Rain (short fiction)

First published in The Hindu Business Line

I

Dusk hung over the city as Suhani blinked into a droplet of rain. The outpour had finally slowed but not enough to save a day’s labour and wages.

The group of migrant labourers from Himachal had been trudging through Delhi’s criss-crossed thoroughfares for four days now. Even as they negotiated the city traffic and an ever-floating mass of people, a temporary street market drew Suhani with a pull that stainless steel plates and woks, plastic pails, colourful tiffin boxes, broomsticks, and china cups with saucers can exert on a 12-year-old girl. As she squatted to examine the collection, Lakhi, an older woman from the group, hastened her.

Chal, get up, Suhani. What good are these for us? We won’t buy anyway,” Lakhi said and stepped ahead to join her group amidst the milling bazaar crowd.

“Coming, Chachi…”

Suhani let go of a sigh and a set of green glass bangles she yearned to see around her wrists. When she got back on her feet, Lakhi wasn’t beside her. “Chachi,” she called out, jostling through the crowd, hoping to reunite with her group. Instead, a thousand strangers milled around her. Tears rolled down her eyes. She was lost.

Suhani dreaded rain.

Wading through the crowds, Suhani couldn’t help a nightmare from clasping her mind. She saw her father’s face as he hammered stones to build a tunnel through a mountain near Kullu for a hydro power project.

A dream had cradled Suhani before the tragedy struck. As floodwaters swept away their tent, her spell broke. People around her screamed, scrambling for their belongings. Neither Baba nor his soothing voice was around. Even as Lakhi dragged herself out of the tent, Suhani peered backwards, hoping to see her father through the gushing water. But he had already turned into one of the 78 casualties the flood devoured.

Suhani slapped her arm to fight the brittle rain slashing her skin. She thought of Baba. How he’d take her to his work site, yet not let her carry a brick. At daybreak, when he opened his food basket, she would force him to eat more than he could hope to digest. “Suhani is your amma, Raghu,” her father’s friends would say. The little girl would break into a chortle.

A sob escaped her throat.

II

At a corner of Safdar Hashmi Marg, Saleem’s tea stall, a shack with a torn tarpaulin sheet for its roof, barely withstood the rain. Saleem couldn’t care less. He ran the stall to douse the stomach’s fire, which somehow burned even when the heart had been razed clean of feelings. Wary of his perpetual frown and aversion to exchanging pleasantries, regular customers seldom made any casual conversation.

But today his face wore a smile. The incessant rains teleported him to his village and to memories of his son and wife. He remembered how Ali loved to get soaked and pick up the green mangoes that fell on puddles under the trees. No matter how sharply his mother scolded him, Ali had the unspoken nod of his father for this wet indulgence. Saleem would join the boy in his rain dance and fruit collection, much to the disdain of his wife, Fatima. All the same, he understood her fear. Ali had come to them after nine years of their marriage, and they had seen a few village children catching a cold that turned into violent, fatal pneumonia.

In the end, it wasn’t to pneumonia he lost his son. Or wife. The rain, in fact, played no role in that. He still didn’t know if Ali was alive, or like his mother.

The afternoon he found Fatima’s body — her kurta shredded to bits as if by a pack of starving hyenas, her bare breasts oozing blood yet to dry, the string of her salwar undone — left for display — in the tiny courtyard of their house was also the afternoon Ali had gone missing. Saleem had no time to grieve his wife or look for his son. He couldn’t even claim Fatima’s body for burial — the police took it away for investigations. She wasn’t alone — 11 women from the community had been ravaged. A few had survived, most didn’t. For the men, the discovery of the scarred bodies of their wives implied a terrifying warning of what was to come.

They fled to a neighbouring village, to community members who sheltered them for a couple of weeks. Saleem and one of his neighbours eventually managed to board a bus and find their way — escape — to Delhi.

Today, nearly a year later, the rain eased Saleem’s pain, if only by a smidgen. Images of chasing little Ali through the fields, in the rain, came flashing to him; for a few moments, he found a speck of life back. Deep down, he wished for the rain to continue. Maybe it could wash off the wounds from Fatima’s naked breasts that now festered on his?

III

Drenched to the bones and shivering, Suhani plopped herself on a bench at the corner of the street.

A sudden sneeze coming off the bench startled Saleem. He felt guilty to be reminiscing.

Ae, ladki, what are you doing here?” he asked the girl who’d just claimed a corner of his stall bench.

She looked up, her eyes pooling with water and fear.

“You have no tongue or what? What are you doing here?”

A customer offered to pay for a glass of hot milk for the girl.

Saleem agreed reluctantly and gave her a glassful with a couple of biscuits that had gone soggy.

