For six interminable days it came down in sheets. When it finally relented, land had all but ceased to exist - at least in the limited visual capabilities of human eyesight.
The day had begun like any other. The alarm clock had accomplished its task of creating intolerable noise and failed in its task of awakening Varun. Like ever, it was the ’10 ‘o’ clock sunlight’ that succeeded. Making its piercing way through the 9th floor apartment window, it settled on Varun’s handsome face.
Freshening up activities had never been a problem with Varun. In twenty minutes, he had brushed his teeth, completed his toilet, bathed himself clean of overnight grime and had made his way to the dining table for breakfast.
‘Good Morning Mom, Good Morning Dad’
His parents made a suitable reply. By that time though, he was already too engrossed in the newspaper to notice what they’d said.
‘God, 43 degrees yesterday!’. Quite apparently, Varun was reading the weather report for the previous day.
‘You got to be nuts to go to college in this kind of weather! I mean, how can you sit in those rotten wooden benches below with one miserable fan above, moaning itself to further misery, in the entire class?’
‘Its summer, so it has to be hot, I guess’, his father tried to be helpful.
‘Hot! You call this hot! Dad, this is bloody….uh, er...uh…’ Varun was trying to find a appropriate word, ‘this is…uh…hottest!’ His vocabulary had apparently found its limitations.
‘Son, you need to be practical. Bunking college because its hot to sit in class and then riding away to glory on your bike in the middle of the afternoon is not my idea of beating the heat. And it shouldn’t be yours either.’ Varun Sr. could be stubbornly persistent at times.
Varun’s mom, who had bustled out sometime ago, bustled in with a tray carrying three cups and a flask which presumably contained tea. A thin, dark and bespectacled lady in her mid forties, her chief priority and only interest in life were God.
‘Arey beta, this is all the wishes of the One above.’ His mother had a rather shrill screechy kind of voice, certainly not the kind that she could thank God for bestowing upon her. ‘This is his way of showing his anger. He wants to remind human beings of all the evils we’re perpetrating on the planet.’
‘Yeah, yeah…He moves in mysterious ways…he is omnipresent…he is the just One… and what not!’ Varun’s atheism was the stuff legends are made of. His mother thought it was the stuff idiots were made of.
‘Beta, don’t be so rude. He is very kind, but He too has limits to his patience.’
Varun’s limit of patience was already stretching itself to snapping limits. He stifled the urge to answer; continuing the discussion could only worsen the situation. He changed the topic instead.
‘See! Seven people dead in the heat wave! Poor souls…all of them beggars and destitute…’ He almost went on to add – I wonder what wrong they’d done to deserve such punishment from Him, but restrained himself again.
‘Maybe some karma from a previous birth.’ His mother mused. ‘I have decided to go to the temple and make an offering of two coconuts today. I will ask for forgiveness on behalf of all of us and I will pray for our wellbeing. And I will pray to him for rain…’
‘Yeah, do that. Listen Mom, I have decided to skip college today. Too hot. Let me check if Harish is free today, we’ll plan an afternoon movie’
‘There you go!’ Varun Sr. triumphantly eyed Varun with a See-didn’t-I-tell-you look.
Harish was free that day. In fact, Harish seemed to be free almost everyday. The afternoon movie was planned; some obscure Akshay Kumar-Sunil Shetty starrer. Varun and Harish were the ‘mindless action movie’ types.
They were just settling themselves into their seats when Varun’s mother called.
‘Arrey beta, your Dad also decided to skip office today! He’s feeling unwell. He’s sleeping at home. I am at the temple, beta. I have offered the coconuts to Lord Krishna. And do you know what happened?’,
Varun didn’t particularly want to know what happened but he didn’t have much of a choice.
‘Met Shilpa and Roshni there. The three of us have decided to organize a special Aarti in the temple in the evening. You’ll see, everything will turn out alright.’
‘OK Mom. The movie’s started Mom, I’ll call you when it ends.’
‘OK, take care beta.’ his mom was perhaps a bit put off by Varun’s need for speed in ending the call.
The movie was ‘solid’ in Varun’s terms. That an unarmed man thrashing twelve others armed with sticks without as much as a scratch didn’t fall into the category of ‘possible’ didn’t matter to him. His adrenalin was pumping and that was all he cared for. Sunil Shetty was roughing up the quintessential bald heavy set villain when it happened.
It was imperceptible at first, but gained in intensity rapidly. In a matter of seconds, the whole theatre was shaking like the Titanic in its final few moments. The noise of the rattling seats was shattering.
‘An earthquake! An earthquake’ someone screamed amidst the racket.
‘Run, Run! Get out of here!’ someone else added.
It was a wasted statement really, for by that time every single living being inside the theatre was doing exactly that.
Varun and Harish had been seated pretty close to the Exit and managed to get out into the open before most others. It took them almost a minute to do so and a further minute to regain their sense of coordinates. The earth, by this time, had ceased to shake. The two of them hadn’t.
The scene outside was utterly chaotic; it fell just slightly short of Armageddon-ish proportions. Throngs of people were still pouring out of the theatre, most of them screaming and thrashing wildly at an imaginary enemy. A large chunk had decided that mere escape from the theatrical confines wasn’t sufficient, and had prudently formed small huddles at what they considered as a safe distance.
The neighborhood high-rises had also been deserted in record time, and the occupants found paradoxical shelter on the open road. The traffic on the roads had come to a virtual standstill. Clusters of people had got together and were engaged in animated discussions amongst themselves. Every now and then, they expectantly looked up to the rooftops, almost as if they had a premonition of one or two of the buildings to rumble and groan their way to dust. Nothing of the sort happened.
