Monday, October 31, 2005

Rain Song

Morning glistens on the monsoon roads. The air is a flapping curtain, damp and faintly stale, rent by little swirls of coolness that carry green smells.

The rain breeds moss on walls and unruly greenery on road dividers. It scrabbles holes in roads and leaves stains on the sides of houses. It breeds nostalgia.

Returning from a visit to the doctor, I find myself on a tour of my youth. Tyres susurrate, a bedraggled vendor raises a persistent yodel. Seasons past well up in memory.

**** **** ****

Jodhpur Park. A long trek from the bus stop to her friend’s house, the fan soughing like the distant sea as I disappeared into the bathroom to wash my face. Frosted green khus sharbat (Rasna ready-pack? Or did that come later?), a shelf promising delight, the comfortable background noise of the girls talking, a conversation not demanding more than the occasional smile and grunt while I ploughed through a book. The collar-chafing armpit-slicking heat outside heightened the cool of the room, the awareness of comfort perhaps more deliciously pleasurable than the physical sensation itself.

Then the darkening of the day, sullen mutterings on the horizon, a distant turmoil from the shanties on the southern shore of the Dhakuria Lakes. The scent of rain would invade the room well before the first fat drops battered the window glass. A sense of expectation, building and building, until the first flash of lightning followed by the deep elephantine roll of thunder brought release.

As the memory plays itself out and the rain streaks past the windows, we pass the spot where, 20 years ago, we stopped for phuchkas. Now it is a garbage dump.

**** **** ****

Other days of rain more sedate, even wistful. A verandah in Salt Lake, a Turner-scape with houses scattered among the waving green, breathing great lungfuls of pine trees sodden flowers wet earth grass and the faintly sour smell of iron window-grilles with coy rain-drops trembling on the edge.
That first year in Salt Lake was lonely, with afternoons spent on the verandah ledge, feeling the smooth black mosaic (too hot to lie upon during the heat of May but cool and welcoming in late June), musing on the diminution by perspective of the line of fir trees that made up the ‘Green Verge’.

The rains were even lonelier, long summer vacation mornings where the whisper of rain accentuated the silence broken at long intervals by the passing of a bus. The sound of a slamming door followed by the ‘ting’ of the conductor’s bell, carrying clearly over the acres of swaying grass that raked at my legs when I tried to walk through it. Sometimes the radio would be turned up loud in the nearest neighbours’ house a hundred yeards away, if I was lucky Vividh Bharati would be playing Kishore Kumar, the music slightly tinny and tremulous because of the distance and the vintage of the “transistor”.
And somehow the silence would be audible around the edges of the song.

**** **** ****

Purno Das Road. Always associated in my memory with summer afternoons that thrummed with empty trams passing Triangular Park, as I walked down to the stretch between Gariahat and Gol Park to browse the book-stalls. That was where I first discovered pornography, but it was also where I picked up the spare descriptive prose of Louis L’Amour enthusing about his ‘country’, where I found Maugham and MacLean behind piles of medical text-books, where I picked up a quaint little gem called ‘Love on a Branch Line’ along with (God knows why) a slim volume by Epictetus.

The book-stalls no longer await me at the end, they vanished ten years ago and now a fly-over has planted its foot where they beckoned by the light of gas lanterns spiced with the smells of tele bhaja*. Purno Das Road used to have a succession of three-storeyed houses with curving fronts, round-shouldered cousins of the more spacious bungalows on Lake View Road. The few that survive now seem to huddle together in the drizzle, waiting for the hammer and the ‘dozer that will finish them before the pile-drivers beat the ground for the apartment blocks to come.

I turn away and look back up Southern Avenue at the house opposite the Ramkrishna Mission, the house I’ve always wanted to own, white and remote behind ten-foot walls and serene in the knowledge of wealth.

On the same corner, just across the lane, is a lime-green house with an awning on the terrace. D lived there, a tear-away even in Class V, D who took me up on the terrace to show me how he could shoot crows with his Brno .22, who fought bitterly with me because I teased him about the cute girl in the TT coaching camp and then put his arm round my shoulder while he cheeked Zal the instructor. He was only 11 at the time, I was 10. D who – as I heard when I came back from training in Mussoorie – put another of his father’s guns to his head one rainy night in 1988, all because of another girl.

Too much death and change on this corner. I look away as the car passes Mouchak and turns into the tangle between Gol Park and Cornfield Road.

**** **** ****

A web of little alleys run like capillaries off Fern Road. Unchanged in 30 years, I think. The front verandahs hemmed in with fanciful grilles, a glimpse of mosaic floors in lozenge patterns, lines of school uniforms on sagging lines this Sunday morning. Smells of cooking, the hiss of vegetables released into a hot korai*2 as we pass a kitchen window, paanch phoron and kaalo jeere*3 warring in our nostrils, a steady roll of noise translated by memory into the rhythm of a grinding stone.

