Short Story The Year It Poured
Houses were flooded, roofs were carried away in the wind…And a month before that, the condoms in my father’s wardrobe mysteriously disappeared.
Mumbai rushed to a standstill on the twenty-sixth of July 2005, under the heaviest deluge we had ever seen. Houses were flooded, roofs were carried away in the wind, and locked cars were found stranded by roadsides. And a month before that, the condoms in my father’s wardrobe mysteriously disappeared.
It had been a childhood game of mine, to snoop into the darkest nest of his cupboard and find, tucked under his coats and shirts, stacks of condoms, the wrapper on each packet more explicit than the next. There’d be tall, blonde women with their breasts out, bare hairless skin tapering toward their vaginas. Or an Asian couple, sitting on their buttocks, legs wide apart, holding hands, as if they were participants in a naked merry-go-round. There’d be women rubbing themselves on waist belts, their mouths open in horror/pain/agony/pleasure, women with their butts squished, men and women locked in tight, naked embrace, and so on. Even at the age of eleven, I thought it to be a juvenile depiction of sex.
It amazed me how these packets passed unchecked in, what had been for a while, a highly sensitive and quick-to-censor country. They were sold over the counters, bought by fathers, and stored openly enough for eleven-year-old girls to get their hands on them.
I wasn’t personally titillated by the images. The statuesque stock models had little dimension; they seemed nonplussed in their nakedness. From a very young age, I preferred context, characters, and stories. And as provocative as these packets were, the stories lay in the homes that hid them, not in the still images that packed the condoms. They were no doubt shot under the guidance of a purposeful photographer choreographing every touch and angle. Still, I kept looking for the condom packets, impressed by their boldness, complicit in their boundary pushing art. It felt like I was part of an anarchic body revolution. And because my own changing body had started to become strange to me, I took comfort in the knowledge that my parents acquiesced with theirs; that their love, rooted in traditionalism and unexpressive as it was, took its own hedonistic turn when it had to. So when the packets disappeared, I felt displaced, of a broken home. Parented by two unlovers.
This was all because of what Sumita had told me about sex during one lunch hour at school. “The girl has to be on top of the guy,” she told me. “She’s sitting below his stomach, yeah. And she’s just rubbing her crotch on him. She’s just going round and round, and then comes this moment when they both just know it’s time to stop. It’s a mental agreement they reach together. That’s why you have to be in love. Because if you’re not, you can never agree at the right time.” She said she’d learnt this from a movie called Blue Lagoon . My parents weren’t using condoms anymore, which meant they weren’t in love enough to have sex, and that disturbed me deeply.
Rimu said that Sumita was lying, and that you didn’t necessarily have to be in love to have sex. They got into a huge fight over it, so I declined from offering my opinion, but somewhere deep within I always thought Sumita was right.
I once tried to climb up on my mother, whom I loved, and ride her stomach as a practical experiment, hoping she wouldn’t notice what I was up to. But she was in the midst of her afternoon nap, and simply shoved me off. I just had to imagine that it would have felt nice, like most things willingly done feel.
For some reason, when I had just turned eleven, my father decided it would be the year he would show me the city, its open sea-end. Until then, I had only seen Mumbai in spurts, en route to somewhere important and definitive.
“I want to show you the grounds I played cricket in as a child. I want to show you my former college, the tea shop outside it that’s been standing there for forty years. And you haven’t ever properly seen the sea expanding into the cemented promenade by the shore. During the monsoon, monster waves lap—”
“There’s no need to take her to the sea in this weather,” my mother snapped. “Don’t you know how dangerous the waves are?”
“Okay fine, fine. We’ll stand across the road, if we have to. This Sunday, okay?”
The Sunday before the Tuesday floods, my father and I stood with our backs pressed to the cold metal surface of the local train, right next to the open compartment door. The rain fell ominously, slapping our exposed faces. Despite the looming sense of danger, the train compartment was full of people who went about their lives unfazed, with umbrellas in tow. Some were dressed in finery, their Sabbath reserved for a celebration, and some in everyday ware, who could not afford a holiday. My father and I were dressed in the kind of clothes that gave away the lack of seriousness in our pursuit. Wrapped in long raincoats, our feet packed in rain boots, with a grey umbrella.
“I could have taken you once the season ended, but it is something else to discover Mumbai in the monsoon. The filth from the streets is washed away. Grey cloud cover contrasts the city’s lights. That’s why every movie about Mumbai has to have a Monsoon scene. Am I right or what?”
Before I could nod in agreement, my father began singing an old Bollywood song from the seventies. His voice, so evocative of the original singer, echoed through the rumble of the train.
