Saturday, April 22, 2006

Killing An Omen

It was as soon as I shifted to Room no.:101 after four or five days of my arrival, that I noticed a soothing greenish flash from a plastic socket on the ceiling located right behind the fan. The glow was really soft and green as I said, and simply impossible to miss. A firefly!

My mind raced back immediately to the early 1970s, to the highly verdant campus of IIT, Powai, Mumbai [Bombay] where I had been to console two classmates. Funnily, only two guys out of the 32 graduates in the very first batch of metallurgical engineering produced by the department of metallurgical engineering, Maharaja Sayajirao University, of Vadodara [Baroda] had made it to the IIT for their Master's. Both were miserable. Some of us jobless engineers who had relatives in Mumbai, would pop over to provide solace to them.

Once I happend to be staying with my late cousin Khush-hal baaji in her cozy flat opposite the Bhavan's College campus in Andheri for a couple of days and on an impulse decided to visit my suffering friends at IIT -being within affordable distance. These two youthful scholars away from home for the first time ever, were so painfully homesick, they wouldn't let me return to my sister's place long after dinner. Deven Bhavsar knew me more intimately so he was aware of my passion for music.

Now IIT Powai with its famous Mood Indigo Rock Festival [where I was to judge a national contest for instrumental music in 2003 -how future plays tricks on us!] used to have a sophisticated music system installed in each hostel, in their common room. I was easily trapped by the sly Bhavsar who showed me a stack of LPs, including one by Carlos Santana. That did it. I stayed back. Music was fun, so was coffee.

But well past midnight when I returned to Bhavsar's room, the sum effect was that I became so excited, I couldn't fall asleep. The hostel was on the shores of Vihar Lake, with a huge forest extending towards the Borivali region, the forest sounds of crickets and other insects plus the water slapping the banks lulled me into a trance. Bhavsar was snoring in minutes, having been solaced enough by his ex-partner in college, we used to be paired up for ‘practicals in every lab, and I thought I heard the roar of a leopard too. These beasts often’ prowl about in the college campus too, and after about ten at night the human movement on the streets or roads dwindles down to precious nothing.

A firefly wandered in, when my mind was busy recounting the exciting events of the day. Having grown up in dry regions of Gujarat I had rarely seen a firefly inside a room... only on long journeys I had seen flocks of these green flashes in bushes, in other parts. At the ripe old age of twenty two, this was the first experience for me to see it upclose. The glow worm, lurching and swerving drunkenly like a new pilot who has just taken a solo flight and veered away from the hawk like eyes of the instructor, the insect seemed to be having pure fun. I kept watching it with mounting excitement. Once it came as close as a few inches from my wide open eyes, and the flashes were so quick from under its gossamer wings, I couldn't get a clear view but the sight was unforgettable. My imagination went if a miniature flying saucer from some other galactic civilization had been sent to talk to me... there were delicious possibilities bubbling in my sci-fi riddled mind. It flitted away as whimsically as it had come.

The same scene was going to be repeated here at Chennai, where I doubt there exist fireflies at all, that too in this weather when only Englishmen and Mad Dogs go out in the mid-day sun. Without the air-conditioner even the night remains warm and humid, temperatures as high as nearly 37 during the day and 26 at night. A long career in hi-tech science and engineering has taught me to be highly sceptical -so the whirring mind got down to routine analysis : - What was a firefly doing here in an air conditioned room on the second floor? - Did it wander in got trapped inside this carefully sealed room? - How did it survive, what did it feed upon? - Did it drink water? From where? From my glass lying open on the table? For several nights I watched the friendly firefly carefully for hours. It stayed glued to the same spot. On nights when I had returned from the pub having imbibed a controlled quantity of no more than 750 ml of strong beer, it seemed to dance.

Disturbingly, it started fading off after three or four days. Poor thing, I consoled myself, it not only keeps pining for its consort who never shows up, it's starving itself to death. Like the lady on TV protesting against the Gujarat state government fighting for increase in height of the Narmada river dam. She seemed to be ageing by years in the fourteen or fifteen days that she fasted and the wily cameramen kept showing us harrowing facial features, worsening day by day. In between I had to leave for Pune and return in about four days.

Again I returned by an evening flight and the same professorial-glasses wearing male receptionist was in charge. Miraculously he gave me the same room. I was itching to check up on my silent friend the firefly. It must have died, I kept telling myself. No insect can live as long as that without food and water. Hadn't it been glowing less and less before I vacated the room? In an email to a friend, a rather idealistic romantic poet in Lucknow, Natasha, I had mentioned about the firefly. Don't you believe in omens? She had shot back. No, I said, is that a good or bad omen? It is a good omen, very good, you dummy, she had implied though not in so many words. Like astrology and zodiac signs, omens have given me a total pass like the wild wild girls used to do to me when in college.

After an evening namaaz, I happened to look up, the same day. The firefly seemed not only dead, but seemed 'stuck' with some powerful glue to the spot. That was weird. It was flashing weakly, but when it went blank the dark colour spoke of approaching death. Finally I climbed up, wrapping up my namaaz and the musallah or the janemaaz. I stood on the bed, having switched off the fan. The truth dawned on me, hitting me like a sand-filled sock. It was the flashing LED [light emitting diode] attached to a sensor inside the plastic holder. Obviously a temperature sensor for the auto-shut off for the a/c to save power. I felt sheepish. I had just killed a mythical omen. A good one.


At 3:42 AM, Blogger farrukh: copywriter & journalist said...

Max Bhai,

Wonderful story - and imagination ;-)

If this was a ghazal, for me this would be the haasiley-ghazal:

"The glow worm, lurching and swervinig drunkenly like a new pilot who has just taken a solo flight and veered away from the hawk like eyes of the instructor, the insect seemed to be having pure fun."

I like the andaazey-bayan.

At 11:58 AM, Blogger Dan Husain said...

Max this is delightful. Just one suggestion. Post pics too on your blog and it will be a winner. :-))



At 4:58 PM, Blogger david raphael israel said...


you really had me wondering if this (following up from your earlier " The Midnight Knock...") might not be a tale of local espionage; thus, the A/C sensor denouemont proved a double let down. Even so, not really a killing. You did no harm to any glowworm (albeit the universe was found to contain one less than imagined).

I only got a full (and annual) experience of fireflies when moving to Washington, DC (in my mid-30s). They're almost unknown in California; but here on the eastern seaboard they're a regular phenomenon of late summer / early autumn. Wonderful to see them hovering over a grassy hillside in early evening.

At 7:55 AM, Blogger Max Babi said...

Farrukh/david bhai & dan ustaad!
Tks for the appreciation, am really taken up with the idea of photographs, lets see how it pans out. David, I am sorry for the dual let down -this is not a story, it's just an idle journal of a man trying to get moorings in an alien land with its own dab of xenophobia. I can read Tamil signs, and count upto ten, not bad eh?

At 7:57 PM, Blogger david raphael israel said...

ah, but an idle journey of a man trying to get moorings -- thereon hangs many a tale.
pardon: "dual let down" was a sloppy exaggeration. A/C LEDs -- this too in a thing to be known (as the Buddha might say).


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