A bicycle rider with a lawn mower tied on the rear carrier and gardening tools stuck in the handle bar always brings a grateful smile on my face. A closer look at this individual is likely to reveal a deeply tanned leathery complexion (the result of long hours in the sun) and a body structure that is generally lean and sinewy from hard labor. I know the type well with a deep rooted respect, for this is a gardener - someone we all know as the ‘Mali’. It is to these men that this week’s column is dedicated.

My earliest memory of a ‘mali’ goes back to early boyhood. I recall someone, who pedaled up our drive dressed in a discolored white cotton ‘dhoti, kurta’ topped by a similarly colored ‘pugree’. Mohammad Ali had a regular job as Head Mali in the Lawrence Gardens (now called ‘Bagh-e-Jinnah’), but he moonlighted at our house in the evenings on a daily basis. While my grandfather took care of his needs, which included monetary assistance, medical care, food and clothing, this unique individual paid us back in full measure by filling our home with cut flowers and keeping our sprawling garden green and healthy. No amount of inclement weather or personal pain could alter his daily commitment and evening routine. He never demanded anything from us and whenever asked if he or his family needed anything, raised both hands in prayer and replied that he was satisfied and grateful for what Allah had given him.

Muhammad Ali had the gift of putting new life into flora that had been given up as dead and gone. His knowledge of plants, their maladies and cures was uncanny and my mother often remarked that nature worked miracles through him. This remarkable man kept up his routine year after year even as age ravaged him, with the difference that now he walked more slowly with a stoop and on my grandfather’s insistence supervised the work of other and younger members of his evocation from a chair in the company of my grandparent. I then left home to take up a career until one day I was informed that this doyen amongst gardeners was no more. One evening this amazing individual absented himself (for the first and last time) and concerned enquiries revealed that he had passed away in his sleep the previous night at the ripe old age of eighty six.

It was during my stay in Multan that ‘Gulla’ entered our life. No one appeared to know his full name neither did we solve the riddle of why was a middle aged man from the cold northern lands toiling away in the heat of Multan. ‘Gulla’ resonated with me and my family from day one and within no time transformed my residence into a lovely home bedecked with fruit trees, flowering aromatic shrubs and beautifully trimmed lawns. When my mother came to visit me on a déjà vu type trip (she had spent many years of her young days in Multan because of my grandfather’s posting there in the 1930s), Gulla became her ‘disciple’. I often saw them strolling in the lawn talking earnestly. It turned out that our ‘mali’ had lost his mater as a child and when his father remarried, the step parent turned out to be someone much like the one in ‘Cinderella’. ‘Gulla’ claimed that he found a certain resemblance of his dead mother in mine and from that day onward, he became totally devoted to the old lady.

Aashiq came to us after I had retired and settled in the Federal Capital. He lived in a village along the Murree Expressway in a one roomed stone structure. A desire to have a male child has blest him with a trio of three lovely daughters, who often came to our home to play. A man of very few words and a soft voice, he displayed an uncanny sense of line, color and form, when it came to gardening. I returned on day from office later than usual because of a business meeting to find Aashiq sitting on the front steps. This extraordinary man had not gone home as other members of our domestic staff were on leave and my better half was alone in the house.

I honestly believe that anyone with a genuine passion for growing things and compassion for animals will generally turn out to be a good human being. As someone, who keenly observes how people behave, I have seen the notion verified time and again. The finesse lies in detecting genuine passion devoid of desire to make money.