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By Priya Ranganathan

She curled up further on the broad windowsill in her grandparents’ bedroom and gazed out of the window. The heat was withering in its intensity. The hoarse voice of the mullah resonated over the loudspeakers, as crackly as a dry leaf. A cow ambled morosely down the street, pausing to nose at every pothole. There was no water in sight. The showers had run out of water again, as they tended to do at this time of the year. The past two weeks were a blur of flaming temperatures and frequent power cuts. The faucets only ran for an hour in the early morning. While the mullah sang, everyone was busy filling up empty water drums, buckets, filters, teapots, and vases. Every drop counted.

It was muggy and flies buzzed dolefully around the girl’s face. She picked up a novel, and then set it down again. Invariably, the characters in her books were out boating or swimming or doing other water-related activities, and it made her thirsty just to read about them! She knelt on the windowsill and pressed the radio switch. A faint buzzing sound, and then a ringing silence. Power cut. Frustrated, she looked around the room and picked up the fly swatter, the only non-electrical tool in sight. Aimlessly swatting, she gazed outside once more. The sun was hidden behind clouds- those tight drumhead clouds that spurred false hopes of rain. Not a breeze filtered past the curtains. A dog whined somewhere in the street and another one barked weakly in response. The incessant toot-toot of auto rickshaws throbbed against her eardrums, and she groaned. Perhaps a car ride would have stirred a breeze. But the car was in the repair shop- the tires had burst from exposure to overheated concrete.

And then she heard it. A rumble. It was almost timid, but at that noise, every single sound in the city stopped. Mumbai, the city that never slept, sat silent and waiting. The girl could have heard a pin drop in the neighbour’s apartment! The rickshaw drivers pulled over to the side of the road and she saw them climbing out of their vehicles, scratching their heads and looking up at the overcast sky. Another rumble sounded. A child whooped. The girl leaned precariously out of the window, her eyes glued to the ground. The watchman, looking the size of a toy soldier, shaded his eyes and looked heavenward. He knocked his cane three times against the wooden bench. One tap - not a cloud in sight. Two taps - overcast. Three taps - certain rain. At the sound of his knocks, children and adults alike poured out of the building and crowded the courtyard. The girl considered joining them but chose to slip up to the terrace instead. Not a soul was there, and she had the entire area to herself. She stood at the railing and gazed down at the city. The streets were packed with men, women, children, animals alike, all silent and watchful. It was beautiful in its intensity.

Her deep brown eyes returned to the sky.

A breeze picked up and coursed over her upturned face. She sighed. Ahhhhh, bliss! Her hair flared around her thin shoulders, and a pigeon fluttered desperately to stay perched on the piping. Another rumble sounded in the sky, this time closer. Much closer. Anticipation was wearing the girl down. She bounced eagerly on the balls of her feet, watching for any sign of the impending downpour.

Suddenly there were cries and shouts and people on the streets pointed excitedly at the western sky. A haze was approaching, rolling through the clouds like a chariot over a war-ravaged desert. The clouds were purplish grey now, and the wind abruptly died down. The excited whispers faded away, and the girl stared hard at the approaching haze. Would it drift over the city, or remain aloft over the sea?

The waterlogged curtain, that sweet, rainy goodness, swept towards the city, bearing the scents of new hopes. Inhale, exhale. The dark clouds crackled ominously.

And then the approaching curtain froze. It hung over the southern tip of the city tantalizingly. There were shouts and a collective groan from the streets. People began to disperse. But the girl only had eyes for the watchman. Instead of returning to the lobby, he produced a tattered navy-blue umbrella and opened it. He sat himself comfortably on the bench and watched the sky, his weathered face serene. The girl counted the number of people flocking back into the apartment. She had reached thirty-seven when…

There was a gut-wrenching crack and suddenly the clouds wept a year’s worth of promises upon her bare head, a sackload of bricks in weight. Pure, fat water droplets stung her neck and cheeks and arms, but she spread her arms and closed her eyes. The blessed liquid trickled into the crevices of her eyelids, mingling with the tears of gratitude that rolled down her face. Her skirt, blouse, and hair dripped liquid joy. Screams and laughter echoed in the streets as the city welcomed the cloudburst. The rain coursed over car windshields, swept into rickshaws, flooded shanty houses, and yet not a person ran to block its path. They had accepted their conditions all year. But now, the crops would flourish, and snakes would reappear in the cracks in the walls. The kites would soar in the skies and leopards would prowl near the outskirts of the villages. There would be mosquitoes, and man-eating tigers, perhaps, and even floods, but ultimately, the monsoon spelt hope. After a year of chewed lips and growling bellies, the monsoon had returned!

A line of bedraggled pigeons waddled dejectedly along the electrical wire. The girl giggled to see their feathers drooping, their tails weighing them down. A tiny mouse appeared and sat up on its hind legs on the parapet, sniffing the ozone-starched breeze. A fork of lightning danced in the thunderheads above, and far below, under the blue umbrella’s shadow, the watchman closed his eyes. The girl flicked out her tongue, tasting the pearly water.

Another promise kept. Another year of hope.

By Priya Ranganathan

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