The Umbrella: Kaberi Roychoudhury

Just the one umbrella at home, and that too with about fifty holes in it. Finding its way through these holes, the sunlight flashed on the hair and face. When it rained, pearls dripped from the head. Losing an umbrella like this was bound to create anxiety and unhappiness at home. Which was just what had happened. It wasn’t clear yet how the umbrella was lost. But it was believed to have flown away.

Yes, flown away. Because when Indu’s father Bhakti-babu asked for the umbrella on such an unreasonably rainy day, Indu said, just a second, Baba, I’ve put the cat under the umbrella. Else he’ll be completely soaked where he’s lying by the water tank. And the poor thing can’t even move. I’ll get it for you.

Bhakti-babu expressed his sympathy for the cat, which had recently fractured his hip. I’m glad you did, he said. But I have to go out, so you’d better help him beneath the tank, or else make a bed for him on the staircase.

Oh my god! Where was the umbrella? Indu was dumbstruck when she skipped up to the terrace. The umbrella? The cat was there. The water tank was there. But not the umbrella.

The sky was overcast, and there had been heavy spells of rain since morning. A storm had blown up a short while ago. Would it ever stop? But it had quietened down now. A light let’s-fly-away sort of wind was still blowing. Just the right environment to feel utterly distracted. In an instant Indu’s imagination took over. She felt as though someone had been in her heart, but now she was flying away. She didn’t know where. She was only cutting a path through the wind – it was obvious to her that she was airborne. Indu was nineteen now. She turned her eyes to the sky. Her glance paused at the line of green in the distance. A song began to play in her head – this maddening wind and rain-soaked day… And at that moment Bhakti-babu called out to her from the ground floor, Indu! Indu! The umbrella? Indu scoured the roof. But there was no sign of it. How strange! She ran down the stairs. Observing her expression, Bhakti-babu said, is the cat all right?

The umbrella isn’t there, Baba!

What do you mean, isn’t there?

I mean it isn’t there. The umbrella’s nowhere to be found on the terrace. I had opened it over the cat, mind you. Indu’s mother Sudha came running, having heard part of the conversation between father and daughter. She said, have both of you been smoking hashish or something at midday? What do you mean the umbrella’s gone? Let me check.

Give it a missed call, will you, Bhakti-babu quipped.

Baba! Indu almost screamed. Baba, you… she said, and chuckled. Bhakti-babu looked at Sudha apprehensively, scratching his head diffidently. Habit, he said.

Sudha was angry already. And with Bhakti-babu joking about it, Indu decided it would be unwise to laugh and sent the giggles bubbling up within her right back where they had come from. Meanwhile Sudha came rushing down from the roof, a worried expression on her face. It’s true, she said, the umbrella isn’t there. There was an uproar at once. Everyone had an instant and distinct opinion on the possible destination of the umbrella. I cannot make any sense of this, said Sudha. Where could it have disappeared from the terrace? The front door was locked, so no one could have come in and walked off with it. And I personally closed the door after the maid when she left. Bhakti-babu grew angry. Why must you suspect the maid? Without her you’d have been unmade by now. Sudha didn’t appear to pay much attention. She was deep in thought, her brow furrowed. Bhakti-babu said, listen, Indu, you don’t think this is the umbrella’s revenge for all the torture the three of us have inflicted on it, do you? Indu trusted her father’s imagination implicitly. She was fond of giving in to flights of fancy as well. Her imaginative powers had happily taken wing of late. Just the other day a kite had tumbled on to the roof; picking it up happily, she found a name written across it: Tirthesh Sen. Her heart leapt. She had these strange sensations quite frequently these days – although she had no idea why. Unprovoked depression, unjustified delight, an unnecessary wish to sing or dance. Her mother looked at Indu suspiciously whenever she seemed to be behaving uncharacteristically. What’s wrong with you, she asked.

Even if she answered, nothing, her mother’s frown didn’t vanish. It was an annoyance. Her heart had lurched when she saw the kite. She had been watching a kite-flying contest just a short while earlier. One of the kites was brought down, and it drifted onto the terrace of their house. It had a length of string trailing behind. As she wound the red, sharpened string around her palm, her imagination took over. And then just a single thought all day and night. She kept seeing the red string. She could see the starch being boiled, with the ground glass and barley stirred in. And a red dye. Someone had wound the string between two lamp-posts and was sharpening it with this powder. Who was it? She could not see him. His image floated into her imagination. Night passed, dawn came – passing through the doorway of her fantasies, she fell asleep. The sharpened red string and the kite. And the figure as her companion.

