The Vanishing Clouds
The Vanishing Clouds
The old state transport corporation bus deposited me safely under a tamarind tree and slowly advanced the rugged road amidst dust and its own copious black smoke, like an enervated late factory worker. A couple of children playing on a nearby hilltop to my left waved cheerfully at the passengers. The sun, sitting above the mountain range as if propelled from between the folds, was shining brightly and cruelly upon the parched valley to my right. I dusted my shirt and tried to pull myself together after a tiring journey from the township in a shaky bus through broken and stony roads.
The voluminous tamarind tree by the bus stop sheltered under its canopy, which was covered with dust, a vendor's shop – a small wooden cubicle with four legs anchored to the ground. Tobacco and paan masala pouches banned in the locality dangled freely along with shampoo and dust tea sachets at the front of the shop. Shoving his puckered face through the dangling commodities was the vendor, an old man, perhaps talking to himself, looking for a prospect.
A few feet from the shop stood a dilapidated waiting shed amid overgrown wild shrubs, mostly Parthenium with innumerable tiny flowers resembling the white cap famously worn by leaders of the past era. A perpetual waiter, a mentally challenged woman, clad in a tattered, grimy sari holding a cloth bundle tightly between her clasped hands and chest, probably her sole possession, was squatting on the stone bench. As I passed the waiting shed, she seemed to spread out one of her hands towards me as if begging. Nevertheless, I walked past, paying no attention to the tramp.
I trudged along the road offsetting the river. The river, though not in full bloom, did little justice to its disposition through a lazy, slim flow in the middle of the watercourse between lantana bushes. Two men, shoveling the riverbed, were loading a herd of donkeys with sacks of sand and before long the animals waded past the prosopis trees on the other side of the river bank. A passing truck, the first vehicle on the road since the bus I traveled by, carrying excavated earth from the land, broke the silence for a while. The brick kilns, which had mushroomed in the recent past in the neighborhoods, with tall chimneys exhausting black smoke amid lands that were cultivated till recently passed through my mind.
Soon the road deviated from the riverbank and disappeared beyond a hillock. A narrow pedestrian bridge led to the village on the other side of the river. Standing mid way on the bridge, I felt exalted by the time I recognized at least one familiar thing of my childhood memory repository – a tamarind tree with its vast canopy resembling a mushroom. Now I understood why the place seemed all the more bizarre to me right from the moment I alighted from the bus. I was standing on the other side of the village which was less familiar to me as a village lad. I had been to this part of my village only a few times when I crossed the river with elder village boys to play in the hills.
Suddenly, I began to feel like a small country boy that I was fifteen years ago. In fact, the bridge I was standing on was not there when I played last in the hills a few days before we left the village for good. Reaching the other end of the bridge, I leaned against the stockade braving the scorching sun for a while. The stockade of the bridge with black moss coating and exposed rusty iron bars signified that its creators had never bothered about its maintenance. Also, the bottom of the bridge was badly damaged exposing the iron reinforcement at some places.
A board with the inscription, 'Rain water is precious – save it to save ourselves' welcomed me back into the village I was born twenty-five years ago. The tamarind tree was the same.
The dusty canopy of the huge tree reminded me of the wild-haired woman I saw at the waiting shed. The old companion of the tree, two stone pillars supporting another stone that served as a weight-rest for people entering or leaving the village with head loads turned on my nostalgia.
"See what a noble job the set of three stones does to the weary passersby – holding their burden and comforting them for a while, foreseeing nothing in return. Should not we, as children of this beautiful valley, pay back to the society by our righteous deeds," the goading words of my father reverberated in my mind.
The untimely death of my father when I was a middle school student flared up my mind. It was a Monday and the school assembly after the headmaster's discourse was about to conclude. Just before the national anthem was about to be played, the headmaster summoned me to the stage and handed me over to a couple of my apprehensive neighbors. The headmaster, whom I had never seen touching a student without a cane, which, like a magic wand, would turn the palm of the mischievous one as well as his own face pinkish simultaneously, hugged me and murmured something to my neighbors that I could hardly discern. While walking home on the dividers across paddy fields, held by my class teacher and neighbors, barely did I guess that my father's spirits had reached the heavenly abode, leaving his dead body at the courtyard for my mother to grieve and relatives and neighbors to sympathize.
Having offered his body to the flame on a pyre arranged by the riverside and collected what remained of his being in a copper pot, and immersed it in the sea a week after, I felt father had no more claim upon the village or us. He was deported from this world forever like a commodity, though not from our inconsolable minds.
Father, my constant source of inspiration, like the weight-rest itself, had made easier the lives of many through his selfless and committed deeds. Seeing the weight-rest under the tamarind tree after many years was like seeing father himself – like a God incarnated in a stone to the eyes of a devotee.
