| When it rains, it pours
The last week of August when the monsoon should have been beating a retreat, it seemed it had just woken up after sleeping through June, July and most of August till alarm bells sounded warning of a drought. Then it opened up its much-delayed bagfuls of water to make amends for its tardiness. I, who relied on its keeping its time-schedule, had prepared myself for spending the month of September in my earthly paradise, Kasauli. It would not be as warm as Delhi and not too cold for comfort. Delhi was denuded of flowers; the Kasauli hills would still have their monsoon blossoms, chiefly the spectacular cactus, Yucca Gloriosa, with dozens of bell-shaped, ivory pale white flowers suspended from one green stem, and wild Dahlias of various colours blazing away on the hill slopes.
I left a rain-soaked Delhi in the early hours to catch the Shatabdi Express to Chandigarh. There were few people on the road; even the approach to New Delhi railway station, which is usually clogged with buses, cabs and three-wheelers, and can take a good 15 minutes to muscle through, had comparatively less traffic. It was the same with the train on which one has to book one's seat many days ahead: there were quite a few seats still unoccupied. Many people had evidently decided to stay at home.
We sped through a very green Haryana with stagnant pools of water lining both sides of the rail track. I saw more cattle egrets and herons in the ponds than ever before. The track had obviously been weakened by heavy rain. The train slowed down to a snail's pace. We crossed over the Markanda and the Ghaggar, both swollen with muddy water, and arrived at Chandigarh almost an hour behind schedule.
It was bright and sunny. And sunnier were the smiles of Punam Sidhu, her husband and Deepak who make it a point to help me get off the train and into a car meant to transport me to Kasauli. There was little traffic on the hill road besides lines of trucks coming downhill. This time, mingled with the fragrance of roasting corn, was the fragrance of apples being transported from the Himachal orchards to the plains. As the Kasauli church struck one, I was back in my mini-Baikunth for my autumnal work-vacation. Here I find the solitude I sorely miss in Delhi. I share Ghalib's longing for a companionless silence:
Rahiye ab usee jagah chal kar
jahan koee na ho
Hamsukhan koee na ho, aur
humzubaan koee na ho
(Let us go and find a place in the
world where there is no other
No one there to talk to, no one to share your thoughts.)
When I was here in May and June I had a punishing schedule of work to put finishing touches to two books at the same time. The only extra-curricular item I had on my list of work was reading Urdu poetry between lunch and siesta and between dinner and night's sleep. Since my vocabulary of Urdu is poor, I often use Hindi, which I read with some difficulty, to help me out with difficult words. By my bedside I had Gnaneshwar Prasad's compilation of selected poems given to me by his daughter Kamna Prasad. To my utter dismay, his explanations of Persianized Urdu words in the footnotes were in even more obscure Hindi. So when I met Kamna next time I told her that her father's compilation needed updating and simplifying. And rashly promised to translate her selection into English. She handed me a sheaf of papers with her selections neatly printed in Devnagiri and Urdu. I had with me other translations by K.C. Nanda, T.N. Raz, Victor Kiernan and Ralph Russel. Undaunted by their scholarship I got down to doing my own versions ' four couplets a day at a leisurely pace. I will quote them in these columns and will be grateful if readers point out mistakes and make them more readable. Needless to say I started with Ghalib. I give two of his couplets in praise of wine ' he was an unabashed wine and Scotch bibber:
Ghalib chhuti sharab par ab bhee kabhee kabhee
Peeta hoon roz-e-abr-o-shab-e-mehtab mein
(Ghalib forswore wine But from time to time it's true
When dark clouds span the skies
And nights are lit by the moon
[he breaks his vows]
And takes a sip or two.)
An equally popular couplet must have been composed by him in his old age:
Go haath mein jumbish nahin,
aankhon mein to dam hai
Rahney do abhee Saagher-o-meena
(Though I can no longer stretch my hands
I still have some sparkle in my eyes
Let the wine jug and the wine cup remain
Before me where they lie.)
By sheer coincidence I got a note from an army officer in Kasauli for an appointment to see me. He was Lt Col J.S. Likhari. With a name like that I was sure he was into writing in some language or the other and I could pick his brains about my translations. At tea time, a strapping sardar and his comely sardarni joined me. 'How did you come by a name like Likhari' I asked him. One of my ancestors was a master calligrapher who wrote with his nails. So we came to be known by the name, he replied. His wife said, 'He also has beautiful handwriting. I preserve his letters.' 'They must be love letters,' I suggested. 'Yes,' she replied with a blush, 'When he was courting me.'
I asked them another question which Ghalib might well have asked visitors calling on him. 'Are you drinking people' Both nodded their heads, meaning yes.
Well of foolishness
Once a prince along with his courtiers went for shikar. There the prince got separated from the retinue. He was very thirsty and luckily spotted a well with a rope and bucket lying by the side. Although he could pull a bucket of water from the well, he felt it was beneath his dignity to do so. He waited for someone to come and help him. After some time, the son of a nawab happened to pass that way and being thirsty, asked for water. The shahzada expressed his inability to pull water. The second man said, 'I am a nawabzada, how can I pull the water.' Both waited till a third man arrived. Being a raizada, he also refused to demean himself by pulling out water. After some time a fourth man appeared and asked for water. One of them replied, 'He is sahibzada, I am nawabzada and the third said he is a raizada. So you will have to pull the water and help us too, as we are very thirsty.'
'How can I pull the water' replied the new comer. 'I am a haramzada.'
(Contributed by M.L. Verma, New Delhi)