It's Always Raining in Kunjila's House
By Noora Kamar
The weirdest thing about Canada, when I’d first arrived, was the utter lack of crows. I’d looked up the familiar friendly scavenger online then. One result said they were seasonal, another had detailed patterns of their local migration, and there was the odd lengthy reddit thread about the types of corvids in Ontario. Over the years, I saw none. I received plenty of familiar rain, though, for I’d brought the monsoons with me.
It rained from morning till evening, through the night, and into the morning. Rot in the walls, the doors, and the floors. The ceiling should’ve fallen in. Only so little to lose in the studio even if it did—the worn-out couch, the chipped-in-multiple-places coffee table, and the bed. I’d discarded the mattress long ago. The couch was too heavy to move on my own. It lay there, soggy and musty, carrying the weight of the relentless rain. I’d pitched a tent by the side of the bed. It was always erect. I went in when I needed relief from the rain, which was all the time now.
If Umma knew, she’d say to the aunts and neighbours, “It’s always raining in Kunjila’s house, did you know? Strange place, that Kyanada. It rains in people’s homes.”
But she wouldn’t say that, would she?
I wouldn’t tell her about the rains, would I?
To test my resolve, the phone rang. Umma’s routine morning call. My night.
“Hello? Umma? Hear me okay?”
“Yes, yes. Kunji— ”
Distant thunder rolled in and out. The rain grew heavier, egged on by the thunder that passed, camouflaging the voice from the other end.
“ —la,” I heard a faint echo of the tail end of my name.
I used to be Kunjila, always Kunjila—kunju Naseela, tiny Naseela, little leaf, my parents’ name for their youngest—for family, at school, at work. I hadn’t been Kunjila for some time now. My passport said Naseela Hameed. The name badge that I pinned to my pocket said Naseela Hameed. No one knew I was Kunjila. The rains had drowned my name.
“Umma, can’t hear you,” I said, calm in the repetitiveness of the ritual. It rained only for me, she’d hear me fine. “No range here. Network issues. I’ll call later, okay?”
The first time it rained inside was when I’d barely laid the suitcases on the floor. I had only just locked the door behind me when the first drops fell. It never rained back home, not inside. I was caught unawares. Within a few days, I’d set up the tent. None of my things had lasting damage. But inside the house, there were raging storms.
I crawled into the tent. I waited for morning when I’d leave for work. I’d step out of the door and the rain would vanish behind me.
“Umma, Umma, tell me the story again.”
“Which story, moley?”
Umma drew me close. I wrapped my arms around her, as much as I could, snuggling close to her breasts. I said, “You only tell the one. The one with the crow and the kingfisher.”
“Ah! That one. It’s too long. Sleep now.” She closed her eyes and pretended to sleep.
I knew she was only pretending. A smile played on her lips, and her hands caressed my head. This was our routine. She would soon launch into the story with mirth. Every time she told it, I was determined to hear the ending. I always slept before she told the tale to its end.
“Tell me, tell me.” I rocked my body as much as I could, throwing a little fit to persuade her. Umma tightened her embrace and chuckled. I squirmed, trying to get away, laughing.
“Okay, okay,” she stifled her laughter. “But you must promise to sleep afterwards.”
“Long ago, in a place far away, there lived a crow, Kaakka, and a kingfisher, Ponmaan,” she began. “They were living happily but then came the rains. Heavy rains that flooded houses and destroyed fields. Kaakka and Ponmaan, poor things, took shelter under a plantain tree.”
“Were they friends?”
“Mmm. Let’s do one thing. You tell me if they were friends when I finish telling the story.”
“Okay,” I said, nestling deeper into the folds of my mother.
Vappa would talk of the quarters he had in the Gulf. Four bodies in a room. Six bodies in a room. Twelve bodies in a room.
“You’ll have a better life. Keep your head down and work hard.” Vappa’s wisdom, wrung from his decades in the desert.