Before the tragedy struck us like a tremor, I was looking forward to joining the high school a couple of miles beyond the river, which required trekking through a dense forest, where the village women went in groups to collect firewood. My brave father used to walk home alone sometimes late into nights through the thick forest. "A brave mind is worth herds of wild elephants," my medium-built, thin-on-top father would say with his glowing eyes.
We migrated to the town with my paternal uncle a month after father's demise. Since then I had visited my scenic village only a couple of times in connection with certain religious commitments during father's death anniversaries. That was long back when father was more alive in our minds.
The three-pillars underneath another tamarind tree overlooking a paddock of tall Palmyra trees by the riverside, representing a family of Gods guarding the village, were a more dominant childhood memory of mine. As I strode a few feet towards the row of Palmyra trees by the riverside I saw the other tree and the family of three gods overlooking a settlement. The merciful trio had still been patiently safeguarding the village even as most of the Palmyra trees had generously bowed down to replace the grove with tiled settlements.
The yearly offerings to the Gods under the tamarind tree passed my mind. The three-day celebrations would end with the Goddess, incarnated in the body of a lean man who used to climb Palmyra and coconut trees, passing through the streets of the village and blessing the devotees. All the way the godly man would balance a pot adored with colorful flowers on his head and dance with the other two members of the divine family, incarnated in two old men of the nearby village, at street corners.
I faintly remembered the two people who used to haunt my memories randomly all these years, whose faces I scarcely remembered. One was Peon Ponnusamy, whom we all addressed with affection as Peon Sir, who was known for his rhythmic ringing of the school bell, a piece of iron rail hung on the eves in front of the head master's office. The other one was Thamarai, the ever-smiling domestic help woman who sang in the paddy fields in tune with the cuckoos from the adjoining thickets. I wondered if at all I could identify either of them during my brief sojourn at the village now. At the same time, I was equally thrilled at being recognized by either of them anytime.
Recollecting some of the moments from the distant past, I was standing under the tamarind tree resting my elbows on the weight-rest. Even as I did not carry any physical load to seek relief from the set of stones, the nostalgia in me mounted, which involuntarily forced me to take solace in the weight-rest. My lips trembled and eyes, welled up with water, were about to whimper. The black stone felt cool despite the hot sun. It appeared to comfort me as a human being would. It occurred to me as though father's spirit had energized the stone to mollify me.
Harvesting having been drawn to a close on the fields beyond the old tamarind tree, the left over stubbles on the bone-dry land were voraciously being nibbled by two skinny cows.
An old woman carrying a bundle of firewood reached the tamarind tree and demonstrated the use of the load-rest. "How hot! How hot! My tongue is dried up like the parched earth and wilting lentil plants," she lamented before squatting on the ground, resting her back against one of the legs of the weight-rest. I remembered the unused mineral water bottle in the rucksack fastened to my back. She unwound the free end of her sari, which had acted as a cushion to hold the thorny prosopis logs upon her head, and wiped out the beads of sweat seeping out from her parched and contracting skin.
"Enough for the day, come soon you pitiable things, I cannot come back to walk you back home in the evening. The old man might be coughing to death alone longing for a bowl of gruel, his expulsion resonating more like his school bell," she shared with the skinny cows both the misfortune of the animals and her dying old man. Unmindful of her grief, the bovines receded away, aiming at the greenery inside a barbed wire fence beyond the dry track even as a dog was perpetually barking from inside the fence.
She requested me, "Sir, can you give me some medicines to control my husband's cough? The poor man hadn't slept in days and at this rate his innards might come out through his mouth one of these nights," mistaking me for a doctor.
When I admitted that I was not a doctor, she politely apologized for her mistake and recalled a group of young doctors with rucksacks examining the villagers at the government school a week before. In a while, hoisting the log bundle upon her head once again without my help, she trudged towards her cow. Before long she disappeared from my vision, steering the animals into the wilderness beyond the settlement.
A couple of houses with a long array of rooms that reminded one of a train with unending carriages amidst the constellation of houses beyond the harvested fields, and an avenue of tall palmyra trees leading to the thickets appeared very familiar to me.
A nostalgic yearning to see my first school made me little restive. The hot sun permitted only an occasional passerby on the streets. However, unmindful of the hotness, some half-naked children were playing outside. I wanted to enquire about Peon Ponnusamy and the domestic help Thamarai with some of the yelling boys. I wondered if such an enquiry would be of any help, as my feet were automatically set out on the path leading to the school as though I had been treading the path all these years.
