First published in Crab Orchard Review, issue #22, on 22 February 2018.
In our three years in the desert, it rained twice. The first time, thunderstruck as we were to see water fall from the sky, what electrified the small fry of that arid village was a real multihued rainbow. We all stood at the corner of the street after which the sand dunes started, and jumped up and down in a row shouting “Rainbow! Rainbow! Rainbow!” waving our right arms in the air. The air tasted metallic and my blue flip-flops kept slipping off my feet. The second time it rained we were older and spent all afternoon looking for lightning behind people’s houses. We did this on the word of a girl who claimed that lightning struck the backyard of her Delhi house any old time it rained. We vaulted over boundary walls and raced across backyards, hoping to catch ourselves some lightning.
When I was four we moved to the verdant foothills of the Himalayan ranges, where when it rained, it rained with a vengeance. Like children before us, we made up stories of a lonely giant crying in the clouds. Hail was plentiful in July and once caused some consternation by hitting our doorbell and making it ring without pause. My mother said it must have been a hailstone that hit the switch, but my sister whispered it was a ghost sending us warning. We lived in isolation at the top of a hill in a two-story bungalow that dated back to the British Raj, so it wasn’t hard for me to believe her. Didi delighted in making me shiver. She dreamed up the most pathetic ghosts—a toddler lost on a cold, rainy night who crawled around the hillside crying for its mother; a young woman with long black hair who had walked off the edge of the cliff one foggy evening; two little girls struck by lightning while trying to shelter from the rain under a blackened oak tree. On stormy nights, when the wind wailed through the trees and crashed against the hillside, Didi would whisper, “Do you hear them howl? They’re on the prowl tonight.” She would then turn over and fall asleep while I huddled quivering in the bedclothes, worrying about the lost ghosts on their deathless vigil.
One rainy evening when our parents were out, Didi thought she heard robbers trying to enter the house. She took her black machine gun to guard the kitchen door at the back and left me hiding behind the curtain near the front door. My gun was a nifty space laser that could strike fear into any number of alien hearts, but I had misgivings about whether its flashing red lights and sharp pew-pew sounds would intimidate flesh-and-blood humans. I awoke with a start trying to shoot my father on the nose as he gathered me up in his arms to put me to bed. At some point in the evening, Didi had wandered off and gone to sleep, leaving me on guard.
Like other Indian children of the postcolonial era, we grew up reading adventure stories by British writers. The weather in these books confused us. Why was a hot, sunny day cause for celebration and a rainy day dull and dreary? In our world, a good monsoon meant a good year for everyone. It was in our bones to welcome the rains with joy and relief. Some afternoons when we danced in the rain, our mother would join us and raise her sari daintily above the ankles to jump through puddles, splashing herself and everybody else. I thought to myself that when I grew up, I would wear saris and jump through puddles, just like her.
At the boarding school I went to in my teens, there was a gigantic rock formation just outside our dorm. At the top was a large boulder with a groove rubbed into it by generations of girls’ bottoms. This rock was in much demand for its view of the beyond. It looked out onto a world of guava fields and goats and possibility, far removed from the school rules and uniforms and exam preps of our reality. We would go there one by one with our music cassettes and letter-writing notepaper, and if we saw a girl already perched at the top, return disappointed to sit instead in the crowded dormitory. When it rained we would risk life and limb to clamber to the top, lie back, and look at raindrops fall in daggers from the sky.
In Pune where I went to college, the rain was a gentle mist. The first rain of the season made the city roads oily and slick. We’d watch scooterists skid on the turn into college as we sat in the café opposite, drinking steaming cups of milky chai over shared cigarettes. We spent every monsoon drenched to the bone since none of us would be caught dead carrying an umbrella. We only wore windcheaters, which left us soaked to the skin. People tucked plastic bags down their pants while riding scooters and motorcycles rather than wear a raincoat. A little white-haired old lady sold roasted peanuts on the pavement outside college. A potful of peanuts sat soaking in salt water on her covered handcart. These she would roast over hot coals right before our eyes. She’d then pour a handful into a twisted cone made of newspaper and sell this to us for just a rupee each. Since we were usually as hungry as we were broke, I like to think she made a good living.
One afternoon, I woke up hungover all the way through to the back of my skull to look out the window at a world washed clean of its sins. I went for a walk and sat on a bench, watching a child jump through puddles. She must have been about four years old and devoted to puddle-jumping all the seriousness it deserved. There were five puddles in a row by the pavement. She would start at one end, jump through each puddle in turn, and then run back up the road to start again. She might laugh while running back up the road, but her expression as she jumped through the puddles stayed unfailingly solemn.
A couple of years later, it was pouring rain when a man I loved drove me up the winding mountain road on his green Bajaj scooter for our first weekend away. We stopped at a little roadside stall for a cup of tea and a smoke. Our clothes dripped around us while we shielded our cigarettes from the rain. We shared our lunch with a friendly, half-starved dog and continued on up the mountain. The final stretch of road had been washed away by monsoon rain. The wheels on his scooter spun a fine arc of muddy gravel as he slipped and skidded his way to the top. Through it all, he smiled at me as I walked alongside chattering away about nihilistic existentialism, the inadequacy of windcheaters, and the question of evil. We stayed at a little bed-and-breakfast perched on the mountainside. Below us we saw a rainbow in the valley. I thought my heart would burst with impatience for the future.
It rains now as it rained then, though there seems to be much more slush. Far as the past is, my heart still gladdens to that first sound of thunder after the long dry summer spell. I shall wear a sari and hold it up above my ankles as I jump through puddles. The rain brings hope, and petrichor.