Arful Nessa, Gardener
It is my pleasure to welcome Delwar Hussain as guest writer for the next seven days, celebrating the publication of his first book Boundaries Undermined by Hurst. Delwar was born and bred in Spitalfields, and he commences with this tender portrait of his mother. Meanwhile, I shall be making the trip to Somerset to supervise the printing of my Album at Butler, Tanner & Dennis in Frome, and thus I leave you in Delwar’s safe hands until my return on Monday 23rd September.
Arful Nessa in her garden in Puma Court
My mother is the first to admit that when it comes to growing anything, the success rate cannot be predicted – some years are simply better than others. But this summer has, on the whole, been a good one. Despite the aubergines not putting in a show, she has had quite a few runner beans, chillies galore, enough coriander to garnish an army with, mulas (a long white radish), potatoes and dhengas (a tall, dark pink stalk, almost like a savoury rhubarb). She has also transferred the olive tree into the ground, as well as the plum tree, and the neem tree and pomegranate followed suit recently. The latter, which she grew from a seed, is a non-descript small shrub with small, shiny, pointy leaves. The trees all seem to have taken well to the positions she has chosen for them, but this is not always the case, as the dry, brittle carcass of a fig tree attests. The bushy orange and lemon trees did not make it into the ground either. My mother is not confident that they would like it there, so they continue to live in the big, black, dustbins that she insists on collecting.
But of all of her achievements this year, it is the gourd that she is particularly pleased with. Neighbours and relatives from far and wide have already been notified of its appearance. The vegetable has always been elusive to her throughout the many years that she has been gardening, building all sorts of wooden and bamboo frames to support them without gain. “I’ve always wanted to grow one, but I never managed to until now. It is probably because we don’t get much sun here. The garden is surrounded on all sides by brick walls.” Today, the perfectly spherical, green and white globe, resembling a small disco ball, dangles precariously in the sky, held on to by its strong, twisty, protective vines. Behind it, the tall, white steeple of Christ Church looms large over the entire garden.
As Patricia Niven takes photographs of my mother on this still, warm evening, together with the greenery that we are surrounded by, we are reminded of the other lives carrying on outside of the red-bricked walls. Against the quiet hum of the cars and sirens on Commercial St, the more prominent chirping of little birds come in from nearby gardens and rooftops. The shrieks of children playing and the long, yawn-like, ancient drawl of the azaan, the call to prayer from the Brick Lane mosque, drifts in too. It is always an unusual experience interviewing a family member, especially one that happens to be your mother. Nonetheless, over the years, I have done so a number of times, usually for university projects. This is the first time that I am formally questioning her about a subject that she herself is actually interested in and not one picked by her son.
“I garden because I enjoy doing so. People say that gardening is healthy, that it is good for you to be outside, to stroke the leaves, to smell the fruit, to feel the soil. When I moved to London in the nineteen-seventies I was in my twenties. No one taught me how to do any of it, I learnt instinctively. When I was young, I would watch my parents in the village in Bangladesh. They would grow aubergines, mustard, rice, mangoes, jackfruits, guavas and so many spices and herbs. Your father and I first lived in a small, crowded flat in Wapping where there was not even a single tree to look at outside, let alone inside. Then we moved to New Rd. We rented a house from the hospital and it came with a massive garden in the back. It was so big, you would never have been able to fill the place up with trees. I started growing spinach, coriander and mustard. Your father would get the seeds for me in little bundles when he travelled back from Bangladesh. But unfortunately we had to leave that house because it didn’t have an indoor toilet or bath: the toilet was in the garden and we had a tin bath propped up in the kitchen. We would fill it up with water and by the time it reached the top, the water would be cold. The same tin bath followed us to the present house, where we used it as a pond for some ducks that we kept and then later to grow potatoes in.”
A friend of mine said recently that he has never seen my mother actually getting her hands dirty, let alone holding a trowel or spade. Despite this, she always manages to grow huge amounts. I laughed and, in jest, said that this is because she gets my brothers and sisters and I to do most of the lumbering work for her. However, the more I thought about it, the more I think my friend had a point. Much of the gardening she does involves standing at the kitchen door or on the balconies upstairs on the third floor of the house where she grows the coriander, looking intently, surveying, absorbed in the plants. Occasionally she may walk over to something which she will touch, rub, pick at or uncoil. She moves a pot from one place to another, gives the attention of a watering jug here or there, but most of all, it involves staying still, studying, contemplating.
But of course, there is more to it than the impression she gives. “Throughout the year, I save seeds from things that we eat. If they don’t grow, well, then, they don’t grow, but I will give them a try. Around January-February time, I sow the seeds in pots. I keep them dotted around the house so that they don’t get cold. In March and April, I put the pots outside in the garden and rotate them around so that they can get as much sun as possible. Just before the summer, some of them are transferred into bigger pots. I then just keep my eye on them as they grow.”
Having lived in London for over thirty years, my mother is very much rooted to the house and to Spitalfields. Even so, she will still confess to not being very good at growing English plants. If ever there was a gardening test in the same vein as the cricket one as dreamed up by Norman Tebbit, my mother would probably fail. Mediterranean, African, Middle Eastern and Asian plants and trees dominate her world. “My apple tree is probably around ten years old, but it just doesn’t seem to want to grow. I’ve often thought about taking it out of the ground and putting something else in its place, but we’ve been together for too long. Now that I have my gourd, I would like to try my own apple”.
The tall, white steeple of Christ Church looms large over the entire garden
Arful Nessa, Gardener
Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven
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