Hema Padhu
Silent Downpour

It’s been raining for three days straight. It’s monsoon season, and the streets of Mumbai are flooded but mercifully empty as I walk to work this morning. The wind hisses through the narrow tunnels between the buildings that shoot out vertically toward the sky, determined to escape the city’s squalor. It whips away with my umbrella, stripping me of my only defense. I am sopping wet on the outside but bone dry on the inside. The rainwater turns into tiny rivulets as it runs down the puckered and scarred contours of my face, finding new pathways to old sorrows.
The salon is empty. It’s exactly as I left it last night. You must be the last to leave and first to enter, Biju. That’s what memsahib told me when she brought me here to work.
This is your home now, Biju.
Home. Home is dust and bones buried under heaps of rubble. Forgotten in the bundled piles of old newsprint as the vacant eyes of the world turned towards other miseries. But when I close my eyes, Bandipur remains as it did that morning when I stood on the balcony of our home—curtains of mist parting slowly to reveal the snow-covered Himalayan peaks, the rosy horizon turned fiery as the sun climbed up over the hills to shine on our small village, bells tinkled as the half-asleep goat herders steered the goats towards the rolling green hills—before the earth rumbled and swayed under our feet, caving in and swallowing everyone in my family.
Phat, phat, phat. My soggy chappals slap the marble tiles and then my heels as I cross the room. Phat, phat, phat.
Leather chairs occupy either side of the salon like thrones temporarily vacant of royalty. Empty wooden bowls that will soon be soaking tired feet, wait for me at the base of each chair. Rows of nail polish in every imaginable shade fill two tall glass shelves interspersed with foot scrubs, lotions, and hand creams. They all seem to regard me with a mixture of aloofness and pity. Even they know that I don’t belong here.
Phat, phat, phat.
It doesn’t matter. I don’t have to be quiet or invisible. Not yet, at least. My work brings me some gladness. I find refuge in its tedium. I make a mental list of my tasks.
(1) Make chai.
(2) Sweep and mop floors.
(3) Clean toilets.
(4) Wash and dry wooden bowls.
(5) Dust glass shelves.
(6) Water plants.
(7) Become invisible.
Cardamom, mint, and Assam tea float together in the pot. I stand a good distance away, watching the golden brown liquid hiss and pop, then boil. “Did you add ginger?” memsahib asks every day, and I nod. I throw out a piece every day so she thinks I did. I cannot breathe in its pungent smell. I was smashing it when the earth erupted, hurling the pan of bubbling brown water at me.
“You have to wear a dupatta over your head to cover your face, Biju,” memsahib says, not unkindly. “You don’t want to upset the customers.”

At half past nine, the first salon worker arrives. She creates a big puddle by the door, and I have to mop it clean. Two others follow her, and then memsahib arrives at ten grumbling about the rain. Each time I walk over with a bucket and mop up, the rain puddles.

“Did you make a big pot of chai, Biju?” she asks, and I nod. “Good. Bring me a hot cuppa.”

In the kitchen, the girls have gathered and are helping themselves to the chai I’ve made. I hear Devi, the fork-tongued, complain as she smashes some ginger and tosses it into the chai. She’s memsahib’s right hand, and she is not happy that memsahib gave this job to a disfigured Nepali girl.

“Madam, this is a beauty parlor. It’s bad for business,” I’ve heard her say many times.

The rest of the girls look away when I enter. They continue their chattering in Hindi because they think I don’t understand their language, but revulsion and pity need no words. I understand them perfectly well.

I hand memsahib her chai with three spoonfuls of sugar. Just like my baba used to take it. He’d hold his cup with both his arthritic hands and take a slow, long sip. He didn’t speak much, my baba, but his eyes said all I ever needed to hear. When I woke up at the hospital with two broken ribs and my face covered in bandages, I imagined him sitting next to me, looking at me with his gentle eyes.

The salon door opens and a large woman enters with a young girl in tow. The woman is wearing a bright kurta that is too small for her, and the material strains against her ample bosom and rump. She pauses at the door to catch her breath.

“I hope you are open for business.” Her voice rings like a crow’s cry in the empty salon, and she fixes her beady eyes on memsahib. “I need foot massage, mani-pedi, and mehendi.” She pulls the young girl, who stands stiffly a few steps behind her, forward by her arm. “Her wedding is this weekend.”

“Congratulations!” memsahib beams at the girl, who looks about twenty, a few years older than me.

The girl stares back; her eyes are deep dark pools of nothingness. I seat them and fetch them each a cup of chai.
“Oh, this baarish is unbearable. What a nuisance with the wedding and all!” She gives memsahib a meaningful look and says, “Three hundred guests invited. At the Sheraton, too.”

Memsahib nods with admiration. “Excellent choice. They have the best chef in the city. Your daughter is a lucky girl.”

“No, no, no. She’s not my daughter. She is my brother’s daughter. Poor man, he’s no more. Died suddenly of a heart attack, and this bechari has no mother either.”

Memsahib makes a few sympathetic sounds. Sounds that ring hollow to everyone but the ones making them. I pull my dupatta over my head, grateful for its protection from the gratuitousness of strangers.

I fill the wooden bowls with warm water, scatter rose petals, and add a few drops of sandalwood oil.