Rolling spent her childhood days in the lush green North Eastern States of the Indian subcontinent. Assam, Manipur, Agartala, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh.
The sheer fecundity of nature here and the breadth of eyespace she enjoyed, while growing up in these parts, affected her tiny tender mind deeply and left indelible impressions. Her perception and her perspective on life, to a significant extent, is coloured by what she saw around her here, as she slowly turned into a woman…
Heavy rainfall is a constant element of life in this part of India, as are snakes, insects, dark green, scary green, turquoise blue, electric blue, earthy colours, thick undergrowth, dense forests, and deep growling silences of tropical jungles.
It rained here – incessantly, for days, in the monsoon season, as well as at other times of the year. There is no water logging on the streets as in the other cities of India, because this is hilly region and when the sun shines immediately afterwards, it makes everything look brighter, better, washed afresh with a coat of glowing happy colours. Looking outside your window, then felt like eating ice-cream with your eyes :)
The coolness of the air you could breathe in as your body savoured its fragrant freshness.
Growing up in the north east, with the way the weather and the terrain is there, one’s faculties get naturally tuned in to nearly every nuance of nature.
The days it rained, when she was seven or eight or nine or ten – were some of the happiest days of her life.
It didn’t simply rain there – it poured, like someone had turned a big bucket full of water upon your head. The wave and rush of water felt heavy on soft skin. Drops, when the raining started, hit your skin like with the the impact of little rocks. Temperature dropped from 38 to 24. It felt cozy to curl up in a corner of the bed, wrapped in a kaantha – a Bengali quilt made of layers of old used handloom sarees, very soft and oozing with oomph, with a favourite fat old Anandamela Puja edition.
Usually, schools declared rainy days when it rained heavily. It became so dark in the morning that the street lights came on. No one could tell it was only mid morning. You had to switch on the electric lights and look at the watch or switch on the radio to know what time of the day it was.
A little later, around ten in the morning, when mum finished her cooking, she would come and join little bhai (younger bro) and little didi (elder sister) on the bed. They would play ludo or checkers, together and after a few rounds, watch the rain through the glass window, sheltered from the lashing rain with broad overhanging cornice outside, watching the lonely ghost-like commuter on a cycle covered in white transparent plastic sheet from head to foot, the local priest in his gumboots and black raincoat driving past in his faded green Bajaj scooter.
The dark green trees, the rain sleeked charcoal black street curving away in the east, the flaming orange red Krishnachura flowers framing the soggy blue of the sky above, hazy but glimmering shapes of people passing by outside the window – all of it looked like a sheet of oil pastel painting seen through a transparent grey plastic sheet. At times it looked like color washing down along the surface of the glass-pane in the window. The little girl reached out with her fingers to see if she could touch the flowing mess of colors green and orange.
Mother and little daughter and baby son all sat huddled together in a corner of the milk white bed near the picture window and watched all afternoon. Sometimes mum would break forth into a Tagore song – Doorey Kothaey Doorey doorey/ amar mon beraey go ghurey – ghureyyy/ Je baanshitey bataash kaandey/ shei baanshiro shoorey shooreyyy….(faaaaar, far away in the distance/ my mind wanders/ to the tune of the bamboo flute that wails with the sound of the passing wind…
A tiny voice would join in with the only rainy day song she knew how to sing: Boley re papiharaa, papiharaa/ Nit man pyasa, nit man tarasey….(she used to think back then it should be ‘Ek man pyasa, Ek man tarasey..’ some people are thirsty, some people are thirsting, that is what she thought the song meant )....
limpid monsoon evening on the riverbank
Until, it thundered and grew dirty dark outside. Then it was mid day – time to feed her ‘babies’. So mum would gather them up and put them down on the floor together – the children would squeal with laughter as the scrambling bundle hit the floor, splitting into two sets of feet and hands. Sometimes the bundle collapsed in a heap on the mat on the floor and mum would laugh while she stooped to separate the tangled mass of flailing arms and feet and then they would all, like a set of Motherduck-babyduckling toy set – baby boy holding on to mum’s saree pallu (because the darkness frightened him), didi sis following, teasingly holding on to the back of his little shirt, pretending to be scared too – troop through the dark corridor into the dark kitchen.
