw the lake, I felt the water enter my blood. I am secretly (not so secretly) a mermaid, and I belong where water does, despite the fact that I do not love swimming. As we stood on the bridge, I raised my hands to the sky and let the wind push past me. I was home.

Today, I went to Lalbagh, held up an umbrella and walked around the lake. It was raining, the water from the sky joining the water the ground. Little drops falling on my hands and into the lake. I once tried to write a story about a girl who carried a cup of tea everywhere. One day, she overturned it and it fell. The tea fell down and down until it reached another world where it formed a beloved lake. 

I am aware that this story does not make sense. Still, I hold it to myself and my footsteps whisper it when I walk around the lake. 

Write about Lalbagh for Open Dosa.

Yes, yes, I will.

But how?

It is morning. 

The wind catches my hair and throws it into the air. I want to twirl around and around till my feet leave the ground. I tell myself adults do not do this. Instead, I smile at the parrots. I hear a noise. It is the sound of running of water. Of falling flying water. And then I see it, Lalbagh’s waterfall, water tripping over itself in a melody that catches my ears and eyes, and shifts within them.

My heart twists in place until it turns into an owl and flies into the morning. Free.

..

I am not familiar with the rest of Lalbagh, my mermaidness is not drawn to land the way it is drawn to my mermaid lagoon but I will tell you about things I did not know about with my deepest gratitude to Suresh Jayaram.

When John Cameron proposed the Glass House, the plan was to naturalise the exotic, but as Jayaram points out, “this purpose was never served.” There is a picture of a tea party being held in the book. It looks formal and nothing like one Alice would attend but it also looks fabulous. They also held political meetings, receptions and music concerts, and I imagine in standing in the glass house as sirens sing from the lake. There is also, what I thought was a random hut, which is actually the Bandstand, a place where military bands and colonial orchestras played their tunes. Music and Lalbagh are more intertwined than I had realized.

When I walk with A and J, I take them past the Glass House towards the lake. I tell them about the social life that existed within this building and I imagine being part of it. I think of a Shefali in a past life, sitting with a cup of chai, head swaying to a tune as the band plays.

I never attended the flower shows in Lal Bagh. As a student, she was not yet my beloved. As a teacher, a pandemic hit just as I was falling in love. Jayaram’s book has three pictures of the flower show – India Gate stands proudly, as men sit on wooden rods up in the sky, adjusting the flowers. A picture of The Bahai Lotus Temple replica from 2011 looks back at me. 

Jayaram’s book is filled with pictures that remind me why we call her Beloved. My favourite picture, however, is one that could belong just as easily to any other garden It is a hand, gently lined unlike mine which is a map in itself. The hand is cupped and filled with pink petals and I am not sure why I’m drawn to this picture. Maybe because I can see my hand in the place of that hand, and in our hands, we hold a bit of Lalbagh.

Sometimes when I walk in Lalbagh, I plan out classes. I put my earphones in my ear and pretend to be on the phone as I talk to myself. It is in Lalbagh that discovering what to do in a class feels like I have finally written something. In Lalbagh writing and teaching, reading and learning, walking and smiling, all become one.

When I first came to Bangalore one the many things that hit me were the trees that lined the streets. Like Jayaram, I am grateful for those who saw beyond themselves – “we enjoy the shade today because someone planted a tree long ago.”

Lalbagh reminds me of my home in Vellore (which, by the way, is mentioned in the book with reference to Tipu Sultan) because in both places, people thought of trees for the future. They thought of a life that would continue to live once they were gone, and through this, they still live.

It has been many years since I have noticed the man on the horse. In Jayaram’s book, there is a photograph of this statue. The gate my father walked through was the Cameron gate and the man was Chamarajendra Wodeyar, the 23rd Maharaja of the Kingdom of Mysore. Like me, it did not always belong in Lalbagh but, as the book tells me, was shifted from Mysore to Bangalore in 1908. He might be a Maharaja, but I will always know him fondly as the man on the horse.

The postcard in the book of the floral clock reminds me of the time I discovered Snow White’s cottage and the dwarves and died a little because it meant that Lalbagh truly was a place of fairies and tales.  

But Lalbagh is not only my story.

It is also Mama’s who I take on an early morning walk for her birthday. She stands by the Silk Tree and I see wonder press itself against her brow.

It is also V ma’am’s who says that the first time she went to Lalbagh, she did not actually go there. It was a school trip and she was coming back from some other place. They passed one gate. This seemed normal. They passed another. This was weird. They passed a third. She flipped. Did no one else in the bus realize that they had passed the Lalbagh gate three times?

It is also A sir’s who discovers Neera in Bangalore.

It is also Suresh Jayaram’s who writes about wishing to live in the Cameron building, another block I thought was just a random building, which is actually the Marigowda National Horticultural Library. 

It is also the couples you see every time you go there, holding hands and walking, seeking a space for themselves within this busy world. It is the children screaming as they run through the garden. It is the old men, holding their stomachs and laughing loudly. It is all of ours and we are hers.

We will discover you again and again, in different forms, in different ways and through this discovery, we will learn to love each other.

All pictures by Shefali Mathew
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Shefali Mathew

Shefali likes dogs, Harry Potter and anything blue. 

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