Today Indu grew perturbed at her father’s observation. Not impossible, Baba. Just the one umbrella, with a thousand holes. We never even thought of mending them. One of the spokes was jutting out – I managed to stitch it back into place. The poor thing had to keep going with the stitches. On top of which the three of us didn’t exactly allow it any rest.

Sudha was listening to the conversation between father and daughter. When Indu stopped she said, and what does that prove? That the umbrella has stormed out into the unknown? Sudha hurled burning glances at her husband and her daughter. Then she said, honestly, what strange ideas. Lunatics. I live with two lunatics. Oh god, what a life!

Still, Indu’s father had made her conjure up a destination in her mind for the umbrella. She was comforted to think that it had left home in a fit of hurt and anger. For she, too, wanted to go away for the same reason now and then. In a sense, although its departure had made her sad, it had also given her joy. But at this moment she felt defeated by her mother’s argument. For it was indeed impossible for the umbrella to have walked out on its own – as impossible as it was for her to leave home. So she said, what do YOU think, Ma?

Try to remember whether you’d already brought the umbrella downstairs, said Sudha. Maybe you’ve forgotten – people forget things they hold in their left hands. You have to pray to the god of lost things with a pinch of salt to recollect.

Should I do that? Nothing more expensive than salt, right? I’ll do it at once.

Finally Bhakti-babu laughed. Is there an idol of Mr Lost and Found? How will you pray otherwise? Sudha glared at her husband. Don’t joke about gods, I’m warning you, she told him. Turning to her daughter, she said, go change out of that salwar into clean clothes, Indu. I’ll give you a bowl of salt. Put the bowl along with a glass of water in a corner and say in your head, god of lost things, return what’s lost and have some salt and water. Say it thrice, all right? Bhakti-babu chuckled at this. Does Mr Lost and Found suffer from low blood-pressure, he asked. If he has high pressure he shouldn’t be having salt. He’ll kick the bucket at once.

Sudha could clearly see the flames in her own head, a fire raging out of control. Observing the mounting rage on her mother’s face, Indu sensed trouble and quickly said, come on, we can’t be late. You’re going out, Baba, aren’t you? You’d better go now, the rain has almost stopped. We’ll look for the umbrella.

Bhakti-babu left, walking into a gentle drizzle. A debtor who had evaded him for a long time had telephoned of his own accord, promising to return his money today. So he simply had to go. Sudha was still grumbling, all these jokes about gods and goddesses – how could anything good come of them? Imagine suggesting that the god of lost things would kick the bucket. Horrible. Go, Indu, pray with all your heart. The gods test us, to find out whether our devotion is genuine. Where can the umbrella have gone, after all? The gods are testing us. Let me tell you that people can turn blind even without losing their eyes if the gods are angry with them. Shut the door when you’re done with your prayers, all right? Indu’s mother would get angry if she argued. So, although the question popped into Indu’s head, she did not ask, why Ma? Instead, she said, all right, Ma. But she couldn’t keep herself from asking, but I haven’t ever seen an idol of the god of lost things, Ma, how will I pray to him?

This was true. Sudha looked troubled for a moment. Then she had a brainwave and said, just shut your eyes and say, have some water, have some salt, god of lost things, and return what’s lost. That will do the trick. When I was a child we found many lost things this way. Go now.

It wasn’t clear whether the god of lost things had had any salt and water. Sudha was disturbed. She knew only too well that if the lost object was not recovered, Bhakti-babu wasn’t going to stop at jokes.

The hours passed. Sudha and Indu combed the entire house for the umbrella, but without success. Bhakti-babu returned before evening, and asked about the umbrella as soon as he arrived. Indu signalled to her father not to joke. Sudha was already dejected.

Bhakti-babu changed tack when he saw how gloomy his wife was. He said, you know what, Indu, we have this very bad habit of assuming that only humans are living beings.

A dispirited Sudha curled up next to father and daughter. What’s that you’re saying, she asked.

What do you think? If only we had considered that the umbrella is a living being too. I remember now how battered it became from constant use. What colour was it, do you recall?

Maroon, Baba. Although you couldn’t tell any more. The colour had faded completely. And all those holes on top of it. Indu’s heart was bleeding now. You bought it for me when I was in Class Five, Baba, she said.

Bhakti-babu was astonished. It’s been serving us without any help for so many years, he said. From Class Five in school to First Year in college!

Yes, Baba.

We never repaired it, did we?

Not even once.

It was bound to leave. There’s only so much one can take.

