(Image from the Feb. 2011 issue of Kindle Magazine, where this short story first appeared.)
It was the third week of December and my brother, Anand, and I were tingling with excitement. We were happy to be leaving for Chennai to spend Christmas with our grandparents, Thatha and Paati. We loved the long train journey from Delhi, but more than that, we were eager to escape the frigid weather in the north, not to mention those puffy orange-striped sweaters that Amma had bought from a street vendor on that fateful day in 2002 when her sense of style ran off with another person and never came back. I don’t know how cold it was exactly, but Appa said it was so cold that thousands of homeless people had left the streets and were lining up outside the offices of politicians, because they had heard that politicians were full of hot air. Anand, who was three years older than me, said it was so cold that twice as many beggars as usual were following western tourists around, just in case money fell out of their pockets when they shivered. I wished that I could follow them around too, for I badly wanted to buy a Sachin Tendulkar junior cricket bat. I was certain that it would turn me into a cricket legend, but Anand scoffed at the idea. “The bat is not going to swing itself,” he said. I knew exactly what I’d do when I finally bought the bat: swing it right into Anand’s face. That’d show him. He was always putting me down, it seemed. But I didn’t let him get to me. I still spent hours imagining myself as a cricket superstar. I imagined how tired my right hand would be, signing thousands of autographs. I imagined what it would be like to travel in luxury cars, eat in fancy restaurants and sleep in posh hotels. I imagined all the important decisions I would have to make, such as whether to date Lara Dutta or Priyanka Chopra. I had seen pictures of them in a magazine Appa had brought home from his office. They were wearing tiaras and I wondered aloud if they were princesses. Anand laughed and said, “Yes, that’s Princess Lara from the Kingdom of Lucknow and that’s Princess Priyanka from the Kingdom of Sucknow.” I wanted to strangle him.
We spent two nights on the train, sharing our second-class compartment with another Tamil family. They had three suitcases, one of them so large, I wondered if they were providing a relative with a free ride. Whenever the train stopped at a station, I listened carefully to see if there were any breathing sounds coming out of the suitcase. The side facing us was scuffed all over and had a crack near one corner. I wondered if that was a breathing hole. At one station, I heard something deep and heavy, but it was just Anand snoring.
I had brought some playing cards along, but Anand –- when he was awake –- didn’t want to play with me, and the two children in the other family were too young, so I alternated between staring out the window and staring at the family. The younger child, a boy no older than two, never stopped sucking his thumb and hanging onto his mother’s red sari. His older sibling, a girl of about five with pigtails and an angelic face, played with a grubby doll while leaning against her father, sometimes resting her head on his lap. Their mother spoke sparingly, but their father more than made up for it, setting some sort of Guinness World Record with his mouth during the trip. Even when I fell asleep, I could hear him talking, filling up my dreams with endless chatter. He hailed from Idaiyangudi, a town in the southern part of Tamil Nadu that was only a short bus ride from Appa’s birthplace of Anaikudi, which meant that the two men were practically brothers. What’s more, they had both attended colleges in Madurai in the early 1980s, which apparently was the most amazing coincidence in recorded history.
“I knew you look familiar,” the man said. “We must have been seeing each other sometime.”
“Very possible,” Appa said. “I used to ride bicycle a lot, all over city.”
“Me too,” the man said. “I had bicycle too. Did you join MBA?”
“Madurai Bikers Association? No, too busy riding around.”
I liked the man’s friendliness, but didn’t care for the way he occasionally rubbed the top of my head and said, “Yenna da? Thinking what?” Did he really want to know what I was thinking? I doubted it, especially since I spent much of the trip pondering how he had ended up with a dark splotch on his forehead, a discoloration just above his right eye brow that was shaped curiously like Kerala. Had an alien from outer space touched him there? Had a chemical of some sort splashed onto him? Had his little brother smacked him with a cricket bat? The most likely explanation, I thought, was that he had lost a bet to a Malayali friend and had to wear a map forever.
