It was the same song that haunted me all these years. It had kept coming back to me wherever I was. The very same song with its deafeningly loud thumping beats. Like the sounding of the large gong and the beating of the drums by the tribes, who had lived in the deep dark forests where my father was posted as a forest watcher.
“Why don’t they beat their drums a little softer dada?”, I had asked then. “It makes me so afraid”.
“They are as afraid as you are”, he had replied. Today is their last night in the forest. They are being rehabilitated to another place to make place for construction of a big dam. A big huge dam that will harness columns and columns of water to dizzying heights and which may be reason for destruction of forest land and drying up of rivers and a lot more other geographical and ecological changes”.
Did I hear a small break in his voice too when he spoke. Dada loved the forest as much as the tribes did, which I knew.
Even I did. I loved to look out of the window of my little room surrounded by evergreen trees and where the chirping of the birds could be heard at all times. There was so much of rain in the forest and I loved the rain which replenished little puddles for my colourful paper boats and little streams where I could put my feet in and feel the coolness of its gushing waters. I knew which wild berries tasted best now and could distinguish between birds better than any trained ornithologist.
I could picture them going round and round the fire in their traditional attire. Their weather beaten faces creased with worry but unable to break into tears. The forest had long taught them to be tough, to be tough on themselves to fight for their survival but only in forest. They did not know how to fight the civilized man who spoke nicely to them and pleaded with them for stripping them off their land and emotionally blackmailing them into believing all the hardships to be faced by the outside world if the dam were not built.
The beat of their drums and their song which sounded more like loud wailing could be heard in our little log cottage too and I covered my ears with my little hands for every beat hurt my ears and made my heart beat faster making my little body shudder. The song was even more disturbing. Dada held me close. I could see he was afraid, for I had been born with a “murmur” in my heart. Whenever I clutched my chest Dada would be so anxious and would hold me close as if it was enough to make me better. I could feel the beat of their drums in my heart which kept thumping and beating faster and they continued with it till late into the night dancing round the huge bon fire till they were exhausted and could do it no more.
The next day they moved out and so did we, for there was no more need of a forest watcher in the area. Dada was heartbroken and I could very well see it. My mother had died the next day I was born and Dada was all I had. The forest and I were all that Dada had. Dada had no formal education but had been picked up by a wayward Forest Ranger, who deputed his duty of watching over the forest to Dada for a minimal allowance, while he went about with his other businesses. This had continued over the period of time and he continued to remain watcher over the tenure of many more Forest Rangers deputed there. Since there were only the two of us, the allowance, though minimal was enough to keep us hearty, since being able to live in the forest was the utmost luxury for both of us.
We moved to the city, with its hustle and bustle. No more could be heard the song of the birds and neither were there any trees for them to perch on. The murmur in my heart became more critical and I became asthmatic too, allergic to the polluted city air. Many nights I would wake up grappling for breath after the very same nightmare. There was always the beating of drums in the background and the fall of volumes and volumes of water. So much of water that I could see it coming in huge volumes, engulfing everything that came its way, submerging land and cultivation and houses and lapping up terrified people. It was like no one could escape its wrath.
The wrath of the waters!
The fury of the river!
And even before the terrible dream ended I would be calling my Dada. “Dadaaaa!! Dadaaa!!! The waters ! The waters!! They are coming after me.” I would be sweating sick, terrified and totally out of breath. Seeing me suffer that way always shook the wits out of Dada. He was so afraid I was dying. He would embrace me in his arms and hold me tight tears streaming from his face. And if I didn’t get better he would rush me to the hospital for a session of nebulisation and a dosage of steroids.
I was always weak, not too good in my studies. My health wouldn’t permit me to work harder. I struggled with subjects like math and science. The more effort I tried to put, the more I was pulled down by asthma. Whenever the horrible dream of the waters came back, I suffered from palpitations, wherein my heart beat so fast, that I willed it to stop.
