The sun was just coming up when Grandfather pushed off in the boat. Grandmother lay in the prow. She was staring hard at Sita, trying to speak, but the words would not come. She raised her hand in a blessing.
Sita bent and touched her grandmother’s feet, and then Grandfather pushed off. The little boat – with its two old people and three goats – riding swiftly on the river, moved slowly, very slowly, towards the opposite bank.The current was so swift now that Sita realised the boat would be carried about half a mile downstream before Grandfather could get it to dry land.
It bobbed about on the water, getting smaller and smaller, until it was just a speck on the broad river.
And suddenly Sita was alone.
There was a wind, whipping the raindrops against her face; and there was the water, rushing past the island; and there was the distant shore, blurred by rain; and there was the small hut; and there was the tree.
Sita got busy. The hens had to be fed. They weren’t bothered about anything except food. Sita threw them handfuls of coarse grain and potato peelings and peanut shells.
Then she took the broom and swept out the hut, lit the charcoal burner, warmed some milk, and thought, “Tomorrow there will be no milk...” She began peeling onions. Soon her eyes started smarting and, pausing for a few moments and glancing round the quiet room, she became aware again that she was alone. Grandfather’s hookah stood by itself in one corner. It was a beautiful old hookah, which had belonged to Sita’s great-grandfather. The bowl was made out of a coconut encased in silver. The long winding stem was at least four feet in length. It was their most valuable possession. Grandmother’s sturdy shisham-wood walking stick stood in another corner.
Sita looked around for Mumta, found the doll beneath the cot, and placed her within sight and hearing.
Thunder rolled down from the hills. Boom. Boom. Boom.
“The gods of the mountains are angry,” said Sita. “Do you think they are angry with me?”
“Why should they be angry with you?” asked Mumta.
“They don’t have to have a reason for being angry. They are angry with everything, and we are in the middle of everything. We are so small – do you think they know we are here?”
“Who knows what the gods think?”
“But I made you,” said Sita, “and I know you are here.”
“And will you save me if the river rises?”
“Yes, of course. I won’t go anywhere without you, Mumta.” Sita couldn’t stay indoors for long. She went out, taking Mumta with her, and stared out across the river, to the safe land on the other side. But was it safe there? The river looked much wider now. Yes, it had crept over its banks and spread far across the at plain. Far away, people were driving their cattle through waterlogged, flooded fields, carrying their belongings in bundles on their heads or shoulders, leaving their homes, making for the high land. It wasn’t safe anywhere.
She wondered what had happened to Grandfather and Grandmother. If they had reached the shore safely, Grandfather would have to engage a bullock cart, or a pony-drawn carriage, to get Grandmother to the district town, five or six miles away, where there was a market, a court, a jail, a cinema and a hospital.
She wondered if she would ever see Grandmother again.
She had done her best to look after the old lady, remembering the times when Grandmother had looked after her, had gently touched her fevered brow and had told her stories – stories about the gods: about the young Krishna, friend of birds and animals, so full of mischief, always causing confusion among the other gods; and Indra, who made the thunder and lightning; and Vishnu, the preserver of all good things, whose steed was a great white bird; and Ganesh, with the elephant’s head; and Hanuman, the monkey god, who helped the young Prince Rama in his war with the King of Ceylon.Would Grandmother return to tell her more about them, or would she have to find out for herself?
The island looked much smaller now. In parts, the mud banks had dissolved quickly, sinking into the river. But in the middle of the island there was rocky ground, and the rocks would never crumble, they could only be submerged. In a space in the middle of the rocks grew the tree.
Sita climbed up the tree to get a better view. She had climbed the tree many times and it took her only a few seconds to reach the higher branches. She put her hand to her eyes to shield them from the rain, and gazed upstream.
There was water everywhere.The world had become one vast river. Even the trees on the forested side of the river looked as though they had grown from the water, like mangroves.The sky was banked with massive, moisture-laden clouds. Thunder rolled down from the hills and the river seemed to take it up with a hollow booming sound.
Something was floating down with the current, something big and bloated. It was closer now, and Sita could make out the bulky object – a drowned buffalo, being carried rapidly downstream.
So the water had already inundated the villages further upstream. Or perhaps the buffalo had been grazing too close to the rising river.
Sita’s worst fears were confirmed when, a little later, she saw planks of wood, small trees and bushes, and then a wooden bedstead, floating past the island.
How long would it take for the river to reach her own small hut?
As she climbed down from the tree, it began to rain more heavily. She ran indoors, shooing the hens before her. They flew into the hut and huddled under Grandmother’s cot. Sita thought it would be best to keep them together now. And having them with her took away some of the loneliness.
There were three hens and a cock bird.The river did not bother them. They were interested only in food, and Sita kept them happy by throwing them a handful of onion skins.
She would have liked to close the door and shut out the swish of the rain and the boom of the river, but then she would have no way of knowing how fast the water rose.
She took Mumta in her arms, and began praying for the rain to stop and the river to fall. She prayed to the god Indra, and, just in case he was busy elsewhere, she prayed to other gods too. She prayed for the safety of her grandparents and for her own safety. She put herself last but only with great difficulty.
She would have to make herself a meal. So she chopped up some onions, fried them, then added turmeric and red chilli powder and stirred until she had everything sizzling; then she added a tumbler of water, some salt, and a cup of one of the cheaper lentils. She covered the pot and allowed the mixture to simmer. Doing this took Sita about ten minutes. It would take at least half an hour for the dish to be ready.
When she looked outside, she saw pools of water amongst the rocks and near the tree. She couldn’t tell if it was rain water or overflow from the river.
She had an idea.
A big tin trunk stood in a corner of the room. It had belonged to Sita’s mother.There was nothing in it except a cotton-filled quilt, for use during the cold weather. She would stuff the trunk with everything useful or valuable, and weigh it down so that it wouldn’t be carried away – just in case the river came over the island...
Grandfather’s hookah went into the trunk. Grandmother’s walking stick went in too. So did a number of small tins containing the spices used in cooking – nutmeg, caraway seed, cinnamon, coriander and pepper – a bigger tin of flour and a tin of raw sugar. Even if Sita had to spend several hours in the tree, there would be something to eat when she came down again.
A clean white cotton shirt of Grandfather’s, and Grandmother’s only spare sari also went into the trunk. Never mind if they got stained with yellow curry powder! Never mind if they got to smell of salted fish, some of that went in too.
Sita was so busy packing the trunk that she paid no attention to the lick of cold water at her heels.
She locked the trunk, placed the key high on the rock wall, and turned to give her attention to the lentils. It was only then that she discovered that she was walking about on a watery floor.
She stood still, horrified by what she saw. The water was oozing over the threshold, pushing its way into the room.
Sita was filled with panic. She forgot about her meal and everything else. Darting out of the hut, she ran splashing through ankle-deep water towards the safety of the peepul tree. If the tree hadn’t been there, such a well-known landmark, she might have floundered into deep water, into the river.
She climbed swiftly into the strong arms of the tree, made herself secure on a familiar branch, and thrust the wet hair away from her eyes.
Excerpted with permission from Unhurried Tales: My Favourite Novellas, Ruskin Bond, Aleph Book Company.