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Between showers and sunshine

Summer rages with heat and spews dust all over the plains of India, but in the hills it sings with the pitter-patter of rain. Three writers, who grew up in the North-East, capture the music of the season in their hometowns

Photo: Sankar Sridhar
Photo: Sankar Sridhar

Timelines, lifelines

The road is empty. There’s a wind starting up. A few drops of rain. Wind and rain—it’s always been like this—so what’s new in my hometown? I am driving to meet an uncle and at the intersection close by his house the shops are shut fast. Falling or fallen. Rain itself is something/ undoubtedly which happens in the past... Jorge Luis Borges. Now looking at this small town again I am wondering if time and memory are the same thing. There’s the past, yes; and the now-moment, about to vanish; and in between lurks my hometown, Pasighat, with a steely sky ready to throw down rain on the old place—so abandoned, forgotten, and then extraordinarily restored, vivid with rain, river, water.

Riding on the wind comes a cyclist—a gaunt man smiling at me and waving his arms like a mad dissident tilting against the sky. There goes your uncle! I know. The town is fairly swarming with uncles and solid aunts stirring big pots of rice.

“When the old lady fell, I was sitting right here," says the uncle I had come to meet. “She just fell down—right there."

I had missed her funeral. From my last visit, I remembered my aunt clutching the packet of Britannia biscuits to her chest, telling me how much she loved biscuits and milk tea. Yes, yes, you love everything, uncle had joked. Now he was remembering. “She asked me if I remembered the deal we had made."

“I don’t remember. What deal?"

“Oh, don’t pretend."

“No, I have forgotten."

“We made this deal over and over again."

“Ah, but now we are old. I can’t remember."

“Remember I said I want to die before you."

“Eh! What, you said that? When?" My uncle’s eyes twinkled. Aunt suppressed a giggle. “You are still pretending!" She exclaimed as loudly as she could.

He stared at her lying on the hospital bed looking like a frail bird.

“What are you looking at? I’m going," she said.

His hand held her wrist. Once she had been bitten by a snake, right on the hand he was holding. She had been lifting wood or cleaning rice, he couldn’t remember, but he saw himself sitting by her side again while relatives treated her with shaman spells as well as the services of a young doctor from the district hospital. How had she survived? The snake was poisonous. Ah, it was not time for her. Not yet, then. Now, what was she saying?

“Don’t be silly," she said. “I feel a pain—here," she heaved and pulled her hand away to place it on her chest. “Here... there is a pain here," she told him. “I’m glad our deal is coming through."

“What deal, eh? Hush, hush..."

She smiled. “I’ll go first. Then I can tell everyone what a good man you are!"

“Oh, what a joke, eh!" He said. Once he had been feted with an award, of all things, for being the best makbo, son-in-law, of her clan. Everyone had cheered him. Ha, ha! Those were the times. What a life!

“But now our bodies are not what they used to be, eh," she looked at him.

“No," he responded, taking her hand again. How old were they, 70, 80? He was bending over her, whispering into her ear.

“I feel a pain here," she called him abu, father of their children. Her other hand lifted up to her chest again and then she was gone.

I sat still, listening. My uncle was fiddling with a bag, pulling out a torch, a penknife, just rummaging. I wondered if the old man was hiding his sorrow. There was firelight and figures moving shadow-like in the background. Someone handed me a mug of tea. Every time I visited Pasighat, I had met the old couple here, in this extension to the concrete building where they felt safe within its bamboo walls, the creaky veranda and wooden posts. Every morning they had set out together from this house—two veterans of a bygone era heading for their fields of paddy, ginger, sugar cane. How many years had gone by performing this simple routine, and now every moment of that time was different, frayed or embellished in a long conversation between the past and now, with time but particles of remembrance rising up like this.

Outside it was still raining. There were children running with small umbrellas following the channels of water gushing through the garden. Sad, ferocious weather.

“Everything is okay," said my uncle. Yes, everything is all right. What else can anyone say about sorrow, where it resides, and how deeply we mourn.

