| Mary Tina Shamli Pillay | April 2024 | Short Story |

Palace street was still deserted. The morning dew had only recently descended on the freshly laid road, making it look like a slate that had just been wiped with a damp cloth – the black tar, a contrast to the dusty pavements bordering it on either side. Carrying a small steel box of white powder and a mug of water, Ponni emerged from the wrought-iron gates of ‘Waterfall’ – a house situated on the turning into the street. The compound of ‘Waterfall’ was almost at the same level as the road outside; its formidable gates were just shy of scrapping the top layer of tar that was laid two days earlier. Every time the road on Palace street was relayed, new tar was poured over and pressed into it. Over the years, layers upon layers of road had been added to the street so much so that the road had become an extension of the numerous compounds lining that street. Ponni stood in front of the gates, lifted the pleats of her saree, tucked them in at the left side of her waist, and vigorously kept flicking the water out of the mug until a fairly large patch of the strip of concrete connecting the compound with the road was drenched. Ponni then dipped her fingers into the steel box, pinched a good amount of white powder with the fingers of her right palm, bent down and began to slowly release the powder by rubbing the tips of her fingers against each other. Like magic, a beautiful pattern of a lotus flower appeared on the wet patch of concrete. The pattern is called a Kolam in Tamil.It is an art perfected by the women of Tamil Nadu in southern India. Most houses will have these patterns drawn at their entrance early every morning. It is considered auspicious. The drawing of the kolam was part of Ponni’s routine for ten years. She began working at ‘Waterfall’ ever since Mrs. Hari and her husband had moved into that house after his retirement from the Canaray Bank. Mr. Hari had a very successful career in the banking sector. He began saving for his dream house from the beginning of his marriage to Mrs. Hari. They dreamt of settling in their own house close to the Marina beach after retirement, from where Mr. Hari could go for his morning walks to the beach and spend time with his friends. With that in mind, they built ‘Waterfall’- a cozy two-storey house with three en-suite bedrooms, a large living room, a kitchen and a terrace overlooking the front porch. The house was painted in white, with white window frames, clear glass and a red tiled roof. White was Mrs. Hari’s favourite colour and Mr. Hari didn’t want to disappoint her.

Satisfied with how the kolam turned out, Ponni straightened the pleats of her saree into position and walked back into the compound. The watchman, ambling about with a broken stick in his hand and a towel thrown over his left shoulder, drew the gates together and latched them shut behind her after she entered.

“Ponni?!!” Mrs. Hari called from inside the living room.

Ponni scrapped her feet on the rug outside the doorway before entering the house. Mrs. Hari was seated at one end of the brown sofa in the living room- her seat- sipping coffee from a white microwaveable mug labelled, ‘Scorpio’ that her niece had bought from Thailand a few months earlier. ‘Scorpio’ was Mrs. Hari’s zodiac sign and she loved to drink coffee from that mug. The mug was very special to Mrs. Hari because it was gifted to her by her favourite niece, who lived in Dubai. Mrs. And Mr. Hari had no children, and hence, she was very fond of that particular niece. The first thing that Ponni did when she arrived for work each morning was to prepare a batch of freshly brewed coffee.

“Pour some coffee for yourself, and give watchman too,” Mrs. Hari instructed Ponni,  pointing to the two paper cups on the kitchen counter.

Mr. Hari was away as usual on his morning walk. Like many others in Chennai, he met up with his friends on the promenade at the Marina beach every morning.

Ponni poured the coffee into the paper cups and handed one to the watchman. The watchman, by now neatly dressed in a sky-blue shirt and black trousers-feeling almost like a soldier-took the cup of coffee from Ponni matter-of-factly, dusted his worn out red plastic chair with the towel that was still on his shoulder, and sat down just inside the closed gates of ‘Waterfall’. The time was 6:30 a.m. It was December. So there was a nip in the air. But nothing unbearable. Thankfully, it was the holiday season, so schools were shut and in general, there was less crowd on the roads. Chennai city was waking up as the Cathedral, the temple and the Mosque towered over the cityscape. Palace street was waking up too. Mrs. Chandra, who lives two houses down the street, was walking her two Labrador pet dogs past the gates of ‘Waterfall.The watchman bravely looked the dogs in their eye whilst still slurping from his cup of coffee. Ponni gulped down her coffee as she set about washing the used utensils piled up in the kitchen sink. She arrived at ‘Waterfall’ at 5:30 a.m. daily to cook breakfast and lunch for the day. Sometimes, she ate her breakfast at ‘Waterfall’, and on other days, she packed and took it back home with her. That day, Ponni had cooked dosas and coconut chutney for breakfast. Dosas are savoury pancakes made from rice flour with a spicy raw coconut sauce called chutney as an accompaniment. This is often a staple breakfast in most households in Chennai. Ponni packed her breakfast that morning because she had to be at the local Community Centre to collect provisions that were being supplied free of cost by a charity organisation. Ponni could not afford to miss the opportunity. All she needed was to show her Ration card at the Centre to confirm her identity. A Ration card was used to procure provisions at shops owned by the government. These government-run ration shops distributed provisions at subsidised rates, and the Ration card was commonly accepted as a reliable proof of one’s identity. For the under-privileged, it was often the only proof they had those days. Ponni had to join the queue at the Centre by 8:30 a.m. latest in order to stand any chance of getting in on time. The Centre was to open at 10 a.m.

