Saturday, November 28, 2009

first rains - 2

I don’t remember much of the fever which had gripped me for two months; I was told I was running a fever already when we came back. Measles followed mumps and a host of other things which were barely diagnosed. It was a tale I heard many times but do not remember; but I do remember a displacement once, an upheaval, and pounding panic: a paralyzing fear of loss and spaces, and the fever-maddened clamour for a familiar skin and smell to burrow in and shut my eyes and ears to the new world roaring with strange sounds and images. Perhaps, it belongs to this time; or perhaps it’s from bits of many nightmares – I have never slept easy. The parched ache for water in my throat is stilly vividly real though, much like the crumbling dust outside waiting for the delayed rains.

My fever broke the day the rains came. Ba sat at the edge of the bed feeding me something from a bowl when the outer door banged suddenly, startling us, and spilling the watery contents of the bowl on my shirt. In a single sweep, Ba rushed to gather the clothes in the washline, close the windows and the doors and unfastened the buttons of my shirt and wash and rinse it under the washbasin, and pull in a new shirt over my head. Outside, a howl arose and the windows and the door started to rattle on their fastened latches. I sniffed – my nose, reopened after days, alive to the fascinating world of smells which usually lies in the blind spot of our consciousness.

‘What’s that smell?’

‘It’s the earth. It’s calling the rains’, her eyes shown. Many years later, I would wake up from a cold again and smell her hair in the empty room, and remember this.

The pink doctor pressed against my neck and asked me if it hurt anymore. He then checked my eyes and tongue and then rose with a smile; I noticed that the cuffs of his trousers were wet. ‘Seems like he was waiting for the rains to get well’, he told papa, and they laughed. ‘He’ll grow up to be a poet.’ How wrong he was.

I was six when we came back to Lucknow, but it was not my first visit. A couple of years ago, when I was four, we had come for a month in the winters following grandfather’s death, but I have no memories of that time. Even of this homecoming, only a blur remains of its early day, wispy and fragmentary. A daze of hands wanting to lift me in their arms, an untiring gabbling stream, a relentless procession of doors opening and shutting, intimacies hurtling at me from every corner. The first day at the school – the forbiddingly massive iron gate, the brick paved courtyard of the assembly, the dank airless classroom, the dirty yellow tables and chairs, the smell of urine and even faeces everywhere, the mousy teacher who frightened the bunch of us to silence after she slapped a boy’s knuckles with a wooden scale, my partner who continued to wail, tears and running nose like two streams joining a mighty river, for many days before he mysteriously disappeared altogether. The rush of panic and tears when papa was not standing at the gate as he had promised he would, but before I could cry a hand touched my shoulder, and I turned and lifted my smiling eyes to his.

‘Why doesn’t he speak?’, Ma’am D’Souza, my teacher from second grade leans forward and asks Bua, as I look on. (I do not remember if she had already started living with us then or not, but I know that the task of attending the parents-teachers meeting was relegated to her by Badi Ma from the start.) Bua looks at me and pauses for words. ‘He’s still – adjusting.’ ‘But it’s been more than a year!’, the teacher leans forward and gesticulates exaggeratedly. It’s this vivid moment remembered inexplicably verbatim which gives me some anchor to say that it took me a long time to adjust. To Lucknow. To Windsor manor.

Windsor manor was built in the last years of the nineteenth century by an Englishman – how it came to us was never made clear; most probably, it exchanged hands with the Englishman and my grandfather’s father, or probably his father, sometimes in the thirties. The house had so utterly taken the shape of our family by the time we came that the fact of its origin was something we knew but had forgotten; to be reminded the day a couple from New Zealand tremulously knocked at the door carrying a daguerreotype: the photograph was taken from the back of the house of a low, sprawling turn-of-the-century bungalow, looking recently white-washed, with the granite courtyard dropping to an English garden in the front, complete with a saheb couple at a white round wrought-iron table and a liveried native waiting on them. I laughed when I read Preeti’s description of the couple’s complete bafflement as they walked across the portico with the mango leaves still hanging over the door from some earlier festival, the tint of the rangoli at the door steps, the fireplace invisible behind the huge potted plant, the life-size portraits of grandfather and Nehru gracing its either ends, the maze of inner rooms, picture of gods lining their walls, the kitchen courtyard where Ramdei and the others must have sat grinding the spices or separating the rice from the husks, the door, falling on its rusted hinges, which opened to the outer granite courtyard covered, I was sure, with quilts being sunned for the winter nights, and the sprawling English garden all but disappeared in the wild orchid of guava, mango, neem, papaya, pomegranate and lemon trees, and bushes and bushes of tulsi where the roses had bloomed a neat copper-brown. The contrast between the prim and starchy Raj sense of order and the commoving spicy spectacle of life could not have been bettered. Indeed, their bafflement, and I am sure, their eventual disappointment was so complete that they left the photograph with Preeti. Badi ma and chachi, with rictuses of confused politeness and yet infused with the sense of a moment, of being mapped in history, insisted that the couple wait for papa who would surely explain whatever it was; but they smiled politely and silently went away. Putting down the letter, amusement gave way to a mild surprise. Years later, long after the thick marble slabs had been laid over the rubble of the orchards and the bungalow, I would feel it again: when she would describe her own ancestral haveli – the side-entrance from the gali hidden behind the pillars, the inner courtyard, zenana, with the open pavilion and ornate arches – and I would suddenly and vividly remember the contrasting details of the Manor – the curving pot-holed driveway leading to the portico, the chandelier in the drawing room, the high ceilings, the mantelpiece in the drawing room, the closed mesh of rooms inside, the louvered windows in the older wing of the house, the sky lights, the pitched roof – and wonder why we ever forgot its Englishness. And then would I remember something Preeti wrote – about the way the couple took tentative sniffs at first in the drawing room, and when being escorted across the dining room and the inner rooms, they had briefly held a hand over their noses. They must have smelt the oil below.

