Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Narayan Debnath – The ‘Comic’ Legend From Bengal

There is a distinct musty, old-world charm about the room. The windows, the doors, and the moldy walls remind of a quaint world, of a timeless Bengal. This is exactly true of the occupant of the room as well.

His working table lies in a mess, stuffed with various drawing material: bottles of black ink, a few brushes, and a dusty old drawing board.  Clad in his typical Bengali traditional attire of dhoti and lungi, Narayan Debnath might be in his nineties but his love for drawing comic strips remains as intense as ever. 

Renowned all over Bengal as the icon of Bengali comics, Debnath is the creator of celebrated comic characters like Nonte Phonte, Handa-Bhonda, and Batul the Great, among a host of others. For generations of children in Bengal, Debnath’s works have served as a great source of entertainment on idle afternoons. He is also credited to be the person who introduced the habit of reading comics in Bengali culture. Debnath’s works are now being translated into English to reach a wider audience and are, expectedly, finding quite a few takers.

Narayan Debnath
Born and brought up to a family of goldsmiths in Shibpur (Howrah, West Bengal) in the late 1920s, Narayan Debnath took a fascination to illustrating and cartooning from a very early age when he designed patterns for gold jewelry.  His father, thankfully, saw his knack of making excellent illustrations while he was still a young boy. To further hone his illustrating skills, he prompted a young Debnath to join the Indian Art College in Moulali, Kolkata after his schooling. It was during this period that Debnath did his first professional work: making illustrations for local film posters. “I used to draw the titles of many a film in my own creative ways. After that I also got the job to draw advertisements which used to appear during the interval time of movies,” reminisces Debnath.

With time his works got noticed and he got the job as an illustrator in Deb Sahitya Kutir - a leading publishing house in Kolkata in the late 1940s. Here, he went on to draw many an illustration for children’s books, like Bane Jangale and Bagh Bhalukker Deshe or the Tarzan series in Shuktara, a children’s magazine. However, it was comics that he was destined to create for life.  In the early 1950s, the editors at Shuktara asked him to draw a regular comic strip for them. Though Debnath was initially taken aback, as he had no prior experience of drawing comic strips, he took up the challenge with vigor. The rest, as they say, is history.

This was how the now famed comic characters of Handa BhondaNonte Phonte and Batul the Great were born. First to come was Handa Bhoda which was an instant hit. The series features the adventures of two goofy friends, Handa and Bhonda – the former is extremely impish and always gets the latter in trouble. Their comical misadventures connected to the readers and Handa Bhonda still remains immensely popular. After its super success, Debnath was requested to create more such comics and thus came the emergence of Nonte Phonte – a series focused on two friends, quite in the lines of Handa Bhonda, who also do social service – and Batu the Great.  “It was great fun drawing them; I used to take inspiration from people around me, especially when I used to visit the marketplace. It was a sea of unique and funny characters and situations, and my comics have a blend of all those in many ways” says Debnath smilingly. 

Though he went on to create a few other comic series like detective mystery Kaushik Roy, Shukti-Mukti, Bahadur-Beral, and the likes, none quite enjoyed the success of Honda Bhonda, Batul and Nonte Phonte. By his own admission, his favourite remains Batul the Great which he really relishes drawing. “It was in 1965 that Batul was created. He is a huge boy with an overlarge chest and arms and very thin legs. He was in the mold of a superhero which I exploited as the India-Pakistan war happened in 1971. I made him fight on our side and made him throw tanks and boulders at the enemy, thus helping us achieve victory,” chuckles Debnath.

However, Debnath got so involved in creating comics that the illustrator in him slowly faded away, a fact he rues but can’t do much about either as he simply doesn’t have enough time for them at this stage.

His comics, however, got so popular that television channels made an animated series on a few of them, something which Debnath doesn’t quite approve of.  And neither is he a fan of today’s new-age comics. “Today’s comics have lost the innocence that was once associated with them.  There is too much violence which creates a negative impact on children.  Comics are to entertain and to laugh about,” says Debnath with a tinge of annoyance. 