Sudha sat, her eyes lowered. She was looking woebegone. It had been four months since they had started using the 100-watt bulb, after the tubelight stopped working. The yellowish glow from the bulb gave the room a melancholy look. The rain raged outside. There were frequent claps of thunder. Raising her eyes, Sudha said, what nonsense the two of you have been talking! Madness! Did the umbrella grow legs or wings with which to walk or fly away when it wanted to?

Bhakti-babu smiled. The same familiar smile. Do you suppose you can walk away whenever you want to, Sudha, even if you have a pair of legs, he asked. Probably not. Or else you would have left long ago.

Sudha was startled. What sort of conversation is this, she said. What a nasty thing to say in the middle of the evening! Which hellhole would I go to?

Hellhole is right. Where can the wife of a lower middle class man like me go? If only you’d been a rich man’s wife, your life would have been glamorous. And not only would you have had the courage to abandon your family, but there would also have been a place for you elsewhere. You would have had so many suitors.

Sudha was taken aback at first. Her expression betrayed several instantaneous reactions to this. Positively indignant, she said, but since I’m not, there’s no point saying all this. For now I’ve asked the maid to arrange for an umbrella. She said dozens of peddlers visit their slums every day. They sell umbrellas too. You can get one for fifty rupees. She’ll get us one if we give her the money.

So I shall. But first let’s have some tea. Bhakti-babu jumped off the bed where they had been sitting. I’ll make the tea today, he said. Real Punjab-style tea. Looking at his daughter he said, tell me afterwards whether your father’s a good cook or not.

Enough. There’s no need to make the tea now after you’ve been soaked in the rain. As Sudha stepped forward Bhakti-babu took her hand and forced her back down on the bed. Make sure your mother doesn’t fuss too much, he instructed his daughter. Don’t let her budge, all right? Indu was enjoying this. The rains had created an atmosphere where the three of them could have a cozy chat after a long time.

Sudha was feeling uncomfortable. She didn’t like it at all when men entered her kitchen. She was certain that Bhakti-babu would turn the place upside down just to make two cups of tea. What’s wrong with your father today, she kept muttering. What’s he doing all this for. Wait and see the state he leaves my lovely kitchen in. I’ll have to work twice as hard.

Why can’t you be quiet, Ma, Indu scolded her mother. Can’t you see how happily he’s making tea for us? I’ll clean up after him, all right? Now sing us a song about the rains.

Sudha practically jumped out of her skin. Me sing? Have both of you gone mad out of grief for the umbrella?

Indu chuckled. Do we seem mad?

What else? My music has long boiled away along with the rice. Have you heard me sing in the past twenty-one years?

You do sing. Alone, though. We’ve heard you. Even Baba is full of praise for your singing.

Bhakti-babu had made three cups of tea. The small room was suffused with its aroma. Try it, he said. You and I will make khichuri tonight, Indu. Your mother gets a rainy day holiday.

Wow! Indu leapt to her feet. Fantastic, Baba. A delicious khichuri and beguni… we must have beguni, Baba.

Do you know what spices to use?

Chillies, cumin and bay leaf. Don’t worry.

Sudha was listening, flabbergasted. She laughed at the discussion over spices. Are you throwing a party to celebrate your grief at losing the umbrella, she said.

Ha ha ha. Bhakti-babu burst out laughing. Listen to your mother, Indu, he said. Am I throwing a party! Ha ha ha… You’re right, I am.

What’s going on?

Have your tea.

Sipping her tea, Sudha felt she was tasting nectar. Bhakti-babu was captivated by the expression on her face. He gazed at his wife. And then he seemed lost in thought for a while. But he overcame this overwhelmed feeling in a few minutes and returned to his normal self. Looking at his daughter, he said, think about it, Indu, the umbrella had been unhappy for such a long time. Indu merged with her father’s imagination. She could now see clearly how unhappy the umbrella was. It was true, the umbrella had indeed looked rather hopeless and disheartened now and then. But then it had also looked surprisingly new at times. Musing on all this, Indu was surprised – she had never wondered about this earlier. If she had paid attention then, this calamity would not have taken place. Bhakti-babu kept talking, you’d put the umbrella beneath an open sky – this was probably the first time it had got the chance to stand all by itself under a vast sky. A cloudy sky such as today’s would make even you and me wish we could fly away. Don’t you wish you could, Indu? Yes, Baba, nodded Indu. But cloudy skies make me so sad. I just want to sit in silence. I remember my old friends – a sad feeling, but also a happy one at the same time. And when clumps of white clouds float on the glittering blue sky in liberated laziness with a we-can-go-wherever-we-please air, how I wish I could fly away. Somewhere far, fa-a-a-r away, Baba.

