Saturday, April 05, 2008

Childhood memories of Kaal Boishakhi

Lost evenings of Kaal Boishakhi
There was no intimation of a storm when I left home for work last Thursday. It was only after I hit National Highway 24, which is an apology for an inter-State highway that mocks at our tall claims of ‘progress’ and ‘development’, that I spotted the dark, menacing storm, roaring across the highrise-dotted dust plains that separate Delhi from Uttar Pradesh. Within seconds an all-engulfing darkness descended at high noon and gale force winds swept down, whooshing their way through malnourished trees and scrub, scooping up dirt and millions of discarded plastic bags, and sending them swirling in the gathering gloom. It was not a pretty sight to see garbage and filth of various descriptions, dumped every day along the highway as part of an officially endorsed waste disposal ‘system’, being tossed around.
Mercifully, the rain came soon after. First there were fat drops that plonked dully on the windscreen and turned into streaks of black-brown grime. There was a distant roll of thunder, and then the skies opened up, sending a downpour that came crashing like a sheet of water. Within seconds, the stench of festering garbage had been washed away and the plastic bags had disappeared, weighed down by the rain. By the time I crossed Nizamuddin Bridge into Delhi, the roads were flooded and traffic was crawling at a speed lower than usual. Everybody was cranky, which was not unusual. It rained for the next couple of hours, and then drizzled for a long while.
Later that night, the roads looked fresh and clean, with puddles glistening under streetlights and the damp air redolent with the smell of rain. I rolled down the car windows and breathed deeply. You can’t do that very often in this part of the country. For all its pretensions of being ‘world class’, the National Capital Region, barring Lutyens’ Delhi, is really a sprawling, polluted concrete slum, pock-marked by ghastly glass-and-chrome malls. Next day’s newspapers described the thunder squall as “unseasonal rain” and carried photographs of stalled autorickshaws, cars, buses and trucks with motorcyclists trying to clamber over and across them.
Similar storms at this time of the year are joyously greeted in the eastern hinterland, especially in rural Bengal where they herald the advent of summer. As Choitro gives way to Boishakh, marking the end of spring, Kaal Boishakhis, or nor’westers, make their annual, almost ritual, appearance. The skies turn dark, egrets take flight, their sparkling white plume standing out in sharp contrast to the ink black clouds, and the wind comes roaring, whistling through coconut and palm trees, in a strong blast that lasts for about five to ten minutes. This is followed by a sharp drizzle that drenches the soil, dampens the air and cools the evening breeze which makes east India so very different from the rest of the country, more so Delhi, India’s dust bowl.
Decades ago, while growing up in Jamshedpur, my friends and I would wait for Kaal Boishakhis with bated anticipation. The immediate hour after a Kaal Boishakhi would be spent collecting green mangoes, raw and sour, which were otherwise forbidden, torn off their tender stalks by the raging wind. There was something Darwinian about the mango trees in our colony: The fittest fruit survived the frenzied storms of Boishakh to mature into delightfully sweet mangoes in the scorching heat of Joishtho. But they never tasted as good as the forbidden fruit.
It was during those years of growing up in a small Singhbhum town that we learned the art of grating a seashell on a rock with a rough surface to fashion a peeler for the green mangoes we would surreptitiously collect from Mrs Chowdhury’s garden. She had a dog whom she fed Ovaltine and milk for breakfast; Badshah slept all the time and wagged his tail furiously while we stole Mrs Chowdhury’s mangoes. She would be busy dusting her house — which she kept spotlessly clean — after the storm. Even if Badshah barked, which was a rarity and I can’t recall having heard him bark even once, she wouldn’t have heard him. As soon as a Kaal Boishakhi would pass, Mrs Chowdhury would switch on her gramophone at full volume and listen to Rabindrasangeet on 78 rpm records. Her favourite was ‘Esho hey Boishakh, esho esho...”
On Kaal Boishakhi evenings, dinner would be predictable — and, I guess, they still are predictable in Bengali homes that have not traded their Bangaliana for tandoori chicken and daal makhni. It would invariably arrive on the table in the form of steaming khichuri, begun bhaja and papor bhaja. The highlight of the meal would be an omelette. On some nights, the omelette would be replaced by fried hilsa from Kolaghat. Many years later, I was invited to a dinner hosted by a professor at University of California, Berkley. He and his wife had sought to recreate the ambience of a post-Kaal Boishakhi dinner. There was ‘Esho hey Boishakh, esho esho...’ playing on his hi-fi system, curtains had been drawn to shut out the bright evening light, and there was much rustling of brocade and Banarasi silk. Instead of hilsa, they served crisply fried American shad with khichuri made with aromatic Basmati rice. The professor recalled his childhood in Birbhum, of how he would run wild in paddy fields with his friends as a Kaal Boishakhi raged. Later, he wept copiously into his tumbler of bourbon. The charms of America had obviously proved more seductive for him than the harsh climes of Birbhum.
Just as the ersatz benefits of living in Delhi stops me from going back to the land of Kaal Boishakhis where I could teach my daughters how to make peelers from seashells and they could smell the fragrance of rain-sodden earth while collecting green mangoes and chasing dragonflies in the purple light of east India’s dusk before settling down for a steaming meal of khichuri, begun bhaja and omelette, listening to the strains of ‘Esho hey Boishakh, esho esho…’ playing on a neighbour’s gramophone.

07 April, 2008

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