Lessons from a rain country : Rupam Sindhu Kalita

Rains were a regular visitor to our part of the world. They arrived with a hissing sound and sometimes with a low moan that carried the elemental smell of earth and cattle urine. Drops of rain hung from eaves of houses and slanted down on the earth that had been turned into a swirling ferment of mud and water which gave out a smell that never leaves the senses of one born in that soil. The lemon tree that guarded the garden in our backyard looked as if suddenly awoken from a siesta that the heat of noon induced in people. The rains never came alone. There was a vociferous orchestra of revivalism accompanying the showers and a rich basket of fragrances emanating from every conceivable thing in our world would make the languid waters that gathered in the yard seem like a grandiose yet impalpable source of the gas that sustains the world. As if the entire world had spawned, bred and lived there, in the puddle that gathered in the half-cemented yard. The little crests of water that rode on the puddle and the incessant dripping of the rain drops created a pockmarked and scarred picture which did not reflect the skies. And there was mutual reciprocation because the sky turned an ashen grey. It was not the open breadth of blue that looks down and absorbs everything on its mirror like face during summer. 

Frogs were ubiquitous. So were earthworms. The big toads would unceremoniously leap into flower pots and stand in awkward positions on the chiselled rim of the pots as if they were holding the last straw between life and death. They emitted a sound that was disproportional to their size, and the flaccid white of their underbelly was like an invitation to mortal danger. And there were the mosquitoes that glided in swarms like a paper plane carelessly painted black. Mosquitoes were not welcomed in the house and my mother used to burn white egg stands to keep them away. As a safety precaution we had mosquito nets slung across the bed. This was often an unpopular method as it made the bed hot and the person sweat. But once the rains started pouring those nets were in vogue because the temperature dropped significantly. My grandmother always used to keep a woollen shawl handy and every time the skies grew dark we would discover her sitting in a snug corner wrapped with her shawl even though it might be a summer afternoon. She thought the rains were a common denominator of all twelve months of the year. She would spend hot summer afternoons anticipating the first drops of a shower and during winter she would lie on her bed with her shawl and the mosquito net as if it were already raining. 

As I started reading Marquez, I re-read the part where it rained for four years, eleven months and two days in Macondo, and then again one day I stumbled upon Isabel’s Soliloquy where she watches the rain fall in Macondo and loses herself in the probabilities of derangement that incessant heavy downpours encourage and finally ends up in an inverted time order. Isabel was not the author of her soliloquy. She was only an onlooker in the scheme designed by the rains, a passive participant contributing into the events unfolding around her with a lethargy induced by the monotonous sound of the rain falling on the roof. And her soliloquy was not a creation of the shifting dynamics of her mental scape nor was it a piece of fiction written about a rainy day that she had read somewhere and was now reciting to keep in sync with the weather. Her soliloquy stood apart from the rest. It was an independent automation. A function of autonomous dynamics that sought no roots in its environment. A piece of uncertified legislation that did not seek approval from the parent-body. It was as sovereign as the free-falling rains that seemed to be devoid of the capacity to use its control-mechanism. A propped-up cardboard picture that has shorn its roots linking it to the piece of hardboard from where it had sprung. Like the arrow of rains that seemed like a cascade of tumbling water that billowed down from a dam that had damaged its control slabs. Isabel’s soliloquy had independent agency and so did the falling rainwater. 

The first beings that dared to poke their heads out from the protective roof after the rains showed signs of abating were the army of monkeys that lived in hundreds in the scrap-forest behind our house. They would climb the roof of the house with stately steps and survey their territory. The babies and the younger ones would ride on the back of their mothers who acquired an air of dignity with the additional investment on their back. My favourite pastime was to watch these resilient creatures spread out on the wet roof and scrap and fondle each other with the intention of helping to rid them of the heavy feeling that creeps into the skin after exposure to water for a long time. But my grandmother used to say that monkeys scratch each other only to rid their skins of a pestering bug that nests in animal hair. The slanting rays of a new sun would soon make the wet surface of the roof glisten with a new-found alacrity that seemed to say- all is fine. 

The after-effects of the rains would manifest in a widely disparate array of forms- the vegetable-seller coming to the gate and shouting at the top of his voice wearing a makeshift turban that he had folded from the length of the clothing tied round his waist, his trousers folded up to his knees to avoid dirty puddles and a umbrella made of a plastic sheet stretched tight and tied at the ends into a bamboo frame tucked away in a corner of the basket where he carried his vegetables; the procession of the aged members of the neighbourhood to the bank of the big river to see how much the waters had risen and their way back when they often entered houses on the way to see the impact of the rains on the backyards, and then there was the haunting sound of water gushing fast every time one stands at the gate or in the middle of the street and the elaborate ritual of someone from the women-folk in every household plunging herself in the tedious job of dishing out the rain-water that had accumulated near the threshold using a dip disc or bowl kept specifically for the purpose and complaining of back-ache in between their voluntary endeavour. 

A trip down the road after the rains had cleared was always an enriching experience. There were the young boys in the neighbourhood who used to go out fishing once the rains showed signs of abating, though they abated not so much outside as much as in the mental horizon of the boys. There was one who was of particular interest to me for a couple of reasons, the primary among them being his peculiar dressing style. He would tuck his vest inside his khaki shorts in a manner that was clinical in operation and cumbersome to the beholder yet wholly convenient to him, and would bound on one leg trying to jump over puddles splashing dirty water over his friends who were all older than him, getting scolded in the process, but never discouraged. But what made him a spectacle in our eyes was his pink slicker which he always wore, rain or no rain. It was as much a part of his costume as his vest and shorts. He did not have a fishing line and never borrowed one from his friends either because they did not want to lend him one as they thought he was not very good in the business and would spoil the precious baits that were hard to procure or because the boy himself never showed any interest. 