The school premises were the same but for a small tile-roofed building with a huge carved stone disproportionate to the size of the building depicting a list of local leaders who participated in its opening ceremony. The neem tree by the gate that housed the old woman, mother of the singing Thamarai, who sold an assortment of eatables including roasted groundnut, gooseberry and gingely candies in a cane tray, was still there. I wondered if Thamarai inherited the mobile vending enterprise from her mother. The bottom of the tree was strewn with white neem seeds the old woman would have loved to collect during her spare time.
The summer holidays would end in a week. I craved to see the school on a school day, probably with a few of my old teachers. Were the teachers still taking classes under the neem trees? The bell resembling a dosa making stone, replacing the old piece of iron rail, still dangled from the exact place on the rafter in front of the office room. It immediately brought to my mind the former operator, Peon Ponnusamy. I recollected Peon Ponnusamy carrying me on his shoulders to home one evening when my class teacher ascertained that I was infected with measles. Since then we became silent friends, smiling at each other whenever we came across each other.
The school precincts looked empty and deserted. As I passed through the gate, nervousness overwhelmed me the way it was when I walked through the very gate on my first day to school several years ago. I walked towards the backside, crossing the assembly yard and the L-shaped main building to have a glimpse of my first classroom. With my heart beating through my mouth, I walked like an apprehensive child, as though a precious thing of mine had been left behind in the thatched structure all these years. A feeling of incompleteness filled my mind, and I longed to make amends for the days my little feet traversed this ground without the gaiety of childhood.
The thatched structure, with the lattice still painted blue, appeared to be newer than it was two decades ago when I started my schooling in it.
The visit to the village was more like visiting my father himself. It suddenly occurred to me that father had been living in the village all these years. I took several deep breaths. As if my nostrils desperately tried to breath in the very air exhaled by my father years ago. I repented for having missed father all these years. Now that I have decided to settle in the U.S with my wife, who was brought up in Texas, I shivered with guilt at missing my father and the village forever.
I wished I settled down in the village with my wife and mother, teaching at the government school in front of which I was standing right now. But I could not do anything beyond fantasizing, especially with a wife brought up in America and a mother who had fitted fine into a middle class city life, driving her own car and socializing with the women entrepreneurs and social workers, the likes of her own, and aspiring to go with me to America. Most importantly, my post-graduation in mechanical engineering could have been a distant dream but for my mother's dream and sweat and therefore honoring her wishes made more sense to me rather than living my own dreams. Thus Kanchana, niece of mother's partner in the garment designing firm, became my wife lately. Besides, I am sure Kanchana would not endure a day in a village like this in her wildest dreams.
The big neem tree by the side of the Headmaster's room was enclosed with a stone platform. Allured by the shade of the tree, I sat on the platform strewn with neem seeds and white stains of crow excreta, lounging against the trunk. Sitting beneath the tree was soothing, like sitting with a dear one to share my thoughts. I never sat by the tree alone during my school days, and I remembered reciting the number table during my mathematics class under the tree when I was in the fourth standard. Suddenly it occurred to me that the tree had transformed into my educator, a personification of knowledge that introduced me to the worldly wisdom. The tree of wisdom mildly fanned a cool breeze with its tender branches that, like a lullaby, took me to a world full of peace and happiness. I lay down on the platform, keeping the rucksack under my head. Childhood memories flashed in my mind like a movie played back after a long while.
Once again I became a little one, on my way to school. I passed by the pond adjoining the paddy fields before the onset of the monsoon season. I saw blooming lotus flowers dancing to the songs of someone working in the paddy fields. It was Thamarai, as happy as the flowers themselves after which she herself was named; as though she, in a human form, was cheering up her tribe. As usual, she passed a smile at me, emerging from the sizzling paddy blades.
A gang of boys, who were headed to the school, giggled, "the mad woman," and went past me, walking in haste on the mud dividers. I shouted at the boys, "she isn't mad, she isn't mad," at which the boys turned back and woofed, "the mad woman and her mad sympathizer."
I became furious at the abuse and chased the boys on the bunds. Unperturbed at the abuse of the boys, Thamarai's singing with a tinge of laughter reverberated in the valley as I ran madly after the boys. A few of them fell into the paddy fields and got drenched in mud while the others ran fast before reaching the school precincts and getting mingled with the crowd.
While going back home in the evening, the boys who fell in mud, on a vengeance mood, put me to a horrifying flight on the very bunds on which I chased them earlier. I ran like a mouse running for life from the rage of a clowder of cats. I ran towards the lotus pond, frightened.
As I reached the pond side, my fear vanished. It was as if Thamarai's song was filling the neighborhoods with merriment. But there was no sign of the singer or anyone nearby. Yet her melody haunted the vicinity as revealed by the sparkling lotus flowers and hissing paddy blades. I began to dance with the paddy blades. My chasers stood stunted and retracted, shouting, "the boy is possessed, run! run!"
