“Tell us a story, Khona apu,” Trina said. “You can’t go anywhere in this rain. I’m sure your flight will be cancelled. The runway has become a river by now!” She giggled. “Don’t give me that worried look! Mohon and I will drive you to the airport the moment the roads get drivable. Won’t we, Honey?” Mohon nodded smilingly. “Now sit back and relax—and I’ll go get some tea.” Trina ran to the kitchen. I had an early morning flight to catch to reach home on time before my summer semester started. But tonight’s torrential downpour obstinately stood in my way—trying to prevent me from going back to the normalcies of reality and time. I sat down, feeling helplessly entrapped in the rain-soaked city of Dhaka.
“What kind of story do you want me to tell?” I asked. “A rain story of love? Or a love story of rain?“
“You know your sister. She’ll demand both,” said Mohon.
Trina came back with jhalmuri and tea. She handed me a hot cup and went back to the sofa to cuddle with Mohon. The two lovebirds sipped their tea and waited in silence. I finished my cup and gave them an assuring smile. The story was ready.
All rain looks the same, but some rains pour on like yearnings of sorrow. This rain—this unending pouring of relentless nothingness—this rhythmic dirge of dropping rains does not touch Lalon anymore. Ages ago, he could boast about his ability to see everything yet live afloat—undisturbed. He used to brag about his power to unlock his skull and let all his aches and pains dissolve into thin air. He could sit for hours watching the waning waves of the river—his river—Ichamati. That river is still his. He still sits under the Bunyan tree by its shore every time he visits that place. He sits there for hours staring at the big patch of garden right across from it, by a house where he once built a home with a woman named Leela. He comes back every June, rents a room at a nearby hotel and comes to the riverbank from where he can see that ghostly garden.
The sturdy jasmine trees stood like a band of soldiers, guarding the garden from those who do not know the meanings of trees. Amidst those guards stood the big kadam tree with its branches spread like wings, waiting to fly away with the first touch of the monsoon rain. Lalon has moved out of that place years ago and has been trying ever since to wipe out all his memories that were born and then died in that garden. But sometimes one’s skull is not one’s own to unwind. His skull is filled with shadows of a once beautiful garden, with a bench under the kadam tree where Leela used to sit in the morning, making garlands of fresh jasmines during autumn and arranging bouquets of kadam flowers during the rainy season. The wooden pergola over the bench was hidden under a massive blossom of Rangoon Creeper—the madhabi vine. The invasive creeper had spread its branches and roots all over the grass and coiled around the bench so beautifully that when Leela sat there, it seemed as if she floated above the ground, on a floral bough, like a human vine. Lalon shivered in fear every time he saw her sitting there. Some ominous thoughts always rushed through his head—that skull of his—which he had been so efficiently keeping in control until she arrived in his life. In the morning, he would look out through the window and see her there, floating in the air on her bench in the bower, and he would cringe in fear. She did not look real. His life—happy and blooming with that much hope—nothing looked real. His life was not used to having such torrential outpour of happiness. And he was afraid that like the monsoon rain, it might stop any day. While she lived in joy and showered mirth on his dreary life, his heart resonated a desolate requiem for the rain.
“What a miserable man! Why is he wishing her a bad luck?” Trina blurted out.
“Shhhh, don’t interrupt. Khona apu will lose her track,” Mohon said, as I continued.
Leela had too many bad habits. She did not know how to swim but could not stay away from the river. She soaked in the rain for hours until she caught a cold; she spent winter mornings walking on the dew-dipped grass; and in autumn, she waded by the river, gathering stalks of kans flower. But the rest of the time, she stayed glued to her garden—tending each plant with tender hands. In one corner, she had created a small lotus pond, which also housed frogs, turtles, and water snakes. She walked barefoot in the garden and dug the soil with bare hands to sow seeds or weed the flowerbeds—unafraid of bugs and vipers.
“Leelabati, why don’t you listen to me? Why don’t you let the gardener do it? Your nails are always full of dirt and your feet are covered with ant bites,” he remembers telling her. He also remembers how angry she looked every time he tried to dissuade her from going to the garden. “I won’t listen to you, not until you stop calling me Leelabati!” she would say grumpily. She never liked being called Leelabati, but he could not stop giving her new names every day—because she did not look the same everyday—at least not to him. Sometimes, she looked like a laughter, sometimes, she was a raincloud, but most of the time, she was a tree. Lalon, on the other hand was a man afraid of trees. Trees hold wind and wind brings storms and storms beget unquenchable thirst for rains. How could he let her be a tree? And yet how could he live a life without having a tree like her to make him aware of the impending rains? The fear of losing her turned him into a man who saw ghosts of death in every shadow of life. So, yes, you may call him a miserable man.
Lalon still remembers the day he met her. It was autumn. He was sitting by the riverbank, smoking away his benumbing miseries and watching a girl in a blue sari. She bent down to pick something from the water, or throw something in—he does not remember now. But he remembers the next thing she did. She walked right to him and offered him a stalk of kans flower that she had snipped off from the riverbank. Lalon accepted the flower stalk and asked, “how are you?” She said, “I’m good. How about yourself?”
“Wait a minute,” Trina interrupted. “Did he know her?”
“Nope.” I said.
“Then why did he say ‘how‘ instead of asking who she was?”
“Shhh, Honey, don’t interrupt,” said Mohon.
I went back to my story.
“I’ve forgotten how to feel… anything,” Lalon stretched his hand at her as he spoke. “I am in need of you.”
Leela held his hand and followed him home. And that was how their story began.
In the morning, she went to the garden and picked flowers. At noon, she strode by the river. In the evening, she stood by the window watching the night sky. At night she slept in his bed like a green cocoon while he stayed awake watching her, painting her, copying her every living moment with strokes of vibrant colors on a large canvas. Theirs was a life like a dream, or vice versa—undisrupted by all the cacophonies of death.
