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The First Rain
A Short Story
Ratan Lal Basu
I looked expectantly at the lump of nimbus gathering in the north-western sky and observed below the hazy silhouette of hills and further below the dark line of forest arching majestically the vast undulating field dotted with scatters of straw cottages, bamboo groves and clusters of trees. The setting sun was now peeping bashfully through the translucent lining at the lower end of the pitch-dark bulk of the cloud that looked like a gigantic serpent waiting viciously for its prey. The scattered sun rays had tinged orange on the multi-shaped cirrus floating away as though fleeing in fear of the monster hanging above motionless. My eyes brightened momentarily with hope although I felt at heart that it was the same false hope of the first rain tempting me every afternoon for the last few days and I knew well that soon a strong wind would drive away the nimbus leaving me alone with utter hollowness under a clear sky and mocking stars and the moon.
To the east, the institution with its majestic buildings, adorned with exquisite lines of pines, jaruls, cryptomarius, sals, teaks and magnolias, now looked like an antique castle. The trees inside the campus were watered with deep tube wells making a striking contrast of healthiness to the famished paddy fields outside like the magnificent Indian cities encircled by despicable slums. The owners had revealed excellent business foresight by establishing this institution, offering engineering and management courses, at this rural milieu by the highroad, midway between the towns of Jalpaiguri and Siliguri. Bus transportation being easy and frequent it was now attracting plenty of students from both these towns and rural and semi-urban areas in between. Two majestic hostels, one for the girls and the other for the boys, had enabled students from Darjeeling, Sikkim and Bhutan, Coochbehar, Maldah and even Kolkata to join this institution of high academic standards. The institution amidst shabby rural ambience had now become a perfect epitome of the world with majestic cities juxtaposed with despicable slums, and prosperous countries with famine ridden neighbors.
I turned my vision again toward the field languishing with moribund crops and the grass on the muddy raised partitions of plots all turned yellow as though infected with malignant jaundice. It was the second week of June and rains had been denied since the last spell of monsoon in October. April and May had come and departed with their usual cyclonic spells but scanty rain. Environmentalists had ascribed this hazard to eco-damaging human inadvertence and the rural people had started worshipping gods, apparitions and spooks presuming the mishap to be the outcome of curses and displeasures of these celestial entities. My expectant eyes were drawn again to the nimbus and I started consoling my mind that it was different from the earlier ones and it would rain for sure that night and then again the moroseness engulfed my heart.
This vast field, bordered on the north-western side by the highway and spreading to the south-east beyond the border into the Panchagarh and Dinajpur districts of Bangladesh was used to be irrigated by innumerable trans-border rivers and water courses with origins in glaciers high up in the Himalayan ranges in Sikkim and Darjeeling ensuring flow of water all through the year that had made the cultivators of both the countries free from dependence on rain water. The plantation craze to convert paddy and jute fields on the upper courses of the rivers into small tea gardens radically changed the situation. The major rivers were blocked with barrages and most of the water was diverted into canals irrigating the tea groves and the rest of water through Maldah canal to irrigate scantily rained areas in the districts of Maldah and the Indian part of the Dinajpur district and soon the rivers at the lower courses dried up depriving cultivators in Bangladesh and border region of North Bengal where soil was not fit for tea plantation.
The poor peasants in this region were incapable of affording tube-well irrigation and they had to fall back on the mercy of the rain god and fortunately till the last year the god had provided adequate rains facilitating continuation of paddy cultivation. Now the god had turned away its face. The god too seemed to be rich-friendly and poor-averse as they had unleashed the curse on the poor cultivators for the eco-damaging mischief of the rich.
I started traipsing along the narrow raised partition of the paddy plots toward the south-eastern corner where the river had taken a distinct U-turn and flown gently down across the border into Tentulia of Bangladesh and the barbed wires marking the international border were distinctly visible. The gentle breeze made the summer heat tolerable now and I paced down leisurely being absorbed in the hesitant expectation of the first monsoon rain that would not only moderate the unendurable summer heat but also rejuvenate the jaundiced crops of the fields. I picked out the camera from my side bag and started taking snaps of the moribund crops and cobweb like cracks on the dried plots. These along with the other snaps I had already taken since my arrival here would enrich my article on the effect of indiscriminate diversion of water of the major rivers around here to the Maldah canal. This had been the basic cause of Indo-Bangladesh dispute over trans-country water resources. The Mumbai-based journal I had been working with took serious interest in the matter and I was entrusted with the task of making a thorough survey of the real situation in the region. I had at first checked in at a good hotel at Siliguri but shifted later on to my bachelor friend’s quarter at the North Bengal Institute of Technology and Management situated at a place that would offer me proximity to the actual spot of my survey.