Don’t you wish you could fly away too, Sudha? Don’t you? Tell us.

Sudha was feeling most unsettled today. Bhakti-babu had never said such things all these years. It was turning out to be such a topsy-turvy day. No, Sudha shook her head. I don’t. The caged bird never feels the desire to fly away.

Or maybe it does, said Bhakti-babu. They don’t even realise when their wings turn useless form disuse, like our appendix. When the wings grow heavy, they cannot fly even if they wish they could. And we imagine they’re not interested. How deeply we think. Heh! The very next moment Bhakti-babu addressed Indu. Just picture the scene, the instant the umbrella saw it was alone… and the enormous sky above its head… he was reminded of all his unhappiness and the wind told him, run away. The yellow bird fluttered its wings to show him how to fly, and signalled him – at once he set his tiny body adrift on air currents. Bhakti-babu’s eyes were closed. He continued, and then, such joy! It felt so free once it left the ground for the air! Freedom! Independence! Aaah! It took deep breaths to its heart’s content – and kept flying… kept flying… kept flying…

Indu was flabbergasted and Sudha, astounded. Won’t the umbrella miss us at all, Baba, asked Indu. It’s grown with me from Class Five… to First Year. We miss it, Baba. Won’t it want to come back?

Miss us? Of course it will. But it’s hard to say whether it will want to come back. This is its first taste of unfettered freedom, you see. After so many years of subjugation, it will lose itself in the joy of independence – who knows which river or forest or mountain peak it will fly off to? It might break when it lands. Or it could fall into someone’s hands – who knows.

It won’t be keen on falling into anyone else’s hands, Baba. Bhakti-babu smiled. The smile held regret, repentance, and a subtle hint of happiness. You’re right, he said. Just think of the experience it has shored up already. Sudha had never been so astonished in her life. Forgetting her tea, she was gaping at father and daughter. Finally losing her patience, she said, what madness is all this. Are you also going to be flying off along with the umbrella? Rubbish! It’s just an umbrella! How can it be sad? How can it suffer? For heaven’s sake! Enough – you want khichuri tonight, right?

Bhakti-babu burst out laughing again. Not you, not you, Sudhamoyee… we will cook tonight, you will put your feet up and relax.

Baba! Did you just call Ma Sudhamoyee? Indu smiled in surprise.

What a lovely name your mother has. And we’ve shortened it to Sudha. Do you know how different Sudha is from Sudhamoyee? Sudha is nectar, and Sudhamoyee? She who is replete with ambrosia. Oh. How we forget in the course of using something that it has life… a name, character, desires, disinclinations. No, I shall call you Sudhamoyee from now on. No objections allowed. Come, Indu, let’s you and I show your mother that father and daughter are second to none.

The cooking began with great fanfare, as though it was a giant ceremony. Sudha stood at the kitchen door, laughing. She wasn’t allowed to cross the threshold today. When Indu was about to put in a second tablespoon of turmeric powder, she burst out in protest. No more… enough.

Bhakti-babu glared at her. You’re bossing us again. It’s become second nature for you. Didn’t I tell you to go sit like a princess on the bed? You can issue your orders, and we will bow and scrape and obey you. Go at once.

Why don’t you go, Ma, Indu chivvied her.

Sudha’s feet were frozen at the kitchen door. About to return, she couldn’t help throwing a backward glance into the kitchen. Ancient yellow walls. The 60-watt bulb was dim with soot and grime. The plaster was flaking off the walls at several places. But still this was Sudha’s favourite spot in the house. She kept looking back. The double fragrance of rice and dal was in the air. To Sudha the sound of the khichuri being cooked seemed perfectly in tune with the incessant rain outside. It occurred her to that she never got a whiff of the food she cooked. And today she could sense it sharply even from a distance – she was enjoying it. Sudha went back to her seat on the bed, where she had a sudden urge to open the windows and gaze at the rain. This startled her. She had never felt such an urge before. How peculiar. What would her daughter think if she found Sudha staring at the rain with the window open? And her husband? Would he spare her his jokes? And yet the urge was growing stronger – an urge to which Sudha soon gave in. She stood at the window, having opened the shutters. She was being splashed by raindrops. Sudha’s eyes, face and neck were getting wet. And a cool breeze alongside. So sweet, so very sweet. A current of pure joy swept through every part of Sudha’s being. Swept through her. Someone started humming within her, this maddening wind and rain-soaked day… it was raining. Things in the distance had become invisible. The lamp-posts were getting drenched in the rain. The road was deserted. Sudha was singing. Someone inside Sudha was singing.

