Oct/Nov 2020  •   Fiction

The Monsoon Child

by Lakshmi Arya Thathachar

Public domain street art

Public domain street art

She put all her memories in a cardboard box. It took her hours to gather them all, each one. Then she sealed the box and took it to the river by night. The box sank with the weight. The other option would have been to gather all the memories and put them under a boulder and crush them. She found that rather violent. So she sank the memories, and she was finally free of them.

The box dissolved with time, and the memories escaped. The fish of the river breathed them in, ingested them. Thus, the memories entered the fish, and through the fish, they entered the village folk.

It was a fishing village, as villages on river-banks usually are. The river ran through its middle. When a cyclone hit the sea coast, not far away, the sea water surged into the river and the river swelled over its banks. Those were sunless days, when a drizzle poured all day and a mist shrouded the village. River, earth and sky all met then, in a seamless gray. From atop the bridge, it was hard to tell where the river ended and the sky began. One could barely discern the still-fishing boats dotting the water.

The tiny shops had their lights on all day: little specks of sun by day, twinkle-stars by night, luring the cold and damp villagers like warm fires. Glasses of tea misted under blue tarpaulin, adding their own swirling vapors to the fog.

In this village, the monsoon child was born. Monsoon Child. Strange name. You see, her mother gave her the name when she started talking. The monsoon child began to talk early, and she relished the words she learned. Words rolled around her lips, her palate, her throat. She savored the way they felt in her mouth. Some were heavier than others. Some smelled gray, like the river. Some were yellow like the lamps. Some were salty like the river water in a cyclone. Some were bitter like the fish from their river.

They moved like water, never still. They either spiraled clockwise or anti-clockwise. Like eddies, little whirlpools in her mouth. Or, they skipped light-footed like streams.

When the monsoon child began to speak, she asked her mother where she came from. Her mother answered she had tumbled down from the sky one day.

"Was it a tumultuous fall?"

"Yes, you fell through the clouds. Some clouds were like cottony mountains. Some were sheets. Some were mere wisps."

"Did it hurt when I fell?"

"No, child. It was really like swimming in the river. You saw the whole world as you fell."

The monsoon child was born during the rainy season, and she loved the water as much as she loved words. As she grew up and started going to school, her mother would take her to the bakery on a wet afternoon to buy her warm honey cakes. The child would pull out her pink raincoat with the little blue flowers from the bottom shelf of her closet and put it on. Hood over her head, she would then walk hand in hand with her mother over the wet, tarred road. On those misty, drizzly afternoons, the bakery beckoned from afar with its warm, buttery odors. The fresh honey cakes sat on the shelves, amber-colored like molten tree sap. Little mouthfuls of heaven, just like words.

On some days, Alamelu would take the monsoon child to the bridge over the river. The child admired the golden-eyed gulls who dived and swooped, emitting squeals of delight when they came too close. On some days, there were a lot of people on the bridge, taking pictures, eating corn. There was a lady roasting corn on the cob over red coals. Embers flew like magic from those coals. The lady would rub lemon with salt on the roasted corn and hand them to customers. The foggy town had its own little pleasures.

The town, however, had a sadness even tourists noticed. They did not stay long enough to let the sadness seep into their skins. It was a two-day tourist town. Tourists would take pictures on the bridge, visit the beach nearby, buy textiles and diamonds, and leave on Sunday. Some bought the diamonds for their wives, some for their lovers. By Monday, they had forgotten the heaviness in the fog and the bitterness in the fish, except to remark causally about it.

"That sure was a strange town. Did you notice the sudden bites of chill in the air? And what was with that fog?"

"And that fish... ugh."

The monsoon child learned language in the usual ways. Nursery rhymes. Stories. Her mother made a game of it, she saying one line, the child the other.

"Open your mouth," Alamelu said.

"Hahaha," she replied.


The stories, they were in the air in that small town. No one knew where they came from, or why the townspeople remembered them.

