Drip. Drip. Plunk. THONK.
The sound of water thumping a tin roof is one of the most exquisite sounds in the world. In this world of granite and cement, I very rarely come across the music that played incessantly in my ears fifty years ago. But fifty years ago, I was in a world that was altogether different to the one I am living in right now.
Memories. Memories are the golden thread that weave sporadic thoughts into something that is surreal and ubiquitous throughout life. Life is but a dream and we are drifting on a stream. Consciously, unconsciously all that remains is memory. In the end, it is the only comfort in our sorrowful lives; it is all that reminds us of who we are and what we are made of. Memory is the only companion that has been faithful to me throughout my life. It has never deserted me in times of need and stayed strong. But as the shadows lengthen and the eternal night descends, it grows feeble. The thread is breaking and can no longer be trusted but the sound of rain-on-tin is unearthing memories that open a gaping maw of horror. There are some things best left buried but now, now blood rushes to my head in order to constrain this paraphernalia of emotions that engulfs me, I am no longer my own person. Images reel through my brain. Sounds screech through my ears, taking me to a place where time had no meaning.
Drip. Drip. Plunk. THONK.
It had been a very severe winter that year. We lived on the far reaches of the Himalayas, on the upper slopes of a mountain, one we revered as our god. Our little hut was perched precariously on a projection that jutted outwards from the rocky surface, the sheer face of the mountain rising behind the hut providing a comforting backrest. In front of us lay what I thought was the entire world, a vast swathe of land covered with lush coniferous vegetation hidden under layers of snow; nature’s unmerciful bounty if you will. Only yesterday we had to suffer through a hailstorm, the little pellets of ice ruthlessly beating on our roof, denting the tin inwards, carving a rusty concave mirror that reflected our plight, as we sat inside cowering, reaching to each other for comfort.
We were a family of eight, three brothers and three sisters along with our parents. I was the youngest, a mere seven winters in. We lived a simple life in the village, rearing goats and pigs, sowing the crops before the monsoons hit and harvesting them in spring and going to school to learn arithmetic and English. Although I loved going to school I found mathematics a bore and would try skipping as many classes as possible. But I had a cruel father who was very well connected. He was the village headman and knew instantly if I had gone to school or not when I returned in the evening with my goats. If I couldn’t do sums in front of him, he would punish me by hitting my palms with the steel scale he had procured from a nearby town. I found it very difficult to read and write and was punished every evening by father. My mother would try to protect me but he would hit her as well. I hated him. He represented to me everything that was wrong about the society we lived in where the male dominated and the females were submissive and left in the lurch. But I kept my head down and my mouth shut because every smart aleck remark earned me five slaps with the scale. But I knew one day I would make it right. One day I would change the world.
My mother, on the other hand, was the gentlest creature that ever lived. She was sweet and caring but she was also the most pitied woman in the entire village. Everybody hated my father for treating her so cruelly but they were too afraid to say anything for fear of being exiled. My father, vicious though he was, kept a cool head. He wouldn’t hurt somebody in anger. There was a sort of cool cruelty to him that made him even scarier. We feared him whenever he grew silent and brooding. It was always the calm before the storm. Better to get out of his way when that time came or you’d be stuck in a tornado of violence. He was an alcoholic which made his temperament even worse. Sometimes he would return home in a stupor, command everybody to do his bidding and if the tiniest thing wasn’t the way he liked it, somebody would get a beating. Usually it was my mother.
That year my eldest brother was to get married to the schoolmaster’s daughter. My brother used to work as a cab driver in the foothills of the Shivalik range, in a little town bustling with activity. He would return every six months and always brought gifts for me. Usually it was little items such as a stick of lip gloss or buds of kohl. I would put everything on my face, wear the best clothes I possessed and strut around the house like a baby peacock fanning its feathers until people started laughing at me. Then I would cry, run to my side of the room and wash off everything in a fit of childish anger and emotion. Once, there was a great commotion in the village when my brother returned home, triumphantly bearing a small television set in his arms. It was the first time anyone had seen the strange thing and we all clustered around it, admiring its every aspect. We were all so proud of him. Every week a music programme would be showcased and all of us crowded around it, trying to catch the unfamiliar words that poured out of the actors’ mouths. It was as if a whole new world had opened up, a world that went beyond my little village nestled in the Himalayas.