I approached near the river bank and was amazed to hear a stentorian female voice declaiming some poem, seemed to be of Rilke. She was leaning on an emaciated tree on the bank of the river and her tousled long and thick hair was fluttering in the gentle breeze. I at once recognized her, ‘the crazy girl’. An inexplicable joyous feeling coursed through me.
Rustles of dried leaves made by my foot steps gave her a start and she stopped reciting and looked back and was immensely elated to see me.
‘Oh it must be telepathy, I was thinking of you all through and you’re here now. Where had you been for the last few days?’
She seemed to have little interest in my reply to her query and I was flummoxed and got affixed to the spot as she suddenly stood up, rushed toward me and catching hold my shoulders hard tried frantically to reach for my lips. Sudden reflex prompted me to shove her aside forcefully and in an extremely harsh tone I admonished her,
‘What the hell are you doing, you shameless crazy girl!’
She now came to senses and said apologetically,
‘Believe me I have not done it intentionally, I like you so much and discovering you here I simply lost my head.’
‘Do you know I’m thirty plus and you’re barely eighteen?’
‘I like you anyway, but what a horrible thing I was going to do!’
She blushed and closed her eyes in utter embarrassment.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I happened to come upon this girl only a few days ago. Alok, my friend, was busy taking classes and being utterly bored reading books and watching trashy T.V. serials I had come out into the porch and traipsed along the tarmac path, lined on both sides with flower bushes and exquisitely designed cypresses, to the café of the institute. Multicolored polythene chairs were laid under chhatim trees, the bushy tops cut neatly into the shape of vast umbrellas, in front of the café and all the chairs but one were empty. I got seated on a chair and looked sideways at the other occupant at the extreme corner, a smart looking beautiful teenager dressed in black jeans and checkered top, the vast chignon knotted tight with butterfly-shaped white clips and she seemed to be engrossed in a book looking like the paperback edition of some English novel.
I ordered a cup of strong black coffee without sugar. The girl looked up and turning her eyes toward me exclaimed, ‘You too prefer raw coffee like me,’ and my vision got transfixed on her enchanting countenance with large luminous eyes, sharp chin, aquiline nose and large earrings. She closed the book, got up and to my utter surprise trotted over to me and dropped on the chair right beside me. She giggled to watch my puzzled countenance and uttered in an ecstatic tone, ‘I know you sir, but you don’t know me, how funny!’ She now started laughing loudly. I got alerted as she seemed like the cheap girls of questionable morality. I asked gravely, ‘How come you know me? I don’t reside here.’
She stopped laughing and said in a serious tone, ‘Yes I know it. You’re a journalist from Mumbai, aren’t you? I have seen you talking with A.M sir and overheard your conversation with A.M. in the park.’
‘I think eavesdropping is an unpardonable offence.’
‘I’m not in that habit sir, I’m really sorry,’ she fumbled and looked embarrassed. ‘I was just passing by and your description of the rivers, forests, flora and fauna of this place was so enchanting that I could not resist temptation to listen to your discourses.’
I was now convinced that my apprehensions about her designs was quite unjustified and asked casually, ‘you too are fond of nature I suppose.’
‘Certainly. I love nature from my very childhood.’ Her eyes brightened up and the candid looks made me reassured about her harmlessness.
She continued, ‘you’ve added a new dimension to my power of vision and henceforth everything around this place would appear with differently significance to me. How long are you staying here, by the way?’
‘Only ten days more, enough to complete the assigned task, but from the standpoint of quest of knowledge, I would have to remain dissatisfied, especially in connection with the origins of rivers like Chaowai, Talma and Karala deep inside the forest. I’m afraid I would never have any opportunity to visit this place again and meet my unfulfilled desires.’
