I went all the way north to Barrackpore for the famous Dada-Boudir biryani today, and to my complete surprise, realised it was rathyatra. (I tend not to keep track of festivals. As a wholesome, homegrown chap from the northern plains once told me, “You middle-class Bengalis are very irreligious type”). A quarter kilometre from my bus stop, two children, glittering in sequinned glory, were squabbling over a tiny wooden pagoda-like chariot. Behind them, a fifteen-foot high version of it rose dramatically from the ground, decked in flowers, streamers, incense, sweets, and huge clay models of the three limb-less sibling-gods.
As hints go, it was pretty big.
Further north, the carnivalesque was more pronounced. The streets were lined with shacks and pushcarts, and carpets of bright blue polythene for vendors too poor to afford either of the two. Painted clay dolls, glass bangles, plastic toys, cheap utensils and factory-reject crockeries were dotted with miniature pop-up nurseries, ayurvedic medicines, and no-frills carpentary. Commerce, however, was thin. Shopkeepers mostly rearranged their wares, drank tea, chatted with each other. Balloonwallahs strolled lazily about. The deep-fried stalls had just begun to warm their oil. Some of them were chopping the last of their vegetables.
And then, just as the sun was setting and the first people beginning to flock to the festive street-sides, it began to drizzle. Softly, at first, and then with some force. And the people on the streets exploded in ecstacy. Children danced away from clutching supervisory hands. Men threw back their heads, stretched their arms wide, and begged the monsoon to drop anchor. Women and sellers scrambled to cover up — the former their thin-cotton clad breasts and the latter their wares. Drops splashed into sizzling hot oil. Cassandras boasted of their prophetic prowess. “Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I say? No rain on rath yatra! As if! Didn’t I say?”. Vindication, apparently, is almost as sweet as cool showers on a steaming summer afternoon.
“They bring it on their backs”, our auto-driver said suddenly, as he slowed down to accommodate the sudden rapture. “What?”, said I, leaning forward from the back-seat. “No arms and legs, no?”, he said, nodding at the divine siblings as we crawled past a child’s rath. “So they bring the rains on their back. It’s what they say in my village”, he added, a tad defensively. The beefy gentleman next to me nodded sagely. “It’s true”, he said, focusing on me, as if I’d disagreed. “Haven’t you noticed? It always rains on rath. The monsoons begin on that day”. “But it rained day before”, I said, pointing at the leftover puddles at the sides of the street. “Oh, that”, said the driver, dismissively. “That’s not real rain. That’s just… emni brishti. It’s before the rath. It doesn’t count”.
Then he inclined his head slightly, and inhaled with great satisfaction. A huge rath rumbled down the other side of the street, swarmed by clanging bells and dancing teens. The man inhaled again, as if he could smell the aroma of the drenched soil beneath the pitch-black city roads. “This”, he said, with absolute certainty, “is the real rain”.