Saturday, November 18, 2000
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

The dawn chorus at Santiniketan
by Khushwant Singh

IT was my first day in Santiniketan. The year was 1933. The monsoon was in full swing. From the window of the train to Bolpur it was a vast expanse of water on both sides. "Shamudro( it is like the sea)," remarked the ticket collector who happened to be the only other person in the compartment. The Bolpur railway station looked drenched and desolate. I asked the station master how I could get to Santiniketan. "Take a jutka," he said. I did not know what a jutka was. I found a small bullock-cart with a thatched roof, asked the owner if he could take me to Santiniketan. "Baitho", he replied, "do taaka" (two rupees). I hopped in. We drove through a flooded countryside. He dropped me off at the office. I was expected. I signed the entry register and was conducted to a room I was to share with a Buddhist bhikshu from Sri Lanka. Then I was taken to the dining hall where I had a plateful of rice and maacher jhole (fish curry). I went to my room and made the acquaintance of my room-mate. The room had no furniture of any kind. The bhikshu had a hurricane lamp by his pillow and read late into the night. I spread my bedding roll at the other end of the room. I had never slept on a hard cement floor. I was tired and dozed off before bhikshu Manjushri blew out the hurricane lantern.

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I slept fitfully, uncertain about what I had let myself in for. I must have fallen asleep because I began to dream. I heard an angelic choir at a distance, coming towards me. I realised I was not dreaming; it was for real. I groped my way in the dark, and opened the door. The soft moonlight of the waning moon filtered through the mist of a gentle drizzle. I saw a dozen boys and girls, dressed in white and carrying lanterns and candles. Walking in a procession, they sang as they went around the campus. Later I learnt it was varsha mangal (welcoming the rains). It was customary to welcome the monsoon by going round singing in the early hours of the dawn. The scene has continued to haunt me ever since.

Prabhat pheris on Hindu and Sikh religious festivals are customary in the plains of northern India. Behind the block of flats where Ilive, there is a small gurdwara. A week or so before the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak (this year it was November 11), a loud cracker is exploded in the gurdwara courtyard at 4 a.m. We are rudely shaken out of our slumber; most doze off again. About a dozen men and women assemble in the gurdwara and form a procession. The only musical accompaniments are chimta and dholak (drum). They go round the block singing Bhai Gurdasís eulogy "Satgur Nanak pragatya, mitti dhund jag chaanan hoya" (the true Guru Nanak made his appearance; dust and mist evaporated from the face of the earth). This is followed by some hymns composed by the Guru. The singing is not very melodious but it is a manifestation of the singersí faith in their guru.

Guru Nanak was more conscious of nature than the other Gurus. His Baramasi has some beautiful descriptions of nature ó chirping of sparrows at the break of dawn, the drone of cicadas in forest glades and, of course, black clouds, thunder, lightning and rain during the monsoon. I give one example: Mori run jhun laya, bhainey savan aya (Raga Vadhans)

Sweet sound of water gurgling down the water-spout

(The peacockís shrill, exultant cry)

Sister, itís savan, the month of rain!

Beloved thine eyes bind me in a spell

(they pierce through me like daggers)

They fill my heart with greed and longing;

For one glimpse of Thee Iíll give my life

For Thy Name may I be a sacrifice.

When Thou art mine, my heart fills with pride,

What can I be proud of if Thou art not with me?

Woman, smash thy bangles on thy bedstead

Break thy arms, break the arms of thy couch;

Thy adornments hold no charms

The Lord is in anotherís arms.

The Lord liked not thy bangle-seller

Thy bracelets and glass bangles He doth spurn

Arms that do not the Lordís neck embrace

With anguish shall forever burn

All my friends have gone to their lovers

I feel wretched, whose door shall I seek?

Friends, of proven virtue and fair am I

Lord, does nothing about me find favour in Thine eye?

I plaited my tresses,

With vermilion daubed the parting of my hair

And went to Him

But with me He would not lie.

My heart is grief-stricken, I could die.

I wept, and the world wept with me.

Even birds of the forest cried,

Only my soul torn out of my body shed not a tear,

Nay, my soul which separated me from my beloved shed not a tear

In a dream He came to me

(I woke) and He was gone.

Lament for old age

The older one gets, the more one laments the loss of youth. An Urdu couplet aptly sums up the plight of an old man:

Javaanee jaatee rahee

Aur hamein pata bhee na chalaa,

Isi ko dhoond rahen hain

Kamar jhukaee huey

(Youth has passed

And I was not even aware of it

It is my youth I seek

With my back bent double towards the ground)

It is true that a person is not himself aware of the passage of years: he may have turned grey, lost his teeth, become hard of hearing and barely be able to see, but his vanity prevents him from accepting the fact that he has gone senile. It is other people, mostly children, who rudely remind him that he has aged. Boys and girls who called him uncle start addressing him dadu or nanu. The other day a family accosted me in Lodhi Park. The mother asked her four-year-old son to touch my feet. The child looked me up and down, shouted buddha (old fellow) and ran away. I was mortified.

I delude myself that I have not really become a buddha. My friends have, but I still have a sparkle in my eyes and my heart is as young as it ever was. One of my friends, 20 years younger than me, is now a grandmother and turned grossly fat. I continue to pay her compliments I did 30 years ago when she was fair and saucy. The real truth is encapsulated in another couplet:

Begum, teyrey husn key hukkey mein

aanch naheen;

Ik ham hee hain

Kay phir bhee gud gudai jaatey hain

(Begum there is no fire left

In the hubble-bubble of your beauty;

It is only me who still keeps drawing on it

Hoping to draw the smoke of the tobacco of your faded beauty.)

Holy bhasha

A student was already on leave due to his fatherís illness. He sent a telegram to the Principal:

"Father dead shaved head

Go Ganga put bones

And eat Brahmins

One week leave sanctioned"

(Contributed by Prem Kumar Jauhar, Gurgaon)