The smell of the first drops of rain on parched earth. Summer holidays in Calcutta. My earliest memories seem to be woven around that divine smell. Of Nor’westers.
The sudden ominous dark clouds after days of relentless heat and spotless blue skies. The thunder and finally the downpour. Someone somewhere would call out, ‘the clothes, the clothes. They are almost dry!’
We would rush to the verandah to imbibe the smell and the sound of pouring rain. Sometimes sit by the window, with our faces against the cool wet wind. Reading, or playing snakes and ladders. Or biting into a rock-hard guava with a pinch of black salt.
The mango tree in the garden would shed many half ripe mangoes. And that always meant the deliciously sweet mango chutney with lunch the next day.
My mother’s childhood home. The soft clanking sound of my grandmother’s knitting needles.
‘How do you do this? Doesn’t touching the wool feel uncomfortably hot?’ I would ask.
‘It does. But how else will I have the sweater ready on time?’ she would say as she squinted her eyes at the much-used Mary Thomas’ Book of Knitting.
All grandchildren would have something new to wear in the winter. Every year. Some with intricate knitted patterns, all in dazzlingly bright colours.
The smell of the fish curry would drift in from upstairs. Someone was in the kitchen, conjuring up the magical four course meals.
It had been raining since early afternoon. I knew it would only be an hour before the roads went under water. I was getting ready to find some paper to make boats.
‘Don’t take more than two pages,’ Didi said sternly as she handed me her notebook. Her holiday homework would always be done within the first two days. Mine was usually left for the last two. Right now my notebooks were perhaps somewhere in the unpacked suitcase.
‘Don’t worry,’ I said. Of course, I was going to take more than two.
‘Can you put something cool on my ears? They are getting hot again. Perhaps the geometry box?’ Bhutda said suddenly. He had been sleeping.
‘No. I need to make my paper boats. I am going to make five today,’ I said.
‘Five? Don’t take more than two pages, I am warning you again,’ Didi looked up from her equations. I didn’t reply.
‘If you put the geometry box on my ears, I will give you more paper,’ Bhutda spoke again. ‘And then we can all go for dosas for dinner tomorrow,’ he added.
‘At Prema Vilas?’ Fulu asked.
Prema Vilas was near Lake Market. That’s where all the South Indians lived. When we were children, the big crisp masala dosas at Prema Vilas were perhaps the only things we ate out. Chicken noodles at Peiping on Park Street, sometimes.
‘You need to massage my head if you want that,’ Bhutda looked at Fulu.
‘Perhaps I can pull your hair instead,’ she retorted.
It rained the whole night. Fulu and I had volunteered to sleep in the little room on the terrace. We locked all doors with precision, except the little window that opened onto the water tank.
It must have been about midnight, we were still awake. I was reading Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, Fulu perhaps something more intellectual. There was a loud thud, punctuating the falling raindrops. As if somebody had jumped on to the water tank.
‘What do you think that was?’ Fulu looked up from her book.
I was sitting motionless and obviously speechless.
‘What should we do?’ she asked again. There was another rustling sound. Someone was walking all over the tank, barefoot.
Finally, I forced myself to look at the window. In my mind I was sure I would see a deathly face peering at us through the opening. Instead, there was just darkness.
‘Cover the window with the blanket,’ I whispered.
Fulu hurled the blanket at the window. Somehow the two panes caught on to it. Whoever it was couldn’t see inside anymore. Strangely, we had felt safe.
I looked out at the spotless blue sky. It never rains here in the summer. There is a mango tree. If a mango falls, I give it to the little boy who sweeps the garden.
There is always something missing in the smell from the kitchen. It’s as if I have forgotten to add the most important ingredient. There is no knitting, no new sweaters or mufflers every winter.
There are countless sheets of paper, but no intention of making paper boats. There is no unwanted homework to finish. No conversations. No room on the terrace.
I was somewhere else. Years later. I was no more a child.
