STORMING THE HEAVENS
Every Catholic homeowner in the village owned a paddy field, either as part of their ancestral inheritance or through a lease on a field acquired through a communal bidding system held every three years.
The monsoons predictably arrived in the first week in June. This is when the paddy fields would have been plowed and sowed with rice seed just before the first rainfall.
But once in many a year, Mother Nature would decide to have a tantrum, and hold back on the rain. This crisis would call for divine intervention. And the saint who was the lobbyist for rain with the Supreme Being was Sant Anton (St. Anthony), the patron saint for rain.
Now, getting to Sant Anton demanded penance … and money. The money went to the priest who would dedicate a special mass to Sant Anton, and tradition called for money to be raised through penance.
One year, when I was about ten years old, the monsoons were late in coming, which meant that we kids would have to play our part in bringing on the rains. So, my grandmother got me to round up my friends to collect money for the mass. It was my first experience in raising money the hard way..
The fundraiser involved canvassing our neighbourhood door-todoor for donations while carrying a small boulder on our bare heads and chanting verses imploring Sant Anton for rain. It was like trickor- treating at Halloween, but without treats; just rupees to give to the priest for the mass.
Here are a sampling of the verses and their literal translation: Sant Anton altarar/Paus ghal sounsarar (Saint Anthony, on the altar, Rain on the world) Sant Anton manchea bettan,/Paus ghal soglea xetan (Saint Anthony, in the bamboo grove, Rain on our fields).
When we figured that we had raised enough money to pay for the mass, we concluded our penance by carrying the boulders to the top of a nearby hill – symbolically closer to heaven – and tossing them off our heads.
This ritual worked because the rains came the next day and a drought was averted. “You boys saved our crops” said my grandmother proudly. And I believed her just as innocently as kids believe in Santa Claus.
Fortunately, this childhood ritual was a rare happening. The monsoons in bygone years always came on time, making penance unnecessary, thank God! We were accustomed to walking barefoot in the village, but those jagged boulders were hard on our bare heads.