Catherine Lalrodingi transports us to a storm ravaged night at a small town in Mizoram…
Constant pattering raindrops, sluicing down the rusted-red tin of the roof journeyed down the gutter with simmering sounds. The mustiness of its melody was enough to lull one to sleep in the night’s darkness, as it cast out all other night sounds that a summer’s eve might have displayed in another time and place. The rain was thick, heavy, each and every drop ramming against the roof in dense, sharp echoes before it dispersed in dark, forceful monotony. And… how the wet wind pushed against the cracked tiles of the house’s wall.
For her it might as well seem that nature had responded to her emotions – frustration and suppressed rage that left this sting of slow burn upon her chest. Her thoughts brimmed with lingering traces of men chattering in the room, some with ecstatic hoots of laughter, smelling of booze and loud, brainless voices. She would throw them out if she could then, kick them all the way to the gutter. Who cares? It was only her civility that kept her looking sane, while on the inside was the remnant of a broken, messed up soul who felt very lonely whenever she thought of anything that was anything at all. There was no one left now, though. They had the whole place smelling like a bar about thirty minutes ago though she never sold booze nor brewed it. Her reputation as a cast-off, ex-wife of a beer-skin of a man, a “thlawi”, still young and hale left all doors open to them, no matter how many times she closed them up. So who cares about a rickety house?
If she looked up to her left from the window where she had been sitting, she would see a large cane-basket, stiffly woven. It was her tool of trade, which she always cradled upon her back every damned day, filled with all kinds of vegetables that she bought from the farmers, which she hoped to earn a small commission out of. Her tool of trade, it was true. It was her all in all, her whole world upon her back… though not counting her three daughters of course, who in any case would be something much more. As for this house, it was her father’s at least, and good that her husband would have no right to claim it no matter how much he might cry. Though of course, the roof leaks with heavy rain, and the earthen wall upon which it was propped was getting crumbly. More so this very night, which had been taking up most of her attention right after the rain started.
Though the power had been out for nearly two hours now, there was still a flicker of eerie-glowing daylight in traces all across the room where she sat stone-stiff. A candle was also burning red in the corner, its flame constantly flickering as the wind pushed and rammed the house. So damned cold it was, water coming down from the roof in drizzles. The three girls were scared, but it was no question that homework must be finished and school-shoes be cleaned before bed no matter how much the thunder might have scared them.
She had been staring outside, where only a great, dark earthen wall was visible before her eyes. Such a sight was usual if you live in the hills, she often mused. You have either the hill to block you at your right, a slanting ridge at your left, or vice versa. The month’s constant rains have taken its toll, bearing it down with stress and water, helped no less by the fluids of kitchen waste and pigsty from the neighbours far above them. It was no use complaining, of course. She wanted to avoid causing a neighbourhood uproar as long as she could help it. The earth looked loose, broken, washed and crumbling steadily even so before her eyes. It looked a lot like her father’s old jhum before the family abandoned it for a more thankful trade elsewhere because of the landslides.
She looked up suddenly, like one snapped out of a trance. Her eldest daughter, twelve, was looking at her with terror in her large, round eyes.
‘We’ve finished our homework. May we go to bed now?’
‘It’s only past eight,’ she snapped.
Two other anxious faces were behind the girl, half-hidden in darkness, hoping for a ‘yes’, biting their lips. They didn’t want a drunken ‘uncle’ coming in again while they were awake, or they will never hear the end of it.
With a heavy heart, mother rose from her chair, finally drawing her full body away from the window (it was a mode of escape from what she called her mundane life; her window to the world) and followed with her eyes the three girls scuttling around for their discarded books and bags. Clearly, a single candle was just not enough for this house. An electric pole might have been toppled somewhere by the draught and they’d have to be in darkness just a bit more. So, contrary to other nights when the power was well and on when the girls would go to their friend Rempuia’s house only a short distance down the lane to watch some dubbed serial on TV, they headed for the big bed, still unmade from that morning.
Suddenly stopped in their tracks with a loud, pounding thump on the door.
And another. So loud and furious that Rami’s blood froze, reminded of the thunder that thrummed.
‘Open up, will you!’ cried a voice. ‘Open this right now!’
The door was shaky and rattling in its hinges. Rain was pouring inside from the little gap above floor level.
‘Are you mad or something? Open up! Please!’
