Monsoon Warrior by Ananya Mahapatra
Monsoons never fail to bring out the warrior in my Bou. I have seen her gazing silently at the darkening clouds and then the torrents of rain that beat down on us, clogging drains and flooding the narrow street on which our shop stands. The cheap asphalt that the government laid out every year in the name of road repair holds out a losing battle, for two days at best. After that, they succumb, and the roads are pockmarked with potholes. Giant arm-wide craters that remain hidden under the muddy monsoon water, taking motorists and rickshaw pullers by surprise. This is where Bou steps in. Every year, there were a few unlucky motorists whose two-wheeler is upended by these crafty potholes. Depending on the speed with which they were traveling, they land up with minor to near-fatal injuries. Bou keeps a first aid box for the lucky ones who get away with a few scrapes. The emergency number for calling an ambulance is stuck on the cash counter for the not so lucky ones. Every year, she readies herself for this relentless crusade against the rains and the potholes.
Some of the people whom she had helped come back with a bunch of flowers. Sometimes a box of sweets. The good neighbors call her the Florence Nightingale of our street. Some find her pothole-obsessed fervor crazy and snigger behind her back. Bou is always a stone idol, indifferent to both kind words and sarcasm.
But every time after one of these rescue missions she says to me, "My girl, study hard. One day when you are a big person, you will make sure they repair this road for good so that there are no potholes anymore."
Bou owns a tea-and-tiffin shop for office goers. A little hole-in-the-wall on a busy street, in the old part of Cuttack. The narrow lane in which the shop stands is flanked by cramped offices of chartered accountants, financial consultants, a ramshackle newspaper office that seems to have existed since Gutenberg invented the printing press. Every morning harassed looking men who worked in these offices flock in her shop for a quick breakfast and a brisk cup of tea before submitting to the drudgeries of work. Every morning Bou is ready for them with her vats full of steaming milk for tea, boiled eggs and toast, her signature porotha and aloo tarkari, and her no-nonsense rice and dalema for the more traditional souls.
It has always been just Bou and me, out there in this world. After Baba passed away, Bou had been running the shop single-handedly. Maa, a woman from the little port-town of Paradip, a woman with no formal education, a woman who had barely stepped out of the house on her own when Baba was around, a woman who had not a single soul to call her own in the sprawling city of Cuttack, suddenly found herself a businesswoman. There was a muddle of voices around her.
“Sell the shop”.
“Go back to your native town.”
“Surely your brothers will take care of you”.
The shop was Baba's heart and soul. So Bou stayed put. She pulled her saree off her head, tucked it in her waist, and got to work. People expecting her to be naïve and guileless tried to wheedle the shop out of her hands. There are ways to sabotage the business. In those days the shop was smaller. But Bou had the soul of a sea-woman. The spirit of the ocean roiled inside her. She was a woman who wouldn’t back down, wouldn't take injustice without protest. I remember the time when local goons would pilfer supplies from the shop at night. Every second morning Bou found that her sacks of rice had been rifled, a few pots and pans were gone, few trays of eggs cracked. She lodged a complaint in the local police station, but the constables nodded casually and said they would investigate, in the most unconvincing manner.
One day when the gnarly faced ruffians crept into the shop at midnight to cause mischief, they found her waiting for them with a wooden stick in her hand. At one end of it, she had tethered a metallic sickle fashioned out of fishing tackles. They noticed her when one of them felt a smarting blow out of the shadows. She was not alone. She had managed to coax a few boys from the wrestling team of a local sports club to help her out. They regularly visited the shop for tea and had grown to respect this hard-working, resilient, and unusually silent woman. Although she had no formal education, Bou possessed a presence of mind and resourcefulness that caught people unaware. With time, the troublemakers learned to fall in line and not mess with her. And the shop has been running for thirty years now in the modest little corner of the street.
When Baba left us suddenly, I was just two years old. I don't remember him much. My memories of him stem out of the tapestry of stories weaved by Maa. I was always a shy and studious child. Most of my childhood, I would be found huddled in one of the corner tables of the shop, my nose buried in a book, my mind barely perceptible of the thoroughfare of customers. Every time I scored good marks, Bou would beam at me with moist eyes. The day I topped in high school, she served tea and snacks free of cost to all her customers. Her fierce pride egged me on. Every time I was besieged by self-doubts, her quiet confidence in me dispelled all fears. The muddle of voices chased her into a corner at times.
“Teach your girl to help you out in the shop”
“Good marks are fine, but you have to get her married eventually. If she learns to make parothas like you, her in-laws will be mightily impressed by her and pamper her dearly.”
Bou had mastered the art of ignoring these words of wisdom with a polite smile. The cold glint in her eyes has a knife’s edge that cuts patronizing sermons short. She didn't defend or give any explanations. The so-called well-wishers dismissed her as bull-headed.