Myself with Narayan Debnath at his ancestral home in Howrah, Kolkata

Debnath got a further boost in his popularity when a book titled Narayan Debnath: Comics Samagraha (By Lalmati Publications), consisting of all his famous works, including some unpublished ones, was launched at the Kolkata Book Fair in 2011. What’s more was that the Executive Board of the Sahitya Akademi chose Debnath's Comics Samagra for its Bal Sahitya Puraskar for 2013. It came in quite late in his life, but the acknowledgment was well-deserved indeed.

The book, incidentally, has been created by a local fan Shantanu Ghosh, a manager in a Pharma company who has been collecting all his strips with pains for more than a decade. “I was the greatest Narayan Debnath fan and collected all his works from a very young age. By the 7th standard, I had collected about 60-70 pages and by 2008 had made around 1000 pages. I had great difficulties in collecting them all; I even cut out strips when I used to get my tiffin break in the office. I approached many publications but got rejected. Finally, Lalmati accepted. The response to it was phenomenal and it continues to sell extremely well,” says Shantanu excitedly.

At 92, Narayan Debnath certainly is not getting any younger. Troubles with arthritis and other myriad ailments have weakened him considerably and he can barely walk and talk with comfort. However, the passion for creating new ideas in his comics is still thriving. His wife, unfortunately, passed away a few years back and all he has with him now are his three grandchildren and his work.  “I will never get tired of this. I can’t think of giving this up. What else shall I do then? This is the only thing that keeps me going. This is who I am,” says he.

Narayan Debnath’s comics are still thoroughly enjoyed by scores of children across Bengal. All of his popular comic strips, in fact, are also published as separate comic books. There is a certain innocence, simplicity, and charm in his stories that connect to his readers, something you will very rarely find in comics these days. One sincerely hopes that in this computer age of video games and digital comics, this ‘comic’ legend from Bengal would continue standing tall and keep creating his magic that would enthrall readers for generations to come.


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

In conversation with Karthik Laxman – author of ‘Unreal Aliens’

When I had discovered the ‘The UnReal Times’ about three years back, I had become an instant fan. I remember chuckling, and at times guffawing while going through their hilarious content- primarily focused on humor through satire, spoof, and parody.

I was hence delighted when they announced ‘Unreal Elections’, their debut novel back in the summer of 2014 when election fever was its peak. The book was a runaway hit and won accolades for its witty and zany humor. Back then, I had spoken to the authors of the book, C.S Krishna and Karthik Laxman (also the founders of the website), along with their star writer, Ashwin Kumar, for a story I did on my love for The UnReal Times.

Cover of the book 'Unreal Aliens'
Reading Unreal Elections was a memorable and unique experience – it was the first time I had read a satirical novel of suck kind. After I was done with it, I waited patiently for their next book to arrive. And finally, after three years, we have been served with ‘Unreal Aliens’. Authored solely by Karthik Laxman this time, Unreal Aliens gives us a glimpse (need I even say a wacky one?) of what would transpire in the Indian political circles if aliens from outer space were to arrive in the country.

A software engineer from Chennai who dabbles in myriad jobs, Karthik Laxman shares his views on his latest book in this interview. Read on.

Q. So let’s begin with the clich├ęd question first. How did it feel like being back to authoring a book after a gap of more than two years?

Karthik Laxman at the launch of his latest book
Karthik Laxman: I can’t believe you started with a “Kaisa lag raha hai apko” or “How do you feel” question J You must be a journalist! Just kidding. It feels great! It feels natural. When we finished the first book “Unreal Elections” (I co-wrote it with CS Krishna) we went through some kind of withdrawal. It felt weird to go through the day not thinking about how I would write the next chapter or scene. We always wanted to write another one, and we had ideas too. However, Krishna wasn’t able to contribute to “Unreal Aliens” because of his job commitments. After waiting for him for a while, I decided to write it myself. Hence the gap of 2 years.

Q. What kind of preparation or planning is required for a book of this nature? Can you give us a brief idea?

Karthik Laxman: I suspect it differs for different people. What I generally like to do is: (a) Identify a core premise, and the broad storyline (b) Strengthen the storyline, add threads, and write down a chapter wise outline (c) Come up with interesting scenes for each chapter (d) Research, write and edit (e) Share the chapter / scene with someone and take feedback (especially in cases when I’m not completely sure if the scene works). It also helps to thrash out ideas with others. For instance, for Unreal Aliens, Ashwin Kumar (URT writer) was greatly helpful in bouncing off ideas and taking feedback. I also discussed ideas with my wife, Anjali.  It took me around 6-7 months to write the book. Once I figured out the chapter outline, I set weekly word targets and more or less stuck to it.

