Many members of my generation will recall a news item that appeared somewhere in the mid-1950s and caused a nationwide stir. The report quoted Western astronomers as having discovered the presence of two ‘stars’ that were on a collision course. The story went on to say that the aftermath of this event would create chaos in the universe and herald the probable end of our world. The item even gave the location of the two celestial bodies in the night sky, saying that they could be seen by the naked eye.
Next day, our school was abuzz with the news and with each passing hour, more was added to the story. That night, as we watched in fearful awe, our oldest sibling dramatically pointed out two extraordinary bright points of light in the sky and stated that these were the ‘doomsday’ stars and that their luminance was proof of the coming event. As days passed, we stared heavenwards, apprehensively as the gap between the two points of light appeared to grow less and less. And then the ‘dreaded’ day came and passed followed by the news that life could go on, as the catastrophe had been averted.
One evening, someone in the family brought in a one-page special edition from a nondescript rag, bearing the news that strange nocturnal creatures had appeared in the night sky over Lahore. Rumours immediately began circulating that the creatures were invisible, but could be detected by the sound of their wings. Imaginations ran wild when it was suggested that these night flyers were dangerous and children should be kept indoors. It was in this setting that one night we heard a loud whirring of wings as something flitted swiftly over our cots on the rear patio. Next day, my father informed us with a grin that the ‘invisible flying things’ were actually species of a large-sized owl that hunted by night. A very large number of these birds had somehow ‘invaded’ Lahore and their night-time foraging had given birth to the rumour of dangerous flying creatures.
Then one night, lying on our cots, we saw a brightly lit object appear on the horizon and fly in a straight line across the sky. Our fanciful minds immediately classified the phenomenon as a ‘flying saucer’ and green men from Mars. We excitedly pointed the thing out to our mother, who took one look and in her inimitable naughty manner informed us that we had better go to bed as this was the Fairy Queen on her flying throne looking for children, who slept late. Much later in life, while sitting in the lawn of my home on a clear summer night, I spotted what looked like the same object amidst the myriad of stars, but this time before I could conjure up a story to relive my childhood, my eldest daughter piped up in a loud cry of “Abbu! Look, there’s a satellite” - so much for Fairy Queens and their flying thrones.
Our house in Lahore was an old pre-independence structure surrounded by a sprawling garden and it was, but natural that the large number of trees on the premises provided a popular habitat to a variety of creatures, including a family of large-sized chameleons. These gentle lizards clung to tree trunks basking in the winter sun or lay on shady branches during hot summer days. It was while lazing in the verandah that I began to notice an odd behaviour pattern amongst our domestic help and their families. These individuals would either circumnavigate the ‘chameleon trees’ or cover their mouths with their hands or cloth, when passing under them.
We discovered that our servants were suffering from a belief that creatures, such as the chameleon, could cause death by counting the teeth of their victim. I knew that this disclosure would initiate an immediate reaction from my father and soon enough I saw the erring group being led or almost dragged to the tree by pater. I could not help, but roll with mirth as my old man, opened his mouth to its widest so that the creatures could inspect his dentures at their leisure. In a fitting sequel, the servants were ordered to do the same one by one, on pain of dismissal. Needless to say that the aberrant behaviour ceased immediately, but the story became part of the family archives, to be recounted again and again whenever we got together.
The other day, as I sat reading my P.G. Wodehouse in the sun, my grandson padded up to me with his pet chameleon perched contentedly on a forearm. I took one look at him and in mock horror covered my mouth with both my hands. I have yet to explain my odd behaviour to the impressionable young boy, who, probably, thinks that his granddad has finally lost his marbles.
The writer belongs to a very old and established family of the Walled City. His forte is the study of History.