“Wait a minute,” this time it was Mohon who spoke. “They weren’t married?”
“Well, neither are you two.” I smiled.
“But this is Dhaka. People don’t care about people here. But your story takes place in a village, where it’s not possible—yet.”
“You’re right. It’s my story and they live in a place within my imagination. So I will give them all the freedoms—and bondages, no?” I resumed my story.
Lalon was sitting in his studio one June, watching and painting Leela. She was weeding a flowerbed under the Rangoon Creeper. It was drizzling already and then suddenly the sky broke into a thunderstorm. Leela kept digging the dirt with her hands, occasionally pausing to bend her neck upward like a swallow as if to quench her thirst with the rainwater. “Leelabalee! Leela! You’ll catch a cold! You’ll get struck by the lightning. Liluaaaa! Come inside.” Lalon kept calling. But Leela stayed there—soaking in rain like one stubborn tree. Finally, when the lightning got louder than his fear, Lalon grabbed an umbrella and went to the garden. Leela smiled at him and said excitedly: “Look, look what I found! Aren’t they pretty?” Lalon jumped back aghast. What she called pretty was a dozen snake eggs, nested in the loose soil under the Rangoon bush. “Move away from them, move! I’ll call the gardener to destroy those eggs.” Lalon tried to pull her away. “Don’t be silly! They’re not ready to hatch yet. I have to cover them with dirt and protect them until they hatch.” Leela kneeled down on the ground and pushed as much muddy soil as she could over the eggs, ignoring Lalon’s words. But Lalon was adamant. He did not leave the garden until Leela came inside with him.
After that day, Lalon became a different man. He forbade Leela from going anywhere near the garden.
“But my plants need watering!” exclaimed Leela.
“The gardener will take care of them.” Lalon said calmly.
“My kadam flowers are in bloom! I need to gather them.” Leela pleaded.
“You can see them from this room.”
“I need to protect those eggs!”
“You can’t go out there—not until winter, when the snake season will be over.”
“What will I do in the garden in winter? Will I be my snake and hibernate beneath the Rangoon Creeper?”
“You are NOT going there, and that’s final.” Lalon’s voice was calm.
“You don’t understand,“ Leela started crying. “I can’t breathe when I’m not with the trees.”
“You don’t understand. I can’t paint without you.” Lalon’s tone was impassive.
“You’re taking away my life, but I’ll listen to you. I won’t go to my garden anymore.”
“Yes, you won’t. Remember that day when you wore a molted cobra skin around your wrist and laughed—saying it was the prettiest of all your bangles? My heart got stung that day—by all the deadly vipers that lurk around that garden of yours! In my mind’s eye, I saw a pair of frightened feet—your feet—trying to run away from those snakes. I won’t let that garden kill you.”
Lalon did not look at Leela’s face when he left that room. Had he looked back, he would have seen a pair of dark eyes, hurt but drained of all tears. And had he come back to that room that night, he would have realized that the room was not big enough to contain her pain.
Next morning, Lalon woke up before dawn. He put on the mustard colored kurta that Leela had sewn for him when she first moved in. He went to the garden and gathered a bouquet of kadam. He picked some long vines of the madhabi clusters to tie the bouquet. He held the flowers tightly over his thudding heart and went to greet Leela—his Leelabati—the source and reason of all his colors and illusions.
The lonely room was waiting for him with its open door. The bed looked undisturbed, and the windows were closed. Leela was not there. “Leela! Leelabati!” Lalon shouted. But no one answered. Lalon threw away the bouquet and dashed to the garden. What if she lay by that lotus pond all night, watching those ugly green snakes? What if when she fell asleep, the snakes swam up to her and kissed her to death? “Leela! Leelabati!” Lalon yelled and ran to the garden. And when he reached the lotus pond, he saw……
“Stop! Don’t say it! Khona apu, please stop! I don’t want to hear it!” Trina put her hands over her ears.
“You don’t want to know the ending?” I asked.
“No, no, no. What a ruthless, ruthless man! I don’t want to know what happened next. I don’t want to know what he saw.”
“But Trina, a story that begins must also see its end. Otherwise, it dies unsatisfied and turns into a ghoul and haunts its teller.” I said sheepishly.
“I don’t care about your story. I hate that man!” Trina started crying. Mohon tried to calm her down. But she had melted –as if to match with the melting sky of a monsoon night.
I stood by the window, watching the dripping lines of rain on the windowpanes. In between the rain smudges, I saw the silhouette of a village by a river named Ichamati. I could see the broken shadow of a haunted man who ran from an empty room to a lonely garden in search of his tree. He did not know how to breathe without a tree named Leela. Suddenly he remembered Leela’s last words. What did she mean when she said she would not go to the garden anymore? Would she go to the river in search of her lost breath? But Leela did not know how to swim! His legs started shaking, and instead of running toward the river, Lalon sat down on the bench under the madhabi vine and started howling like a wounded animal.
Trina was still sobbing, and Mohon, still trying to comfort her.
“Now, stop being sad, you two,” I said. “It’s just a story. Come here and watch the rain with me.”
The three of us stood by the window, staring blankly at the empty streets that flowed like a river, and at the dark streetlights that stood like bitten down trees in a deserted garden. The electricity went out. A lightning struck somewhere and the dazzling light pierced right through the windowpanes. I instantly closed my eyes. Within my own darkness, I saw a shadow of a man, walking through the rains along the muddy shore of a raging river, carrying a huge burden on his back—a burden that could be a ghost of a loved one, or a life size canvas panel, lifeless.
Fayeza Hasanat is an author, translator, and academic. She teaches in the English Department of the University of Central Florida and writes regularly for The Daily Star.