We all made paper boats when we were kids. If you lived through even a single monsoon in India, it would seem unnatural not to, and they were a lot of fun to make too. My Grandmother’s place in Bombay used to be an old muddy compound back then, and when it rained a small pond would form at the base of the stairs leading down from the building. The water would collect there and as the monsoon progressed it would get deeper, because eventually the soil was saturated and couldn’t absorb any more. It was probably only ankle-deep water, but you know how proper civilised people are about “dirt”, so after much “suffering” someone decided it might be a good idea to throw a few bricks there as stepping stones to save them from the muddy water.
When the monsoon passed, these three or four bricks lay scattered in front of the stairs quite senselessly in the summer. Of course, they wouldn’t stick around for too long. Eventually some galli cricket (street cricket) crew would run out of stray objects to use as their wicket, and the precious life-giving bricks would be stolen away, once again to leave the good people of Paraag building at the mercy of the coming deluge.
One day, at some point before the rains arrived, the bricks were thrown around as always and someone had the brainwave that this thing could be made steal-proof, and into a permanent solution for future monsoon seasons. The local mason was called, I’m sure his advice was taken on the cheapest solution, and a half bag of cement was poured like dough right over where the slip-shod bricks stood by chance and stray kicks from careless feet in the darkness of night. The next morning, in the shadow of the Jaam tree that canopied over that little front yard of the building, this strange misshapen bridge led from the stairs to the middle of nowhere. In this case, the middle of nowhere happened to be the place along the slope of the muddy yard where the water reached acceptable civilised levels of monsoon yuckiness.
It soon rained, and the bridge worked fairly well, although when the torrent was extra-heavy the water would go over even that device. What it did for the compound though, which I’m sure was not in the civil engineer’s plan for the ambitious bridge, was to divide the waters that flooded the front yard in two. You stepped off the stairs and to your right was the majority of the yard that formed a large shallow puddle that would seep into the soil in time. To the left was a smaller portion of the yard, guarded by a head-high tree with little white flowers, which we would often pluck to suck out the meagre nectar from. That portion of the newly dammed yard was deeper, and maybe because of the small tree, the water would stick around there for quite a while longer than in the other half.
Thus the waters were divided in the front yard and the left pool was always deeper than the right. The large pool on the right had the mentioned canopy of a large pink-fruited Jaam (wax apple) tree that loomed over it. The tree was technically in the next compound, but trees have very little respect for real-estate boundaries. The left side pool had the little flowering shrub, and it had a sparse canopy of another Jaam tree, this one the white-fruited variety, that hung over it. An old Ashoka (Mast) tree stood in the corner, before the yard led into a widish path that led towards the street between buildings. When it rained, the smaller deeper pool would be a shimmering mess of droplets attacking the surface, while the large shallow pool in the shadow of the tree’s canopy would be quite detached, with the large droplets of collected water from the 3-storey-high leaves making giant ripples in the overgrown puddle.
For paper-boat-making children, the new cement bridge was a mixed blessing, at best. On the one hand it had cut off the yard so that you had to choose which side to deposit your vessel in, if you were going to step down for that. If you were going to be brave and drop the boat from my Grandmother’s first-floor balcony, it had to be the large shallow puddle which it over-looked. But, on the other hand, the deeper puddle off to the left could sustain a well made boat for hours, and with the eddies and currents formed around the bark of the flowering shrub, the boat would make its own complex voyages around its little ocean.
Still, the large puddle that covered two-thirds of the yard had its attraction, beyond the ease of a dropped boat. It was large, but also more adventurous because there was always the danger of your perfectly crafted vessel being downed by a good solid droplet from on of the leaves above. More frustratingly, the pool shallowed out towards the edges very quickly and many were the brave explorers who were grounded on treacherous land before their time. Thankfully we were patient, and not beyond the adventure of sneaking down in the rain and setting a grounded boat adrift again; Gods playing with the fate of imaginary heroes, watching their every move, hoping for the winds to be favourable.
On some occasions, when were were truly in the mood for seafaring, we would step down to the ground-floor, sit in the meagre shade of the little landing at the base of the wooden stairs, protected from the elements, and old school notebooks would be plundered. Boats were built and launched, and the misshapen cement bridge acted as fancy jetty into the very heart of the vast divided ocean.
Companions at our shipyard at the bottom of the stairs varied over time and with occasion. There were always my cousins who lived in the suburbs, who would often stay over during holidays. There was this little girl who was the niece of the Bengali lady who lived down-stairs. She visited during a few summer vacations from Calcutta. Well, she was not little then, slightly older than me, ever active, vaguely bossy, and always wearing a white petticoat.
There was also the resident cat, who would sit there to get out of the rain, only to be shooed away by the Mangalorean family who lived across one half of the ground-floor. They were used to doing this from the many visits of the fish monger to their door step when the cat would try to insert itself into the proceedings. When driven away on these rainy occasions, it would run off, stand a little away and stare back with a look that seemed to say, “I’m not here for the fish this time fools!”, and then wander off in that vaguely disdainful way of cats.
Also, at the base of the stairs, in the mud, were an ever growing population of earthworms, crawling up the masonry to escape the big deluge. I tried to step around them carefully as far as possible, and while none were knowingly harmed, one or two might have been sent off on voyages by sea. It seemed like the decent thing to do considering I couldn’t go myself.
Many discoveries were made there in the rain. The best way to make the standard origami boat. How important it was to have that little hat of air at the bottom, to keep it from tipping over on its side. And also new boats and new tricks. Either by some serendipitous folding from a paper balloon design, or with some instigation by someone else, (I don’t remember now, although it seems like something I could have come up with) eventually we discovered a floating boat-like thing that looked like a tank with a gun-turret in front. Soon entire navy fleets were setting off, and since the design was a blow-up rather than an open vessel, it often survived longer if the paper was stiff enough.
In time, double-hulled boats were tried, and even sail boats, although I never had much luck with those. And then an Italian gondola was attempted, which like all my initial origami knowledge was supplied by my Father painstakingly having learnt it somewhere and repeating it for me till I got it right.
Eventually the fun would stop. Other more concerned parents would order their children back into their houses, or my Mother would give in to my Grandmother’s proclamations of the end of the world and a calamity of children’s health of galactic proportions, and I’d climb up the wooden stairs with the smooth banister and head home. Heads would be vigorously treated with precious dry towels, clothes might be changed, and then I’d be back leaning over the balcony checking the progress of my comrades on the waters.
In later years, when the school frenzy reached new heights, there were no vacations in India during the usual monsoon season, and these chances diminished. In time the cement bridge was demolished and the entire compound was tiled in stone; Some all-encompassing municipal order to avoid stagnation and mosquitoes, and just like that the seas were gone.
Now the rains fall and the leaves drop their droplets in a shallow film of water over the stone. There is still suffering to be had in the rains for those who insist, but for some strange reason, even though I don’t have to, when a torrent is on and I’m heading towards home, I will always follow the path where the old brick and cement bridge used to stand. There are no oceans on either side any more, no stepping stones to step on, but my feet are sure and my mind set on not disturbing the sailing grounds of all the adventurers who sailed before.