A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
It must have been around three in the afternoon, because my son had already had his lunch and had sat down to do his homework. His school-timings were from seven in the morning till one, and by the time he took the rickshaw home, it was 1:30. My dog and I, we usually waited for him outside the compound. It was maybe 49 degrees Celsius, probably even higher in the direct sun that day, for I distinctly remember we stayed in the shade of the khejdi tree that stood sentinel at the gate. I observed the sunflowers, drooping, yet facing stoically upwards: the stalks were nearly seven feet high and the blooms six inches across.
My maid, who watered the garden, had commented but a few weeks ago, “Madam, we haven’t had such lovely flowers for nearly seven years now.”
“Touch wood,” I reacted.
“This year, the crop is good, too,” she went on. “Jowari, bajri, ragi, the rural crops are ready for harvest. The water-levels in the wells and baodis have been better. They say the near the canals, the kinoo trees have borne fruit—not since little Sita was born have we seen such greenery.” And Sita, her daughter, was now seven years old.
In Jodhpur, at the edge of the Thar, in India’s Rajasthan, greenery is a rare luxury. It’s a semi-arid zone bordering a cruel, lifeless desert. The neem is the one tree that isn’t stark and thorny. The rest of the flora comprises tall shrubs that stray wandering camels munch upon. To have a garden like mine, a small patch, really, was the height of luxury. Precious water couldn’t be ‘wasted’ so we’d recycle and channel our kitchen overflow onto it. If you looked closely, the water looked ‘dirty,’ but it nourished the seeds, and the plants gave us great pleasure.
This was a good year, we’d guessed, and they should last through the winter, from September till February. (Most years, we got the municipal water supply for about half-an-hour every day, and we had to fill up drums and buckets and make do with whatever we could fill. We couldn’t afford to buy water from the private tankers.) Even the reptiles in our compound, the monitor lizards, and the owls sensed the goodness around them. Flocks of mynas and babblers chirped from dawn to dusk, feasting on seeds and nectar. The bunches of papayas were ripening from yellow to saffron, the ‘drum-stick’ trees were full of lacy, white inflorescences. Squirrels kept scurrying to and from the branches. We had to tie the pregnant bitter-gourd and pumpkin creepers that climbed our wire fencing to keep them from trailing on the ground. This was going to be a season of plenty.
“Ma,” Saurabh told me, “I think there’s going to be a dust-storm.”
Normally, I’d get irritated with any distraction, knowing well how he loved to wriggle out of doing math or Sanskrit. Besides, the season for dust-storms was over; it was the end of August. But, one could never take a chance. A glance outside the grilled windows seemed to confirm what he was saying. The sky was getting hazy; if we weren’t quick enough, the fine dust would creep in through every tiny crack and crevice, hang around the rooms, making us gasp uncomfortably, before it settled on the furniture. It’d take us days to brush and sweep it off.
“Hurry,” I barked, as I scurried from one window to another of that huge colonial bungalow, locking each pane tightly, drawing the curtains, sealing the gaps with wet balls or twisted ‘ropes’ of crumpled newspaper.
Then, “Lock that stupid animal up,” I said, annoyed at Lopsang, our energetic Labrador, who believed we were doing all this to entertain him; he was eagerly dragging and chewing our careful stuffing to shreds.
“Come, Loppy, come,” Saurabh patiently coaxed and tricked him into a bedroom, shut the door, and as we later discovered, ‘forgot’ to latch it tightly.
The sky seemed to be getting overcast, for the blinding sunlight was appearing less white; maybe it wasn’t a dust-storm after all. I thought, “It’s going to drizzle. Much needed, this rain. For years, there hasn’t been any. This year, already we’ve had a couple of strong pre-monsoon showers and that’s how the fields are green.”
The soil in Jodhpur is clayey: even a couple of inches of precious rain gets soaked up, the baodis and lakes fill up with water and weather stays moist and humid for many days. The soil is nutritious, and baby shoots really, well, shoot up from the ground, a pleasure to behold. No wonder the farmers heartily celebrate such years, such weather, when the Gods are exceptionally kind. Why, this year the spinach, radish, brinjals and okhras were so fresh, so tasty, so aplenty we actually avoided eating sprouted pulses, our staple through the lean months.
The phone rang. I presumed it was my husband, wanting to inform me that he’d be late yet again.
The urgency in his “hullow” made my heart lurch for a fraction of a second. Bad news? We lived in an Air Force world, and fatal accidents were part of the risky profession of fighter flying.
“Ya??” I said, bracing myself for whatever he’d say next.
Unexpectedly, he urged, “Hurry and lock all the doors and windows, there are insects raining from the sky.”
“What? I don’t understand.” He wasn’t one to play practical jokes. Had I heard wrong? “What?” I asked him again.
He repeated, slowly and clearly this time: “Yes, in-sects. Locust-clouds are over us. Locusts. Hurry up and do as you’re told.”
Our house was sealed already, for we’d anticipated dust. Saurabh and I stood at the window, watching the greyness get darker, like it was going to pour. Just then, one of his friends came by on a cycle and stopped at our gate. We saw him get off, put it on the stand, then stretch a hand out and look at the sky. We saw a look of great surprise and fright come over his face. His eyes widened, he flailed his hands about as if fighting off some invisible attacker, slapping the air, and raced towards our house. As we opened the door, he shouted, “Saurabh, get a stick, something’s falling from the sky and it’s alive.”