The sky bore a grayish look, a far cry from the dazzling blue summer sky a couple of hours ago. A thick veil of clouds had gathered, adding to the surrealism of the moment. It was almost as if the quake had affected the skies and beyond. Or maybe it had happened the other way round. Or maybe both.
Harish found his voice first.
“Oh, man!! What the hell was that?? Uff…the thing scared the shit out of me!”
Varun shook his head. Horizontally from side to side. He apparently disagreed. He too, had had his heart in his mouth for a while, but a sense of bravado had seeped in, in the last couple of minutes.
“Nah yaar! Pretty weak one, I think. Don’t think it would’ve dislodged a pebble even. Must have been 1-2 on the Richter.”
His comments were as amusing as they were annoying.
It didn’t inspire too much confidence in Harish. He looked quizzically at Varun and started to say something, then decided to keep his thoughts to himself.
A new kind of commotion had surfaced meanwhile. The exuberance of the youth had finally started to break through the initial terror and they were out on the roads by the dozens on their bikes, looking for some whiff of eventfulness and adventure around.
One of the early bird groups had already struck gold. Racing their bikes way beyond the limits of speed and the bikes and shouting so as to make themselves heard amongst the din, they arrived as the first messengers of the grimness of the situation.
“Mansi has fallen! Mansi is down!”
A shocked speechlessness followed as the news sunk in. Mansi was one of the better residential complexes in the city. And then momentary silence gave way to a second wave of pandemonium. Frantic phone calls, people running in all directions not knowing what they sought, some had started to cry… even as news of other buildings collapsing around the city filtered in.
“Yaar, let me check if everything’s alright at home.” He said, taking his mobile phone out of his trouser pocket.
When the call was not picked up after numerous rings, Harish started to get fidgety.
“Nobody’s picking up the phone at home yaar…”
“Arrey silly fellow, do you expect your family to sit pretty in their flat after all this? Call on your Dad’s mobile blockhead! How can you be so dumb?”
“Cut out the wisecracks, Varun. I am just so concerned”
Wisecrack or not, Varun was right. Harish’s Dad picked up his mobile almost instantly. A hasty and terribly garbled conversation followed, at the end of which the wellbeing of both sides was established.
Varun decided that it was time he called and checked up his family too.
His mom’s mobile continued to ring for a while but wasn’t picked up. Undeterred, he tried again. The mobile stubbornly refused to stop ringing.
“Damn!”, he muttered to himself , “Looks like she’s left the mobile at home and run down without it. Let me try Dad’s number. He’s at home today.” He continued half to himself and half to Harish as an explanation.
His trials on his Dad’s mobile didn’t offer an alternate result.
“Lets go home and check, yaar. No one’s picking up.” The fear in Varun’s voice had started to manifest itself very apparently.
The ride back home was almost totally devoid of conversation. Along the way, the scenes were heartrending. They passed by several huge piles of debris, where once great tall buildings had stood. The painful wails of rapidly scurrying ambulances and firefighting vans broke through incessantly. But even more painful were the wails of human beings. Human beings in mortal agony and human beings in inconsolable grief. Almost in perfect sync with the mood, the sky had darkened further.
Even before they’d turned into the lane leading to it, the absence of the familiar view of the rooftop had announced the fall of ‘Bell-View’. Varun’s home had ceased to exist
The swarm of people that had gathered around what remained of Bell-View’ gently parted to allow Varun and Harish in. The building had collapsed almost vertically. The angry dust that had bellowed out, almost in an attempt to escape the weight of the spiraling structure, hung lazily in the air. The air smelt dusty and asthma-inspiring. The weakened Sun cast a pale gloomy glow on the scene. Already, some of the people who had managed to reach safety in time and those around them were climbing onto the debris in search of the less lucky.
Varun had remained uncomfortably silent. He had slowly edged his way through and reached the outer boundary of the destruction. He located someone he recognized and made his way to the man.
The man turned round and looked at Varun.
“Varun. I…I…” he faltered, and then picked himself up. “Your Mom and Dad were…are inside. I am sorry.”
Varun turned and slowly moved away from the man. He walked across to the other side of the road and sat down on the ground. His expression was deathly frigid. His eyes had a faraway look in them. He was not crying.
Harish sat down beside him and put his arm around Varun. Varun didn’t look at him. Harish didn’t speak. The two just sat there for a while. Then Varun spoke.
“Everything’s gone…” his voice was sickeningly steady, “Everything’s gone. My home, my parents, everything.”
“They…they might still find them. They might still be alive.” Harish winced at how unconvincing his own voice sounded to himself.
The day flashed past Varun’s eyes. He buried his head between his knees. His Dad, Mom, breakfast, the conversation, the movie… What was it that his father had said to him last? Something to do with his not going to college, he couldn’t quite remember.
And his Mom? They’d talked about the summer and the poor people and The Almighty. Then She’d called from the temple, he remembered. Something about coconuts and prayers summer and relief for the distressed and rain, she’d told him. Funny how all his conversations with Mom ended in prayers and God. God.
He looked up. Two crystal clear tear drops slowly wove their way out of his eyes.
His Mom, whose supreme faith in God was probably unsurpassed, whose sole purpose of life seemed to be the appeasement of the Almighty…and this had happened to her. This was how her prayers had been answered; her years of faith had been repaid. This was God. These were His mysterious ways.
And now, alone on the planet, no one to take care of him, no home to go to…
And then, it rained…