Q. Political satire as a genre is still at the nascent stage in Indian fiction. Does writing comedy/satire come naturally to you? Are you jocular in person as well?

Karthik Laxman:  After 5 years of writing for The Unreal Times, satire and humor does come a lot easily to me than other genres. Yes, I suppose there aren’t many books on political satire at the moment. So it feels good to contribute to this space with two books, and hopefully more in the future.

You’d have to ask my family and friends if I am a jocular guy or a painful guy! But I like to think that I’m easy going and on occasions can be good company.

Q. The last time I spoke to you, you had mentioned that you would like to explore geopolitics in your next book. Have you managed to do that with ‘Unreal Aliens’?

Karthik Laxman: Yes, my initial storyline for the second book was geopolitical satire – a lot to do with Pakistan in particular. There is indeed a Pakistan thread in Unreal Aliens, but the focus is more on what happens in India. But I hope to do another later on where Pakistan is central to the plot.

Q. The title and summary of your book is quite interesting. Where did this idea – both for the title and the story – come from?

Karthik Laxman: I had done an article on The UnReal Times a few years back on how Arvind Kejriwal would respond should an Independence Day-style alien invasion happen in Delhi. This was during his 49-day stint as the CM. In the article, we had Kejriwal doing all sort of things that you typically associate with him – doing a dharna demanding that the aliens leave India, calling aliens Modi agents and Ambani agents etc. I enjoyed writing it and the piece got a good response. I then had the idea to expand that to an entire book. I didn’t spend much time on the title. “Unreal Aliens” was a working title – I decided to retain it after.

Q. Given the political scenario these days, where loyalists of every political group take offense to any and everything, were you apprehensive about writing a book which openly takes names of political personas and pokes fun at them?

Karthik Laxman: Not really. Mostly because I have been doing that anyway through The UnReal Times. And also because we already did Unreal Elections which similarly took names of political personas. I must give credit to Penguin here, especially the editor of Unreal Elections, Anish Chandy, who was determined not to change names, despite the advice of Penguin lawyers. Unreal Elections set a precedent, and because of that Unreal Aliens was no problem at all.

Q. How closely did you follow the feedback from your last book by the average readers and how much of an effect did it have when you were writing Unreal Aliens’?

Karthik Laxman: The first book drew mostly positive feedback from readers. It was rated 4.3/5.0 on Amazon and 4.2/5.0 on Flipkart. There were obviously a few critical comments too, which I took note of. In particular, a handful of readers pointed out that there were a bit too many GRE words in the book. A few others didn't enjoy the sanctimonious ending. So I decided to consciously avoid highfalutin words in this one (Are you smiling at me using the word highfalutin to say what I just said?). I also made this book racier than the first one. It is pretty much a one-sitting read!

Q. What has the initial reactions been for the book so far? Has any political person read your book?

Subramanian Swamy (second from left), Bibek Debroy (third from left)
and Karthik Laxman at the book launch of Unreal Aliens 

Karthik Laxman: Initial reactions have been great! The book has an average rating of 4.7 / 5.0 on Amazon and almost all are glowing reviews. As to your second question, I have been channeling my inner Rajdeep Sardesai :) by going and meeting various personalities and gifting them a copy of the book. So far I have met Dr. Subramanian Swamy, Prof Bibek Debroy, Shri Baijayant Jay Panda. Prof Debroy and Dr. Swamy gracefully agreed to launch the book, and we had a hilarious launch event on the 21st of November. Prof Debroy, in particular, said that he loved my book. He called me up a few hours after I gave him the book and said that he was halfway through the book and that he had never laughed like that in a long while, and that his wife thinks he has gone mad. That made my day. I don't know if Dr. Swamy read the entire book, but he did say at the launch that it is a well-researched book.

Q. How long did it take for you to finish ‘Unreal Aliens’?  Writing a book like this must not have been easy. Any particular anecdote from the writing days you would like to share?

