Shevlin Sebastian captures man’s relentless struggle against unsympathetic forces of nature.
The rice is boiling in the steel utensil. Shamila watches as the white grains go left and right, up and down, and in circles. “Just like our lives,” she thinks, as she stirs the water with a wooden ladle.
It is a Sunday noon.
Her husband, Suresh, is an electrician. He meets the family’s expenses, despite drinking a bottle of toddy every night. Shamila’s son, Pradeep, 22, works in a transport company in Mumbai, while her 20-year-old daughter, Reshma, is a salesperson at a cosmetics shop in a Bangalore mall. As for Shamila, she works as a maid in a house down the hill. But today is her weekly holiday.
Shamila lives in a brick house of three rooms and a kitchen. It is modest: a wooden sofa, and two chairs in the living room. On the low centre table, there is the Malayala Manorama and a vase which has red plastic roses in it. In the bedroom, there is a wooden bed. The only ornamentation is a calendar hanging on the wall. In the children’s room, there is a wet patch at a corner where the ceiling meets the wall.
She takes a few grains in the ladle, presses it with her fingers to see whether it is cooked, and, when she confirms it is fully done, switches off the gas stove, and places a lid on top of the vessel.
Shamila walks barefoot to the living room. Clad in a blue nightgown, with white frills at the neck, she sits on a chair near the window and looks at the newspaper. She has tied her hair back into a topknot.
The house, on the slope of a hill in Thodupuzha, is in a scenic spot: surrounded by rubber trees and wet leaves. The only sound Shamila hears is the tap-tap of the raindrops hitting the asbestos roof. It is peaceful, although, in the newspaper, there are reports of murders, robberies and accidents. “No peace in the world,” she thinks and shakes her head.
Soon, a sound rises at the edge of her consciousness. It puzzles Shamila. It seems like thunder, but she is not sure. What could it be? All at once, she hears shouts: it is a mix of fear and rage. Shamila’s intuition buzzes, and she experiences the first signs of panic: shortness of breath and trembling legs. The shouting goes on.
Shamila opens the door and rushes out. Her neighbour, Parvathy, is pointing up, and screaming.
Shamila glances upwards and sees an unimaginable sight. The top part of the hill is rolling down: thick, red mud, branches, roots, plants, leaves, tree trunks, stones, and bricks. The roar sounds as if somebody is shouting in her ears. “It is a landslide,” Shamila’s mind screams. “RUN, RUN, RUN!”
She turns and flees, forgetting all about Parvathy. Shamila takes the narrow mud path, a shortcut to the road below, that people in the area use all the time. “Oh God, please save our houses, I beg you,” she says, even as she concentrates on running on the wet and slushy surface. But in another part of her mind, she knows how deadly a landslip can be. At a sharp turn on the path, she loses her balance but grabs a tree trunk to hold on.
Through the branches, Shamila gets occasional glimpses of the tarred road. At the back, the roar is non-stop. She is panting now, more out of fear than tiredness. Shamila notices an overpowering smell in the air and realises that it is of wet mud.
There is a cry of pain, the sound rolling down the hill like a shriek. “Somebody is injured,” she thinks. “Krishna, please don’t kill anybody.”
Shamila reaches the road, her mouth open, her chest heaving forward and backwards with the effort. She can feel the wetness of the road through the soles of her feet. Soon, dhoti-clad men run past her towards the hill. They don’t stop to ask her what has happened. They all know what the roar is and what it means to their lives.
Her thigh and calf muscles are hurting. She has never run so hard in her life. Shamila wants to look back but is scared to see the devastation. But she knows where she has to go — to her husband’s friend, Murali’s tea shop, a shack by the side of the road, a kilometre away. She has to inform her husband she is safe. In her hurry, she had forgotten to take her phone.
At the shop, Murali is sitting behind a rickety wooden table near the entrance, a white cloth towel tied around his head, like a bandana. The two men, who worked for him, have rushed off to see what is happening. Inside, there are tables and benches, placed against the bamboo walls, with an open area in the middle. At one corner, a TV set, with rusted buttons, has been placed on a shelf of a wooden sideboard.
When Murali sees her, he nods, and says, “Good, you are safe. What about Suresh?”
She smiles and says, “He is at a worksite.”
She asks for his mobile phone. He passes it to her.
Shamila calls her husband and tells him she is okay.