I danced till the exudation from my skin drenched me profusely and my bones appeared to atrophy. Slowly dusk engulfed the surroundings. I desired walking home through the pond embankment. But my legs refused to comply. With all my might I tried to limp. No use, I still felt inert. Gradually darkness devoured the evening twilight. I tried to call someone for help. "Appa! Appa!" I shouted even as my own ears could not hear my voice. It was as if something had fastened me to the pond side.
I desperately wished that I should have compromised with the boys and have avoided this detention. No sooner the thought passed my mind than a frightening Thamarai rose from the pond and with flaring eyes began to walk towards me. Suddenly I regained strength and ran yelping, "Appa help me!"
When I regained my senses I was lying on the platform under the neem tree in the sun. I rose up and, without dusting my outfits, sat reclining against the tree trunk. I recollected every detail of the dream and listlessly relived it for a while. Perhaps the dream had a message for me. I felt a deep-rooted bond with the village of my childhood. But when I thought of severing the bond, my village too appeared to disown me, as revealed by Thamarai's act of chasing me out. Perhaps father's spirit wanted me back in the village itself and did not compromise on my abandoning the village for good.
Deep in the harvested fields some boys, probably those who waved at me while I got down from the bus, were flying colorful kites.
Fatigued by the hot afternoon sun and the nostalgia inspired by the dream, I slowly walked back. The boys waved hands at me once again, to which I waved back without any joy.
I felt emaciated and sad on reaching the weight-rest. The black stone was holding a huge sack of grain. Reclining against the tamarind tree was napping the tired passerby, a bare-chested middle-aged man. Father's words about the service of the weight-rest came to my mind, to which my body reacted with an instant gooseflesh. I spread both my hands and cheek and felt the coolness of the black stone. I wanted to sit on the stone dangling my feet on both sides, the way I would sit on my father's shoulders as a little boy. With tearful eyes, I bade farewell to my father hugging the weight-rest.
When I reached the bus stop, I felt as if I had just performed the last rites of a dear one. My mouth had gone dry, my eyes blinked rapidly due to nervousness. The scenario on the roadside was more or less the same as I was introduced to in the morning. The vendor inside the cubicle was not seen, though his presence was affirmed by the sound of his snore. The beggar woman had withdrawn into the waiting shed, still holding her possession by the bosom. She was singing a song, which the vendor's slumbering could not let me hear clearly. A dog stretching out by her feet occasionally growled, as if adding a missing note to her song.
Deep down in the valley, the boys cheered at their kites, flying one above the other.
Like an intruder, a bus advanced towards me, negotiating the bends adeptly on the rugged road. I knew I was left with only a few more moments to expend in the memorable village. I felt I missed something under the tree where the weight-rest stood. Was that my painful heart that I unloaded on the weight-rest?
The same bus that brought me where I stood in the morning pulled in under the tamarind tree. The driver put off the engine and got down to offer his custom to the vendor snoring in the cubicle. I got into the bus and sat by a window.
As I tried to have a last glimpse of my favorite valley, I heard someone singing outside. "……. the rich are indebted to the poor as the learned to the ignorant," sang the insane woman facing me, her hands clasped together as a begging bowl. Her gray and disheveled hair resembled a nest knitted of coconut fiber. She was balancing the rag bundle under her arm. I was the only one among the very few passengers on the bus to sit by the window braving the hot sun. She stood motionless, continuing with her singing. In spite of her insanity and untidy look, there was something mellifluous about her song.
"The rich are indebted to the poor as the learned to the ignorant," she repeated, staring deeply at me. Suddenly the engine came to life and the bus departed, and so was the woman in the opposite direction.
A chillness went down my spine. "Thamarai," I hollered at the top of my lungs through the window. Unmindful of my cry, the addressee settled into the waiting shed, stroking the dog far away from me.
I felt listless at seeing Thamarai in such a miserable state. I wished I enquired someone about Thamarai and Peon Ponnusamy. The old woman, with whom I had a short conversation by the weight-rest, would have been resourceful.
The plight of the helpless old woman recurrently invaded my mind. Caring the animals and her sick old man, how resolute and humorous she had been in managing things. Suddenly her humor struck a chord in me. The way she referred to the condition of the old man to her cows. "His expulsion resonating more like his school bell."
"His school bell! His school bell!" lingered in my mind. That implied the old man must be the ringer of the bell, Peon Ponnusamy. I believed that my visit would have been memorable had I spent some time with the old man Ponnusamy. I felt like a coward shying away from reality.
The bus gained momentum as it crossed the shattered village road. Up above the thickets on the horizon, a morsel of cloud was brushing the hilltop. I stared at the vanishing clouds until they dissipated into nothingness. Like my memory about my childhood village would soon be a forgotten past, as I relocated myself on the other side of the globe.