Perhaps because I wasn’t too good at math and science, I decided to do geology for graduation. Dada passed away when I was into my second year of graduation. I was an orphan with no one to turn to, but my circumstances made me stronger. I took up the job of a bar tender at a star hotel, which paid me well enough to get through my studies. I do not know if Dada would have let me take up such a job if he had been alive, but it paid well and I had no reason to complain. The staff was friendly and helpful and supported my dream to study.
Sometimes I felt so lonely, so frightened. I had no one to look up to, no one to look for me. I was on my own in this world. I knew I was different. I was different in a way that was too painful. I had shied away from all types of companionship all my life. I was stung by the bug of inferiority complex. My low self esteem prevented me from making friends as I felt unworthy of them. I could never remember having a friend all my life. Dada and the birds in the forest had been my only friends. When I lived in the forest, the folk had treated me suspiciously but pretended to be friendly. When we came to the city at first, somehow I imagined everyone was staring at me. So I began to ignore them. I pretended I couldn’t see them at all and went about my way. By the time I reached graduation, I was used to being alone in all aspects and had begun to enjoy being in my own company.
I could never get over the dream though and it kept coming back to me, now with an alarming frequency. Gallons and gallons of water wrecking destruction and rampaging the land like a monster, engulfing and killing anything that came in its path. Palpitations of my heart then sounded like the drum beats of the forest song to my ears. . Its intensity weighed so heavily on me that many nights I was breathless and simply gasping for breath. I felt that living alone was no longer safe for if I died in my sleep there was no one to come looking for me. The most terrifying of all is the fright of being left alone and deserted. I wished the dream would go away and not come back but I was not spared and it kept coming came back to me.
After graduation I took up post graduation in the same subject and went on to become a geologist. Geology became my passion and the mission of my life. I felt that I had finally found my calling. I was a loner in the true sense of the word, but my colleagues’ respected me for the in depth knowledge I had in the field I worked. I had no distractions. I travelled relentlessly along the length and breadth of my beloved land, watching with a sinking heart as plunderers molested her brutally with their mining and quarrying.
I raised a big hue and cry
I threw tantrums every time permits were issued for quarrying but I was a solitary warrior.
I was now financially independent. My salary was enough to comfortably see me through any luxury I craved for. Yet, I was lonely. I decided it was now time to gather the reins of my life and hold them together so that the balance journey through life would be smoother and more enjoyable. I realized it was time now to unleash the real me. No longer did I want to remain prisoner within my body. I needed to free myself from almost thirty five years of imprisonment. I no longer bothered what others thought of me or what they would think. I needed freedom from myself. I decided to opt for a surgery for gender change. A sex change operation, from one to the other.
It wouldn’t be easy, my doctor told me. There would be a lot of physical and emotional challenges coupled with my heart condition and wheezing. Environmental challenges didn’t affect me for I had long since learnt to ignore what others thought of me. Yet, I was adamant. I do not know where I gathered the courage from. But I had it in me, I realized. There is always something called inner strength that pops out whenever you sincerely seek it. It builds in you a confidence that defies all logic and makes you believe that the decision you have taken is the right one for you. This is what many call as the “Voice of God”, the only voice that reaches out to you when you are in utmost need.
When you listen to this inner voice of yours everything else seems to automatically fall in place, for then it is easier for “The Hand of God” to reach out to you. From the least expected quarters support springs in. In the form of the nurse whose comforting touches seemed to ease my pain. The counselor whose words were so soothing that I began to feel alive and happy all over again. My juniors in office who visited me regularly with flowers and filled my hospital room with their jokes and laughter. The little girl in the next room who narrated little animal stories in her highly strung voice. It would take much longer, but I realized I was definitely happier now. It may take more time for others to accept what I had gone through, but the day would come finally of which I was sure. For, life ought to be beautiful for all irrespective of being “abled” or “differently abled”. It was the right of anyone born on earth to be happy and the creator will make sure of this since it purely lies in his purview.