Murali goes to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Shamila sits down on a bench. She is glad to give her legs a rest, although she is still breathing rapidly. Her heartbeat has still not slowed down. “How does a landslide start, with no warning,” she thinks? The image of the river of mud coming down the hill flashes in her mind’s eye. Her body shudders involuntarily.
Murali brings the tea in a glass, and a white towel. She wipes her face, arms and hair.
She sips with soft slurps.
After a while, she senses that Murali is staring at her. When she looks up, she notices that his eyes are focused on her breasts. He looks frustrated. Shamila knows that his wife is fat and ugly and nags him.
Murali blinks and realises that Shamila does not approve of what he is thinking. Embarrassed, he moves away and switches on the television. Both spot the red and white band moving across the bottom of the screen: “Breaking News: Landslip at Thodupuzha.”
“These TV guys move fast,” he says, with a trace of admiration in his voice.
“Yes,” she says. “They are everywhere. Too much competition, I guess.”
The ticker changes: “Many may have died.”
“Who could have died?’ says Murali, as they gaze at the screen.
“Must be Rekha’s old and sick mother,” says Shamila. “She is bed ridden.”
“What about Parvathy?” she wonders and feels a stab of pain. Was the yell she heard that of Parvathy? Should she have stopped, gone up, and tried to save her? But Shamila knows that if she did that, she would have risked her own life.
“This is a tragedy,” he says.
The first visuals are aired. The slope has collapsed. Nothing is left, except mud, thatched roofs, some beds and chairs which are embedded in the soil. The local men she saw on the road are now wading through the muck, pulling away the debris, trying to locate survivors.
Murali looks at her and says, in a flat voice, “I am sorry, but you have lost everything!”
“I am alive,” she says, pointing a thumb at herself. “That is more important than all the possessions in the world.”
Murali’s eyes enlarge, and his eyebrows go up. To have property is so important these days. He does not know what to say. So, he remains silent and looks at the screen.
It is a silent tableau. Both of them gaze at the non-existent slope.
Her husband appears at the entrance. When Shamila sees him, she feels her heartbeat against her rib cage, like a hammer. Suresh’s eyes are wild, the pupils enlarged, and he keeps opening and closing his mouth.
She embraces him. And, like her own experience, she realises his body is shaking. And soon, the tears are rolling down his face.
“We have lost everything,” he says. “There is no land anymore. It has vanished. The house has collapsed. All the valuables are lost, including your gold jewellery. How do we live? What do we do? Where do we go from here? At 45, how do I start from scratch? We have no insurance. And what will this idiotic government do? These politicians are only making money for themselves. They don’t care about the poor. This horrible life that we live, always on the edge, always struggling to make ends meet and to keep our dignity, to give our children a chance for a better life. All this is ash now. Nothing remains. Ashashashash…”
Shamila knows that all what Suresh has said is true. But she does not have the desire to think about the future. She is trying to recover from her panicky run down the crumbling hill. Her mind is blank, but she is glad she is alive, and not buried under the mud. She feels happy that she had the foresight to run, instead of trying to save some of their possessions, knowing that there was no time for that.
“Our children are earning,” she says, in a soft voice. “You are earning. I am working.”
Shamila sees a flash of anger in Suresh’s eyes. He raises his voice, and says, “How much can we earn? Do you know the price of land these days? You need lakhs of rupees. It is beyond us. We are poor, Shamila. We have lost our dignity. That is how cruel God is. I shudder at the life ahead. How will we pay for our daughter’s dowry?”
This mention about his favourite child makes Suresh to cry.
Shamila hugs her husband, trying to press a mother’s warmth to him. She inhales a peculiar smell: a mix of sweat and muskiness coming off Suresh’s body. It is familiar. During the earlier years of their marriage it was appealing, but now she is repelled. She thinks of it as the stench of defeat.
Suresh becomes silent but continues to sob. This shock has hit the deepest part of him. Shamila becomes fearful. “Will he find the will and strength to overcome this?” she wonders. Shamila is not sure at all. Her intuition panics once again. She caresses his face and head, like as if he is a child. She knows that, underneath their bluster, all men are Mama’s boys.
“Come, sit down,” she says and leads him to the bench. “Murali, can you make a cup of tea?”
Murali moves to the kitchen.
Suresh wipes his face with a towel, which Shamila extends to him. They both stare at the screen once again.
