The trees were dry and brown, the earth and sky buried under layers of dust.
With Ankur in the backseat, Diganta maneuvered his scooter through the dust clouds. The recent flood had left the paved road bumpy. Whenever the scooter leaped across potholes, Ankur grabbed Diganta tighter. They rode past the crowds, leaving behind even the smaller villages. Now, unending fields covered either side of the road, empty and lonely. Up ahead loomed a row of hills, seemingly moving further away as they approached.
The setting sun scattered its last rays along the far edge of the fields.
This was what they had set out in search of. A glimpse of nature at its best. A scene that could rend the monotony of their daily life. Somewhere on this quest down a new path, they had come across a living symbol of eternity. Two trees growing as one in the middle of a huge field. Once they had spread their roots, their trunks had united, climbing toward the sky together. The trees looked worn down, battered by winter and the lashing of strong winds.
Diganta stopped the bike, making his way down one of the little lanes across the field. He touched the dusty trunks and sighed. Ankur came to his side and placed a hand on his. It was as if a thousand bees had started buzzing about them as they looked into each other’s eyes. There was no need to say a word. Side by side, they sat down under the trees in silence.
The cold wind carried dust everywhere. Under a boundless sky stretching across the horizon, enveloped in a silence spanning miles, Diganta sat beside his favorite person. He gazed at Ankur’s bronze skin and faint stubble. The familiar smell of crape jasmines wafted from his body.
How could he hypnotize him so?
Diganta had remained Ankur’s shadow through their lower primary school days, when they had shared the same bench, to now, when they had both decided to bid college adieu.
Why? Diganta asked himself. Why was he hell-bent on staying trapped in this vortex, however enchanting it seemed?
But as always, it was silence that embraced him in answer.
Darkness crept in, and the shadows stretched around them. Soon, the sky was filled with bats.
“Time to go,” Ankur said, slowly getting back to his feet.
“We’ll have to think of something.”
Before long, they were on their way, heading back down the same path.
Or was it, perhaps, a new one entirely?
Ankur’s family did not take the news well. He was, after all, the son of a lower primary school vice-principal deciding to drop out! That night, he had to go without dinner at home. Diganta sat him down to eat at his house.
The two lived freely over the next few days.
Visiting the trees became their daily ritual. They would sit under their shade, calmly enjoying the fleeting sunsets. Watching the sky bury its face in the faraway hills, they contemplated the meaning of life and the universe.
“They’ll bear new leaves soon, you’ll see!” said Diganta one day. “Then we’ll know what trees they are.”
“Oh, come on,” said Ankur. “They’re done for. They’re going to die.”
“They won’t. They won’t,” Diganta whispered to himself, caressing the trunks.
In the days that followed, Ankur started doing something strange. On their visits, he started carrying a medium-sized water drum so he could water the base of the trees. Diganta laughed about it at first, but eventually began helping him out. A madness, perhaps, had consumed them both.
The seasons changed soon enough. Light rains came down from the sky, drenching the earth and washing away the dust.
Ankur managed to get a job as a computer teacher in a coaching academy in town. Soon after he joined, he began getting offers to tutor students at home.
As Ankur ran out of afternoons to spend with him, Diganta’s life turned barren, each day becoming indistinguishable from the other.
He took out all his old and dirty brushes, returned to his paint jars after a long time. During the last flood, he and his family had been forced to leave their house and take shelter in a relief camp for several days. A number of his books and notebooks had been ruined, as well as many of his pencils, brushes, and acrylic jars. The Tinixuti river had known no mercy that year. Along with their belongings, it had washed away the colors of their life. So many had lost their lives! Scores of livestock had gone to a watery grave. The dank, rotting stench left behind by the flood had, for many days afterward, engulfed their lives, smothering Diganta’s love for art. In these lonely afternoons, he made his way back to colors.
As earnestly as they had all looked for tortoise eggs as children, sifting through the sand on the banks of the Tinixuti, he began rooting about in his memories, trying to find pieces of what he had lost on paper. He let paint express all his apprehension and wounded pride.
In the middle of it all came Jayanta. A distant relative. A brother-in-law of sorts. He had come to stay for a while with Diganta’s family. A theater man, he had arrived in their town to oversee a drama workshop. For the better part of the day, he remained busy with these duties, but in the afternoons, he always made time to come and watch Diganta at work, caressing his paintings as if he were unearthing unspoken stories within them.
As the days went by, Jayanta’s fingers began to wander. At first, they drifted from paper to palette, slowly moving on to the brush, and from there, the lean fingers that held it. The day Diganta took him along on a visit to the riverbank, Jayanta put his arm around his shoulder as they sat atop a rock in Vasundhari Hills. He kept rubbing his back. Once, he even grabbed his waist.
