Together they watched the olive coloured water lapping over the boundaries of the steel-grey contours of the software city, at the gates of which raincoated security men waded through water that was fast rising above their knees, to regulate the vehicles that were gliding out. The traffic on the main road had been frozen for six hours and showed no signs of movement. The queue of jammed vehicles had begun to resemble a single entity, a monstrous being rasping out its smoky breath, with myriad eyes that blinked wearily at intervals, the roaring sound of a thousand motor horns now reduced to faint whimpers and frightened moans.
The man turned to the woman.
‘The office resembles a castle now, with its own moat,’ he said.
The woman smiled at him. He noticed that as usual her face lit up like an instantly waxing moon when she smiled and then almost as immediately her lips straightened again, like naughty children caught breaking the rules standing back in attention. He wished he could say something funny, to see her smile linger for a few moments more.
‘Does it always rain this heavily in Chennai?’ He knew that it was a hot, humid place, having googled the city in particular, and India in general, almost as much as he had googled her name.
‘It never rains, except for a few monsoon showers around October. Rains are usually considered a good omen here, a blessing from the heavens.’
“No wonder the clients loved our presentation today, the good omens must have helped,” he wondered if she would take offence at the remark made in jest.
But she merely looked thoughtful. “Would you like some dinner?’
“Of course. Was looking forward to authentic Indian food before I return to London.’
They made their way out through the cold grey maze of open desks. The office was only half deserted for the late hour of the night. Stranded employees sat peering into weather reports on the screens before them. Some discussed the situation worriedly in groups, others curled wearily on sofas and beanbags in the think zone.
The food court was teeming with people from all forty other companies in the software city. The cashier of the Chinese kitchen where the woman usually had lunch shook his head as she approached the counter, they had run out of supplies. Shutters were coming down fast on the dosa corner, the salad bar, the pizzeria, the patisserie. The woman disappeared into the unruly crowd of techies who thronged the open Subway, vociferously demanding food from the cashier who stared back at them silently with a flicker of pity in his eyes. She emerged in a few minutes, clutching the last packs of potato chips from the display, which no one else had thought of buying.
The man and the woman retreated to an empty table. Through the glass walls they could see the rain outside, pouring down in a steady, relentless stream, rising the water levels. They talked about work. Their conversation flitted from the project and the clients to books and art, and finally they dared to talk about the perilous circumstances around them. They did not talk of escape strategies but about climatic changes, the truth behind global warming, the potential dangers of EMP attacks, the need for self-sustaining homes, the charms of a quiet life, pure air, naturally grown food, starlight on clear skies and birdsong.
“Sounds too idealistic though, growing food in the backyard would hardly make it easier to pursue jobs in fields like ours, when the technology changes every quarter. Leave alone the finer pursuits of art and literature,” the man said.
“It would be the opposite, methinks. Many people are already shunning the nine to six routine to seek themselves and their roots. Organic farming is now almost a clichéd solution to quarter and pre-mid life crises. But great books are more likely to be written in those cottages in the countryside, and perhaps, finer music than we have ever known.” The woman said, looking through the glass walls, as though the idyllic future lay outside it.
By then they had grown accustomed to the sounds of the rain that continued to cascade down, more like a waterfall than a monsoon shower. The man nearly placed his pale bony fingers above her hand before he caught himself in the act.
“Some more chips?” The woman asked the man. The question loosened the thread of the conversation that had tied their minds together, like a spell that wore off at the mention of something as mundane as chips.
“We call these crisps. Chips in England are fatter and softer. I heard you call them fries, like the Americans do.”
“Well, have some more crisps then” the woman said with a smile, moving the remaining pack towards him. Her action reminded him of a movie that he had watched with his four year old nephew a few weeks before. As an avalanche of thoughts had been sweeping back and forth through his mind, all he could recollect about the film was a hummable song, two lovable dogs, and a plate of spaghetti and meatballs.
Back at their desks they resumed work, he reading out the comments from their presentation and she cross-checking the client’s website to make notes. Suddenly a picture filled her laptop screen with such radiance that it lit up the entire bay where they sat. It was a photograph of a young family of four staring rapturously at a toy catalogue. A child sat on each parent’s lap, the boys’ flaxen curls mirroring his mother’s, the girl’s brown hair the exact shade of her father’s. For a while they sat in silence looking at the screen, the business scenario having receded to the background of their minds for the moment. That was when the cab driver rang.
Twenty one years later
The man was composing a tune at his desk when the doorbell chirped. No sooner had he opened the door than two young men pounced on him, just as they used to do back when he could carry them both in his arms. The twins were tall like their father. Ian had soft black hair and blue eyes, Ishan had his mother’s eyes and scraggly brown hair shot with gold.
The man answered their excited questions peaceably as they wandered about the living room, revelling in the feeling of being back at home. He drew the curtains open. The garden was bursting with flowers and fruit, a splash of glorious colours and smells, and sounds of birds and insects that collectively came across as one sylvan silence. How curious, he thought, that on that night so many years ago, when he had felt small and helpless against the forces of nature, in the shadow of doom cast by the rising waters that could have swept him away had he only stepped out, in that hour, everything that now made up his life had bloomed into being.
He heard the study door open, followed by the sound of approaching footsteps. The sound, which had once accelerated his heartbeats so wildly, now deluged his consciousness, flooding it with warmth and peace.
He turned to the boys who had jumped up, their smiles lighting up the room.
“Here’s Mum,” he said.