Saturday, February 3, 2001
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Mystery behind mystic numbers
by Khushwant Singh

FOR reasons unknown to me some digits have acquired importance over others. I can understand ‘one’ is important because it is unique, numero uno, on the top: there is one God. But it could be ‘three’ as well: the trinity of Brahma (Creator), Vishnu (Preserver) and Shiva (the Destroyer of evil). Christians also have their trinity: God, Son and the Holy Spirit. Four stands for the four points of the compass, meaning embracing anything. Five has special significance for Punjabis (from the land of the five rivers), particularly the Sikhs. Five elders comprise the decision-making body, panchayat, of every village. Guru Gobind Singh chose five followers, Panj Piyaras (the five beloved), and baptised them. He assured them that when five were assembled, his spirit would always be present:

Panchon mein nit bartat main hoon

Panch milan to peeran-peer

Then there is seven: seven wonders of the world. Why not eight, nine or ten? No idea. Nine has been immortalised by the nine gems (navratans), eminent courtiers of Emperor Akbar. I can’t think of any other numbers which enjoy the same importance.

Of time-wasting rituals
January 20, 2001
Dying flame burns bright
January 13, 2001
Honouring Gurudev
January 6, 2001
Assamese are the friendliest Indians
December 23, 2000
The Father Teresa of Punjab
December 16, 2000
Metros bursting at the seams
December 9, 2000
Going for Ganga darshan
December 2, 2000
To be among celebrities
November 25, 2000
The dawn chorus at Santiniketan
November 18, 2000
A priceless Divali gift
November 11, 2000

Making documentaries is her forte
November 4, 2000

The Indo-Malaysian connection
October 28, 2000
Lessons terrorism taught us
October 21, 2000
Blood-letting in Punjab
October 14, 2000
Translating the Japji Sahib
October 7, 2000

We Indians have a penchant for numbering things which are hard to explain because they have no rational basis. A good example is Vatsayan’s Kama Sutra. It divides males and females into three categories according to the sizes of their genital organs and sexual appetites. There is no biological basis to support such divisions.

Meanwhile while trying my hand at translating the Sikhs’ evening prayer Rehras, I came across seven numbers which I presume the Gurus took from Hindu mythology: To start with there is reference to 68 (ath sath) places of pilgrimage. Who made the count of pilgrim centres and when? There are four sources of creation which I presume refer to earth, water, air and the sun. There are 18 supernatural powers. What are they? There are six (asht) rituals; what are they? 14 (chatur-das kanta) five-fold music (Panch-shabad) and five evil passions — presumably kaam (lust), krodh (anger), lobh (greed), moh (self-love) and ahankaar (arrogance). Would knowledgeable readers kindly enlighten me about the sources of these mystic numbers?

Ghalib in Kashi

P.K. Nijhawan is a man of considerable literary calibre. He first attracted attention of the literati by his verse dialogue between Guru Gobind Singh and Banda Bairagi. He sent his published work to Swami Rama, who is living in America. Then he accused Swamiji of plagiarising his work and making a lot of money on its sales. He took him and some others to court. I don’t know what came of the case except that Nijhawan wasted a lot of time on litigation and his work came to a standstill. I was glad to learn from him that he has resumed his literary pursuits. He is translating poems of the bard Shah Mohammed who wrote memorable verses on the Anglo-Sikh wars. He is also working on Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib’s sojourn in Varanasi on his way to Calcutta to plead for the resumption of his pension. He was accompanying the retinue of Charles Metcaffe when he broke journey briefly at Allahabad before proceeding by boat to Varanasi. There he stayed over a month enjoying sceneries on ghats and eyeing beautiful women (he compared them to houris of paradise). He wrote a masnavi of 108 verses (Hindu rosaries have 108 beads) entitled Chirag-e-Dair (the temple lamp). He found Kashi more attractive than his native Delhi. He called it Kaabaa-e-Hindustan (the Mecca of India), not as one would have expected Kaaba-e-Hunood (the Mecca of the Hindus).

Ghalib was no puritan. He loved liquor and women. Living in a rigidly segregated Muslim milieu of Delhi, he found the beauties of Benaras sporting unabash-edly in the waters of the holy Ganga totally bewitching.

I must confess I did not know of this masnavi. Nor apparently had Nijhawan till the Ghalib scholar Kali Das Gupta Riza drew his attention to it. It probably escaped the attention of most Ghalib experts because it is in Persian. All I can say is that I am relieved to see Nijhawan back to things creative and look forward to reading whatever he has to say about Shah Mohammed and Ghalib.

Musical farewell

Vinayak Rao of the Gwalior Gharana was Professor of Music in Music College. Lady Linlithgow was its chief patron. As Lord Linlithgow was due to retire, the college authorities decided to give a farewell party to its patron. The highlight of the function was to be a vocal recital by Pandit Vinayak Rao. He composed a song in praise of the Vicereine in Raga Adana which he kept a secret till his turn came. Panditji had as little knowledge of English enunciation as the Vicereine had of classical ragas. Panditji intoned Lay Dee several times with different inflections of his voice. He could not come to terms with Linlith but emphasised ‘go’ with great vigour to the thumping of the tabla: go, go, go. The Vicereine thought it was very rude on the part of her hosts to repeat the word ‘go’ when she was about to leave India in a short time. She turned to her escort Sir Ramaswami Mudaliar for an explanation. Sir Ramaswami, being Tamilian, was not familiar with the finer points of Hindustani classical music but sensed the continued repetition of ‘go, go, go’ was sending the wrong message to the Vicereine. He whispered his misgivings in the Principal’s ear who had it conveyed to Pandit Vinayak Rao. Panditji rose to the occasion. He dropped go, go, go and started playing on Lay Dee by reversing the order of the word into Dee Lay, Dee Lay. The Vicereine interpreted it as a plea to delay her departure and was much pleased.

Weather forecasting

I have struck on the most infallible method of forecasting the weather: Read forecasts taken from our official weather bureau published in all our papers and predict exactly the opposite. The chances are you will be right more often than they. When they forecast clear skies and sunshine, you predict cloudy skies and likelihood of rain. And that sort of thing.

One winter month’s phenomenon I have yet to understand. The issue of The Hindustan Times is left at the entrance gate of our block of flats around 5 am. I go out to fetch it myself before some early morning walker walks off with it. At that time the sky is studded with twinkling stars, the moon in one of its phases and the morning star shining in all its glory; there is a chill in the air but the sky is crystal clear. By the time I finish reading the paper and my mug of coffee, I see through my window a mist build up. As daylight comes up, there is thick fog blotting out the block of flats opposite mine. Why is it that fog descends on just about the time the sun is about to come up? And why is it thicker near greenery and water than over other land?


A gentleman travelling by train found himself sharing the compartment with a Catholic priest. The holy man was busy reading the Holy Book, while the gentleman was reading a magazine while taking swigs of whiskey from his hip flask. After a while the man asked the priest, "Father, do you know what causes a person to suffer from arthritis?" The priest assumed the man was afflicted by the disease and wanted advice. He replied, "People who drink too much and indulge in other evil habits are prone to be afflicted by it. Why do you ask?" The gentleman replied, "There is an article in this magazine that says His Holiness the Pope has arthritis in both his knees."

(Contributed by M. Raza, New Delhi)