The weather took a turn for the worse. There was no sign of rain in the days to follow, and every field grew dry. The people had suffered greatly after the last flood had damaged their crops. A drought now would leave them all starving. The whole town started talking about the matter. Diganta, away from it all, was trapped in a nightmare every afternoon. When Ankur sent a few art students his way, he got busy working with the kids, glad to at last have an excuse to avoid Jayanta.
Today, however, the children had not come over. It was Nauka Puja—the day of boat worship—and everyone was participating. Diganta did not feel like going out. He took out his brushes and paints, wanting to drown in a whirlpool of emotion with every coat he applied. Over the past week, he had been routinely forced to yield to Jayanta. Jayanta, who would turn into a deadly snake at nightfall. Restless with thirst. Flicking his tongue as he lapped up his victim. Throughout it all, Diganta would keep his eyes shut, gritting his teeth as he lay frozen. How tired he was of pretending to be asleep every night!
He watched the sky grow dark beyond the window, his brushstrokes slowly giving birth to a pair of lonely trees standing in a valley. The colors unlatched memories, bringing back the smell of afternoons gone by. He could almost see Ankur getting up from under the tree and rushing to embrace him.
At that moment, Diganta felt someone grab him from behind. Lips pressed down on his neck. Turning around in shock, his eyes met Jayanta’s. He felt as if his blood was on fire. Throwing away his brushes, he wrenched himself free from Jayanta and stormed out, returning moments later with his scooter.
“Sit,” he told him.
“Where to?” asked Jayanta, taken aback.
“I’m telling you to sit. So, just sit.”
Jayanta settled down on the backseat without a word. Piercing the gloom outside, Diganta’s scooter charged forward, carrying Jayanta to the old field. Finding himself in a deserted expanse, Jayanta looked around in fear. Diganta walked down and embraced the trees. Tiny new leaves had sprouted on them, he observed. The very same trees that had been dry for as long as he could remember! Diganta wanted to cry tears of happiness. He forgot everything he wanted to show and say to Jayanta. In the hazy light of the evening, he snapped as many pictures as he could, sending them to Ankur. Ankur must have been waiting for his message. He immediately answered with an emoji. A few stars flickered to life above. With a dumbfounded Jayanta sitting behind him, Diganta rode back home on his scooter, cutting through the dust.
One by one, stars lit up the entire sky. Ankur and Diganta walked underneath them. On the other side of the river, the Adi people were celebrating Nauka Puja. They did so every year, hoping to pray away floods and droughts.
The boys walked hand in hand into the still forest, making their way to the Puja site. Surrounded by sals, gamhars, and crown flower trees, the Adis sat in a circle. The light of the lamps burning about them had clothed the scene in a mystical glow. On a little banana stem boat decorated with various flowers, they made their wishes, then released a pigeon. Everyone started to pray in silence. No sound other than the flapping of wings could be heard for miles around them.
But no, even in this silence, transplanted by the earth and sky, Diganta could hear the pounding inside him. He felt as if the pigeon had flown straight into his heart and was now beating its wings against all his senses. This flapping and fluttering grew faster as Ankur’s hand came to rest on his. In the flickering light of the lamps, Diganta explored anew a pair of eyes he had known all his life.
He got up and left quietly, following those eyes into an earthy, grassy cave of sensation. Slashing through the silence, Diganta climbed a mountain of frenzy. Until the stars had hidden themselves away and the bending and swaying trees had managed to awaken them, he remained consumed. Climbing. Descending. Drowning over and over.
Neither of them heard the rustling behind them.
Dark clouds loomed large up above. An overcast sky squared up against the winds sweeping across the plains.
Jayanta had gone away that morning, leaving behind him a malevolent storm. A storm hell-bent on shattering not only two lives but also their families. The video, now being forwarded across cell phones, had left Ankur and Diganta in shreds. They had been caned and thrown out of their homes, their books and clothes hurled after them in the courtyard, Diganta’s vibrant paintings all destroyed. Picking up the pieces of his ruined art and dreams, he fell into step beside Ankur, heading down an old, familiar path.
They arrived in front of the twin trees, making their way through the fierce storm. Drenched to their bones, they settled down under them. Despite the thunderous rain they could hear each other’s heartbeats.
“We’ll leave,” they whispered to each other. “There must be a land we can go to. A land with people like us.”
As if to shine a light on this truth, a searing bolt of lightning illuminated the sky. A second later, the whole earth shivered and screamed. Ankur and Diganta retreated into each other.
A ribbon of lightning carrying all seven hues of the rainbow descended from the sky, wrapping itself around them. They stepped forward, floating up in the air. Under a pair of now-dead trees, they left behind a lifetime of torment, heading to a vast and peaceful plain.
© 2022 by Jintu Gitarth. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2023 by Harsita Hiya. All rights reserved.