My mother told me one day as the boy sauntered down our yard at the heels of a gang of boys armed with fishing rods, 
“Why can’t you be like that little boy? I wish I had a son like him.” 
The words were couched in as much sympathy with the boy as displeasure at my dirty shorts that got filthier with the rains. 
“He is a laughing stock of all my friends. Does not know how to fish and swim. A dunce,” I replied, but not before discerning the curve of displeasure growing around mother’s throat. 

He was a dunce in our peer parley. One who displayed a distinct lag in every step that he took. One who was born with a vacuum that never filled up. One whose skull, we believed was too thick to rub in a gamut of knowledge from us. 

And there he stood with his characteristic aloofness, unmindful of the hundred exciting things that his friends were up to. How we pitied him resting his elbow on a pole at the edge of a field running with water! He presented a scene of nonchalant absolutism that was ever ready to encounter head-on any criticism that came on its way. Yet he didn’t speak. Not even once. 

The residual drops of water that trickle down from tree leaves at the slightest wind always slipped down from his slicker. They didn’t cause the gloomy smudges that dotted our shirts after an outing with the fishing lines. And so he was different. He was a spectacle to stare at when we got bored playing with the water running in the fields. Sometimes we would pick at his shirt and sprinkle muddy water. And that always proved to be the end of the drama. He would spring into motion mustering all his dormant energy under his sinews and disappear over the road. This usually happened when we were tiring out and wanted to go home but not before we had the final dose of entertainment. The boy never complained or resisted but simply ran away. Yet he was too innocent. His inertness burrowed the pearl of excitement that we tried to extract out of the game. He never reacted. And one-way games are never exciting. How we wished that he would respond to our taunts and then we could fall on him! But he always denied us that pleasure. 

And perhaps that was the reason that our leader who was four years older than all of us and was somewhat of a bully declared one day that no one is going to bug that boy anymore. And we obeyed with immediacy. 

Things went on as earlier. The declaration of our leader and our mutual affirmation didn’t for once encourage the boy. He would come and leave as usual. The only change that occurred was he would now leave whenever he wished and not run away over the road. 
Primitive energies were once again gathering like animated edifices across the sky. Grey horns rode on monstrous black shapes and bellowed with elemental vehemence that resounded across the living world. A king stork flew away from the paddy to the shelter of his lofty nest high above the trees and a farmer looked for his missing cows to drive back home. The thin line where the sky meets the earth vanished behind a torrent of dark rain clouds that hung low ominously as if threatening to spill open at any moment and paralyse the earth. 

And nothing could be as amazing as being caught unawares by a trail of fierce rain in the middle of the road. We were returning from the paddy fields after trying our hands at fishing, though without much luck, and were taking the concrete road that darted its way through the water-logged fields. It was one of those days when a languor would overcome the limbs and arms without actual physical fatigue and you feel like lazing away your time without engaging in anything creative. We were actually keen on getting back home. A silence crippled our procession as we made our way back, some of us trying to keep a pebble on a straight track using our feet like a football while others turned back again and again to see whether any friendly vehicle was on its way so that they could get a lift. 

And it was precisely at that moment in time and space that the rains hit us. The asphalt road ahead shimmered in the distance and reflected a series of broken mirror images. Home was still far away and we wanted to run. 

But soon we reached a dirt track and diverted toward it thinking exactly the same thought, each one of us as if the falling rains had activated a synchronous gadget that made everyone think alike. Yet none deemed it necessary to reveal his mind. In less than a minute we were under the roof of the boy whom we had made the object of ridicule but nevertheless was our friend who partook of our games in his own uncanny way. It was he who was happier to see us and looked even grateful, maybe because he realised that we had not shun him and still considered him a part of our gang. The sound of the rain falling on a tin roof soon reminded me of our own house. That hazy metallic sound was almost a regular partner in our sleep and played a part in making us go to sleep together with the lullabies that my mother sometimes sang for me. It was a march toward a crescendo, most of the times, with the pattering of one or two big drops announcing the arrival of a shower that gradually turned to an unbroken song with a sharp metallic edge that soon blunted into a monotony that was no longer distinguishable from the other sounds of the night. For us the sound of the rains called up night fall even though it might be midday. Night and the rain share an ancient kinship such that the onset of one gives a sense of the presence of the other. May be it was the new way in which we saw the world after the rains had subsided or the night had lightened into dawn that sustained our belief in that kinship between the two elemental forces. 

The boy was glad to discover that he was still not an outcaste and was an integral part of our group. We heard him talk freely for the first time. He was not taken aback when the bully among us took him by his neck and laid him low, just for some fun on a day sullied by a sorry catch coupled with low spirits of the gang. The boy spoke at length and was often interrupted by his grandmother who gave us a gamocha to wipe our heads dry. He was wearing a loose white vest which barely fitted his skinny body. The bully was quick to recognise this marked departure and interrogated him. Where is your starched garment on which not even a drop of rain can stand? He asked. The boy went blank and looked toward his grandmother who came out again at the very moment. She replied as if her age and experience qualified her to answer the question. Her lips reddened by betel nut juice broke into a smile and said that she had always encouraged her grandson to wear a slicker because the rains would always come and return and never go. “Don’t take these interruptions as the norm, dear sons. The rains are always there.” 

She walked with a bent that weighed under the experience of a lifetime of living in the rain country.