The stories were about a young woman whose beauty, people said, was like that of a ghost. Ghosts were always female in their culture, and always beautiful. They had long hair, which was left loose. This young woman had waist-length hair and moved fluidly. She could also have been a mermaid. Her eyes were large and luminous.

The village had its stories, but every village does. Some villages tell stories of haunted, ruined forts. After hours, after the tourists have left, the forts whisper. "Maybe it's the bats," the tourists say.

Yet other cities tell of a maiden who stops men on lonesome highways. She stops passing auto rickshaws at night for a ride. The drivers, of course, stop; ghosts are beautiful, after all. When the auto stops, the woman asks the driver for help with her heavy bag. "Please put it inside," she asks. If the driver gets out to lift the bag, he is never heard of again. Less chivalrous auto-drivers live to tell the tale of the woman who flagged their auto. Where the highway ended, the driver turned around. Both woman and bag had vanished. They warn other men not to drive their autos at night on the highway. They warn them of the beautiful woman who haunts the highway where she was raped and thrown off to die.

Some communities have stories of trains running between two stations, where male passengers sleep, unheeding. On some nights, someone tries to wake them up. They hear the streamlet-like sound of anklets through the fog of their dreams. A gentle voice tells them, "Come with me." They wake, and a shadow runs past. They never take that train again. Men fear the women of these stories. The women walk through nights, silver anklets tinkling, feet turned away from their bodies. They are vengeful, looking for justice after death, a justice the world of men owes them.

Every village has its stories, but Alamelu tried to protect the monsoon child from village talk. Her child would not grow up in fear. She taught the child nursery rhymes instead. She took her to the bridge, to the bakery. She told her happy stories.

Every afternoon has a sound, too. In this town, it was the faraway clank-clank from the place where they made boats. On one such afternoon, the monsoon child began to tell a story.

"Ma, do you know why the fish are bitter?"

"They are not."

"Kids," Alamelu thought, "Always making excuses to not eat their food. 'The fish are bitter; the bread is sour.'"

"It's because of the river, Ma."

The mother frowned. Had she been hearing stories from the others? But the monsoon child had no friends. She spent her afternoons sitting on the step on the porch, talking to herself.

Alamelu looked at the child. Her long, mouse grey-black hair fell around her like a cloud. Her bare legs dangled, one strap of her white cotton frock fell off her shoulder as she sat on the step. Her eyes were wide and luminous. She looked as if she had stepped out of someone's dream. Alamelu shivered.

"What about the river?" Alamelu asked. "The river gives us food and water. Rivers are sacred. They give us life."

The monsoon child looked at her quizzically and said, "I know. I came from the river. I did not fall from the clouds, Ma. I soared up from the river, from its bottom. As I swam up, the water was like glass. It hurt."

Alamelu was irritated. Children, always making up stories, imagining things that do not exist. Why do they lie?

Adults do not understand children. Children live in a world of magic. Their toys come alive at night. Fairy tales speak to them. They believe. They fear.

As they grow older, as they turn into adults, the magic disappears. They are made to confront reality, to survive it. Adults are in survival mode. They become more and more practical in order to cope with reality. Reality, in turn, ages them. They forget to imagine, to create, to make up worlds. But the children: they are yet untouched by the world. Their skin is smooth, their eyes like water. They see. They remember.

Not all adults. Some adults who retain their childhood, create, too. They continue to live in a world of make-believe; they do not learn to survive practically. Reality then surrenders and lets them never age, as Sasha did not. But Sasha's is another story.

"When I grow up, I want to leave this river and go to the city where there are people with long eyes."

"That's enough," Alamelu said. "Time for a nap."


The townspeople tell the story of a young woman, who had waist-length hair and the body of a mermaid. She had grown up near the river. The river-woman. Once, a tourist visited the town for three days. A tourist with long eyes and skin the color of gold. He was tall and thin, his body all edges and bones. He noticed the girl with the long hair and deep eyes on his very first day in the town.

He smelled of cigarettes, cologne, and scotch as he sat next to her by the riverside, the water sparkling like the stars above. The girl fell in love with him and his big-city smell. His shirts, his words. His hard edges.

