I like some brazen bandit, this rain rode upon

I
grew up in a little town called Roing in eastern Arunachal Pradesh. It was a comely
place. To its north and east lay an arc of hills. They were ancient as all
hills are. But they looked especially grave and grandfatherly because
their cheeks were thickly wooded. A mostly leaden sky domed those hills and our
town; rain lurked in some corner of it always. Often, sometimes several times
in a day, like some brazen bandit, this rain rode upon dark stallion like
clouds and came swooping down upon the land.

On
some days, alas, they seemed so far apart, the rain did not raid the land. I
remember we used to rejoice then. The washing would finally get a chance to
dry, and I to frolic in the backyard, to build my castles and to explore my
strange continents where even stranger peoples lived. On such days Baba and I
took a walk in the evening. We generally walked down the road that led one to
the southern limits of our town. It was a pretty road, even for a pretty little
town. Much of it was flanked on either side by gulmohar and amaltas
trees. As we walked past those little houses and a line of shops, I quizzed
Baba on everything that was of pressing concern to me then, from how hot it is
on the sun to why the leaves are not purple. He, on the other hand, would quiz
me on the books or comics that I might be reading. Sometimes, I would say, “You
know, if I get the chance to, I can make magic better than Mandrake.” I do not
recall that he ever showed any disbelief.

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The
house in which we lived will appear strange to a plains dweller. It was wooden
and rose above the ground on stilts of cement, each about four feet high. The
teak planks that made its floor showed a few faint cracks at places. I knew all
of them by heart. But to me they were not mere cracks but mighty canyons and
valleys. They never posed a problem to me however, for I was a giant and could
leap across them as one leaps across a rut in the earth.

Winter clothed
most of the year. There will be a foreboding of it by the end of September and
vestiges of winter lingered in the air till the end of April. But no matter how
long the wait, winter gave way to spring. It always does, everywhere.

Spring
rode on many signs, more colors, more birds and buds on the boughs of trees. But
for me the most inevitable augury of spring was the smell that preceded it.
Each season had its smell for me and so did spring. One day, while the far away
peaks will still be swathed in snow and the earth and the naked trees slumbered
in the embrace of winter, will waft in a gust of wind bearing that
smell. I cannot describe it and have no name for it. But for me the smell was
the oracle that foretold that in some days the grass beneath my feet will no
more be a pale, sickly yellow but change to a brighter shade of green, that the
sun will show up more often, and that, soon, once again, there will be beetles
and grasshoppers about. The coming of spring also meant that the river which
flowed past a gaggle of hills on the northern margin of our town will no more
be a faint trickle. The snows melted upon the peaks filling it with water and
Deopani gurgled and chuckled loudly as he ran down to meet his brother Brahmaputra.
Spring was also when you rolled in the new grass and let your skin smell of it.
I did. Besides, there was something else to look forward to. It was the season
when elephants walked down the street we lived on. No, they were not wild but
belonged to the tribal chieftains who were in the lumbering business. The
beasts walked back home in the evenings after a hard day’s work and I ran out
to the veranda to gape at them. I dreamt of owning an elephant someday. Not
because I wanted to be a lumber jack but because it seemed like a kindly,
sagacious animal which will make for some good company. Some unforeseeable day
in the future, I wished to set forth to discover many a strange, exotic country
upon the back of an elephant. There was especially one country that I wished to
find.

In
some corner of the world there was a country called ‘Magyar’, but I did not
know where. It could not be traced on the map. This left me so frustrated. Those
were the mid-nineties, pre-Google days, when a child could not be sure if a
country was for real if it was untraceable on the map or in the atlas. Like all
countries, this arcane country too issued postage stamps. I had a few of them;
they bore the inscription ‘Magyar Posta’. Shashi had given them to me. He often
gave me the postage stamps of countries which seemed to have evaded the
cartographer’s notice. I possessed stamps of a country called ‘NOYTA CCCP’
which too, like ‘Magyar’, was not on the map. I wondered if these countries
existed at all. But wherefrom did the stamps come then? It was all so
bewildering.

It was
Shiv who first began to collect stamps in our class. We were in the seventh
standard then. In our tiny town of about ten-thousand folks not too many
received mail from abroad. So, acquiring exotic stamps was not easy. But Shiv
persisted and built a fair collection within months. I think, he took the
trouble to befriend Padam Sharma, the town postman. Often, he paid a visit to
the town post-office after school to enquire the health of Padam bhaiya.
His collection grew steadily. Shiv, Dibakar and I were fast friends and bench-mates.
Inspired by Shiv, Dibakar and I too decided to be philatelists. I did not have
a stamp album and did not know where to buy one. So I decided to make one
myself, I ripped some pages out of my mathematics notebook – they were plain
white – and stapled them together. I was not very satisfied with my ersatz
album, but it served the purpose. The first few stamps of my collection were
donated by Shiv. If I remember correctly, he gave a few to Dibakar too.

