Hope is a Grey Cloud
They say there used to be forests here and bad roads. Now there’s a smooth highway — interrupted by small stretches of ongoing construction — and even when you turn off it, the roads are reasonably well-maintained. They say the road was built to give security forces easier access to these areas that were once rife with Maoists, who have since been wooed or cornered (depends on where you’re standing) using welfare measures like a free rice scheme and the intelligence gathered from local informers. They say the forests were burnt down because there was no other way to flush out the insurgents.
Jhargram, where we were, is still categorised as “highly affected” by insurgency. They say what they’re highly affected not by Maoists, but by herds of wild elephants who go on regular mini-rampages. The elephants pick the best mangoes, can smell mahua in bloom from kilometres away and if they pluck unripe fruit, they smash it underfoot. They grumble that the fruit is ruined that way, but also smile as they point out that this way, seeds are buried into this red, dry, temperamental earth that yields lush fruit, unremarkable cashews and won’t make good rice no matter how mulishly the state tries to replace forests with rice fields. The elephants, they can’t be stopped, especially when they go mad like that mother elephant did last month after her calf died. The humid, horrible heat; it’s a killer this year.
We haven’t seen any elephants. This is a source of disappointment for us and relief for them.
Where we are, it’s easy to imagine the forests restored. There are old trees here, some of them the stuff of fairytales. There’s a banyan tree that has a mahua tree wrapped around it. Two different textures of bark, two different sets of leaves, distinct and yet unseparateable. The sal trees, which give the area the name Salboni (forest of sal trees), stand so tall and straight. The mango trees spread out their branches, like they’re reaching for the fruit in the next tree.
They don’t think the forests will actually grow back and neither do they put much faith in the few brick and cement factories that have sprung up. Landowners complain the “labour” is impossible to work with because the people are lazy and are happy to live off welfare schemes. The others say that ever since the factories started operating, dust has turned darker and the water goes red from time to time.
We’re bat-out-of-hell-ing our way out of a house that feels haunted. We don’t talk about it until we’ve crossed the river because folklore assures us that at least in Bengal, ghosts can’t swim even though humans can. What time did you wake up last night? Do you remember what you saw in your dream? Did you also feel that? Most of our conversation for the past few months — maybe even years — has been about far more frightening things, like the amendment to the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order that empowers states to set up their own Foreigners Tribunals. And the fact that while we should be horrified that the 52,398 migrants in America’s detention centres are in “a manufactured health crisis” (in addition the psychological trauma that ICE has inflicted upon them), we know next to nothing of the conditions of those who have been deemed foreigners by the NRC and have been held in Indian detention centres. Our centres are not open to human rights’ workers, but last year activist and researcher Harsh Mander visited two of them. “In a jail, inmates are at least permitted to walk, work and rest in open courtyards. But the detainees are not allowed out of their barracks even in the day, because they should not be allowed to mix with the “citizen prisoners … In the women’s camp, in particular, the inmates wailed continuously, as though in permanent mourning.” Assam will be constructing 10 detention centres as part of the administration to “maintain our level of readiness”. Also, the deep, stomach-clenching dread that we feel at the delayed onset of monsoon and the way drought is spreading its cracked-earth footsteps across the country. By 2020 — that’s next year — at least 20 cities, including Delhi, Bangalore and Hyderabad, are expected to run out of groundwater. By 2030, approximately 30% of the country’s population will have no access to drinking water. These are government (well, Niti Aayog. Same difference) figures. Not to mention the recent election results and the anecdotes circulating of phantom votes, EVM discrepancies and ballot boxes being taken out. Not all of this is entirely in the realm of speculation. Nine “other” category voters turned into 1,912 votes cast in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. In 373 constituencies polled in the first phase, The Quint found surplus votes in 220 of them when going through the data released by the ECI.
Next to all this — and I haven’t even mentioned the poisonous religious and caste bigotry — a ghost is a far more comfortable terror.
When we do exchange notes, something goes through us and I’m reminded of an ugly-looking word that describes something beautiful and sounds unexpectedly musical when you say it out loud — psithurism. The sound of wind rustling through the leaves isn’t just an aural experience. It makes the wind a tangible, palpable thing. The leaves as they part for the wind give it form and the sound gives you a sense of how the wind is moving. All the details that felt just uncanny in the house seem to become more real now in the car. It’s almost as though we are giving it form by speaking of it out loud. We still don’t feel fear, but we do feel unease. We’re on land that has seen centuries worth of anger and shattered dreams. Considering all the blood that has been spilt here and the bitter feuds that have been buried in this scorched earth, it’s a wonder that everyone here doesn’t feel haunted.
We might have have dwelled longer on the house and its presences, slipped under the closed door of being unnerved into the great outdoors of being afraid, but the sky darkened. Rain has saved us every year for as long as this land has memories. These days it seems to be delayed every year, but it still comes just when you think you just can’t survive another day of summer. The clouds push out heat and hide the sun; the wind clears the air and shakes the trees and the rain sinks into the earth. For us in a country that is a patchwork of drought and anxiety, hope is a grey cloud.
There are clouds and then there are the mighty grey-blue giants that swirl in the skies of Bengal. Bengali teems with songs about the arrival of rain, the way the pulse quickens when you hear the deep rumble of thunder, the ecstatic pleasure of being surrounded by the sound of rainfall and the smell of wet earth. In Rabindranath Tagore’s compilation of song lyrics, the fattest section is the with the one for Barsha, or rain. Of course, it has also meant waterlogged streets, deaths by lightning, disease from dirty water and other very real ‘Third World’ problems. Still, we’re just a little bit in love with the rain. When you see the clouds of Bengal, you know why.
We have to slow down despite a mostly-empty highway and smooth roads. It isn’t raining yet, but the winds are hard and strong. I can’t hold the phone steady but I still take photo after photo, mesmerised by these clouds that seem to be coming down from the sky towards me, for me. Thunder rolls for what feels like endless minutes and every now and then, thin streaks of lightning tear across the clouds, turning them violet for a fraction of a second. Hindu myths are full of stories of Indra, god of the gods and the thunder-wielding lord, who takes on different forms to seduce women (mostly married) on earth. Watching the clouds, I think to myself that all Indra really had to do was become like the clouds that consume the skies in Bengal during monsoon. Who could resist this?
The rain comes a little later and when it does, it doesn’t fall as much as crash down. A million, tiny fists thumping the surface — strong, angry, loud. The wonder of the rain is that it isn’t gentle or forgiving. It wakes you up, rips fruit from trees, washes topsoil away. And yet, despite this violent glee, it’s beautiful and nourishing. In the car, we can’t feel the rain, but we hear it. It cocoons us for a slice of time, surrounding us with its pounding heartbeat, and when we emerge out of the rain into the dry, wet noise of the shiny, neon city, despite the horns and the mayhem, everything feels muted and almost silent. I feel unhaunted, restored and desperate for a cup of a lemon tea.
Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star's stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun's birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother's, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.
~ Remember, Joy Harjo, 1983