Rami wasn’t usually this slow at reproaching, but that night had been extra stressing because she had returned late with only half her wares sold up, to find the house in a mess and a drunk sleeping in the corner, who refused to move for over two hours.
She then went to the door, and after a brief pause, holding her breath she opened it. In doing so, she could have sworn that the scared girls at the other end of the room were holding their breaths.
‘Who…?’ her dry words trailed off to a near whisper.
A man stood at her front, looking tall, shrouded in the darkness of the night; intimidating. It took a couple of seconds to make out the outlines of his countenance. It wasn’t familiar, to which the darkness added deeply. Comprehensible however, was that he was a soldier of some sort, with a tell-tale uniform and a felt-beret upon his head, though drenched to the skin as he was. His boots and ankles were brown and sloshy with mud. Without a word, though out of shock played no less a part, she ushered him inside, as he brought with him a spray of rain, mud and puddles into the woodboard floor. The girls gasped at the immense deluge of rain and watery gush he seemed to have brought inside along with it. They were sharply retorted with a tongue-click from their mother who signaled them to go to their room. None of them obeyed.
Within minutes, he had discarded his soaked jacket and sat dripping in a chair on the kitchen, breathing rapidly. The house was silent for a few good seconds to a few good minutes, ceaseless rain and thunder the only solace to slice the solemnity.
After she was sure enough time has passed, she gave a small cough and asked him if he would like something, perhaps. Maybe some tea, (as a very feeble gesture). There was some left over, and it was still a bit warm after all. It seemed a silly thing to say, but sadly, that was all she could think of.
His eyes opened wide, mouth almost in a drool. Yes, he’d like some. He looked livid and flushed – strange to see that in a soldier, but to calm the nerves, it’s good, he said.
Nerves? She thought. What nerves.
What was he doing, out in a rainy night so far away from the barracks, anyone might wonder.
As mother and girls settled themselves among the damp laundry that needed much sun, the soldier found some voice and spoke. He had come with his unit from their faraway headquarters just passing through the small town. But to their bad luck, the earth moved in over five places about ten kilometers from the town, taking with it a huge chunk of soil from several places – farms included – above road level, blocking the main road in several places with slides of mud and earth covering the area, truck and all. The unit had dispersed to seek help.
‘We always thought that the land around there was too brittle,’ he said. ‘Ready to slide with the first raindrop.’
‘Two of my friends’ farms are taken out, from what you say,’ she said as he noisily sipped the tea. ‘It’s more serious than I thought. The spring-burning didn’t go well. There were a few trees they couldn’t clear because of the size. The rain this week, it-’
‘Serious?’ rasped the soldier as if waking up from a dreamless sleep. ‘My God, half my friends were there, buried to the waist with mouthfuls of mud.’ He suddenly stood up. ‘And here I am, with a muddy pair of boots! Sipping tea, for Heaven’s sake! I don’t know what the hell is with this place – a dust-jacket in spring that burns up like an inferno in March, a spineless sludge-pool with a single day of rain!’
He angrily threw his beret in the floor. It landed like a wet rag. She started back in alarm, and the three wide-eyed girls followed with a collective gasp that sounded like one voice. Then suddenly, the soldier, aware of this backed down and looked flushed like a drunk, seeming to suddenly come to his senses on the awkwardness of his outburst. A young fellow, he flushed beet-red, picking up his discarded beret in dismay. How it managed to stay in his head, one might wonder, if they only knew.
‘I’m sorry,’ he shuddered. ‘I…I was a bit.. I – really have to get some help. My unit…they’re still trapped over there….that’s why I came here in the first place. Please. You have to help them. I didn’t know how I managed to climb out. The earth from above just fell.. it fell on top of us.’
He sounded surreal as he slurred in speech, but she understood in a flash.
‘Of course’, rushed the mother, all her previous frustration and melancholic dismay evaporating in a whiff of smoke as she got up from her place as well. ‘We have to get some help.. some tools, shovels…’ She was also mad with shock, of course. She had no phone, but an umbrella might do for now to rush to Mr. Lawmkima, the Village Council President’s house which was the closest to where she could go. Being a poor widow, a reject, had placed her on the cheapest lodgings unfortunately. The edge of town, where, amply indeed some wayward stragglers might come to her first, maybe searching for booze or something, often to her outrage. Here, her lot was isolated, where such simple chores like making it to the gas-cylinder distributions, water-points, rubbish dump-trucks and emergencies needed an extra pace in her part.
