Hailing from a childhood both untainted and unenlightened by television, I have fond memories of the whole bunch of siblings huddled up in the box room that our parents had converted into a common study, which also served as a hothouse of succulent stories, or an impromptu theatre. Best were the nights with electricity outage when we were officially permitted to belt out the latest hits or crack jokes to our fill. The eldest had a couple of avid movie buffs in her clique at school and she felt entitled to bask in the reflected glory, insisting on acting out full length sagas complete with scripts and songs before the captive audience. She had briefly attended a music and arts school sometime in the past.
We cherished the times when our parents joined us after a supper with intriguing memories from their younger days. Sometimes, when father had a less harrowing day at the office, he would break into accounts of running out of his home to collect mangoes at night, immediately after a howling summer storm. The raging winds would have left the trees shaken and stirred, and lighter due to copious amounts of fruits of all sizes shed to the ground. He was never alone on the prowl, so many more shadows would play hide and seek in the general darkness. The competition was intense, each seemed to be equipped with a bat like sense to zoom in on the fattest pod. Those were unsung heroes of gymnastics, long jump and steeplechase, trained and equipped by primal human instincts. He fondly remembered his trusted Eveready torch which had the sharpest beam in the whole village. But it was the unwritten rule to not use such weapons for gleaning mangoes plucked off by storms. Contingencies like snakes, burglars or a stray jackal were causes agreed to be fit enough for triggering on the beams. He would not fail to add, in a quieter tone, the torches were also not to be used on unnameable things of the night.
The time they committed the cardinal mistake of doing that last thing, they all were down with high fever that lasted more than a fortnight. It was the month of June and rains had yet not come to the province. Days were hot like a furnace and scorching winds blew well beyond the nightfall. The water level in the wells plummeted so low people had to join two full-length chords to fill the buckets. One day, a brown grey haze enveloped the sky since the morning. It was so still the whole afternoon not even a blade of grass twitched in its place. That evening, not even a single bird could be seen flitting in the sky, not even a dog barked at anything. A hush fell on the peepal tree where a hundred birds had woven their nests. Sometime around the midnight, trees started creaking listlessly and a dense black duststorm crept over the land from the northwest. Peals after peals of thunder clapped beyond the rooftops, as if the sky had burst open at the midriff. Zigzag streaks of lightening flashed like a serpent’s tongue. People threw whatever water they had in front of their houses and shut their doors, praying the storm to stop raging and leave in peace. The fury of pummelling winds and whining dust lasted for over an hour. No one opened even a peephole to gauge at its spoils, long after it was gone after a swift lash of rain.
It was only prudent not to step out of one’s home to gather mangoes or even to look at the moon after such a turbulence that might have unsettled god knows what on the earth. But father was no slouch or a soggy sparrow, nor was he easily cowed. So he picked up his jute bag, well-oiled stick and the mighty torch and ventured out. As if on cue, few more doughty hearts joined him. It was a fierce storm that had brought down several trees, there was no telling how many fruit-laden branches had been pulled off the burly trunks. There were so many mangoes littered on the ground it called for a battalion to scoop them up in sacks. Instead of trying to beat each other, bearings of the moment called for teamwork and they set off like ants, fetching and piling the mangoes under the banyan tree looming on the dirt road. They must have hoarded almost a quintal of the stuff when they thought it fit to stop and come back early next morning. Returning to the spot, they were aghast to see a tall, skinny man hurriedly carrying away the booty in a huge wicker basket balanced on his head. He had a bamboo stick twice his height in his right hand, his left hand swayed to his side as he walked. ‘Stop, you thief!’ Someone bellowed, and father was not sure if it was him. Torches were flicked on in a flash but then there was not even a fly on the road! ‘Where did he go?’ someone was mightily alarmed, but was immediately hushed to silence. When the torches went out one by one, surely enough, the man was still walking on the road to the east. Father heard a dull thud on the road and turned to find his neighbour sprawled below. Not only he had fainted, he was foaming at the mouth too. Returning to their skins, they picked up the fallen foot soldier by his limbs and rushed towards the homes. The torches were pressed back into service. There was neither the man nor a mango on the road.