It was a hot sultry afternoon. The Sun, though high up in the sky, sent waves of sweltering heat that torridly scorched the Earth down below. The leaves of the banyan tree under which Laxman sat, plying his trade, were motionless. The temple
pond to the right of the tree was placid, without ripples. Ripple less it resembled a large sheet of aluminium painted green. The banyan tree and its leaves turned phantoms assuming chimerical shapes in the green expanse of water. Occasionally a small blue kingfisher swooped in to the pond and surfaced with a tiny twitching fish, with a silver belly, in its beak. The mellifluous notes from a conch shell bassy at first, flared up shrilly and tapered off in to eternity. Nature stood silent as though waiting in awe to usher in the fair.
A single black crow suddenly fluttered from the branches of the banyan and flapped away in to the sky disturbing the stillness.
Laxman wiped the sweat on his brow with the back of his hand. He sold bangles, vegetables, camphor, incense sticks, and other pooja materials used in worship, to the people who visited the adjacent temple in the mornings, evenings, and some times in the afternoons. He had come to Rampur when he was merely 10 years old. He had started by selling toys but switched to the present trade two years later. He found selling pooja materials more lucrative and closer to his heart. He was nearing 48 and had a grown up daughter yet to be married, though past that age. It was not that she was ugly; at 29 she still looked beautiful. But Laxman did not have enough money to get her married. His only dream in life was to save enough money fast to marry off his daughter.
He never left his place of trade. He ate, slept, and lived under the banyan tree. Every morning he woke up at 3’o clock. After taking a dip in the temple pond and worshipping the temple deity, he sat under the tree beginning his trade which went up late in to the night. He plodded day after day in this manner fervently waiting for the big mele.
Lakhan sitting to his left, on the pavement, called out, “Laxman, are you not going to buy a new dhoti for the mele tomorrow?”
Lakhan was Laxman’s only friend in the world. He too had come to Rampur many years ago and like Laxman eked out a living selling a variety of hawkers’ goods like cheap watches, bags, umbrellas, and mirrors.
“You know I can’t afford to do that, I simply can’t indulge in any luxury when Radha is yet to get married,” Replied Laxman.
“But this is a very festive occasion”, Lakhan persisted. “It is once in 50 years a mele is held in this temple premises and you may not live to see another one in your life time. So we must prepare ourselves in all respects for the climacteric affair.”
“You know, what I think? The crowds at the fair will decide whether I can marry Radha off or not. From what I have heard of the fair, myriads of people throng to witness it and I can do marvellous business and save enough money to see my daughter tie the knot. I have saved some money from 40 years of my avocation and the rest I hope to garner tomorrow from the mele,” Said Laxman.
Lakhan was absently polishing his goods one by one with a worn out rag cloth. He was thinking of his mother staying in the village 75 KM north of Rampur. Lakhan loved his mother dearly. He had no other living relations. Since he was lame he was incapable of manual labor and since he was landless he couldn’t do agricultural work back in his village and so had migrated to Rampur to become a hawker.
Laxman came over and asked Lakhan “How is your mother now- a- days? Is her condition stable? I hope she is recovering.”
“She is just the same. Neither better nor worse and because of her condition I feel restless, edgy and sad, for you know how dearly I love her. She is the only living kinsperson I have in the world, and I care for her most deeply.” Lakhan replied.
“But what is the matter with her? Have you not sought medical help for her predicament?” asked Laxman.
“The last time I was in my hamlet I had taken her to the village doctor. The doctor is positive he can cure her affliction with an operation. But it requires money, at least Rs 15000. I have
not been able to salt away so much money. Unlike you, I have been here only nine years and my gleanings run to just a few thousand rupees and no more. What can I do?” lamented Lakhan.
“When I think of my mother lying ill, debilitated, and suffering alone, I feel like shutting shop and going to her, to inspirit her, to comfort and console her. But if I do that how will we live? I am lame and don’t know any other work. I can’t find any work in my village. Surely we must die of hunger then.” Lakhan continued, his sobs now turning in to wails. “Stop snivelling. There must be a way out from this quandary; after all we both supplicate before the temple deity every morning so She will see to it that no iniquity befalls your mother or you. Surely She will find a way out. “Laxman said.
“I have tried to cadge some money. I have gone around everywhere. I asked the poojari of the temple, the drummer, the conch blower, the tea stall owner…everyone, but no one has or no one is willing to lend me money. Surely I will die of this anxiety one day.” Lakhan continued as though he hadn’t heard Laxman.