“Pitter-pattering monsoon shower
setting my heart ablaze
in the wetness of this season
what is this fire inside me?”
I felt embarrassed for him, but no one else seemed to mind. A voice from the other end retorted with an “Oho,” and from around the compartment one could hear the occasional “Wah! Wah,” in admiration. An old man began tapping the metal of the train pole with the rings on his fingers, his rhythm failing to catch up with my father’s tune, but persisting. My father, unhinged as he’d become, continued into the stanzas of the song, as people clapped along to the melody, their heads bobbing with the music.
The performance continued till my father sang out, “Here we come,” to an approaching railway platform. We alighted, my hand in his, as the people burst out behind us in applause. My father’s face was satisfied, like an artist exiting in his prime. Somehow, I could not shake off the idea that this wasn’t an impromptu scene I had witnessed. That my father, who knew this city and its temperament so well, had designed it for me to be thankful that I had him for company.
We did go to the cricket ground he had spent so much time in as a kid, his former college, and the tea shop still standing protected by a thick aluminum slate above it. Shivering from the rain, we jostled alongside the other customers under the tea shop’s shed, warm glasses cupped in our hands, and sipped the watered down concoction. My father took me to a place he claimed served the best dabeli, and then followed it up with a glass of sugarcane juice to soothe the spicy aftertaste. And, in a particular act of generosity, he exclaimed that we’d take a taxi to the seaside. A real luxury back then.
The rain fell harder than it had ever done, but tucked in the floral leathered seats of the taxi, I was far from worried. I held my hand outside the window, let it turn puckered and blue in the cold water. The taxi radio had a monsoon themed segment playing that had my father taking chances too, humming with his eyes closed. I felt like we were characters in a movie I would watch, and it was a very pleasant feeling.
We reached the seashore, and just like my mother had predicted, the sea rose higher and higher with each wave and crashed into the sturdy promenade with unmatched malevolence. Because my father had given his word, we stood across the street, observing this show of nature from a safe distance. “This is Shahrukh Khan’s bungalow,” my father said, pointing to the large palace that stood behind us. “Do you reckon we should go ring his bell?” he quipped. I was excited to be so close to India’s biggest movie star, breathing the same air as him. I thought he would be generous enough to invite a man and his daughter for a cup of hot tea, drenched as we were in the rain. “Arre, is Shahrukh at home?” my father mischievously asked the security guard outside, as if he were enquiring after a childhood friend of his. “No,” the guard replied with contempt, “Saheb is not at home.”
Disappointed, I turned my attention back to the sea. “When it’s not raining,” my father explained, “the entire promenade is full of people. Joggers, chaat vendors, families taking photos. We’ll come back then and sit on the shorefront for hours.” I stood on tiptoes, trying to make more of the sea. I could see rocks, but little else, because the sea water seemed to envelop all land within its reach. Watching my ineptitude, my father suggested we go a little further. “What’s the harm? I’ll be holding your hand anyway. But please, don’t tell your mother.”
We proceeded forward, carefully courting danger with each step. Soon, we were close enough to feel the water from the waves crashing into the shore on our face, but far enough to avoid any mortal urgency. The gust of wind was too strong for my small, frail body, so my father wrapped me with his arms from behind, restricting my movement. But then, a blast of gale took our umbrella with it, enveloping it in its movement, cutting through the rain with white fangs. My father slipped a nasal cry and ran to retrieve it, unconsciously leaving me behind. I froze, aware of how exposed I had become, and tried to dig my heels into the ground to avoid the same fate that our umbrella had met.
I stood, stuck to the ground for only a few seconds when I noticed another umbrella, of a deep red shade, closer to the sea. For a moment, it was too hazy to make out anything. Indeed, I felt the red umbrella was a prodigal cousin of ours, at a point of no return. But then the rain slackened, and the waves mellowed, and I realized the umbrella harbored two people under it, sitting on the rocks like statues. A young man and a young woman bound together by the cold. The man sat straight, holding the umbrella above them, and the woman sat alongside, hunched over him. The umbrella itself had turned lopsided in the wind, but neither of them bothered to fix it. The man sat holding it clinically, his face naked to the falling rain shower, and the woman sat bent over his legs, her head moving back and forth in a steady rhythm. I walked to my right to make sense of this scene, to look at it from another angle, and I saw her moving like that with her lips pursed around—I learned this the more I watched—his penis. Rimu had told me that penises grow in size sometimes, but I hadn’t ever seen one so big and exhibited.
I grew hot with shame. I had never before witnessed such a breathing display of intimacy, such blatant disregard for what went into one’s mouth. I was alarmed and scared for how dangerous their game was, how easily they could be swept away. I was disgusted, but also so fascinated by this visual none of my friends had told me about, that I tried arresting the image, hoping to recollect it for the next lunch break at school. I didn’t even notice my father rushing toward me, his feet splashing in puddles.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry I ran without taking you with me. I didn’t even pause to think,” he huffed, out of breath.