“Don’t forget, we can talk on the phone," I said.

“Oh yes," he said. “I’ll remember. Jai Hind."

Mamang Dai

Mamang Dai is a poet, writer and journalist from Arunachal Pradesh. She won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2017 for her novel The Black Hill.

It rains all night long in Teteliguri

he room is not a study and yet it’s full of wooden bookshelves. Some have glass cases. The room is also full of farming equipment: the wooden plough carved from a mature jackfruit tree, the creels made from strips of thinly sliced bamboo and the fishing gear. Since no one sleeps in this room, there is no ceiling overhead, and the roof is high. In other rooms of this L-shaped house painted white with limestone, large, square mats, also made of bamboo, keep us warm during the winter and dry during the rainy season. It is peak summer. I am in Teteliguri—my grandmother’s village. Every summer, my parents, seeking some solitude, export me to Teteliguri from Guwahati because they can’t “control" me. Here, all I do is read in this room full of abandoned materials. I don’t need to be controlled.

We are waiting for the rains. The days are brutally hot. So hot that the buffaloes refuse to leave the mud pits at the end of the day, and restless snakes crawl out of their burrows and attack sad frogs croaking for rain. Often, the snakes also slide into the rooms in search of house mice. Once, while looking for books, I found a litter of baby mice between the hard covers of an old Assamese novel. The mother mouse had chewed away the pages to build a cosy nest between the twists and turns of the story. I took out the pink litter, spread them on the courtyard on a wooden plank, and waited for the crows.There were about 20 of them. They weren’t more than six days old since they had mild fur but were mostly hairless and hadn’t opened their eyes yet. The still suckling babies started complaining about the sun, making sounds like newly hatched chicks: pii-pii-pii! I waited patiently. “You have to hide," the young man employed to help my uncle plough the fields told me from the granary. “The crows can see you and they are scared of coming." I hid in the room full of old bookshelves and watched from the window. First, a large raven. The crows swooped in only when the raven left. I took great pleasure in the death of the mice babies—pink, like well-fed micro piglets. The newly hired worker picked up the plank and wiped the drops of hibiscus-red blood with his baniyan (vest) and grinned at me. Suddenly, we were friends.

I don’t remember the first time I saw this uninhabited room. I have been visiting this house since the year I was born. The walls are lined with bookshelves, stuffed with books that I shouldn’t read, as well as books I should read, and stacks of old magazines. After lunch, when my aunts and uncles leave for work, I spend my time here. When my father comes at the end of the summer holidays, my aunts complain to him that he complains about me for no reason, that all I do is read books, that I don’t trouble them. But I don’t go outside because it is too hot. I am waiting for rain.

My aunts know nothing. In the morning, one of my aunts checks the book I have taken out and leaves for work. She ensures I am not reading Bismoi, Prangan and Rahasya—the monthly pocket-sized magazines that print beautiful women on the covers, and scantily clad women on the last page. Between those two pictures there are forbidden stories. Erotic horror novellas where men living in strange guest houses end up having sex with the maid after she plays horny music on the cassette player; short stories that have long descriptions of breasts and buttocks of women in wet saris; gossip about the secret love affairs of Madhuri Dixit and Meenakshi Seshadri and Juhi Chawla, romance novellas where virgin lovers always meet after many twists and turns, and retelling of tales from the ancient epics where the love-making scenes of virtuous queens with their husbands are described in more detail than required.

The first rains are always spectacular. At first, the winds arrive, soothing the earth. This is followed by distant thunder, like the sound of gods growling and war drums. I watch the leaves fall from the branches and dance on the ground, the birds cawing in search of shelter, and I hear worried women summoning their ducks in nasal tones. The cowherds come running after the cows that run with tails high up in the air since they are scared of the war cries of the impending feisty first rains. We make paper boats and wait for the rain to grow stronger; it never stops before leaving large puddles. We sail paper boats. In the room without the ceiling, with just the tin roof, the sound of rain is deafening. On the days when the skies shower hail, we don’t go out to pick them up because they are so large, and the black umbrellas so delicate. I worry about tin roofs. I worry about the wooden almirahs and the books.