‘I may help you if you like.’
She said enthusiastically, ‘I would undertake to discover the origins of the rivers and report along with photographs to you by e-mail. It would indeed be a good adventure and I’m frightfully fond of adventures.’
‘I think you are attached with some student adventure team?’
She laughed out gently, ‘No body except me is interested in adventures here. They are all out and out careerists, cannot think of anything other than good jobs and money.’
‘I don’t think it would be possible for you alone to undertake so much hazard to find out the origins of these rivers. Do you know it’s extremely risky?’
‘Can’t you trust my courage and guts sir?’
She looked hurt and to console her I said, ‘O.K. I’ll give you my e-mail ID.’
She looked satisfied now. Although I knew fully well that the momentary enthusiasm would soon pass off and she would never send any report of her adventure as it would never happen. I had to struggle hard to suppress laughter and to divert away from the topic I asked, ‘which book were you reading?’
‘Poems of Rilke, my most favorite poet. Have you read him?’
‘Only some of his poems.’
‘Is not he great?’
‘Samir what are you doing here?’ Loud voice of Alok startled me and our conversation was interrupted abruptly. He rushed over to us and looking at the girl said in a polite tone, ‘I’m sorry Susmita for intrusion, but I’m to show my friend a very interesting thing. You may talk later on.’
He pulled at my hand, paid my coffee bill ignoring the burning eyes of the girl and after walking over to an inaudible distance from the girl said laughing, ‘I displayed this acting simply to rescue you from this crazy girl.’
‘Crazy girl? I don’t understand.’
‘Susmita is no doubt one of the most attractive girls but she’s extremely proud and crazy too.’
‘Is she mentally unbalanced?’
‘I in fact did not mean that. She’s a brilliant student, a good singer and an excellent classical dancer and she writes good fictions too. She’ is the lone issue of a rich owner of food processing factories at Maldah and various other places. She’s whimsical, at times dresses gorgeously and occasionally she’s also extremely careless about dresses, she’s intrepid and walks alone in the lonely fields and even inside the forest and above all she’s extremely proud, does not like friendship with the girls and hates morbidly the male folks. Many students, even some professors had fallen in love with her and were miserably humiliated as soon as they attempted to be intimate with her. I’m afraid you may fall in love with the girl and meet with the same fate.’
I was extremely surprised to hear this account of the girl which could hardly be substantiated by my own experience and I said in a protesting voice.
‘But it’s she who initiated the conversation today and she seemed extremely polite, simple and friendly all through and she never appeared to be like one you’ve just described.’
‘I think it’s her new game and before long you’d discover her true nature. So look out and don’t be carried away,’
I did not reply Alok and had to suppress anger with painstaking efforts and it dawned on me that Alok himself could have been one of the victims and therefore hated the girl.
Alok fell asleep in time that night but I could not sleep for a long time and the thought of the girl started assailing me. I tried hard but could not drive her out of my mind. Beautiful girls from rich families are proud and snobbish by nature but this girl hardly gave any such impression, she was so cordial, simple and friendly and there was no trace of flirting and game playing in her behavior. Yes she might be whimsical and her enigmatic behavior too was not unnatural for a girl of her age.
Next morning I woke up late and found that my cigarettes were almost exhausted. My choicest brand was not available at the local stalls and so I decided to buy some from Siliguri. I was waiting for the next bus and an inexplicable sense of elation coursed through me as I heard the sweet voice, ‘hello sir, what are you doing standing alone by the road side?’ She started giggling frantically and raced over to me. She looked like a morning rose and there was hardly any trace of pride and snobbery.
I could not repress the spontaneous joyous feeling and replied in a soft tone, ‘waiting for the Siliguri bus, I’m to buy cigarettes of my choicest brand.’
‘Oh. I’ll also accompany you and show you beautiful sights you’d like for sure.’