I whispered my suspicion to Anand, but he just told me to shut up. “Stop your silly imagination, Ravi!” he said loudly. I jabbed my elbow into his side to get him to hush.
“What he is imagining?” the man asked.
“Oh nothing,” Anand said. “Just some silly stuff that 10-year-old boys think about.”
I scrunched my face angrily at Anand, then whispered in his ear: “I hope you lose a bet one day too. And I hope it’s with a Rajasthani man.”
He whispered back: “You’d better shut up now before I tell Appa. … It doesn’t even look like Kerala.”
I stared at the man’s forehead some more. It wasn’t a perfect representation of Kerala, but close enough. Which other state was so long and squiggly? Thatha had a similar splotch on his right arm, but it didn’t look like any particular state, though perhaps it was a state in Bangladesh or another country. I had never asked him about it. It didn’t seem like a nice thing to do, especially since I adored Thatha and didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He was the greatest grandfather in the world, even after suffering a stroke. Paati was also fun, but she rarely played with us. What we liked most about her was her cooking -– she spoilt Anand and I, preparing whatever we desired. It was like being in a restaurant, but without having to pay. My favorites were her appam and upma. I wanted to have both on the same day, but Anand usually objected, saying, “What about for me, Paati? Are you going to make kesari for me?” She cooked almost everything well, from adhirasam to payasam, but now that she was in her mid-seventies, a servant always assisted her, which meant that some of the treats were not as delectable as before. They were still scrumptious though, and we didn’t mind the slight drop-off, because we knew that Paati had to spend extra time taking care of Thatha. Ever since his stroke in 2001, he spent almost all his hours in bed, getting up only to use the toilet and with great difficulty. He still played games with us –- cards and checkers mostly -– but couldn’t do so for extended periods. Even in his condition, he continued to do what he did best: tell stories. Thatha, a retired schoolteacher, was the best storyteller in the family, a master of narration who was only getting better with age. Appa said his father could have easily become a celebrated writer like R.K. Narayanan, but being a humble man, chose not to seek fame and fortune. That was to our benefit, for he poured his creative energy into his stories. So riveting were his tales that Anand and I didn’t care that Thatha and Paati were the only residents in their apartment building without a TV. We could always rely on Thatha to keep us entertained. His stories were always about true events that happened to him or someone else in our family, but he somehow managed to make them exciting. He told us about the time in his youth that he ran away from home and slept on an empty stomach on the street. He awakened to find a rat gnawing on his little finger and decided to gnaw on the rat instead. The rat escaped before Thatha could have it for breakfast, but he did manage to catch a crow and cook it over a small fire. “Very bad tasting,” he said. “But when you are hungry, you will eat even snakes. Look at the Chinese.”
Thatha also told us about his short stint in the Indian Army and the medal he won for shooting down a Pakistani spy plane in Maharashtra. It didn’t surprise me that Thatha was a national hero, but Anand was skeptical and asked Thatha if he still had the medal. Thatha said he donated it to a museum in Delhi that, several years later, was destroyed in a terrorist attack. The terrorists had come from Pakistan, he said, and must have heard that his medal was in the museum. “Very lucky I didn’t keep medal at home,” he said, as I looked at him in awe.
Thatha told us the story of his own grandfather, how he had sailed to Sri Lanka to work on a plantation, but while returning home, had somehow travelled in the wrong direction and ended up in South Africa, where he met Mahatma Gandhi and persuaded him to return to India and fight for independence. I shook my head in amazement. Until I heard Thatha’s stories, I never realized what an important role my family had played in Indian history and what exciting lives they had led. But Anand was his usual doubting self and asked Appa if Thatha was “losing it.”
“Losing what?” I asked.
Anand tapped his finger on the side of his head.
“His hair?” I asked. “He lost it long time ago.”
Appa scolded Anand, saying he was being disrespectful. He said that Thatha’s stories were mostly true, though he exaggerated a little. “Maybe my great-grandfather didn’t meet Gandhi,” Appa said, “but he met someone who looked like Gandhi and told him to return to India. What does it matter?”
