Mr. Rao saw the first dark clouds gather on the horizon and the waves rise as if to lick them. He pulled the plastic chair close to the balcony. His knees groaned as he made to sit in the chair and he plonked into it. “The cyclone ‘ekla’ will make landfall around midnight. Evacuation efforts are underway and most people along the east coast are being evacuated to shelters…” the news presenter told Mr.Rao from the television. Mr. Rao looked at the watch still ticking away on the wall, it told him the time was around six in the evening. He looked back at the black clouds rolling on the horizon, “take your time…” he told the cyclone.
Mr. Rao chuckled when he saw the first lightning streak through the clouds. The doorbell rang again. Neighbours perhaps or some official trying to ensure everyone had been vacated. Mr. Rao ignored it. “The cyclone is the strongest one to be recorded in more than half a century…” the news presenter was saying. Good Mr.Rao thought. The electricity was cut and the TV feel silent. “Now it’s just you and me…” Mr. Roa said to the storm.
It thundered in response.
Mr. Rao sat starting at the approaching clouds, he just wished he had something to chew on like a gumdrop, but they were all the way in the kitchen and he couldn’t bring himself to go there. But then his bladder groaned in protest. He sat there debating the urgency of it, until he had to push himself out of the chair and waddled to the restroom, his knees groaning in protest. The worst thing about old age, and there are so many, Mr. Roa thought is the number of times you have to use the restroom.
On his way back, Mr. Rao got himself a gumdrop and sat sucking on it, “I will offer you one, once you get here…” he told the storm. That was when his phone rang. It took him a while to recognize the ringtone. It seemed to reverberate in the silence of the house. He picked it up. The screen read ‘Ankur Son’. Mr.Roa’s hand shook as he started at the screen. He let the phone ring for a while longer. Then he picked it up.
“Hello, Ankur beta?” He hated the tremble in his voice.
“Baba, where are you? I was trying to reach you for so long…I could get through only now… You have to get out of the house… Get to a shelter…”
Mr.Rao waited for his voice to steady itself, “Haan beta, I am on the way to the shelter…”
“I will not be able to get there today… There was an important meeting…I will be there tomorrow, please don’t wait for me… Go ahead to the shelter..”
Mr.Rao swallowed hard, he sat back in the chair ignoring his knees, “I will be alright, beta. I am heading to the shelter. Don’t worry about me.” Lighting streaked across the sky and the first drops of rain began to fall on the balcony with wet plops.
“Ok. I will try and come at the earliest. I will try and come tomorrow or as soon as I can. Please don’t…” the line was disconnected.
Mr. Rao dialed the number a few times, until he realized the phone services were down. He placed the phone down, his hand still shaking. So that is what it took now, a cyclone, for his son to call him.
Mr. Rao swallowed the knot in his throat and with tentative fingers touched his eyes. They were dry. He was glad that it was already raining outside.
Mr. Roa tried to recall the last time he had cried. His eyes wandered to the yellowing photograph on the wall. He had promised himself that he would replace the sagging frame and get a new photo printed. As if a new frame would change old grief. His wife still smiled from her old photograph.
That was the last time he has cried. When his wife had passed away. And that too in furitive fits as if he had not earned his grief. His eyes had seemed to dry out since then. The clouds thundered across the sea, and the waves leaped to match them. “Yes, yes I have not forgotten you…” he told the storm.
‘and what about me?’ his wife seemed to ask from the photo. Mr. Rao faced her wondering if he could finally face his grief. This was after all his last chance. He smiled at the photograph.
“Despite everything, I would say you had it easy Sujatha. You passed away in your prime. Sometimes I wonder if you even realized it, if you even suffered at all. I have convinced myself that you didn’t.” He sucked on the last of the gumdrop, letting its tartness tease his tongue. “Let me tell you you didn’t miss out of much. Life has gotten rather monotonous after you…you left. And lonely. And this growing old is a terrible business. My bones creak like our old house in the village. And sometimes it gets difficult to even breathe. You would not have liked growing old..” he told the old photograph, “I can hear you complaining about growing old. About how your gums are aching, and how you can’t digest your food. And you would complain about how boring everything was and how lonely….well if you were here…it wouldn’t be…lonely…”
The wind picked up and howled against the balcony. The rain grew heavier. The wind carried the rain into the room. The raindrops fell on Mr. Rao’s face and ran down his cheeks. “There…” he told the old photograph, “I am finally crying for you. And for myself…” he stared at the rolling clouds willing them closer.
