Dr Ajaz Anwar reckons that Nasira Habib’s book, Bachon Ki Baaghbani, is “a storehouse of knowledge about the microscopic world of friendly creatures and poses pertinent questions to the uninitiated minors”
asira Habib, an expert at organic gardening, has published a book, titled Bachon Ki Baaghbani, which has illustrations by Prof Rukhsana Farrukh, MA in fine arts. Its publishers are Khoj Society for People’s Education. At Rs 500 it’s a modestly priced book — especially considering the spiralling prices of art paper.
The artwork in the book also effectively illustrates its subject matter. All images have been done in pastels over grained white paper (original pastel paper in different colours being no longer available).
The knowledge of human anatomy, especially the delicate limbs and expressive faces of the children who have been engaged in gardening, reflects the subjects’ sense of curiosity as well as joy. The title page itself shows vegetation in the form of sprouting saplings and slightly bigger plants in the ground and in the flower pots. A girl is depicted tending to the plants with her delicate hands. The bottom of the title page has various friendly insects such as butterflies, dragonflies and ladybirds crawling around. The back page too illustrates sprouting seeds in different stages and the microscopic creatures that break up the mineral and organic matter to be absorbed by the vegetation.
It seems that the two ladies, the painter and the philosopher, had communicated with each other for quite some time, sharing and complementing each other’s knowledge about art and the flora and fauna. Hence, their choice of pastels over rough, white surface proves to be the right medium.
The four-colour offset printing facilitated by the modern colour-separation/correction in high resolution scanning is excellent. The book’s subject matter also makes it an interesting read. It translates into a storehouse of knowledge about the microscopic world of friendly creatures which poses pertinent questions to the uninitiated minors. For instance, would they like to be a gardener? How can one benefit from gardening? What do we need to know before we start in gardening? What is the earth composed of? Where should a garden be laid out? Which plants should be preferred, and which seeds should be used and in which season of the year? Besides, which plants are friends with each other and therefore can be grouped together and which ones cannot co-exist. The author tells the readers that some flowers can actually help the vegetable plants.
The importance of watering the plants at the right hours and right season, and preparing the various channels for watering, and the sloping sides that serve to insert seeds with proper distance and not just throwing them around, has been discussed with clarity.
Habib strongly advocates against the use of chemicals as pesticides. In one of her PowerPoint illustrated lectures, she points out that the use of chemical poisons was inspired by the chemical warfare during World War I. If the humans could be killed on a large scale then the pests too could be sprayed with chemicals, it was declared. Of course, it’s another matter that these dangerous poisons end up in human bodies as well as in the plants and the earth, killing the friendly bugs and the birds which feed on them. Once, a great Chinese leader ordered millions of house sparrows to be hunted down and killed because he presumed that they ate up substantial amounts of rice and other staple vegetation. As a result — in the absence of sparrows and other birds — the vast amount of crops was eaten away and destroyed by the pests, and a famine-like situation emerged the following season, forcing the Chinese to import the birds in great numbers in order to replenish their depleted population.
Habib suggests organic ways to control the pests such as using ginger, garlic and neem leaves. She advocates using water mixed with cow dung. She also advises reusing kitchen waste as compost.
An organic garden can also support poultry and milch animals. Habib emphasises the usefulness of local trees which are weather-friendly. A bukain, or dhaiek opens its green umbrella during the hot summers with the leaves casting deep shadows. In winters, their leaves fall, allowing the sun to filter through. The local birds too frequent these native trees and nestle to breed there.
This may be a new venture for the children in our part of the world. I have some pamphlets from different gardening societies for children in England, and I know for a fact that they encourage the children to come for the rough handiwork under the supervision of their mentors.
In her private conservations, Habib has often highlighted rainwater harvest, also called blue gold, which is pure water and therefore very good for gardening.
Growing vegetables is great fun. During the season, some greens can be harvested in big quantities, necessitating distribution among friends as well as the needy. Salad made of freshly picked vegies is a very healthy dietary supplement.
Local fruit trees such as jaman, mangoes, mulberry, oranges, guavas, and bananas need no seasonal care. Even if your gardener prescribes a chemical spray, you can use the organic sprays discussed above. Anyone who recommends chemicals to kill the earthworms should be dismissed forthwith. Earthworms excrete a very rich earth. Besides, they aerate the earth by creating air tunnels. Snakes which are feared for all the wrong reasons — most of them aren’t poisonous, and certainly they don’t attack unprovoked — help control rodents and mice. Big lizards that come in search of water and feed on pests should be encouraged too, as they help the nature keep its balance.
Replenishing the quality of earth around the roots and trunks with cow dung and rotting leaves can improve the quality and quantity of the fruits. Pests can be prevented from climbing the trees and shrubs by creating barriers.
Habib laments that during the Raj fruits trees were planted along the major routes, a practice that has sadly been abandoned in favour of alien trees that aren’t liked by squirrels, reptiles, and the local as well as visiting birds. Secondly, they bring in alien botanical diseases.
After I read the book, I gathered some of my neighbours to inspect the four saplings that Nasira Habib had helped plant in the all-organic garden of Mian Ahmad Din, at a meeting organised by the Lahore Conservation Society (LCS). Two plants were doing very well, while a third one needed watering.
They say the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and the second best time is today. We took upon ourselves the task to carry bottles of water along with us, on our inspection tours. Not too little and not a lot of watering was advised by Habib. Let’s hope that we are able to learn from the volunteering and venturing children whom Habib practically tutored.
This publication has no financial aims; it just means to reinvest any proceeds in the future publications. The society can be reached at www.khoj.edu.pk
PS: A big thank you is due to WASA for replacing the two missing manhole covers I discussed in a previous dispatch. Secondly, some PHA gardeners were spotted setting alight the piles of dried leaves from the Bagh Mian Ahmed Din. Volunteer Luqman came with buckets of water to put the PHA staff to shame.
(This dispatch is dedicated to geologist Naeem Ahmad Bajwa who has a keen interest in horticulture)
Note: Free Art classes, all ages and genders, are held every Sunday at the House of NANNAs.
The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org