Song of the Monsoon
Listen to Saraswati, the goddess of music, wisdom, and nature, as she sings songs for Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva while plucking the strings of the sarod. Her music enters Sajit's ears as softly as the sound of a butterfly landing on cotton. There’s Sajit. See him standing in the courtyard, bathed in moonlight. Near him, the statue of Lord Indra, the god of the heavens, lightning, thunder, storms, and rains, sets atop a small fountain that sprays water from concrete elephant trunks. Large koi swim in the pool that surrounds the fountain, their bright orange and gold bodies glisten only inches beneath the water’s surface. Pale purple lotus flowers in full bloom float on the water. The air is filled with the scent of marigolds that grow along the walls that enclose the courtyard. Watch as Sajit slowly pulls his purple kurta over his head and hangs it on the thick leaves of a plumeria alba that stands in a large turquoise blue porcelain planter. He then kneels on the green tiled wall that encloses the pool, bends down, and scoops up handfuls of cool water that he splashes on his face and chest. He rises up and water drips from his raven black hair, streams down his bare torso, and onto the front of his ankle-length lungi. See how he rests, facing the moon as he sits on the marble bench near the pool and lets the balmy night air dry his skin
Watch as Sajit looks up at the second floor of the bungalow and sees the lights in Jacob Swan's room are out. He puts the kurta back on and then walks the cobblestone path to the back door. He enters the kitchen, stops at the island in the middle of the room, and takes an orange from a bowl of fruit. Peeling it with his teeth he carries the orange into his room, which is connected to the kitchen, kept separate by a bamboo curtain. He leaves a trail of orange peels on the floor. He sits on his bed and slowly, with his eyes closed, swallows the segments of the orange, savoring the juice. It dribbles down his chin, but he purposely doesn’t wipe it away. It’s like a cologne that adds fragrance to his caramel colored skin.
The oil lamp on the stand beside his bed glows brightly. It’s placed next to an electric lamp that he doesn’t use. There’s a television in the room, but he never uses that either. Watch as he turns the knob on the oil lamp, lowering the wick, and extinguishing the light. With moonlight streaming through the slats of the white shutters on the window, he removes the necklace of black polished stones from around his neck and lays it on the dresser. He takes off his sandals and clothes and lays on the bed. The clamor of the troop of macaques that lives in the banyan trees outside on the other side of the wall that encloses the bungalow spills into his room, adding to the sound of the fountain. See him roll on his side and face the wall next to his bed, and lie there for a long time, awake with his eyes wide open.
“The monsoon season will soon be upon us,” Saraswati sings.
Sajit sighs. “And still I'm a penniless servant,” he says. See him close his eyes and fall asleep shortly after.
* * *
Hear the peacocks in the gardens nearby as they greet the dawn with mournful screeching that echoes through the streets of the village. Sajit rolls onto his back and inhales the fragrances of cinnamon, cardamom, and curry carried by the soft, warm breeze that blows through the market, over the courtyard walls and into his bedroom. Stirred by the spices, his stomach rumbles. He glances at the shutters and sees the eyes of a macaque staring at him through the slats. He rolls onto his side to pick up a sandal and throw it at the macaque. See the startled expression on his face when he notices the translucent figure of a young man his age, an apparition, sitting cross legged on the floor not far from his bed. Sajit bolts upright. Trembling, he says to the young man, “Why am I being visited by a bhoot?”
The bhoot doesn't answer. A golden bowl suddenly appears in the palms of its hands. It holds the bowl out to Sajit.
“Sajit!” It's the voice of Jacob Swan calling from his room. The thumping of Sri Swan's cane on the floor of his bedroom resonates in Sajit's room.
The bhoot vanishes suddenly.
Sajit squeezes his eyes shut and then slowly opens them and seeing that the bhoot is gone, he shakes his head. He climbs out of bed, puts on a clean kurta and then his sandals, and goes into the kitchen. Hurriedly he prepares a pot of tea, slices two oranges and peels a banana, toasts and butters a piece of naan, and puts everything on a large wooden tray. Watch as he holds the tray above his head, barely shaking the teapot that sits on it, and runs up the steps. He pushes the door of Jacob Swan's room open with his foot.
“I hope you had a peaceful sleep,” he says to Sri Swan as he enters the room. “How is your foot this morning, Sri Swan?”
“It hurts like hell. I'm getting too old to play cricket.”
“It was an unfortunate stumble you took, Sri Swan,” Sajit says.
Jacob Swan is a man of sixty-five with thick white hair and a beard to match. He's large, but in good shape for a man his age, with muscles that bulge beneath his silk pajamas. He's sitting on the edge of his bed with his foot propped up on a fringed ottoman. The cast on his foot is immaculately clean. Impatiently he taps his fingers on the cane lying across his lap. “You're late with my breakfast, again,” he says with annoyance.
