In the land of rain
Monsoons in the North-Eastern part of India can be extremely cumbersome with nothing but endless stretches of rainy days and nights for months and months. Moist, mouldy rooms and the ubiquitous smell of half wet clothes, are what greets you in every household in the hills during monsoons. Imagine, having to live under incessant showers of rain for most part of the year? We did. We laughed and we lived and we played under outspread umbrellas and duck-back raincoats and heavy black gumboots. Were we happy? I think we were partly oblivious to the future and partly vague about our short pasts, but then we lived in the present. The present was all that mattered to us, and what a glorious present it was! Yes we were happy! We were the happiest that anybody could be.
What do you want to become when you grow up?
We were oblivious to the future in the sense that we did not care much about tomorrow as we did about today, except for the fact that it was compulsory for all of us to know what we wanted to become when we grew up. Thus like parrots we would recite and re-recite words ingrained into our delicate brains after having the vividest of ideas of what we wanted to become when we grew up. Doctor, Lawyer, Police, Businessman, Princess, Teacher, Singer, Actor were scores of ambitions presented by eager piping voices.
I remember saying that I wanted to become a writer, but then something happened. A revelation. Ever since I’d seen our music teacher’s stocky, podgy but very agile fingers glide over the piano keys during singing lessons, I wanted to play the piano. Now, piano classes in our school were only given to boarders (ones who lived in the school, therefore highly privileged) and as a day-scholar (ones who only attended school over the day, therefore less privileged), I, of course stood no chance. Piano playing however, did happen to me later in life, in a different school under different circumstances and the experience was to last a lifetime.
When people asked my brother what he wanted to become, he’d say he wanted to become a business tycoon; wash the town clean and shiny and build a house of gold. I can still hear the sound of his voice, the intonation when he pitched his tone with excitement as we sat with our friends on the front porch of a rental house on a Sunday morning; the landlord’s oldest son asking us one by one what we wanted to become when we grew up. This was a recurrent situation because once in a while, which was quite often, someone or the other would ask us what we wanted to become when we grew up. Everybody would have their turns and everybody would share their aspirations with loud confident voices. Once the question of our inevitable futures would be passed around and once the questioner would leave us, fully entertained by our unwavering aspirations, we would run forth into the heap of sand collected on the playground, climb on it, digging our feet deep into the cold, damp sand, screaming, laughing, playing. Or, we’d invade the hedges on a witch hunt with branches in our hands for swords, get stung by nettles, graze our knees shouting slogans nonetheless for the witch to come out from her ambuscade – the serious ambitions of teachers, and police officers and pianists and tycoons safely tucked at the back of our heads, ready for the next time it needed to be plucked out. When twilight descended and when a choir of voices would reach our ears beckoning us homewards, with heavy hearts and hushed goodbyes we’d go home to long hours of maths, science, language, literature home-work.
Rain in our lives
We’d trudge up to school every day, which lay on the other side of town and as it rained every single day from end of May up till September, our duck-back raincoats and our heavy black (poor rubber) gumboots also became a part of our uniforms. Thus each morning, we’d gear ourselves with our duck-backs and gumboots, and with the rain usually falling with a soft patter uninterruptedly for days at a stretch, we’d launch into a long walk to school. Sometimes, during the afternoon, an angry gale would turn the soft patter into a potent thudding on the open umbrellas and into a ruthless swishing on top of our raincoats, pricking our faces under the duck-back hoods like furious little pins. Walking home then, would be most inconvenient and it usually took us double the time to reach home. However, the promise of warm dry clothes and hot food would urge us to carry our little feet at a steady pace under the weight of rain-filled gumboots. During vigorous rainfalls and thunderous weather, when roads were transformed into small streams, schools never closed as if they, the school authorities, had nothing to do with the danger of a child being swept away by a gushing drain. But then we were the adventurers who had neither the foresight of a likelihood of an impending doom, nor the capacity of grown-ups to conjure up quibbles regarding the cursed monsoons.
We kept right ahead, going to school, coming back from school, and yes, stopping by our favourite little shop to buy pickled tamarind, or roasted horse-grams or, sometimes even spicy potatoes. For us, it was a celebration, a victory over one more day of eight periods packed with tedious, uneventful classes, where the apathetic teacher buzzed on and the chalks squeaked on the board, and where we copied every single word from the blackboard. What pure joy it was, to stand under thick glassy cords of rain, licking the papers once we’d eaten up our sweet and sour savoury treats. It was natural for the shopkeeper to use papers from old scribbled notebooks as wrappers and it was natural for us to lick away the ink from old doodles, along with the gravy that stuck to the paper.
Bag-Lady & Lunch Man
We had one adult shepherding us to school everyday. Our bag lady. An older woman was paid to carry our bags and to bring our lunches to school while it was still warm. My brother attended a boy’s school located high up on the hill in the remote outskirts of town, to which he was taken by a school jeep, and his lunch-man, our own toothless bag-lady’s toothless husband, came everyday along with his wife to pick up our lunches. Sometimes I wonder if their poor dead souls are still carrying bags and lunches to school, for I am sure they are no longer alive. They did their jobs with such dedication and with such seriousness, that I wonder if their ghosts are still carrying ghost bags and ghost lunches from the past. Sometimes I wonder why I never concerned myself with the prospect of meeting them after I left school and moved on. Sometimes I wonder why I never considered slipping some money into her leathery hands and said thank-you, but then, when you’re six or seven, you are quite egocentric, and charitableness is hardly a virtue to be found in a child.
