Sunder Nursery: A garden, an escape, and a mirror to Delhi
Opened in 2018, the 90-acre Sunder Nursery, with its many gardens and monuments, has become the Capital’s great escape. Created and managed by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, it has quickly grown to contain the clashing multitudes of Delhi—the spirit of tony Golf Links and that of the freer Laxmi Nagar, the wealthy and the less so. Sunder Nursery makes a little city of its own; and like all cities, it has its landmarks, neighbourhoods, communities and social borders.
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Here’s a Delhiwale mapping of Delhi’s current crush
Ranbeer Kapoor and other strays
On spotting a camera lens, Mowgli at once turns into a poseur. He is one of the 24 stray dogs who have found a home in the park. Some of these dogs have been abandoned by their owners, including a gorgeous Great Dane who was tossed into the garden during the first lockdown last year—he died soon after. Another much-loved dog who recently passed away was Ranbeer Kapoor (no relation to the film star). He was a hit among the park guards, warning them about snakes by sudden barks. All these dogs are well-cared, fed twice daily by the park authorities, and hospitalised whenever injured. The park’s sweetest dog is unnamed, his territory is Mirza Muzaffar Hussain’s tomb (Akbar’s son-in-law). This brown dog selects his favourites among the random visitors, sniffing them lovingly and never forgetting them, distinguishing them on their return.
Their eerie silence echoes along the stream running through the so-called Gardens of Delight. Here, young folks would make short dance videos tuned to Punjabi pop. Tensions at the Indo-China border last year led to the ban of Chinese-owned TikTok, and a civilisation was gone with the wind.
Meet the introverts
Folks too possessive about Sunder Nursery might feel resentful about the garden’s wild popularity. After all, who want to see so many pesky Delhiites bunched in one place? But the introverts must realise that the garden is made of two parts. One is all pruned lawns and crowded lakesides. The other is where the track is overgrown with grass, where the wild trees stand in tight clusters, where narrow streams flow with slow-moving water. This is the 30-acre Wilderness zone. The air is full of birds and butterflies, and of secretive lives scurrying about in the dense undergrowth. And ah, that constant chirp of the crickets! Peacocks perched in tree branches too cry out non-stop, almost like human voices intoning in Hindi—“Main hoon! Main hoon! (I am! I am!)”. Which is your cue to answer back with—“Main bhi hoon! (I am too!)” The only humans you’ll spot are bird watchers and solemn-looking tree spotters, armed with Pradip Krishen’s Trees of Delhi.
The park recently got new dwellers. Two baby bulbuls. They are living in a nest made by mummy bulbul in a golden bamboo tree. Location withheld for the babies to stay in peace. You may, however, spot 80 species of birds in the park, including the blue ultramarine flycatcher, which has never been seen in Delhi but was spotted in Sunder Nursery for three years running: The red-naped Ibis is often seen sitting like a laat saheb on the topmost point of Sunder Burj, especially around the evening.
Scattered across the park, they are so much part of its landscape that you might see through them if you don’t pay attention. They are the park’s 150 workers—the gardeners, masons, stone craftsmen, cleaners, and guards. The women employees wear saris with glowing colours. At 1pm sharp, all workers open their lunch boxes in their working areas, turning the whole garden into a canteen.
Author Gillian Wright and her partner, journalist Sir Mark Tully, are sighted in the park every day, walking with Soni, their dog. Being literary celebs, they are often stopped by passing Instagrammers for a photo. The couple mostly oblige, though sometimes they show impatience. Incidentally, Ms Wright is a Sunder Nursery encyclopedist. She has single-handedly recorded 40 species of the garden’s butterflies.
Close to the picnic maidan, sheltered under a banyan tree, two memorial benches bearing gold coloured plaques to commemorate journalist Ashish Yechury, who died of Covid in April. The dedication was arranged at the initiative of his parents. The benches have a pre-pandemic past though, having long hosted elderly ladies with their knitting knick-knacks, and sullen-looking couples.
You could be at Bagh e Babar in Kabul. This slightly sloping part of the park, not far from the ticket counter, is like a little Afghanistan, alive with Delhi’s Afghani expats. They are identifiable with their dresses, their language (mostly dari), and the cozy way they gather around the picnic dastarkhan, with the men in one group and the women in another. The Afghanis not only come with their own kebabs and huge thali-sized breads, but also with chai-subz (green tea). Indeed, Afghans were the first prominent group to start coming to Sunder Nursery in large numbers when it opened. Perhaps something of the garden reminds them of their homeland. They probably also find it convenient, as most of them live in nearby Bhogal and Lajpat Nagar.
People of the books
On approaching this place, please don’t speak, don’t click. This tiny amphitheatre at the edge of the Wilderness has been the meeting point of the so-called Silent Book Club, whose members come here with their own book of the day, and where they all sit together, reading silently. Theatre types too have been sighted, rehearsing on the amphitheatre steps.