Sudoku Puzzles and Mumbai Floods

I was accustomed to travelling to school during the monsoons. The school bus screeched to a halt right outside my building gate with its thick, choking, grey smoke that reminded me of smutty ash and old newspapers. My grandfather awkwardly attempted to hold the umbrella low enough so that neither my bag nor I got drenched in the rain. I entered the bus, waved goodbye to him and got ready to face my ill fate of being the only one standing. Everyday, I was the last kid to be picked up and so there was never space for me to sit. This though, resulted in me learning how to solve Sudoku puzzles while hanging from a bus railing.

Eventually, I reached school and the bus dissolved from existence for me. The smell of fresh water laced with dust crammed into my nostrils as I walked up the stairs. I took the two familiar left turns, reached class 3-B and absorbed all the knowledge I could for the next five hours despite the unsettling resonance of raindrops hitting against the glass window.

It is 4 pm and the lights just went out. I am agitated because we were watching funny, science-related videos in class. The sound of the fan above us has died down, giving way to the grumbling and buzzing cars on the street. Clouds have disguised the entire spectrum of the sky, resulting in complete darkness. No one can see the panic in my eyes.

Classes continued as usual but with our teachers trying ten times harder to capture our attention. Ultimately, it was time to go home.

Except, the school bus never came.

The kids whose parents came to pick them up, left for home. But kids like me, stayed back. The roads were waterlogged. Buses or any other form of transport just wouldn’t work as the engines were immersed. They didn’t tell us what was happening. Eight-year-olds are too young to understand the gravity of such a natural disaster.

It was 26 July, 2005. Mumbai was flooded. We were stranded.

It is 9 pm, well past the time I usually reach home. I wonder if my parents know where I am right now, stuck in between the stink of petrichor emanating from the window, rackets of sobbing and my chattering teeth.

Our stomachs were starting to growl. The school distributed a few over-ripe bananas and some upma in our class. I never liked upma, especially one that was not made by my mother. But hunger has a tendency to turn even the most unfavorable things into something delectable. So I ate the upma like it was the last chocolate I will ever taste.

It was this yearning for good food that gave me a reality check. There were hundreds outside who didn’t get a chance to eat anything. Those people were not dry and safe in a reeking, silent classroom the way I was. Some of them were not even alive anymore.

These people were not hopeful the way I was. I knew my parents would come to rescue me, eventually; they were perhaps just walking too slowly. Maybe they were getting me some food and that is why they got late. I was sure they would reach soon. I probably thought the time was fleeting faster than it actually was.

It is 2 am and my parents are not here yet. Everyone is snoozing. But I cannot, because my mother will get upset if I sleep without brushing my teeth. I explain this to my teacher, that my mother is a dentist but she asks me to lie down on the bench anyway. I count the number of times I sneeze and suddenly I am in deep slumber.

The next morning, I woke up to the hubbub of more parents coming to pick up their children. I saw the way they shrieked with joy on seeing each other. It was exactly the way I wanted to shriek but I was starting to lose hope. What if my parents never made it here? Who would save me?

My teachers suggested that another parent who was going in the direction of my house drop me. But I refused. I knew my parents loved me. They would be here soon, no matter what. I craved to hug them and get a whiff of mother’s shampoo and father’s after-shave.

It is 7 am and my uncle is here to pick me. He says he is taking me to his house, not my own. I ask why, because my house is comparatively closer. He says, that area is completely submerged. I will be living with them for a few days. I leave my bag in the classroom lest it gets wet. The water outside reaches my eyebrows so my uncle lifts me on his shoulder. We take five hours to reach.

I never got a chance to solve Sudoku puzzles while hanging from a bus railing ever again.


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