The monsoons arrived that Saturday morning. The wind and rain went crazy, lashing into
everything with a fury the city had not seen in a long time. There was no
electricity. In the middle of a prolonged hammering of thunder, Mallika called,
anxious that her parents should not think that the lunch was off. She had cooked her father’s favorite potato
curry and her mother’s favorite rasam. She warned them that her street was
flooded and that they should park on the main road which was just a five minute
walk away. Oh, and they were not to wear
any fancy clothes or footwear as they were likely to get soaked.
It was time to leave.
Subadra and her husband, and Mrs. Iyer and her husband drove off through
the rain. The city was quiet today. The
vegetable vendors, the paper-recyclers, the salt sellers, the squawking auto
rickshaws, the thundering buses, the noise, life and color of the streets had all
been cowed into silence by the raging, fierce rain. In the car, nobody spoke
much. This was not unusual for Mr. Iyer,
who, over the years, had been henpecked into silence. Even Mrs. Iyer, who normally did enough
talking for a couple of households put together, was rendered unusually quiet
by her excitement. Some instinct told
her that this was not a good time to reveal the latest about Mr. Harvard. Subadra’s husband, who was driving, pushed
all thoughts of what lay ahead because he needed all his concentration to
navigate the flooded, pot-holed streets - and Subadra herself was lost in her
They left the nicer neighborhoods, and bumped their way into
the poorer, grimier part of town. The
roads here were unpaved. Garbage floated
on the filthy, ankle-deep water, and a huddle of skinny, scabby mongrel dogs
howled in a corner. Young children with
small babies hitched to their hips stared hungrily into their car as it sloshed
slowly passed them, despair and mute appeal in their sad eyes. Subadra looked away, and then immediately
felt ashamed, but by then the car had moved on.
The rain poured down harder.
Finally they arrived at the main road near Mallika’s house.
Wordlessly, the four of them got out of the car. Around them, everything looked sad, old and defeated. The trees drooped listlessly, battered into a dispirited limpness by the rain. The houses were all a dull dreary gray, streaked with dirt and bird-shit which now ran like gritty tears down their dim, murky windows. Foul-smelling, turbid water lapped at their feet. Mrs. Iyer’s mouth was tightly pursed and her eyes bulged as she took in her squalid surroundings. Subadra’s husband took her hand and squeezed it tightly, and somehow, that little gesture was enough to raise her spirits.
Hitching their clothes up high, they stepped gingerly around
the pools of water. They walked silently
in single file, Subadra’s husband leading the way. They stepped away from the main road into a
narrow, slushy alley-way. The buildings
pressed closed to each other, and packed tightly together they allowed almost
no natural light to enter. The rain beat
down on them and the wind whipped their umbrellas into broken, twisted shapes.
A few minutes later, they arrived at Mallika’s home.
Mallika was looking out for them through one of the windows,
and she rushed to the front door and flung it open. Oh, what a surge of life she brought to that
place! She was glowing, dressed in vivid
colors that complimented her beautifully, and in that moment the gloom, the
squalor, the awful oppressiveness of the place just melted away and their
spirits lifted (yes, even Mrs. Iyer’s) as they stepped into the house.
Once inside, all of them gasped. The power cut had not fazed these young people. Everywhere you looked, golden-yellow candles
glowed and flickered, bathing the whole place in a sunny radiance. Bright,
colorful paintings covered the walls. A brilliantly colored dhurrie covered
the floor. Mallika introduced her friends to her parents and Mr. and Mrs.
Iyer. Gone was the grungy look of the
airport – all were clean and neatly turned out. Subadra looked around her in
wonder. The place was furnished with the
cheapest objects, yet somehow it had all been arranged with such love and care
and so much color and spirit that it almost throbbed with life and vivacity. Even Subadra’s husband had a small smile on
his face. He had expected a pigsty, not
The four grown-ups were seated on cheap plastic chairs. Mallika flew around asking everyone what they
wanted to drink and her friends sat on the floor and talked to them. While the
rain battered away outside and the candles twinkled inside, everyone started to
relax. Subadra’s husband engaged in an
earnest discussion with the Australian poet. He was smiling and nodding
vigorously and actually seemed to be enjoying himself. And the timid Mr. Iyer
found himself drawn into an animated argument with the two dancers. The
violinist sat at Mrs. Iyer’s feet and quizzed her about violin techniques in
Carnatic music (it turned out that Mrs. Iyer had been quite an accomplished
musician in her younger days). Subadra
joined her daughter in the kitchen and marveled at the spread she and her
friends had prepared for them.
The lunch was a great success. The food was delicious and beautifully
presented. Nobody noticed that none of
the crockery matched, that the water glasses were chipped. Conversation flowed freely and
spiritedly. Mr. Iyer was having the time
of his life as he kept the dancers in splits of laughter. Mrs. Iyer listened with wide-eyed fascination
to a recording of the violinist’s own composition. Subadra and her husband sat in a circle with Mallika
and the poets. This group of youngsters
was passionate about their beliefs and plans. Age differences, preconceived notions, worries
about the future, all were cast aside. The
youthful enthusiasm and joie de vivre were infectious.
After the food was eaten and cleared away, Mallika and her friends told her parents and the Iyers to sit down and wait, they would be right back. Mrs. Iyer hummed the tune she had been listening to. Subadra could hear muffled giggling and whispering. Outside, the rain fell steadily. Then, suddenly, they heard the sound of a violin, high, sweet and pure. It was joined by a chorus of childish voices, and in a burst, through the kitchen door, came about a dozen children, each holding a small poster, all grinning excitedly and singing in joyous harmony with the violin. The four grown-ups stared, mouths agape. The children sang nursery rhymes and popular Tamil movie songs and urged everyone to join in. Then they put down their posters, and pulling Subadra, her husband, and the Iyers to their feet, performed a rousing, utterly silly dance that had all of them laughing and panting. Everyone then sat down, and the children proudly showed off their posters to the grown-ups, their very own artwork created from their very own imagination. Then, waving goodbye and singing a farewell song, the children left, running out through the kitchen door back to wherever they had come from.
For a moment after the children left, there was complete
silence. They had cast a magical spell
over everyone and their departure jolted them back into reality. Then everyone started talking and asking
questions all at once. Laughing with pure glee, Mallika told her astonished
parents that she and her friends had set up a small school for the children of
the nearby slum. Every day, the children
came to their house where they were taught not only their academics, but were
also immersed in art, music and dance.
The kids had really thrived and the entire neighborhood adored the
residents of the “foreign house”, as they called it. Every term, six new students from Mallika’s
college would come and continue their work with the children and they hoped
that eventually people from the city would continue to operate the school.
It was in the evening, and time to go back. The rain had dwindled to a light drizzle. The roads were still flooded and a complete mess, but nobody really noticed. In the back of the car, Mr. Iyer sat up taller and more erect than he had in many years, and Mrs. Iyer’s face had a softness and charm that reminded him of a bygone, pre-henpecked era. In the front, Subadra and her husband looked at each other and smiled. Their kid would be just fine. Sure, there would be tantrums and crises and sulks and furies. There might be physics, there might be music, there might be something else altogether. And it would be fine. They had no doubt about it.
(c) Kamini Dandapani
(c) Kamini Dandapani