Karthik Laxman: Effectively it took me 6 months to write the book. That seems like a long time compared to other writers who usually manage a lot more in lesser time. Sometimes I tend to get obsessive about stuff I've already written, editing and re-editing it again and again. The objective was to ensure that at least 50% of the book should make me smile or chuckle every time I read it. I feel I achieved quite a bit more than that.
The one thing I remember rather vividly from my Unreal Aliens writing journey was the constant badgering encouragement from my agent, Kanishka Gupta. He'd send me Whatsapp and Facebook messages non-stop. This is how I've mentioned him in my acknowledgments: Kanishka Gupta, my agent and also the best chaser after Virat Kohli. I still get nightmares of receiving text messages from him saying ' Done???', ' Any Updates??' or ' Finish Fast!!'

Q. In the last interview with me, you had mentioned that Manmohan Singh was your favorite political personality on who you enjoy writing the most. Who occupies that position at present?

Karthik Laxman: Arvind Kejriwal is my current favorite personality. The man gives so much material! And we get such good response to articles on him.

Q. Can you tell us, without giving away any spoilers, which part of the book did you enjoy writing the most and why?

Karthik Laxman: I liked writing all the entry scenes for various characters. If I had to pick one, it would be Dr. Swamy's entry scene. I read this out in my launch event. I liked writing the Epilogue as well. Just thinking about it makes me chuckle :) In fact, there are so many scenes I love. The cricket match, for instance. That was one of the first things I wrote. I had the idea on a car trip from Dehradun to Delhi. The moment I got home, I pulled out my laptop and started typing it out.

Q. So what next, then? Any plans for the next book? Any hint that may keep us excited and waiting?

Karthik Laxman: I definitely want to keep writing. I have a life goal of writing at least 20 books. There are a few ideas for the next one. There's one involving time travel. Modi and a bunch of others go back in time to change some unexpected future event. There's another romantic cum political satire idea. There's also an idea to spoof Indian chick flick novels. I haven't zeroed in on any one yet.

Q. Is it a conscious decision to stick to political satire? Yes, I know politics gives you unlimited opportunities to play around with satire. But, what about Bollywood? Isn’t that too filled with countless quirky characters you can play with? Any particular personalities you would like to explore there?

Karthik Laxman: No, I definitely want to branch out. For all the sound and fury on Twitter, there are limited segments of the population who follow politics. And there are even fewer who read books on politics. I started off with political satire because it comes far more easily to me. I'll try something else soon - probably something in the romance genre with a tinge of satire and humor. I wish I could do something in Bollywood, but I hardly follow Bollywood and don't have that good a perspective on it. Nevertheless, thanks for the idea. Let me try and come up with an idea on it! :)

Q. The last one. Imagine you are writing the biographies of the following personalities. What would their titles be?

Karthik Laxman:

Arvind KejriwalMe, myself and Modi

Digvijay Singh: RSS ka haath

Arnab GoswamiWhat the nation wants to know

Subramaniam SwamyHow to coin acronyms and send netas to jail

Donald TrumpHow I grabbed Presidency by the pussy

Barkha DuttThe headmaster's son

Sonia GandhiRemote control for dummies

Kanhaiya KumarMemoires of a JNUSUSU president

Aamir KhanFrom intolerance to tolerance: my Bollywood journey

Akhilesh YadavThe cycle diaries

You can buy Unreal Aliens here:

Monday, November 28, 2016

When Cartoons Made My Life: A Tribute To The Golden Age Of 90’s Cartoons (Part -1)

People who know me genuinely are well aware of my fascination and adoration of animated cartoon shows, from the 90s that is. It’s hence rather odd that I have never really explored this love on my blog, a platform where I have shared some of my most intimate stuff. I have mentioned this love in passing, yes, but never really delved deep into the magic and the aura those cartoon shows had in my life.

Again, it’s odd because that phase consists of the most beautiful chapters of my life; chapters that were delightful and enchanting, that were warm and fuzzy. And today, for some inexplicable reason, I yearn to unfold those chapters once more. At this stage in my life, I desperately need a soothing balm of sorts and reliving those magical days here would, perhaps, present me with that.

It all began way, way back. Back when there was no cable television, no internet, no DVDs. Just plain old Doordarshan.

Some of my very first memories of cartoons are the extremely simple ones that aired on Saturday afternoons. Panchatantra comes to mind first.  I have faint memories of this but do remember watching an old sage sitting under a tree and reciting stories of birds and animals to a group of children with a moral message at the end. It was very pure and simple and yet quite pleasing.

