The fish sense the coming of the storm.
There is a pond below where I live in Kolkata which is a marker of the changes in tide, time and weather. On a regular morning, its placid green surface is broken by the snake-like brown shol maach or the tiny silver bata fish. They skim the edges plucking off insects and algae, school together or glide as lone rangers. However, the gathering clouds send them scurrying to the depths, anticipating the impending turbulence.
And the Kalboishakhi is turbulent to say the least.
First, there is complete and utter stillness. Across the road, the kites being flown from a rooftop, sag without any wind. And suddenly the skies darken. The river freezes into a silver-gray buffeted by winds in all directions. A sudden fury of thunder and lightning rips through the clouds, leaving massive gashes in the sky. The rains and gusty winds follow, as relentless sheets threatening to uproot the hardy palms and felling nearly-ripe mangoes to the ground.
The identifiable steel frame of the Howrah Bridge, the gigantic stadium lights of Eden Gardens, the skinny black visage of Chowringhee’s glamorous new skyscraper—The 42, the gleaming white dome of the Victoria Memorial, the narrow spires of the red brick kilns are slowly obscured by a thick gray impasto of water, wind and clouds. Kolkata’s grand old cityscape transforms into a futuristic dystopia worthy of an end-of-days box-office hit.
In the aftermath of the storm, the city and the pond below the house is washed clean, the sludge and the pollution blown away temporarily to reveal an almost prelapsarian beauty and abundance. The frogs croak in a lusty choir and Kolkata is a cinematic vision, with every last crumbling colonial facade and chrome and glass malls perfectly juxtaposed.
Yeats described the birth of a terrible beauty in his poem Easter, 1916. Bengal’s kalboishakhi is perhaps nature’s perfect manifestation of this phrase. This nor’wester is magnificent in its ferocity, its sudden massive cloud formations and sheer power. It offers temporary relief from the sweltering humidity, provides much-needed rain to the crops and currently, some drama to our lockdown drudgery. Its unexpectedness also leaves in its wake death and destruction. Across Bengal, homes are destroyed, cattle are lost and people struck to death by lightning.
The kalboishakhi’s dual nature has made it a powerful metaphor for poets, musicians and folk artists of Bengal through the ages.
Here’s a look at what the kalboishakhi really means in Bengal…
What is a kalboishakhi?
The name denotes a nor’wester but its literal translation is the “calamity of boishakh”. Then there is the obvious wordplay on kal as time and the kalboishakhi as a destroyer of the old and the bringer of new life. The double entendre of kajal as the bringer of judgment and the blackness of the clouds also play a part. Boishakh is the first month on the Bengali almanac which falls between April and May and the period when these storms make an appearance. They extend into the searing month of jyeshta (May-June), right until the monsoons arrive in these parts.
Prevalent across eastern India, these nor’westers usually form over the Chotanagpur Plateau and, as the thunder clouds travel, they gather force due to the high temperatures, ground heating and the incursion of moisture from the Bay of Bengal the further it moves east.
Redolent with violent bursts of thunder, lightning, gales and torrential rain, the storms rage across Bengal, Assam and Bangladesh, destroying and renewing in equal measure. Pre-kharif crops scorched by the summer sun get a much-needed reprieve. Yet, in some cases, the accompanying hail can destroy the crops just as easily.
The kalboishakhi erupts with little warning and the wind and lightning turns the regular walk home into a potential death trap. Think flying signboards, falling branches, collapsing walls and the worst—a lightning strike. On Monday, over 20 people were killed in lightning strikes in three districts of Bengal, making it one of the highest casualties of such a storm in recent times.
Kalboishakhi: The sound, the fury, the art
Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore immortalised the kalboishakhi as a force that renews the land in his song “Esho he boishakh”. Bangladesh’s rebel poet Kazi Nazrul Islam wrote of the kalboishakhi as a rebel spirit who would break the chains of oppression for the oppressed masses and forge the way for freedom in his pathbreaking poem Proloyollash.
In the Bhatiali songs of the boatmen, the kalboishakhi’s stormy winds churn the river and play a part in continuing the cycle of life. In the folk art of the patuas or scroll painters of Bengal, the kalboishakhi is rendered in dramatic scenes shaped by the storm.
A more pop rendition is the hit single ‘Kalboishakhi’ by Bengal’s teenage pop sensation, Anupam Roy and is a benevolent ode to first love and the first rains.
Satyajit Ray used the kalboishakhi both literally and as a metaphor in Charulata. The storm coincides with the arrival of Amal which has unexpected consequences in the protagonist Charu’s staid but settled domestic life.
The vibrant tradition of ghost stories in Bengal often finds its perfect setting in the eye of a kalboishakhi. And there is little doubt that the kalboishakhi’s fury adds to the delicious anticipation of the appearance of an otherworldly creature in desolate city streets or dark fields in Bengal’s countryside. More specifically, there is a ghost who is directly associated with the kalboishakhi which is known as the barul. This free spirit appears during the kalboishakhi and forms an eddy of wind which encases the beholder and makes its presence known.
Even as the storm erupts in all its sound and fury, it inspires a strange love in the mind of the intrepid Bengali. In the centuries past, eyes trained to the skies, artists used their pens and paintbrush to capture the storm on paper. Today, Instagram influencers stand with phones aimed at the skies, hoping to capture the money shot. There are those who chase after these storms tracking their wind speeds and counting the lightning strikes. And those who burst into song involuntarily at the onset of the kalboishakhi, singing to the skies, even as their tunes are devoured by the roaring winds.
There is no denying this beauty. Or its power. The kalboishakhi is nature’s great gig in the sky and as humans, we watch on from our cheap seats.