Shishir (Winter) 2020 Stories - Madhavi Johnson


Mumbai Monsoon

By Madhavi Johnson


The bus stop was packed. Sheets of water whipped around. Gusty winds drummed devilishly on the tin roof of the bus shelter. Rita struggled to keep her umbrella upright and resisted the temptation to take refuge inside the overcrowded 'Chembur Juice Shop.'


Monsoon in Mumbai was in full show.


The B-15 express bus emerged from behind a blinding curtain of rain and stopped at the Juice Shop bus stop at 8.15 am. Rita jostled through the wet, musty faceless crowd to climb into the bus. A passenger wearing a hooded raincoat, with his face half-hidden, pushed his way past her. She noticed his beard, his red shirt, and a pleasant, faint perfume.


She heard a whisper, "Be in the lobby of the Palace Hotel at midnight tonight…"

The bus started moving.


Did that stranger just talk to her? Or was he on the phone with someone? Rita fast-forwarded her mind to the conversation she had to have that morning with her boss.


"Chander, I would like to have a salary advance this month, at least 10,000 rupees? My father is ill, and I need money for his care and treatment."


"Rita, you have already taken two advances this year. You have not repaid them. How do you think I can give another advance?"


"The injection, one is 3000 rupees. You have to settle the earlier bills first." The neighbourhood pharmacist had reminded her. Baba needed three of those injections to recover from the mystery disease that was eating into him. The bus made its way cautiously through the crowded, half-submerged streets. People waded into the overflowing drainage, men rolling up their trousers and women pulling up their sarees knee-high, no room for modesty in such a messy situation. Mumbai never stopped, even when it rained so heavily. Rita held on to the bus's metal pole and tried to shut out the bustle and wetness outside.


"Be in the lobby of the Palace Hotel at midnight tonight…"


The stranger's voice looped inside her head.


Google maps located Palace Hotel and informed her that it was nearly seven kilometres away.


Rita picked up her mobile to check on Baba. She received a busy tone from her mother's phone. The day wore on with more rain and work.


"Hi, I just heard the evening news. It seems like the streets are flooded, which is no surprise. Mumbai's drainage system sucks. Let us leave now. I don't want to be stranded."

Sheila stood leaning on the partition outside Rita's workspace. Was it already five? Sheila continued her bantering.


"I hear they are planning to renovate the Taj Hotel. After that horrible terrorist attack last year. Do you remember how awful it was last November? I wonder what happened tothose families, those wounded who survived the attack." Sheila munched her biscuit thoughtfully. She had clearly switched off from work.


"Why don't you go ahead? I have some work to do and will take the next bus." Rita was evasive.


"Don't be too late. It is raining heavily," Sheila warned her as she left.


Amma had pawned her jewelry last month to pay for expenses. The jewels still remained unredeemed. But Chander had given her no room for negotiation. It was a flat no when she asked him for the advance. She had no backup plan on how to find the money for Baba's care.


Rita finished typing the letter Chander had dictated, picked up her handbag, and left the office at 6 pm. The roads overflowed with rainwater, debris, and people. She waded to the bus stop with her saree hitched up, towards the swarming wet umbrellas and glistening, tired faces. The B-15 express bus arrived, and, along with it, thunder and lightning returned to haunt the evening commuters. Rita squeezed her way through into the bus, balanced herself on one leg, holding on to the metal railing. Her thoughts were milling around like an electronic LED display board.


"Be in the lobby of the Palace Hotel at midnight tonight…" The man had said in the morning.


No way was she going there to follow a stranger's vague message! What excuse would she give to Baba and Amma for leaving home late in the night?

Go home, Rita. Forget about the Palace Hotel. You need to find out how Baba is. She tried calling her mother again. The lines were still busy.



After many detours to avoid flooded roads, the bus stopped, and the driver declared he was going no further. Water had entered the carburettor. Get down and walk or catch other buses, he suggested pragmatically.


Rita looked out. The road was dark and deserted. Only a few brave stragglers were out wading through the rain. A feeble streetlight illuminated the signboard at the corner of the street. She slowly got off the bus, walked to the board, and squinted to read the sign.


PALACE HOTEL - Home away from home– 200 meters this way. The arrow pointed right. Rita pushed the revolving glass door at the entrance of the hotel. Hair dishevelled, saree wet and crushed, her sandals soaked, leaving marks on the marble floor, she stood under the bright lights of Palace Hotel, unsure of her next move. Two men sat at the bell desk, in red shirts and black jackets.


A uniformed man from the concierge desk approached Rita, took the wet umbrella from her hands, and placed it in a stand.


"Oh, here you are at last. The cleaning company called to say you will be here by eight. You are late. What is your name?"


He did not wait for Rita's reply.


"It is already past nine. The next shift starts soon. Seema is waiting for you."


What shift? Was it that late? And who was Seema?


"Sir… sorry. There has been a mistake." Rita started.


"Hurry. You are already late," the man retorted as they hurried towards the restrooms.


"Here, Seema. You can close your shift," the man knocked on the restroom door.