It was already late; Saleem closed shop for the day while Suhani still sipped her milk. “Just keep the glass in that bucket and get going, okay?” he said to her and added, knocking his forehead, “Allah jaane where they come from.” His grouse with the almighty wasn’t new.

IV

The kiss of a wet leaf on her forehead woke up Suhani the next morning as she sprang from the bench that had been her bed for the night.

Engrossed in washing tea-stained glasses while humming Palla Sipayia, a song Baba often sang at work, she was caught unawares by a gruff voice. It was Saleem’s.

Ae, you’re still here! What are you up to with those glasses?”

“I am just cleaning them.”

“So you want money now, haan? Get lost! I won’t pay you a single rupee.”

“I don’t want money. I was cleaning the glass in which I drank, so I thought…” Suhani was on the verge of breaking down.

“Tell me, where do you live? I’ll take you to your home.”

The girl was more puzzled than shocked to see Saleem’s tone softening. Through a torrent of tears, she mumbled her story to him.

“Hmm, so you have no place to go? And you found no one but me in this whole world. Allah! Okay, leave those glasses now; you don’t have to wash them.”

“Not a problem. I am good at this.” Suhani resumed her humming and washing.

When she was done, Saleem offered her a glass of tea and a fresh bun.

“Come, sit on that bench and eat this.”

V

Suhani had been estranged from her village group for less than a week, and Saleem was already at a loss for ideas for her. He brought her to the stall daily on a rickshaw and she quietly helped him run it, washing glasses, preparing the elaichi and laung for spicing the tea. She’d noticed the masala version sold more than plain tea.

One morning, on their way to work, Suhani saw a construction site and asked Saleem if she could work there. Who knew if Lakhi and the rest of her village people were there? Saleem snapped at her. “Are you in your senses or what? Don’t ever talk of that again!” He had seen how construction thhekedars and their sidekicks treated the young girls who worked on the sites. The thought of Suhani, an orphan, working there made him shudder. Instantly, he felt bitter for his concern for her. He was only inviting trouble.

He gave himself three days to find an orphanage for her.

VI

A week passed. The air was hotter and the crowd of customers thinner. More people preferred lassi and Coke to tea in the searing heat. Saleem utilised his free time shortlisting orphanages. The moment his glance went to Suhani, he averted it, as if blanking her from his vision would somehow invalidate the truth of her existence.

It was early evening when a dust storm banged against his stall. The tattered tarpaulin revolted through the gust. Saleem worried if it would last this heavenly outburst. He wasn’t up to renovating his shack — he had other things to deal with. Within minutes, the storm lashed into a downpour. Just as he got ready to leave, he saw Suhani weeping.

Ae, Suhani, are you feeling sick?”

“No, Chacha.”

“Then why do you cry, Beta?”

Suhani’s tears halted midstream. At the slightest show of affection from the otherwise stern Saleem, she leapt forward, hugged him and broke into fresh tears.

“Why does it rain, Chacha? Why? It only takes people away. Why did it take Baba away from me?”

Saleem patted her on the back, uncomfortable to hold a crying child in his arms. Ali had cried on his shoulders while reporting a school master’s taunt only a few days before Saleem stopped seeing that sweet face ever again.

He was relieved when Suhani let go of him. Gently poking her forehead, he said, “It’s not the rain that took your Baba, Suhani. It’s all your kismat. Come now, help me wash these glasses, or we may end up spending the entire night cursing our kismat.”

Suhani burst out laughing, and suddenly the rain didn’t feel so bad. In an instant, she was jumping, two glasses in her tiny hands, feet floating on a puddle, hands waving in the rain.

“Ae, Suhani, what are you up to, you crazy girl?” Saleem asked.

“Why, washing the glasses, Chacha. Look!” she said. Her laughter carried the echo of fresh raindrops pattering down the street.

Despite his best efforts, Saleem couldn’t help thinking about his days in the village with little Ali.

“What’s it with this girl?”

VII

The clear blue sky the next morning gave Saleem hope. Since the mercury had dipped quite a bit, people were expected to return to the stall.

“Suhani, can you manage the stall today?” he asked the child.

“Why, Chacha?”

“I have some work and won’t be back before noon.”

With that he went out, a sly smile betraying his face as he took out a piece of paper from his pocket. He saw Suhani’s face paling but didn’t bother.

When he returned in the afternoon, Saleem found an animated Suhani taking care of business, asking the customers if the sugar was enough, or if they wanted more cardamom in their tea.

As Saleem came closer to the stall, a man asked him, “What’s that you are carrying, Saleem?”

“Well, Sahab, I thought I would repair this stall a bit. You can see how it is right now.”

