The darkest hour, the old adage goes, is just before the dawn. But no matter where you are — in the city, the hills or mountains, the countryside, or the beach, it is always the best hour to awaken in. Outside your bedroom or tent, the indigo world lies hushed and still as you stir sleepily. And then, depending on where you are, the day begins to stir in different, yet quite similar, ways, as it begins to awaken too.
Here in the city (Delhi, in my case), it is silent and cool out in the garden. These days, the red-whiskered bulbuls are the first to rise: the first call is a soft, tentative and questioning one: “Hello? Is there anybody out there awake?” The answering call, from some distance away, comes quickly enough and soon, both the birds are calling to and fro, gradually increasing the volume of their song. Suddenly, the sparrows (we still have them here) start chattering, as if continuing the conversation they were made to suddenly stop last night when it was “lights out” time. A parakeet shrieks, shattering the sanctity of the morning calm, joined by the others as they rocket across the lightening sky. A pair of antediluvian-looking grey hornbills squeal and mewl as they flap their way in tandem overhead. Black kites flap heavily from their perches high up and a bevy of peafowl honk dismally like lorries, as they bluster down from the rooftops to see what they can pilfer from the gardens. A tailorbird nearby begins belting it out at 120 decibels. A door somewhere bangs, utensils clatter as the first cups of tea are brewed. Through the bottlebrush leaves, you see the sun peeking through, looking like a frosted orange at first before blazing forth.
Up in Himalayan hill stations, the silences are deeper and the first notes of birdsong you hear may be from the Himalayan whistling thrush — a long drawn-out sweet whistle with a definite cadence. You’ve seen the bird in the garden: about the size of a pigeon (but not as plump), a dark glistening blue, with white spots on its wings, a yellow beak and rather belligerent attitude towards other birds in the area. Its quarrelsome character doesn’t match the sweetness of its voice. But then, there are so many short-tempered, hissy, fit-throwing musicians around. I made a recording of one singing over several mornings and it is astonishing how calming the playback is on high-tension days!
Another sweet-voiced bird is the streaked laughing-thrush. Walk into a forest, as the grey dawn light begins to filter through the pines and deodars, and you may be treated to a full-throated version of the dawn chorus — like a cacophonous jazz concert, where individual voices and melodies can somehow still be clearly followed. Suddenly, it all stops and the forest is quiet again except, perhaps, for the first tentative sirens of the cicadas.
But in the mountains, there’s more to be experienced than just birdsong. Drag yourself out of bed and go out into the dew-drenched garden; peer closely at wild rose petals, pearled with dew drops on which, frozen stiff, a tiny coral pink crab spider crouches, waiting to be warmed up into life. You look towards the mountains — vague hulking blurs outlined in the grey-blue distance. The ranges nearest are dark charcoal, each further range, a shade lighter and bluer. Then, the moment you (and that little spider), have been waiting for: the first blush of pale peach, tangerine and gold gently etching out the face of a rugged peak. They are soft, pastel shades, the outlines of the peaks barely discernible, but, within minutes, they harden to metallic gold and tiger-fire orange with hard, sharp, dangerous edges. Within the hour, the mountains rear up halfway into the sky — sharp as diamonds against a postcard blue sky, wearing wisps of windswept clouds on their crowns.
On the beach, the dawns are different, depending naturally on which coastline you are on and what mood the tides are in. As you step onto the cool, quiet sand — near the tide-line smoothened out without a footprint, the only sound here is the hushing lisp of the wavelets, as they swish up and ebb gently in a welter of bubbles and foam at your feet. Even the fishermen, setting forth for a day’s work (or returning), talk quietly as they leap aboard and sail away, or haul their boats on to the beach. The sanctity of a new morning is retained.
But one of the most unforgettable dawns experienced in recent times was here in Delhi, on a Republic Day several years ago, in the Qudsia Gardens just across the road. In a gnarled old gulmohar tree (since deceased, alas) on that frosty, foggy winter morning, a pair of barn owls — those rat-catchers par excellence — sat at the east-facing entrance of their nest hole (which, must have been ancestral property), ostensibly waiting for the sunrise. But they were looking deep into each other’s beautiful almond eyes and smooching with avid passion: making the most of it before the “moral police”, in the form of heckling babblers, mynas, crows and parakeets, got wise to their shenanigans and hustled them off. Just around the trunk, at another entrance, their three wooly babies sat, one on top of the other, no doubt whispering wide-eyed to each other about just what the heck mama and papa were getting up to around the corner, and what a wonderful example they were setting!And that it didn’t matter whether you ended (as the owls) or began (as the rest of the world) your day in that way.