Within
days I was a passionate philatelist. Unlike Shiv, who had a large collection of
European stamps, I mostly had Indian and Nepalese ones. The latter were colorful
as butterflies and much prettier than our own. My Nepali friends, whose kin
wrote to them from their homeland, supplied me with those. However, no matter
how pretty they were, Nepalese stamps, being from a country next door, were not
foreign enough for me. They carried images of mythological heroes I was all too
familiar with, or of sacred hills, temples and sadhus. None of these
motifs carried the enchantment of strangeness. Naturally, I yearned to make
more exotic acquisitions for my collection. 

There lived a boy in Shiv’s neighborhood who was rumored
to have the largest collection of stamps in the town. He was a year junior to
us in school. Shiv’s younger brother was his classmate and best buddy. Shiv
knew that my collection is not growing as fast as I would want it too. One day,
he told me in school that the lad is ready to trade stamps for comics. I jumped
at the idea. We decided to meet in the playground during recess. Shiv was to
mediate the negotiations. When we met, and the colloquies began, the boy turned
out to be a hard-nosed businessman. A stamp for a comic book was his demand. I
was outraged and tried to put some reason in his head. As a comic book is so
much bigger than a stamp physically, I should get at least half a dozen stamps
for one, I argued. A valid enough argument it was, both Shiv and I thought, but
he was adamant. I gave in, as I was desperate for some exotic specimens. The
next day was a Sunday and he promised to deliver the stamps in the afternoon at
our house. I barely slept in the night and woke up very early to a gloomy,
overcast Sunday. By noon the rain was pouring down in sheets. I was fearful
lest he not turn up. But turn up he did around three in the afternoon. He had
on him four tiny United Kingdom stamps, all alike, badly soaked. United Kingdom
has always issued the drabbest postage stamps, bearing nothing but the Queen’s
profile and the denomination. I was speechless with disappointment. I had
expected some colorful Czech or Rumanian issues. But it was too late now and I
had to keep my part of the bargain. He selected four of the most exciting comic
books from my collection and left. 

The disappointment was indeed bitter and I was
morose for the rest of the day. Baba noticed my muted spirits and I told him
what had happened. I think he saw the injustice of it all and promised to have
a word with Padam Sharma when he came to deliver the office mail. I could not
have asked for more. A couple of days later, upon returning from office, Baba put
in my hand a stamp from Oman. Padam Sharma had sent it for me. I was beside
myself with joy. Soon, it became a frequent occurrence. Padam Sharma, if he
happened to have any, passed on to father a foreign stamp or two. Upon
returning from work, Baba handed them me. My collection was growing at last.
But I was still not satisfied. No collector ever is. I had a fantasy, a
particularly wild one. I wished to discover a trove of stamps somewhere in our
backyard. One day the fantasy materialized, just like that! By then I had moved
on to the eighth standard. The winters had set in and the half-yearly
examinations had just ended. Every year during the winters we grew some
vegetables in our backyard. That year too we had planted some beans, cabbages
and potatoes. One day, upon returning from school, I was taking a stroll amid
the cabbages when I discovered that the earth beneath my feet is strewn with
stamps. They had apparently originated in the strangest of lands, some bore the
name ‘Magyar Posta’, some ‘NOYTA CCCP’, a few were from some country called ‘Deutsche’,
some others from ‘Nippon’. They were all for real, at my feet, waiting to be
picked up. That day I knew that joy numbs too, too much of it. I was numbed to
the extent that I could begin sticking them in my rough-hewn album only next
morning. But whence had they come? As it turned out, Shashi, who lived next
door, had had them for quite some time. His father worked with the Department
of Posts. Apparently, he had been removing postage stamps, particularly the
exotic ones, from envelopes and parcels for some years and giving them to
Shashi. But Shashi was not keen on philately. One day he decided to get rid of,
what were for him, these useless bits of paper and dumped them all in his
backyard. Some gust of wind must have blown them into ours – it is likely, for
our backyards were separated by only a wire fence. From that day on, till the
day I left home after finishing school, Shashi fed my collection along with
Padam Sharma. He also did what Padam Sharma could not. He helped me plan trips
to the countries whose stamps I possessed, especially the ones I could not
trace on the map. I do not know if I will ever actually get to make these
trips, though I have them all planned out for so many years now. I have even
discovered the identities of the countries I could not locate on a map then.
Today I know that ‘Magyar’ is Hungary, ‘Nippon’ is Japan and ‘NOYTA CCCP’ is the
Union of Soviet Socialist Republics abbreviated in Cyrillic. But in those days,
when I wondered on my own, or with Shashi, what lands these are, their postage stamps
carried a greater enchantment. Knowing dulls the world.

About me: I am an Assistant
Professor of History at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana. My
monograph Becoming Hindus and Muslims.
Reading the Cultural Encounter in Bengal. 1342-1905 was released in 2015 by
Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi.