POSTCARD #104: Delhi: 05.00 hrs: The sound of the generator – a power cut, no lights. Holding my phone so it shines like an electric torch I come out from the bedroom and through to the front of the house. Startled by the flashing light reflection in the large glass patio window; light beams swinging over the walls, forwards and back with the movement of walking. My own reflection catches me unawares at this early hour of the day confused by large sound of generator. It triggers a memory from long ago; some time before dawn, me and grandfather on the tractor going over the hill to see the sheep.
When I tell people my grandfather was a shepherd, there’s a moment of… let’s see, no words for it really – kinda Biblical, mediaeval? It helps to think of him like a veterinarian. We’d get down from the tractor and set off on the track across the hill. Grandfather with his huge steps and I must have been only nine or ten years old, holding the big old torch with both hands, aiming the beam along the path to ancient things, ancestors I never knew.
Grandfather had a shepherd’s crook; a long pole he used like a walking stick, but with an iron hook on the end to catch the sheep. On this night we mingled amongst the flock until he saw the one he was looking for, quickly caught its leg with the hook and it fell over on its side. I was then told to quickly hold its head. He was a big man, wore two totally ragged old jackets, one on top of the other. No polyester in those days, no machine-washable hooded shell coats with velcro fastenings and good-looking yellow nylon zipper. No, my grandfather looked like a homeless person.
He’d roll up the sleeve of his right arm, hands like the hoof and horn of the sheep itself; not beautiful hands, birthing hands. Push his fingers into the back end of the sheep, then his whole hand up past the wrist and part the way up the forearm. Quite a long time spent feeling with fingers in the darkness before birth, find the lamb’s feet and nose, and pull the whole thing out with a steaming slither and plop on the grass. I’d be at the other end, holding down the beast’s curled horns, struggling head, a fog of breath in the air, spittle froth, tongue, nostrils, and these wild, wide staring eyes. Then from behind me, there’d be this small bleat: mae….
On Grandfather’s signal I let go of the head, jump back and the sheep is up, turns around and long nose nuzzling the small bundle shivering on the grass. Mae…says the lamb. Baah…says the sheep, licking away the afterbirth around the face of the lamb… mae-ae-ae… baah-baah… mae-ae-ae… baah… mae-ae-ae… (sheep language). The whole thing quite astonishing. An event there on the side of a hill, illuminated in the beam of a torchlight in the long shadows of remembered past.
Fifty years later and I’m here in Delhi, about the same age as grandfather was then. Light the candle by the Buddha on the bookshelf – familiarity of candlewax, oil lamps and no electricity; it’s another day no different from that day then or any other day. Outside, a faint smell of dung; cows and sheep sleeping in some corner of the street, at rest in these urban surroundings as if they were in a landscape of fields and meadows.
“I am not yet born; provide me with water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light in the back of my mind to guide me.” [Prayer Before Birth, Louis Macniece]