The way it was: Grumpy heron and ingenious hen

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

The eggs were, actually, cholesterol free. It was after months of hard effort that he had finally succeeded in pressuring some of the compliant hens to lay cholesterol-free eggs

It is a very muggy day. Not a leaf moves. I haven’t heard even the flutter of a wing for hours. Earlier I saw a common heron getting terribly annoyed at a young maina. The maina had ventured too close for his liking. He ponderously stood ruminating on a ridge, in a paddy field. A heron, as you know, has a long slender neck. In this case he sat with his neck pulled back, the head resting on his bulging chest.

The alacrity with which he struck out with his beak, with feathers puffed up on his neck, to scare away the maina amazed me. As far as I could see, it was a gentle maina, but she was not scared. The maina had meant no harm. She was cheerfully making a friendly call; the bugla as the heron is locally named was being unnecessarily nasty.

The sprightly young bird with her large black eyes, framed by broad yellow loops reminded me of Egyptian frescoes where the royal ladies have their eyelids painted in a somewhat similar manner with azure blue. The maina obviously felt hurt but instead of flying off, hopped away to the adjacent furrow, presumably to come back when he was in better temper. At this point I left and walked away to survey how the rice plants were doing in the adjacent acres.

In the current season these fields have been given a strong dose of sulphuric acid, which was preceded by green manure. The plants had taken a bold stand and stood evenly well-spaced. The prospect looked good and I was naturally pleased. Getting a high yield from fertile land is profitable — what could be better — but to shake a bad patch to life gives greater satisfaction.

The Monsoons are quite fantastic. The way they transform a parched tawny prospect into a green vista of paddy fields is not short of a miracle. This summer when the sun got particularly incensed with its own pride and there seemed no respite for paddy farmers, white cumulous clouds rose like mountains from the north, followed by angry rumblings of the dark nimbus.

And then the Lord said, “Blot out the sun! Let there be rain!” Mercifully there were sheets of rain. A burgeoning green flooded every nook and crevice, even drowning bald patches. Barren roots stirred to life. In the Monsoons much more so than in spring, leaves, flowers and wild plants are individually delineated with a Katib’s reed and then threaded together into a tapestry.

An inimitable riot of green that is beyond a painter’s palette, an unshackled cheer of foliage climbing up banks, coming down slopes, ascending trunks of trees. There is a wild invasion of motley plants, herbs, vagabond shrubs and a green crowd of all shades. There are of course snakes, mostly non-poisonous, but it is best that they are left alone. In this weather, when it is oppressively hot and humid they can be, like our friend the grumpy heron, a trifle odious and angry. It is best to be cautious and let them slither away to hunt for mice and frogs.

Someone asked someone, “Which is the best and the worst season of the year?” the other someone, instantly replied, “The Monsoons.” There can be nothing worse and more oppressive if the sun is out after a Monsoon shower. It gets steaming hot. But then also there can’t be anything better when on a muggy hot day suddenly a cloud comes into sight and soon a breath of fresh breeze touches your neck and cheeks, and a moment later the damp armpits begin to cool and the invisible cuckoo breaks into a song.

A lover’s heart longs for its beloved. A dark cowherd awaits Radha who will surely come. What a season! The Monsoons are a gift for artists who like to paint heady sensuous images and fruitful for poets who like to smooch mangoes if they are, as a poet said, sweet and in abundance. And here I am bogged down in the paddy fields in the company of grumpy herons.

In the old days eating of mangoes was synonymous with the coming of the Monsoons. Those who ate mangoes before the first showers of rain were considered men without taste. It was only after coming of the Monsoons that mangoes were immersed in bucketsful of water and ice.

The early varieties like the Tota parri were rather bland and didn’t have the right flavour at all. Moreover in those days every one preferred off the branch (daal kay) mangoes, which were sucked, rather than the paal kay or the qalmi varieties, which are cut and eaten. The popular qalmi mangoes in those days were the Langra, Dosehri and Saharni, to which now have been added scores of other varieties, including the more popular ones like the Sindhri, Summer Bahisht and Anwer Ratole.

The daal kay or desi mangoes had far more interesting names. A fair one from the Shalimar Gardens was called mem. It was a little bigger than an egg. Most desi mangoes are not fat and meaty like the qalmi mangoes but demure and light. Their mouthful of juice can be sucked in one go and is deliciously sating. A person can easily go through the entire yield of a tree in an afternoon.

There is great fun in having desi mangoes. Enthusiasts have their shirts rolled up and don’t care if the juice drips down their elbows while they suck. Similar latitude cannot be taken with the qalmis. Honestly confess how many you can tuck away without embarrassing yourself? Some people disrobe qalmi mangoes and then dice them into cubes before serving them to guests with custard and cream. Auchk! What an insult to the king of fruits. Surely Ghalib would have had something to say on the subject.

A friend sent us a crate of qalmi mangoes the other day. These were actually from his orchard and not purchased from the market. In the end does it matter, as Ghalib might have quipped, where they come from, as long as they are sweet and come in crates? But what was wonderful and unusual about them was the label, pasted on each fruit, which read, ‘Sugar Free — Recommended for Diabetics’.

Last winter I received a crateful of eggs from Mian M Mo, which were unusually large in size. I must say the hen must have made a huge effort laying them. Next day when a few were broken for breakfast, three yokes slipped out of the shell into the sizzling frying pan.

Having three yokes for breakfast is a bit much, but my wife pointed out the label on each egg, which said, cholesterol free. I refused to believe such rubbish so I rang up my friend, thanked him for the eggs and told him that he was really very funny. Mo was not amused and assured me that it was not funny. The eggs were, actually, cholesterol free. It was after months of hard effort that he had finally succeeded in pressuring some of the compliant hens to lay cholesterol-free eggs. Since then I have been wondering that if my friend Mo can achieve this with hens what can Gen Mu not do to pressure politicians to lay for him.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist