He unfurled the umbrella, held it aloft over his head and stepped out of his ward again that evening, thinking that it would rain. Rain had evaded the place for several months. Only in the evenings were the inmates allowed to go out of their wards and stroll in the compound of the asylum. But he was the only one permitted to saunter out of the gates and spend some time in the street nearby. This limited liberty was not an entitlement, but a privilege that had been granted to him by the doctors for his obedience and calm disposition. It had taken many months for the doctors to grant him this freedom which, if one were to measure, ended either at the wall around the one- hundred-and-twenty-square-metre compound of the asylum or the ninety-something yards in the narrow avenue outside the gates that ended at another wall. Beyond that wall, there was nowhere to go. For the inmates, the world ended at that wall. Beyond that brick-and-stone wall was a vast darkness, an oblivion.
Somehow, Number 7 was hopeful of the rain that evening as well. He felt lucky to have chanced upon the umbrella with yellow-and-red stripes. It had become his playmate. Like him, the umbrella too, had not seen the battering of rain at all. What good was an umbrella if it had not been used in the rain? The dance of the raindrops on the nylon cloth held together by slender aluminium strips was a distant dream. It was the rain which defined the umbrella, gave it its purpose, its essence and meaning. The umbrella was utterly worthless without the rain. But then there was the waiting—a long and lacerating wait for the clouds and the rain. On many evenings, Number 7 had seen the swelling clouds waft by and hover over the asylum compound. And without fail, he would excitedly unfurl the umbrella and leave his ward with hope in his heart, thinking of the rain, expecting it to come down.
It was not an unusual umbrella, as one might think, given that no one knew how the man had come to possess it. The man did not have any visitors in years. None of the inmates had visitors. No one in the asylum remembered how the umbrella had become an inseparable companion of this man. Except for the two sets of clothes—one made of cotton and the other of wool—the inmates lived bereft of any worldly possessions. Perhaps the umbrella was a gift from one of the asylum orderlies or doctors. Or of someone no longer alive. A thing which had been discarded and, instead of having been disposed of with the other useless things, had found refuge in the solitary ward of Number 7! It was the most beautiful thing in the entire asylum, more beautiful than the bed of wild flowers along the wall of the compound. The very sight of it in the mornings brought a smile on his lips. On sunny afternoons, he held it aloft and took leisurely walks in the compound. Through the windows of their wards, the inmates looked at him with awe and wonder. They wanted to hold the umbrella in their hands and be in its shade. But no one was as attracted to the dazzling beauty of this dainty yellow-and-red striped umbrella as Number 7. Not many in the asylum knew what beauty was.
Number 7 had forgotten the count of days and nights. With one arm resting on his chest and the other holding the umbrella firmly over his head, he stepped out of the gates, and hummed a tune. His gait was unsteady owing to the degenerative ailment he had been suffering from for months. But his disease was the least of his worries. He didn’t experience any physical pain or discomfort. All he wished for was the arrival of rain. Yet he never felt disappointed when he returned to his cell from his evening walks, not even when he ate alone in the mornings and the afternoons and the evenings. He was served food in a brass vessel, mostly rice and vegetables. Meat was served occasionally and he had no taste for it. He would leave the meat dish untouched.
Sometimes during the lonesome nights, he imagined that he was not alone in his cell and that someone else was also present. He would see the image of a child. And then he would wake up from his nervy sleep and watch the child mumble some words in an alien language. He would imagine the child dreaming a dream, not a pleasant one though. He would comfort the child as if he was his own. ‘It is just a dream,’ he would say, stroking the child’s hair tenderly. ‘Go back to sleep. I am by your side.’ Then he would sleep. Night after night, he would talk to the child. There was not even a single night when he did not worry and fret for the child. All he wanted was peaceful sleep for the child and a smile on his lips. He even prayed in silence, convinced that some powers would heed to his prayers and bestow their grace upon the child. ‘You are not alone, my dear,’ he would say to the child. He didn’t realize that he had become a father and a mother. For years, during his life in isolation in the asylum, the child never grew up. The man grew old. White strands of hair covered his face. He was left with little strength in his bones.
Number 7 would sit in front of the barber, once in a month, for a shave. The barber narrated humorous anecdotes to the inmates while shaving them. ‘Any rain in sight yet?’ the barber would say to the Umbrella Man, knowing his fascination for the rain. ‘It is going to rain soon,’ the man would say, full of hope.
That evening when Number 7 was strolling in the narrow avenue hedged with tall eucalyptus trees, he stumbled against the bench placed halfway between the asylum gates and the wall where the lane ended. As soon as he sat on the bench, his most favourite place, the conversation began. He began with the usual greeting.
‘So, mister, hoarding for the coming winter? So sure of its arrival?’
