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Saturday, April 17, 1999

Regional Vignettes


Rendezvous with great talkers

A MORE appropriate title would be endless talkers. They are drawn to me like iron filings to a magnet. I am a patient listener but after an exposure or two, I do my best to dodge them without hurting their feelings; most crashing bores are also well-meaning, good people. The other day, having nothing better to do, I made list of those who came into my life and what made them go on talking by the hour. The first man on the top of my list was Danial Latifi. We became friends in Lahore. He was taken ill, eating bad food served to him in the Communist Party headquarter’s canteen. I persuaded him to shift to my flat. Every evening while I had my alcoholic beverage (Danial was a teetotaller), he provided Marxist background music to my Scotch. One point in favour of endless talkers is they do not interrupt their monologue by asking questions: the listener need not listen provided he or she keeps his or her eyes fixed on the monologist. Once two of my friends dropped in after dinner. Both of them were a little drunk. I introduced them to Danial and decided to take an after-dinner stroll. When I returned Danial was propounding the theory of class struggle: both my friends were fast asleep.

After Partition, Danial and I moved to Delhi and found our-selves living in neighbouring blocks. Dodging Danial became a game of wits, as another thing endless talkers share in common is that they dislike making appointments or bothering about trivialities like other people’s pre-occupations. The last time I ran into Danial was at a French Embassy reception. It was a buffet dinner where guests had to line up for their drinks and food. The French make their guests as uncomfortable as they can so that they do not overstay their welcome. No chairs or tables are provided so you have to keep standing while you eat and drink. I ran into Danial holding a plateful of food in one hand and a glass of red wine in the other. The crowd of guests jostled us for attention. I greeted Danial and remarked how nice it was to see him drinking wine. That was enough for him to launch on a long explanation of there being nothing in the Koran or the Hadith declaring that alcohol was prohibited for a Muslim. We were interrupted many times but Danial kept on going till it was time to depart.

The next great talker I got to know was General Nathu Singh. He was a tall, strapping soldier, proud of his aristocratic Rajput lineage and his martial exploits. He used to stay with my parents, and after they died, with my elder brother. When they were out, the old General would drop in on me (unannounced) and keep me in thrall like the Old Mariner. I protested to my sister-in-law. "We’ve inherited him from your parents, so you must be patient and polite with him," she admonished me. But she also warned me of his arrival at Delhi, "General sahib will be staying with us all next week. Don’t complain I didn’t tell you well ahead of time". I had to tell my servants to tell anyone who came that I was not at home. Now that General Nathu Singh is no longer with us, I feel ashamed of myself because despite his being inordinately long-winded, I liked him.

I could not say that for Ranbir Singh once in our Foreign Service. After retiring, he settled abroad with his foreign wife. But every winter he was in Delhi, he made it a point to call on his old acquaintances (unannounced). I was not an old acquaintance but acceptable to him being a Sikh. This was strange as Ranbir was a Christian, descending from the branch of the Kapurthala family which had converted to Christianity, (Rajkumari Amrit Kaur was his aunt). Ranbir was proud of his Sikh ancestry, notably Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, the founder of the house of Kapurthala. Winter after winter, hour after hour, he would regale me with exploits of the Ahluwalia misl and the feats of valour his ancestor Jassa Singh performed. He would flex his biceps to convince me that he had inherited his bulging muscles from his forefathers. Like others of his ilk, he never bothered to find out whether I was free to receive him. After having my morning schedule upset many times, I put my foot down and told my servant to tell him he should ring up before coming. He was outraged. I heard him shout at my servant to tell his master that he would never see me again. Thank God!

It was different with Nazar Hayat Tiwana. He is the eldest son of Sir Khizr Hayat Tiwana, Chief Minister of Punjab before its Partition and one of the biggest landowners of his time. The Tiwanas’ estate included Hadali, the village in which I was born. I had great respect and affection for them. Nazar fell out with his father, married a Hindu girl and migrated to the USA. He got a job as assistant librarian in Chicago University.Every winter he came to India and Pakistan. Since his father was long dead, he revived his affection for his Tiwana ancestors. He had his father’s biography written; he set up an organisation to promote Indo-Pak amity. He was, and is, a very lovable character. Also, an endless talker. Once he got started you never knew when he would run out of breath. He sensed I had begun to avoid him. The last time he came to see me, he was his old self going on and on till my head was dizzy with his words. He paused for a second or two before he delivered the punch line. "You know what my wife says? She says I lose friends because I talk too much". I did not contradict him.

The champion of all talkers I had to suffer was my security guard, Sita Ram. He was a Jat from Eastern U.P. and a follower of Chaudhary Mahinder Singh. Sita Ram was into religion and prone to deliver long pravachans on spiritual matters. Though a Jat, his fellow policemen addressed him as Shastriji. Once travelling with me and film crew to Jaipur, he talked all the way from Delhi to the Pink City. It did not do him much good. While others who joined the police force along with him became head constables and SHOs, Sita Ram still remains a constable.

While musing on the subject of great endless talkers, it occurred to me that I have never encountered a female of the species.

Earthquakes: animals, birds and humans

Both Mahavir Jayanti and Eid-ul-Zuha were on March 26. That night 40 minutes after 12 the earth shook. I had not experienced more violent tremors in my lifetime. In my little flat, I heard sounds of things falling on the ground. I heard loud cries of men and women, running out of their quarters to open ground. Birds screamed, dogs barked. Many people spent a sleepless night. There is something elemental and terrifying about a bhookump.

A friend who lives across the river in Patparganj told me of her experience. She and her daughter were asleep in their bedrooms, their pet-dog Cookie, a golden haired cocker spaniel bitch of uncertain pedigree slept on the carpet in the sitting room. A few minutes before tremors were felt by the mistress, Cookie began to whimper and sought comfort in her mistress’ lap. Even after the tremors had ceased, Cookie refused to return to her usual place in the sitting room as if it were haunted.

There are many records of sixth sense of birds and animals which warns them of earthquakes well before they occur. The most authentic account is of one which struck a town Concepcion, 250 miles south of Sentigo, capital of Chile, in 1833. At 10.30 a.m., birds were noticed flying off their perches screaming loudly. Horses began whining and tried to break loose. Dogs began to bark. The quake struck at 11.40 a.m. i.e. an hour and 10 minutes later, taking a heavy toll of life and property.

It would appear that birds sense earth tremors before other species. That is strange because they are least threatened by earthquakes: trees shake but they are not uprooted. Some species of birds like vultures, kites and predators like hawks and eagles can spot a carcass or a prey like a small mouse from over a mile. Dogs can sniff out a human who has smoked heroin two days after he or she has done so.

I am sure birds and animals of Tehri Garhwal must have done their best to warn humans of the impending disaster. Humans are too arrogant to listen to what they look down upon as lower species.

Jai Jai Lalitha

You are mighty, you are great
In as much as you decide the fate
Of a nation so ancient, so vast.
In your honour we hold a feast
For your favour we are willing to fast,
For whichever side you cast your lot.
Will be the ruling side
In eternal turmoil, everlasting uncertainty
To which only one solution I see;
In view of your calibre, in view of your sincerity
In view of your temperament, your flawless integrity
You should be made the Prime Minister of this country.

(Contributed by Kuldip Salil) Delhiback

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