Summer nights of yore in a sparsely crowded Delhi, dhurries on rustic charpoys layered with cool white sheets, stars pricking in a darkening blue sky, Sudhir and I ready for our bedtime ritual with Daddy – an enduring childhood memory of growing up in Delhi!
Delhi summers, unlike the winters, require a rare mindset to be enjoyed and looked forward to. The days are dry and hot – the sun rises early, beating down unrelentingly all day, and sets late in the day. The hot winds from the Thar desert, the sand-laden “loo,” blow strong, ensuring an eternal grit in the mouth and a fine film on freshly mopped floors and dusted furniture. Mummy always has the sweet “sattu*” (see footnote) ready for us to drink when we return from school in the scorching afternoons. Cooled by the sattu, we sit down for a late lunch. If a friend has come along, Mummy treats us to an ice-cold desert of canned fruit. If not, it has to be fresh fruit.
The evenings are long with a welcome coolness, and most everyone sleeps outside under the stars. Homes are built for this lifestyle with long verandahs and porches. Light jute-woven wooden cots, “khatias/charpoys,” are stacked in a remote corner during the day. As the day declines with the setting sun and dusk creeps on, the charpoys are lined along the long south-facing verandah, beds made, with the sheets spread smooth to receive the cool evening temperatures at the end of a searing hot, dry day. The bedding is minimal – simple bedding of dhurrie, bed-sheet, pillow, and another sheet/khes for a cover. By bedtime, the white sheets have cooled down to provide soothing relief to tired limbs.
By the time supper is done and cleared, Daddy lies down on his charpoy to relax. Gazing up at the last vestiges of light with stars lancing thru, savoring a few quiet moments, he softly recites stanzas of the Urdu poetry he is so fond of reading. Sudhir and I washed and changed into our night clothes, came up, and snuggled eagerly on either side of Daddy. First, there is a study of the stars; Daddy points out the major constellations. Mars and Jupiter are easy to recognize, as is the Giant Hunter constellation – Orion – with his distinguishable belt and sword and hunting dog. Delhi is relatively young and growing, and the word “smog,” or “pollution,” for that matter, has not crossed our path. The nights are cool and clear – countless stars shine brightly amidst the meandering spread of the Milky Way. We listen to Daddy’s words with riveted amazement at the wonders above. A lesson on the waning and waxing moon, elliptical traversals of the Earth, Moon, and Sun, shadows cast, extended into eclipses – marvels of our very tiny slice of the Universe. I am almost asleep by now and stumble into my bed for a comfortable sprawl. But not Sudhir! No sir! For him, it is now story-time!
Sudhir’s fascination with the adventures of Tarzan did not stop with the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ comic books or the movies. Especially the movies! Daddy, let’s slip that a Tarzan movie is being released. Sudhir is jumping with joy, eager to see it; he can hardly sit still. A smile quivers on Daddy’s lips – it’s still a few days away. The day does come, not soon enough, and we are eagerly marching to the theatre. Sudhir has been brushing up all day on the comic books. He has done his homework well and is now gushing a running commentary as the movie starts. The scene opens with Tarzan casually riding Tantor thru the jungle. Something scares Little Nkima, who jumps, and, cowering clings to Tarzan. Tarzan, alerted to danger, looks up, leaps into action, swinging on the vines, and comes face-to-face with a ferocious tiger. Vaguely I hear Daddy laugh. I glance up at his face, still smiling and shaking his head. Anyway, Tarzan wrestles the snarling fangs-baring creature, overwhelms it, and stands victorious, thumping his chest with a blood-curdling Tarzan bellow reverberating even after the scene fades. In unison, Sudhir jumps up and thumps his stuck-out little chest. Daddy is having a hard time shushing and controlling Sudhir. Me? I am embarrassed to no end!
It takes us several months to understand why Daddy takes us to see another, and yet another, Tarzan movie. Then, one summer evening, Daddy interrupts his Urdu poetry murmuring and casually does a “did you know.” No, we did not, but we are all ears now. Daddy continues – the actor, Johnny Weissmuller (aka Tarzan), had won Olympic gold for America in swimming. In an instant, I understand – hazily recall a conversation among older cousins regarding Daddy being a swimmer and a diving champion in college. Happily, I fall asleep to a sweet dream of Tarzan giving Daddy swimming lessons.
A few evenings later, there is another “did you know” from Daddy. Daddy is discussing how movies portray things that are not true or real. Sudhir and I protest vehemently, but Daddy persists. There are no tigers in Africa – the beast is natural to Asia – the Bengal Tiger got its name for a reason. So, in reality, Tarzan could not have fought off a tiger. Sudhir persists – it could have been a lion. Daddy agrees – it could have been. And the producers replace a plain old lion with a beautifully striped tiger to make the movie scenes more attractive.
But a couple of Tarzan movies are not enough to quench Sudhir’s yearnings for adventurous tales. The comic-book stories are growing stale, and Sudhir wants to hear more of Tarzan’s exploits. Night after night during those warm early summers, Daddy churns out story after story.
The animal characters are enriched – a whole new army of animals is added – the local variety we are more familiar with – black-faced langurs we have seen in Simla and the common urban monkeys. There is much swinging from tree to tree accompanied by whooping and screeching. The long-tailed black-faced langurs are always a step ahead of Tarzan, clearing the way for him and jabbering warnings of any impending dangers lurking above or below. And dangers there are aplenty. Nonetheless, with the help of his unfailing jungle friends, Tarzan overcomes these all.
One summer evening, the well of stories is running dry, Daddy is tired, and the painful gout is acting up. And Daddy tries to kill off Tarzan. Sudhir’s tears miraculously revive Tarzan, but life still hangs by a thread. Mollified, Sudhir falls asleep but is dragging himself the next day, pestering Mummy about Tarzan’s fate and when will Daddy come home. Mummy, with a grin, informs Daddy he better resurrect Tarzan.
The Tarzan story sessions continue for another summer. Sudhir’s reading skills improve beyond comic books. Also, with our seasonal growth spurts, Sudhir and I physically outgrow the narrow charpoy, and we can no longer share it with Daddy.
*Footnote: A very cooling and nourishing summer drink. A combination of various beans, lentils, and other legumes, roasted and ground to a fine powder. The powder is mixed with sugar and mixed with water and ice for a refreshing drink.