The little red shoe

Mridula groggily got out of bed, wrapped her woollen dressing gown tightly around herself and stepped out of the warm dormitory into the cold passage leading to the bathrooms.

She was hit by a freezing blast of air and a fine spray of ice cold water that managed to reach her from beyond the broad verandah, where rain was lashing against the steps.

She shivered and scurried off to brush her teeth. The night-long drumming of the rain and the unusually dark morning had lulled Mridula and the other Std 10 girls into forgetting their physics test and snoring contentedly through the storm.

Later, in class, the girls discovered that Mrs Nair, the physics teacher and a few others were absent because the road from Lovedale had been blocked by a landslide. They rejoiced! It meant that the test nobody had prepared for, was cancelled!

That night, the rains continued steadily for over 12 hours. The school bus that drove up the next morning was half empty. The roads to Kotagiri, Coonoor and Doddabetta were sealed off by more landslides so those who lived along these routes couldn’t be picked up.

Finally, for the first time in the history of the school, Ms Vohra, the principal declared the school closed! There was much cheering in the classrooms as the girls slammed their desks shut and raced into the warmth of their dormitories, tossing off their uniform skirts and getting into comforting woollen pyjamas. Within half an hour of Ms Vohra’s announcement, Mridula was curled up under her blankets, her nose deep in a murder mystery.

But the holiday mood didn’t last long. By evening, rumours began to spread …about the school driver whose home had been swept away in a landslide; about the number of bridges washed away near the market; and the number of deaths from the storm.

That night, the girls of St Teresa’s had just soup for dinner. The rest of the meal – fried potatoes served with vegetable rice, was packed into plastic sachets and put into cartons. Later, Mridula and a bunch of seniors accompanied Ms Vohra to the town hall.

Hundreds of people sat huddled in the cold vast room. Those who had lost family members to the floods, looked dazed and refused the food the girls from St Teresa’s had packed for them.

And so it went on for days that June, back in 1978, when for over a week, the rains wreaked havoc across the hills. More than a 100 landslides had cut off remote homes and villages from Ooty.

One night, after distributing food packets to the homeless sheltering in the hospital, Mridula and her classmates had to dash through the rain for almost half a kilometre. The road was so badly damaged, the school jeep couldn’t drive up to the hospital.

The girls slid, skidded and stumbled through the dark, almost blinded by the rain lashing their faces. Half-way to the jeep, Mridula thought she saw a little red shoe lying embedded in the slush, half-hidden by fallen branches on the side of the road.

She was tempted to pick it up…maybe the little girl whom it belonged to was inside the hospital, miserable about losing one shoe. But she ran on, not wanting to lag behind her group in the dark.

But as the jeep began its slow and torturous trip back to the school, Mridula’s mind kept going back to that red shoe. She wondered why? Over the last few days, the seniors helping in relief work had seen cars submerged in mud; houses with roofs blown off; a postbox that had been knocked off its pedestal by a fallen electrical post…vivid images that they carried back to their dormitories, where their juniors waited for news of what the storm had done to their town. Yet, it was the fleeting glimpse of that tiny little red shoe that kept bothering her.

Suddenly, the words were out of her mouth, before she could control them, “It’s not just a shoe,” she blurted out, “ there’s a little girl attached to it!” Her friends watched, shocked,  as Mridula began screaming, first at the driver, begging him to turn back, and then at the matron accompanying them. The old man looked doubtful…the road was so bad, he just wanted to get the girls safely back to school. But Mridula was hysterical.

She threatened to jump out of the jeep and run back to where she’d seen the red shoe. The matron finally calmed Mridula down, but only after convincing the driver to turn back. There, at the spot Mridula led her classmates to, they pushed back the fallen branches, and sure enough, was the limp body of a little child, half covered with mud and leaves.

In tears, the girls grabbed the child and ran to the jeep. With all the noise of the thunder, rain and the jeep’s engine, the girls couldn’t make out if the child was still alive. It was only at the hospital, after a long wait outside the emergency ward, that the duty doctor stepped out and put the tense girls out of their misery.

The child was alive, he announced! He couldn’t understand why Mridula launched into a round of crying. But Matron, who was holding Mridula tight, knew it was sheer relief.

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