Better life. Plenty of room for one body in my apartment. No room for complaints. What’s a little rain.
I claimed a seat at the back of the bus, settling down for a long commute to work. It’s better being at the back. I’d rather watch than be watched. The phone rang and I silenced it. It was only Umma and her routine evening call. My morning. It wouldn’t do for my voice to fill the bus. It wouldn’t do at all. Got to keep my head down. The wisdom of my father’s life travelled across continents and oceans to hold my tongue.
My Umma, darling Umma, thought loudness was warranted when on the phone with me. The distance meant that her love was to be expressed with each rising decibel. In the beginning, I indulged her. I spoke to her along territories of noise, love, longing and petty debates. I talked with her in buses, on the streets, and in the recesses of coffee shops.
All of this until the stares bored through my intentions, instilling doubt. I held my tongue until the eyes turned towards fresher targets.
They needed us here. We’re here to boost the economy. And to be needed, I would keep my head down and work hard, and be nice and quiet.
But the rains were too strong. The plantain tree fell over them. Kaakka was hurt, badly hurt, a tiny black foot bent out of shape. And they didn’t have shelter from the rain anymore.
Ponmaan, clever Ponmaan, took flight. She braved the rains, not looking back and flew home to her daughter. Kaakka didn’t know what to do. Her home had been washed away in the rains, and she had nowhere to go.
So she took to the skies too.
She flew to Ponmaan’s house and knocked. No response. She knocked again, and called out, “Ponmaan akka, Ponmaan akka! Let me in, please. It’s raining so hard and I’ve hurt my foot.”
I scooted over to the window seat when more bodies boarded. The bus passed swathes of identical blocks of buildings and empty land. There were no landmarks that I recognised. Absent like the crows. I’d never been able to tell the places apart.
Someone sat next to me.
“True thoughts, Kunjila. I wouldn’t want to be lost in this wilderness.”
I jumped. I hadn’t spoken out loud, had I?
“No landmark, no signposts, nothing that guides you back.”
“Vedha! How— ” I stopped. “Ah!” I turned away from my smiling friend and said under my breath, “I should give Vedha a call.”
“You can talk to me now. I’m here, aren’t I?”
“You aren’t here, are you? I’ll give you a call. So much to tell.”
“Tell me, then. I’ll come home with you.”
“No, not there. The rains. I can’t…”
Vedha hadn’t aged at all in all the years I hadn’t spoken to her. I’d rotted in the rains, becoming bleary and cracked in places. A few times, only when I’d pretended not to notice, I’d seen the edges of my body splintering away, a little at a time, but in definite strokes of decay. I drew my sleeves down.
“Talk to me, Kunjila. I miss your voice.”
Ponmaan didn’t answer the door.
“Ponmaan akka, Ponmaan akka!”
“Wait! I’m getting my daughter ready for school.”
Kaakka waited a little and knocked again.
“Ponmaan akka, Ponmaan akka!”
“Wait! I’m feeding my daughter.”
“Ponmaan akka, Ponmaan akka!”
“I’m packing my daughter’s lunch.”
Kaakka knocked until Ponmaan opened the door. Ponmaan led her daughter out with a little umbrella. She waved her daughter off and invited Kaakka in.
“Which room do you want to stay in?”
“Akka, I’ll stay in the attic, out of your way.”
That evening, I sat in the aisle seat next to Vedha at the back of the bus. She loved window seats. And I talked like I hadn’t in years.
I told her of my job, the things I ate, the last time I ate, about the rains in my house, about Umma’s calls, about friends who drifted away, time zone differences, of crows, my work, and my decaying body.
The bus was crowded but people gave us a wide berth.
I spread out next to her and told her of orders that I’d missed, the fuzziness that never left my brain, how contours of people became blurry when they talked to me, and how I could not gauge if I was still in my tent, asleep and dreaming of life.
Winter came to roost for good.
