by Sudha Balagopal
Baba hasn’t returned from his business trip.
A dusty, official-looking brown jeep drives by―third time in the past half hour. The man shouting into the megaphone sounds like he has a sore throat: “Ganges River’s flooding. Everyone to higher ground. Flood warning, flood warning. Everyone to higher ground.”
“Where’s Baba? When will he come back?” I ask Ma.
Her lips are sewn tight as if she’s run a needle and thread through them. She pulls things out of the Allwyn refrigerator—stale chapatis, a half-empty bottle of jam, tired vegetables, over ripe mangoes—and shoves them in a cloth bag.
Fifteen minutes later, I hear Baba’s car and run to hug him, full of questions he doesn’t answer. He pats my head, then hurries to make a phone call. By the time he changes into his kurta-pajama, the water’s lapping at our front door.
Baba and I stand in the swirling gush of muddy water which moistens the hem of my just-below-the-knee skirt and soaks his pajama cuff. We stare as if we can will the water to ebb. We stare until the dining table and chairs float, until the black phone on the side table submerges, until Mrs. Verma shouts, shakes us out of our numbness and commands us to come upstairs―that’s how she shows her concern.
She orders us to the apartment above, where she lives with her husband, three children, an ailing father and his nurse―a cramped space that cannot fit all of us.
Mrs. Verma stretches and thins out the available dal and rice into khichadi so everyone, her family and ours, can eat. There’s no phone line, no electricity, and no clean water. Baba must haul bucket after bucket of flood water up the stairs to flush the toilet.
Ma and I scoop water by lowering a plastic tub from the second floor balcony. When I see a dead frog floating upside down in the container, its belly bleached white, I scream, drop the vessel and drench my clothes.
“Baba, Baba!” I yell.
“Why do you need Baba?” Ma asks. “It’s only a frog.” She picks up the creature, throws it far into the spate. It lands with a plop.
Ma uses a muslin cloth to filter the dirt, then boils the water on Mrs. Verma’s gas stove to render it safe to drink while Baba holds a little red transistor radio to his ear. I rest my head on his arm, hear the familiar, signature tune and the newsreader’s words through the crackle of static. “This . . . All India Radio . . . read by Sujit . . . The city of Patna drowns . . . inundation . . . The government . . .” Baba shakes and thumps the radio after the voice fades. The device remains silent.
We spend our days on the open terrace where Baba flourishes his once-white handkerchief so the helicopters can drop food packets of sattu; where Ma sharpens a worn pencil with Mrs. Verma’s blunt knife so I can write a letter to my grandfather on crinkly, sun-dried sheets of paper; where I ask Baba to teach me algebra so I don’t forget my mathematics.
A boat arrives for Baba on the eighth day. It floats right above his pride and joy―the white Ambassador car―now invisible under the murky water.
“Why must you go?” I ask.
His work has sent transportation, he explains, it’s his duty to check out conditions in the office.
I wave and wave to Baba from the second floor balcony, and he responds with both arms, his feet wide apart on the wobbly craft. Ma dips the plastic tub into the water, scoops up water.
After the waters recede, after Ma and I clean out the thick muck on the floor, after we salvage what we can of our possessions―walls, clothes, dishes, towels, and sheets permanently mud-colored― I find a blue-green snake wrapped around the curtain rod in the dining room. I shriek for Baba.
He has not returned.
“It’s only a snake,” Ma’s tone is sharp. She unhooks the rod, opens the window wide, sticks the pole outside. The animal slithers away.
The next day, she gets rid of the old curtain, stiches a new window covering with one of her water-ravaged cotton saris.
There’s an ache behind my navel. I want to discuss the flood, and my Baba.
Ma sews and sews. Her salvaged saris turn into salwar kameezes for me, into seat covers for chairs, a tablecloth for the ruined dining table, a throw for the lumpy sofa, and soft cases for stained cushions.
She pulls out all of Baba’s clothes, jams them into a jute sack, changes her mind, removes his kurtas and tosses them by her sewing machine. “Why waste good fabric,” she says, “when they can make good cleaning rags.”
That night, I fold the kurtas, hide them under my mattress. If I slide my hand far enough, I can feel Baba’s buttons.