The first part of this essay was published in The Aleph Review, Volume 3 (2019) as 'The Great Nothingness or Punjabi Days'. Chris Cork had sent the entire piece entitled 'Donner und Blitzen', which title was not used as the storm that he describes below was not part of the published piece.
Clearly, nothing had happened in the compound since lunchtime, and it was as blasted and sterile and hot as it had been since a couple of hours after dawn. The family had been up and doing by 5.30 a.m., with the sun a tiny pale disc behind the eucalypts at the eastern horizon. Up and doing so early because by eleven you needed to be inside and out of the heat. The children had trailed in from school at twelve-thirty, wilting, thirsty and tired, to eat a quick lunch before siesta, which is called a small sleep not a siesta, a word that is far too busy for a Punjabi context. You lie as motionless as you can in the heat, no fan because there is no electricity and no air conditioning because nobody can afford it. So the family had not been having anything happen to them all afternoon besides getting hot and maybe a little light vegetable preparation for the evening meal.
As the darkness gathered, and the meal was cooked, you could see people looking at the sky, looking at one another, knowing that something was going to happen, and that it would not be good. And that there was nothing they could do about it. The meal was eaten in the gloom that suddenly was not gloom any more as the electricity came back on at eight. But we knew it would not be on for long as the smell of water was now strong in the air, and with it the tangy smell that goes with a far off and yet unseen electrical storm. Clouds began to seam the sky, angled neatly at forty-five degrees to the incoming frontal system, and as quickly as the stars appeared they were gobbled up by darkness, and all were eventually gone by bedtime at ten-fifteen. Sleepless, the water herders lay on their charpoys outside the house, while the women and children lay inside all of a heap, under the fan. It was a silent darkness that eventually saw all asleep, and even the animals were quiet in the knowledge that something would happen.
At 12.10 precisely Dooms Trump sounded across the land. It was one of those all-encompassing events like being caught in an avalanche or an explosion, or suddenly diving into icy water, and just as shocking. The sky cracked and sizzled and crashed and banged. Lightning was at every compass point, lightning in the clouds, lightning that made a jagged circle in the sky, lightning that seemed to slowly reach down to the ground and then flash into a vast arching bolt bouncing from trees and buildings. Lightning hit two trees close by, and the morning would reveal the corpse of a buffalo, a hole burnt deep into its ribcage, and the pride of the courtyard a few houses along the row.
Wind dashed in from all directions, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere, sometimes seeming to come down vertically on the heads of those in the compound. It beat the eucalypts in the next-door house, stripping the leaves from their branches in the blue flicker of light. It picked up dust and rubbish and chaff from the days threshing and whirled it all into an aerial broth that made breathing difficult. It was strong enough to get itself under a charpoy and lift one side from the ground. Heads were wrapped in dupattas and everybody rushed around trying to retrieve pots and pans that were rolling and flying about the compound and get them into the safety of the kitchen room.
The children stood at the door of the house watching the battle to save the movables, seeing something like an old black-and-white movie, except that the soundtrack was louder and grander than any pit musicians could ever produce and the film itself beyond the wilder imaginings of de Mille. The noise was continuous, a battering physical racket that had hands over ears and made speech impossible. It did not seem linked to the lightning flashes and strikes. None of the childhood counting of the seconds between the flash and the bang to see how far away the storm was, no few seconds of grace and holding of breath between light and noise, but happening all together, of a piece, and making a vast overlapping auditory roof that smashed in from all sides, and none. Not in any one place more or less than another, and trapping all within a vast meteorological drum. Shouted words were incomprehensible and retreat was clearly the order of the day, and once all that could be retrieved or tied down, was, and the tethering if the silent and terrified animals checked to make sure they did not tear loose and go mad in the chaos, there was nothing to do but get under cover and sit it out.
The rain arrived after about half an hour, great blobby spots that impacted the bricks of the courtyard like a hand slapping down on a table-top. It never amounted to much, the rain. Not enough to fill the gutters and roof channels, not enough to produce the gouting streams that hammered down on the surface of the compound and drove the filling from between the bricks, making unseen and unsuspected cavities into which the leg of a charpoy might disappear in the dead of night, tipping the sleeper to one side and bringing thoughts of abandoning ship and manning the lifeboats. Not enough to fill any water channels or dams, but enough, when teamed with the wind, to batter the green mangoes from the trees around the village; a cash crop that virtually every farmer uses to give them the ‘extras’ in life, and by morning it was clear that ‘extras’ were not going to be on the menu for Fatimapur this year.
All stood and watched, men and women and children, for half an hour or so until the rattle and crash began to abate, when everybody went to bed indoors and listened as it became quiet again, moving towards nothing happening and the rip in reality being once more sewn shut. It was quiet by three-thirty, after which nothing happened.
Until the next night, when it happened again, and this time the wind did its work more effectively, taking down grid pylons to the north of Firoze and leaving fifty square miles of nothing with nothing happening as far as electricity goes for a long time. Later in the year there will - hopefully - be monsoon storms, always assuming that the monsoon catches light and it doesn’t every year, storms that last for days, great blackness’s full of pelting rain, destroying houses of unfired mud bricks, gashing new watercourses across the fields and hopefully filling the dams and reservoirs across the country. But nothing is certain in the Punjab, beyond hardship and uncertainty, and there is a predicted fifty-percent shortfall in the water needs of the entire country by late August. A serious drought, the first for many years.
The ants will have sat it out, no sweat, cuddled up in their crevice in the mango tree.
The toads will be back on rivetting duty once things dry out a bit, and the rats will be scribbling an addendum to the Great Book of Things That Could Happen to a Rat. And the goats…
…Nan you just would not belieeeeeve the trouble there is going to be when that terrible young thing down in finance gets his mail this morning he is such a nasty piece of work I could just see myself doing him a mischief myself never mind what all those others might want to do to him and did you see that programme last night the one about all that sex and children with bits they were not supposed to have well my dear it was a real eye-opener for me I can tell you and there’s no way you would ever get me to cock my leg up like that just so you could put a…
Chris Cork is growing old disgracefully in Pakistan, which has been home for a quarter-century. Bibliophile, occasional cyclist, compulsive scribbler with a lifelong inability to suffer fools gladly. Currently writing for an online newspaper in Pakistan, he will happily write anywhere, any time in exchange for money. Passable cook, cat-lover, reasonable shot with small-bore weaponry, retired sailor and mountaineer. Open to offers, preferably legal.