“I offer my apologies, once more,” Sajit says as he places the tray on a bamboo table. “It's a wondrous morning.” He opens the shutters to a doorway to a balcony that looks out over the courtyard. Sunlight streams in and the scent of marigolds fills the bedroom. A flock of green parrots chirp musically from the tree branches.
Jacob places his foot with the cast on it on the floor and slowly stands, steadying himself with the cane. He crosses the room and sits at the table. “Today I'm going to the tea plantation,” he says as he picks up an orange slice and then stuffs it in his mouth. “Tony is growing restless with me not returning home. This will be my third monsoon season in India.”
Sajit pours tea into a cup and sits it in front of Jacob. “Forgive me for my impudence in saying this Sri Swan, but measuring your life by the monsoons that come and go is not the way to live.”
Jacob picks up the cup and takes a long slurping sip. With the steam from the tea curling in front of his face like a cobra preparing to strike, he says, “You're still very young, Sajit. What do you know about living?”
Sajit glances out at the balcony. Standing on it is the ghost that he saw earlier. There is a smile on its face and its eyes are fixed on Sajit. It holds out its hands and the golden bowl suddenly appears. See Sajit scratch his head, perplexed as he watches but doesn't understand the words the ghost is mouthing. “I am only nineteen and have a great deal to learn, about everything, Sri Swan,” he says.
* * *
Sajit rides in the rickshaw that follows the one in which Jacob is riding. The rickshaws wind their way through a street crowded with cars, motorbikes, people on bicycles, and pedestrians. Stalls with vendors selling electronics, clothing and home appliances that line both sides of the street are busy. Vendors yell out what they have to sell and at what prices. Macaques cross above the street on electrical wires like tightrope walkers. The monkeys are ubiquitous, climbing the walls of the buildings and jumping from awning to awning above the stalls.
Watch as Sajit tilts his head, hearing Saraswati sing, her voice blocking out the cacophonous noise of the street. She sings of thunder that rolls across monsoon skies and of drenching rain that refreshes the earth. See Sajit close his eyes as daydreams of his village fill his heart and mind.
* * *
Sajit's mother and several other women walk barefoot along the unpaved road stirring up small clouds of dirt around their ankles. They carry bowls of mangoes and bags of rice on their heads. Their voices are like tiny bells that jingle musically.
Sajit is aged fourteen. He follows behind the women and kicks a football back and forth with his best friend, Aarav, who's left eye has been blind since his birth. Aarav kicks the ball with little enthusiasm, preferring to sit under a banyan tree and pretend he is serving tea and cakes. Aarav's hair hangs to his shoulders and, as he kicks the ball, he shakes his head as if to remind himself that his hair hasn't been cut off by his abusive father who slaps him for being effeminate. Aarav often tells Sajit that he wants to marry him when they have finished school.
“We're both boys and can't marry,” Sajit always answers, wishing that Aarav cared more about soccer or cricket.
As they come upon the gate leading to Sajit's home, his mother says goodbye to her friends and enters the courtyard in front of Sajit's house. She kicks at the squawking chickens that run to her and peck at the dirt where she has left imprints from her feet.
Before going through the gate, Aarav grabs Sajit's hand. “I'll have your children,” he says.
“Don't be silly,” Sajit says. He looks up as thunder echoes across the dark sky. The monsoon rain begins to fall, quickly forming puddles, turning the dirt to mud.
* * *
Look at the way Sajit is startled out of his reverie. Sitting beside him, the bhoot holds the golden bowl in his lap. He gazes at Sajit, his eyes filled with light. Sajit looks at the back of the head of the rickshaw driver who seems unaware that there is a ghost sitting inside.
“Who are you?” Sajit stammers, mesmerized by the bhoot's gleaming smile.
The bhoot's first words are halting, whispered. “I've come to give you a gift,” it says.
Sajit looks at the empty bowl. “That bowl will get me only a small amount if I sell it,” he says.
“It's not the bowl I want to give you, but what's in it,” the apparition says.
Sajit looks at the bowl closely and sees nothing in it. “It's empty,” he says.
* * *
The rickshaws leave the city behind as they continue on the road that bisects fields of tea plants. The floral fragrance of the tea fills the air. Women with baskets hanging on the back of their heads pluck tea leaves from the plants and put the leaves in their baskets. They turn their heads and watch the rickshaws suddenly stop. See how Sajit shakes his head as if awakened from a deep sleep, although his eyes are open.
“Sajit!” Jacob yells. “Come help me.”
Sajit jumps from his rickshaw and runs up to Jacob’s. “Sri Swan, your screaming will wither the leaves before they're picked,” he says to Jacob who is trying to maneuver getting his foot out of the rickshaw.