Suresh’s body is becoming calm, as Shamila can sense that the trembling is slowing down.
Murali brings the tea and places it on the table.
Suresh sips it.
By this time, people troop into the shop. One of them is businessman Harish Raghunandan, who has a walrus-like moustache.
He grasps Suresh’s hand.
“Suresh, you have to remain strong,” says Raghunandan. “The colony of ten houses has been destroyed. Rekha’s mother, Lalithamma, Parvathy and her daughter, Meena, are dead. But there is no confirmation. There are others still buried under the mud. The men are trying to pull them out. It is unlikely there will be many survivors.”
There is pin-drop silence. Nobody knows what to say.
“It is great luck that Shamila survived, thanks to her quick thinking,” says Raghunandan, looking at her with piercing eyes. “If you had waited for half a minute, you would have died.”
Shamila feels grateful for this praise by Raghunandan. She acknowledges it with the faintest nod of her head.
Raghunandan sighs, looks at Suresh, and says, “You may have lost everything, but your family is safe. Be happy about that.”
Suresh wants to be grateful, but all he can think about is the loss of his property. Raghunandan reads his mood and says, “Once I owned a large farmhouse and it burnt down. I had to start from scratch once again. Life has its trials. It is a rare person who enjoys a smooth ride. Sometimes, the setbacks can be life-threatening.”
Suresh stares at him in silence. Shamila knows that her husband will say nothing. In public, he is shy and discreet.
It had been a love cum arranged marriage. The fathers of Suresh and Shamila had been friends for many years and worked as tappers in the rubber plantations of Thodupuzha. Every morning before they set out for work, they would stop at a temple and say their prayers. The families would meet during festivals like Vishu and Onam.
As Shamila grew up, Suresh found her attractive: the shining brown skin, firm breasts, and slim figure were eye-catching attributes. Shamila had a few admirers. But when Shamila turned eighteen, Suresh told his father he wanted to get married to her. Shamila’s father agreed. As for Shamila, she did not have any problems, although she knew her life would be difficult. Suresh was a school dropout, who had apprenticed to an electrician, and was learning the trade. “What can we poor people expect?” she had thought when her father told her about the proposal.
The couple had struggled and bought a plot and built the house. And although Suresh drank every night, he was not a wife-beater, and nor was he abusive, like the husbands of her friends.
Shamila walks to the door of Murali’s shack and beckons to Suresh to come out. Her husband has a questioning look in his eyes, but she urges him out with a wave of her hand. She no longer wants to sit with a group of men, all ogling her. She wants some privacy now.
When Suresh comes out, Shamila says, “Come.”
“Where to?” he asks, looking baffled. Shamila keeps her face blank, although there is a trace of a smile on her lips.
They walk for several minutes. The rain has stopped. A cool breeze is blowing.
Several ambulances roar past, their sirens blowing. Two police jeeps, with khaki-clad cops in it, also speed past. Following them is a group of men crammed into a minivan. They look like political party workers.
Shamila ignores them all, and, holding her husband’s hand, she turns left from the road, down a mud path, which leads into a forest. They carry on walking. Suresh says nothing. Instead, he is immersed in his thoughts. After walking for 20 minutes, they arrive at a pond. It is surrounded by large trees, with overhanging branches, on all sides, so the pond is hidden from view. Frogs are croaking at the edge of the bank and green leaves float on the surface.
“How did you discover this place?” says Suresh, and his voice echoes in the silence.
Shamila says, “My friend Ashwathy showed it to me one day. Isn’t it nice?”
He nods as they both sit on the bank, next to each other.
They stare at the still water.
They can hear bird calls, and the chirp of a squirrel following by a few quick barks. And under all this, there is the ceaseless call of the crickets. The leaves are a shimmering green thanks to the monsoon showers.
Nature was undergoing its annual rejuvenation.
Then Shamila turns to Suresh and says, “Let’s always remember what Raghunandan said. If he can come back from disaster, then we can. It is very important that we stay positive and develop a fighting spirit.”
Suresh looks at her, and presses her hand…
Shevlin Sebastian is a journalist based in Kochi. He has published around 4500 articles over 30 years, most of them feature stories. He has worked in Sportsworld magazine, (ABP Group), The Week magazine (of the Malayala Manorama Group), the Hindustan Times in Mumbai and the New Indian Express in Kochi and in DC Books, Kottayam.
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