You wonder if something at the start of the day should have told you not to go out. Maybe the rising sun. Maybe the cacophonous birds. Maybe your wife who woke up with her make-up smeared across her face like a birthday cake. Maybe your two raucous kids who never forgot to tell you about the little boogers in their noses. Somebody. Something.
He wanted to scream. But he had screamed for the past four hours and lost his voice. You would scream too if you were sitting on top of your oversized SUV stuck in the middle of the road with muddy water hurtling down like a river.
The incredulity of the situation made him dizzy. I mean this is a fucking Bombay road. How could it become a dangerous river? He looked down at the water once again. It was still there. Every few seconds a wave would make a desperate attempt to gobble them up like a monstrous snake attacking a bunch of toads. He knew nobody would later believe about the waves. Or about the road river. Or about the rain that made everything invisible.
The kids and wife were stuck to him like leaches. They were clawing him all over. They were crying non-stop. He felt like shaking all over like a wet frightened dog. But he found himself clutching them back
He looked at the silent bystanders atop the roofs of the buildings along the road. They were looking with stunned fascination. He had cried for help till he lost his voice. Every single man and woman avoided looking into his eyes. Many were crying themselves.
After three hours of howling for help, one man jumped into the road river, but was swiftly wolfed down by the water. It was so sudden that he was stunned into silence for many minutes. The man had sat atop a house with his head down all the while listening to their cries. He suddenly stood up. He waved at them, to assure that he was coming. And in a flash he was gone. Nobody dared to do that after him.
He looked at his wife who clung to his right shoulder. He could not remember the last time they had spent any amount of time so close to each other.
“You are good for nothing!”, said the wife three years back, “Mrs. Malhotra’s husband is already a general manager in your company. Do you know he is two years younger to you?”
“I can’t do what he does”
“And what is it?”
“Ass licking”, he said with clenched teeth.
“And what is wrong with it? You and your lousy values. Think about our kids”, she always got the kids involved.
“They are not starving”
“So you agree that all you do is feed them, right?”
He could never win an argument with her. He stopped himself from asking her to cry out for Mr. Malhotra. He looked at his kids. Their red eyes were scorching holes in is heart. It was not their fault that they did not respect him. Why should they, if all they saw was their mother ridiculing and humiliating him relentlessly?
It was a low hum at first. He had a sudden memory of an avalanche that he had seen in New Zealand. He looked behind and saw the brown frothy wave. It sounded like that avalanche. And then the wave rose like a giant canvas. Raised high for everyone to marvel at the landscape painted on it. He thought he saw a cow, a donkey and a bicycle rising along with the wave. As though they were showpieces hung on a wall. Perhaps the wave was just showing them what all it could gobble up. Only thing missing were the humans.
“Hold on to the carrier!” he shouted. He saw his family holding the carrier. He was a big man. Big enough to hold them all inside a ring formed by his hands and the metal carrier. The wave crashed on the SUV. For the most frightening moments of his life he thought he was buried inside a wall. The wave hitting him like a giant hammer, almost breaking his arms. And then it was gone. He opened his eyes but could not see anything. He felt a sudden panic as though he was dead and his soul was blind.
“I can’t see! I can’t see!” he heard his son bawling. He was soon joined by his daughter. There was no sound from his wife. For the briefest of moment he thought the wave had carried her. He felt a sudden shiver run through his body and knew that it was not of fear. Perhaps it was of pure joy. The kind he had never experienced for the last fifteen years.
“Are you all right?” he heard her voice.
He opened his eyes and saw his family in the same position that he had left them before the wave. They were clinging to him ever harder.
“You saved us daddy!” his daughter said.
“Yes! Daddy is a superman”, his son said.
Their muddy faces were like little earthen pots with smiles drawn on them. He looked at his wife and she was smiling too. He thought it was the most beautiful smile he had ever seen. Her eyes were shining the way when they saw Shahrukh Khan on the TV. He smiled back. Perhaps for the first time in the last ten years they were smiling together.
That was when he saw a man frantically waving at him. The man held a knotty long rope in his hand. He felt like jumping with joy. Soon two other men joined the man with the rope. The man said something. But he could hardly hear. The man mimed ‘Throwing rope. Tie around the waist. Shoulders. We will pull’. He nodded rapidly that he understood.
The man threw the rope with a rock attached to its end. It clanged on the top of the SUV. He thought it was the most wonderful sound he had heard in his life. He held the end of the rope and looked at his wife. Her eyes darted between his face and the rope. The fear in them had transcended the fear of the water. Her lips parted in a silent scream, asking him a terrible question. Would he abandon them?