When our train arrived at Chennai Central, we bade farewell to the other family and rushed after our porter to make sure he didn’t disappear with our luggage. I don’t know why he was in such a hurry. I had seen athletes lifting weights on TV and also seen them running in races, but I had never seen anyone doing both. I wondered how many great at
hletes were working in menial jobs in India. My parents were not too impressed. Appa cursed the young porter as he rushed after him, with the rest of us trailing far behind. The hurried pace caused Amma to trip and she fell hard on her right hand. Hearing her scream, Appa glanced back. “Help your amma!” he yelled to us, as he continued to chase after the porter, who was apparently eager to get the tongue-lashing of his life. Anand and I helped Amma up. She held her wrist and winced in pain. We walked slowly and eventually caught up with Appa and the porter in the main lobby of the station. Appa was still scolding the man and threatening to pay him only half of the Rs. 30 they had agreed upon. After some pleading, Appa relented, agreeing to give the man Rs. 25 and a parting scolding.
We took a taxi to Thatha’s and Paati’s apartment building in Madhavaram. Paati, wearing a dull blue sari, opened the door and kissed Anand and I on both cheeks. Anand tried to wipe his cheeks on my shirt. I pushed him away. Thatha was taking a mid-morning nap, so we tried not to disturb him. Amma’s wrist was still throbbing, even after she put it under some running water. “Take her to Dr. VRH,” Paati instructed Appa. Dr. VRH had a house on the adjoining street, near Madhavaram High Road. During our last trip to Chennai, Appa had taken me to see him. I didn’t know what VRH stood for, but after he had examined me, I guessed that it must be “Very Rough Hands.” It cost Rs. 100 to get Dr. VRH to examine me for five minutes and scribble what I needed for my sore throat. Anand joked that he wanted to become a doctor, move to Mysore and open a number of clinics with names such as “Mysore Throat,” “Mysore Back” and “Mysore Feet.”
While Appa was taking Amma to see the doctor, Thatha awoke, heard our voices and asked us to come to the bedroom. Paati put an extra pillow behind him, so he could sit up. He looked far thinner than before, his cheek bones jutting out. “Va, va. Ukaru,” he said, gently motioning us to sit at the foot of his bed. The curtains on his small window were drawn, but barely any light was coming through. The sun was hiding behind dark clouds.
“More rain today,” Thatha said. “We have enough rain, but the clouds don’t listen.”
“Better than the cold in Delhi,” I said.
“Do you know how cold it is, Thatha?” Anand asked. “It’s so cold that a boy in my school wanted to take my striped sweater for Rs. 50.”
“Only Rs. 50?” Thatha asked.
“That’s all I was willing to pay him. But I didn’t do it. Amma would have been upset.”
Thatha tried to laugh, but it sounded more like a cough.
“You shouldn’t complain about the cold in Delhi,” he said. “Did I tell you about the time it snowed in Madras? … I still call it Madras.”
“Snowed? You mean real snow, Thatha?” I asked.
“Yes, real snow. The same snow they get in America and Britain. Very white and very cold.”
Anand looked at me and smiled slightly, as if to say, “There he goes again.” I tried to ignore him. “When was that, Thatha?”
“I don’t remember the exact year. I think it was 1966 or 67, when your father was a little boy. It was very hot one day, almost 40 degrees, but at night it got very cold and the next morning, these white puffs started to fall from the sky. People were so shocked. They had never seen white puffs falling from the sky. The Chief Minister came on the radio and said it might be an attack from a foreign country and we should not touch or eat the white puffs in case they were poisonous. He said samples were being taken and would be tested. He said his government would do everything in their power to protect the people from this unprovoked attack.”
Anand nudged me, but I didn’t look at him. “What did everyone do, Thatha?” I asked.