A grey moustache at the corner of a lane, peering towards the distant back gate of Gariahat Market. The hand behind his back must hold a little bag of rayon twine for the fish he will buy within the next hour. A face that woke late this morning, scratching luxuriously at a tattered genji*4, then sat up in bed with a pillow on his lap, drawing satisfaction from the first noisy sip at his cup of tea before peering out of the window and shouting to the kitchen, “Din taa meghla ache, bujhle. Boli khichuri chapao, dekhi byata Jodu’r kachhe aaj ilish thhaakbe nishchoi*5”.*

A drizzle sweeps out of the sun, leaving diagonal streaks on the houses and wetting the little metal plates set into the walls with the names of the lanes. Narrow cement-paved corridors lead in from the road, down the sides of houses where straight-barred louvred windows open into rooms with the remains of breakfast and empty tea-cups on scattered tables, perhaps even on bookshelves.

An advertisement for a “BBC spoken English course” glares in garish maroon from the wall of a garage. A corner has come loose and sags with the weight of the rain. A cat appears in the crack of the garage door, arches its back and closes its eyes, then disappears again. We pass on.

**** **** ****

Ekdalia Road yawns in the morning rain as we turn left. Two gates down is the B--s’ family temple. We’ve been there at least one evening during Durga Puja, every year since 1983 except for the two years when I was in exile. Even then, she came and lolled on S’ mother’s bed to be pampered till the clash of cymbals in the temple forecourt announced the start of Shondhi Pujo*6.

It used to be a sprawling red-brick mansion, half the rooms locked and two cousins living in what used to be the servants’ quarters over the garages. My other friend on Ekdalia Road has an uncle who told me, in a voice of hushed awe, “Even in the ‘70s, there used to be 22 cars parked in that courtyard. Foreign cars, all of them, the B--s never drove desi cars as long as their money lasted.” And of course there was S’ uncle who periodically vanished into the Sundarbans when his debts piled up, but he deserves a story of his own.

Now the red mansion is gone and strangers live in the block of white apartments that has taken its place. And S’ mother, who pampered us even as she scolded us, died ten years ago.

The other house I used to visit on Ekdalia Road, cool smooth floors and a gracious drawing room looking out on the Puja pandal of Ekdalia Evergreen Club, is gone as well. Except that in its place there is still the grey and brick ugliness of an apartment block under construction.

**** **** ****

Ballygunge Place. More cars, a lone rickshaw clattering down the road with the occasional flat sound of the finger-bell to warn the stray umbrellas turned up against the steady drizzle. Two young faces peer out above the polythene sheet that screens the rickshaw seat. Whither on a Sunday morning? The tyranny of tuitions? Music class, where a harmonium will underline the tremulous offerings of Robindro Shongeet from a faded diva?

And occasional glimpses of the lanes that have always made this para*7 magic for me, from the days when I walked these streets on summer afternoons and winter evenings, when I sought to exorcise the loneliness of teenage angst with solitary fantasies and pretentious poetry.

Now, I roll down the window to catch the lanes as we pass their mouths, lanes that hold together hamlets of community in the flow of the city’s life; lanes where still, as siestas fade, young men stand under windows and call each other out with the assured intimacy of boys who have grown up together. Lanes that lead to wrought-iron gates and stuccoed walls, then vanish round a corner with a backward glance that tempts me to follow …

**** **** ****

The Bypass then, gritty as the rains break it down, and I have left behind the Sunday mornings of my past, headed towards another temporary exile leavened by a Very Small Smile. The skies clear as we pass the Shonar Bangla. Which is a good thing: the rains breed nostalgia, a fungus of the memory. The sun clears the mind.

Yet memories lurk in the shadowed corners of the day.

**** **** ****

(Now for the truly pretentious bit - a glossary!)

* - vegetable fritters fried in (preferrably unidentifiable) oil. Literally, "oil-fried"; a taste bonanza paid for in heartburn and acidity
*2 - something like a wok, though usually smaller
*3 - spices. 'Nuff said
*4 - Undervest. Since you asked ...
*5 - (transliterated) Looks like rain; put on some khichuri (a savoury mess of rice and lentils with spices) while I go get some ilish (a distant cousin of the shad)
*6 - I'm not too strong on ritual. Call it a major bonding exercise and leave it at that
*7 - neighbourhood, but with a very strong underlying sense of community more than the physical proximity

**** **** ****

J. Alfred Prufrock, July 2005


At Tuesday, November 01, 2005 9:38:00 AM, Blogger satchisgod said...

Lovely post JAP...and do any of you guys remember this serial called 'The Wonderyears'?
Your post sounds almost like that:)
Again, a very nice read it was.

At Thursday, November 10, 2005 6:11:00 AM, Blogger expiring_frog said...

Seconded. Such a lovely post. And yes, bips, I do remember The Wonder Years. Dark, but there was that intangible something about it.

At Thursday, February 15, 2007 12:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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