The Garden of Five Senses

Yesterday, I cycled to the Garden of Five Senses, in Saiyad-ul-Ajaib, near Qila Rai Pithora. The Garden of Five Senses, for those who don’t know, is a Delhi park, run by the state government tourism ministry. It’s a public park, except one with an entry fee (20 rupees for adults, 10 rupees for children, 10 more rupees per person if you’re carrying in your own food, and something extra for cameras with zoom lenses. You get the idea.) This was my first visit to the Garden of Five Senses in four years, and quite possibly my first ever visit before dusk, which meant that I finally got to see and appreciate for myself how the park has been laid out – that is, quite delightfully.

Unlike the other Delhi parks with which I’m familiar: Nehru Park, Lodi Gardens, and the huge Deer Park/ Rose Garden/ Hauz Khas park complex that lies between Safdarjung Enclave and IIT Delhi, the Garden of Five Senses does not have lots of open lawns or jogging tracks. Instead, it has lots of winding paths, flanked by bushes and rock formations; and all sorts of amphitheatres and architectural and sculptural and landscape oddities. Here a Zen Garden, there an amphitheatre, elsewhere a maze, and yet elsewhere a sort of pavilion; all interspersed with sculpture or restaurants or demonstrations of muscle powered electricity generation (sadly defunct when I visited).

This does make the Garden of Five Senses much less boring than Nehru Park. Nehru Park is of course a fantastic concert venue when the concerts happen, possibly the only place in Delhi where you see dogs being walked by the owners instead of their domestic servants, full of hot expat runners, and a great place to go for a picnic, but I have always found it boring to just walk around in. Walking or running in Deer Park means lots of happiness from the trees (and if the weather and the time of day are right, the waterfowl), and in the Hauz Khas Park and in Lodi Gardens, provides lots of entertaining opportunities to people-watch and eavesdrop on conversations.

In the Garden of Five Senses, the pleasure of walking comes from being surprised every time the path turns by a new sort of sculpture. But there’s no running track (though they claim to be building a cycling track, which is what took me there in the first place), and as I said before, there is very limited open spaces for people to spread sheets and have a picnic, or to play football or frisbee or suchlike. What this means is that compared to the other parks I’ve mentioned above, the Garden of Five Senses has absolutely no runners. Even the small city forest about a kilometre away, which has only concrete paths, has runners. None here. It also has much fewer picnicing families than the other parks. And it had absolutely nobody playing football.

What it did have in spades were cuddling couples.

There were couples cuddling on benches, there were couples cuddling under rock outcrops, there were couples cuddling in the amphitheatre, and there were couples cuddling beneath the overhanging branches of ornamental trees that seemed to have been planted there for the purpose, by some sympathetic landscape gardener. The cuddling was going on right next to the path, and at considerable distances away from it, in locations that could only be reached by couples determined to exercise their ingenuity in the pursuit of snuggles.

But then, a park that is laid out as a winding path with lots of visual distractions and few open lawns is going to be full of semi-secluded spots. And it’s no surprise if people who greatly value seclusion and privacy make a beeline for said spots. As Fraa Jad says in Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, “Topology is destiny.” Admittedly, he was talking about trousers or sweatpants or underpants or some sort of lower body garment that wasn’t a veshti, but the larger point holds. And if you want an explanation of why he was talking about lower body garments, I can only ask you to read it for yourself, and beg you to believe me when I say that nine hundred pages about monastically organised philosophers who react to first contact with an extra-terrestrial race by schisming over the nature of causation is totally worth it.

Anyway, all this sighting of amorous couples made me realise why the ticket office up at the front of the park had put up this sign:

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Once inside the park, there were also signs saying “Please maintain decency. You are under surveillance.”, which sounds fairly creepy when you consider, in light of the Delhi Metro leaked footage, that it pretty much translates to “Don’t blame us if you find your snuggling activities going viral.” It also raises questions of what exactly Delhi Tourism means when they say “Please maintain decency.” Do they mean that we shouldn’t cuddle? Or is it fine to cuddle, and is Delhi Tourism merely coyly suggesting that cuddling shouldn’t go any further, to the point where it scares the children and the camel. (The Garden of Five Senses has a camel. You can hire it for rides. One couple had done this while I was there. It was hilarious to watch.)

Ideally, of course, indecency would refer to the act of filming other people cuddle. But I am not sure Delhi has gotten there yet, considering two years ago we had people being outraged over other people almost hugging. The horror!

This episode also reminded me of what Jane Jacobs had to say about designing useful parks inĀ The Life and Death of Great American Cities. I don’t have it with me right now, but if I remember right, she did mention that a successful park ought to have interesting things that broke monotony (which The Garden of Five Senses accomplishes), have something for all sorts of people who would come at different times of the day (can’t really say, but it seems to manage), and host a population throughout the day (again, can’t really say.)

Which in turn makes me wish that somebody would do a Jane Jacobs style human census of Delhi’s parks, and track the human presence inside them on different days of the week, at different times of the day, and in different seasons of the year, and answer important questions thereby. For example, why have couples disappeared from Deer Park, only to be replaced by white people? Have the white people been eating them? What are the factors that cause people to clean up their dogs’ poop? Do laughter clubs drive away or attract other sorts of visitors? And so forth.

It is high time such burning ethnographic questions were answered.