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Saga Of A Summer Night

Sleeping out has its charms-and its perils

By V. Gangadhar  

In his memorable A Night Among the Pines, the great essayist Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about the pleasures of sleeping under the stars. Stevenson was fond of camping out, waking up at 2 a.m., gazing at the starlit sky and falling into a refreshing slumber again.

So, too, are many Indians. During the summer months in Ahmedabad, where I live, when darkness falls everyone makes a beeline for terraces, balconies or the open spaces in front of their homes.

In our home we start debating when to make the move to the terrace as soon as the heat rises and the fans have to be kept on all night.

Being of a scientific bent of mind, I turn down suggestions to consult the family astrologer. "Let's start right away," I say. My three-year-old daughter backs me. "Shouldn't we wait for a few more days?" asks my wife. "There's still a slight dew in the mornings, and we may catch a chill." My skepticism about Ahmedabad ever having dewfall in summer doesn't move her. "If the child or I fall ill, are you going to stay home and look after us?" she asks. A slanging match begins. Tears flow. I give in.

But even after the dew disappears and my wife gives me the green light, problems arise. What type of bedrolls should we take to the terrace? "The lighter razais," I suggest. "Mattresses are too heavy and cumbersome to be carried up and down daily."

My wife gives me a freezing look (incorporating into it all that dew): "Do you want me to get up every morning with a backache?"

However, I'm the one who gets the backache, carrying bucket after bucket of water to wash the terrace. The place attracts so much dust and dirt that I'm sure Hercules had an easier time with the Augean stables.

Finally, it's time to go up. Holding the heavy mattresses in a tight embrace, unable to see where I'm going, I climb the stairs like a blinded Samson in the temple of the Philistines. When I slip and fall, cussing heavily, my wife reprimands me for using "that kind of language" in front of our daughter.

I am positive that Hillary and Norgay became expert mountaineers only after practising carrying their bedrolls up steeply built staircases. It develops the back and shoulder muscles and is also good exercise for budding fast bowlers. By the time my wife finishes narrating a recent incident on an adjoining terrace, where a strange-looking insect was reported to have gone into the ear of a sleeping neighbour and come out of the other, I can see bugs everywhere.

But my ordeal has just begun. As I rest my aching back on the soft bed, comes the query: "Is the front door locked? What about the window? Be an angel and check again." My thoughts, though, as I resecure all our entrances are far from angelic.

By now things are beginning to happen on nearby terraces. The occupant of one suffers from insomnia and switches on a bright reading lamp. By some optical quirk, the rays light up my pillow, so I have no alternative but to cover myself completely. So much for the starlit sky, but perhaps refreshing slumber still awaits me?

From another terrace comes the sound of vibrant pop music. That ends, and I heave a sigh of relief. But I have not reckoned the India vs West Indies cricket test match at Barbados. Buffeted by the voices of the commentators and the shrieks of the spectators, I begin to understand what it's like to be a cricket ball. Then the newly married couple in the next building, blissfully ignorant that their window is open and that the curtains are not drawn, provide their special distraction.

At last, it is quiet. My eyes slowly close. But the street dogs take over, howling solo or in chorus. As the canine grand opera moves towards its finale, I realize with a start that it's nearly 3 a.m.

The final actor in this drama is the milkman, with his rich baritone and jingling bicycle bell. The dogs greet his entrance with another overture. The night is over.

I envy Stevenson for his night among the pines. But had he shared my experience, he would have written something quite different.    

V. Gangadhar is a well-known satirist and columnist. He worked as an editor at Reader's Digest for 13 years.
This story first appeared in 1988


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