Suresh looked at his watch. It was 7 pm ..... well past 5.30 pm, the usual time when he reached home from work every day.
Today he had to clear a lot of pending work and had to stay up late. This was his first job which he had secured just a few days back after completing his post-graduation in economics. It had been a hard struggle and he had been jobless for almost a year after finishing studies.
Those days of unemployment had been very depressing. He had appeared for several interviews but was rejected every time owing to his inexperience. How were novices like him to earn a livelihood if jobs were meant only for experienced people, Suresh had often wondered. But, things brightened up for him and he landed himself this job three months back. The salary was good.
At 24, Suresh was burdened with responsibilities. Father had died when Suresh was barely 18. Mother, who worked as an upper division clerk in a central government organization, had a tough time raising Suresh and his college-going sister Rohini. She had a few more years before she retired and Suresh wanted that mother should have a very comfortable life post her retirement. She deserved it!
Once mother retired, they would have to vacate the government quarters and, so, Suresh was keen to save up as much as possible to buy his own house. He, therefore, did not want to lose the job which he had secured after such a long wait. Suresh worked diligently and never complained if he had to stay back a few hours on some days to complete the pending work. Today had been one of those days.
He closed the files, stacked them in the cupboard and locked the office. Stepping outside, he discovered that the sky was overcast and threatened to open up at any moment. Fortunately, he was carrying his umbrella.
The Monsoon had been at its erratic best. It was the middle of July but after a spell of good showers in the second week of June, the rains had stopped abruptly and completely disappeared. After the brief spell of rains, the rest of June and much of July had been absolutely dry. The sun scorched the earth mercilessly as if it was the peak summer month of May instead of July.
Suresh was not much of a newspaper reader. However, he had made it a practice to scan through the newspaper hurriedly while sipping tea in the morning. This morning, before leaving home for office, he was swiftly turning the pages when a small news item caught his attention. It was a weather forecast issued by the meteorological department. After the long lull, the rains are expected to resume from today, the meteorological department predicted. Like everyone else, Suresh was skeptical about the met office's prediction, but he decided to carry an umbrella to office nevertheless.
Suresh searched everywhere in the house but what he found was an old umbrella that did not promise to survive another season. He picked it up and resolved to buy a new one while returning home in the evening.
The umbrella had an "S" embroidered at one of the corners by mother. Suresh was always losing things. Once he had gone to the temple and had come back wearing somebody else's shoes, leaving his own new shoes behind. The "S", mother reasoned, would prevent Suresh from picking up the wrong umbrella at gatherings.
It was a bright morning and the meteorological department appeared to have goofed up on its forecast yet again. But the Indian Monsoon was a strange phenomenon and things could change dramatically by evening.
And such was the case! When Suresh stepped out of the office, a large blob of water exploded into a thousand sprays on his nose. Suresh went to the nearby shop and purchased a new umbrella but carried the old one with him with the intention of giving it away to the domestic help.
A few more water drops splashed on his head but Suresh did not feel the need to open the umbrella yet. He reached the bus stand from where he would catch a bus to his home - a 30-minute ride. Suresh still used the public transport and hoped to buy a two-wheeler soon after obtaining a loan from the office.
He did not have to wait long and a bus was already taking in the commuters when he reached the stand. It was 7.45 pm when Suresh reached the destination stop and it would take him another 15 minutes of walking before he finally reached the comfort of his home.
The met office's prediction had come true and the rain was coming down in sheets by this time. Suresh opened his new umbrella and started walking but the wind was gusty and threatened to overturn the canopy. It was no use. Suresh did not want to damage the umbrella which had cost him a good 150 rupees. He struggled to close the umbrella, finally managed to do so, and ran to take shelter under a nearby banyan tree.
Very soon he saw a girl rushing to take shelter under the same tree. She was carrying books and appeared to be returning from tuitions after attending college. She too, it seemed, had scant regard for the meteorological department for she was carrying no umbrella.
The banyan tree did not prove to be a perfect shelter because water drops which accumulated in the recesses of the leaves poured down in a stream when the wind blew, which was quite often. Besides, it was getting late and had already become dark.
The rains showed no sign of relenting but the wind had mellowed down and Suresh could now open the umbrella and protect himself from the streams of water falling from the leaves. But the girl flitted from one side to the other in order to find a safe corner. She was particularly concerned about her books which were sure to get damaged unless the rains stopped. But, no! The frolicking Monsoon rains were in no mood to listen.
Suresh offered her his old umbrella. "This is a very old umbrella and I was going to throw it away on reaching home," Suresh told her when he realized that she was hesitant to take help from a stranger.
He was a shy chap and avoided talking much, but the girl's predicament had compelled him to extend help. Suresh hoped the girl would not ask to know how he was carrying two umbrellas. She did not. But she still refused his help.