After three days, he went back to the city. The girl was lost, too, after those three days. She was always elsewhere, thinking of him. Was it her obsession that drew him back? For he returned from time to time to the town. He never made any promises. She did not know when she would see him again. Each time might be the last.

Each moment with him was like a star in the firmament—splendid and perfect in itself. Between two stars, there was darkness, of course. But she was willing to wait the time and distance between two perfect moments.

She did not get the kind of love her friends had: the love in which two people wake up next to each other every morning. The love that is of the everyday. That sees the fragility of the body next to one's own, its vulnerability, and cares for it.

The love she received was not one of everyday care. Was it enough? Was it fair? Was it love? To these questions, there are no answers. Hers was not the love of certainty. It was a love that resided in ambiguities, in unspoken questions left unanswered.

It was a terrain without a map, without a destination.

It was poetry, not prose. A whisper, a murmur, not a declaration.

"Can you swim?" she once asked him.

"I can swim, shoot, and ride horses," he replied. He had grown up as a cop's son, holding guns in his hands, racing cars.

She heard him talk about his life in the big city. The girls in high heels and short dresses. The clubs he went to. The long drives on never-ending highways. The autumn and its colors.

Did he fall in love with her, too? Who knows? Maybe he did, with her quietness, her unreality.

He would keep coming back to see her.

Those who cared about her cautioned her. "He is too young, too worldly for you. What does he want? You do know that someone like that will marry and have a family when it is time, and it won't be with you."

She heeded no caution.

And then, of course, the day came, when he visited her and told her he planned to marry. His family had found him a girl from the city where he lived. They had money. So did she. She was young, pretty. In pictures, she exuded a certain uncomplicated happiness that wives ought to have.

He told her he would not visit the town again.

The young river-woman was stranded in time. She lived, at times, in past memories. At others, in another's future. She imagined another woman's life, in the city. How perfect she was: young, happy. She imagined the other woman waking up, making pancakes, sending children off to school. She imagined her in short dresses and big earrings, as she looked down on her own frumpy clothes.

Without her lover's gaze, she turned old. Her hair became a warp and weft of black and gray. Her friends married, had children.

"Move on," well-meaning people advised her. "Be realistic, be practical. Time is passing."

She, however, did not move forward or move on.

Until one night when she went to the river. The townspeople never saw her again. There are different versions of the story. Some say she drowned. Others say she left the town on a ferry to go to the big city.


It was a particularly cloudy day in the river-town. Sky, river, boats, and gulls merged into one seamless, rolling grey. Hardly any tourists were out. This was not the season for them. It was an abandoned, pretty town, left to gray on its own.

On this afternoon, the monsoon child insisted on being taken to the river. She insisted on being led by the hand, past the golden specks of tea-shops covered in blue tarp. Past the bakery smelling of honey and butter. Past the golden corn roasting on the flyaway embers of charcoal. She insisted on a boat-ride.

There were few boats out today, as there were few tourists. They would have to share a boat with a single, straggling tourist. Mother and daughter got in alongside.

The boat sailed into the mist, away from all the gold and red specks. The mist got deeper. The tourist now sat opposite to them. His skin was gold. His eyes were long and forlorn. He hardly noticed the monsoon child and her mother, until the child addressed him: "Johnny, Johnny..."

"Don't mind her. She likes to repeat her nursery rhymes. Let the kind man be," the mother said.

The girl squealed in laughter and continued, "Yes, papa. Eating sugar?"

He looked at her briefly, as if returning to the world. He looked at her eyes as if remembering something.

"No, papa," she said.

Suddenly he stood up. The boatman finds it hard to say what happened next. Was there a disturbance that caused the tourist to lose balance?

"Open your mouth."

And then he fell into the river and sank quickly. The boatman remembers him not even gasping for air. Did he not know how to swim? Surely, he did. Why then did he sink into the gray, bitter water?

"Open your mouth," she had said.