Saturday, March 29, 2003
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Birthday celebrations that leave a bad taste
Khushwant Singh

AT the place and time I was born (now in Pakistan), no one bothered about birthdays. No records were kept and not even the Hindu and Sikh families had horoscopes cast for their children. It was only after my parents migrated to Delhi and my father had to fill in my date of birth in the school admission form that he put in a date which came to his mind. It was some years later when I had to take birthday gifts for boys and girls that I started celebrating my own, on a made-up date. By the time I finished school, I finished with birthday parties as well. Sometimes friends sent me greeting cards or rang me up, nothing beyond that. We celebrated birthdays of two of our 10 gurus, as Jains celebrated those of Mahavira and Buddhists of Gautama Buddha, as Hindus celebrated birthdays of Lord Rama, Muslims of their Prophet (Eid-i-Miladun Nabi) and Christians their Christmas.

Our leaders, if they celebrated their birthdays, did so in their homes with members of their families and also friends. No one ever dreamt of making them public event at public expense. Ever heard of Bapu Gandhi cutting his birthday cake? Or the Anglicised Nehru throwing any party for his supporters? Or Rajendra Babu, Radhakrishnan, Gurudev Tagore, Azad Zakir Hussain, Sardar Patel, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi or any of the stalwarts of past generation celebrating their birthdays? No, public celebration of birthdays of public figure at public expense is a phenomenon of recent years. Do retired actresses, school teachers and librarians who have made good in politics really think that their birthdays are of any interest or importance to the common people? No, they laugh at them. So do their chamchas or chamchis, after they have gorged themselves on chocolate cakes pakoras, mithaee and chaat. These netas do not know the word sophistication nor the difference between culture and crass vulgarity. This is a free country where everyone has a right to celebrate his or her advent on earth as they like.

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Flaming trees

There was a time when just before Holi I used to drive round the Ridge and go to Surajkund just to see the flame of the forest in bloom. This otherwise a non-descript small-sized tree came into its full glory only for a brief week but it was a sight for the gods. It has several Indian names like palas, dhaak, and tessoo and is found across the length and breadth of our country. Its beetle-black buds contrasted with the bright and curving petals, which resembled a parrot's beak, gave it a spectacular look. It is not commonly known that the Battle of Plassey (1757) came to be so named because it was fought on a field that had lots of palas trees in bloom at the time.

I do not drive out any more and am content to see an imitation of palas in coral trees which grow in some of our parks: their petals are of the same colour as that of the palas but are not curved. Neither of the flower has any fragrance. Now I sit in my nature-perfumed garden among colourful cinerarias, salvias and ixora. Some years ago, I planted what I was assured a kadam. It grew very rapidly to a great height and has a thick foliage of large leaves. It has become the favourite of a variety of birds, including green barbets which call all day long. It gets pale flowers which have no odour. It is not a kadam, what it is no one has yet been able to tell me. At Holi time it begins to shed its leaves. The slightest whiff of air and they come on my head and all around me like confetti showered over a newly married couple. My gardener sweeps them twice a day but for a week the pat-jhar (leaf-shedding) continues unabated till the tree is stripped bare. And suddenly new leaves appear fiery red which gradually turn to green. Within a few days, the tree is thick with leaves as before and a safe haven for birds.

I am closer to nature in my little garden than driving round parks and gardens. There is a noticeable drop in the number of sparrows. And while we are coming to the end of March and mango trees are in flower, I have yet to hear the koel which by now should have regained its full-throated ery koo-oo, koo-oo. What's happened them?

Though all too brief, this is the pleasantest time of the year in northern India. Whichever way you turn, there are flowers; whenever you pause to listen there is bird song. Meer Taqi Meer caught the atmosphere of spring time in a few memorable lines:

If you like to visit the garden, go now;

For this is the month of spring;

The leaves are green and

flowering trees

Are in full bloom;

The clouds hang low

And rain is gently falling

The heart feels like a throbbing wound,

The tears have turned to one red flood

This crimson-faced poppy of love

Dries up life and drains all blood

This is the time when fresh, green leaves

Appear upon the trees;

And branch and twig of plant and shrub

Are bent with bloom and seed

With blaze of rosesícolour, Mir,

The garden is on fire;

The bulbul sounds a warning note:

Go past, O Sir, beware!

Indo-Pak cricket

I switch off the TV, I must confess,

When Pakistan is scoring fast

For I cannot bear my BP soaring,

I donít want my heart to sink

I pretend to read instead or slint out of the house quietly

To find the traffic and housewivesí chatter dead

For on the block is every head.

And when India wins, we win a war

Where going crackers is a natural corollary

As Lahore, Rawalpindi and Karachi.

Fume and fester and faint naturally.

Hysteria and depression, exultation and anarchy

A mad, mad frenzy

Baying for blood, seeing the adversary dead

Shouting and gloating, going in the faces red,

Two possessed neighbours, so mutually obsessed

Two armies of eleven, self-made, self-confessed,

Wounded psyche, the smouldering mind

Gnash their teeth, growl and grind-

I see a ray of light in it, for in this

Our hostilities a harmless expression find ó

For itís a war in its own right

And terrorism of a kind.

(Courtesy: Kuldip Salil, Delhi)