Somewhere to the west, behind me, a single-line railway cuts across town from north to south. Late last evening, and again just now after the sun has passed its zenith, the cracked two-tone moan of a diesel loco rose behind the bungalows of the Civil Surgeons and the Additional District Judges. Diffused by distance and the trees that surround this space, it is a far lost lament circling towards the sun. In starkly contrasting mood, a young neem tree in front of me sways and shimmers happily in the afternoon sun and breeze. Roseate parakeets swoop and squawk between the scattered trees.
I look up into the branches of the guava tree, and a black-hooded oriole chatters right above me. A wood-dove erupts from a mango tree on my right, flies a pointless circle round the garden, then vanishes into the foliage fifty yards away to my left. How pleasant it is that birdsong here is louder than the traffic. How pleasant that even on a working day, my phone has not rung once in the last hour, so I can use it to take photographs and record my musings. How very pleasant to sit here in a green-gold mental haze, with “no deeds to do, no promises to keep”. I sigh in pleasure, and settle myself even more comfortably into my chair in the shade of the old guava tree.
In the middle distance a furry dog shakes itself luxuriously, then jumps up on a verandah ledge and drapes itself lengthwise for a siesta. A flight of pigeons clatters up, then resumes its circling. From some green hideaway, a coppersmith barbet briefly tolls its triple note, a sound that I had hitherto associated only with the long hot afternoons of pre-monsoon summer. Now, in the chill of a retreating northern winter, it seems strange as a familiar tongue in a foreign clime. But still it lulls me further into this pleasant trance, just being, observing, floating on the slow current of the drifting day. Somewhere inside me the querulous voice of my weekday self rises in familiar rhythms, only to be summarily swamped by the surge of idleness. Which is also the voice of reason, for on this day, in this fairy-tale moment, there is nothing that I have to do, nowhere that I have to go, nobody I have to meet. A rare backwater on the stream of my unexciting life, where the absence of obligation offers placid enjoyment. “I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep / Let the morning time drop all its petals on me …”
P------t, proper in his dark blue sweater and trousers, looking faintly disoriented as is his wont, approaches with small measured steps. He bears a tray with a cup of tea and a small bottle of mineral water, which he sets down on the chair next to mine. He is about to enquire what else I need, but I smile and thank him and wave him away. This moment, this mood, is not to be spoiled by speech. The sun is slipping farther. The birds are still loud, still insistent. The parakeets are the noisiest, spoilt children shrieking and screeching as they zigzag between the trees. A pariah kite mews and cheeps as it glides down into a nearby tree, giving away the location of its nest. A smell of earth and wood-smoke rises behind the bungalows. Chulhas being lit in preparation for tea, as working people find their way home? There is a hint of sharpness on the breeze now as evening sidles in, an edge even in these last days of a fading winter.
Mynahs, grackles, finches, rollers, all tune up their parts against the backdrop of the parakeets. A faster train approaches from the north, a higher longer note indicating an electric loco, and Dopplers its way to the south. More auto-rickshaws moan their electric threnody as office-goers ride homewards. The long light laps against the Circuit House, washes the trees a warmer shade, pours shadows over the grass, softens the edges of my vision's frame. The shadows of paired kites pass over the sunlit grass, as their circles descend with the fading of the day.
And now, as the birdsong subsides, as only the parakeets remain, to perch on the top branches with loud chatter, the usual evening sense of sadness settles like mist upon the vista. A nightjar strikes up in a far corner. I sip my tea. A gentle giant, bespectacled, comes over to ask me to move to the eastern lawn. That one is better maintained. The western side is comparatively unkempt. I find it more attractive, but the undergrowth might provide cover for snakes. Surely it's still too cold for them to emerge? But why take chances .... I hoist my day-bag and cup and step forth for sunnier climes. The open lawn on the other side of the House will bask in the setting sun for nearly another hour, long after these trees have furled the western grounds in soft shadow and frogs have taken over duties of the orchestra pit from the birds.
One gap remained, one sight unseen. Fourteen years ago I spent a month in this faux-colonial edifice, in the room almost under the stairs. Morning and evening I would walk or sit on the lawn, and every time I would see a family of four Indian grey hornbills. Large ungainly birds, they would perch on the higher branches, or hop about upon the thicker ones like a kindergartener who needs the loo. Their flight was slow and clumsy, alternately flapping heavily and gliding between one tree and another. They never perched on buildings or poles.
On this visit, I looked for them but caught only a brief glimpse of one in silhouette, that too on a tree outside the huge grounds of the Circuit House. Sitting in the gathering gloaming on the eastern lawn, I read up on grey hornbills. Their life-span is thirty years or more, so the same family could well be around. But nary a sight of them have I had so far.
But wait! That repeated call from the depths of the banyan tree? Like a large pariah kite trying to imitate a car horn? Surely ...
And in a moment of joy, first one and then a second hornbill bursts forth from the behind the trailing roots of the banyan and flies away to the east. A sighting. And a farewell.
Patiala has fulfilled a promise.