The woman runs across the street.
Tamil woman, beggar, your brain notes, and you bury that half-sensed disgust that rises, that uneasy unease that your temple-going, karma-fearing parents buried in you, years ago, one casual slur at a time. Dirty. Ugly. Beggar. You crush these thoughts with the half-formed specter of shame and watch as she recedes, a spot of color moving against the gray sky.
Maradana. A railway station and a building of indeterminate use leer at each other across four lanes of traffic. You stand halfway between them, suspended in the sky by a bridge that stretches from one part of the other. The bridge is an ugly thing – cracked, weathered and grimy, with cramped staircases for roots. Tramps hide in what little shadow these stairs provide. In the evenings there are dogs and half-eaten packets of rice in the corners; in the morning there are trampled weeds and used condoms.
The people on the bridge do not see this. Or if they do, they keep it to themselves. Lines of men in shirts and ties. Women in sarees and modestly tight skirts. Government servants in white and black. Satchels, leather cases, purses. Work Tshirts shouting meaningless messages. It’s about you! The Future, Today!
A mullah and an old woman with crutches carve their own way through the crowd, each untouchable in their own special way.
You watch. They rustle past like light, neither wave nor individual particles, but somewhere in between, a staccato river of urgency. You are pushed, not out of purpose, nor out of accident, but out of reflex. The crowd resents parting around you. Young women hurry, hamstrung by their sarees, casting quick, suspicious glances at you. Young men brush past, sweating slightly beneath the weight of gel in their hair. Behind them, ten years later and ten steps behind, come the middle-aged. The middle-waged. Slightly slower, slightly more jaded.
You take the stairs down. Are they happy?
A Buddhist monk, his neck bent, turns a corner and meets you coming down the other way. He nods.
Are they happy?
A couple waiting at a traffic light. Tall, handsome, beautiful. Expensive hair. Gold skin, the kind of skin they say the Sinhalese have, but more the kind of skin the Sinhalese envy. They stand out among the burnished brown faces of the crowd. They do not hold hands, but it is obvious from the way they stand, the way their bodies lean towards one another, the way she smiles at him, the way he angles his body as the crowd crosses the street towards them, as if to protect.
A twinge of jealousy.
Are you happy?
Then the rain comes. A drizzle at first. Handbags open. Umbrellas come out. The men pick up the pace. Then a shower. Slowly, but with increasing swiftness, Maradana is transformed. The grimy bustle vanishes. The wave-particle river of people breaks up in confusion. Soon the staccato patter of feet running away from the rain is replaced by the rain itself.
Not many can stand music of the raindrops. There are a special few. There is a young man in a white shirt and a red tie, soaked to the bone; you can see his vest silhouetted against his shirt, halting before a puddle. He is walking with a pair of colleagues. They have scowls on their faces. The young man drops begins to walk behind them, wading through the puddles they avoid. His smile grows with each step he takes. Soon he is grinning.
The couple stands under their umbrella. The traffic light is green, but they do not cross. A horn honks; the girl looks up, startled, and waves them on. She has dimples. He takes her hand.
A tuk-tuk driver, his feet up on the crude dashboard, lost in thought. He is startled when you splash up to him and throws yourself in his vehicle; he reaches for the meter with great reluctance.
And you. Roaring down the street with your hand outstretched, feeling the rain caress your fingers. Watching it wash away the sweat, the dust, the heat, the wave of people, emptying the streets of Maradana. Bringing that peculiar happiness that comes from being alone.
It grows in you. The rain does not frown upon loneliness. The rain understands.
Later that day you go out to dinner and you sit, letting the beer and the conversation wash over you, watching them laugh and trade stories of each other’s exes. You feel like an outsider, sitting here; an alien in the dusky light, wondering what you are doing here, in this expensive place, eating this expensive food, paying for expensive company.
In your heart, you are still in Maradana, standing in the rain.