“Ah, that’s a good idea. Your roof might fall off any moment, and then we are all doomed,” he said, braving a light guffaw, which was immediately echoed by other customers. A rare opportunity for mirth in the tea stall’s drab history couldn’t be let off.

Saleem and a younger customer began changing the tarpaulin sheet. Soon the stall sparkled in fresh blue. Saleem opened another package wrapped in old newspaper. A signboard came out of it. As he and the young man fixed it, the rest of the customers moved to take a closer look. Most of them were too startled to react.

When they were done, Saleem asked Suhani, “So, how do you like this?”

“What is written on the board, Chacha?” Suhani asked, craning her neck to look up.

She got a tap on her shoulder. It was the young man who had helped Saleem with the facelift.

“Come here, little girl. That board says, ‘SALEEM-SUHANI TEA STALL’.”

Suhani let out a silly chortle and squealed, “See, Chacha, he’s making a fool of me.”

“He doesn’t have to.”

The rain had let up when Saleem took Suhani’s hand and walked back home. The muggy air drenched him in sweat. He didn’t complain. Clearing his throat he asked her,

“Do you have a problem calling me Abba?”

Suhani paused, taken aback by this sudden suggestion.

“Abb…”

“Yes, ab se. I want you to start practising right away.”

Suhani lowered her head to a slight nod, enough to hide a smile and a tear.

Rain

When wetness changes form,
it becomes Bhairavi; its
fragility relative.

Rain is a distraction,
sly but welcome. It hoards
sadnesses and spits out promises.

Distance reduces vision.
Water is its
own biggest burden.

Bhairavi keeps us
afloat — its illusion
slicker than crystal rain.

Togetherness and moist memories — two recent poems

Togetherness Formulae

(first published in Anti Serious)

Chatter until it’s banter
Shadow and
be shadowed.

Expect, so you can
accept. Sing at your
own risk.

Make play of work,
it helps keep scores.

Love, snore, engage, detach
Talk dreams and work woes.

Nibble together
on sunshine and serendipity,
aged wine and fish music.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Thirsty 

(first published in Open Road Review)

Birdcall will start soon. The room will gather
echoes of a backyard drifting across seas.

The moistness of memory blotches the seen, the felt,
making them apparitions of the once-seen, once-felt.

The neighbour plants bitter leaf to mix in her
tropical fish soup. The ocean surges in her dry throat.

Open the southern window. Hoard unending
afternoons before they get frost-bitten.

Let sleep hang in the air while a
spotted dove returns with stolen monsoon.

On a Cloudy Day by Rabindranath Tagore

Every day is filled with work and people. At the end of each day, one feels the day’s work and exchanges have said all that needed to be said. One doesn’t find the time to grasp that which remains unsaid within.
This morning, cluster upon cluster of cloud has covered the sky’s chest. There’s work to do today as well, and there are people all around. But there’s a feeling that all that lies inside cannot be exhausted outside. Man crossed seas, scaled mountains, dug holes under the ground to steal gems and riches, but the act of transmitting one person’s innermost thoughts and feelings to another—this, man could never accomplish. PartlyCloudy On this cloudy morning, that caged thought of mine is desperately flapping its wings inside me. The person within says, “Where is that forever’s friend who will rob me of all my rain by exhausting my heart’s clouds?”
On this cloud-covered morning I hear the inside voice rattling the closed door’s fetters again and again. I wonder, what should I do? Who is the one at whose call my words will cross work’s barrier to journey through the world with the lamp of song in my hands? Who is there whose one look would string all my strewn pains into a garland of joy and make them glow in one light? I can only give it to the one who begs it of me with the perfect note. At the bend of which road stands that ruinous beggar of mine? My inside’s ache wears a saffron robe today. It wants to emerge into the path which, like the innocent single string of an ektara, chimes within the steps of the ‘heart’s person.’
Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

Rain’s Letter by Rabindranath Tagore

Dear Friend,

Living as you do amid the desert of Sindh country, imagine the monsoons in Calcutta.

In this letter, I remind you of Bengal’s rain…Ponds swelling with water, mango orchards, wet crows, and ashadhe tales. And if you can recall Ganga’s bank, then think of the cloud’s shadow on the streaming water and of the Shiva temple located within the peepul tree under the cloud cover. Think of the veiled village women who fill water from the rear banks, getting drenched as they make their way home through the bamboo briars, passing paathhshalas and cowsheds; think of how the rain splashes in from a distance by placing its feet over the waving crop fields; first on the mango orchards at the end of the field, then on the bamboo backwoods; next, every single hut, every village fades out behind the monsoon’s transparent cover, little girls sitting before huts clap and invite the rain with their songs—in the end, the downpour captures all land, all forest, every village into its snare. Unceasing rain—in the mango fields, bamboo bushes, rivers; on the head of the crouched boatman as he flinches while wrapping his blanket. And in Calcutta, rain falls in  Ahiritola, Kansharipara, Teriti Market, Borobazaar, Shova Bazaar, Harikrishna’s Lane, Motikrishna’s Lane, Ramkrishna’s Lane, Zigzag Lane—on mansion roofs, shops, trams, the head of buggy coach drivers and so on.

