I’ve had a love-hate relationship with March, the onset of summers since early days. The weather in that small patch of year is just perfect, neither hot nor cold and rarely wet. The air is fragrant with panicles bursting on mango trees. Gusts of wind sweep the fallen leaves aimlessly amidst rhythmic calls of koels. Fields rustle with yellow green wheat just beyond the towns, mile after mile.
As children, we were fervently flipping back and forth the well worn text books of the year, preparing for the final tests. Cooped up in our studies we were forever stooping over our desks in lamplight, racing against the clock to brush up each chapter one last time. But as soon as the annual trials were over, we disappeared in the grove of trees surrounding our village to play souped-up versions of cricket, hockey and hopscotch.
A mile from our house there was a mango orchard lined with dense, dark trees. It was guarded by a dwindling family of black-faced langurs apt in conducting swift trials of trespassers. My discovery of their love for glucose biscuits was accidental and one that earned me free rights to the precincts. I had discovered a tall slanting tree with a bough that branched off like a recliner, in the orchard’s depths. It had become my favourite abode and I often sat there for hours, reading spy novels that were banned at home. I would pedal my way in those dreamy years, armed with contraband paperbacks hugging my stomach under the shirt. It was there that I discovered my first shades of grey when Vikrant, the incorrigibly romantic spy, he who was born to court women, rescued his voluptuous Chinese counterpart Mei-Hua from the hidden chambers of a monastery standing in the middle of a forest on a mountain slope. What followed afterwards under the stately pines blushed me to the roots of my hairs.
The ghost of backbreaking work has faithfully followed me in my sordid, lowly adulthood. Being a small cog in a commercial bank has ensured that the month called March is black-holed to oblivion under unearthly goals and mandatory book closings. Recovering from the snafu in April one year, I travelled to my village where my parents still stood guard over the ancestral fields. I was introduced to Radha, a petite young woman with a skin tone reminiscent of almonds, wrapped in a blue sari, intently staring at the floor. Her husband had perished on the roads somewhere when the lorry he was driving rammed into oncoming traffic. Her parents were farmhands who had traditionally worked in our fields, and it was quiet a transformation for the girl with dancing eyes and unruly hair when I had lived there as a boy.
I found an interesting monk with black flowing hair and dressed in saffron, sipping tea in the veranda with my father one evening. My mother clearly disapproved of him and kept grumbling under her breath while he stayed. I was told he showed up in the evenings for the cup of tea with basil leaves and sometimes borrowed from the stack of religious scriptures that my father had collected over the years. The favour was returned with the odd basket of guavas, berries or mangoes. My interest piqued when I learned he lived in a shanty by the mango orchard, guarding it for the present owners. The black-faced langurs had reportedly vanished many years ago. Typical of my mother, all she would let me have was that somehow, Murali Das, as the monk was called, was a persisting thorn in the flesh of Bhura and his family, the farmhands.
Remembering the water-filled expanses across the orchard, I slung my camera across my shoulder and proceeded on foot to the childhood haunt one morning. It was a windy day and the trees were swaying moodily, their leaves rustling hard in a ceaseless chant. The sun shone on and off through the gray-brown flotilla of clouds and I hoped to capture a good crop of images for keepsakes. The orchard lay by a dusty path across the pitch road to the north. Soon, I was standing in the thick of trees and it didn’t take me long to find out my beloved one. It seemed to have withered, poor thing, its canopy merely a shadow of its former self. A steady stream of ants was hurriedly moving across the slanting trunk.
Suddenly, the rumbling above grew deeper and there were intermittent thunderclaps too. The wind had picked up speed and trees were shedding leaves and buds mimicking the showers that would follow. Before long, fat drops of rain began pattering the canopy and the heavenly smell of moistening earth rose thickly to halt my reveries. I closed my eyes and inhaled the aroma for a long minute before I remembered the camera. Realising I had precious few moments before the expensive gadget would get drenched inside the flimsy pouch I was carrying, I dashed towards a small cabin with corrugated tin roof at the edge of the orchard. Even as I was scrambling towards it, I noticed the tiny door open for a trice before it snapped shut again and I was sure a bearded face had flashed through it.
Cursing myself for not carrying weatherproof gear, I started knocking the door with urgency but it seemed nothing in face of the uproar being caused by the wind and the trees. I wondered if the brief movement of the door I had seen was an illusion and the monk who purportedly lived in there had gone off somewhere. Soon, it was pouring with a force and my clothes were sticking to my back as water streamed down my legs. I tried to remain curled against the door with the camera pressed in between. I managed to stay in that position for the next fifteen minutes or so when the rain subsided as quickly as it had begun. And then the door to the cabin opened.
The ashen-faced monk stared blankly at me before he returned to life. He folded his hands and invited me in. Feeling sour, I almost turned away when I remembered his acquaintance with my father. I stepped in gingerly, stooping to avoid my head hitting the sill. As my eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness, I noticed a small figure huddled in a corner. Even though her face was half hidden in the veil she had worked out of her sari, I was quick to recognize Radha. ‘Bastard!’ I told myself quietly, pieces of the mystery falling in place. If it could be weighed, the silence was heavier than a hill. Eventually, I found my voice and asked the monk if he could spare a plastic bag for me, I was worried about the expensive DSLR I had recently invested in. He smiled and nodded, pulled out a black trunk from under the charpoy and started rummaging inside.
‘Sahib, you appear drenched. Do have a cup of tea.’ Radha was now directly looking at me. Then before I could answer, she started working up a kerosene stove on a tiny stool. The speed with which she proceeded to whisk up the tea suggested familiarity with the surroundings. The tea turned out much too sweet for my liking and it also had a whiff of kerosene but it left me feeling cheerful. I was also given a sturdy polythene bag and I carefully wrapped the camera in it and proceeded to leave.
The wind had dropped to a zephyr and stray drops of rain still touched my face. As I stood out of the cabin the monk folded his hands once more in a goodbye. Suddenly, I heard a commotion at my back and turned to see a group of four lunging towards us through the trees at great speed. I could make out Bhura and his son who was a spitting image of his father. There were two more rough looking men whom I didn’t know but who were probably wage workers like Bhura. They were all wielding sturdy bamboo sticks except Bhura who held a sickle, and they seemed to be in a foul mood. They were taken aback to find me there, nevertheless.
‘Namaste, Sahib-ji!’ Bhura bowed to me.
‘Namaste, Bhura!’ I said, wondering what was afoot. ‘Is there a problem?’
No one spoke for a few long moments.
‘Sahib, we are looking for Radha. Did you see her by any chance?’ His son blurted out eventually. He was gruff even though he meant to be polite.
‘Radha, your sister, right?’ I said slowly. ‘I think I saw her boarding a bus that went towards the town’.
‘When?’ many voices asked in a chorus.
‘I’d think it was an hour ago,’ I said, feigning to recollect.
‘Baba, the next bus will leave anytime now!’ The son addressed Bhura.
They seemed to huddle their heads momentarily before they left in a huff towards the pitch road. It was then that I realized that my heart was pounding loudly. As they vanished through the trees, I turned to look at the monk. His hands were already folded. His eyes were welling up fast.