“There was nothing more left for you…” he told the photograph, “there is nothing more. Except the feeling that you are slowly moving towards the inevitable. But the inevitable will not come that easily. Not like a surprise guest. Not everyone is as lucky as you. No, the inevitable will advance towards you like a storm, one ache at a time, one stiff muscle at a time, until you are begging for it to make landfall.” The storm groaned and thunder peeled through the sky as if angry at his accusation.
“Trust me, this is for the better…” Mr. Rao pointed to the storm, “this way I get to meet you sooner than expected. Surprise! It will be better for me. And for Ankur as well. I don’t want to be a burden on anyone.” Mr.Rao wished for another gumdrop. “Well it is my last chance…” he got out of the chair and got himself the whole bottle of gumdrops. He popped another one into his mouth and sucked hard on it.
The storm raged and the wind splashed the house with more rain, “I will save some for you, don’t you worry…” he told the cyclone.
“Ankur is doing well. He is well settled now. I did force the boy to get married. I can’t fault him on that. After you, he just seemed so lost. I thought starting a new life would be good for him. And it was… It is. He could have taken up a job here itself. But he got this great offer in the city. It was his dream job. And he left, he got busy… You know how life can get. Busy enough to forget about your old father…” the storm seemed to have moved closer. There waves rose higher and crashed harder on the shore. The thunder when it came was deafening. The wind howled at him. But Mr. Rao still sat in his chair.
“Just because I am sitting here does not mean I will come easily…” he told the storm. “I will not go silently into the night…” he announced as he popped another gumdrop into his mouth. He continued to talk to the photograph. He spoke about his daily routine, the meagre meals he cooked, how he ate them in front of the TV watching the same soap operas she had watched. How he sometimes took walks by the beach until he couldn’t bear the incessant sadness of the sea and returned home to his own loneliness. But whatever he did, he always missed her, “why was that so difficult to say? Why has it always been so difficult to say?I miss my wife and I miss my child.” Saying the words seem to release him from some spell. “I miss you…” he shouted into the storm. Again and again. It grew dark outside. And though he could hear the wind and feel the rain he could no longer see the storm. “Don’t be too late now…I am waiting.” He told the storm. And he continued to talk howling his grief back at the wind. Despite his promise to the storm, one by one, he finished all the gumdrops.
Around nine o’clock Mr.Rao began to feel sleepy. He had trouble looking at her photo now. He still spoke to her, his throat was hoarse from shouting over the wind. The rain lashing at him kept him awake for a while, but soon he got used to it. He would catch a wink and wake up when it thundered screaming, “I will not go silently into the night…”
Mr. Rao tried hard to stay awake, but long before midnight he fell asleep in his chair.
Mr. Rao woke up to the sun shining on his face. The balcony was filled with water and a few of the windows were broken. But the house was very much in place and so was he. He had been woken by the sound of the TV. He turned to listen to the news presenter, “The cyclone ‘ekla’ changed course late last night. It is headed further up the coast and will be making landfall soon. There have been several casualties reported. We have a list of all the people reported dead and you can see it scrolling on your screen. People are still advised to stay indoors….”
The TV showed a shot of the road along the coast, with uprooted coconut trees strewn around like twigs. Mr. Rao noticed a car and his heart groaned like his knees. He noticed the names scrolling on a banner on the TV screen , ‘Ankur Rao’ scrolled slowly across the screen.
Mr. Rao clutched at his throat, “My son…my son…he came for me…”. Drops landed on his cheeks…he looked out of the balcony but it was not raining. Somewhere along the east coast the cyclone made landfall.