The preparation for my brother’s wedding had begun. A host of sweetmeats were being prepared, the village jalebiwala dunking round swirls of a mixture of flour and sugar in oil, frying the jalebis to a fine crisp and then dipping it in a huge cauldron filled with finely crushed sugar to make it sweeter. I could smell it from my house; I always dropped in and convinced him with honeyed words to partake of his treasure. The tailor measured my brother for his wedding kurta. Nobody in our village had too much money so the affair was to be a simple one, albeit with lots of good food. I dreamed of the day when I would get married. I would be the centre of attention in a beautiful red gown with golden shimmers and beads, henna on my hands and kohl in my eyes. I would weep and bid farewell to my family as I went home with my faceless husband. My friends and I would play the wedding game, where I got married to my best friend and we would start a family where I would take care of the kids and the goats and he would go work in the fields. That was how it had always been.
Life was going on perfectly and it was two days to my brother’s wedding when my life turned upside down and everything changed. It was raining heavily and everybody was crowding around the little fire my brother had built. My father was nowhere to be seen, nor were my brothers, so we had a little peace and quiet. My mother wasn’t feeling well so my elder sister had taken over the cooking. We could hear the pigs grunting in the backyard when there was a crash and my father entered the room, smelling of drink. He grunted exactly like the pigs, demanded his dinner and went and fell into his chair in front of the television. We could see he was in a dangerous mood and nobody made a sound. My mother veiled her face, ladled his soup into a bowl and timidly handed it to him. He took a sip and his expression changed. He threw the bowl onto the floor where it made a clashing sound like that of the meeting of two blades of steel. He took my mother by the hair; it fanned out like an archipelago of bristles, her tattered old rubber band breaking off in the middle. He screamed that there was no salt in the soup. There were tears streaming down her face but she quietly apologized and told him she’d put it in immediately. She shushed my sister, fearing that my father would take out his anger on her for forgetting to put the salt in. But a demonic smile lit up my father’s face and he said ominously, “You will never make another mistake again.”
He went into the backyard and we begged our mother to leave the house for some time but she was always a brave, little lady and would never think of abandoning her children. That was her mistake. My father returned with a can of kerosene which he poured all over her. My sister and I were paralyzed with fear and mother didn’t realize what was happening. My father looked at my mother, didn’t say a word but lit up a match and threw it on her. My mother instantly caught fire. Her cotton sari couldn’t absorb the oil so she burned slowly, like a pig on an old wooden stick. Her skin burned faster than her clothes, the flesh melting like wax off her face. I remember screaming and running towards her, but my father caught me, threw me into a chair and gave me a blow to the head. The last thing I remembered was a figure crouching in the middle of the room on fire. I could smell burning flesh and heard screams from far off but I was slipping into unconsciousness. That bastard burnt my mother alive in front of my eyes. And he killed her because there was no salt in the soup.
Drip. Drip. Plunk. THONK.
The rain washed my face, dark streaks of kohl running down my cheeks as I stood there watching the cremation pyre lit. Little buds of ash arose in the air only to be thrown into the ground as the drops of colorless hit the black. The general story was that she had spilled kerosene on the floor and it had caught fire and nobody was around. Nobody dared inquire into this story more closely for fear of finding out the truth. My father had threatened my sister and me if we opened our mouths. I couldn’t believe my mother was dead. My brothers suspected something but I don’t think they ever found the truth. I had nightmares every night where a figure of fire would torture me for being afraid, for keeping the truth buried. I couldn’t take the pain, couldn’t look at the room where she died so eventually I ran away. I packed some of my things and slipped quietly out of the house. I had no idea of where I was going, but I kept walking, determined to get away from that hellhole. I walked in the general direction of my aunt’s house, where her bull had once chased me up a tree. But that was a different time altogether. A part of me had died along with my mother. I wasn’t the same person ever again.
Drip. Drip. Plunk. THONK.