I got horribly irritated and panicked too but felt helplessly that it would be impossible to prevent this fluky girl from accompanying me and spoiling the journey. My apprehensions, however, were dispelled in course of conversations with her in the bus and at Siliguri and I could not but be grateful to her for accompanying me to the northern part of Siliguri with the picturesque hotels fronted by congested stalls, travel offices, awkwardly parked vehicles with the backdrop of the majestic Himalyan ranges of Darjeeling and Sikkim. We had our lunch at a posh restaurant and we gossiped on various topics and I was astounded at her variegated interests and range and depth of knowledge. My curiosity about this enigmatic girl went on increasing in course of our conversation and I at last asked, ‘you’re so jovial and friendly, you’ve plenty of good friends here I suppose.’
‘Not a single one,’ she scowled and smiled sadly.
‘Why? Don’t they like you?’
‘I care a fig if they like me or not. I myself simply dislike them.’
‘Why?’ I was really confused now.
‘They are too practical, nothing but materialistic robots. They cannot dream for a single moment and I don’t know how a human being could live without dreams.’
I smiled affectionately and said, ‘you seem to be fond of dreaming.’
‘Very much,’ her eyes brightened, ‘in fact I like much to live in the dreamland.’
‘But how could you live ignoring the real material world?’
‘Material living and dream both are real and I never disregard the mundane reality notwithstanding my dreams.’
I ignored the rest of her silly talks and in bed at night I felt Alok was at least partially right. She’s an extremely quirky girl and problematic in this sense and for the next few days I did my best to avoid meeting this girl. But suddenly someone within me queried, ‘aren’t you too crazy?’ And in a moments torrents of nostalgic imageries started assailing me.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
During my adolescence, young girls used to appear to me as creatures of an unknown mysterious land. This was haply due to my upbringing in a rural conservative family of Midnapore district and my congenital shy and introvert nature. I, however, frankly admit that during my adolescence, girls of neighboring houses and ones I came across occasionally at various places, raised within me some queer feeling, some inexplicable sense of charm; the enchanting features that made me, very secretly, feel an irresistible longing to have communication with them, to explore the unknown world of those uncanny creatures. But I failed miserably every time I attempted to make my secret longings come to fruition. Even if some of them took initiative on their own, they ultimately had to be utterly disappointed because of my inbuilt shy and shaky nature, which was generally misinterpreted as loathsome pride. The order of things changed very little even after I got admitted to the most sophisticated college of the great city of Calcutta.
As I got rid of initial shyness, some girls belonging to our class approached me simply for friendship, and to my own surprise, I could freely talk with them and did not hesitate to gossip in groups, containing both male and female batch mates, in the coffee house. My notion about their uncanny charm started wearing off as soon as I got accustomed to the company of the girls. Thus the acquaintances with the erstwhile uncanny creatures remained casual as all the girls I came upon appeared drab and unattractive having no semblance with the marvelous creature of my mysterious dreamland I had been visualizing since my very adolescence.
But soon the things changed. She was a south Indian girl, swarthy complexioned and features quite dissimilar to the Bengali girls I had come across so far. She was all the more unique for her peculiar way of speaking English with distinct Malayalam accent – as I could not speak Malayalam and she Bengali, the only communication medium was English. Notwithstanding her complexion, her physical features, particularly her eyes, made her extremely attractive. I had been promoted to the second year when she got admitted to our subject as a first year student. The first encounter was accidental and very brief. I was then reading some book in the library. She suddenly stood up and came over to me and asked casually if I could suggest any text book for the beginners for the first paper. I immediately wrote down a few references on the subject and she left for the catalog stand. The slim figure disappeared between the clusters of almirahs, but I was nonplussed as if by sudden exposure to high voltage current. I could not concentrate on the book I had been reading, but did not have the courage to approach her and help her in finding the appropriate catalogues. I did not see her for about a week but her memory lingered like something glued irremovably to my entity. Then gradually the memory started fading off.
But the miraculous happened after a few days. About a week after my first encounter I had just stepped out of the college and was looking friends to gossip with at the coffee house. My gaze suddenly fell on her standing outside the college gate and she greeted me with a sweet smile to acknowledge recognition. Then she beckoned me and coming close by asked forthrightly, ‘like to have some coffee?’ In a moment my heart bit became uncontainable sending me to the seventh heaven and I became speechless for a few moments. Gathering myself after a while I replied in a choked tone, ‘I would be glad to’. She smiled affably, “O.K., help me find some second hand book first. I cannot speak Bengali or Hindi and the stall owners do not speak English”. She was looking for a book by J. S. Mill. It was found at the sixth stall we tried. After long bargaining we settled down to a reasonable price and I asked the stall boy to check up the book and pack it. As soon as he dragged the book out of the shabby rack, the girl shrieked and bumped on me, the touch of her soft boobs on my chest sending tremors through my spine. ‘What happened?’ I asked after regaining composure. She replied still gasping, ‘oh the nasty cockroach, it’s gone now.’ The stall owner had already crushed the innocent insect by his sandal.
