Unfortunately, as one who is still working on a manuscript that was to have been completed and submitted last year (or was it the year before?), I cannot really complain about the heat in Delhi. If anything, it is forcing me to remain indoors, undistracted by the pleasures of gallivanting here or there and get my ass moving on what is, with ironical aptness, called “The Heat and Dust Project”.
The afternoons outside our tiny flat are filled with the solid quiet intense white-heat that stands like a handsome asura, the guardian of the Delhi summer; the neighbourhood dogs rush about busily in the sun with a frenzy that is part sexual. There is a water booth for them where they mill around at lunchtime, bossing over the thirsty mynas who wait patiently in queue; and then, suddenly, they vanish. To sleep beneath the green benches, stretch under limpid shadows by the mini-forests that intervene our campus. But dusk is long and lazy and by the time the dogs are roused and heard barking again, the four neem trees outside our Council Housish block – where the Cornell-red brick façade has been leached to a dull gentle redwood by the years in extreme temperatures – the four neem trees that cast their shadows on our walls go shee shee shee.
Sometimes in the late afternoon, there is a lull when the sky seems to darken. The peacocks call out to each other. The neem trees sway their branches madly in the wind.
But mostly one is disappointed – there comes but a brief spell of rain.
When I was a girl my mother and aunts would assemble at my grandparents’ country house in Jharkhand for the summer holidays. In hindsight I know those were probably the happiest holidays possible for a child, though at the time I used to be extremely jealous of my quintessentially Bengali friends who, ably carrying the mantle of Bengal’s famed wanderlust, went on fancy holidays to exotic locations. My Bihari (now Jharkhandi) parents, au contraire, would pine for the smell of the reddish lands they had grown up in, the unique green of its landscape, the sweetness of its water.
My days on holiday would begin with homework (in that matter, my mother combined the worst of Bengali and Bihari strictures) and a glass of fresh cow’s milk. I hated both with passion. But then, after a while, I would be let off – and then I would spend the entire day roaming in the sun with my holiday best-friends, local girls who knew every nook and cranny of the valley behind the house that led to a large pond and then, further away, to hills. But we were not allowed to venture that far, to any place really interesting. So we would walk about aimlessly, laugh and gossip, collect small ripe mangoes in handkerchiefs, bite them at the top, and then suck the juice. We would visit neighbours. We would laze. I would lose all my citifications and relax into bliss.
After a few days, my usual impulse of over-reaching would rear its head, and my friends and I would decide we should stage an entertainment for the benefit of our families and sundry others – mostly my grandfather’s tribal friends, associates and lackeys – who might want to drop by. I would usually be the director. My friend Jyoti would be the chief star. If my youngest aunt’s daughter was visiting too, then there would most definitely be another rival director. The stage would be the inside red verandah of the house that led to the yard. The audience would sit in the yard, the actors would grace the verandah, my grandmother’s best bedsheets would be the curtains, and my eldest cousin R’s tape recorder would provide filler music. (The songs from “Phir Teri Kaahaani Yaad Aayi” were the rage one summer I remember.) The local bank manager’s wife was the guest of honour. There was a play (my piece de resistance), some Bollywood dancing (Jyoti’s piece de resistance) and some Rabindra nritya (the rival director’s piece de resistance).
And then the summer holidays would end and we would travel all evening to take the train from Ranchi at night, eat luchi and potato curry in our compartments, and in the morning, reach Howrah almost alongside the monsoon. My heart would expand slightly at the sight of the gracious red buildings of Howrah station, and my father waiting for us.
These days I realize what it was that made summer so special those years. For summer was about my mother and aunts becoming girls again, at their parents’, a peculiar condition that I cannot explain – but which I always slip into myself when I visit my Mum. But there was something about the voice, the step, the telling of sorrows, the discussing of futures, the unique mix of tensions and joy. It has been long since I have been able to fashion that long languorous sense of happiness out of my now adult summers.
The town remains; the house remains against the backdrop of Maoist realities; May and June come and go; my grandparents are now gone, though in my mind they remain inextricably linked to still summer afternoons and my theories of joy.