The puny little fellow paused and looked up at the trespasser, without placing the burden he carried on the ground. The fellow didn’t betray displeasure, knowing that the man had come for a friendly chat.
‘And what makes you think the winter won’t arrive this year?’ the fellow blurted. ‘You will always remain a pessimist. Look around you. Nature is bountiful. Look at the bees, the flowers, the beehive, the leaves...’
‘Well, I burnt the house of the bees. Remember?’
‘You didn’t burn the beehive. You dreamt that you had set it on fire. The hive exists.’
‘Your memory is good, mister. But what good is hope after all?’
‘That is an awful thing to say. I thought you believed in Hope and Nature’s miracles. Don’t you believe that some day it will rain here and that the earth will turn moist and smell of wild flowers?’
‘Yes, you are right. I believe in the rain. I was just teasing you.’
‘You don’t even dare to venture out without your umbrella. See how perfectly I follow you. But do you ever realize what rain could do? What destruction it could wreak upon hapless folks like us!’
‘Why, you have your shelter to protect you.’
‘Yes, I have it. It is mine. I created it. It took hard work. And I am not afraid.’
The booming siren signalled that it was time for the inmates to return to their cells. Number 7 bid his mate farewell and left.
The next day, he had to wait longer for the puny fellow to emerge out of his hiding.
‘Where were you?’ the man asked.
‘Well, we had a deluge. Got drenched.’
‘Why? It hasn’t rained.’
‘Not for you. But for us even a dewdrop can spell disaster.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘You never will. You are too busy creating the knots and
‘Please allow me to carry on with my work. My fellow workers think I am more interested in gossiping with strangers than attending to my work.’
‘I am not a stranger.’
‘But you certainly are a distraction.’
‘Your barns must be full now?’
‘Not yet. Barns can never be full. We have to feed a lot of hungry workers.’
‘But you are free to do whatever you want to do and roam around without any restrictions.’
‘You talk of freedom? I thought you cared only for the rain?’
For several days, there was no sign of rain. There were moments when the man looked out of the window of his cell and imagined the clouds roll by. Every evening during his walks, he carried the umbrella along.
Some months later, a team of two attending doctors greeted their patient with a beaming smile. On most days, none of the doctors smiled. One doctor carried some papers in his hand.
‘How old are you?’ the doctor asked. ‘Do you remember your age?’ The man looked at the doctors bemusedly. ‘What sort of a question is it?’ he wondered.
‘We bring some good news. You are free to go now,’ another doctor said. ‘The papers are ready. Our efforts have yielded fruit and the members of the committee have unanimously agreed to our assessment of your condition.’
‘Committee?’ The committee, he believed, consisted of a bunch of serious people who never concurred and never signed any discharge papers.
‘The committee comes to conclusions based on evidence, facts and careful examination of all patients. It is your last night in the ward. You are a free man from tomorrow. Good luck!’ And the doctors left.
Number 7 couldn’t sleep properly that night. The night was no different from all previous nights. He forgot all about the coming morning—the day of his release and permanent freedom! He talked to the child about the dreams. The child wanted to listen to a story. He narrated a story and the child fell asleep. Soon the man fell asleep too.
The next morning, he woke up to a strange smell that wafted into his cell from the compound. A strange fragrance flooded the ward. The man stepped out of his cell and looked around the place. A small puddle greeted him. The wild flowers had drooped in the wet soil. Number 7 looked at the sky. It was cloudy.
The orderly, who used to bring him dinner, came and placed a new set of clothes on the doorstep. He gave him a bag containing an extra set of clothes, a small tin case and some money. ‘I will miss you,’ the orderly said to Number 7, ‘but I’m happy that your freedom has come on a rainy day. Leave on time, or else you will miss the bus. I will come and fetch you in a while. Get ready.’
Number 7 didn’t want to change. He obeyed the orders though. He took a bath, wore the new clothes and waited for the mystery to unfold.
Sometime later, when the orderly presented himself at his cell to accompany him to the gates, he went about his usual habit. He lifted the umbrella, his only possession, spread it out and walked out of his cell. He didn’t know what to do. He held the J of the umbrella’s handle in his hand and walked steadily. His gait was confident. He had waited for the rain, and now he plodded across the small muddy puddles in the compound, trying to evade the splashes.
The orderly saw him off at the gates. Number 7 wondered which path to take. On his right, the giant wall blocked the way. On his left, there was nothing but a wild bush. He saw an opening in the bush which led to a road he had never seen.
Holding the umbrella over his head, he waited for his friend to appear. The rain had washed away the anthill. The puny fellow was gone. Number 7 folded the umbrella carefully, shouldered his way through the bush and saw the road that was waiting for him on the other side.
The only traces he left behind were the wet footprints.
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This story has been published in A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories, Siddhartha Gigoo, Rupa Publications, 2015.