It had become very late and it appeared as if the rains would continue all through the night. Three to four rough-looking youngsters too had by now taken shelter under the tree and they appeared quite mean.
"The rain is not going to stop. Better carry this. I really intended to throw it away," Suresh told her once again. He wanted to leave as it was futile to keep standing under the tree all night. But with the loafers around, he did not think it was appropriate to desert the girl.
A stream of water poured down, just missing the books. The mean-looking boys had become quite garrulous by now and were talking loudly while throwing occasional glances at the girl.
The girl did not hesitate any further. She uttered an inaudible "thank you" and grabbed the umbrella. "But how do I return it to you?" she asked. Suresh laughed. While pointing at the numerous holes, he advised her to dump it into the nearest garbage bin upon reaching home. "It may just keep you dry today but would be no use tomorrow," he joked.
The girl departed hurriedly. Suresh waited for some time to assure himself that the girl had covered a good distance and was now among the crowd of shoppers, safe from the sniggers of the roughnecks who had become quiet following the girl's departure. Then he too took his way.
Life had not been unkind to Medha. Theirs was a middle-class family and Baba's income was sufficient to take care of the three-member family - Baba, Ma and Medha herself. She was a bright student and was pursuing chartered accountancy along with her final year B.Com studies. Medha had secured an articleship with a chartered accountants firm for which she had to devote four hours daily after college. The hard-working girl returned home around 8 pm every day.
When she returned home with the worn-out umbrella, Ma raised her eyebrows in surprise.
"Where did you get that antique piece from?" she inquired.
Medha never lied to her parents and she related the whole incident.
Ma laughed after hearing the story but the next moment became serious.
"Fortunately, the boy was carrying this old umbrella and gave it to you. What if he had not been there and the slum boys had harassed you?"
"Do not forget to carry your rain-coat from tomorrow onwards," she told Medha and the girl nodded in agreement.
"Now go and throw away the umbrella or give it to the watchman. He can mend it and use it this season," Ma said before going to the kitchen.
Medha always did her mother's bidding but this time she did not obey. Instead of giving away the umbrella to the watchman, she placed it carefully in the attic.
The weather office was right! The Monsoon had arrived in its full glory and the rains continued into the next day.
Suresh did not have to work late the next day. As he walked towards his home, he glanced at the banyan tree almost involuntarily. It was not windy and the new umbrella was quite stout. Yet, Suresh felt the need to take shelter under the tree for some time. His eyes searched everywhere but the people were well prepared for the rains today and Suresh was the only person standing under the tree with an open umbrella! Finally he urged his legs to carry him homewards. He reached home a good 30 minutes late. It was 6 pm!
Mrs Sharma was an astute shopper. She always purchased the best articles and paid the right price. No shop-keeper had ever been able to cheat her. The rain-coat that she had bought for Medha fit the girl snugly. When Medha stepped out of the office wearing the rain-coat, not a drop of water could penetrate the protective shield. Yet when Medha approached the banyan tree, she felt the need to stand beneath it for a few minutes. Of course she was the only one to do so since after yesterday's initial surprise, everyone was well-prepared to combat the rains.
The monsoon has departed after cleaning up the city and clothing it in a beautiful green coat. The city does have a luxurious tree cover and the trees are wearing shining green leaves. The city also has a few gardens which have turned into veritable isles of flowers. The monsoon has left after casting its magic!
Yet, Suresh continues to spend a few minutes beneath the banyan tree while returning home from office. It has become a habit.
Strange! Medha had been passing by the banyan tree for years together but she had never before been attracted by its majestic presence. But, now, Medha unfailingly glances at the tree rather wistfully whenever she passes by it and a smile curls up on her lips.
The winter has given way to summer. The city has grown enormously and the civic administration has undertaken road widening projects across the city. The banyan tree has to be cut down but the law requires that for every tree that is cut, five saplings have to be planted elsewhere. Some green activists protest the cutting down of the tree but in the end, the civic body has its say and the tree, that had stood firmly for years together, falls in a matter of minutes. Of course, the five saplings have been planted as required.
When Suresh reached the spot in the evening, all he found were few scattered branches. The rest of the tree had been carried away by the municipal employees. Suresh felt very gloomy, it was as if he had lost a very good friend!
The felling of the tree saddened Medha too. It was a grand old tree which had stood a mute spectator to all the changes in the city. Even in its muteness, the tree had a reassuring ambience about it. Now the spot looked so dreary.
Years have flown by. Many more monsoons have come and gone. The banyan tree incident has been erased from Suresh's memory. Because of the tough studies, Medha too has little time to ponder over other things. But the old umbrella continues to lie in the attic.***************************
Suresh looked at himself in the mirror. His hand reached out to pluck off a grey hair but he restrained himself. It was no use! How many such hairs could he pluck off? He smiled at the recollection of how only five-seven years back he used to coax Archana, his daughter, to pull out the grey hairs by offering her 50 paise for each hair. Archana, then, had to search hard to find that elusive grey hair and at the end of the day would be richer by a mere ten rupees or so. If he made the same offer now, Archana would become a millionaire and he bald!