The oils had been stored in the basement, I was told, for about a decade before grandfather inherited the house and the oil business went to other relatives; I imagined the basement had been built to preserve food against the summer heat. I only caught a glimpse of it when Mahadev once left the door, almost forgotten in a recess of the granary behind a heavy rusted padlock, open and Abahy and I had ventured inside. A curling flight of steps led to a mildewy cellar, wrapped in an oleaginous darkness, where I could just about make out a row of pillars extending to as far as eyes could see, an indecipherable jumble of stuff, a silhouette of an armchair on a trunk, before a sound behind us had sent us scurrying back, our hearts in our mouths.

The house had been bought to function as a sarai for the business pushing from the hills to the plains, the patriarch building a rudimentary base in the smaller outer wing of the house, while the rooms in the main wing served sometimes as trade floors but otherwise stored a horde of rope charpoys to accommodate the travellers from the village who came to sell the oil. It was only in the late forties that the family moved into the main wing, while the outer wing was restructured to house grandfather’s burgeoning library – bulging law digests standing like mute supplicants around the pit of a courthouse in rows and rows of shelves on three sides of the room. After his political career picked up, the rooms to the side of the portico and the drawing room, were converted to an extended office, where grandfather met the burgeoning stream of visitors; a small door on the side of one such room led to the inner sanctum of a wide airy verandah leading to badi ma’s puja, where some of the petitioners found in her more pragmatic and patient ear an alternative to grandfather’s strict Gandhian ones. But even after the decades of the settlement and the emptying of the oily pits of the house, the house still faintly smelled of the oil – like mildew it had eaten into the very thickness of its walls. Its faint tang had become the very breath of the house and we barely noticed it; in fact, I started noticing only when I came back in the summer months from the hostel, suddenly overwhelmed when it enveloped me at the portico – sniffing, probing and welcoming me back like many Argos at the doorstep.

Perhaps, the undefined sharpness of the tang added to the delirium of those early months, adding to the brimming fullness which so overwhelmed me. I longed for the desert, its brown silence, the assuring smallness of the flat where you could stand at the door and see the insides of all the three rooms, the tautness which enclosed and kept us together like the skin of a drop of water. Perhaps, it was the rains which brought me out of it. That first day, I suddenly realised that the sky was actually a brimming ocean, the water below – the rivers, the ponds, the puddles – chunks of it which had fallen down. I had seen water being dug out of wells in the desert village, surfacing in small puddles staining the sands with its wet darkness; here, it rained from the skies. Either we had come to a world below the arid world of the desert, a world where the water which so reluctantly surfaced in the upper world dropped so generously, like the crumbling plaster falling from the ceilings in the older rooms of the house. Or, the world had simply shifted.

And with this thought I opened my mind to this chaotic yet fantastic new world, the Manor the monolith around which it revolved.


Karan said...

Very nice. Felt like I was reading Rebecca, one of the only novels, whose red, angry/violent descriptions left an impact.

Usually (as you can guess from Johnny) I just glaze past the descriptions to the story even when I read.

Eager to read the rest,


Pankaj said...

lovely :). would love to see this series develop.

ramya sriram said...

wholesome and filling.

Tangled up in blue... said...

This was fabulous! Reminds me of something I've read before, but I cant really remember what it was.

You will write more of this, yes? :)

日月神教-任我行 said...