Vedha and I travelled together twice every day. I began to commute even on days I didn’t have work. She was there at the back, to dispense rapt attention and monosyllabic responses.
“Ponmaan led Kaakka to her attic filled with pots, big and small. All of them had palahaaram that Ponmaan had stored for her daughter. There were neyyappams, unniyappams, theraliyappams, banana chips, jackfruit chips, tapioca chips— ”
“Yummm,” Umma agreed.
“Umma, please make me kinnathappam tomorrow.”
“Could you make it like Raseena’s Umma does?”
“How does Raseena’s Umma make it?”
“Ayyo! I don’t know how to make it soft. But I’ll make it tasty, tastier than Raseena’s Umma.”
“Yummm,” Umma laughed.
“And then? Then what happened?”
“Ponmaan left Kaakka in the attic to rest. And what did Kaakka do?”
“What did she do?” I said, eyes intent on Umma, knowing what was coming.
“Kaakka was hungry. She dived into the first pot. Then the next, and the one after that. She polished everything off. She then jumped from pot to pot, shitting in all of them.”
“Oh noooooo.” I giggled. “Bad Kaakka.”
“Bad, indeed,” Umma said grimly. “She shat and she shat and she shat.”
I laughed and I laughed and I laughed.
“Did you talk to them?”
“Your parents will understand.”
“No, they won’t.”
“I do. They will too.”
“Don’t you see? I can’t tell them about the rains.” I laughed, the manic energy of my private thoughts taking over. “I can’t tell them I’m going mad.”
“Tell them. They’ll know about it. They have their own madness to deal with.”
“That’s why I left. I didn’t want to deal with theirs. And I don’t want to add my version to theirs.”
People edged away from us, stumbling a little over each other. The bundles of clothes on their bodies restricting movement.
“Madness suits you fine, my friend.” Vedha said. “You conjured me up, didn’t you?”
“I did, didn’t I? Who else can I summon, mmm? Vedha, there’s nothing to eat at home.”
“Can’t. It’ll spoil. The stove won’t turn on.”
“Eat before you go home. I’ll keep you company.”
“Outside of this bus?”
“It’s time I left the bus, no? Kunjila, I can always be with you.”
“I— ” Not yet. “I think I ate enough for dinner too. At lunch. I do that sometimes. Saves money.”
“I’m here, whenever you are ready.” Madness beseeched while I tried to keep it at bay.
Did Vappa know? He knew of weary bodies in the desert. Did he know, that I was just like him and his friends?
I was a weary body in a snowy desert.
Kaakka walked out of the attic, out of the house, when Ponmaan had her back turned, and she flew away. Far, far away. Ponmaan hadn't a clue.
Ponmaan’s daughter returned home in the evening. She was hungry and wanted to eat.
Ponmaan said: “Go to the attic, moley. Eat what you like.”
She went to the attic, put an arm down a pot. She felt the cold clamminess at the bottom, she and let out a cry. Then screamed, “Chalu pulu! Chalu pulu!”
She pulled her arm out and stared at the crow shit coating it. She screamed again. “Umma! Chalu pulu!”
Ponmaan hurried to the attic to investigate. She was shocked. And angry. So very angry.
In the middle of winter, I was let go. I didn’t tell anyone. But Vedha knew, and she said, “You could go back.”
“There’s no going back.”
“Why not?” she said, with a tilt of her head.
“I don’t know,” I hissed through gritted teeth, “I’m stuck.” The shame.
“There’s no shame in a life lived with passion.”
“This isn’t passion. This is folly. I’ve nothing to show for being here.”
What’s the problem in that, she seemed to ask.
“I’m here for a better life, no? Promised them a better life, no? I haven’t yet had a chance to try. The dratted rains. And Vedha…” I hesitated at the confession blooming for the first time, “I’m not the one you knew. If I go back, and I find out that there isn’t a place for me anymore, what will I do? Where will I go?”
Vedha turned away, her attention drawn to the outside. She had taken the window seat again.