“Ponni, you can leave now if you want. I will serve aiyaah when he comes,” Mrs. Hari told Ponni.

In Chennai, workers respectfully address a man as Aiyaah, and a woman as Amma,  meaning, ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’ respectively.

Amma, the dosas are in the small hot case and the chutney is in the tiffin box. The rice and dhaal are in the big casserole. They will stay warm until lunch.” Ponni informed Mrs. Hari.

A Dhaal is a kind of mashed lentil soup popularly eaten in the Indian subcontinent. It was now 7:30 a.m. Mr. Hari was not home as yet. Ponni ensured her pink saree was draped properly, she pasted her oiled hair neatly onto her scalp on either side of the centre-parting on her head (it was the ‘fashion’ in her slum), placed a plastic disposable box containing her breakfast in her multi-coloured hand woven cane basket, slid her cracked feet into thick-soled black slippers, and marched out of the gates of ‘Waterfall’. The bells of her anklets were heard fading away into the din of the morning traffic- which had by then begun to pick up- as Ponni turned the corner and disappeared from view.

Mr. Hari, meanwhile, was at the Marina. After having woken up at 5 a.m., he drove down in his luxury sedan to the Marina promenade as usual, where his four friends were waiting for him. It was a five-minute drive from ‘Waterfall’. The promenade was teeming with people- young and old alike. It was a common sight every morning. Mr. Hari, smartly dressed in white shorts, a navy-blue Crocodile t-shirt, and brand new walking shoes, pulled up in his car along the parking bay by the promenade. He parked his car into one of the slots clearly marked on the road with bright yellow lines. He waved to his friends who were standing at the Mahatma Gandhi statue- a popular rendezvous at the promenade. Walkers and people, in general, liked to sit on the steps circling the statue either to catch their breath or just indulge in a little gossip. Mr. Hari walked onto the promenade to join his friends. On the way,  he noticed a large glass jar containing a dark green-coloured liquid perched securely on a wooden cart that resembled a table on four wheels! Beside the jar was a tall stack of disposable paper cups. The vendor was selling the popular ‘diabetes juice’- a concoction of raw bitter gourd and other local herbs. It cost ten rupees for a cup. Some swore by its power to control diabetes, while others simply drank it because it was popular. However, no one quite confirmed what effect the dark green juice actually had on their health. Two girls – approximately in their mid-twenties – were doing an aerobics routine on the strip of lawn bordering the promenade. On the other side of the lawn, a group of five children between the ages of five and ten were being taught to roller-skate on a dedicated skating rink. A few senior citizens relaxed on the stone benches dotting the lawn along the promenade. Mr. Hari cherished the time he spent with his friends. Like them, he was pushing seventy. Retired. Had built his own house- his dream house. Mrs. Hari and he were well-off financially, and owned a luxury sedan. They were well-travelled as a couple – holidaying in the Middle East, the Far East, the United States and Europe. As always, Mr. Hari and his friends pulled each other’s legs and teased a few members of the ‘Laughing Club’ standing nearby. Members of that club purposefully kept laughing aloud because they believed laughter was the best medicine. Normally, Mr. Hari would get back home by 8 a.m. But the sky was clear and the sun wasn’t sharp as yet. So Mr. Hari decided to go for a walk towards the sandy shore. His friends followed.  

The ‘Nochi’ slum was the first in a line of three slums situated on the land that ran along the Marina seashore-stretching from the Lighthouse up till the old broken Adyar bridge. This strip of land adjoined the promenade. The Lighthouse – painted with red and white horizontal stripes – separated the two areas. Ponni walked past the Lighthouse and entered the ‘Nochi’ slum. It took her about ten minutes to reach there. Fisherwomen folk were already seated on the sand in front of Ponni’s hut, which was among the first row of huts facing the sea. There was nothing in between the sea and the first row of huts except for the sandy shore. The fisherwomen sat on wooden stools, with huge tubs full of fresh fish, prawns and crabs in front of them. All the tubs were made of Hindalium. Each tub was covered with a small, thin wooden plank upon which the fisherwomen displayed their catch. Business was brisk. Scraggy kittens zig-zagged their way around the fisherwomen’s feet while stray dogs lazed about on the spongy shore. Fishermen tugged laboriously at their nets, folding them in bundles, and stashing them in the fastened boats until the next time out to sea. Little children dressed in only shorts or oversized dresses scurried around chasing after chickens and malnourished puppies.