“It’s okay.” I replied weakly, heavy with the knowledge of forbidden things.
“The umbrella is in tatters. Look,” he held what had once been an umbrella in his hand, its grey fabric torn from its hands into pieces. I shrugged.
“Is everything okay? You look flushed.”
“It’s just . . . too cold. Can we go indoors, please?”
We went home the same way, except this time there was no singing. My father saw how unwelcoming I seemed to any performance, so he didn’t bother. I didn’t tell my mother that we crossed the road closer to the sea, or that my father had left me so close to the waves. And I didn’t tell either of my parents about the couple under the red umbrella. I had never before witnessed such a breathing display of intimacy, such blatant disregard for what went into one’s mouth.
Because of the flooding, all schools stayed shut for a week. When I finally met Sumita and Rimu again, I tried telling them about what I had seen with whatever vocabulary I could find, but they wouldn’t believe me. I tried to describe the man’s blue shirt, the bright orange dupatta that the woman had worn over her head like a hijab, but with the meanness that only eleven-year-olds can muster, they all swore that I was making it up. That I was twisted in my head, a little dirty and wonky.
I didn’t repeat the story, but I had memorized with strange clarity the umbrella, the shirt, the dupatta, their movement. The man’s head turned to the heavens in surrender. Watching them had made me hyper-aware of my own body. Of the hairs that had begun to sprout in clumps, how my edges began to weed into curves, and my voice, once childlike, rising with a seriousness that would have seemed put on even a year ago. As time went on, I became less disgusted by the memory of the couple under the red umbrella, and more complicit in their behavior. They were living, realistic embodiments of what I had witnessed on the condom packs long ago, and far more worthy of my attention.
Seven years later, Anik found me, singling me out from a class of juniors. I could say we found each other, but that would only be half-true; he did all the talking.
One afternoon, Anik and I snuck out of a particularly uninspiring lecture on postcolonial inflation rate to do something—we hadn’t figured out what yet. The day had been muggy enough to get me all hot and bothered in the large one-window classroom, so when Anik suggested I go with him using only his eyes, I crawled behind the benches and followed him through the backdoor. I was of that age then, the place-all-your-apples-in-one-rotten-basket age. And Anik was a beautiful basket, with slender arms, bony shoulders, and long hair that he wore parted in the middle. He looked every bit a disgruntled rockstar, and it appealed to me at seventeen.
We had been promised afternoon showers that day, so we took an empty train during lunch hour. We held hands, stole quick kisses, then alighting from the train, sprinted to the sea. The sky had begun to cackle slowly, and we wanted to watch the rain appear over the water, then creep toward the land we were on, and drench us with its force. We wanted to experience nature’s bounty, and we wanted to tuck into each other while we did.
We reached the promenade, and like us, a few twosomes lurked under the shadows of the clouded sky, but the shore was largely empty. Shahrukh’s bungalow towered behind us, and a gloomy impasse lay ahead. What we thought would be a gradual rainfall turned thunderous and menacing quick. Anik and I grasped each other and stood unmoving in its windy path. And suddenly, a thought tiptoed into my mind with the danger of a free fall.
“I’m a little nervous,” I said to Anik, looking up to reach his eyes.
“Why? You won’t fly away, I promise.”
“I worry that someone will see us here. It’s all so open and vacant.”
The rain began to fall hard, and I worried for my drenched body, the books in my backpack, of being caught by a familiar face in the moment, and most of all for this boy, how he would find my concerns puerile. I was aware, despite the cold, of all the parts of my skin that were in direct contact with his, how they seemed to flare up in embers that could burn down this wet city any minute. And what I would do to watch everything burn.
“It’s pouring,” he said, swallowing rainwater.
“I know, but maybe a friend of my father’s. Or someone who knows me, anybody really. It’s not impossible to run into people in this city,” I said.
“If you’re that worried, we can always go a little further down to the rocks. It’s more hidden.”
I looked at the rocks, watched the sea water crash into them in tremendous swells, and paused to consider Anik’s offer in spite of my own growing fear. And suddenly, I recalled the couple under the red umbrella, and knew the answer to the question I’d held all along. I knew now that they had risked danger for a moment of complete abandonment by the city, its sneering uncles and aunties, its offer of familiarity, its false, limiting security. So what if its sea threatened to sweep them away? It would have been a grand sacrifice, this unashamed declaration of life to the gods of death above.
I held Anik’s hand and nudged him slowly away from the shore.