‘Should I go, mummy?’ her eldest daughter volunteered. Mother suspected that it had something to do with the girl not wanting to be left with this man in the house more than an offer for help.
Mother eyed her with disgust. The little scamp.
At that moment, thunder blasted like bombs in Barracks. They screamed as it flashed and rumbled, both at once, seeing each other white, out of fear and lightning. The girl had managed to open the door. The mother shouted, her legs shook as her girls scuttled across the floor towards her. The floor was shaking under them , shaken by the thunder. The candle was blown out, blown out by their screams of fear and the endless wind and rain. She felt it – a sudden dizziness with the wetness and the deluge, and she heard the house itself groaning, even as the tin roof rattled. What happened next, she could not totally remember, except that the house – not just the floor…it really did move, beams, foundations, walls and all; and that she had her girls’ arms tightly wrapped around her body.
She didn’t know, but thought that the earth shook somewhere along the way. She could feel it in the sound of the trees up above, the groaning of the neighbour’s pigs. A scream here and there, somewhere, someone. It was all surreal. It wasn’t happening… not at least in her head.
‘Move it!’ screamed the soldier, loud at her face. She felt a shaky hand grabbing her by the shoulder. And she felt her body being pushed out, felt it wetted by the rain outside, beside the fragrant mango tree that she had planted in the first year of her marriage. Such a happy time that was. Why was she outside? God, the ground felt so soft, so sticky. But even then, as she looked back at the little house – all that she had left to claim from her no-good husband, an ex; it slowly moved, ground and all; the soldier still inside… until at last, it slid away in the darkness far below.
That was all she remembered, before succumbing off into a very wet passing out.
The land that cradled Ramzo town, lush and green once upon a time, bare and black in recent times as consequence of all the slashing and burning now looked as if run over by a wide-toothed comb in the morning light (knotted with rainbows). Green, brown, green, brown against an evil blue sky. The tin sheets of roofs and tiles of walls were everywhere like discarded packs of cards. That landslide took over twenty houses, claiming over eight lives, not counting the five who died on their way to hospital. It might not seem much of a tragedy to the indifferent few who viewed from behind their comfy television screens of course. But still, those were lives being put to an end, homes and livelihoods lost and lamented.
And still not counting a dozen soldiers buried inside a truck.
That was the worst rain seen in over ten years, the worst landslide in some lifetimes.
For a while, the radios and papers screamed about it. Government aids and M.L.A relief funds flooded in. Houses were rebuilt by the Y.M.A. Rami was lucky to have an aid such as that, but sadly, she too, had to shift to a new plot of land unknown and alien. Her father’s little land was now just a bitten chunk, quite useless. Land compensations were given to some in the succeeding months. Hopefully, it would continue.
For sure, the simple people would talk about this early monsoon in years to come. They would do it amidst whistling and slashing stray shrubs on their way to the fields to continue with their lives as usual, married people, single people; frustrated divorcees alike.
But then, this was what she had always feared – indifference; that things would end up just getting used to. Just as much the same way as a woman deserted to fend for herself would be dismissed as a very normal mode of life. We would just all get used to it, she thought – get used to the cycle of dust in spring, slash and burn in march for the farmland ; rip the land of its growing things, rains and slides in summer the same way we’d get used to a child’s bawling. A soldier’s death too, might mean the whole world to her, though she knew very little of him, no name, no clear view of face to remember by. It would all just slide off into indifference like a dreamless sleep.
We needed a new way of farming, her father used to say. He was a good man with vision. A new mode of life, that’s what he said. This is all too temporary, he said. We rip up the trees and the soil. That is why it all came loose, with no roots to bind it firmly. When it rains, it slides, taking down the roads and the power-points. Then… bad electricity, bad everything.
But we’re still lacking the alternative, of course, not to mention the expense and the education to think up of something else; to adapt to something new.
Until then, we’d all just think of it as something of the usual; for as long as the earth ceased to scream again, taking a few roads, houses and lives along the way.
That was all she remembered about it. Sadly, like the rest of those who passed away that night, both known and unknown, sung or unsung as they may be; soldiers included… her father, that very contemplative man, was also gone.
Story by Catherine Lalrodingi (Mami). Mami lives with her young family in Hnahthial, a small town in southern Mizoram. She teaches English literature at Government Hnahthial College.
Illustration by David Yambem for The Mean Journal.
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