The heat was beginning to subside, for by now it was evening. The evening Sun glowed like an orange marble between the branches of the trees in the distant west. The temple turret silhouetted against the azure sky resembled a large brown hawk with its beak upturned and wings spread out. The evening air was imbued with the sweet smell of fresh country grown jasmine, and it mixed with the fragrance of burning camphor, incense sticks, and oil producing a heady aroma strong enough to intoxicate a man.
There was a bustle of activity all around. Laxman felt as though the mele was being held at the branches of the banyan tree at the top. Such was the cacophony of sounds, emanating from the tree top with crows, parrots, mynhas, cuckoos, sparrows, and other birds vying with one another to find a resting place for the night.
The number of people visiting his stall steadily increased and being a sedulous individual he rejoiced at this turn of the tide. He knew he would be busy for another three to four hours. Lakhan too was busy. People visited Laxman’s stall first as it was contiguous to the main entry of the temple. Lakhan had a pact with Laxman. Laxman kept a few of the better looking goods from Lakhan’s stall along with his pooja materials and if somebody evinced interest he directed them to Lakhan’s stall. However this arrangement was not reciprocated by Lakhan because Laxman didn’t think it useful to him as in any case people visited his stall first.
This evening there are more visitors than there were yesterday or the day before thought Laxman. He was worried about his stocks. The stocks will be exhausted by the time trade is over for today, he thought gloomily. It was another eight hours before the merchant from the nearby town arrived to replenish the supply of camphor, coconut oil, agarbattis, and other pooja materials. I will have to eschew the morning trade, he thought a bit distractedly.
Somebody was shouting his name. He turned his head and saw Lakhan shouting and beckoning to him.
“What is it?” He asked.
“Word has come from the village that my mother’s condition has become worse. The doctor said that unless she is operated on quickly there is every chance that she may finally succumb to the illness.” said Lakhan now on the verge of tears.
“Oh what can I do? Oh what can I do?” He was now openly weeping. Though Lakhan had turned 32 that summer he was still puerile and prone to emotional tantrums.
“We will see what can be done. Is her condition so bad that we cannot wait for one more day? Tomorrow is the temple fair, we will be able to do spectacular business and it will give you a chance to save enough money for your mother’s operation.” Laxman said.
“I don’t know, the doctor advised to have her operated as soon as possible. But he also said since he is away on official duty the day after tomorrow he can operate on her only the day after that. But how am I going to pay for the operation?” Lakhan cried.
“As I said, by God’s grace you can save enough money for the operation from your trade tomorrow.” comforted Laxman.
“But even if my sales were to double tomorrow that may not be enough still.” said Lakhan.
Silently Laxman got up from his seat and went to the left side of the banyan tree from where a thick heavy root grew along the ground forming a sort of hollow between the trunk and the ground. He produced a key from the inside pocket of his dhoti and inserted it in to the mouth of the small lid built with cement in the hollow. He opened the make shift locker with a clock wise motion of his fingers and put his hand inside. When his hand appeared it
contained a wad of notes. He carefully counted 5, thousand rupee notes and put the rest back in to the locker.
“Here, you keep this, at the moment I can do only this much for you. For the rest you pray to God to bring in splendid business tomorrow.”
He told Lakhan standing and watching nearby.
“By any luck, by this time tomorrow you will have enough for the operation. Have faith in the celestial, She will not fail you.” added Laxman.
Lakhan still moody, thanked Laxman and returned to his stall.
The next day being the village fair day Laxman went to bed earlier than usual. As soon as he lay down he fell asleep.
At first Laxman thought the roaring sound was coming from the temple. They have started bursting crackers very early today, he thought drowsily. Then he suddenly remembered today was the temple fair. The time was half past two in the morning. Again the rumble sounded. Laxman shifted uneasily. This time he made no mistake. He could clearly distinguish between the rumble of thunder and cracker explosions. He quickly came out from under the banyan tree and looked up at the sky. There was not one star visible, the sky seemed to be cloaked in a heavy blanket of dense black clouds. All around the air was still and Laxman could faintly make out the flickering dim lights of the nearest town in the distant north.
As the whole neighbourhood lay asleep unguarded, unsuspecting, and unprepared, the rain struck suddenly and unsolicited with murderous force.
Pellets of rain drops each the size of marble balls hurtled down from the sky and Laxman ran under the banyan tree for cover.
The rain lasted for 15 hours with small intermittent breaks. The fair, the gaiety, the celebrations, the trade, the crowds… everything was washed away by the rain.
The rain also washed away Lakhan’s hopes and Laxman’s dreams.
4. Agarbatti-incense stick used in worship
5. Rampur- a village in India