P A R T I
The Beginning of the End
The Watchmender on Marine Drive
The watchmender on Marine Drive looked up from his work and sighed at the forty-degree heat. He leaned back into his store, a box just tall and wide enough for a man sitting crosslegged to fit neatly within. It was the last day of summer. He had known it would come today, he’d felt it on his skin all morning. The monsoon had been flirting with Mumbai for weeks now, leaving the sweltering citizens practically panting in expectation, but the time had finally come for the rain to consummate her promise.
He spotted the lunatic from a distance, lurching down Marine Drive urgently, and watched his lopsided approach. Today, of all days, with thermometers painfully reminding everyone that they lived well in the tropics, the madman was wrapped in layers of ancient carpet he had dragged from some garbage dump and folded about himself. The lunatic paused briefly to harangue a sunken fire hydrant before making a beeline for the watchmender’s store.
‘Maharaj!’ the lunatic yelled, and bent over at the waist to touch his forehead to the searing hot pavement. The watchmender saluted the lunatic with the familiarity of routine. ‘So, when is the world ending now?’ he asked.
The lunatic shook a finger at the sky and cried, ‘Today!’ He then shook the same finger at the watchmender and demanded, ‘Give me money!’
The watchmender pulled a one-rupee coin from his pocket and spun it to the lunatic. The madman snatched it from the air and made it vanish into his shell of carpets. The watchmender eyed the rug rags uncomfortably. ‘Isn’t it a bit warm today to wear all that?’
‘Ice!’ the lunatic barked, sweat dripping from his forehead, ‘Ice will fall from the sky! The world is ending!’ He pointed at three toffees that sat on the watchmender’s counter. ‘Give me sweets!’ he commanded. The watchmender nodded, and the lunatic snatched up his new treasures. As the madman lovingly unwrapped and shoved the sweets into his mouth, the watchmender wondered how the taste of toffee could survive the smells that wafted up from the suit of carpets.
The watchmender and the lunatic each knew a secret about the other. The watchmender knew that the lunatic was crazy only some of the time, and the lunatic knew that the watchmender had not always been a watchmender. The watchmender supplied the lunatic with small coins and sweets, and the lunatic reciprocated by leaving the watchmender and his custom undisturbed—and so peace was maintained.
‘O papillary paroxysm!’ the lunatic cried out, gulping down lumps of toffee. ‘O salivary symphony!’ ‘Go on,’ the watchmender laughed, picking up his tools again, ‘I’ve got to work.’
‘Maharaj!’ the lunatic yelled.
The lunatic, however, stood still as a lamp post. The watchmender waited a few seconds, then gestured impatiently. ‘What, what is it?’
The lunatic leaned forward and whispered, ‘He’s coming. He’s coming.’
‘I’m sure he is,’ the watchmender agreed dismissively. ‘Go on, then.’
The lunatic’s hand shot out suddenly, a bony wrist attached to a skeletal hand, and grabbed the watchmender’s arm with preternatural strength.
‘Saam,’ the lunatic said intently, his uneven eyes staring at the stunned watchmender. ‘He is coming. For you, Saam. The end is here. The dance has begun. The worlds are breaking. Ice from the sky, blood from the sky, mouths in the fog . . .’
Finally overcoming his shock, Saam snatched his arm back and shouted, ‘Go, get away!’ He raised a threatening hand. The lunatic cowered and scuttled away, whimpering. ‘Ice from the sky . . . The end of all time . . .’ He hobbled away, clutching the carpets to himself, sobbing. ‘Ice from the sky . . .’
Saam scowled at the lunatic’s back. ‘Crazy,’ he muttered, cleaning his arm with a cloth. The lunatic’s dusty fingers had left marks. Saam took a deep breath, resolved to get back to work and then decided against it. The encounter had soured the flow of the day. He sighed and stepped out of his box to stretch his legs for a minute. Marine Drive stretched north and south to either side. The wide avenue skirted the waters of the bay in a broad curve, framed by hundreds of elegant buildings from another time.