My dress was in tatters for I had slept on the grass throughout the night, the rain lashing my cold body until it found an inlet. Shivers ran down my body as the water invaded my person, taking my dignity. My soaked dress highlighted my budding breasts; when I woke up I found a man leering at me, rubbing his groin, the area which I knew was private as my brothers always hushed me whenever I tried to ask them what was hidden inside there. They always told me it was a place of wonder but I wasn’t old enough to experience those things. The lecherous man made hand gestures at me which I didn’t understand and began to advance towards me. I didn’t know what was going on so I politely asked him where the nearest bus station was. He offered to take me there and I agreed. We started to walk, the miles closing behind us but the light was strong enough as yet for me to see very clearly ahead. But the man knew where he was going. We took a few turns and wound up at a dead end. I turned to ask him if we had to vault over the wall but there was something else entirely written on his face.
Drip. Drip. Plunk. THONK.
The rain was pelting against the window panes when I woke up. I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing there but soon I found myself in a rickety bus going to god knows where. A woman had found me and pityingly took me with her. I tried to remember what had happened the previous night and couldn’t remember anything except that I jumped over the wall and kept running, running away from a monster who had tried to do unspeakable things to me. I shuddered when I started to remember the barbarous way his hands had grabbed at my dress and my animal cries to pain when he slapped me. It was only through extremely good fortune that I managed to get away. I remember the feeling that my heart would burst while I ran and the feeling of sinking to the floor when I was exhausted and couldn’t run any more. Emotions of disgust and relief were coursing through my chest as I sat in that bus, hoping that I would reach a place where men didn’t try to touch little girls. I glanced at the woman next to me and tried talking to her, but she didn’t know my language; she merely smiled at me and motioned onwards with her finger. I had never sat in a bus before and the experience was terrifying. Every time a vehicle approached from the opposite direction, I thought we would all die in a horrific car crash. But nothing untoward happened and in twelve hours we reached a mysterious place everybody called New Delhi. What was so new about it, I never understood. It was a smelly place; there was a dense cloud of smog hanging over the city in the wee hours of the morning and the mass of cars moved as if they had one mind, one body. We snaked through the city and by noon had reached a non-descript society, a place overflowing with humanity. I saw sights that I couldn’t even have imagined in my secluded world. A slew of rickshaw pullers dragged overweight women to the market, their husbands with stick-thin legs trailing behind them. Auto rickshaw drivers haggled with harassed looking customers for the right price which according to them, was supposed to be inflated to inordinate amounts. Decrepit slums adorned the streets; naked children were running everywhere like an army of ants. But the smell pervading the atmosphere was overpowering. Having never smelled anything but the rich odours of cow dung, or the smell of dusty rain, this new aroma of smoke, human and animal feces and something earthy I couldn’t identify, was the opening salvo of the rest of my life.
Drip. Drip. Plunk. THONK.
Fifty years have passed since that fateful night and its eventful conclusion. I ran away from home, nobody came searching for me. I have been living in New Delhi ever since and the streets don’t smell like they used to. Or maybe I just got used to it, the same way I got used to running water and lights that stay on for as long as you want them to, although power cuts in the middle of summer can really take it out of the toughest. And as the rain pours onto the street, I remember that night that turned me into a woman. I remember the night that my mother was murdered. And I remember the morning that I began a new life.
Everyday millions of people die. You never think about death until it is you who is standing at the edge of the precipice, looking at everything that befell you and the life you begin after death. But the only death that stings you into paralysis is the death of a person who matters to you the most. All else is just a statistic. I have always maintained that everybody has a story to tell. It may never make a novel, but seldom does it happen that a person cannot weave his life into a good short story. Some stories are beautiful; they make you smile with regret because incidents like that don’t happen to you and you are not as interesting as the person relating the story to you. But there are others which are best left buried for the sake of preserving sanity.
As I sit here and reminisce, the only regret I possess is that I will no longer have to carry this burden of remembrance with me. My memory is slipping away, ever ephemeral like the seeds of dandelion, flying in the air, trying to find a better place to grow and be nurtured. All that is left is the sound of rain thumping on a tin roof.
Drip. Drip. Plunk. THONK.