Saturday, May 19, 2001
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Call of the papeeha
By Khushwant Singh

ON April 4, while taking my afternoon stroll in Lodhi Gardens, I heard the papeeha calling from a distance. Koels had already been doing so for a week or so: not the low-pitched gurgle they have during the winter months but the full-throated koo-oo koo-oo that can be heard soon after mango flowers (boor) turn to tiny niboli-sized fruit. Papeehas are more time-bound than koels: they are silent during the winter but come spring and they open up with great vigour. I recall being in Chandigarh’s Punjab Bhavan in mid-April some years ago. The entire countryside echoed to papeehas calling incessantly all through the evening and into the late hours of a moonlit night. Next to the koel, papeeha is the favourite bird of Indian poets. What bulbuls (wrongly translated as nightingales) are in Persian and Urdu poetry, papeehas are in Sanskrit, Hindi poetry and that of other Indian languages as well. The bird’s call is interpreted as pee-kahaan (where is my beloved?) or in Marathi as paos-ala (the summer is coming). For some reason the same call sounded like ‘brain-fever’ to Englishmen and they named it the brain-fever bird or the hawk-cuckoo. There is nothing hawkish about the bird: it looks like a grey-pigeon. Like other birds of the cuckoo family (koels, king crows and monsoon birds) it does not make its own nest but offloads its eggs in other birds’ nests to be hatched and its chicks get nurtured to maturity by its foster parents.

Exporting erotica to France
May 12, 2001
Celebrating old age
May 5, 2001
Guru-chela parampara
April 28, 2001
What the world owes to Jainism
April 21, 2001
Exercising the mind with books
April 14, 2001
The great Maharaja of Punjab
April 7, 2001
Storm in a chat show
March 31, 2001
Paying the price for being upright?
March 24, 2001
World’s changing morals
March 17, 2001
A Chinese Nobel Laureate living in exile
March 10, 2001
Tagore’s offerings of love
March 3, 2001
Where has one come from?
February 24, 2001
Most educated Indians are bores
February 17, 2001
Sensing disasters before they strike
February 10, 2001

Back to Lodhi Park. I sat on my favourite spot beneath the Bara Gumbad mosque, listening to the papeeha calling and taking on the scene. Kachnar (bauhinia) flowers were fading, melitias were in full bloom, strewing their tiny mauve flowers on the ground around their boles. Barbets called. A flock of screaming grey hornbills flew past overhead. There were parakeets and mynas.

Other people in the park seemed oblivious of flowers and birds about them. The regulars, most of whom I recognised, sped along the paved footpaths as on urgent business. Oldies sat on benches, moaning their lost youth and pronouncing on the evils of the world. There were several parties of picnickers sitting on durries gobbling parathas, pakodas, samosas and throwing their empty paper plates around. Crows eagerly pecked at the left-overs. There were at least a dozen cricket matches going on, using walls of ancient monuments as wickets with fielders trampling over flower-beds to retrieve balls. Cricketers and picnickers have converted most of the lawns of this beautiful historic park into a playground and open-air eatery. The Archaeological Survey of India which looks after it must be more firm in dealing with these vandals. This park is replete with history; it has ancient monuments, trees and flower beds. It is meant for peace and quiet contemplation. Noisy hoodlums and litter-bags should not be allowed to desecrate it.

Cooling down

May came with a couple of dust storms followed by a few drops of rain. The heat abated for a few hours then returned with humidity which made it more oppressive. Evening strolls in Lodhi Gardens ceased to be a pleasure. To add to the heat, gulmohars burst into fiery reds and golden yellows, jaruls (Queen’s Flower) also came into bloom but its mauve flowers could not offset the heat generated by the flamboyant gulmohars. I was loath to walk; I tried the static bicycle. And found it very boring. But exercise is a must, the doctor told me. "Your BP is dangerously high," he said. "Pills may bring it down but daily exercise is most important. You must bring down your weight, reduce your paunch, cut down on drink, salt and sugar or you are in for serious trouble. At your age, a stroke will sound your death knell."

Very reluctantly I took out my swimming trunks, bathing cap and towel. In the heat of the sun, I drove to the Golf Club which has a lovely open-air bathing pool with fresh water constantly running into it. I used to swim regularly till two years ago when I got infection in the ear (an earache can be more painful than pain in any other part of the body). I had to quit. I decided to risk it once more.

Not much had changed except the pool water looked cleaner, diving boards had been replaced and a metal banister installed to help aged people like me go down the steps into the water without stumbling into it. The staff were surprised to see me return. I could see it written on their faces that they had assumed I had gone to my heavenly abode; they were over-solicitous. The same ailanthus (maharukh) and neem trees were in their summer foliage. But their tenents had changed. The vultures which used to nest on the ailanthus were gone. Kites had taken their place. Instead of green bee-eaters which used to fly out of the neem tree and plunge into the pool to slake their thirst, there were rock pigeons in pairs. They sat by the rim of the pool, took a couple of beakfuls of water and flew away.

The first evening I was a few minutes before the official opening time and had the pool all to myself. I did two lengths and rested at the shallow end for a breather. Bathers started trooping in. I could not recognise any of them and yet they looked familiar: little children between three and ten years old running ahead screaming with excitement, their ayahs and mummies following behind, gently reprimanding them: itna shore mat machao (don’t make so much noise). They are the creme de la creme of Delhi. You can see that from their fancy sandals, bathing suits, bath caps and towels — all French or American. The ayahs are better attired than common ayahs; their lady bosses have diamonds sparkling in their ears and noserings. Their ample buttocks bear signs of good living, of bottle parties and little exercise. Their children come to the pool to have fun, try out their new, inflated rubber ducks and horses, goggles, scuba diving equipment. Their mamas hope to shed some fat and catch up on the latest gossip about who is seen going out with whom. The children are out of the dressing rooms in a jiffy and hurl themselves in the pool with whoops of delight. Their mamas take their time to fit themselves into their bathing costumes and come out with towels wrapped round their waists to hide their large bottoms till they enter the water.

A few attempts to swim to the other end of the pool were frustrated by boys and girls playing a pool version of blind man’s bluff called Marco Polo. There was a half-hour interval to replenish what they had lost. Bearers were summoned. Every table round the pool was supplied with cartons of chilled coke and plates of sandwiches, samosas, and fried potato fingers. They were liberally sprinkled with tomato ketchup squeezed out of plastic bottles. After everything had been gobbled up, they were back in the pool for a second and third round. Surely no doctors had ordered them as they had ordered me to stretch my limbs on a daily basis! They were enjoying themselves; I was punishing myself for my past sins. I was inclined to agree with Mark Twain who never took any exercise and described it as loathsome.

Free long-distance call

An elderly acquaintance of mine told me that he made a daily call to his son living in London without spending a single paisa. How the father-son duo achieved this was quite a revelation.

The father would dial his son’s telephone number exactly at 3 p.m. The son would not pick up the receiver. He would take it as ‘all OK’ signal from India. When the call was disconnected, the son would dial his father’s telephone number. The father would not pick up the receiver but would take it as ‘all OK’ signal from his son. Both of them in turn ensured that there was somebody to hear the ring and also that the telephone was not kept busy at that time.

(Contributed by R.P. Bajaj. New Delhi)