Then there was Spider-Man. Oh yes, Spider-Man. As a young kid of about 5 years, it was quite captivating to watch a man in a red suit crawl up the walls, jump from buildings and shoot webs out of his hands.

Then came He-Man. Oh boy! That one had a massive impact on me. “I have the power!” became the catchphrase of my life then and holding my plastic cricket bat, I would go around the house repeating the phrase with a lot of passion. The fact that He-Man was so muscular made him my instant hero those days.

There were some other cartoons too here. There was a show about a scientist with a big flying cycle or something and one about a young boy’s adventures in a jungle. I don’t remember their names but did enjoy them.

I never paid much attention to the storylines then, not in details anyway. But the visuals were certainly quite attractive. I loved the simple drawings and vivid colors of the animation. And perhaps it was because of this, that I developed a taste and love for drawing – mostly cartoon characters (included a lot of He-Man) – at this time; a hobby which served me well for years to follow.

Those initial cartoon days, as it turned out, were just a prelude of things to come. Some very awesome, awesome things.

When I was about the age of 8, cable TV was still at its nascent stage and Doordarshan was thriving on an assortment of cartoon shows that kids simply adored. This was actually just about the time when, what I love to call as, the ‘Golden Age’ of cartoon shows was beginning. Any Indian kid who grew up in this phase would agree, I think. This phase produced so many marvelous gems that I was spoilt for choice.

It was in this phase that the Sunday morning of 90s kids got a special essence. Sundays weren’t just holidays back then. They were an event in themselves.

The dawn of magnificent cartoon shows like ‘The Jungle Book, ‘Duck Tales’, ‘Tale Spin’, ‘Mickey Mouse’ and ‘Tom and Jerry’, all back-to-back, meant that countless of children across the country would sit glued to their television sets every Sunday morning.
I remember sitting on the floor of my house and quietly munching on a plate of ‘poha’ or ‘upma’ while not being able to take my eyes off what would be transpiring on TV. The beautiful animation and the quirky stories had the ability to draw me into their world of fantasy while pulling me away from my world of reality. It was incredibly enthralling.

I distinctly remember the excitement of getting up each Sunday morning and then waiting for the ‘cartoon hour’ to begin. That was just pure, unadulterated and wholesome entertainment and all the kids of the house (along with a few adults as well) would congregate in front of the TV at my room and relish those couple of hours. There were times when a particular episode would be left at a cliffhanger and I would then restlessly wait for it through the week. Also, Saturday nights then would be the best then. The wait for the ‘cartoon hour’ in the following morning as I would lie in bed at night was a wonderful feeling.

There would also be animated discussions galore with cousins at home and then with friends at school about the episodes watched. We would intricately dissect which show was better than the other, what was good about it, and which characters left an impression for precisely what reason. Those were fascinating discussions, I tell you. And I never tired of them.

Things, however, were about to get much better.

The mid-90s in India saw the birth of something which revolutionized cartoon viewing forever.

With the coming of Cartoon Network, things took a monumental turn. The channel introduced me to such an amazing plethora of animated shows that, to put it simply, I felt like I had been given the keys to the doors of heaven. Prior to this, what I got was two, at best four, hours of cartoons. But the Cartoon Network became a gateway to unabated, high-quality cartoon shows that unlocked a new and glorious chapter in my life.

I remember when I had first discovered the channel. Unlike today, there weren’t any big promotional events those days and Cartoon Network had sprung on me quite of the blue. If my memory serves me correct, the channel first aired for a few hours every day from 5 PM onwards or something, before progressing into a full-fledged, 24-hour channel.

It was an unbelievable time for a cartoon-loving kid. I was introduced to such marvelous cartoons like The Looney Tunes, Scooby-Doo, The Flintstones, The Batman, Yogi Bear, Richie Rich, Dexter’s Laboratory, Swat Kats, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Johnny Bravo, Captain Planet, Popeye, among a host of other absolute veritable treasure troves. Ah, those were good days! No, those were incredible days!

Within no time, Cartoon Network, along with a few other cartoon shows from different channels, had enveloped my life.  I looked forward each day to coming home from school, plonking myself in front of the TV and getting immersed in the world of cartoons. The gorgeous animation, the superlative stories, the catchy background scores, and the brilliant characters had me in their grip completely. My cartoon-watching time was limited to about 8 PM, though, after which my father would come home from work and take over the television for news and I would be forced to tend to my homework. But even then, I would manage to catch a few minutes of those cartoons at every opportunity I got.