My brother and I talk about them sometimes and reminisce their tobacco stained smiles, deeply lined faces and raspy voices .
Rain and Assemblies and Teams
After what was a long and tedious climb uphill, we’d finally reach school with our gumboots sloshing with rainwater and cold water dripping down our backs, just in time to hurry off to the assembly. Sometimes the nuns would allow us to dry ourselves by the fire in the kitchen, sometimes, we were simply ushered into the assembly soaking wet . Assembly as we were told was the most important part of the day and if owing to some reason we missed the assembly, we were gently shown out of the door. What comprised of such an assembly would be, students standing in long rows in an ascending order depending upon one’s class and one’s team. Yellow, red, blue and green were the teams that the students were divided into and each student belonged to one such team. A list of hymns would be sung in ear-splitting chorus, teachers standing in a single row facing us, scrutinizing us like hyenas scrutinizing a lion’s leftovers. The principal standing on a slightly raised platform would begin her morning speech and as we shifted our weight from one leg to another and as we flew with our thoughts outside the window, we’d only see the principal’s mouth opening and closing. We’d hear nothing but the sound of our fanciful flight.
Upon arriving late for an assembly, we’d simply be asked to leave. Then a long affair of letters to the parents would start, which in turn was required to be signed by our parents. There were two gravest tribulations in my life back then. One of them was, carrying a warning letter home for my parents to sign, the other was standing in files of two to receive a report card.
When I’d hand such a warning letter to my parents, and when I’d see the shadow of disappointment flicker on their faces, I would get all tangled up inside and then I’d hate myself for having stopped on the way with my friends to play with a pair of new born pups. On account of missing a few assemblies and failing in few report cards, my friends and I were not supposed to be seen playing together in school but, what they didn’t know was, how devious we were, how much of wiseacres we were. We’d concoct plans, via hand-passed letters, and we’d sneak off outside the school premises during lunchtime, as heavy rain made it impossible for others to spy on us, and we’d meet secretly under the canopy of one of the raincoats, only to plan more secret meetings. We were inseparable. The four of us. But then the nuns started getting all frantic about our foursome. While we had wild adventures such as leaving school premises and venturing on to one of our friend’s house to play with her kittens; while we came back into class after lunch dripping from head to toe; while we related ghost stories to each other illustrating it with our hair pins on the aluminum table tops; while we created our own script and wrote notes to each other in the middle of a class; while our report cards suffered inexorably and our progress in class got stunted, the teachers found a way to warn our parents and sever our ties.
Despite the teachers’ warnings and parents’ admonitions, we stuck together, for, we believed that we were always going to remain closely bonded and linked forever through our stories and our mischief and our aspirations. Of course we hadn’t the least bit of an inkling that time would be our own swollen, monsoon ridden stream that would wash us away apart forever. But then, who could have stopped us? After all we were the adventurers and the musketeers and the water babies and the little women. We were like the monsoon rain. Unstoppable, incessant and sometimes aggressive.
When the world happened to us
Monsoons clawed the hills with landslides, sometimes sweeping away small hamlets perched on top of the hills, sometimes sweeping away the roads, isolating us for weeks; and sometimes puddling our homes and drilling our roofs, but our lives carried on. At home or at school, we defied and denied the impediments that the monsoons threatened us with. Thus we traipsed on with our own secret enterprises and confidential trysts the contemplation of which brightened our spirits to no bounds. We didn’t know what other children did in the rest of the world but what we did in our world was undoubtedly the best. That was our deepest conviction. Until one fine day, when the teacher had a surprise for us; when pen-pal-ship descended over us like balloons packed with confetti. When the balloon did burst, thousands of surprises floated unto us from another world, where children did none of the things we did. Letters had arrived with colourful stamps and they were read with such enthusiasm by the teacher. They were full of questions like, “why do people in your country carry bundles on top of their heads?” “What do you do for recreation?” “Have you read Uncle Tom’s Cabin?” “What is your favourite TV show? Do you like M&M’s?”
That was the day, I began to dislike the downcast sky, constant pouring and pattering of the rain because I was suddenly made aware of the rainbow on the other side. That was the day I saw the dirty puddled roads, old crumbled ruinous concrete buildings everywhere, that was day I smelled the fetor of wet stray dogs all around me. That was the day I was assured that there was much more to be found than what we had got. That was the time when my brother and I started penning letters to pretty names and smiling faces – pen-pals, they were called, who were located half way across the world, and we’d begin our letters with, “I am sure this missive of mine will strike you like a thunderbolt.” A line opener that we had picked up from a book on letter writing. That was the time when the world stretched its menacing claws and tore apart our monsoon sky exposing us forever. Things were never the same again.
Image by: www.deviantart.com
Playlist for this Story (Spotify)
- Sadness is a Blessing – Lykke Li
- I Follow Rivers – Lykke Li
- Unrequited Love – Lykke Li
- The Longer the Waiting (The Sweeter the Kiss) – Anna Ternheim
- Feel Like You Make Me – Cary Brothers
- Holding On and Letting Go – Ross Copperman
- Taxi Cab – Vampire Weekend
- The Cave – Mumford and Sons
- Shangri-La – Yacht
- Oxford Comma – Vampire Weekend