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August 20, 2008 / calebdresser

Raksha Bundhan

The last overripe mangoes have been rendered for pickle and jam, and the season of apples and guavas and festivals has come. In the past weeks pilgrims have multiplied, and on certain days the local women sport intricate designs in henna on their hands. The air has lost its fire; if June was an angry dragon and July a temperamental one, then August is a dozing lover whose almost stifling breath falls warm and moist on the cheek. The nights are cool and dark and come earlier than they did at the height of summer, the stillness punctuated only by an occasional dog and the unhurried clanging of the night-watchman on his rounds.

In the houses of the village, the long sleep of summer is slowly being cast off. College classes are resuming, and there is a new air of purposefulness in the professors and the students. Young people have multiplied in the streets and markets as the need for new notebooks and old friends makes itself felt. Kushagra, the Mittal’s youngest child and only son, has fallen ill again, an issue of some concern as he begins his third year of computer science at Shobhit University tomorrow. Having spent most of the summer sleeping and lounging on low furniture, the effort of rousing himself to activity is not insubstantial, and so it comes as no great surprise that he is feeling unwell and has taken to his bed. In an airy adjoining room with bare walls and a magnificent ceiling fan, the foreigner sits as he does every night after the family supper, motionless but for the flickering dance of his fingers on black and white keys. Whatever symphony he is composing is audible only to himself.

Further into the colony, Dr. Gathala’s house stands bolted and empty. Like many others in Palavpuram, he has departed to spend the holiday weekend with his family. It is an unaccustomed gift – three whole days of freedom, in a land where even a single day of rest is for many a luxury! A kind and dedicated man, he takes his work seriously and at times forgoes even his Sunday holidays to fulfill his responsibilities. Now, however, with his rice plots growing well and a brand-new Tata automobile, he is at last able to take some time for himself. Accompanied by his wife and daughters, he has returned to his childhood home in the rolling desert scrub north of Jaipur.

It is a good time to be at home. August fifteenth is Independence Day and, more importantly for most, the sixteenth is Raksha Bundhan, a festival celebrating the sacred bond between brothers and sisters. At the Mittal’s, the festival begins in the early part of the afternoon when the air is at its most cloying; clothing sticks to the shoulder-blades, and even the bricked-in cool of the house provides only partial relief. In the shadowy inner room a dim fluorescent bulb illuminates three men standing in a line facing the unadorned east wall. On the left, as the rising sun would see it, is the slightly feverish Kushagra, tall and almost painfully thin. He is the focus today, for he is renewing his oath to protect and preserve his two sisters. Older they may be, but by long tradition they are also his charges and responsibility. In the middle stands Anil in all his professorial glory, round face fixed in its perpetual smile; his children are growing up nicely, and at least so far they have kept to the rituals and traditions he holds so dear. On the far end of the line is the pale, blue-eyed foreigner. Overabundant hair and long practice mask his emotions somewhat, but nonetheless an almost imperceptible upturning at the edges of his mouth hints at a bubbling happiness beneath his respectful exterior.

Avani and Salonie enter followed by their mother Sarikuh, who lights a little flame on the tray they hold between them. It is scattered with dishes and bracelets and rice and red powder-paste, but the centerpiece is a little pile of yellow-red cotton raki. With slow, delicate care, the girls take turns tying them around Kushagra’s right wrist. Salonie adds a little bracelet of metallic orbs strung on either side of the sacred symbol, omm; Avani daubs a spot of red onto his forehead and presses a few grains of rice into it. They hang precariously between his eyebrows, looking like tears that defied the urgent call of gravity. A spoonful of sweet rice pudding is raised to his lips, and his moment passes. The daughters of the house do the same for their father, though with far fewer raki and bracelets, and he smiles contentedly while watching the foreigner receive a raki, an omm bracelet, and a little dab of lal into which rice is gently pressed, surprisingly ticklish against his skin. The spoonfull of sugary seasoned pudding afterwards frees his lips and the hesitant smile breaks free. Lunch is cheerful and filled with a warmth no scorching midday field could hope to mimic.

In the evening, as the last light is fading, a gentle rain begins. The first fury of the monsoons passed more than a month ago, and in their maturity they have learned the art of moderation. In the foreigner’s room, a solitary lizard waits motionless on the wall above the light.



Leave a Comment
  1. Janelle Jung / Aug 20 2008 8:54 pm

    Hey Caleb!

    You have some lovely, lovely prose in this entry. It looks like all is well and good in your part of the country–no Independence Day riots, hopefully.

    How goes the research? No self-studies on malaria or dysentery? The India experience is treating you quite well indeed. With luck, I’ll get to go myself this January…

    I’ve joined Susan’s lab (woohoo!) and will be working with her and Noel and Hei on the IRRI course (woohoo!), so look for another feedback e-mail soon.

    malama pono,

    (So, apka hindi kese he?)

  2. calebdresser / Aug 22 2008 4:33 am

    Mera hindi tora-tora hai… ye log ka angrezi acche hai!

    Congrats on joining Susan’s lab- that’ll be a good time without a doubt. My work here is going the rather slow and tedious route, which seems entirely unavoidable given the culture and the technology here. Oh well…

    I just finished reading Dr. Zhivago, and was trying to write something in the style of Pasternak. Needless to say, I didn’t quite hit the mark, but I’m glad to hear you approve of what I did come up with!

  3. BenGolas / Aug 23 2008 1:30 pm

    Not to be creepy or anything, but I think Doctor Zhivago was the last book Chris McCandless (Into the Wild) wrote before he died. Sounds like a good book that I need to get my hands on sometime, but don’t starve to death please?

    Seems you certainly know a lot about dragon lovers. Very beautiful writing.

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