“She doesn’t care for our advice. Well, she will know in good time. When she will have trouble getting that daughter of hers married, she will realise she should have taken our advice.”
When I completed high school, cleared the joint entrance examination, and declared my intention of studying civil engineering in IIT-Kharagpur, she was proud and terrified in equal measures. It was the dream of many to get selected in such a prestigious institution, but I had never lived a day apart from her. She nodded bravely when I reassured her that it was only a seven-hour journey by train, but her lips trembled.
“Your only daughter.”
“No father or brother to take care of her.”
“Sending her so far off. Tell her to study in some college here. Why take a risk?”
“My daughter is going to be an en-gi-neer,” she said to the unsolicited mouths. Carefully spelling out the English word, something she had learned only recently. She was thrilled when I told her that civil engineers build roads and bridges.
She smiled and made a prophecy.
“We will finally have a decent road”
She took two days to pack my bags, taking care of every minute detail. She even agreed to learn the basics of operating a mobile phone, something she had doggedly avoided until now. When it was time for me to leave, she placed an idol of Lord Jagannath in my hand, to watch over me in her place.
"No matter where your journey takes you, don’t forget where you came from, my girl.”
“You are destined for great things.
“But never forget your starting point. Never forget this shop, this street full of potholes".
She had a smile on her face, and tears in her eyes.
Throughout my four years of college, she called me every single evening. She prattled about the goings-on of the shop. She complained about the potholes during the rains and made me laugh. She listened intently about my classes, about campus selections, about muti-national companies, and the pandora's box of opportunities that the institution provided me. She beamed with happiness, even though she didn't understand much of it. She understood my happiness.
When I finally graduated and was picked by a private company with a handsome package, I came home jubilant. I placed my letter in her hand. They were sending me to Brussels for training and then to Munich for my first assignment. She looked confused and then oddly dejected. Maybe she was shell-shocked at the idea of me going out of the country.
But then she said, "But I thought, you were going to build roads and bridges. Here. Use your education to bring change. In your own street, your own city "
I couldn't find words to frame a reply to her, so I stared at her in helpless silence. Whatever reaction I had anticipated, this was beyond my reckoning. That night, I couldn't sleep. I mulled her words, over and over again, in my head.
Why is this so important for her? Why wasn’t she wholeheartedly happy for the cushy comfortable job that I had landed? Despite my achievements, why did she make me feel as if I had let her down?
The answer came to me suddenly in the pitch black of night and my mind was suddenly blinded by a burning sort of awakening.
For years my mother had been struggling to bring change. To change the notion that a young widow from a small town, with no education, no property, could only live as a burden on her father or brothers. To change the notion that a young small-town women cannot survive in an urban jungle on her own. To change the notion that a young mother cannot envision a future for her daughter that is monumentally larger than the life that she has lived.
I remembered the day Baba was taken away from us. It was raining heavily. He was on his bicycle, hurrying back home when the front tire plunged precipitously into a large pothole in the road. The cycle swiveled and Baba lost his balance. The lorry driver behind him was caught off-guard by this sudden turn of events. No matter how hard he braked, he couldn't stop his vehicle from running over the fallen cyclist. There was no monsoon warrior to rescue him that day. Since then, my Bou had launched a tireless crusade against the rain, against government apathy, against corrupt contractors, against potholes and the possibility of an innocent man losing his life for no fault of his own. However small or inconsequential her efforts may seem; she was striving for change. To change things for better. She wasn't asking much from me I realized, she was just asking me to carry forward, her crazy revolutionary spirit.
I didn't join the private company. In fact, I didn’t join any company. I buried myself in books, to prepare for the Union Public Service Commission. It was uncharted territory. I had no idea if I was up for it. But not trying wasn't an option anymore. My Bou's confidence was the beacon that lighted my path. And today, I have reached the end of my journey. It’s time for a new journey to begin. The title of District Collector sits heavy on my chest. But I am my mother's daughter. I will strive for change. I will make sure people in my city have decent roads, to begin with. I will make sure that at least one monsoon warrior wins her final battle with the potholes.
Ananya Mahapatra is a practicing psychiatrist from Delhi. Creative writing has been her soul’s calling since childhood, and her first contributions were short stories and poems made to her college magazine. Creative writing has enabled her to communicate the narratives and experiences of people living with mental illness to the public. She has published her experiences while treating patients, in a Medical Humanities journal -Hektoen International. She has also co-authored an article on mental illness for the popular magazine The Equator Line. Her short story “Confessions of a Neurotypical Mom” has been published in an anthology called Twilight’s Children by Readomania. Her short story “The Bureaucrat’s Wife” has been selected for the anthology Best Asian Short Stories 2018, published by Kitaab.
The above story is set in her home state Orissa and speaks about the resilience and inspiration she has received from her mother, bravest of all beings.