Ponni built the hut she lived in by taking a loan of five thousand rupees. That was how much a hut with a thatched roof cost in the slums then. During the monsoons, it did leak from a few places. But Ponni had no choice. It was the best she could afford. Ten years had passed since her husband abandoned her, leaving her bankrupt and without a roof over her head at the age of twenty-five. She missed not having a child.

The time was nearing 8 a.m. Ponni ducked and went into her hut. She sat on the floor,  pulled out the disposable box from her cane basket, and began eating the dosas and chutney. She had to leave for the Centre by 8:15 a.m. After she was done eating, Ponni took out a black plastic folder from a wooden box she had kept hidden behind an airbag Mrs. Hari gave her some years ago. The folder contained Ponni’s Ration card, Government Health Insurance card, bank passbook and Voter Identity card among other important documents that she kept safely all these years. She then removed only the Ration card before putting the folder back into the wooden box, and that in turn behind the airbag –  safe from anyone’s view. 

The chatter and movement outside the hut increased. Ponni peeped out from under the overhanging thatch. The fisherwomen kept looking over their shoulders excitedly while attending to the crowd of customers who were milling about, trying to decide which woman sold the best fish. A group of teenaged boys wearing fake soccer t-shirts stood grinning with their eyes fixed on the sea. Ponni glanced at the shoreline. It looked beautiful. The shore at the water’s edge appeared broader than usual, and as smooth as silk. But Ponni had to rush. She quickly ducked back into the hut and slipped the Ration card into her purse when she heard the crowd outside break into an energetic applause. They were cheering and giggling. Ponni was tempted to know what the fuss was all about, and so once again, craned her neck out of the hut’s entrance. What a sight it was. No one had seen anything like that before. The sea had receded so far back that it left, in its wake, a number of fish gasping on the sand bed.

Mr. Hari and his group were robbed of that lovely view of the receding sea because the shore on their side of the Marina beach was much broader than that near the slums. Moreover, Mr. Hari’s group was standing further inland. They did not actually step onto the beach’s sand. They simply hung around on some paved patches to take in all the sights and sounds of that pleasant Sunday morning.

The people in the slums were awestruck. Many rushed ahead to take a closer look at the gasping fish. Suddenly, a slow, but steady wave began approaching the shore. The crowd was thrilled. They stepped back a few feet. But the wave kept coming- picking up speed as it reached the shore- and almost washed the fisherwomen away. They were amazed at how far inland the wave had come. A few pools of seawater remained on the shore. The fisherwomen chuckled at their plight and carried on with business as usual.

The morning walkers and those exercising on the promenade knew nothing of the revelry going on closer to the shoreline. Children splashed around and frolicked in the fairly large pools of seawater formed by the wave on Mr. Hari’s side of the beach.

Looking at the time, Ponni panicked. She hurriedly grabbed her purse, a few cloth bags, and was about to exit the hut when she was slammed forward with a thud from the back. She could taste the mud and salty water in her mouth. Nothing was visible as Ponni wriggled her way up to get her head above the water. She was still in her hut. There was a muffled silence for several seconds. Then, the screaming and wailing began. Men, women and children were frantically calling out to each other. Sarees, blouses, skirts, toys, dolls, cooking utensils, hair combs, plastic buckets and slippers were set afloat. With her purse gone, Ponni began thrashing about, trying to get hold of the black plastic folder. All of a sudden, voices were shouting,

 “Kadal! Kadal!”

In Tamil, kadal means ‘Sea’. As Ponni swam towards the exit, all she could see was a greyish- brown wall of water rushing menacingly at her. In seconds, everything went dark. Ponni was choking on salty mud; her ears were blocked, and her eyes burned terribly. She found herself swimming frantically through an unbelievable volume of sedimented water under a clear blue sky. Looking behind over her shoulder, she saw the Hindaliumtubs, footballs, thatched roofs, currency notes, photographs, water cans, clothes, screaming infants and countless old people being dragged into the sea by the receding tides. People tried in vain to clutch at anything in their path. Scores were badly bruised and bleeding from the force with which the wave hit the shore, bashing them against stones, rocks and the walls of the huts. Cycles, motorcycles, pushcarts and tin sheets- that once served as doors, table tops and roofs- crashed into one another as they whirled in the current of the invading tides. The cries and pleas began to die down as people desperately struggled to stay afloat and swim to higher ground to escape getting swept away into the sea.

The promenade and beach on Mr. Hari’s side of the Marina was an infinite mass of murky sea water bobbing with heads and debris. The cars parked at the promenade tossed and drifted away among the many fishing boats that were carried inland by the over-running tides. It took fifteen to twenty minutes. The Marina promenade, the beach and the three slums, together, became one with each other and the sea.