On our way to the coffee house she apologized, ‘sorry, I could not help it, don’t mind’. Suppressing the turmoil within me I replied jokingly, ‘why should I? Contrarily I feel immensely grateful to the insect as it presented me the heavenly moment’.
‘Oh naughty boy you look so innocent!’
The company of the girl gave me real thrill but only for a few months. She soon started revealing her drabness like all other girls I had got acquainted with earlier. I had later on friendship with a few more girls but disappointed again and again and eventually got down to the conviction that all real girls are mechanistic and drab and the girl I had been cherishing was but the creation of my wild imagination.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
A few months ago my elder sister had insisted me for marriage as it was high time according to her and my aged parents were desirous of seeing me established in life according to their aspirations. I instantly agreed, said that I had no girl of my own choice and I’ll marry the girl she would select for me. I thought marriage has nothing to do with romantic love; it’s but a practical relation based on mutual respect, friendship and fellow feeling and necessary for some biological and other practical needs and in this regard my sister with her age and experience would be a better judge than me. Soon my sister showed me the picture of good looking girl, gave a lengthy description of her qualities and asked if I could afford time to have frank talks with her at any appointed place. I selected Calcutta Coffee House and the girl and their parents consented about the venue. I assured them that I would fix a date of mutual convenience right after my return from the North-Bengal tour.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I returned from the past and looked straight at Susmita who had now started fumbling for words to express apology and I was amazed to watch her awkward countenance out of embarrassment, and could barely manage to suppress laughter at her stammering and disjointed sentences. All of a sudden the onslaught of lightning that slashed the sky from end to end blinded our eyes and the horrible rumble that followed startled both of us. Clearing my eyes I peered at her in the semi darkness caused by the vast cloud invading half of the western sky and found her clutching hard at the tree and trembling in terror. She blushed to discover me watching her helplessness, steadied herself and said with a smirk ‘Sorry’.
Suddenly a strong wind showered us with barrages of dust, dead leave and tattered twigs. She turned ecstatic and lively again. I could not join her ecstasy as my heart sank to realize that this wind would soon sweep away the rain cloud but my moroseness perished as soon as the coolness of heavy drops of rain assailed my cheeks mercilessly. The girl now started dancing frantically and reciting from Rilke:
“Again and again, however we know the landscape of love
And the little churchyard there, with its sorrowing name
And the frighteningly silent abyss into which the others
Fall; again and again the two of us walk out together
Under the ancient trees, lie down again and again
Among the flowers, face to face with the sky”
Her voice became almost inaudible owing to the frenzy of rain and wind and relentless rumbling overhead. She was now undaunted and looked like a mythical goddess displaying her cosmic dance. I was amazed to discover myself dancing frantically with her. We then started running aimlessly along the riverbank and we had to stop for breath after a while. The rain went on with increasing intensity with the accompanying vehemence of lightning and the blood chilling rumbling of thunder. I took hold of her hands and felt the tremors. The four luminous eyes met and torrents of bliss sprang up from the depth of our hearts. Time got dissolved into eternity and we got lost in the downpour, the First Monsoon Rain.
Ratan Lal Basu, Ph.D. (Economics) is an ex-Reader in Economics and Teacher-in-Charge, Bhairab Ganguly College, Kolkata, India. Dr. Basu has written & edited several books on Economics.
Apart from his passion for the field of Economics, Dr. Basu's other interests are Boxing & Small Game Hunting (gave up the nasty games during college life); Swimming in Turbulent Rivers (physically impossible now); Himalayan Treks, Adventure in Dense Forests, Singing Tagore Songs and also writing travelogues and fiction in Bengali and English.
Dr. Ratan Lal Basu can be reached at rlbasu [at] rediffmail.com.