It had suddenly started raining. When I left home, it was bright and sunny; everything was covered in a golden hue. The day was beautiful. So I had left my umbrella.
The café where I had to meet my friend was still nowhere in sight. I kept walking, enjoying the rain on my face, but then the raindrops started getting bigger, so I ran to the nearest shelter, which was a bus stop. There were already a few people there, who were also caught unawares by the rain. By the looks of them, most seemed irritated by the unexpected delay. Still they were busy, even while standing alone: some on their BlackBerries, some on their mobiles and some with the papers, oblivious to the music of the rain drops falling around them. I was still observing people when a child’s voice caught my attention.
“I hate rain. I hate becoming wet, I hate wearing raincoats, specially this one.” She sulked. She was in the middle of an argument with her mother.
“What’s wrong with this raincoat?” the mother looked surprised.
“This raincoat is so ugly. All my friends laugh at me.”
“This raincoat and ugly? You chose this one yourself. What is wrong now?”
The argument grew louder. She wanted a new pink raincoat. Her old raincoat, the one that she was wearing, was green and she hated it because she was laughed at for the shocking green colour, which she initially thought was cool.
Here was the raincoat again—the raincoat of my past. It came back to me with full force. I heard the voices very clearly, calling me…
Old memories promptly surrounded me.
Those days, my mother held two jobs to make sure that we children went to the best school. My dad also worked very hard. My school was a fifteen-minute bicycle ride from home. Every day, my sister and I would go together, riding our bicycles. We were always running late, because morning was a chaotic affair for us. My mum would be busy fixing our breakfast and packing our lunch boxes, in a room where one side was our bedroom and the other side a kitchen. My sister, my two brothers and I had to scramble around to get ready for school. Invariably something or the other was always lost, buried under piles of things or kicked under the bed.
Using the bathroom was another struggle. The running water lasted only half an hour and if you were not lucky enough, you had to end up taking a bath with the ice-cold water stored from the previous day. I shivered thinking of the coldness of the water. Every day, we somehow reached school on time.
But rainy days were different. I was always the first one to be out of the house. I remember getting up at 5:00am to be the first one in line for the bath. Often, I couldn’t even sleep at night for fear of getting up late.
On those rainy days, I would reach school before everyone else did, park my bicycle, and dash in. Once in, the first thing I used to do was to take off my raincoat and hang it in the opposite corner of the building, in a secret place, under the stairs. The raincoat was the scary skeleton in my cupboard and I shuddered at the thought of my secret being revealed. To avoid that, I was the first to come and the last to leave school, in case…
One day, my worst fears came true. I still vividly recall that day. I had been uneasy since the morning, as if I had the premonition of an imminent disaster. That day all the students were as usual standing in the assembly lines ready for the morning prayers. It had been raining in the morning, but now the sky was clear and the assembly was taking place on the open ground. The whole school was there; all the students and teachers were patiently waiting for the principal to lead the prayers. I was happily chatting with my friend about my plans for my coming birthday, when I suddenly froze. I saw one of the karamcharis from the school handing my raincoat and cap to the teacher standing next to the principal on the dais.
After a moment, the teacher leaned over and said something to the principal, pointing at my raincoat and frowning. I started trembling—I felt I was going to faint. The prayers started, but I could not hear anything. My blood was wildly drumming in my ears—I wanted to disappear. Everybody around me was praying. My heart was beating wildly against my chest; my worst fears were coming true—I was numb. Prayers ended. Then what appeared to me in a slow motion, the principal took the raincoat from the teacher and raised it up, showing it to the students, all the time looking around sharply,
“Whose raincoat and cap are these? They were found under the staircase, next to the store room.” she thundered. I could hear some students bursting into peals of laughter, looking at the raincoat.
I felt the voices were becoming louder and louder around me. I didn’t have the courage to look up; my eyes were glued to the ground. I stood silent. The principal said yet again, “Members of the staff have seen the student, so please be honest and own up.” Later I learnt that the staff suspected I was trying to sneak into the store room; why else would somebody go close to that dusty place. Had they known..?
My mind was paralysed, I couldn’t think straight. Words were coming from a distance and were floating in my ears. I found myself walking to the stage, all the time looking down. With my eyes downcast, I could feel the students glance at me mockingly. I passed my sister; horror was clearly written on her face too. I took the raincoat from the principal and I think I apologized, and she asked me to come to her office later. And then, bursting into tears, I ran into the corridor. I must have looked like an ashen zombie, with my pale face.
That day, I reached home distraught. I threw my bag and fell on the bed crying inconsolably. My whole body was in a spasm. Tears arose from the depth of my soul.
“I am not going to wear that horrible raincoat next time. You have to get me a new one.”
My mum was puzzled; she asked me many times about what had happened but I refused to say anything. Anger and shame stopped me from reliving the morning. My sister then narrated the whole incident, tears streaming down her face. By now, mum was also crying.
“I want a new raincoat or I am not going to school.” I repeated angrily.
“This raincoat is still new. I stitched it for you only last month.” My mum had regained her composure.
“It is horrible. I hate it. Who wears a raincoat stitched at home? I want a normal raincoat.”
“Okay. I will get you a new one, next month, I promise. This month the budget is tight.” My mother was trying her best to console me.