The rope felt like a living thing in his hand, egging him to tie it around his own waist and free himself. Not just from the all destroying water. He had dreamt of killing them all, hadn’t he? The impotent rage that felt when they ganged up to humiliate him. He closed his eyes and saw his two children when they were born. A miracle that he had witnessed twice. His mouth was flooded with the same foulness he tasted every time he thought like that. He spat violently. The foulness was unbearable this time. He opened his eyes and without looking at his wife tied the rope around his daughter’s waist till she cried out in pain.
“You trust your daddy, don’t you beta?” he said to his daughter.
She began to cry silent tears.
“Look at me. Those men there are going to pull you. This will be over in no time, alright?” he said and kissed her frantically. She said a mute yes. His wife embraced her.
“You look at your daddy all the time when you are being pulled, okay?” she said.
He thought he was going to cry. He blinked his eyes to soak the tears. Never again, that foul taste.
He raised his thumb at the man. He slowly lowered his daughter into the river. She was whimpering like a scared animal. She was suddenly pulled in an arc by the water. But the three men held tight. He shouted her name over the fury caused by the water. Slowly she was pulled by the three men. He looked at them and joined his hands in a ‘namaskar. Praying to them as if they were the Gods descended to help him. The men pulled. They were encouraged when she moved in their direction. Within minutes they had pulled her up the wall. Those minutes ebbing away like an eternity for him. His son clapped and cried her name. The men raised their thumbs. He realized his wife had held his hand all the while. He did not look at her.
They threw the rope again. It was repeated with his son.
That was when the rain increased in intensity as though the elements were angered by the audacity of man in snatching its prey. In moments it became so strong that he could hardly see the roof where his Gods with rope and his two kids were. But he could see the rope that pierced the rain and landed on the SUV. He looked down and thought the water level was increasing rapidly. It was just a few inches from the top of the SUV.
He looked at his wife and saw a kaleidoscope of thirteen years of marriage riddled with countless humiliations, accusations and insults. Sometimes his manhood. Sometimes his ability. Sometimes his character. Sometimes his lineage.
“Raise your hands”, he said to her.
She did so like a robot. He did not remember the last time she did something that he had wanted her to. He tied the rope around her waist. Then pulled it over her shoulders and fastened it. He thought of telling her not to cry. If she wanted to cry for the past, the tears would raise the water levels enough to wash them away.
He tugged at the rope to let the men know that he had tied a human form at the other end. He lowered her in the water.
“You know, you are a greater hero than Shahrukh Khan”, she said interspersed with sobs. He smiled and traced her cheek with his finger. The way he used to. He remembered her lovely face. Before the years of make up washed away her natural beauty. Before the drudgery of marriage wiped away the laugh lines. Before her lips were pulled down in a permanent frown.
“Thanks babe”, he said. The men pulled her. In a fraction of a second he could not see her. Then her head bobbed up. Inch by painful inch she was pulled to the safety of the roof. He whooped in joy. He heard the cheering and wild clapping from all the people sitting on the roofs. He knew it was almost over. Just a matter of the men throwing the rope at him. He ties it and they pull it. Simple. It was over! He wanted to dance.
That was when he heard the hum again. He looked behind and saw the froth. And then the little mound of the wave. Like the lips of a man tensed with determination before he shouted loudest. The wave rose. The canvas was empty this time.
The rain suddenly dropped as though it had focused all its energy in that one giant wave. He looked at his family huddled together on top of the roof. They were crying. He smiled and waved at them and looked at the wave. He wondered if it was a good time to go. Would he ever see all of them happy again? Would his kids respect him?
But those words, they would never be repeated again. That he was a hero greater than Shahrukh Khan. So maybe this was the right time to go. A time when the only promise that the future held was of disappointment. He closed his eyes and saw the smiles on their faces. And felt the curve of his wife’s cheek on the tip of his finger. And then the wave crashed on the SUV.
Author’s note: Close to a thousand people died in the rains of 2005 in Mumbai. I cannot comprehend the horror they must have experienced before the water swept them away. I don’t know if anyone died the way I have portrayed above. But I like to think that he or she experienced the greatest joy of seeing the loved ones rescued.
Also, the waves that I have described were not there during the floods. I hope those waves are confined to fiction. But then, whatever that really happened was more unbelievable and tragic than any fiction can conjure.