We were too sleepy after dinner to sit around for long. We relished the drowsiness that settled on us. Most nights in Kolkata, we do not feel sleepy, only exhausted; we go to bed because we must. The daylong assault on the nerves on one hand, the heat and the noise on the other, make sure that sleep’s gentle caress remains elusive. In Santiniketan, retiring for the night was sheer bliss. The night air was cool; as we lay below the mosquito net great gales of wind blew, we watched the starlit sky spread wide above us, and within minutes fell into deep slumber. Some nights, strong gusts blew the net away; then Makshirani would fold up a sari and drape it beside the bed, curtaining off the eastern sky. No matter how warm it was during the day, nights were cool, and there was always a nice breeze.
Even the days were not unbearable; I prefer that dry scorching heat to the humid summer of proper Bengal. The heat was certainly more staggering, but in no way as debilitating. As I sit here writing, my whole body wallows in grime and sweat, yesterday’s stubble pricks at my face; and yet the sun outside is mellow, the temperature has hardly touched hundred. Much better than this were the dry searing winds under a scorching sun. In this matter, Makshirani and I are in disagreement. After lunch, she lay down, on the bed, on a bamboo floor-spread or on the bare floor, and proceeded to complain variously---she wanted all doors and windows shut, and I would say, “No, no, leave them open.”, for I would rather be roasted in the winds than lie moaning in a closed airless room. Without going into details, let me admit that we came to words over this matter almost every day. Left with no choice, Makshirani would go outside and lie down on the veranda; I would write a little, lie down for a while, or talk the afternoon away. Strong gusts of wind blew around us, fiery like the breath of the huge bellows in Viswakarma’s works. But how much worse would it have been if the winds had been stilled, the air stifling, as if one were trapped beneath a heavy blanket. The days passed, till suddenly one day it turned sultry. The winds fell, and rose again, but with much less vigour. During those days, the torpidity was enjoyable in a strange way; it was a rare experience. What we were witnessing was the summer’s climactic ecstasy. Whatever one touched---the furniture, clothes, handkerchiefs, books, cigarette-cases, the hair on one’s head--- scalded the fingers. To the touch, the heat was like a living creature, a tangible substance that I could carry around in my pocket, break into pieces and pass around. The April heat in Kolkata has the same quality, but much less intensity.
Everyone said it would rain soon. I have always longed to watch the monsoon at play in Santiniketan. Each day rain seemed imminent, each day the sun rose and set in a cloudless sky, the light did not dim for even a fleeting second. We had almost given up hope when, just a couple of days before leaving, towards the evening, the raindrops began. Admittedly, there was more storm than rain. First we saw a huge terrible ruddy beast sprint in from the north-west corner, as the wild bison stampede over the open plains of young America. Within minutes the sky cast over with dark clouds---a deep sombre darkness that suffused my sight, my mind--- whorls of nipping untamed winds carrying masses of red dust that pierced the skin. Pale smoky wispy clouds, a swirl of dust, and over them clusters of sombre black clouds---in three layers the monsoon advanced from the northwest to the southeast. A tumult ---in the sky, in the winds, in the joyous branches of the trees. It comes, it comes. And then in the half-light, with light dancing footfalls, the rain arrived.
We were still to take our regular shower that evening. I thought that I would bathe in the fresh waters, let the raindrops seep into my pores. I took a few steps into the open, but then withdrew. Ultimately our city-bred worries won the day; as the rain poured without, I performed my ablutions within a tiny dark bathroom with a bucketful of warm water. I managed not to catch a cold, a slim satisfaction.
The magic of the first monsoon did not live up to the promise its arrival had heralded. Soon the rain stopped, the clouds departed, leaving behind a clear blue sky and a soothing rustling breeze. Then the sun set; amazed we saw heaven and earth light up with an orange glow, that turned the yellow walls of the Udayan building a clear white. In that breathtaking radiance of the setting sun, not only that house, but the sky fields trees everything in view appeared unreal, otherworldly. A little later the magic light faded away, and night descended imbued with the scents of rain-soaked flowers.
It was only this once that we encountered rain in Santiniketan.
My daughters were delighted. Their excited babblings mingled with the sounds of the rain and winds to create a wondrous music. The heat had not affected them, and away from the city, though their days were lonely, their enjoyment was spontaneous. There were not many children in and around Uttarayan, only Abhijit, Chandan’s son; my elder daughter had met him once or twice, but by the time a friendship began to form, we were already packing. Her main excitement was a rather short tree in the compounds of Ratan kuthi and an out-of-tune piano in the dining room. She was no end amazed and excited by the discovery that there existed trees that she could possibly climb; sorely tempted, time and again, she would go and stand beside the tree; she never garnered enough courage though to put the matter to test. But she would tinker on the piano, and not wanting to deprive her baby sister of the joy of music, would perch her right on top of it---had we not been vigilant, an accident would surely have happened. But it would be wrong to assume that Madam Tiny was always content to follow in the footsteps of her sister---she merrily ran about on the veranda unfettered like a woman of free will---her little feet never tired, and her not-too-well-enunciated chattering never stopped. Sometimes she descended a step but stopped at two, she went to the edge of the veranda but did not proceed further--- and so the amazing thing that is man’s instinct for self-preservation manifested itself again and again before our eyes. Both girls were fascinated by Miss Petit’s well-kept rooms--- my elder daughter, after hanging outside her room for a day or two, took courage and went in; I have heard that from then onwards she would treat the resident to poems from Abol-Tabol in return for being allowed to look at numerous pictures.
The other thing that drove my daughter to ecstasy was walking over the hot pebbles. The post-office was near, and she was in the seventh heaven of delight if asked to drop off a letter. With the dumbness of the not-young, we would send the maid along with an umbrella---but in a flash she disappeared, leaving both umbrella and maid far behind. If, when she returned, her face flushed with the heat, I had sent her somewhere farther on a more difficult task, she would certainly have appreciated her father’s good sense. But, the maid came back huffing and puffing and plopped down on the floor--- the heat was killing her. She was of a somewhat delicate disposition, and the slightest cut or bruise sent her into hysterics. In Santiniketan, she had to undergo suffering in certain other matters too. On the very first day, she declared, “I cannot eat here.” Why, what was wrong? Everyone called Poncha Bawarchi (an epithet originally reserved for Muslim chefs), she could not eat food cooked by him. In vain we reiterated that the man was a pure Hindu, repeated the other cook’s hallowed name of Kashi; she would not be convinced. To the end, she remained steadfast to her illusion, and cooked herself a single meal of some boiled rice and potatoes. Thus, with great difficulty, she saved her soul every day, till she returned to Kolkata.
When we neared the house after dusk, we could see from afar two small persons and an old woman huddled around the ‘petromax’ on the veranda. After the boundless enjoyment of the day, I could well imagine that the twilight in this deserted unfamiliar land cast a melancholy shadow over their minds. As soon as they saw us, both my daughters would sing out loud, “ Ma! Mamma Babba Kakka!” An eternal song that ever springs in the human heart.
Illustration: Khowai, by Nandala Basu; taken from Sudhiranjan Das's Amader Shantiniketan.
Published March 20, 2007
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