There are some experiences which leave an indelible mark. This is one such incident.
My father was in the construction business. When I was about twelve, he had a project In Rishikesh, near Hardwar, in Uttar Pradesh. It was a dense forest land, where he had been commissioned to construct Indian Antibiotics factory.
That summer mom, my siblings and I decided to join him, although he warned us that we shall have to make do with makeshift camping arrangements. It sounded pretty exciting and adventurous at that age. We packed our few clothes, and took a bus to Rishikesh. It was the month of May, Sun was really merciless. Who had heard of air conditioning back then. At home we had Khus mats, made of aromatic roots of a perennial grass, on the windows, and took turns to soak them wet, with a hose pipe. Not knowing any better, we enjoyed the bus ride, which took 8 hours.
My uncle and dad had a partnership. He also decided to call his family, wife and four children. I was really looking forward to meet my cousins, and monkey around on trees, plucking pomegranates, figs, raw mangoes, wood apples and mulberries. Of course, we were competing with Langurs.
There were two tents, one for each family. There was another in which food was made, one for washing and bathing, and one more to answer call of nature. We preferred to sleep out under the stars, a gentle breeze rustling the leaves, looking at the galaxies, each trying to show off his / her rudimentary knowledge of astronomy.
Milky Way, evening star, seeing cloud shapes, playing antakshri based on Hindi film songs! My cousin Kumkum, was a budding naturalist, she was a great fan of Gerald Durrell, and read out excerpts to us from ‘My family and other animals’, though we pinched her to stop. She would scream with delight on seeing fireflies, her younger brother Anil, to tease her, would catch one in his fist, and then there would be a pillow fight. When finally, we all felt sleepy, one could hear wolves howling. We would hug our sheets, curl up, say a prayer and try to ignore it or pretend we were not scared. The youngest would slowly, climb into mom’s bed. I, of course, to be on the safe side, chose to have my cot right in the middle, not a bit bothered that I was known as frail hearted.
The Ganges flowed nearby, calmer in summer, softly gurgling. It was like a lullaby playing from far off-soothing, sonorous, slowly and surely sleep would alight on my lids.
We had great fun, putting up skits from children’s magazines- Paraag and Chandamama. Since I was tall, I was always assigned male lead. Sure enough, I bossed around, making my little cousins fetch things for me. When it got too much for them, they would call me animal names like giraffe. I did get offended, but pretended it was part of the game. Any way Giraffes are very graceful at least if you see them through my eyes.
I must confess, I was not able to forgive my parents only for one thing, until I myself became one, and realized children can leave one totally bewildered. As it goes, am told, one night I was found sleepwalking in the bustling sector 22 market in Chandigarh. I believe, I was around 8 years old. One of our neighbours, saw me alone, and brought me home. Yeah, I know what you are thinking; those days’ people had values. He first went up to my parents and asked them about me. My parents told him, she has gone off to sleep. He casually, said, are you sure, my dad a bit irritated replied, of course, she is sleeping on the cot in the veranda. Then he handed me over to them, and my parents were completely in shock. Next day, when they questioned me, I had no clue what they were talking about. But they shared this bizarre incident with everyone in the family. So whenever anyone thought I was being too pushy, they called me you, sleepwalker, as if I was a slut, streetwalker, though then I didn’t know what it meant. I have a confession to make, even now, every night before sleeping, I Pray to God; please let me wake up in my own bed. There are times when I find biscuit crumbs on my bed sheet. I am overcome with anxiety and a bit of guilt.
One day, around 11AM, a very strong wind began to sprint; gradually it picked such speed, that in a while our tents were uprooted, despite the efforts of all the labourers on the site. Trees also fell, and soon there was a hail storm, thunder bellowing as if there was going to be no tomorrow. We were frightened, and clung to our mother. My aunt was nowhere to be seen. Her children started crying. Dad and my uncle had left for Hardwar in the morning to meet some officials. We were soaking wet, with little marble size balls pelting on our heads, frightened, to take shelter even under a tree, for they were falling like a pack of cards, yes with deafening noise. We were completely at the mercy of the elements, though they didn’t show much. My youngest cousin Kiran was inconsolable; she kept asking for her mother. We were all puzzled as well as frightened, what if she had got buried under a huge tree, said my 5 year old brother, Ravi. Mom put her finger on his lips, hugged Kiran, and tried to comfort her and reassure, that God will surely take care of Padma,
After a couple of hours, the wind became meek, lightening stopped flashing, and thunder ran out of steam. It was still drizzling, clouds seemed to be having a relay race and Sun was patiently peeping off and on, maybe to see whether they were done with their recklessness and wrath.
While we were trying to take in the devastation, we saw my aunt step out of an Ambassador car, charging with tears flowing down her cheeks, screaming, imploring where her precious kids were. My mother, though completely wet, dryly said, all of them were fine, but what was she doing in the car. My aunt replied, she was just too scared of thunder. Her kids refused to look at her, walked away.
After about an hour men folk came back, looking really anxious. On seeing that we were all fine, they got down with the workers to put the tents up. By evening, our temporary abode was almost back to normal. We forgot and began to race to pick up fallen raw mangoes.
Summer vacations came to an end. We came back home and got down to the monotony of our everyday life. With the passage of time, our trips to visit dad on site became infrequent due to school, board exams.
All of us went on to pursue higher education, got married, raised families and increasingly got alienated from the extended families. We did remember birthdays. Once in a year we got in touch.
Years turned into decades. Children left to pursue their dreams, across shores.
Last year I got a call from my cousin, Vinita, my father’s elder brother’s daughter. She told me, our uncle had died in a car accident while on his way to Nainital. He and the driver died instantly due to head injuries.
I was filled with dismay, despair and couldn’t help reminiscing about our days at Rishikesh. He loved life and lived it fully each moment.
Early this year, she called again and told me Chachiji was held captive in her own home. When I asked her how did that come about, she told me Anil, her son had forced her to transfer the property in his name. Once having accomplished that, he put her in a small room, and very grudgingly gives her three meals a day. Even her daughters are not allowed to meet her.
On our way to Rishikesh, in February this year, when we drove past the factory, the image of my aunt stepping out of the car, screaming for Anil and other children, on that stormy day began to haunt me.
I looked out from the window pane; we were passing by golden mustard fields, (you could hear their laughter for miles at that hour of misty morning. They were flanked by tall, lanky nude poplar trees, looking down with grandfatherly affection. We decided to stop and have our Tiffin.
What a study in contrast. Nature shows like nothing else.