Those days I lay in the hospital were days of introspection, when my mind was free to dwell upon fantasies that I had neglected till then. I found myself looking forward to getting out of hospital, hallucinating about love, laughter, good food and finer aspects of life like attractive clothes and accessories. I was amused at how light I felt and relieved at being able to think “normally” like others. My musings kept me engaged during day time but many of the nights, I kept having recurring nightmares of the loud thumping and deafening drum beats, I ‘d heard long back in the forest and then the recurring nightmares of gushing waters lapping up every single thing that came its way. I sounded the emergency alarm button when I couldn’t breathe anymore and when I felt my heart would explode within my chest.
I discussed the matter with my doctor too, but he seemed to find my condition puzzling. I guess he thought I was imagining the whole thing and didn’t give much importance to the matter. I was discharged from hospital and rejoined duty with great gusto. The fervor to work kept me going strong and with my newly found freedom, I became a better person, began making friends and even began going out for parties with colleagues. I realized freedom must come from within oneself first and then only can you actually expect to be accepted by others. Outliving your infirmities and projecting yourself as a confident go – getter makes you a respectable personality. I felt sorry for my dada who had tried to keep me hidden in the deep dark forest for I now realized that was what he had intended to do. He loved me more than his life but he knew I was different and had probably been too ashamed to accept what I was. Why else did we not have any other relatives and acquaintances in this whole world? I held no grudge against Dada; I had long since redeemed him of any grievances and forgiven him with my whole heart.
That was when it all started. The skies remained dark and dreary all through the day. Cloud bursts became common and the heavens seemed to be to be overflowing. It rained all day and night, continuously, relentlessly. It was as if the piled up prayer requests for more rain of several years were being answered by the Gods all at once. At first there was thanks giving and then joy followed by apprehension which paved way for anxiety and then finally panic! There seemed to be no end to the rains! Waters rose like anything. River beds which had begun to resemble little water puddles in the drought were full and flowing. There was water in streams, in canals and almost everywhere. Rainwater harvesters were overjoyed at the prospect of not having to depend on water tankers.
It did not stop with that and that is when the whole force of what was happening hit me full swing. Waters? Gushing waters? Rising waters? It seemed to strike a familiar chord and suddenly I knew! The streams were full, so were the rivers, the little towns and cities and even the dams were full and it was still raining! Damn it, the dams were full! It was an emergency! What would happen? Politicians were distraught and granted the District Administration full control over their districts. Engineers and other Government Departments were working day and night. Geologists like me were on high demand for advice and discussions on how to cope with landslides, rising water tables and ultimately with all the water that was going to be released from the dams!
Red alert was declared and people were asked to evacuate with immediate effect as shutters opened unimaginable volumes of water into towns and cities completely flooding them. I was part of the core team with my dear friend Ted Williams, managing the shutter control of the dam as high as 2500 feet. Ted was Director of Disaster Management and was by far the youngest winner for the “Champions of Environment” award. Not that this was very important for my workaholic friend. His passion was his work at which he was very good and his views and ideologies sort of matched with mine, which made us click.
The sound of gushing water from its dizzying height, struck a rhythmic tone, deafening to human ears as it fell onto rocks and the ground beneath. The humdrum of my heart grew louder with the thumping of the water which echoed the same drum beats I had heard in the forest, the same beat over which I fretted and complained to my Dada, so many years ago when this land was still a beautiful forest and birds chirped and when forest folk lived here.
In spite of the danger of the whole situation, the falling waters failed to frighten me, despite its magnitude. The gushing of the water was in volumes much lesser terrifying than the nightmare that had struck me repeatedly. From the echoes of those beats resonated in me a peace, so great that my thumping heartbeat gradually became normal? It was ironic. I could almost hear the panic heart beats of my comrades, standing close by, including Ted, since the situation was getting out of hand and yet I was at peace.
