‘Most of the mango trees around our house were part of the family’s common property. Nobody had rights over the green fruits that dropped on their own, sometimes hit by a nor’wester, or the ripe ones that fell in the middle of the night; anyone could pick them up. Unnoticed, the mango flowers would blossom and one day aunt would open her fist to show a tiny green mango.’
This is from the autobiography of Manindra Gupta, a poet, as he remembers his childhood days in a village in erstwhile East Bengal. He then goes on to describe how they would run about in the mango orchard during a summer squall, amid the swaying branches and thunderclaps, as the green mangoes swung above their heads like trapeze artists until they snapped and fell. His aunt had a hunter’s alert ears. She could pick out the solitary thud of a dropped mango from the web of sounds of the nocturnal garden, could detect the noise of fruits falling in the bushes, upon hard earth or grass, or in the wet mud around the pond. Carrying a lantern, she would unfailingly reach the spot. In Bibhutibhushan Banerjee’s Pather Panchali, there is a passage where Apu and Durga go to a mango orchard during a thunderstorm. The scene is there in the Satyajit Ray movie based on the novel as well. There is another scene in the film where their mother Sarbojaya, rain drenched, stealthily picks a coconut from a neighbour’s garden. In countless stories and memoirs set in Bengal, divided and undivided, there are descriptions of green mangoes dropping during summer squalls, of coconuts dropping in ponds, of ripe palm fruits dropping in the somnolent heat of autumn afternoons. The thuds and plops of fruits dropping on the green, fecund earth of Bengal have echoed in the collective memory of generations of Bengalis. It did not fade even after the Partition and the exile that followed, but continued through the rattle of tramcars, the patter of typewriters and the wail of the mills’ sirens. The same thuds and plops echoing in the memory could even block out the sounds of skeletal men and women dropping dead on the footpaths of Calcutta during the great Bengal famine of 1943.
In the late 1960s, another sound was added to the acoustic memory of Calcuttans: that of youthful human bodies dropping on the Maidan, the wide parade ground in the heart of the city. Falling on the dew-wet grass at dawn, those sounds almost perfectly replicated the thud and plop of fruits dropping before their time. Just before that one would hear, like an approaching nor’wester, the rumble of police vans, followed by the groan of a door opening, the swish of running feet on wet grass, the whistle of a rifle, and then …One couldn’t see much in the thick, early morning mist; one could only hear. The mist, laced with wisps of grey diesel fume that hung in the air through the night, had begun to dissipate with the first rays of the sun, and was now whisked up by a man running through it, like a paintbrush on wet canvas. A silence would descend as the gunshot scared off a colony of birds on the trees by the Red Road. After the police van would leave, a slow breeze would begin to blow from the direction of the river. The bronze fairy atop the Victoria Memorial still revolved in those days; a keen ear would pick out the faint metallic whirr in the stillness of the morning. Soon the crows would appear…
Parimal Bhattacharya is a Bengali writer whose books include Darjeeling: Smriti Samaj Itihas and Satyi Rupkatha – Odishar Ek Upajaatir Jibansangram. This is an excerpt from Dyanchinama. [Translation: Parimal Bhattacharya.]