Then, there would be those half-days and vacation days where I got to completely dedicate myself to my cartoon world (except during exam time, of course. Darn those exams!). I can tell you, with a lot of confidence, that there are very few things in my life which has given me as much pleasure as the sheer joy of watching my favourite cartoon shows those days, uninterrupted, all through the day, and in the dark.

A special mention must be made here for Durga Puja and winter vacations. During that period, these two holiday seasons somehow gave me the very best time of my cartoon-loving days.

During every Durga Puja in those days, my cousin uncle’s family (we lived in a joint family) would be off for their vacations. This would give me about a fortnight of unhindered cartoon-watching in their room, in front of their TV set, all through the day. I would get up in the morning, go to their room and then proceed to watch cartoon shows all day long. Even as my city would celebrate Durga Puja, with the sound of Rabindrasangeet and the twinkle of decorative lights streaming in from the window nearby, I would sit quietly in front of the television and soak in the world of the Flintstones, the Jetsons, Scooby-Doo, and much more.

The winters provided their own charm for my cartoon love. Snuggling in to warm blankets and watching Tom and Jerry marathons, ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ reruns, and other Christmas specials of The Looney Tunes, Yogi Bear, et al, through the week was incredibly delightful. I would curl up all day long and watch these in the dark, feeling very warm and fuzzy.

Time flew by and I grew up. But my love for cartoons never quite diminished. I still found time for them even while I was in the 9th and 10th standards. Dexter’s Laboratory, Courage the Cowardly Dog, The Gummi Bears and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles  were the ones that made life pretty pleasant in this period, especially amidst falling grades and the pressure of exams.

Slowly, though, some of the classic cartoon shows began making way for the newer, modern-age cartoons. And try as I might, I simply could not connect to them. The focus seemed to be more on extreme wackiness rather than great storytelling and beautiful graphics. As I passed out from school then, it seemed that I had also left a part of my Golden Age behind.

Added to this was the fact that I was now getting into the age where other, superficial things of the world mean a great deal to me. Television and cartoon shows slowly took a backseat then.

But soon enough, though, I developed a great taste for animated movies. In the past few years, I have watched and thoroughly enjoyed countless animated films. But even though I continue watching them from time to time today, I feel they lack the same charm and appeal of those cartoon shows.

And now, at this stage of my life, I somehow long for the days of my past. Those endearing cartoon shows, which played the most prominent part in making my childhood so beautiful, are being dearly missed. Hence, I have been getting hold of almost all my favourite cartoon shows these days and am really relishing rewatching them.

It's a relief, I must admit. By reconnecting to the simplicity and purity of that era through these cartoon shows, I feel a lot of the gloom that has built up in me these past few years is being slowly siphoned off. They also help tingle the child in me and have forced me to take repeated trips down my Golden Age of cartoons once again.

In the following parts (I have planned for two more, but it can extend to three), hence, I will be discussing, at length, all the cartoon shows that left an impact on me from that era: what I loved about them in particular, what set them apart, their takeaways, and the likes.

I am quite excited about this, really. To be honest, it is after quite some time a spark has been triggered in me about something. Perhaps if I fuel that little spark properly, it will help me bring out the fire that has been missing inside. But I digress…

I now look forward to savouring my favourite old cartoon shows take a dip down memory lane and present my detailed take on them. It will be a fun ride, I think. And now that winter is setting in, I am going to enjoy this even more. You see, it’s been a long time since I snuggled in to warm blankets, curled up in the dark and soaked in the world of cartoons. Perhaps I will evoke that warm and fuzzy feeling all over again. Perhaps I will also get a whiff of that part of my life…That part when cartoons made my life…

To be concluded...

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Of those rainy days from my school life…

There’s just something about rains, isn’t it? I can’t really put a finger to it, but watching rains – at least from the confines of my home – always tends to stir me up. Be it the smell of the moist earth and air right before the rains begin, the light pitter-patter of the raindrops outside the window or just watching the rains fall by brings a certain sense of calmness in me.

