It was an ungodly hour. Must have been twelve or one at night. There was a knocking on the door. Appa would wake up to the smallest sound. He got up and opened the door. It was Thatha and Paati. “Amma...!” he burst out in disbelief and everyone woke up then. The two of them were standing drenched to their bones and shivering like fledglings. Thatha was shedding more tears than the water on his back.
“Payya...look at what I’m reduced to! We came running all the way with just the clothes on our back.”
Appa didn’t say anything. He held his father by the hand, brought him indoors and gave him a towel to dry himself with and a veshti to change into. Paati changed into another sari. They still could not grasp what had happened.
Thatha could not speak at all. He was sobbing and stammering. And seemed very agitated. He then cupped his cheeks and sat quietly, resting his elbows on his legs. Paati was the one who told them what had happened, little by little. It had been pouring for the last four days. Even though it went down to a drizzle occasionally, the rain never let up completely. If one stepped out thinking it was just a light rain, it became a dense downpour in an instant. The roads were all covered in mire.
No matter which direction one turned to, it was wet all around. Nothing much was getting done. People still rushed to work with umbrellas and upturned wicker baskets. The lake that lay dried up and barren woke up suddenly from its slumber. But this rain definitely couldn’t fill the lake. And even if it did, the water wouldn’t come as far as their backyard.
It was a very remote spot that used to be under cultivation earlier. If the lake got filled up, this region got just a little wet. That’s why they had built a platform there and put the shed over the platform. There was a two-foot- high pile of sand that was above land level. No one expected the water to reach the shed. Thatha and Paati had put their cots indoors and gone to sleep.
Even though it had rained for three days continuously, they knew that the lake was not even a quarter full. Paati woke up in the middle of the night to relieve herself. When she put her feet on the floor, they were met with ice-cold water everywhere! If the water had reached beyond the levee, this was surely a big storm! She woke up Thatha frantically and went out.
It was roaring outside. As though a large mob was fuming loudly and rushing towards another mob. It was a massive flood raging with the mission of filling every vacant spot in and around the lake with water.
“As soon as we placed our feet outside, the water crashed upon us in waves. There was no other sound around us. Only the crashing and piercing roars from an invisible corner. I was frightened to the core. Didn’t think of any of our belongings. There were ten chickens but we didn’t look for them either. We didn’t think of saving anything else.
“Only our lives. We held our lives in one hand and held each other with the other throughout. The water level was above our knees. We could barely get in and wade through it. You know how the black mesquite thorns are everywhere too. We placed each step carefully, and till we slowly climbed out of that place, we weren’t sure if we were going to die or survive.
“It seems that they may have opened out the waters from Karattur. Otherwise how will so much water get here? It has been so many years since this lake was built. I have never seen water like this before.”
There was a large pond right in the middle of Karattur town for all the waste from the surroundings. That pond always stood stagnant, topped with a coarse froth. All of Karattur’s waters drained straight into it. Only when that big pond was full did they open it up. When they did do this, it ran over the roadways and stank up the city as it moved away. It then flowed via Keeravur to reach the low- lying area and make its way straight to the lake.
It was only during such times that the salts from the leather hides were washed too. The lake had overflowed because the pond water had been released.
Paati’s body could not handle the cold from being drenched in the rains. She shook violently. Her teeth rattled. It was a strange sound. The boy and his father wrapped her in a blanket, laid her on a cot and set out in the rain. If the water was still not high, they could, maybe, save the chickens and some things from the shack. Thatha wanted to go with them too.
“You just got here and were soaked through. Why do you want to be in the rain again? We will go over and check on things.”
Even though Appa tried to dissuade him from joining them, Thatha did not listen to him. They took a kerosene lamp, covered themselves and their heads with sheets made from jute sacks and set out in the rain. They struggled to walk on the roads as they were copiously covered with puddles blended with softened soil and slush.
How had those two poor souls waded through all the mire without any light? The boy held his grandfather’s hand protectively. Appa walked ahead with the lamp. It was still drizzling, with tiny raindrops. The skies were black and made the eyes giddy. They crossed the dense thorny shrubs by the goat sheds and walked on tar roads into the colony.
The cart road had vanished and a wider, newer mud road had been built on top of it. On both sides were half- built structures. In the dark, some looked tall and some others were shorter; they looked like the ruins of cities of the past. In all directions were piles of sand and gravel like men crouched in the open, defecating. Just the thought that the two of them had crossed all this by themselves made the boy’s eyes well up.
In their old age, they had been left isolated, punished by imprisonment on an island. From the comfort of having their sons close and grandchildren crawling over their backs and heads they were forced to endure the torment of complete separation; the whole family was shattered like a coconut that is smashed to smithereens as an offering to a temple deity. In all the dangers of wading through the treacherous rains, they didn’t have even one hand to hold on to for support.
“You are my support and I am yours.”
How much their hearts must have cried as they walked alone on that path full of potholes and slippery ground in the nearly pitch-dark night. When one slipped the other must have held on tightly. The boy was struggling to walk even with the light from the lamp right now. How hard it must have been for them to take a step away from their dwelling place with only what they were wearing to save themselves. Their minds must have been filled with concern for the things they had left behind.
Even if it was a tiny toy, would anyone have the heart to abandon it? How proud Paati was of every item she owned. “These were all given to me as gifts by my mother for my wedding!” Every object bore a little bit of Paati. In spite of having three sons there had been no one to turn to in the middle of the night. No hand to hold for support. Not a dog would have been out when they entered the valavu. They would have gone looking for a warm and dry spot away from the rains. Even a dog had a better life than his grandparents...”Appa!”
Excerpted with permission from Rising Heat, Perumal Murugan, translated from the Tamil by Janani Kannan.