The afternoon rain always bothered her.
She loved the sudden kaalboishakhis of the evening, which brought with them the smell of fresh grass, wet winds and jasmine. But the light monotonous drizzle on damp June afternoons made her uncomfortable. Restless.
She flitted from room to room in the tiny two-bedroom apartment that she called her home. The bright red Chinese table clock on top of the T.V. said it was 2:45 pm. He wouldn’t be back until five, at least, and her son would hopefully be arriving at around four. She was glad Amit was coming home early from the boarding this summer. After all, this would be his last summer in the city. She wanted the three of them to go on a holiday – a nice, proper one, preferably to the hills. They would be beautiful just before the rains started. She remembered early childhood memories of going for the family holiday to Darjeeling every summer during this time of the year — the air would be heavy with the smell of rain, the early morning mists would stay longer then usual, wrapping the town in a white coverlet of dream and sleep.
The clock struck three.
It had been so many years since she’d been to Darjeeling. Or even on a proper holiday. Not counting his numerous conferences, of course, which all took place in bustling corporate houses threaded together by a mass of overcrowded roads, all across India. Large, dynamic cities, like this one.
And it had never been the three of them together. It was always with a Mr. Sharma or a Miss Rathode and then he would always be busy answering phone calls while she would be left to finish all the new Agatha Christies that she’d bought from the airport. No, this would be a proper holiday. With just the three of them. She would talk to him about it as soon as he got back home.
This time of the afternoon was always lazy – dragging itself slowly and heavily, like an old, wrinkled man shuffling away from the fire, not wanting to leave its warm shelter. And the rain made it worse, with its quivering patterns on the window… She would usually have taken a quick nap, re-read old magazines or even gossiped with the young daily help who came to ‘do’ the laundry; but today the help wouldn’t be coming, she didn’t feel like sleeping and the rain made her keep looking up from the old copy of Desh she was trying to read. She decided to give it up and wandered to the window, watching the raindrops trickle slowly down the glass leaving behind faint traces, which would later have to be scrubbed off. She tried to remember the song that her mother always used to sing on rainy afternoons, while plaiting her hair in the verandah or re-arranging the clothes in the old, mahogany closet near the window…
She suddenly remembered she’d promised Amit that she’d clean out all the junk from the large wooden trunk in his room, which had acted as a store-house for old, unwanted things for many, many years. Amit wanted to arrange all his old books there now that he would be going away sometime later this year. She decided that this would be as good a time as any since after Amit arrived there would be meals to cook, his bags to unpack, his clothes to be washed and general fuss over him. He, of course, would brush it off with a cursory hug and a lightly admonishing “Ma! Amar boyesh hoye geche” and then shut himself up with his laptop. She knew he was old enough to look after himself (and he was a responsible boy, after all) but she liked taking care of him, no matter how hard Amit teased her about being an old mother hen or a fusspot. She almost wished Amit were a little boy again, so that she had to run after him with his meals and teach him fifth grade geography. Or untie his shoelaces for him. All those growing-up years had been wonderful. Certainly for her, and she hoped for him as well. It had ultimately been worth all the sacrifices she’d made.
The old trunk had been a family heirloom of sorts. Her great grandfather had bought it from Turkish merchant decades ago, impressed by its wonderfully patterned lid and the rich, glossy texture. Over the years, it had gathered grime, stains and memories, sitting beside the four-poster bed in her mother’s room, until she’d brought it over to this apartment after her wedding. She’d known it for as long as it could remember, and the trunk had always evoked a sense of solidarity. She had put her old, faded, half-broken possessions carefully in its heart over the years and promptly forgotten all about them, reassured by the security the trunk had always seemed to provide. She felt an odd pang of disappointment as she sat down to clear out the trunk, as if she was violating its existence in some strange way.
The first thing out was a bunch of old shawls that she no longer wore. They were soft still, and smelled of naphthalene: a smell that always reminded her of the old closet at home. She shook herself a little. Her mother’s place. She was home now. At home, matter-of-factly putting away old rubbish to make new space for her son’s books. There was nothing remotely nostalgic or contemplative about that. Perhaps it was the rain. It made her what she’d generally heard being termed as ‘moody.’
She rolled up the shawls and put them to her right, ‘The Things to be Gotten Rid Of’ – she made a mental note. Next out were old stationery, her cooking books and Amit’s old school notebooks. And then, as she searched through a pile of moth-eaten books, she stopped. Her hands quivered for a second. Then, slowly, as if with a lot of effort, she took out a pair of ghungroos: the metal jingles on the traditional red velvet jangled, breaking the silence of the room.
The pitter-patter of the rain had suddenly grown fainter. The jingle of the ghungroos seemed to overpower all other sounds, drowning everything else, bringing back a flood of memories. She saw herself at the General Dance Competition at school, with this particular pair of ghungroos on her feet, holding up the special prize for Extraordinary Performance in Dance. She saw herself at her dancing school, with her guruji smiling at her as she confidently picked up the first prize. She saw herself at the National Dance Show where Mr. Sarabhai had come up to her, and congratulated her on her performance… and then, suddenly, the storm of memories petered out into a light drizzle and then stopped. Abruptly. She remembered tucking away this special pair of ghungroos, a few days before the wedding, solemnly folding away a bit of herself under a few old books. And there it stayed, well hidden, in this old, secure trunk.
She put them on slowly, warily, as if they were fragile creatures which would melt away at touch. Then, she stood up and took a few tentative steps. The sound of the jingles rang loud and bold. Hardly what she was feeling. A strange sense of vulnerability came over her. Even though she knew there was nobody in the house, she jingled through the apartment, closing a window here and there. As she walked, the old familiar sound seemed to run through her veins, making her almost giddy with pleasure. She took a twirl in the living room. And then another. And then another.
There was no music. She needed none. The music played constantly in her head, as she danced long forgotten steps. And as she danced, she realized what she found disturbing about the rain. It made her restless: it made her remember. As she danced, she realized how long she had been away, away from herself. As she danced her whole body vibrated with a freedom she’d forgotten and she wondered: was it worth it? Was it worth it to trade this exhilaration, this wonderful sense of contentment for lonely June afternoons? For evenings trapped in two-bedroom floors? Did anything else really matter?
She could have gone and on. But she stopped to rest her body a little; it had grown old with years of disuse. Her mind was elsewhere. She wanted to fly, to break free and dance. Only dance. To the end.
She sat fingering the tiny metal beads on her ghungroo for a long time after that, thinking thoughts that had never seemed important before. She was surprised at herself. Surprised and dismayed. The rain had stopped; the sun was slowly filtering in through the drawn curtains, falling on old shawls and old books.
The doorbell rang.
She was startled. For a moment, she sat there with the ghungroos still in her hand. The clock said it was 4.30. It was probably Amit at the door.
The doorbell rang again and she gave herself a shake. Then, slowly, deliberately she picked up the pair of ghungroos and placed them to her right, with her old shawls.
It was Amit. She smiled and gave him a hug. And he said, “ Ma! What, on earth, were you doing? I was standing here for the last ten minutes!”
Sohini Pal is currently occupied with the complex and confusing process of being alive. Incidentally, she is also in her Second Year, English Honours at the Jadavpur University, Calcutta.