It was a stifling hot day in the second week of June and the animals of Jhilmil forest were miserable. The bumblebees no longer droned but sighed. A tail heavy with perspiration made Billori, the squirrel, sit sadly on a patch of dry earth, as hard as a turtle’s hide.
In another corner of the forest, just outside his cave, was Gabru the lion, his tongue hanging out. He did not even have the energy to frighten a lamb that skipped by — despite the fact that it was lunchtime. Nor did he feel like telling the whole world with great pride, “Sara jungle mujhe loin ke naam se jaanta hai” (he always made the mistake of pronouncing l-i-o-n as l-o-i-n).
As Chhoti, the woodpecker, flew towards the water hole in the hope of finding a few drops of water, she overheard a conversation between Lacchu the fox and Bholu the monkey. Lacchu was surprised that Bholu was allowing him to eat the nuts in his hand without trying to snatch them away.
“What a day, what heat,” he said, munching away. “On the way here I bumped into Laxmi, the elephant. She has not raised her trunk or waved her big ears in greeting for the last six days. It’s a big bother in this heat, she says, specially when there is no sign of rain, and no water to bathe in”.
“She also told me that in the morning when she had raised her head to look for rain clouds in the sky, she saw something strange,” rattled Lacchu, as he bit into the last nut.
A disgusted Bholu wondered at his lack of manners in not offering him even a single one. A moment later, his ears perked up as Lacchu told him softly that Laxmi thought she had seen the sun sweat from its own heat.
“And that means it will rain soon — for Surya never sweats, Lakshmi told me,” said Lacchu grandly, his nose tilted up in the air.
The inhabitants of Jhilmil forest did not know but their prayers had just been answered. Far away up in the sky, there was great excitement among the clouds. The Badal family had just been blessed with a new-born baby cloud — a little rain cloud who they had named Varsha. The guest-clouds loved the cap of dark curls on Varsha’s head and said wisely that she would grow up to rain well.
“To be born as a rain cloud is a special gift,” said Dadi Megha, the oldest cloud in the gathering, her cotton tuft-like hair wagging at great speed. “Many of us, like me, for example, belong to families of clouds that are not born to rain; rather, we make up the sky in flat sheets, and, stay at the greatest heights, away from the crowds. But those who are born as rain clouds, like Varsha of the Badal family, are born of the deepest friendship between the earth and the sun,” she said. “The sun burns so hard that it heats up the earth. Worried, the earth sends water to cool down the sun, changing shape as it rises: now vapour and now cloud…”
“I will complete the rest of your story,” butted in young Vivek Badal, his spectacles shaking on his nose with great excitement. Dadi Megha had declared him the most intelligent among them all and he was eager to show off.
“Heavy with the gift of love — water vapour — the clouds try to travel higher up, but can only reach the lower heights of the sky. Not wanting to cause them any trouble, the sun sends them back, as rain, to join the earth, where they belong. It is this return gift of love that makes the peacock dance with joy and it also makes human beings write what they call poetry, in happiness. There, didn’t I tell the story well?” asked Vivek, his voice quivering with pride.
Everyone looked at baby Varsha and remarked that the smile on her face showed that she was born to make the world happy. Only Dadi Megha saw a mischievous glint in her eyes, but decided to say nothing.
Clouds grow up much faster than humans, and in two days time, the curls on Varsha’s forehead had reached her waist. She had also become a handful. Dadi Megha found her hair being pulled while she slept, Vivek’s spectacles went missing and many young clouds came crying to the Badals with the complaint that Varsha had tried to squash them by sitting on them, and succeeded due to her weight.
Dadi Megha met all complaints with a wise nod and the statement, “Never mind, never mind. She’s just a child. When the time comes, she will rain better than anyone else.”
One day, Varsha tried something new. Floating idly near the forest, she saw an infant eagle learning to fly and decided to surround it for a moment, for fun. It would be a good way of meeting the eagle too, she thought. Only, the moment lengthened to a whole day, for she quite liked the warm, soft feel of the eagle’s feathers. As sunset approached, she realised how late it was and wafted away. The several folds of her fleecy dress had prevented her from hearing the eagle’s sobs.
The next day, Dadi Megha called Varsha to her room. She was angry. “What is this that I hear? You have now started frightening young eagles as well!” Varsha tried to look as if she didn’t know what Dadi Megha was talking about, but then she spotted the Eagle family on the other side of the room. Bujlu, the young one let out a shrill cry. “Yes, she is the one who tried to smother me and did not even hear me cry! I could not see a thing, and did not know where I was! You wait and see,” he told Varsha with a triumphant smile, “it will be your turn to cry next, for don’t you have to rain down on the earth, soon?”