"Who are you? I have not seen you before?" Seema asked Rita.


The woman was more observant than the man.


"Yeah, I was trying to tell this man here that I am not who he thinks…." The man walked away.


"Not what? Come in quick. It is raining badly out there. I need to leave now."


Seema handed her a red and black salwar kameez.


"Here in this closet are the buckets, mops, and cleaners, and this is the uniform. Clean the restroom every three hours. Whether anyone uses it or not. Then note the time here."

She shrugged her shoulders and pointed to a clipboard hanging behind the door.


Rita stepped into the restroom and looked around. The room was decorated tastefully - bunch of fresh yellow roses, lemongrass hand wash, clean, fluffy hand towels in a bamboo basket. Gentle sitar notes wafted out of the speakers placed above the mirrors. Rita changed into the red and black uniform in the cubicle at the end of the locker room and felt a lot drier and comfortable. Her brain began to work. Time to call Amma. Although she did not know what to say.


"All lines in this route are busy. Please try after some time." She was relieved to hear that.


Rita picked up a mop and walked into one of the cubicles. That man might return to check on whether she was doing her job. How was she going to get out of this situation? What if Seema's substitute did arrive while she was still in the restroom? She stood around in the narrow room and then started wiping the door with the spray. Baba and Amma would be worried if she did not reach home. Her brother would be sent out to look for her in the middle of the night. Maybe she could go to the reception and talk to someone there. Perhaps she could speak to the man who brought her over to the restroom. But what would she say? That this was a case of mistaken identity?


The mop hit a bulky object on the floor - a bulky leather handbag close to the sleek garbage bin.


Hadn't Seema noticed the bag? What if the bag had something, maybe a bomb? Should she touch it? What did it hold?


She remembered Sheila's banter in the evening about the terror attack in Hotel Taj. Maybe she should call someone to come in and check. No. Better to take the bag out of this room.


Rita took a deep breath, leaned forward, and lifted the bag gingerly.



Rohan arrived at the reception in the Palace Hotel at ten.


It had taken him months to recover from his wounds from the terrorist attack on Hotel Taj over a year ago. Rohan knew he was lucky to be alive. He had been serving at the restaurant at the hotel when the attack started. He spent hours calming the guests and residents who were locked in the restaurant, sheltering them from the vision of the terrorists.

Adrenaline had kicked in, keeping Rohan on his toes. Shot in the back while shielding one of the guests, it was touch and go for months before he was well enough to even sit up.

Hotel Taj was happy to have him back, but the trauma was too much for him to bear. It was now his second week at a new job in the Palace hotel. He still remained edgy.


A woman walked out of the toilet carrying a black handbag. It looked heavy, and she seemed to be weighed down, the way she walked at an angle towards his desk. She wore the hotel's black and red uniform.


What was in that bag? Why was she coming towards him?


Rohan's heart raced, his breath quickened.


"I found this in the restroom. Here," Rita gingerly lifted the bag towards the bearded man.


Rohan's hands hurriedly searched for the button below his desk.


A shrill alarm ripped across the foyer tearing through the soothing music playing in the background as the bag made contact with the counter. Several men from the bell desk rushed towards the reception.


Rohan pointed at the bag. One of them grabbed it and ran out of the revolving doors. Guests at the reception crowded around to watch as Rita was marched away by two men.


"Where are you taking me?"


"Miss, it is better you come with us quietly." The man who had led her to the restroom told her.


The clock behind the reception desk chimed eleven times.


"Show us your ID, please." The interrogation began in earnest in the basement.


"Why are you doing this to me? I have not done anything."


"Your ID, please."


"It is in the toilet. In my bag."


One of the men left the room and returned with her bag.

Rita drew out her Aadhar card.

"What about your ID from the cleaning company."


"I do not have it with me," Rita tried to focus.


"Who sent you here? Why are you here?"


"Please, let me go. I did not do anything."


"Make it easy on yourself. Tell us what you are doing here.


"I found the handbag in the toilet."


"Where is your ID from the cleaning company? Why are you pretending you are from there?"


"Which group do you belong to?"


"Please… I want some water?" Rita shivered.


Someone handed her a glass of water.


"Please, I tried to tell this man that I was not from the cleaning company. But he would not listen." Rita said after gulping down some water.


"From where are you then?"


"I work in an IT company. I am a personal assistant. I was going home and accidentally came here. This man thought I was from the cleaning company."


She sounded hollow. Of course, they would not believe her.


"Do not makeup stories. We have called the Police. They will be here anytime soon. You want to be locked up in a cell tonight? Come on, tell us the truth."


The man who had not listened to her in the first place threatened her now.


"I can show you my ID." Rita made a move towards her bag.


"Stop. Don't move. Don't touch anything."


The man treated her like a criminal.


Tears welled in her eyes as she thought of Baba and Amma.


"I accidentally came here. If only you will listen to what I have to say," Rita said with a sob.


The room quietened down - a windowless basement room with one of the men pacing up and down.