Moments later, we were all out, Lopsang included (it never did take him long to discover some way, violent mostly, to escape from any room), surrounded by confusion. I instinctively shut the door behind me. The dog was yelping, pawing and attacking these strange creatures that fell so hard and fast, snapping at them, shaking his head vigorously. The boys were armed with badminton racquets and brooms, thwacking ‘the enemy’ with all their might, running helter-skelter, helpless against the sheer numbers. The servant and her children were wailing like it was doomsday. The insects that fell on the cement drive made light metallic sounds: ‘tuk-tuk, tuk, tuk.’ I was hypnotized: it was raining locusts. This was unbelievable. The shiny black thingies were flying in all directions, finger-long, slender, hard, thudding onto the roof, tapping menacingly at the glass panes. The enormous, grey, monstrous cloud was really a swarm. It loomed dangerously in the now invisible sky, frightening us, not too high above us. This was the look of Death, coming in from the West, as if directly from the sun, now on its downward journey for the day. Many locusts settled upon the plants, the hedge, the trees.
“Woh, oh-oh,” yelled the boys excitedly, “Look-at-that-look-there-look-here-look-look-look.”
The pretty yellow flowers, the green leaves… were gone. In seconds, these creatures had chewed them to nothingness. Other than the stalks, the bare branches, we could see nothing. The weeds, the grass, the trees, all stripped bare, all gone.
The cries of the servants were getting comprehensible: what I was witnessing was a tiny episode in a Silent Calamity. The larger destruction was happening miles away; farmers must be in despair, I thought. Their precious crop, the harvest, the result of so many months, nay, years of slogging, was being reduced to nothing at all by these migrants from Hell. Famine, drought weren’t newspaper headlines here. They were realities that drew visitors to the crematorium.
On the road, the scooterists halted their vehicles and ran inside the closest houses or shops for shelter. Unlike in the rains, there was no way they could stand ‘neath trees or awnings. Cows, goats, cats, fled where they could. We stopped our battle. We gave up. There was a sudden drop in energy levels and we watched, helpless, frail, afraid of the might of the locusts. Millions of them. Those that reached the ground seemed to disappear below the surface. They sat on their tails menacingly, then rotated and screwed their way downwards.
Dreadful, fascinating moments, those, frozen forever in our minds. The ‘attack’ lasted for less than two hours. We saw the ‘cloud’ buzz away to some other hapless destination.
Later, there was gossip that they were driven here by jealous enemies. There were rumours that wicked people had cast the Evil Eye over this kingdom (democracy or not, the locals still ‘belong’ to the Maharaja by some complicated social custom). Someone said the swarm traveled from Africa across the sea and from here it’d go towards parts of China. Politicians had a field day offering packets of relief, making full use of this unexpected opportunity. The ruling government had to declare it an emergency. A pest-control company hired helicopters to spray hundreds of hectares with toxic chemicals to kill the beasts. One of our neighbours, a scientist, told us, “The female lays her eggs about six inches down in the soil. The larvae bore their way out to whatever remains above and eat it all up as they grow into nasty adulthood.” Whatever was left to eat.
To kill them, the soil itself has to be ‘treated’. This poisoned soil won’t support any crop for a couple of years, he said. I was in tears. I have seen streams of sweat pouring down the foreheads and backs of the simple rural folk here as they tilled their meager land. Their ambitions are simple: grow food, store it, eat it until the next good-rain year. They’ve shared their spare bounty with us. A bunch of thin green pods, a sprig of mint from their backyards. Some chillies, some garlic. Anything edible is valuable here.
When the weather-gods let them down, the locals flock to the towns in search of back-breaking labour: breaking stones or ferrying sand manually in metal vessels perched on their heads. That’s the only way they can stave off starvation. Life is hard, but there’s money, there’s food. When there’s no rain, there’s drought, when there’s a good crop, these locusts pay a visit. Yet, they don’t give up the toil. Ploughing, sowing, growing, cutting, threshing, sorting, storing… routine perfected over generations, not to be given up by bad naseeb.
Mercifully, even this year, a part of the crop had been harvested and stored in tin-sheet barns, safe from obvious harm. It was treated, guarded against rodents, fungus, mould. It wasn’t going to be enough to last the district for even a year, but something was better than nothing. Many of the grafted plants, some of the ber trees, weren’t affected.
I once asked a neighbour whom I met again long years after we’d left Jodhpur, what she remembered most about the place.
“The exotic, coloured costumes, the royalty, the old-world charm?”
“The rich musical heritage, the rugged terrain, the starlit skies?”
Then she turned and looked me in the eyes. “Do you remember that afternoon when… you know, the planet seemed to turn against us, when we saw what Death looked like?”
It was my turn to answer: “Oh yes.”
That was one summer afternoon in the midst of a harvest season I wasn’t likely to ever forget.
Sheela Jaywant is a Mumbai based author of six books, which include: Quilted (stories of middle class India); Melting Moments (anthology of essays); The Liftman and Other Stories. She’s written a play, and is a columnist. She earns a living working in the administration of a hospital. E-mail: sheelajaywant[at]yahoo.co.in