“Finally Dada, I am free.” – I whispered to the heavy winds hoping it would carry my message to Dada up there in the heavens.
“Are you alright?”, Ted asked.
Yes, I am – I replied. This maybe the realization of my horrendous dream but there was no time to stand and stare. We needed to act.
We calculated the outflow accurately to the last cumec and let out enough water so that it would flow down the dam pathway, without overflowing, filling all the rivers and streams on the way finally finding its way into the sea. Hundreds and thousands of people along the path were already evacuated to camps so that lives were saved. Palatial buildings and residences that had clustered on the drought ridden banks for a “water front” effect would bear the brunt of waters which could not be helped.
The heavy rain was also wrecking havoc on the mountain slopes and hill station areas permanently damaged by unauthorized construction and quarrying, in the name of tourism promotion. The soil having lost the support of the rocky terrain was absorbing the rain water and falling apart with nothing to retain it on the sides. Landslides of terrifying magnitudes were so changing the total geography of the land that I was sure people would vow never to tamper with nature’s architecture anymore. What’s saddening are innocent lives lost for the greed of a few?
“Just hoping this bloody rain stops!!!” Ted was sweating profusely in spite of the cold winds and it was the first time I had heard him swear.
“It’s the price we are paying for being selfish. For the years of looting we have done, for the disrespect we have shown to her (our land). With this, she will take back what was hers and so powerful is she that we can only stand very far out of the way and watch as she quashes and rumbles by reclaiming and gathering all that belonged to her.
Ravage she did, rampage she did, conquer she did, recapture she did, revenge she took but yet nothing could get her to destroy or vanquish mankind. After all she is mother to all. On her bosom, we have laid our head always for comfort. On her breasts we have suckled never willing to be weaned away. The lesson was learnt, or so I hope. So there had after all been a mission to my life.
My experience had taught me that there is an end to everything, whether good or bad. The rains did stop.
The sky over my lovely land is a deathly yellow. Having sent down torrents and torrents of rain the skies look spent and exhausted. From the helicopter I am seated the view below was of only a vast expanse of water perforated by an occasional thicket, a few defiant coconut palms ridges of sloped roofs and terraces of high rise building which till yesterday were thronging with people desperately waiting to be rescued. Most of these buildings were empty now with people having been evacuated to the safety of camps and other relatives’ homes. The rescue saw the public, district administration, government departments, the opposition, the government, the armed forces and the navy join hands together as one single unit. Surpassing the expectations of all were the fisherman folk who plunged full-fledged into the operations with their fishing boats expecting nothing in return. The youth always at blame for whiling time away on the internet and whatsapp groups became overnight heroes assisting the Army to locate people and passing on relevant information, tapping away furiously at their smart phones.
Rebuilding and restructuring is never easy. Be it the human body or a disaster stricken land. But my new confident self helped me see the brighter side of things. The very magic of being human is the boon to adapt and rejuvenate. Life was after all full of surprises. One needs to rise above all the challenges it brings taking every challenge in a sporting manner and giving back the best of oneself. Soon the floods will be forgotten and those who had clung together during the time of need would once again part ways. Mud-slinging would definitely follow with each section blaming the other, but the lesson would have sunk in that there is no greater force than nature and that when she decides to wield her power, her authority, we can all but cower and tremble in some hidden corner hoping not to be noticed by her. Her rivers, forests and mountains belong to her and she has given us permission to use it for our progress, to make a livelihood and live happily, but within the limit, beyond which it is better for us not to push her further.
As this is not the typical story where the line “lived happily ever after” can be applied, I would say that I continued to live with same murmur in my heart, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes asthmatic and sometimes depressed. But that’s how everyone else lives, right? It has been a very long journey from the forest, from its folks, from the chirping birds and also from my Dada. But I was a part of this city now, which needed my help. I had actually begun to fall in love with its craziness and maybe with Ted (in whispers!) too. Whoops!!!!
I looked up at the sky and saw a rainbow in the rising.