Palace street along with a fairly large section of the main road off which it was located was slightly elevated, and sloped off on either side. Therefore it was quite dry. Those who managed to flee the slums in time or swim to safety, started congregating there. The pavements bordering ‘Waterfall’ functioned as a refuge of sorts. Mrs. Hari was working the phones, trying to get any information she could on the ensuing chaos. She was calling nearly everyone she knew. The local power station had turned off the electricity to the area as soon as the surge began. Mrs. Hari kept calling Mr. Hari on his mobile phone but his number was not reachable. Mrs. Chandra continuously updated Mrs. Hari with all the news she was gathering. It was being reported that a tsunami had hit the coast of Chennai. The watchman was pacing up and down the compound when Mrs. Hari walked out of the main door. He went up to her.

“Ponni must have gone to the Centre,” remarked Mrs. Hari to the watchman.

Amma, did aiyaah call?” he asked.

“No. Looks like his mobile phone has lost signal,” she replied.

“I don’t think he can enter the main road. People are blocking it,” said the watchman before securing the lock on the gate. He then stood with his hands hooked onto the compound wall in front of him as he observed the police and their jeeps patrol the road.

Days passed. Electricity was restored by that Sunday evening itself. Rescue and Recovery teams toiled day and night. The doors of schools, colleges and religious institutions were thrown open to temporarily accommodate the thousands displaced by the surging tides.

Those people were later moved to relief camps where they were to remain until the government rebuilt their homes or offered them alternate housing. Simultaneously, the police set up control rooms to track missing persons. Night never came for Mrs. Hari. She wanted to see the Marina with her own eyes. Despite being advised against it, she walked from ‘Waterfall’, turned left and down the main road- the same route both, Mr. Hari and Ponni had taken on Sunday- setting her eyes upon something she never expected to see even in her wildest dreams. Her stomach sank. A fishing boat- nearly half the height of the Lighthouse- was on the Marina promenade, balancing precariously on the metal railings lining it. The once fresh green lawn bordering the promenade was caked with slush, and debris still lay scattered in places as far as her eyes could see.

Was Hari walking on the promenade?”Mrs. Hari thought to herself, “could he have left by then?

The road ahead was cordoned off by the police. Mrs. Hari couldn’t walk any further. In any case, she wanted to distance herself from thoughts. Turning around to walk back home, she glanced at the tranquil sea in the distance. It stabbed at her heart. But she remained sangfroid. With help from Mrs. Chandra, Mrs. Hari reluctantly filed a report with the police that Mr. Hari was missing.

In a school- many streets away- Ponni sat huddled on the floor, staring into nothingness. About a hundred people were cramped into the auditorium with her. They believed the sea had asserted herself. The sea was angry. The cold hard floor became their bed and the space they occupied on that floor-their home. Like the others around, the soiled and torn saree that Ponni had on was all that she possessed. Years of savings, documents, and  memories were lost in the onslaught by the sea. There was a melee at the school every day. Food was limited, and rumours were rife that the sea was surging again. Ponni thought about Mrs. Hari. She wondered whether the Haris knew what had happened to her. They may have been trying to contact her. She had to inform them.

Ponni walked barefoot to ‘Waterfall’. She was distraught. Her mind empty. She felt as if she was in a scene, with the chiming church bells providing the background music as she proceeded towards Palace street in slow-motion. She remembered walking out of ‘Waterfall’. Ponni arrived at the wrought-iron gates. The watchman was seated on his red plastic chair, picking his teeth with a toothpick. The sound of her dragging feet approaching the gates caught his attention. There was no kolam to cross over, and no anklets either. His eyes widened and lips parted to almost speak when he rose from his chair. He could not smile at her. As he unlocked one of the gates to allow her in, he inspected her face in perfect silence. The free end of Ponni’s pink saree was wrapped around her shoulders. She stomped her feet softly a few times on the rug to shake off any dirt before entering the house. Mrs. Hari was seated at the far end of the brown sofa in the living room, dusting something off from her lap.

Amma!” Ponni called out as she hurried towards her. Mrs. Hari looked up at Ponni with searching eyes, only to hear the jingling anklets of passers-by. 


Mary Tina Shamli Pillay’s poems and stories have appeared on BBC RadioKitaab, Blink-Ink, Borderless Journal, and other places. Her first book of poems, I Met a Feather, was published in 2023. She enjoys exploring different forms of fiction and poetry.

Tina is a Teacher, Language Editor and Political Enthusiast. She grew up in Oman before moving back to India. She lives in Chennai, and can be contacted at:  mtspillay@gmail.com


Homepage Image by Shraddha Agrawal via Unsplash

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