Are you staging the celebration of the rains here today? We used to have that when we were young too. Do you know what we used to do? We played on palm leaf flutes that we bought at the Chariot festival during the rains and we pulled on tin chariots carrying earthen statues of the god Jagannath; the wheels would make jangling sounds, like sitars and anklets playing together. We would watch the skies descend in torrents of rain, every now and then the sunlight decking the cloud filtered light in orange hues – how beautiful it looked! Let me tell you about the rains of my childhood.
It started raining from the evening, how it rained and blew! The three storey house at Jorashanko seemed to shake with the force of the wind, the ceiling leaking and dripping water in every bedroom. The maids lit lamps only to have them almost immediately go out in the wind. They rolled up the bedding and carried us in their laps to the dance hall on the second floor. Father, mother, aunts, uncles, servants, maids and children; all crowded into one room. At one corner my maid, Padma Dashi sits, crunching fried peas with me on her lap. She gives me a couple occasionally and tries to put me to sleep with soft lullabies – ghumta ghumay, come sleep, come. She pats my cheek as she moves her legs to the beat of her own song.
The wind outside raises a howling noise – sometimes the huge doors in the big rooms move. The stormy night passes in intermittent sleep and wakefulness. The crows do not call in the morning, the sky does not clear. There are no fish in the fishmongers’ markets nor has the pan grower brought any pan leaves to sell. The barber Shashi comes to report that the roads are waist deep in water.
‘What is cooking, Diba Thakur?’ ‘A mix of rice boiled with vegetables – khichuri,’ he answers as he walks away towards the kitchen swinging his ladle. Since the horses could not break through the mud, the head babus of the banks are going about their business by bullock cart huddled under toadstool umbrellas. Fish are escaping from the overflowing pond in the Singhi house and local people catch them for food. As soon as Hiru the cleaner came and told us this story, Bipne the servant went out in a small dinghy to wander the lanes of the city. We float paper boats – around the trees and about the submerged circular area in the garden, down the currents until they get stuck between the iron bars at the entrance gate and finally set anchor in the floating bits of hay and mud.
Ishwardada comes limping, his stick tap-tapping to the Bhindikhana, shouting ‘Bishweshwar!’ ‘Coming’ – replies Bishweshwar, giving him a hookah upon which he says, ‘seven days of rain if it starts on Saurday, three days for Tuesday, all the rest are a day’s worth of rain,’ and raises bubbling sounds on the hookah, chup, chup, chhup, chhup, jhupur jhup. Those days when the rain came, I saw it wreck both the straw roofs and the tiled ones. The food used to be khichuri made with dal. The markets would flood as soon as it got cloudy, the fish would swim into the courtyards of the kitchens. As they played freely they would end up caught and then fried without knowing what had happened.
Holes in the roof, boiled rice
Fry the fish.
It rained for seven days and seven nights. Fried peas, fried lentils, wet umbrellas. Wherever you looked there would be wet clothes curtaining the way, moving in the breeze. We played under them all day. Bull frogs start their music in the evenings; all the mosquitoes of the kingdom enter the room and dance around the nets. Maids, servants, superintendents all cover their heads with golpata leaves – there were no sola hats or waterproof rain coats in those days but there was song and story telling, in the company of brothers and masters and so many other fun activities. The hookahs used to sound like frogs from Persia croaking.
Now I see little boys go to school whooping with excitement as they clutch their textbooks, exercise books and cushions to themselves with both hands. What fun they have! If I had gone to a school like that when I was young, I too might have learnt a bit of the things needed. Normal School was close to the house but that was little help. I never went to school of my own will. I ran about and hid, complaining of stomach aches one day and headaches the next – there was no respite try as I might. The carriage that took me to school came to the gate. I screamed and cried, ‘I will not go, never!’ The servants would pack me into the carriage at any cost. I would think it would have been better if the wheels had run over my chest. There would be a struggle, all in vain, for how was a little boy supposed to win against them? Some days my youngest aunt, seeing my tears, would feel sorry for me and say, ‘Gunu, what harm in Aba not going to school today?’ She would say to Ramlal, ‘Let him be, he does not have to go today.’ Some days I would have a break thanks to her. But most days the servants would hold me with both hands, push me into the carriage and lock the door. It starts to move, I sit captive and unable to fight back, in silence after drying my eyes. I do not like school at all. I only like one room in the whole school where in a glass cabinet there is a toy ship and a couple of shells of different shapes. I spend a lot of time sitting in front looking at them. Do you know that I was initiated into drawing there, at the Normal School? I never learnt any other skills but luckily I learnt that one. That is why I am able to keep you all happy even now with a few pictures. Or else I would never have been of any use to anyone else. Now listen to the story of that initiation.
One earthenware water jug, one glass of the same material, these were the things I drew as part of my initiation. As I said, I was at the Normal School, not studying really but going there as a matter of routine. Next to us was a senior class, I would sit next to the window to that class. The teacher would mix bottles of red and blue liquids; the red became blue, the blue became red, sometimes red and blue would both disappear while a pale liquid would remain in the bottle. I would watch, greatly entertained. After chemistry it was the turn of the drawing master Satkoribabu. He would hang a thick sheet of paper with large drawings of an earthen jug and a glass from the blackboard, asking the boys to, ‘look at them and copy the drawings.’ The boys would draw that in their own books. The master would wander about the room looking at each. One of the boys in the class was Bhulu who lived in the next lane. We travelled to and from school together. I begged him, ‘Please show me how you draw a jug and a glass!’ When I learned how to draw from him I was very pleased indeed. Whenever I had the chance I would draw the jug and the glass. It was great fun to draw the line around the mouth of the jug. My mind would want to jump into the jug just like a frog living in a well. And that boat, I wanted to captain it across the seven seas and beyond the thirteen rivers. What a toy it was – with a mast and sails, ropes, every detail was like a real boat.
As one can see, he progressed far beyond that first jug and glass! The above is an oil painting by Abanindranath Thakur titled ‘Hunting On The Wular’