“You never have money for me. You don’t love me; that is why you made me wear that hideous raincoat. Just imagine, it doesn’t even have a proper cap. I have to wear dad’s giant cap. It doesn’t fit me. It is too big. It is so, so ugly”. I went on and on. Mum kept listening; despair was evident on her face.
That night, I couldn’t sleep properly. When I did, nightmares woke me up. In my dreams, I saw my friends pointing fingers at me and calling me names. I woke up, covered in sweat, so many times throughout the night.
I dreaded going to school the next day. If I had my way, I would have not gone but I knew my dad wouldn’t let me stay home, for he was a strict disciplinarian.
Next morning, I didn’t say a word to anyone. I left for school without having my breakfast.
“Don’t forget your lunch box, Roma.” I heard my mother’s worried voice as I stepped out. I didn’t bother to reply. This went on for a week or so. I would come back home, do my work and sleep. I hardly ate or spoke to anybody. Everybody was worried. My sister tried so many times to talk to me, even offering me her favourite book, the one she kept close to her heart, no one was even allowed to touch But that also didn’t help.
At school, it was hell. I was the centre of many jokes.
“Roma, the milk woman.”
“Roma, the walking-talking advertisement for the milk company.”
“Let’s ask Roma’s mum to make that raincoat for us too. I also have many empty milk poly pouches.”
My ears burned with shame, recalling how hard my mum had worked to stitch my raincoat from milk poly pouches. First, she had to clean the poly pouches and cut them open. Next, she dried each one properly and then she sat for hours together, stooping on the sewing machine, after her bone-aching day’s work to make the raincoat. I knew how hard she had worked and how lovingly she had made it. But it didn’t matter to me. The insults from my class mates were too much to take. I raged every time someone made fun of my mum, but I kept silent.
At home, I made sure not to even glance at my raincoat. It reminded me of the fateful day. Every time I thought about it, cold shivers ran down my body. After that day, I was often drenched in the rain but I refused to wear the raincoat.
“Your dad will get a raincoat for your birthday next week, okay?” My mum told me a few days later, lovingly patting my cheek. She was coughing and was also looking pale. Her breathing was laborious. I could make out that she was not quite well. But I was too concerned about my own raincoat to pay attention to her. When she told me about the new raincoat, I leapt with joy.
I would be like any other student now. Nobody would laugh at me thinking all this, I hugged my mum tight; she smiled weakly. I ran to my sister to give her the good news. I saw her bent over her books as usual. I went near her and suddenly grabbed her shoulders and excitedly gave her the good news. She didn’t move. Suddenly, I realised that she was crying. Before I could say anything, she stood up, pushed me aside with all her might and shouted,
“What kind of girl are you, Roma? Can’t you see mum is sick because of your raincoat? And you are jumping with joy?”
What was she talking about? My mum was sick because of my raincoat? What had the raincoat to do with my mum not feeling well?
“Are you crazy? How can mum feel unwell because of my raincoat?” I retorted. I was sure she was jealous of my new raincoat.
“She refused to go to the doctor, because she wanted to get you the raincoat.”
I lost my patience and answered angrily, “You are jealous that I am getting a new raincoat and you are not; that is why you are talking all nonsense.”
“Nonsense? I am talking nonsense? Where do you think the money for your raincoat is coming from? She’s using the doctor’s fee that she was to pay to get her asthma checked. I heard her talking to dad last week. She thought I was sleeping, but I was not.”
I held my head tightly in my hands for fear that it might explode. How could I be so selfish? My mum was not going to the doctor because she wanted me to be happy? I couldn’t think further.
That day, I finished my homework hurriedly, ate my dinner silently and went to bed early.
Next morning, I got ready for school early. I looked around; my siblings were still running around in an attempt to get ready on time. Nobody was paying attention to me. I saw my mum bent over the gas stove, making breakfast for us. I slowly went up to her and hugged her from the back. Without turning around, she reached out her hands to me and patted my arm. She was about to resume her cooking, when she suddenly realised something unusual. She turned towards me and suddenly covered her mouth with her hands in disbelief. I was wearing my raincoat. Before she could say anything, my sister who had come to get her breakfast, stopped in her tracks, then suddenly shouted; “Roma, the milk woman,” and hugged me fervently. I laughed loudly. Listening to the chaos, my dad and brothers also came. I could see the look of pride on my dad’s face. I acted as if nothing had happened. By now, my sister was watching me wide-eyed; I looked at her and winked. She winked back.
That day, for the first time, I proudly walked inside the school gates, wearing my raincoat. I knew people were staring at me; I heard a group laughing loudly, mocking me. I turned back and looked at them, squarely. They were shocked. All these days I had somehow disappeared into the background. Now I was back.
The bus came to a screeching halt at the station. I was jolted back to the present. The rain had stopped; my fellow travellers were long gone. The sun was again out in the sky. Some people were still carrying umbrellas and some were wearing raincoats. I looked at the different, colourful raincoats, and realised none was like mine. Mine was special. Mine had a life lesson written in bold letters on it. I smiled to myself. Suddenly I felt my mum’s warmth the way I had felt when I had hugged her that day. I hummed to myself and with light steps started walking towards the café.