“My name is not Neelu,” she said, scowling fiercely at me. “And don’t call me Neela, only Ammama may call me that. My name is Nilanjana.” Suitably rebuked, I shut up and listened to Nilanjana tell me, for the third time, the story of how the sunset came to fall in love with the neem tree.
Dreep, she said, was just a railway sunset. Woh (apparently sunsets have no gender as we know it, and the appropriate pronoun is ‘woh’) was not popular and well known like the sea shore sunsets with their admiring sycophants, nor had the splendid sun bloodied colouring of the hill-station sunsets, nor was woh quietly respectable and matter-of-fact like the ones that had settled in the city. Woh was a nothing to write home about sunset, a little spread out around the edges, more the colour of an overripe mango than anything else. Passing trains would sometimes wail out a greeting, and Dreep would ripple in reply. The Guwahati-Halflong route was not a busy one, but woh did not feel left out or alone. Apart from the trains, who were a friendly lot, woh had the hills for company, and on some summer evenings danced a slow grand dance with them, especially when a train was passing by. It was a quiet life, but happy. Dreep heard news, sometimes, of other sunsets deeper in the hills or out on the river. People came in the evenings to watch them colouring and pirouetting around the clouds that also sometimes gathered to watch. Seems there even were some in Shillong that had been photographed by students from Bangladesh, and had had their pictures put up in an exhibition! Dreep was quite impressed by this bit of news that Dhobi-ka-Kutta brought, and did a rather inspired dance that day.
Dhobi-ka-Kutta was Dreep’s only real REAL friend. A flea bitten, mangy unattractive thing, he (dogs, at least, have our kind of genders) always seemed to know what was happening and where. He spent his time at various garbage heaps and wayside tea stalls, occasionally begging for scraps from city people who stopped for tea and cigarettes. Of uncertain ancestry, he was equally detested by the dog gangs and the jackals that freely roamed the hills. He hid when he could, ran when he couldn’t, and cowered and simpered when anyone raised a hand or bared a tooth at him. But he was the freest* dog OR jackal in a hundred kilometre radius, and always knew what was going on in the world. And what stories he told! Of how some men in uniform came to the village with guns and took the best looking girls away in a truck; of how the river flooded the fields and the houses, and the same men came to help; of how the jackals feasted on the night the villagers celebrated the harvest; of how the railway lines were bombed and the trains were stopped for a whole week; of how the headman’s son ran away to the city and came back with a wife and a large white car; of how last years rains had been so hard that it almost washed poor Dhobi-ka-Kutta’s patchwork fur right off his back; and of how there was a little neem tree far far away, who was longing to see a proper sunset. Dreep was rather amused at that last one, but Dhobi-ka-Kutta swore it was true. He said the trains had told him, and even Tohmon, the wind, had confirmed it. That the little neem tree had never seen a sunset because it grew in a building farm, and though it could see a bit of sky, and often smiled up at the moon, the patch of sky was too high for a sunset to show. And that neem trees were the bestest and goodest things on the big flat world and would never lie; so the story just had to be true. Now Dreep had never seen a neem tree, and had only heard of them from Dhobi-ka-Kutta, not that woh was about to admit that. Night inked the hills, then, and Dhobi-ka-Kutta wandered off, leaving Dreep to think of the little neem tree and wonder.
Summer sprung, with flowers in the hills, and Dreep all but forgot the story of the little neem tree. Woh quite enjoyed this season, with its trainloads of travellers heading into the hills. There weren’t as many now as there used to be, but Dreep wasn’t going to let anything dampen the spirit. Woh danced the old grand dances with the hills, twisting and turning between them, moving between mango, radishy and an occasional asphyxiated purple! Woh would tease the busy-busy clouds as they hurried past, slowing them down in a muddy embrace. Sometimes the clouds would hold each other in a long line, so Dreep could not distract them from the extremely important messages they carried for Tohmon. Woh was quite stunning that year, and even the crabby old station master with the tobacco stained teeth and the spit painted platform very secretly thought so. Dhobi-ka-Kutta was away on yet another fact finding mission, and on some quiet evenings when the trains and the clouds were few, Dreep rather missed him. But then came the rains, and with them, Dhobi-ka-Kutta. This year’s rains were heavier than usual, or at least it seemed so-it was hard to really tell. The rain came in curtains and in sheets, and each batch lasted either three days or seven. When it was not pouring, everything was a dull old-dirty-whitewashed-wall gray. The flowers were long gone, and the grass on the hills looked a lurid green, drowned by the annual play of cosmic irony. Sodden bits of earth fell onto the railway tracks as they cut through the hills, and men came to clear them, wet and miserable in their bright blue makeshift ponchos. The rivers flooded, as usual, and there was little food to be had for love, money or prostitution; not even for Dhobi-ka-Kutta. Dreep came out rarely, if at all, and Dhobi-ka-Kutta, desperate to save what was left of his clumpy coat, would only come to see woh in the brief overcast interludes between the drenched obscenity of the pouring skies. His stock of stories seemed to have dried up and he only spoke, if at all, of the little neem tree.
So it was, on a dank and dull, but relatively dry day, that Dreep and Dhobi-ka-Kutta set out to find the little neem tree who so longed to see a sunset. Dhobi-ka-Kutta seemed to have a good idea of where they were headed. They travelled west, they travelled south, and on some days even managed a drunkenly steady south-west. They met a cyclone with a rather extreme idea of fun; were given a lift by a cynical north-east monsoon; had a disagreement on the right of way with a juvenile pack of lightning bolts; and were often given shelter by kindly goods trains who had heard of their brain-dead journey. There were even a couple of hills, local celebrities, who pawed at Dreep and demanded that woh dance with them for a while. They travelled through vast open spaces, the like of which Dreep had never seen before, stark and rocky in some parts, lush and green in others. Dreep for the first time saw the large imposing buildings and bridges that Dhobi-ka-Kutta used to talk of, and found them just a little menacing. As Sundays yawned into Mondays, good travellers that they were, they sometimes stumbled onto hope, and sometimes despair. They travelled hard, and travelled long; till one day, among a clump of buildings not far from a traffic-lashed bridge and a double centenarian railway station, Dreep and Dhobi-ka-Kutta found an almost pretty but not so little neem tree. It had grown tall and strong now, still trying and trying to get a good glimpse of a proper sunset. Its leaves were a gentle characterless green, pleasantly untidy, with drops of rain blushing in response to Dreep’s admiring gaze. And my! Wasn’t the not so little neem tree delighted! Here, at last, was a hell yeah-honest to god-cross my heart and hope to die-real, live, mango coloured, little spread out around the edges sunset, bobbing up and down in a most endearing way!
So there Dreep parked, in front of the not so little neem tree, lighting up when darkness was about to fall, glowing and beaming and bobbing up and down till dawn. Come rain or shine, woh would light up every evening with a soft golden glow, and Dreep and the not so little neem tree would bask in each others company all night long. The Gov’ment even built a pole for Dreep to sit on, so woh wouldn’t bob quite so much, and a glass house so woh wouldn’t get wet or cold. Dhobi-ka-Kutta was quite a hit with the ladies, and doing that thing he do, sired a good many puppies that looked as ugly as himself; prompting a rather lively argument in the local papers about whether street dogs were a menace or not. And even now, in a quiet and not very fashionable corner of Secunderabad, undisturbed except for landing aircraft and the roar of my Yezdi (1995 Roadking, if you were wondering), there is an almost pretty neem tree, and opposite it a pole from which Dreep beams down, all evening and night, only going to bed at dawn.
* “…freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”-Kris Kristofferson, “Me and Bobby McGee”.