There and then Varsha made up her mind. She would never cry. She would grow up to be the one rain cloud that got away without raining. And she made this known to Dadi Megha who became very sad.
The young rain cloud started staying away from her friends, preferring to be alone. During the day she also went to places further away from her home to find new friends who never cried. On one such day, she reached Jhilmil forest. And it was one of the strangest sights that greeted her eyes! Gabru, the lion, lying flat on the ground, his tongue having dried up completely. Billori, the squirrel, requesting the other animals to chop off her tail so that she would feel lighter. Lacchu, the fox, looking like the dried up nuts he liked to eat, Bholu, the monkey, licking his tail thinking it was a banana, and Laxmi, the elephant’s trunk looking like a wasted tree. Poor Mayur, the peacock, had returned his new dancing shoes because there had been no rain.
Suddenly, Varsha heard the sound of a bird’s voice. It was Chhoti, the woodpecker, telling Bholu not to worry. “I saw some friendly rain clouds in the sky this morning. Soon they will rain down and give us back the strength we have lost.”
Chhoti, everyone agreed, spoke a bit too much, but they also admitted that because of her flights to far away places, she had more things to talk about. As usual, she warmed up to her theme. “Once I flew to a place where there was a jungle of houses, no trees, only humans, no jungle folk like us. While resting on a windowsill, I heard two boys talk about the sky and humans who travelled across space in specially-designed transports called spaceships. But you know what I think?” she asked Bholu. But before he could open his mouth she went on with her story.
“I think these rain clouds are the real space travellers. They are brave, kind and adventurous. They rise up to the sky without the help of any special gadgets. And then they do the kindest thing of all — they leave their home in the sky and fall upon our earth as rain. As drops of water that we can take in our beaks, trunks and wide mouths like yours. Because they know that in the absence of water, Bholu has started nibbling his tail, an unwashed Laxmi is ashamed to show her yellow tusks, and Billori is thinking of having her tail cut off.”
Chhoti continued, “So, do not worry. Our friends are coming! There will be rain! Hip, hip hurray!” exclaimed Chhoti.
Bholu was quite impressed by Chhoti’s speech. She must have learnt to speak like that from the humans, he thought, and wondered if he should also spend some time with the humans to be able to talk like that. But that was for later. There were other things to be done.
In a trice he was up on a tree and swinging across the forest to tell everyone that their friends, the rain clouds, were going to splash down any moment. And, for the first time in so many days the forest was alive with roars and twitters.
Varsha, who had heard Chhoti’s speech, was overjoyed. Chhoti had said she was brave, adventurous, kind — the real space traveller. Nobody could stop her from raining now.
Off she sped home and rounded up all her cloud friends. They had been sitting dumbly at one place, for she had told them that they had better not cry before she told them to. They saw the smile in her eyes and knew what she was going to tell them — their journey to the centre of the earth was about to begin. They stood in a circle holding hands, wishing each other a joyous journey. And soon they were gone.
When Dadi Megha woke up from her sleep, she saw a little drop near her bed and knew Varsha had decided to rain.
Down below in Jhilmil forest, everyone was preparing to receive the first drops of rain. The first drop of rain fell on Gabru’s nose and his roar went right up to the sky. Everyone went mad after that. Laxmi almost crushed Lacchu under her heavy feet in an attempt to dance, but he forgave her. Billori ran around madly in a circle trying to catch a glimpse of the tail that she had wanted cut just a while ago. Bholu did twenty cartwheels in a row and asked Chhoti if humans could do that. And Mayur quickly got into action with the new dance he had composed a few days ago.
And in the midst of this crowd was Bujlu the young eagle who was heard telling a friend that Varsha had not really tried to smother him — she had just been playing with him, but he had misunderstood her intentions.
A day later, Lacchu came to see Bholu again. His hands were empty but his mouth was full of nuts and Bholu, hanging upside down from a tree knew Lacchu had gobbled up everything so that he wouldn’t have to share any of it. With great difficulty, Lacchu managed to speak.
“You know Laxmi was saying that she had caught a glimpse of the first drop of rain that fell on Gabru’s nose, and she thought she saw a smile on the raindrop’s face, but she wasn’t sure.”
What kind of a smile was it, Bholu asked Lacchu and the fox opened his mouth wide. The nuts fell down and Bholu was quick to grab them. He opened his mouth wide and asked Lacchu, “Was it this kind of a smile?”
All was well at Jhilmil forest once again.