by Hema Nataraju
I’m wading through murky, knee-deep water with throngs of people trying to get home. Dusk is fast spreading its cloak over the sky. I’ve been walking for two hours. My feet whine, but the human chain I’m part of pulls and pushes me to keep going.
Mumbai is bursting at its seams. With the local train system coming to a grinding halt, it’s as if the city’s backbone is broken. A dead rodent and a lone shoe glide past me. Cars and bikes stand statue-like on waterlogged roads like children whose parents have abandoned them. We peek into stopped vehicles as we walk, trying to rescue whoever is trapped inside. Some cars are watery graves.
I say a little prayer under my breath when a floating teacup bobs against my knee softly as if trying to catch my attention. The chipped rim reminds me of you, of us.
I sometimes wonder if our paths would have crossed if it weren’t for that teacup all those years ago. A single vine of Sakura blossoms hugged the white ceramic from its bottom to its golden rim. Outside the tea bar, a cherry tree was in full bloom, pink as a baby’s foot that has never touched the ground.
Would we have met if I weren’t so clumsy? I remember the sound of my cup crashing like the tinkling of wind chimes. I savor that moment like I do my orange pekoe, swirling it in my mouth, drinking in that moment when our eyes first met over those jagged shards. I try to keep the barbs from flooding into this memory, but they do anyway.
“Are you sure about this, Leela?” Deep worry lines had formed on Maa’s forehead. “Why can’t you marry that nice doctor I chose for you? He’s handsome, well-settled and…”
“Maa! Stop. Jake’s a good person. I love him. Don’t you want me to be happy?”
She mumbled something and walked away. But we picked up where we left off a few months later.
“It has to be an Indian wedding, Leela. Think about all our relatives!” Her voice went up a few notches. “Besides, they break glass at their weddings! Don’t you know breaking glass brings bad luck?”
“Maaa!” I dragged out the last syllable so all my frustration could fit inside it. “It’s a silly superstition. The wedding’s going to combine our rituals. That’s it.”
A few days later, Maa squirmed in her seat as we kissed standing over broken glass and under showers of rainbow confetti and Mazel Tovs.
Another hour has passed and we’re still walking. My stomach growls like a hungry ogre. I rummage in my handbag. There’s nothing except a few pens, my hairbrush, a coin purse, and lipstick. I curse myself for having eaten the only snack bar I had at work. Usually by this time, I’d be home from work, pouring myself a cup of chamomile tea, but craving a glass of wine.
I stopped drinking after you left.
I shouldn’t have started at all. I should have just cried it out and drowned my memories of her in a flood of tears. She shouldn’t have left us. Babies don’t just go off by themselves. I know you tried to hide every hint of her two-year-old life, to bring me back. You wished I would start getting out of bed in the mornings and get out of the house, or at the very least, comb my hair. But the toddler bed you removed left deep marks on the carpet. I sometimes hid in her empty sea-green closet, just to smell the baby powder. Her newly sprouted voice constantly rang in my ears. I had to drown it.
I wondered if Maa was right.
I wasn’t paying attention when your patience started wearing thin. Your words sounded like gibberish when you begged me to stop drinking. I didn’t realize what I had become even after I hurled a plate at you that night. I didn’t cry when you left. I was so sure you’d come back that I left the shards of porcelain lying on the floor.
The human chain is sloshing and trudging forward in silence now. Exhaustion has stopped the chants of encouragement we were singing. It’s like we’ve gone back to the Dark Ages, without electricity or cellphone reception.
But relief is just a few meters away on the sidewalk holding gasoline lamps. They’re volunteers with food, water, and medicines. A collective cheer rises through the air like fireworks lighting up the night sky. The spirit of this city always wins in its war with adversity. I scarf down two samosas without stopping to breathe and then prop myself up on a low wall overlooking the sea. Lights twinkle and dance in the far distance. There’s that tinkling of wind chimes again.
I turn around and my heart skips a beat. I would recognize that head anywhere. It bobs up and down as you hand out cups of water with a smile that makes your eyes crinkle. Of course you’d volunteer. Your heart’s sea of kindness has to flow out. I feel the same overpowering pull I felt for you years ago. The flood has given me another chance.
I smoothe down my frazzled hair and walk towards you. Our gazes lock. The world stops spinning for a few seconds. Should I bring out the apology stuck in my throat for all these years or should I simply throw my arms around you? We sit together on the low wall and sip our chai in silence. In front of us, the Arabian Sea roars and lashes against the rocks. You pull out something from your shirt pocket. It’s a broken piece of ceramic with two incomplete pink petals.
A dam bursts inside me. My body heaves and wracks, letting grief make its way out. The smell of stale deodorant floods my senses as I fall asleep on your shoulder.