Presently, unseasonal rains here, in Kolkata, have had a pleasant effect on my mood, which hadn’t been very uplifting of late. I stand at my balcony and look at heavy rains lashing the streets below me. I stretch my right hand out wide and try to let the natural water cleanse it. It’s a habit borne out of the fact that I was told as a child that rain water can cleanse all kinds of rashes in the body. As I do so, I notice two school girls, both clutching one umbrella, cross the street while trying to combat the heavy rain. All the while they are laughing and literally screaming in joy even as the umbrella is almost flung away from their hands.

The scene suddenly makes me wonder. Where are my memories of my interactions with rains from my school days?  While I have lovingly looked back at several rain-related moments from my past from time to time, they have almost always been from the inside of my house and from my naani-ghar days. Why haven’t I recalled such moments from my school life? School, after all, plays one of the most significant parts of anyone’s existence. And after scraping around my memory bank for a bit, I realize I do have a few of them.

During my kindergarten days, my class was situated in a large hall – called the Montessori hall – which had three other classes in it, divided by little fences. While I don’t have many rainy day memories from that phase, I do remember a few things.

I recall that during heavy rains, some pigeons would come by and take shelter outside the hall’s large windows. I would be fascinated by them. As soon as I would spot a few of them, I would run to the windows, while maintaining a safe distance out of fear, and watch them with wide-eyes. The pigeons continuously ruffled their body to shake off the rain water and keep scratching under their wings with their beaks for some reason.

Then there was this day when it was really raining heavily. At first, it went really dark outside and then it suddenly started pouring. The windows of the hall started banging against each other and the booming of the clouds reverberated across the hall. The aayas had a tough time closing the windows and we were all asked to congregate at the center of the room because water was really streaming in through the windows. A lot of kids were crying and many were shaken. But I was actually enjoying it. Firstly, the studies had been canceled and secondly, the cold and dark atmosphere really made me feel all fuzzy and warm inside.

During my Primary section days, I mostly used to sit right at the corner of the classroom (I really love corners for some reason), just by the large windows, overlooking some tall, white buildings. On rainy days, I remember just gazing outside the window at the gloomy sky above and letting the drone of the teacher fade away in the pattering of the rain outside. The droplets of water would fall on the windowpanes and slowly trickle down the glass like a snake, and I would find it engrossing to watch. 

I especially enjoyed the rains during my library periods on Saturdays. There was nothing like being seated at a corner, by the window, and reading my favorite Enid Blyton adventure stories with the thrumming sound of the rain drops crooning at my ears.

By my Secondary days, I had, for lack of a better word, become quite the jerk as most teenagers are. The rainy days would allow me and my classmates to halt the studies. With every crash and boom of the clouds above, a few of us would shout and go “wooooooo” to create a disturbance while smiling wickedly. The “wooooooo” would then slowly spread to all the others in the classroom who would shout it every time there would be a clap of thunder, thus creating a clamor so great that it would be impossible for the teacher to continue.

When the rains would get heavier, though, we would all run outside the classroom to the verandah. It gave me a chance to pretend like a filmy hero: stretching out my hands to feel the rain, splashing the water on my face with my eyes half-closed, while trying to notice if the pretty girls from my class were watching. It was all good fun. Especially as it allowed us those precious few minutes away from the studies and just shout and scream and relish the rain.

I wish I had some more of these rain-related moments to recount. But regardless, I know that I shall always look back with fondness at those few ones from my school days that I do have in my memory. The sad part, though, is that while I can enjoy several more rainy days for the rest of my life, the ones from my school life are now gone forever.

It's late afternoon now. The rain has stopped and the sky is clearing up a bit. I suddenly notice a pigeon sitting on the railing of the verandah, at a little distance from me. It bobs its head around and then ruffles it body. A spray of rainwater squirts out of its feathery body and it then proceeds to scratch its feathers with its beak. Even as I look on, fascinated, the pigeon tilts its head upwards, perhaps to scan the sky for rain. After ensuring that the rain had indeed subsided, it leaps off the railing in a fluid motion and flies away swiftly.

I watch the bird fly away into the sunset, with, strangely, a tinge of sudden sadness. Perhaps a part of me felt that the pigeon was carrying away with it, my memories of those rainy days from my school life. If only I could have asked it to stay a bit longer…I think a little boy who I knew wanted to observe it some more.