I wake up around the time the first rays of the sun hit the grass. The chill seeps through layers of my flesh, and I try to rub off the goose bumps against the unrelenting hardness of the wooden bed. I brave the morning mist to catch a few more moments of sleep. The sleep that was perfect. Not to gloss over the fact that around midnight, I had jumped out of bed in blood-curdling fright. A virulent fight had broken out between community dogs, which, as it turned out minutes later, was happening in the room where my cousin slept, to be precise, on his bed (poor thing didn’t catch a wink again), and the pugilists were cats, not dogs.
Conveniently, I returned to the warm embrace of my sleep, laden with the fragrance of wild flowers and sweet berries. But early morning, nature demands me to rise. An orange glow is brimming over the grey horizon and a riot of chirruping forces open my eyes to seek its source. An overwhelming tropical smell of moist vegetation fills the air, and pulls me with a longing hard to describe.
Everything in the village looks diminished. That’s the thing about age. As one grows up in size, the surroundings grow down. The lane from road to house seems narrower, the stair-case seems short of a flight or two, the terrace is no longer the mughal garden of our heydeys, and the best part, where the women of the house resided before the symbolic berlin wall came down...has collapsed.
I feel lucky to not go hunting for knee length grass in the morning. That was ages ago. Even the old well, around which we bathed as kids, drawing water from the pulley, is history. The rim of the well now looks like a large natural pot for a huge banyan tree that chose to grow roots at the bottom of the well. Silently, I thank the stars that kept me alive despite the morbid dread sparked off by intimacy to that well. As a child I would gaze inside the haunting hollow of the well and feel drawn to its tempting secrets. It was there that I discovered, if you gaze long enough inside the pit, it seems to rise up to your nose. I remember tearing myself away in the fear that I might jump inside.
The modern day bathroom, on the contrary, is pretty homely. Constructed around a hand-pump that was the sole permanent asset of our erstwhile ‘duaar’, this bathroom looks like a large changing room with curtains. For shehri Indians who depend on clothes way too much to guard their dignity, such an arrangement threatens to destroy their treasury with a single blow of the wind. The unwritten code, therefore, is to ask before stepping in when the curtains are drawn. Some people with bitter experience (who I won’t name here) will tell you the merits of keeping a towel handy to avoid exposure. The trick lies in reducing bathing time to mili-seconds – a challenge made harder by the chilling handpump water.
It makes people behind the curtains make strange sounds, till it becomes a family joke. Experienced people wait with a passive face for the uninitiated to go inside, and then all heads turn to hear the first sound of shock.
I step out of my house to be stared at by unabashedly puzzled eyes. I greet the look with a smile, that piques interest on the other side and they grow in numbers. The help’s daughter is my new guide to the coveted ‘chowk’. I treat ourselves to village sweets that could teach a trick or two to the Haldirams of the world.
A kilometer and half away from our house flows the river Son. It is a rare sight to see a yet non-commercialized beach in its pristine beauty. The sand melts under your feet and the water ferns feel like treacherous snakes. Sparkling clean river, with stretches of untouched sand on either side, flanked by nothing but natural verdant vegetation, I remember the lines on paradise spoken for Kashmir.
I hitch-hike with my cousins to further explore the interiors, where farmlands are no longer dotted with households. A creaky machaan sits lonely amidst kilometers of green. Only nature could create so many shades of a single color – each evoking a strange visual pleasure. Some patches are interspersed with lovely yellow flowers. Then there is the grassy kind of crop, acting as the wind’s odometer. They catch the breeze and dance to its tune, till their waves are so much in sync that it’s difficult to distinguish between the possessor and the possessed. My brother suggests it’s prettier than Switzerland. Without seeing the latter, every part of me agrees.
Back at home, the bhoj time begins. The purported lunch begins at 3 and goes on till 9. The city based buffet system is no match for this stroll-in stroll-out lunch-cum-snack-cum-dinner. Besides the privilege of having the host family hand-serve the food, there’s the added convenience to amble in, legitimately, anytime and any number of times, for delicious helpings. A thousand and half people are treated to sumptuous food on a terrace that can, at a time, accommodate not more than 60. At 9, after I’m getting the premises cleaned and tending to my aching back, information comes in that the dinner bhoj will start now. Obviously, the tension put me to deep unshakeable sleep.
In the night, alone on the corner of the terrace that looks over three temples, a pig community and an absorbing view of trees, I lift my head to see a kind of sky that shatters and joins my heart at once. Stars. More stars. Uncountable stars shimmering like sequin work on a purple sari. Laced seductively around the folds of a magnificent firmament. I can’t take my eyes away. Oh! The Great Bear constellation...the Hunter out there...it’s beautiful in an inexplicable way. In places there are no constellations, there is powdered diamond. Stardust. There seems to be a divine conspiracy in hatching. The stars choose to twinkle the exact moment you look away.
I keep looking above. Surrounded by the drone of crickets. Feeling weightless in the perfectness of the weather, this moment of life. That is when I spot the phenomenon I was waiting to confide in my life’s ultimate longing. A meteor breaks in what seems like a long, slow motion and covers an expanse that must be a thousand light years. I close my eyes, and pray with the strength endowed in me by this universe, for the world that made my being possible, to make this one wish come true.
Content and smiling, I release myself once again to be put into motion by the assembly line arrangement of life.
I’m in India. In Bihar. In Ara. Past the imposing iron flanks of Koelwar pul. I’m in a place that translates to silver in English. I’m in Chaandi. Back to my roots.