“I want the window seat next time,” I said, mutinous.
“Switch with me,” she said, her voice soft as the drizzle that preceded first rains.
Surprised, and a little ashamed at my petulance, I switched seats with her.
“There’s no need for shame, Kunjila,” she said.
But I was distracted. The bus was waiting at a signal. And there, up on an electric line, was a crow. I was certain it was a crow, though a little bulkier than the ones I knew.
“Vedha, look!” I cried. The whole bus turned to look where I pointed.
“Won’t it die in the cold?” I whispered.
“Scavengers,” I heard Vedha say, as I stretched to see the creature till it left my sight. “They survive anywhere.”
“There’s nothing for them to thieve in the cold.”
“They take what they need. You can take a little too.”
“Take from whom?”
“Everyone. You are an intruder here, no? Take a little more.”
“I was invited. Got an official letter and all.” I laughed. It held no madness or mirth.
“Take what you need to survive then,” said Vedha, pushing an umbrella into my arms. “Something like this.”
She left the bus at the next stop.
Ponmaan searched everywhere for Kaakka.
She flew over the first field. No sign of Kaakka anywhere.
She flew over the second field. Kaakka wasn’t there either.
She flew over the third field. She was disappointed.
She flew over the fourth field. Still nothing.
She flew over the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth fields. Kaakka wasn’t to be found.
Over the tenth field she flew, and there Kaakka was!
The thief was riding a long swing, tied from the tallest branch of a tree at the edge of the field, still full from her feast.
Ponmaan swooped down towards her quarry, eager to mete out justice. Kaakka, catching wind of Ponmaan's approach, quickly took flight. Well-rested and well-fed, Kaakka, flew further and further away, out of sight of poor, exhausted Ponmaan.
I unfurled the umbrella and sat on the soggy couch.
“Umma,” I said, when the phone rang, one hand holding the phone while the other held the umbrella upright.
The rain growled, drowning my voice in ferocious breaths of light and sound. The heavy raindrops on the fabric of my umbrella constructed a hemisphere of thunder overhead.
I noticed the sounds first, a dent in their intensity. The rain was drawing to a close. I could hear in between the rain drops. How long had it been since I heard the silence in between each drop?
The rain stopped. Everything dripped and dried. Wintry white light streamed in from the sole window in the apartment. I clutched the umbrella tighter. It wouldn’t bode well to let my guard down.
“Umma,” I said. “I can hear you now.”
“Kunjila! Are you well? Have you eaten?”
“Not yet, but I will. Umma?”
“I saw a crow today. Here in the snow.”
“Clever creatures. They survive anywhere.”
“Umma, what happens to the crow in that story? The one about Kaakka and Ponmaan.”
“I’ve told it to you so many times,” Umma chuckled.
“What happens in the end?”
“The crow flies away.”
“Doesn't Ponmaan catch her?”
“Eh? Did I not tell you?” I imagined Umma crinkling her brows in concentration. "I've never gotten to the ending because I don't know it myself. My Umma never told it to me, either." Umma laughed again. "You fell asleep so soon, I never had to make up an ending. Always such a good girl, Kunjila."
“If only the crow hadn’t eaten everything in one go, she could’ve saved some for winter. A foolish thief, no Umma?”
“Kunjila! There’s no winter here. Come back to us.”
“I have an umbrella now, Umma. I’ll stay a while. It’ll be all right.”
Later that night, I sang myself to sleep in my mother’s tongue.
Noora Kamar (she/her) is an emerging Indian writer based in settler Canada. She has been writing and facilitating writer-friendly spaces for 11 years—as a creative writing coach, and previously as a content writer, editor and reviewer, and lecturer of Literature. She has an M. A. in English Literature from The English and Foreign Languages University, India. Her short story has appeared in Augur Magazine and she has read from her work-in-progress novel at the Emerging Writers Reading Series in Toronto. Find her craft talks on Instagram @noorakamar_