She had not noticed when Bhakti-babu had come up behind her. When the voice inside her stopped for a moment, lost to the world, Bhakti-babu put his hand on her shoulder. So embarrassing! Sudha felt shy. As she tried to shut the window quickly, Bhakti-babu said, don’t. You look so lovely in the rain today Sudhamoyee. How long it has been since you sang. Did you want to fly away? Hmm? We really neglected the umbrella, you know. Bhakti-babu ended with a tiny sigh. Raindrops were splashing into the room. Carried in on the wind, the rain drenched Sudha and Bhakti-babu, as well as the room. Bhakti-babu was also gazing into the distance. The umbrella has taken revenge, he said. How far can it fly anyway with that ravaged body? It’s probably lying face-down somewhere. I’m feeling awful, Sudha. it gave us protection from the sun and the rain and storms unhesitatingly, and we only used it and threw it aside. Used it and threw it aside. Sudha had probably caught a chill. She was coughing. Shutting the window, Bhakti-babu scolded Sudha mildly, dry yourself at once. You’ve managed to pick up a cough, haven’t you? You must go to the doctor tomorrow. Indu! Bhakti-babu called out loudly. You must take your mother to the doctor tomorrow. He sped off to the kitchen, still speaking, returning in a short while with Indu, holding a steaming plate of khichuri. Not on the floor or on their rickety woodworm-infested dining table – today the meal was laid out on sheets of newspaper placed on the bed.

Sudha ate, waving the steam away with her fingers. Her face looked exquisite. She did not recollect when she had last eaten anything so delectable. The salt, spice and sugar were all in perfect proportion. Bhakti-babu watched Sudha, entranced. He did not remember when he had spent so much time looking at her nose, her eyes, even the mole on her throat. Isn’t Ma beautiful, Baba, said Indu. If only I looked even a little bit like her.

Bhakti-babu nodded. He said, we really did neglect the umbrella. I wish we had been given another chance. He continued in chagrin, you could have told me, Indu. How do you expect me to remember everything?

Sudha still could not believe the business of the disappearing umbrella. She was eating, but her mind was wandering. The tale of an upset umbrella was unreal to her. The thought of its unfurling its wings and flying away was just fantasy. Interrupting the exchanges between father and daughter, she said, will you two stop? You’re outdoing each other will tall tales.

It had been an extraordinary day. After many years, Bhakti-babu spent the evening babbling till he fell asleep. Do you remember the first time I saw you, Sudhamoyee, he asked.

How could I not? You were gobbling down the food. About to retort, Sudha suddenly felt embarrassed. Shut up, she said. Rubbish.

I’ve neglected you. How much can a humble schoolteacher do anyway? But I know I could still have paid more attention. Don’t you ever feel angry with me, with this household of ours, Sudha?

Why don’t you shut up. Sudha could feel her heart melting into a puddle. The rain sounds so loud, doesn’t it, she said.

I’m upset about the umbrella. I wouldn’t have felt this way if we’d lost it on a bus or tram.

I don’t understand either. Where could it have gone? Covering the cat one moment, gone the next…

It took the chance to fly away.

No idea. Sudha didn’t want to think about it any more. Her body was demanding the comfort of sleep – she closed her eyes.

Morning came with a clatter and bright sunshine. The leaves were shiny and smooth after bathing in the rain. Indu was the first to wake up today. Brushing her teeth, she went up to the terrace to enjoy the beautiful dawn. And then she rubbed her eyes several times. She checked again. And again. The umbrella was standing silently in a corner of the roof. Its arms and legs folded, its head bowed, looking guilty. Sunlight flashed on its rain-washed fabric. Indu couldn’t believe her eyes. Was this their umbrella? Or was it one that had escaped from someone else’s house? She couldn’t be sure. There hadn’t been anyone on the terrace the night before. She felt a stab of fear. Almost running downstairs, she shrieked, Ma! Baba! The umbrella! Wake up quickly… Indu’s screams awoke Sudha and Bhakti-babu.

Baba, the umbrella! On the terrace!

What! The last vestiges of sleep in his eyes vanished in a trice. His eyes bulging, Bhakti-babu asked, whose umbrella?

Sudha had climbed up to the roof already. She was shouting from the terrace, come and see, quick. Our umbrella is back!

The faded maroon umbrella still stood in a corner, leaning against the wall, head bowed, ungainly. Bhakti-babu, Sudha and Indu exchanged glances – their eyes wordless, only asking, how is this possible. I searched very carefully, said Sudha. So did I, Ma, said Indu. How?

Bhakti-babu advanced slowly towards the withered, sickly umbrella.

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