I was getting used to wearing the saree to work. The cotton felt good but the skirt beneath was tied a bit too tight. At the end of the day, it dug into my skin, leaving a deep mark around my waist. This was the mandatory dress code for the college where I had just landed a job. I believed it was so instated to make the teachers feel powerful, distinct and extract respect from the students who had probably seen only their grandmothers wrapped in the five and a half meters of fabric, pleated and tucked into the skirt, a death grip on the waist.
It was not a long time ago that I had been in college myself. Why did I want to teach hyperactive and distracted kids, those subjects which I hated myself? Needed a job, that’s why. Anything to leave home and spin something of my own. The long-term plan was to throw the saree away and find my way into another city, more modern and happening. I wanted to free myself from the passive-aggressive neighborly curiosity, the incessant veiled competition. I was exhausted with the blatant parading of trophies and marks, neighbors who constantly compared our heights, weights, pitting classmates against each other when we could be friends. I did not want to be dragged into the vicious cycle; I did not want to become one of those women. I wanted to cherish the good memories of holidays spent roaming about, swinging from the coconut tree fronds, playing cricket on roads, climbing into uninhabited ghost houses belonging to families living in the Gulf which was how Middle Eastern cities were collectively known locally.
I had made a list of the things I loved about this place. The first was the sea, the beaches, the weekends spent walking along the long winding golden beaches, the sea teasing your feet. Thiruvananthapuram would always mean beaches to me. During holidays the entire population along with their guests from out of town visited these beaches. The beaches assured us a good time, with minimal expenses. The second would be the food, which I could replicate with some practice. Trouble was I had no inclination to cook as much as I had to eat. Next on the list would be the palaces. The Museum palace and grounds where my parents took anyone visiting us. The Kanakakunnu palace next door where they held flower exhibitions. The Kuthiramalika with all the one hundred and twenty-two wooden horses. The Kowdiar palace where the royal family lived.
Fourth on the list would be the trees, rising to the clouds, trunks with countless growth rings inside their bellies; each ring a testament to a bygone era. The wild jackfruit trees amazed me with their height and diameter. The fruit was most difficult to lay hands on because of the height at which it grew but those were the sweetest.
The next would be the rains, the relentless downpour which came down as clockwork on the First day of June, drenching eager school children as they walked to schools on the first day of the new school year after summer breaks. We wore rainwear shoes mostly the whole year through. Our St.Johns umbrellas were useless in the strong wind, yet we held onto them as we walked with glee. We sat drenched to the bone on the wooden benches; our umbrellas lined up on the corridors, unable to pay any attention to the teachers, their stiff cotton sarees softened by the rain but not their strict grim faces.
The skies had been dark from the morning with short sudden spells of heavy rain. I could not drive my scooter in this deluge. I had decided to take the bus but I had so underestimated the volume of water which had already fallen from the sky. The rivulets by the roadside had nowhere to flow and sink to earth. The sloping roads had become a water collecting device, taking along the red mud. The water rose steadily at the base of the slopes, mixing with the drains, overflowing out of the canals. I walked to the bus terminal near my college, sure to get a transport back home. This seemed to be the idea of many others, they had all abandoned their vehicles and flocked into the Thampanoor bus station.
The first of June was an important date for Kerala. Few things in life were as precise as this. The monsoons would inevitably arrive on the first of June. It also marked the day when schools all across the state reopened after the summer break. In northern parts of the state, the origin of rivers in high hills received the monsoon mercies generously. Grandmothers yelled at children playing near the sparkling, peaceful brooks flowing through their farms. They knew that the roaring thunders were impregnating all the water streams, big and small, and a sudden rush of rainwater would transform the pleasant picnic spot into a raging current, pulling along everything with brute force.
Men of importance in the household sat in the verandah of their homes, on a Chaarukasera, a wooden armchair with long planks for arms and a rough sturdy cloth in hammock style for sinking in. They were usually bare-chested, lungi wrapped around the waist; one leg on either long arm of the chair. The lungi gathered carelessly in a heap in the middle to protect the others who may want to sit around, watching the first spells of the much-awaited yet treacherous rain. Women brought out black coffee or tea, with fried snacks. They worried about their gardens, their fruit trees, the rubber sheets which needed the sun to dry, many other things closely interwoven in their everyday lives which the incessant rains would derail in the coming days. Sometimes along with the loud thunder they heard asbestos roof being blown off, tree branches breaking, old mud walls collapsing.
In the southern tip, dipping its toes into the Arabian sea is Thiruvananthapuram, The City of Lord Ananta. The city where everyone is a philosopher and a protestor, the city full of contradictions and yet rich culture. Where stones can come flying out of thin air when there is an argument, especially in the roads enclosing the Government Secretariat. During the monsoons, low-lying areas are flooded, year after year, bringing life to a halt, stranding those caught off-guard. It would appear that the land which rose from the sea when the sage Parasuram threw his axe was trying to weave the sea over itself, merging all the waterways and canals and reaching for the Arabian sea.
I stood there with the others; few long-distance super-fast buses drove into the terminal creating gigantic waves. I wondered how I was to get home if the buses stopped plying. The water was up to my knees, I figured. I stood on the raised platform meant for my destination, the buses which I could take should ideally stop there but there was not one in sight. The cylindrical contours of the Indian Coffee house beckoned me. I relived going round and round on the inclined walkway inside the stairless tower, reaching the top somewhere, and sitting down for a bite of hot beef cutlets and tea. My legs were killing me, so were the acids inside my stomach. The black water was steadily rising. I tried to calculate how far I could walk towards home but then the dangers of open manholes and deep ditches flashed in my brain. There were many spots along the road which were under some work. The muddy, black water carrying the dirt of the city was hiding them all. I watched wrappers, cigarette butts, flowers, rotting leaves, vegetables, floating about; the debris of a population carving a life out of drudgery.
Women older than me stood huddled with tensed eyes; the vegetables, and fish which had to reach home in time for dinner preparation hanging on their arms. They talked fast, with no laughter or smiles. Probably discussing the marks scored by their children or their height or weight or hair length. When the cigarette fumes became unbearable, I noticed that I was standing closer to men. The stranded crowd had segregated into men and women clusters and I had been oblivious to it. Slowly I attached myself to the women’s side, lest the men took me for an easy girl standing there in eager anticipation of their advances. Why would I ever be simply standing, soaked and stranded, lost in my thoughts? Many years ago, when I was in college, I had to travel by crowded bus on a very rainy evening. As I tried to get down at my stop, faceless hands stretched out to grope me. Whatever the pent-up, suppressed, animalistic instinct that propelled those hands, it made me realize that women were treated like public property on public transport. The underbelly of a society that had zero tolerance of girls and boys mingling in schools, colleges, or workplaces.
I saw a bus pulling into the terminal and decided to wade through the waist-high garbage churning about in water. I had no idea where it was headed to but I could not wait anymore. The dark scene with the filth all around was making me dizzy. My pleasant memories of making paper boats in rains with friends were being erased and replacing them was helplessness laced with grime.