They would switch on the light. Then they would lay the table together, baby carrying the stainless steel baby glasses, which he could now hold, one in each little hand, didi sis carrying the stainless steel plates – which she tried to beat together like cymbals in rhythm with the loud pattering outside – mummy brought the china bowls of curry. These were heavy. The children were not allowed to touch these. Last of all came the rice and the colourful salad with beet in it.
This was the only sore point of the day – when they had to eat raw beet with their salad. The children hated it. The taste, the wild strong scent, the way it coloured everything else up. Ugly, Junglee! So very dominating!
The hot shiny white rice looked beautiful – each grain perfectly shaped and separate, like fresh jasmine flowers plucked out with the dew still on them. This is the famous Joha rice of Assam – lovely, fragrant rice that made everything, even the most tasteless food taste heavenly!
They would have their simple meal starting with the greens – spinach fried, sauteed with a dash of garlic, followed by bitter gourd boiled in the rice and mixed with mashed potatoes to dull the shock of bitterness for sensitive baby tongues, followed by fragrant masoor lentil soup, with fried eggplant finally ending with the royal treat – fish curry cooked with fresh green corriander. Mum made food look lovely, like a picture on the wall.
All Bengalis have their food in that order by the way. Fish or egg or meat always comes in the end and is followed by some dessert – no matter how simple it is – there would be a dash of sweet in some form at the end of a meal, in most ordinary middleclass Bengali homes.
In our household, if they could not get to the store, when rains continued for more than three days, it would be home made laddoos, sweetballs made of jaggery and puffed/pressed rice, or a white slice of jaggery made of taal juice (palmyra palm) , called Taal Paataali and is considered a delicacy in Bengali homes. They buy it in winter and stock it for the year.
After a peaceful meal – if baby didn’t spit too much and didn’t fuss too much over his meal – if he did though, an added bonus would be a story – usually, he liked monkey stories – he seemed to identify with monkeys better - otherwise, the family would be back at the window or on the bed.
Never on the floor, which would be cold despite grass matting or dhurries that covered it. Usually, these would become so damp they had to be sunned when it stopped raining before you could use them again. Often there would be millipedes and centipedes trapped under them or actually crawling over them, in their bid to get away from the damp wet weather outside, they would flock indoors in this season. Sharing space with them wasn’t pleasant so we left them the dark corners in the room and the shelves and the floor – we climbed up into the safety of this big bed. (We liked it on this one, ours smelled of God knows what all the time, baby smell or detergent or powder. Mum's bed was always fresh white and lavender scented).
There were great big scorpions too and baby snakes that would blunder in – at least that’s what mummy taught the children to believe – “Ora path bhuley dhukey podechhey – mero na oder”. Meaning, please don’t think of killing them, they forgot where their house is and blundered in here cause they are babies too and don’t know better.
There was no TV – we had a lovely silver white Panasonic 2-in-1 sitting on a table behind a door in a corner. The family was very proud of this set and is still there. Mum would turn it on. Clear voice of Ritu Guha rang out rendering Rabindrasangeet lyrics like they were magic words that transported the little minds to a dream world where it was full of light and springfields swaying in the breeze.
When the father came home after the afternoon flight was safely on its way to homebase in Kolkata, he would find the children curled up like little fluffy lion cubs fast asleep, covered in their peach and offwhite flannels.
There would be Gautam uncle who came in to read the Bangla paper in the evening, with Good Morning stamped on it in purple stamp pad ink slightly smudged at the edges, and his young wife Aditi aunty – the little girl would wake up at the noise and walk into the parlour to see what was going on and to get a hug from daddy. After a bit of washing the sleep out of the face and dressing up and the glass of milk with chanachur strewn over the top to liven it up – she would fish out her already battered (session started in July back then only a couple o months before Monsoon started) Geography book and get lost in the pictures of other lands and people. While the adults chatted on happily, the baby played with his mechano on the dining table, she curled up in her favourite little cane basket chair, which had been made too order for her specially and roved the world in her mind.
And another lovely, happy day would, a few hours later, end in sleep and tending to dreams that would someday shape the reality of her life.
monsoon skies- total contrast to what color it is when the pouring begins
it is getting ready to open fire to drown the earth
PS: pictures sourced from the Internet, copyright with respective photographers