Updated: August 13, 2019 11:06:37 am
Did it…?” I ask on the phone. He’s more than 500 km away, in a city that is trembling from heat.
“Why do you ask me the same question every day?”
“I’m sorry,” I say quickly, as when one recoils from hurt, as if pain were a wild animal.
“I mean — why ask me something you already know the answer to?”
“How would I know whether…” I stop. Hurt, however temporary, wears tight-fitting clothes.
“You don’t ask someone suffering from constipation whether they’ve …”
His analogy — the metaphor — stays with me for days. It gives away a piece of truth — the city is now a patient, it is ailing.
I feel guilty for where I am, as I imagine the living do when they remember the dead.
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“Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” These words haven’t left me, not since I first heard them at 18. They are by Oscar Wilde, and like most of his aphoristic statements, they held true, until that bogeyman phrase “climate change”.
It hasn’t rained even once this year. My Facebook newsfeed is like a broken record. Every person from the city is complaining about its absence: with songs and photos, both celebrating a time when rain was abundant, its stubble spotting glass panes and dry streets; with protests and indictments, blaming the new agents of the devil — Pollution and Deforestation; with desire, after the sighting of a dark cloud, as if it were a messenger. These words, particularly the last, remind me of Kalidasa and his meghaduta.
People see the passage of time, of its large folds of centuries, in the changes in architecture, hair styles, and the way people travel. My father used to see it in how light and air and clouds and water have changed their lives and behaviour in the last few millennia. In other words, what would Kalidasa have written had he been living in a rainless Calcutta this year?
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“The clouds are dark today,” a friend texts, and a few hours later, “…but not dark enough apparently”. Another mistakes drizzle from a neighbour’s water-tank pipe as rain. A former colleague’s maid goes to the terrace secretively and places a broom pointing towards the sky. A friend sings Raga Megh every day. Everyone is a doctor trying to treat the patient — this city. From where I am, near the Bengal-Assam border, where everything that once belonged to people — pots and pans, clothes and documents, sleep and belief — has been snatched away by flooding rivers, I cannot be sure about who is ill — the city or the rains. The words “anorexia” and “bulimia” move between my ears. I pick up the phone immediately and ask, like a mother asking her child, whether they’ve eaten — “Has it rained …?” The summer heat has changed him. “One more time you ask this question …,” he threatens.
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My tears stick to the phone. There is more water inside my eyes than in the capital… I don’t complete the thought, the obvious. It’s become a bit like a thriller now, centred as the suspense is on the end: will it rain? This is the revenge of the non-human – the displacement of our interest in man’s fortune by our overwhelming investment in the behaviour of the elements. The whodunit has been replaced by when-will-it. Such inconsequential thoughts clot in my mind as I wait to hear of rain in Calcutta. They oppress — I try hard to free myself of them. Treating philosophy as DIY, I wade through a varied understanding of freedom — the earliest humans found themselves chained to life, as the nuns and monks in our old literatures moan repeatedly; freedom for them was a desire for an escape from destiny, from the cycle of birth. Freedom is now mostly understood as the need for an end to oppression — from institutions, from relationships, from storm. Whatever be its impulse, freedom is actually about desire.
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What is the desire for rain, and how is it related to freedom? I’m thinking of this only because of his words to me: “I want to be free — free of the desire for rain.” We might gradually grow immune to the long suffering of a sick man, but our beaks now dig deeper into anxiety when we think of what is, perhaps, a terminally-ill planet. It is impossible to be free of this choir inside one’s head — this nervousness dishevels everything, all faith and all belief in the future, of its bed and music. A few months ago, I discovered a phrase for this illness: climate grief. Was it that he was suffering from? Information is terrible food — like a joke, it begins to acquire value only when shared. It’s also like food stuck in the throat — one has to be free of it. And so, I called him. The phone rang, but it found no hand. The moment dried and became shapeless, becoming manure to my sadness.
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Was it true that he’d changed since I last saw him? I’d heard that places changed people — as if places were walking sticks that changed the way we walked! Could it be true that this thing called climate grief had changed him?
Water now divided us unequally — I don’t know whether its absence is worse than its excess, dehydration more torturous than bloating. It’d turned us into opposites — it would take weeks for the flooded water to recede, for it to move from my knees to my ankles; his skies were naked, without the calm and promise of water, as harsh as a lawsuit. Was it possible that this had turned us into different people, different kinds of people, as the language of money changed people?
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In April and May, when the two of us were closer, we seemed to be united in our complaints against the heat, comparing temperatures as if it were a competition. I’d tease him by calling him a “first boy” — Calcutta was hotter than my village in the Dooars. We laughed together, even as we felt jailed by our sweat. We wanted to be free of this inflamed summer — we used a Bangla word for our desire: mukti, mukti from this outlaw-heat. The rains were late everywhere, and we turned to history to feel less lonely — there were others like us who’d waited for the rains, we said. He mentioned Guide where Dev Anand fasts to bring rain, I told him about Baiju Bawra, a film that he hadn’t watched, where Tansen’s singing conspires to create flood.
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And then the rains came to where I was, washing out the dried warts of the summer sky — it was at first graceful, in the way economists explain “marginal utility”, then annoying, like a guest who’d overstayed, until we could bear it no longer, like currency notes that had lost their value after demonetisation. These are his metaphors, not mine. He’s the poet, I’m merely a school teacher. But that was about two months ago. He hardly spoke to me now. Even when he did, I felt like he’d lost a part of his vocabulary as one does after a stroke. The absence of rains had perhaps kidnapped his words, like it had taken away buds and leaves from plants. He hardly spoke about himself, and I sometimes felt as if I was a supervisor he was reporting to. Only a few times did the older heart sneak out, and when it did, it was always about his longing to be free.
What was it that he wanted to be free of? I worried for him. He was alone where he was — there was no one to check his pockets for used hankies, no one to touch his earlobes. Sometimes, when there is no one to touch us, even the touch of water gives quiet affection. I mentioned that to him, but he was stubborn — he just wanted to be free. “We’re only as free as puppets in their hands — I want to be free of climate, of weather …”
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There were tadpoles in the flooded courtyard outside my window. I didn’t know whether they had names, I didn’t know whether it was this that made them free.
“I know what I want to be free of,” he said one day. The line was bad, as if smoke had gotten inside it.
“Come to me,” I said. It was stony dark outside, the hour of desire and deprivation.
“I want to be free of living inside this thriller — of whether it’ll rain or not! I want to be climate-free!”
I thought I heard him cry, but I couldn’t be sure. It might have been the sound of his dry mouth.
On our wedding night, he gifted me an umbrella.
“I thought you wanted to be weather-free?” I asked, laughing, misquoting him slightly.
“Yes,” he whispered, as if the world could hear a poem growing. “But never free of wonder, of enchantment!”
I heard the umbrella swell — it didn’t matter whether it was rain or air. Like our love, like the sleep we’d soon drain into, it was still free, even climate-free.
Sumana Roy is the author of Missing
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