"Are you ready, Papa?" Archana inquired from the next room.
Suresh had hoped Archana would study medicine but the girl had a head for figures. She just could not stand the sight of blood. Archana wanted to be a chartered accountant.
The girl had applied for articleship in a chartered accountants firm and had been called for an interview. Suresh had promised to drop her somewhere near the firm on his way to the office.
"Come along," he told her.
It had been raining continuously for the past two days, but the rains had reduced to a drizzle today. Archana stepped out of the car and opened her umbrella.
"All the best," her father wished her. "Call me back immediately and tell me how the interview went," Suresh reminded her again.
The firm where she had been called for interview was only a few blocks away. Archana could see the signboard "Medash" from here itself. What a strange name for a chartered accountants firm, she thought.
The name, in fact, was an apt one considering that the partners were Medha and Ashish. So the "Med" from Medha and "Ash" from Ashish when concatenated resulted in the firm's name.
Medha and Ashish had joined the same company as management trainees after completing their chartered accountancy course. It was but natural for two office colleagues, who spent much time together, to fall in love and get married. It had been the same in the case of Medha and Ashish as well. A few years after their marriage, the two had decided to quit their jobs and launch their own firm. It was a big risk but the gamble had paid off and Medash was flourishing.
The office of Medash was located on the first floor while Medha and Ashish had taken up residence on the ground floor in the same building. Both of them were present in the office to interview the youngsters who they had called for articleship. Vivek, their son, had yet to get out of the bed. He was studying to become a computer engineer and today his college was to start a little late. The chilly weather, induced by the continuous drizzle, coerced Vivek into pulling the blanket over his head and staying in bed for a little longer than the usual.
Archana reminded Medha of her own teenage years. She took an instant liking for the girl.
"Well, you have been appointed as an articled clerk with Medash," she told, smiling at a beaming Archana.
There was jauntiness in her steps as Archana climbed down the flight of stairs. She was feeling on top of the world.
She remembered her father's words to inform him about the outcome of the interview. Archana drew out the cell phone from her handbag. The cell phone was a gift from her aunt Rohini who had now settled in the United States along with her husband. Even the cover of the cell phone was exquisite.
After informing her father of the good news, Archana was about to put back the cell phone in her handbag when a motorcyclist purposely rode over a puddle, splashing dirty water all over her.
Archana was so taken aback by this sudden intrusion that she lost grip on the mobile which fell into the puddle. The water was muddy and Archana could not see where the cell phone had fallen. She glared at the disappearing back of the motorcyclist who turned back, laughed at her and sped away. The poor girl was at a total loss and did not know how to recover the precious gift.
Vivek had by now woken up fully and was standing by the window to see how the weather was faring. He witnessed the whole scene and broke into an uncontrollable guffaw. Archana, who was already seething in anger, upon hearing the laughter turned towards Vivek and scowled at him.
The boy felt ashamed of himself. "Hold it, I will help you," he shouted to make amends.
Vivek rummaged through the useless stuff that his parents had kept stacked at the back of the house to give away to the scrap collector.
He found an old umbrella. The shaft, ribs and stretchers were covered in rust while the canopy fabric was in shreds. A small piece of nylon still stuck to a rib and had the letter "S" inscribed on it. Just the thing he was looking for!
Vivek dug the ferrule of the ancient umbrella into the soil and carved out a channel so that water could drain out of the puddle. The gutter so created did its job marvelously and the water flowed out revealing the cell phone embedded in the mud. Vivek wiped it clean with his handkerchief and handed it to Archana.
"Thank you," she said almost inaudibly still unable to forgive him completely for laughing at her.
"Hey, I think the mobile must have got spoilt. Let us see if it is working," Vivek said while drawing out his own cell phone.
"What's the number?"
Archana gave the number and Vivek punched it in and pressed the green send key.
Archana's phone came alive. It had to since the cover was made especially to protect the instrument from water. Even if the mobile had been damaged, it would not have mattered to Vivek. All that he needed was the number .... The girl would have got the mobile repaired anyway. Now, for her name!
"Under what name do I save this number?" Vivek asked her rather officiously.
"Archana," replied Archana without a second thought.
"Got it," Vivek exclaimed as if he had made a great discovery.
Archana hailed an autorickshaw. She was feeling rather ashamed to walk home in the dirty clothes.
When the autorickshaw covered some distance, Archana's phone rang.
"Hello," she said speaking into the mobile.
"Oh good, your mobile is working perfectly. By the way, you may save this number under the name of Vivek," the voice at the other end said.
Archana smiled for the first time since the motorcyclist had splashed dirty water over her.