Monsoon is here. It rains all night long in Teteliguri. My grandmother used to say, if the rain starts on a Tuesday, it will stay for three days. But if it starts on a Saturday, it will not leave before a week.

Aruni Kashyap

Aruni Kashyap is a writer, poet and translator, born in Assam and currently based in the US. His first novel, The House With A Thousand Stories, was published in 2013.

Our waterhole

My earliest memories of summer are watery ones: waking up to the sound of rain on the rooftops, watching the stream in front of my grandfather’s house flood over, and my brother and I making several attempts at rafting on a banana plant. Grandfather had built a bridge over the stream that ran through his land and emerged lower down the hill. The stream was a good boundary marker favoured by the locals. After a heavy shower, we children would gather in a group and stand on the bridge to watch the steady trickle of the small stream transformed into a mighty body of water swirling and rushing below the bridge at full speed. “Children, don’t go on the bridge! You’ll fall into the water!" Grandmother would shout. And we would always disobey.

Summertime was also when rainwater filled up the waterhole. Oh yes, we had a waterhole. It was an unkempt pond on my father’s land. A grove of plantains hid it from prying eyes on the road, and the wire fencing kept it sufficiently private. Shrubs, creepers and nettles grew wild at the edge of the pond where our land boundary ended. Once in a while, Father got his men to drain the pond and clean it, but we never used the water for anything. In the 1960s, the population of Kohima was limited; the government water supply was excellent and we didn’t need any other water sources. Father and Mother sometimes talked about keeping fish in the pond. But they never got around to it.

The pond was not deep enough to dive in. It reached up to my neck in the middle, supposedly the deepest part. Father had planted young weeping willows on the far bank and the willows constantly shed their leaves into the water. In the morning, the clear surface reflected the sky, the willows and the electric poles on the road above. It always looked inviting but the moment someone waded in, it would instantly turn murky. Nevertheless, we could not resist the joy of cavorting in a pond in our own backyard.

Mother repeatedly warned me and my brother away from the pond. “You two are not to go in that dirty water! When the men cleaned it, they found glass and sharp stones. It’s very dangerous, you could cut yourselves!" Well, of course, my brother and I became experts at sneaking off to the pond when we were left in the house on our own. We had heard it was possible to float a banana tree and use it as a raft. There was a plantain someone had conveniently cut down that we could experiment with. But staying atop the trunk was no mean feat. I sank every time I climbed aboard. My brother had so far managed to get from one side of the pond to the other, and that made me vastly jealous and even more determined to succeed.

We kept sneaking down to the waterhole and Mother caught us every time. If she was unsuspecting, the maid would snitch on us. Mother’s threats grew worse and worse.

You are going to pick up malaria from the mosquito bites.

That water is so dirty it will give you tuberculosis and leprosy.

Your father said there are small snakes in the water.

It was all to no avail. Until that fateful day! There I was wading in the water when my foot twisted on a stone and I fell backwards. My elbow landed on something sharp and I tried not to scream. I righted my foot, scrambled out of the water and called out, “I’m hurt!" My brother took one look at me and his mouth fell wide open. “Your whole arm is bleeding!" he shouted. What had I fallen on? Was it the snakes that had bit me or the glass that had cut me? Whatever it was, the pain was piercing.

This time there was no way we could hide our escapade from Mother. We ran home and displayed my injuries, hoping that the fact that I was in so much pain would save us from a scolding (it didn’t). There were small cuts all along my left arm. They picked out the glass bits and cleaned the cuts with Dettol while I moaned through it all. My brother and I never used the pond again after that mishap. I still have the scars from the incident.

Father cleaned the pond again, and after some years went by, it was filled up, and we now have a tube well in its place. Every year when the water overflows, I get to tell this story to the neighbourhood children.

And with each telling, the pond grows larger and larger.

Easterine Kire

Easterine Kire, who hails from Nagaland, is an award-winning author of several books, most recently of the novel Don’t Run, My Love.

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