The next day Bhutda kept his promise. It wasn’t easy to convince my grandmother.
‘Home food is the best. Don’t waste money. Also it might rain and it will be dark,’ she scolded.
‘It’s just one meal. We will be back before you even realise we are gone,’ Bhutda reasoned.
The dark clouds were only threatening when we reached Prema Vilas. It had been difficult to get a taxi so we had walked up to Lansdowne Road. Near Shishu Mangal Hospital, where all of four of us had first seen the light of day.
Prema Vilas was not a fancy restaurant by any standards. But that day the excitement was all about eating out, without a grown up.
The waiters spoke in their own language. One of them handed out the turmeric stained menu card. Just one per table, he gestured as he raised one of his forefingers.
The dosas, served with sambhar in clanking steel bowls and white coconut chutney, had been as delicious as ever. I had the one with the red paste inside. The thrill of the burning spice was part of the experience.
At the manager’s counter was a little steel bowl of fennel seeds with little cubes of sugar. I always looked forward to the cubes of sugar. I picked them out and wanted to save them for later.
‘Tie them in your handkerchief. They will stay safe, even tomorrow,’ Bhutda suggested.
While we were inside, the heavens had broken loose. The water was up to our ankles as we stepped outside. Within minutes it was up to our knees. There were no buses, no taxis, no trams, no rickshaws. We decided to walk.
‘Everyone must already be very worried,’ Bhutda said. ‘We really need to hurry or this might be the last time we are allowed to do this.’
Rain was streaming down Didi’s glasses. She grabbed on to Bhutda’s shirt from behind. Fulu and I held on to his hands.
The water was now almost up to our waists. One of Fulu’s shoes had fallen off.
We were scared, tired and completely drenched when we reached home. My handkerchief with the precious cubes of sugar had been washed away somewhere. I cried for days.
My daughter’s childhood home.
‘Ma, we need to buy new umbrellas. Remember two of them overturned because of the strong winds yesterday?’ Brinda said one day.
Her older brother Arjun snorted, ‘It was because you went near the sea in the heaviest of downpours.’
‘You keep quiet! It was as if the sea was raging with anger, Ma. Then suddenly it rose and drenched me thoroughly. The wind must have felt left out because it rammed into our umbrellas. And that was it,’ she giggled.
‘She has been taking all the good printer paper to make boats. Please tell her not to,’ Arjun said.
‘I took only two. Then you put them away somewhere,’ Brinda made a face.
‘Okay, if you bring me a glass of water, I will give you one more,’ he said with a smile.
There was huge commotion outside. Brinda ran to the window with a shriek of excitement. A new set of Govindas had arrived to try and break the dahi handi in the lane. After every failed attempt, they put the handi a bit lower.
‘Do you think they will manage to reach it,’ Brinda whispered.
‘No chance,’ Arjun whispered back. ‘If I was one of them, they might have,’ he added.
With water running down their faces, the Govindas balanced on each other’s shoulders. The little boy climbed right to the top, his head guarded with a flimsy helmet. By this time, Brinda’s eyes were tightly shut.
‘Scaredy cat!’ Arjun teased her. ‘Look, he has broken the handi!’
Brinda let out the breath she was holding and peeped through one eye. The boy was still climbing.
‘You liar!’ she screeched.
She watched the boy through one half-opened eye. He was precariously balanced on the trembling shoulders of the two men beneath him. Soon he had reached the top, breaking the handi with the stone in his right hand. The dahi poured out on to his head, amidst cries of joy and beating of the drums.
The house filled with loud cheer and laughter. ‘They made it!’ shouted Brinda.
‘What is that smell coming from the kitchen?’ Arjun asked.
‘Lata Aunty is making fish curry,’ I smiled.
‘No! Not again,’ they cried together.
‘Can we go out for dosas? I want to bring back those little sugar cubes.’
‘Are you going to tie them up in your handkerchief?’ Arjun rolled his eyes.
It was still raining.