Before dusk settles in early autumn and the trees are yet to get into their evening silhouette, an old woman walks about from bush to bush in Netaji Park, placing wisps of cotton on the branches. One might wonder what is she up to — whether it’s some strange ritual which only the old know about and still practise in isolation, as most of those who frequent the park have left because of the gathering chill.
The woman is quite unconcerned. She just walks gingerly, as though on tiptoe, with a hint of a smile on her face — the reflection of a mind at work without any words parting from the lips. This woman, too, must have been pretty once and a few traces linger to show that she was indeed so. The nose is still dainty and the hair long enough to reach her slender waist. But her hand is not steady enough and one can see that.
These little bits of cotton are being placed by her to catch the dew, which drops silently throughout the night, like the starlight, the moonbeams, the glare of the distant streetlight or the natural stroll of the stray cat that comes in search of prey when nobody is around and the chowkidar is dozing in some cosy corner that he has made for himself. Netaji Park was once known after Edward VII, the bearded monarch who succeeded his mother Queen Victoria at a pretty old age. His equestrian statue once stood in this park and now one of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose adorns the pedestal, the earlier incumbent having been shipped away to Ontario.
Nevertheless, the garden is still remembered as the domain of the ghorewalla badshah. It has many strange sights to offer, but the dew gathering is curious to the core. It looks romantic, sounds even more so, but is very realistic and not the stuff fairy tales are made of.
Flowers gather dew in the night and so do the leaves, but it all vanishes in the morning, unless an early riser sees it glistening, not only on plants and trees but also on grass, to walk on which barefoot is a pleasure all its own — as the eye wonders in search of ‘fresh lawn roses washed in dew’.
To collect this heavenly moisture on cotton one has to be up before the early sunbeams drink their fill of it. One presumes the old woman does just that. Perhaps she goes to some temple in the congested area nearby where the gods and goddesses ‘wake up’ before the mortal and are ready for the pujari to perform his early morning devotions. From there the old timer walks on unhurried feet to the park and finds some of the wisps she left behind in the evening, all moist with the dew.
The lady picks them from the branches and under the bushes, too, and makes her way home, where she would apply the dew to the vaccination marks of her little grandchildren, or on the gums of a teething child because dew is a great healer of body, mind and the senses.
No wonder she collects it with such patience, but will her grandchildren remember these age-old remedies when they grow up?