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Singing Frogs & Sinking Roads: Experiencing The Monsoons In Smalltown Bihar

In those simpler times, bullfrogs croaking to monsoon rains were an unending cause for entertainment and curiosity that is sadly lacking in the big city.

Singing Frogs & Sinking Roads: Experiencing The Monsoons In Smalltown Bihar
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Bullfrogs. Every monsoon, they pour their heavy voi­ce into me as if my ears are made just to usher the husky, yet loud, noise they make, now only in memories and nostalgia. As a kid, I thou­ght frogs sang and had a band of their own, like my own school band with a bandmaster in atte­n­dance. With the overcast sky and the dark clouds in the milieu, they would get into the act. The master would initiate, and would soon be follo­wed by the band of disciples, all singing in a synchronised voice. Their noise wobbled at first, changed scales, and then we got accustomed to it, as they too fell into the same pitch, volume and intensity, like that of a marching band walking past the ceremonial dais. The song seemed their way to welcome the first drop of rain on the parched land. I did not know if they practiced, but one felt they too were deep into riyaz, like vocalists practicing Megha Malhar.

Our mohalla was sparsely populated back then. It had lots of lowland and marshes that would turn into some provisional puddles during the monsoons. Come rain, and those bodies of water were acquired by the frogs. Literally, thousands of them. It felt as if we lived in the kingdom of frogs. They came in all sizes and hues. Many of the male frogs would turn yellowish from the dull olive-green colour while mating, to attract females. Back then, we thought as they grew old, they cha­nged colour.

I often wondered where so many frogs suddenly came from, and where they disappeared? My mom would say they came from the core of mot­her earth and went back to her. Not satisfied with her answer, post monsoons, when the water dried up, I would quietly inspect these lands to see if it had those holes or some secret small tunnel for the frogs to come and go. I did not find any. Some of the frogs would occasionally find their way into our homes and hid in the dark, cool corners of the kitchen and bathrooms. The bathroom was a little tricky, since it was small and unlike any other pla­ce in the house. One would keep taping the floor to scare the frogs away. Sometimes they did, but most of the time it did not work.

Prima facie, manoeuvring and negotiating the bathroom space with those frogs present was a tough ask. Imagine us in a deadlock à la some western film. Suspicion in our eyes, we would play invisible chess, try to anticipate each other’s next move.

After a while, I would still be filled with fear and helplessness. The frog would look nonplu­s­sed. The monsoons would bring changes in all of us. The monsoons would bring me some frogs, and would make a lioness out of my otherwise faint-hearted mom. She would exhort us to face the tiny little creature. After all, it was just a sma­ll frog and no one seemed to have been har­med by one ever. The few minutes spent in the bathroom for daily ablutions and anticipating the possible jump of the frog were like years pas­s­ing by. But I guess eventually, like everything else, we adjusted and learned to coexist without harming each other.

My mother keeps a few items from our growing-­up years in a small aluminium trunk. Once in a while, we open this trunk of time. The smell of memories brings tears to our eyes.

I think life in those days in the mofussil towns was all about adjusting without whining. We adj­u­s­ted to everything. We adjusted when already-­occupied wooden benches of the passenger trains would have to accommodate more passengers gus­­hing in at every station. We made space for them. We adjusted when there would be no electr­i­city for days at a stretch because of a burnt transformer, and there would be a long waiting period for its replacement. We adjusted and drank happ­ily from the hand pump since there was no regular municipal supply. We adjusted and walked to sch­ool in knee-deep water every monsoon. The roads to the school are better these days. Thoda adjust kijiye na was part of our vocabulary growing up in a small town. At the National Law School in Bang­a­lore, where I went for higher studies, we would often ask our friends lovingly to swalpa adjust mari (please adjust a bit) for little things, from a seat at the canteen or at Hegde’s tea shop. We studied Xeroxed pages from the same journal at our library. Since life is all about adjustments, our training began early.

We did not dance in the rain. We hummed no rain songs from Bollywood. Our monsoon gave us mild electric jolts. At least once in the season. Most of those happened with the hand pump outside. On some evenings, someone from the neighbourhood would experience the shock and would be glued to the hand pump. Yes, sometimes the shock was not so mild. The entire neighbourhood would come, and ‘mission separation’ would beg­in. I don’t remember anyone dying or having serious injuries because of these shocks. They just ended up with lots of unwanted bruises from the beatings by well-meaning rescuers using bamboo as a tool to separate them from the metal. Many legends would be built around these incidents and narrated for days on end.

My mother is the keeper of our childhood mem­ories. She kept a few items from our growing-­up years in a small aluminium trunk. Once in a while, both my mom and I open the trunk of time. The smell of memories brings tears to our eyes. Perhaps, we sneeze a little. The tiny unive­rse even holds the milk feeders I used as an inf­ant, the kohl box mom used, to apply dots on our forehead to ward off evil. It also has a cute toy frog buried inside. When the monsoons arrive in Delhi, I seek out frogs and their singing, but don’t find any around.

My brother dials me. He does this almost every day. I sip my tea and stare vacantly at the rain outside.

- Bhai, do you remember the small toy frog we used to play with?

- Of course! Babujee (that’s how we addressed our uncle) bought it for me from Nepal over four decades ago. But why are you asking about it after so many years?

- I’m trying to write about monsoon memories of my childhood, and frogs seem to be the most enduring part of those memories.

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My brother bursts out laughing and reminds me of the tiny frogs that would leap a great distance. As kids we were petrified of them. Often in the evenings, one or two of those pocket-sized devils would make their way into our home. We looked up from our school books, dimly lit in the glow of kerosene lamps, and tried to guess where they would jump next. Into the dark? On to us?

The toy frog was a strange gift. Perhaps no one else had one. I do not know if kids today have frogs as toys. It was a mechanical frog with a spring. We grew up and kept moving to various parts of the country. The toy occupied one corner of a shelf in our ancestral house. Recently, when my parents shifted house, my mom placed it in the trunk. I will bring the frog to my house now. There exists no real frog around. The toy will be my own monsoon inside the monsoon the city experiences.

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I went to Gyan Sarovar (pond of wisdom) Mad­hya Vidyalaya (high school) before transferring to a boarding school. That school now has a fanc­y name, GPS (Gyan Sarovar Public School), and a fancier address. Back then, it used to run from a rented house barely 100 m away from my home. We walked along a brick road to the school. Eve­ry downpour would turn our locality into an isl­and. The road to school would seamlessly merge with the water. We would walk barefoot, measuring our steps, flip-flops in one hand and umbrella in the other. We would often slip, fall, get covered in mud and grin while heading back home to change.

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After all, we knew how to adjust, even to the sch­ool rooms sinking in the vortex of monsoons. Believe me, we sang no rainy day song.

Now frogs don’t come home anymore. The concrete heart of our society has no place for them. Nowadays, I want to sing in the rain. My frog toy does not have the tech-support to sing along. Perhaps I should call my brother, take a break from work, and go out in search of the bullfrogs hidden nearer to nature, deeper to the core.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Singing Frogs & Sinking Roads")

(Views expressed are personal)

Ashutosh Salil is an IAS officer. He is co-author of "Being the Change: In the Footsteps of the Mahatma".

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