“People were running around, trying to get out of the way of the snow, but they couldn’t. It just kept falling, all over the city. About 10 centimeters of it.” He held his hands apart to show how deep the snow was. “It fell on people’s hair and faces and clothes, and they realized it wasn’t going to kill them. Some of the beggars started eating it, thinking it was food from heaven. Children started playing in it, throwing it at each other, running and screaming. The snow was cold and slippery and many people were falling down. Cars and buses were sliding into each other. There were so many accidents that day. I had an accident too, coming back from the office. I slipped on some snow, fell down and couldn’t get up for ten minutes. My ankle was badly sprained.”
He paused, raised his arm and pointed to the dark splotch just above his elbow. “Do you know how this happened?”
“You burned yourself?” Anand asked.
“No, frost bite.”
“But Thatha, how did you get frost bite in a small place like that?” Anand asked.
“I was lying on the snow for ten minutes. This part of my arm was touching it. It was so cold. … I never experienced anything so cold.”
I thought about the man on the train. Had he also been lying in the snow? Did he fall on a large snowflake that was shaped like Kerala?
“So much snow kept falling and falling on one day that the white tourists from America and Europe -– we had trouble seeing them. They were blending into the snow. It was like seeing an Indian in the dark. And you know what else? One of my friends — his name was Madhavan, a very athletic fellow. Well, he tied cricket bats to his shoes and started skiing down the road. He used two closed umbrellas to push himself forward. He said if it was going to start snowing in Madras, then he was going to start training for the Winter Olympics.”
Anand and I both laughed, trying to picture a man skiing with cricket bats and umbrellas.
“Why did it snow all of a sudden?” I asked.
“The scientists did not know. They guessed that it was a quirk in the weather patterns, that a stream of cold air had blown all the way to Madras from the Himalayas. They said it might happen once in a thousand years. But I knew the real reason.”
We waited in anticipation.
“There was this politician named Raghunathan. He was accused of extorting money from people. The police had some evidence, but Raghunathan refused to admit it. I remember his words exactly. He said, ‘I am 100 percent innocent. I promise you this: It will snow in Madras before I betray the people.’ And three days later, it snowed.”
“What did he do?” I asked.
“He accepted responsibility for his misdeeds. He said that God must have sent the snow to show him the right path.”
“How long did it snow, Thatha?” I asked.
“Just one day. It was warm the next day and the snow began to melt. By the evening, it had all turned to water. It looked like we had our usual heavy rainfall. And poor Madhavan, he never won any medals.”
We laughed again, just as Paati called us from the kitchen: “Anand, Ravi, come have some upma.”
“Upma!” I shouted, jumping off the bed. Anand followed me out of Thatha’s bedroom. When we were out of earshot, he said, “It never snows here. Thatha’s making all that up.”
“It did snow,” I said. “Just once in a thousand years. Didn’t you see the mark on Thatha’s arm.”
“You’ll believe anything, won’t you? I bet you also believe that Thatha’s friend went skiing.”
“I bet you’d like a mark on your forehead.”
“What are you boys fighting about?” Paati asked.
“Thatha told us about the snow,” I said, confident that she would confirm the story.
Paati placed two eversilver plates of upma on the dining table and sprinkled some sugar on them with a small spoon. “What snow is this?”
“The snow that fell in Chennai. He said it happened in 1966 or 67.”
“He told you about the snow, did he?” she said, and walked briskly toward Thatha’s bedroom.
I turned to Anand and grinned. “See! It did snow here.”
Anand looked bewildered, unsure of himself, but only for a few seconds, only until Paati’s voice echoed down the hallway.
“Yeppa! Did you forget to take your medicine again? How many times I have to remind you?”
Anand looked at me with a smug expression on his face. His eyes were sparkling and at that moment, more than ever before, I wished I owned that Sachin Tendulkar bat.
Melvin Durai’s humourous novel “Bala Takes the Plunge” is available in North America through McNallyRobinson.com It’s also available at major bookstores in India and Sri Lanka or online at FlipKart, IndiaPlaza, FriendsofBooks or other sites. Read the latest reviews here and an excerpt here.