These days it doesn’t rain heavily, the way it used to in our childhood. Today’s rain has no grandeur of the past, it is as if the monsoon season is focused on economy—it’s on its way out after sprinkling a little water—just some gluey mud, some drizzle, a bit of inconvenience. One can manage the entire rainy season with a torn umbrella and a pair of shoes from the China bazaar. I don’t see the revelry of the yesteryear’s thunder, lightning, rain, and breeze. Rains of the past had a song and dance, a rhythm and a beat—these days the monsoon seems to be gripped by the jaws of ageing, by ideas of calculation and bookkeeping, by concerns of catching a cold. People say it’s only a sign of me growing old.

Perhaps it is that. Every age has a season; perhaps I am past that. In one’s youth it’s spring, in old age autumn, and in one’s childhood, rain. We don’t love home as much as we do in our childhood. The monsoon season is for staying at home, for imagining, for listening to stories, for playing with one’s siblings. In the darkness of the rain, far-fetched folklores assume a degree of truth. The screen of a thick downpour seems to put a cover on the world’s official activities. There are fewer wayfarers on the streets, fewer crowds, the usual busyness isn’t visible in places—the doors of houses are shut, coverings drape offices and shops…

Bengal rain

…I remember, during rainy days, I would run across our sprawling verandah—the door banged with the wind, the giant tamarind tree shook with all its darkness, the courtyard welled up with water up to one’s knees, water from four tin taps on the terrace gushed forth with a thud to join the courtyard water…Back then, flowers bloomed on our keya tree beside the pond (the tree is no more). During the rains, when the steps on the pond’s bank vanished one by one, and the water finally flooded into the garden—when the clustering heads of the bel flower plant stayed upright above the water and the pond fish played around the water-logged trees in the garden — at that time, I raised my dhuti to the knee and imagined romping around the garden. In rainy days, when one thought of school, what a gloom clasped one’s heart, and if Mastermoshai ever knew what one thought upon suddenly spotting his umbrella at the end of the lane from one’s verandah…

I hear these days many students think of their teachers as friends and dance with delight at the thought of going to school. Perhaps this is a good sign. But it seems there are a growing number of boys who don’t love play, rain, home, and holidays—boys who don’t love anything in this wide world besides grammar and geography lessons. The sharp rays of civilization, intellect, and knowledge, it seems, are making the population of innocent children dwindle, replacing it with precocity.

Ashadhe tales = Improbable, fantastical stories

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

A Song in the Cloud–Kajri

In his comment to my previous post, Abhay said, “Rains bring some of the most original emotions.” I think that holds especially true in a tropical setting like India, where the prolonged and scorching summer makes the monsoon season one of the most awaited and treasured. Consequently, the metaphor of rain makes its appearance in all things creative–painting, literature, music, cinema. Rains here evoke a host of emotions, from joyous outbursts that sing with the dancing greens to pangs of separation from one’s lover that cry with every burst of lightning and thunder. The latter translates into a particular form of folk/semi-classical music called Kajri.

Sung in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Kajri has a popular legend associated with it. According to folklore of Mirzapur, a place in UP, a woman named Kajli had to live in separation from her husband, who lived in a faraway land. She would miss him all the time, but when thick clouds splashed monsoon showers across the land, the estrangement became unbearable for her. She is believed to have taken her petition to a certain goddess Kajmal with her wailing. The other origin story comes from the Hindi word kajal, meaning kohl. The colour black is related to the dark clouds of monsoon, which in this case, bring relief.

If folk beats and earthy melody interest you, listen to a selection of Kajri here.

Image:

Bovitz

The Wait

I waited for you.

I waited through days that won’t turn into nights.

I waited even as others fled, unable to bear the separation.

I waited with the still, suffocating air that drained out my senses.

For you I survived, barely alive, yet expectant, when others died.

I waited when the prophets said you would take a long time coming.

And then, you came.

You brought the cool brush of night right into the day.

You embraced me with a smile; my reward for not deserting you.

You changed the very complexion of the air with your every stance.

You put life back into dead, parched souls with your lush strokes.

You came for me, defying the prophets.

You came.


Dearest Rain.