It’s time to be prepared to face an invasion, not by foreign troops but by locusts (tiddi), the big-headed and ogre-eyed insects that breed in north and east Africa, particularly along the Nile, and in the Sahara desert and then wing their way to Sindh, where they breed again, before invading parts of Pakistan and India. The last great locust invasion took place in 1992 and now, after 26 years, another one looms large by mid-monsoon time. Both India and Pakistan held an emergency meeting to tackle the menace.
Through historical references are hard to find, there were locust invasions during the Mughal period and earlier too. The late A S Kochhar, who was president of the Mayapuri RWA five times and was conversant with the oral history of the Khalsa Panth, had this to say about locusts: “During the reign of Mohd Farukhshayar (1713-1719), when the Mughal emperor was pursuing the Sikh general, Banda Bahadur, there was a locust invasion in Sindh and parts of Rajputana and Punjab which led to a severe famine in there places and devastated the peasantry.”
Perhaps the biggest comparatively recent locust invasion took place during the World War years in 1944, if memory serves right. The northern sky in Delhi became completely black in the late afternoon as huge locust swarms (more massive than Chingez Khan’s hordes) raided the Capital from Rajputana and Punjab, making children and women cry for fear of some natural castrophe in the offing. At Agra the locusts covered the whole façade of the Taj Mahal, though it was protected from their droppings, by the scaffolding that had been put up ostensibly for repairs but actually to protect the monument from the German war planes, whose pilots were known as Jerry. “Be ready to put off the lights for Jerry might strike at night”, was the advice from the War Office. But there was no such warning for the locust invasion. One remembers that as the swarm of trillions of the insects (as big as tadpoles) invaded Delhi, the whole of the Jama Masjid area turned black as the sun was completely hidden too. In bazaar Matia Mahal people took up whatever they could to fight the insects spreading fear of famine.
. A boy returning home from the madrasa used his “Takhti” (wooden slate) to beat down as many insects as he could. A vegetable vendor took off his tehmet (lungi or loincloth) to attack the pest, unmindful of the fact that he was left wearing only his underwear in a very conservative area. Haji Mian Faiyazuddin, then a schoolboy, was encouraged by his father, Zahooruddin to kill as many as he could while the old man himself used his walking stick for the purpose.
Elsewhere Aftab, son of Ahmed Sayeed Khan, ex-Deputy Superintendent of Police, Jodhpur State, took out his badminton racket to bring down umpteen locuts while running up and down on the terrace of Sayeed Manzil. Meanwhile his father, who had fought some of the most notorious dacoit gangs in Rajputana, brandished a broomstick for the purpose, while Capt Peter Foster of the Central Ordance Depot, going to the British club in the Cantonment, used his tennis racket to smack down the intruders.
The priests of the Sacred Heart Cathedral asked the parishioners to leave everything and go out and kill locusts, which are mentioned in the Bible as having been among the Seven Plagues of Egypt that caused a widespread famine. In Fatehpur Sikri and its surroundings villages a lot of damage was caused by the locusts and the kisan leader, Ram Singh, a thick-set ex-wrestler, petitioned the British government to come to the aid of the farmers by giving them financial assistance and waiving the taxes they had to pay. I think H C Evans was the regional Commissioner then and he responded wholeheartedly to the request, along with his assistant, J S Lall. Ram Singh later came to Delhi and made a round of the newspaper offices, seeking publicity to highlight the plight of the farmers. One of the editors, Philip Crosland of The Statesman, just back after being delisted from the Army callup list, asked the moffusil correspondent in Agra (my father) to assess the damage at Sikri and file a detailed report with pictures. In the end, Ram Singh was satisfied with the government response and the farmers were adequately compensated, even as thousands and thousands of the locusts killed lay rotting in the fields and nullahs, making plentiful food for kites and crows. However, in the city for the non-veg, locusts curried and fried, was the favourite menu. Remember locusts and honey was the staple food of John the Baptist, who baptised Christ in the river Jordan. Earlier still, Samson the Jewish warrior, whose strength lay in his hair, ate locusts and honey from the hive that had sprung up in the skull of the lion he had killed bare-handed before befriending the Philistine beauty Delilah.
All this comes to mind whenever there’s a threat of a locust invasion that can cause more damage than even a drought or a flood, for the teeming insects can make a field ripe with corn barren in just a few minutes, leaving the peasants wringing their hands in despair and the city dwellers worried about the availability of the wheat they depend on for their meals.
Hope then that the impending locust invasion passes off without causing extensive damage, because of the vastly improved locust-control measures. But sadly enough people like Aftab, Ram Singh and Capt Foster won’t be around to squash tiddi like in the 1940s though Haji Mian is still fit to encounter them when the sky darkens thicker than monsoon clouds. India and Pakistan, despite their hostility, have held meetings to meet the looming challenge of a locust invasion that could hit both countries hard and lead to famine conditions in the threatened areas. Initial measures taken so far have been encouraging and the tiddi swarms on the Indo-Pak border have been destroyed, say reports from Rajasthan.