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A Cornucopia

Malavika Karlekar

By Sydney Percy-Lancaster Edited by Laeeq Futehally
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 227, Rs. 350.00


Raj memorabilia these days are hard to come by – quite apart from it being unfashionable to search for its remnants in postcolonial times. The proverbial baby and the bath water syndrome tends to overlook the uses of 200 years of rule – some more significant than others. In recent years, there have been some interesting studies of other aspects of empire (for instance Roy Moxham’s The Great Hedge of India as well as a sustained interest in memoirs). Archiving can be hard work and its result often tedious; but when archivists dredge up old memories that then become a part of their attitude to the ‘subject’, something as fascinating as A Sahib’s Manual for the Mali is sure to result. In bringing to print Sydney Percy-Lancaster’s monthly bulletin Garden Chat, historian Narayani Gupta ( who inherited her mother’s issues) has won the instant friendship of hundreds of Indian garden enthusiasts weary of looking for appropriate, reader-friendly material. Written in the heady days of early independence when Indian bureaucrats inherited enormous bungalows with endless gardens, lawns and innumerable outhouses and the British were enjoying their last Indian summers, these bulletins had a steady clientele among the yet existent genteel urban housewife, homemaker par excellence.   Laeeq Futehally’s introduction and Sheela Roy’s line drawings make the book a charming addition not only to any shelf of ‘How to. . .’ books but also to the libraries of those interested in colonial history with a difference—rendered in studiously correct prose of the times. Percy-Lancaster was Superintendent of Horticultural Operations, Government of India—the last Englishman to hold that post—and the brain behind Sunder Nursery (near Humayun’s Tomb), to which even today, despite our reluctance to battle with red tape, we invariably wend our way.   Despite its title—A Sahib’s Manual for the Mali—that would surely make Orientalists jump with joy—the book is much more than a nostalgic reminiscence of past times. Though its assumption that to be taken seriously, herbaceous borders need to be six feet if not ten feet in depth and discussion on fields of potatoes may sound like a fairly tale to many a present-day resident of Delhi, Percy-Lancaster’s advice is a memory-jogger for others. I remember his name from my childhood—having assumed that Percy was his first name—and also remember a tall, stooping man in an earlier incarnation of Bermuda ...

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