How on earth am I going to get out of this situation? Who do I turn to help? What is next? Rita was unhappy and doubtful about her chances of getting out of there. The door opened, and a young man dressed in a blue suit and tie walked into the room. A well-dressed lady wearing expensive jewelry and perfume bustled in after him. A whiff of lavender trailed her entry.


He waved the security guys away from Rita.


"Stand down, guys. I will deal with this."


"Miss," he turned to Rita. "I am the General Manager of the Palace Hotel. My name is Kumar. Thank you so much for bringing the bag to the reception from the restroom. I believe you found it while you were cleaning the restroom?"


"But Sir, she is not from the cleaning company. She came here under false pretext. We have just called the Police. They will be here any moment now."


"Then tell them not to come. I absolutely do not want the police stomping around here when nothing wrong happened."


Mr. Kumar looked at Rita expectantly.


"Yes. Yes, Mr. Kumar, my bus broke down around the corner. I landed in this hotel by accident. The man at the entrance here mistook me for someone else.' Rita sensed a breakthrough coming her way.


"Ms… sorry, what is your name?"

"Rita. Rita Chaturvedi. May I go now? It is late, and my parents will be worried."


"Our sincere apologies for this mix-up Ms. Rita. So sorry that you had to go through this inconvenience."


The woman beside him rushed towards Rita and took her hands.


"Thank you so much. For finding the bag. I forgot and left it in the restroom and walked away to have my dinner."


"We will arrange to drop you home, Ms. Rita," the manager assured her.


The woman continued her vote of thanks as the three of them climbed the stairs towards the reception.


"Mr. Kumar, thanks for such quick action on my call to you about the missing bag. The bag has all of my daughter's jewelry for her wedding next week."


"Rita, you do not know what trouble you have saved for me. My name is Madeira. Madeira Gomez."


The famous stage actor that Baba loved to watch so much?!?


The clock behind the bearded man at the reception chimed twelve times!



"Rita, my child," Baba called out from his room. She walked into see him with her mother in tow.


"You are still not asleep. It is past two in the morning?"


"You never called to check on us even once today. And now you come late like this on a rainy night and in the Palace Hotel van. And why are you wearing that red and black salwar, kameez? In the morning, you went out in a saree?" Amma was full of questions.


"I will tell you about it tomorrow. I am cold and sleepy right now."


The air was fresh and fragrant after the rains. The guava tree in the yard was green and bright. The birds on it were noisy and animated. Rita sat on the windowsill in her father's room as he lay in his bed, pale and sickly with eyes closed.


"Baba, I saw Madeira Gomez last night."

Baba stretched his hands towards her. She walked across and sat by him on the bed.


"You mean that stage actress from Bombay Talkies?" Amma wanted to know.


"Yes, I met her at the Palace Hotel by chance. She is a very nice lady. I was shy and did not ask her for an autograph. But I told her you are her great fan, Baba," Rita squeezed the thin, skinny hand and hoped somehow her energy will be transferred into his body.


"But why were you at the Palace Hotel last night?" Amma was persistent.


"Alright. I have to go to the office now. Please eat something. Or else you will become weaker." Rita kissed Baba on his forehead and evaded the question as she picked up her bag.

And then her mother asked her the dreaded question.


"What about the money for Baba's injection? The doctor said we cannot delay any more."


"Oh, don't worry. Chander will give me the money today."


She would pawn the gold bangles she had bought herself last year. There will be enough money to pay the old dues and buy at least one or two injections - no office today without sorting this. The doorbell rang.


A man in a red and black uniform from Palace Hotel greeted Rita and handed her a bouquet of roses and a card with her name on it. She returned to Baba's room and opened the card


"I am grateful for what you did last night. You do not know how much trouble you saved for me. Thanks, Madeira."


"Baba, see. What a decent lady Madeira is. She sent roses and a thank you note."


"Why did Madeira thank you?" Amma was persistent.


"I will tell you the full story when I return tonight. It is getting late for me."


Rita unwrapped the expensive paper covering the dozen red roses and arranged them in a vase on the windowsill.


"Leave the wrappings. I will clean up." Amma offered.


Rita hurriedly stepped out of the house. The pawnshop would be open now.


"Wait, Rita. I found this tucked in among the flower wrappings."


Amma stood at the doorway with a white envelope in one hand and several crisp thousand rupee notes in the other.


Madhavi Johnson from Australia uses triggers from her real-life experiences and builds in a rich knowledge of cultural and social contexts while writing both fiction and non-fiction. She was born in Chennai and spent her childhood and teen years in New Delhi in India, and Kitwe in Zambia. She started her career as a Copy Writer in an advertising agency in India. Her engagement in women’s issues and rights of girls led her into an interesting career in international development/ humanitarian work with UNICEF in India, Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Kenya, Namibia and USA (New York). Madhavi is an itinerant traveller, curious and respectful of cultures, languages and social interactions. She now lives in Ballarat, in the Victoria Region of Australia, and mentors’ young men and women from developing countries on organizational skills and self.


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