“On the plants or in the warehouses, if I don't get my tea shipped before the monsoon begins, then the tea leaves might as well be withered anyway,”
“It helps to have faith, Sri Swan,” Sajit says as he glances up at the darkening clouds.
“Faith will not get my tea from the warehouses to the ships,” Jacob says as he hobbles his way to a row of tea plants and plucks a bright green leaf from a branch.
See Sajit turn his right ear to the sky as he hears Saraswati singing to the heavens.
* * *
In his room, sitting on his bed, Sajit gazes into the golden bowl being held by the bhoot that sits cross-legged on the floor. “Why do you show me these things?” he says.
“They are gifts sent by your ancestors,” the bhoot says.
“How can the visions I see in the bowl be gifts when I don't understand what I see,” Sajit says. “It is all a jumble of images that hypnotize me into stupidity.”
The bhoot pulls the bowl to him and cradles it in his arms. “The future is much clearer when it turns into the present,” he says.
The rumble of thunder shakes the open shutters. As if replying, the macaques sitting on the courtyard walls screech and holler.
“I fear that Sri Swan doesn't know that the monsoon has snuck up on us and is already on our doorstep,” Sajit says.
“Even the aged have a great deal to learn,” the bhoot says.
Sajit lays on his back and gazes out the window at the swaying branches of the banyan trees. See how he runs his fingers up and down the stones on his necklace. “Will I ever learn the meaning of what happened to Aarav?” he asks.
* * *
Hot wind carries soil from the fields and tosses it on the long line of men and women who stand near the train tracks. Aditi brushes soil from the shoulders of Sajit's snow-white kurta as she gazes affectionately into his eyes.
“Don't do that,” Sajit hisses. “Others may see.”
“What of it?” Aditi replies. “Isn't it proper that a young woman should tend to her husband?”
Sajit picks up his battered suitcase and holds it against his chest like a weight to keep him from being carried away by the breeze, and like armor, protecting him. “In my eyes you will always be Aarav, even in a saree and with rouge on your lips. You are not my wife,” he whispers through clenched teeth.
“You say that now,” Aditi says with a laugh, “but what about the kisses we shared during the monsoon?”
“Forget about those,” Sajit says. “I was just happy to be leaving the village for good to make it on my own.”
“You're just sixteen and you didn't finish school,” Aditi says dismissively. “You will return here as soon as you begin to starve.”
“But before that you will be stoned for dressing like a girl.”
“I am a girl. If I die at the hands of others it doesn't change that.”
The train appears far off down the tracks, blowing its whistle. A plume of white steam shoots from its chimney. Aditi takes a necklace of polished black stones from around her neck and presses them into Sajit's hand.
“So that you will come back to me,” she says. She turns and runs, her long hair tousled by the wind.
* * *
In the middle of the night, Sajit awakens to the sound of distant sirens. He sits up, looks around the room, searching for the ghost, and then climbs out of bed. See the surprised expression on his face when he glances out the window and notices a fiery red and orange glow in the sky above the docks.
“The tea warehouses!” he exclaims. He runs from his room and up the stairs. When he opens the door to Jacob's room, he sees him standing on the balcony facing the conflagration that consumes the warehouses and sends flames high into the air. Jacob is leaning on the balcony railing; he looks weak and feeble. Although Sajit can't see Jacob's face, he can hear him crying and sees the way Jacob's back shakes with every sob. Sajit goes and stands by Jacob's side and watches the sky above the docks explode into fireworks.
“Three years and all for nothing,” Jacob says. “I'm ruined.”
“You have your husband and a home back in America, Sri Swan,” Sajit says.
Silently they stand there until sunrise, watching the fire, until streaks of lightning cross the sky and rain begins to fall.
* * *
The images of crossing the sea and setting foot on another land that Sajit had seen in the bhoot's bowl became clear in his thoughts. He watches the throng of people on the dock waving to their friends and families standing with him at the railings aboard the cruise ship.
“Is it true I'll be welcomed in America?” he asks Jacob who stands next to him.
“That will remain to be seen,” Jacob says, “but in good conscience I can't leave you behind. You have become like a son to me.”
Sajit tilts his head and listens to the chords that Saraswati plays on her sarod.
He sees the bhoot standing in the crowd on the dock. Next to the bhoot is another ghost. It's Aditi. Watch as Sajit blows her a kiss just as the ship's horn blares and the ship begins to pull away from the dock.
Steve Carr (he/him), who lives in Richmond, Virginia, has had over 280 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies since June, 2016. Four collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, and The Tales of Talker Knock, have been published. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His Twitter is @carrsteven960.
His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com/.
He is on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/steven.carr.35977