Sowmya Santanam

Coovum River

I had lived all my life in the city but nev­er paid much atten­tion to the riv­er. I always thought Coovum was the Tamil word for sew­er, until I met him. The fetid, repul­sive stench was all that came to my mind at the men­tion of the riv­er. But, his face lit up every time he spoke about the Coovum riv­er; how it carved its way through the crammed city and its four mil­lion peo­ple. He was new to the city. New-age yup­pie would insult him, he had old class and new money.

We ate Chinese one after­noon. I told him about my diag­no­sis. It filled the space between us, a sud­den silence that I did­n’t know how to break. We sat near the win­dow and he point­ed to this nar­row back street near the restau­rant and said, “There is a park behind the trees. We should go there.” The park ran along the Coovum. The riv­er did­n’t stink as much as I thought it would. There was hard­ly any­one along the tree lined riv­er bank but for a cou­ple sit­ting on a bench. As I stood there watch­ing the black water crawl along, I want­ed to hold his hand, but I didn’t.

A few weeks lat­er he called me from Freemason’s Hall, “This is such a love­ly build­ing, you should have come,” he said. I could­n’t, I had a laun­dry list of things to take care of – rum cake, elec­trolyte, batik ban­danas, chemo, war movies, antacids. But I would have liked to be there with him, admir­ing the nuances of British archi­tec­ture. The British appar­ent­ly went boat­ing in the Coovum River, coast­ed into Freemason’s Hall, took a dip in the pool and lounged in the cor­ri­dors. That piece of triv­ia would­n’t have piqued my inter­est, but he made the British real peo­ple, not gen­er­als from the History book.

A month lat­er we stood at the Marina watch­ing paper kites in the sky.

The Coovum emp­ties itself a few kilo­me­ters away”, he said, point­ing to the murky bor­der between the ocean and the smog filled sky.

I nev­er think of the Coovum and the beach in the same thought. It ruins com­ing to the beach,” I said.

There was a triathlon a few months ago and some for­eign ath­letes refused to swim in the ocean while the city sew­er emp­tied itself just a few kilo­me­ters away,” he said.

I won­dered if he spoke so much about the riv­er because he did­n’t want to talk about my sunken eyes and bald head. It was odd­ly com­fort­ing. I noticed the wind lift his shirt col­lar and hug his neck. I want­ed to do the same. I did­n’t. It would have been clingy and care­less, a lit­tle bold too.

Maybe the cur­rents take the sew­er water away from the beach.,” I said try­ing to pre­serve all my child­hood mem­o­ries of play­ing at the beach.

He con­tin­ued to explain how the cur­rents worked and how there were more mol­e­cules of the col­lec­tive urine in a glass of beach water than oxy­gen mol­e­cules. I want­ed to sit and talk till the moon rose over the water. So I said, “I came to the beach once with my cousin. We were sit­ting on the rocks and talk­ing for a while. A man came along and stood in the water. I noticed that he was jerk­ing off. He peri­od­i­cal­ly looked at us and went about his busi­ness. My cousin and I nev­er spoke about it. We just got up and walked to the bus stop.”

Hmm,” he said throw­ing tiny stones at the waves.

As I stared at the dilap­i­dat­ed ten­e­ments along the beach, the Coovum laced itself with the mem­o­ry of the man plea­sur­ing him­self.  The gen­tle breeze made me for­get that the urine from the ocean evap­o­rat­ed and some­times soaked our sweat. We sat in silence for a while watch­ing the waves lap­ping against the shore.

We nev­er made it to the beach again. A few weeks lat­er, before I drove him to the air­port, we went to see the Coovum emp­ty itself into the Bay of Bengal. We stood at the bridge look­ing at the dif­fer­ent shades of gray in the water and I said “I want a pic­ture with you.” We turned to face the set­ting sun. I held my phone and clicked us. It’s an odd pic­ture. Ravaged by chemo I look much old­er and frail. He looks young, alive, with ambi­gu­i­ty in his eyes which I some­times chalk up to sad­ness, some­times to youth­ful inat­ten­tion and some­times to masked com­pas­sion. “Email it to me,” he said at the air­port and dis­ap­peared into the crowd.

I some­times go see the Coovum merge with the Indian Ocean.


Sowmya Santanam grew up in Chennai, India and now lives in Milwaukee, WI. She has a Master’s degree in Engineering Physics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison which has made a few peo­ple ask if she writes sci­ence fic­tion. Her first sto­ry won the Flash Fiction Competition con­duct­ed by the Global Short Story Competition in September of 2010. Her short fic­tion has appeared or is forth­com­ing with 6 SentencesFlash Fiction World and Journal of Microliterature.