In a few hours the day would dim and the street lights would flicker on and the avenue would become the Queen’s Necklace, trimmed with a thousand glowing topaz stones. Saam turned and faced the ocean, a mass of dirty green and brown shifting restlessly under the wind. Above the sea, towering grey mountains of cloud threatened the city. The hot breeze from the sea, gritty with Arabian dust, gusted over him, whipping his dark hair across his furrowed brown forehead. He put a lanky leg up on the barrier lining the sea wall and contemplated the arrival of the rains.
Another savage summer, another wild monsoon. Saam considered shutting shop and heading home. People would be too preoccupied with the rain to think about time, anyway. A few hot raindrops spattered on his face, washing away the aftertaste of the lunatic’s outburst. He could afford a day off. Maya would be packing up to come home too, hurriedly selling off the last of the vegetables before the rain chased the customers away, probably hoarding one good tomato to give to a favoured beggar child she knew. His mind lingered dreamily on the poetry of Maya’s monsoon-kissed skin, the tantalizing thrust of the hip she liked to throw in his direction.
Without warning, the air turned to water, drenching him in seconds. ‘Finally you’ve come,’ Saam chided the monsoon clouds that toppled on to the city. The rain was hot at first, soon transforming into the luscious cool fall of the monsoon. Saam grinned into the grey of the sky, shoving his hair back from his brow. He heard the city breathe, heard it finally exhale after the long hot summer months. He retreated to his shop. In a matter of minutes he’d locked up his tools and wares. All along Marine Drive people had begun gathering at the sea wall to greet the monsoon: young lovers, children, beggars, policemen—the multitude of Mumbai. They shrieked and laughed and danced in the rain, celebrating their release from the summer heat. The rain ardened, predictably, and then cut off, all of a sudden, leaving behind a receding symphony of running and dripping water.
Saam tucked the keys into his pocket and went to his bicycle stationed by the store. It was a spindly affair with more spokes and bits than seemed necessary, but he was fond of it. He was reaching for the bicycle when he heard the first horrified exclamations from the crowd. The people gathered by the sea wall were staring halfway between ocean and sky, their faces fixed in disbelief. He followed their gazes and, for a moment, didn’t understand. It seemed like . . . ash? Ash was falling from the sky?
A flock of greyish matter drifted down from the clouds, resembling motes of dust caught in sunbeams, harmless and captivating. Then the wind kicked up again. From the belly of the storm broke a gust of such brutal iciness that the crowd recoiled. The arctic cold bit into their damp flesh, turning rainwater to ice instantly, stealing the breath from their lungs. Saam stood there, stunned. His wet shirt was crisping from the chill, ice biting into his skin. This was not ash, he realized. Snow. Snow was falling in Mumbai.
The crowd dispersed fast under the onslaught of the blizzard. Saam found himself standing alone facing the sea as the snow intensified, veiling the ocean from sight. Behind him a couple hailed a taxi, clinging to each other, shivering uncontrollably. The wind whipped around in a frenzy, the temperature dropped minute by minute, frost grew in widening pools of crystal on the ground. The howl of a terrified dog echoed pitifully. Saam hardly blinked, absently brushing ice from his eyebrows, ignoring the clinging grip of his frozen shirt. It lasted another ten minutes: the wind lasting over the city, snow thickening the air, the sea tearing at Marine Drive hungrily.
Then the wind dropped, suddenly. The blizzard quietened to persistent snowfall, leisurely thickening the ground’s layer of frost. Saam stood alone on Marine Drive. The air’s summer heat had given way to a brittle cold. He watched the storm clouds clamber up over Mumbai until it seemed another metropolis of grey had mounted atop the first. And still the snow fell.
Saam kicked his bicycle free from its stand, mounted it and headed home. From the shadow of a street corner the lunatic watched him leave, shivering in his pile of rotting carpets. He cried and rocked himself for comfort. ‘Ice from the sky . . . He’s coming for you, Saam . . .’