The longest and coldest winter that northern India remembers has mercifully drawn to a close, and nobody is more grateful than those stalwarts of a venerable Hindustan institution, the gate watchmen who proudly call themselves chowkidars.

Crime in India is more exotic than most places. Burglars don't just sneak quietly in and out of houses, surreptitiously making off with whatever loot they can. As often as not, gangs of dacoits -- the urban progeny of those legendary hill bandits who for centuries struck fear in the hearts of the colonizers of the imperial raj -- storm into an unsuspecting household brandishing rifles and long knives with menacing flourishes that would be the envy of any Hollywood central casting director.

Understandably, then, conspiciously well-to-do foreigners and upper-class Indians retain, for a modest-enough monthly fee, a chowkidar.

Sturdy and cheerful men, often from Nepal and other mountain regions, chowkidars over the years have developed a misplaced reputation akin to that of the fierce, war- like Gurkhas, whose battlefield exploits against Afghan and other invaders are part of the lore of British India.

But the reality, to which I was agonizing slow to awaken, is that they are really pussy cats. our howkidar, a veteran of the Indian army, looks menacing enough in his old, slightly moth-eaten dress khakis and military greatcoat. He certainly has the correct military bearing when he clicks his heels and snaps off a proper British salute at the correct angle to his beret whenever I pull into the driveway late at night.

But like most Indian chowkidars, I discovered not not long after my arrival in India, he is incorrigibly somnolent.

Most international flights out of New Delhi's Palam airport leave in the middle of the night, and it took but a few working trips out of the country to realize that my man wasn't losing much sleep in his nocturnal job.

It was also plain enough that he wasn't living up to the assurances spelled out in each monthly bill sent by his ex-servicemen's chowkidar agency: "Charges for rendering expert services regarding security and vigilance."

Bundled against the cold, his head comfortably cradled in a burlap pillow, the vigilant night watchman would invariably be blissfully snoring away in the driveway when I pulled in, oblivious to any danger that might be lurking in the shadows.

When he wasn't sleeping, the chowkidar could be heard nervously pacing below our bedroom window, loudly clearing his throat and expectorating in a successful effort to keep me as awake as him.

Determined to test his vigilance with irrefutible evidence, I set my alarm clock for 3:30 a.m. Tip-toeing downstairs in the dark, I brandished an old army bugle which I normally press into use only in late-night moments of waning parties and other festive occasions. I was determined to find out of what stuff the chowkidar is made.

Reveille is reveille is any man's army.

The chowkidar leaped out of his slumber as if shot from a cannon, snapped his heels and fairly bruised his forehead with repeated salutes, excitedly shouting over and over again the only English word I have heard him speak, "Duty! Duty! Duty, sahib!"

Whether my technique has lasting effectiveness or not remains to be seen, but it clearly is one which makes an impression. One of my journalistic colleagues, who is also afflicted with a somnolent chowkidar, only had to mention my pre-dawn serenade to his night watchman. The man has since been a picture of alertness ever since. And my friend neither owns a bugle nor knows how to play one.

But I really stopped taking chowkidars seriously when I solved the mystery of the night whistling.

Each night for months I had heard a weird ritual being played out in the street that runs past our house. Every hour a man passed by the house thumping a wooden stave loudly on the pavement. This was immediately followed by a high- pitched whistle, not unlike that of a screech own.

I actually caught a glimpse of the apparition one night, and after first deciding it was an unfortunate mental case, I had instead concluded that it must be some strange Hindu rite unknown to me, or perhaps an obscure form of Asian bird-watching.

It was only recently that a street- wise Indian acquaintance explained to me that the mysterious night- stalker was a street chowkidar, or communal night watchman retained by a number of families who do not not employ their own gate guard.

The street chowkidars, my friend explained, do not not feel that they earn enough to put their lives on the line preventing burglaries in progress, so they thump their staves and emit their shrill whistles as a signal to any miscreants to keep out of sight for the moment, because a chowkidar is passing by.

Given that explanation, it seemed pointless for me to wake up in the middle of the night and bugle my own chowkidar awake.

Now when I lock up at night, I simply wish him good night and sweet dreams.