What is there to say of a story in which the central character is someone who repairs clouds for a living? Clouds? Perhaps I mean “cotton candy clouds?” I do not. Very well, perhaps I was referring to those clever people who repair cloud chamber machines? I am not. Of course, of course, I must be talking of the internet and clouds and what not. Put this in the cloud, download that from the cloud…. Right? Wrong. I’m referring to no such contemporary technological triviality. Let me be blunt. This story is about someone who repairs clouds-– real clouds in the sky, rain-bearing clouds, the stuff Zeus is in charge of; in short, what the word used to mean before it became clouded with all these other meanings.
Venkat’s story has the kind of fun premise that suggests it could almost write itself. But while having fun reading it, perhaps it’ll be useful to remember that clouds are also laden with a land’s tears. I believe there is a story within a story, as is the case with clouds. I’ll leave the interpretations to the reader. However, that this story should be read while listening to Joni Mitchell singing in the background is an objective, sun-filled fact.
— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine
“I’ve never been interviewed by a real paper before,” says Janma Patell as she welcomes me into her office. “I don’t know what to say.”
Janma—or Jan, as she insists I call her—gives me an easy gummy smile. Her nose crinkles and her brown eyes dance. Her short hair is a shade of dark earth and sits messily atop a young face. She has a small build but her taut forearms hint at her strength. Dressed in a comfortable white tee and a pair of blue shorts, she resembles a teen visiting her parent’s office for the day rather than the courageous emergency response provider that she is. Janma Patell’s official designation is Cloud Maintenance Officer but everyone knows her as the Cloud Tailor of New York City.
Jan’s corner office on the eighty-fifth floor of the Empire State Building has been designed especially for her. The most striking feature is the ceiling-to-floor pane windows offering an unhindered view of midtown Manhattan and, more importantly, the sky. The room is compact yet functional. The desk in the middle of the room, littered with weather data and scientific reports, is turned away from the door and faces the windows. The implication is clear—Jan is at the office to watch the sky, not to meet people.
“I might be needed today,” says Jan as we sit down. I instinctively scan the sky but notice only a few light clouds dotting the expansive blue.
Joni Mitchell looks at us from either side of the door. From the left, her shocking blue eyes pierce out from under her cornfield hair as she offers me a red prairie lily. From the right, she considers me without interest from behind curling cigarette smoke, thirty years older and content with her glass of red wine.
“Joni is my fellow cloudhead,” says Jan with a smile. “She watches the clouds for me when I’m not here.”
Jan’s favorite song is, of course, Joni’s Both Sides Now.
“Nobody has ever captured the magic of clouds like she has,” she says, “and she does it in twelve short lines. That’s genius. I’ve looked at clouds my whole life, and yet, every time I listen to that song, I feel like I don’t know clouds at all.”
Jan has looked at clouds her whole life, starting with the plush toy her parents hung over her baby cradle along with the sun, moon, and stars. In the fifth grade, she won the School Science Fair with a cloud she constructed using everyday household items—cotton, a tea strainer, and water-filled balloons. By rigging it up to a circuit board, she could command her cloud to rain. At college, she studied the atmosphere and received a Bachelors in Meteorology, majoring in Nephology. The Empire State Building management hired her as soon as she graduated.
Janma Patell is a third-generation New Yorker. Her paternal grandparents—whom she calls Dada and Dadi—moved from the state of Gujarat in Western India in the mid-sixties, taking advantage of the United States’ freshly-passed Immigration and Nationality Act. They brought with them their infant son, Praful—Janma’s father—and three generations of tailoring knowledge. They took assembly line jobs at a cotton mill, leaving young Praful in the care of a neighbor, themselves freshly-arrived from Pakistan. After enduring limited responsibility and minimum wage for three years, the couple quit to set up a small tailoring shop called Patell’s (with a double ‘l’) on Bowne Street in Queens.
“Dadi was worried her tailoring skills would fade without daily practice,” says Jan, “and Dada had had enough with the disrespect he was receiving at the mill.”
Her maternal grandparents—Nana and Nani—arrived from Gujarat a few years later bringing two daughters, of which the younger is Astha, Janma’s mother. Nana’s elder brother ran a convenience store called Patel’s (with a single ‘l’) in Jackson Heights in Queens, selling South Asian ingredients to the burgeoning immigrant community arriving with displaced palates. The family quickly absorbed into the Gujarati community.
Praful and Astha met at Patell’s, the tailoring shop with the double ‘l’. Or rather, their families met at Patell’s when Astha needed an outfit for her high school graduation. In the intervening years, Patell’s had become the establishment of choice for the sartorial needs of Gujarati families in Queens. The two families hit it off, discovering that their native villages in Gujarat were just a few miles apart. When Praful and Astha came of marriageable age, there was no doubt about the alliance.
With the two surnames only a single letter apart, Astha decided on an innovative way to save the cost and hassle of legally changing her surname. She simply slipped in the extra ‘l’ every time she had to renew an official document, like her driver’s license or passport. It may have been an acceptable, even expected, ploy in India, but it was a dangerous one for an immigrant to attempt in the United States, risking heavy fines and even jail time.
“It gave her a thrill every time she did it,” says Jan and chuckles. “She imagined herself a fugitive in plain sight, blatantly breaking the law.”
After running Patell’s for four decades and expanding it to include the adjoining plot, her parents handed over operations to Jan’s two older sisters, Khevna and Inika, who have degrees in business management and fashion design. Jan had spent many of her after-school hours working in the shop and would have also been absorbed into the family business, “but clouds got in my way,” she laughs. Her sisters still consider her the best tailor in the family.
Jan’s work as a Cloud Maintenance Officer does demand the use of tailoring equipment, though. Her principal tools are thick bamboo darning needles that she designed herself and coarse cotton yarn. Bamboo, being light and sturdy with just the right amount of flex, is the perfect tool in strong winds. Cotton is, believes Jan, the closest thing on earth to clouds—soft yet textured, pliant yet resilient, and biodegradable.
Jan’s workwear is a fire-retardant work overall the color of bright sunshine. It hangs on a wall hook by the office door, ready to snatch and dash. The overall features a climbing harness that also serves as a tool belt. A quiver on the belt by her right hand holds her darning needles, while a pouch by her left hand carries balls of cotton yarn. A row of pockets line the back of the belt. They contain compression gloves, which protect her hands from extreme temperatures while retaining dexterity, and climbing equipment like carabiners, ropes, and self-locking devices. Her yellow helmet dangles beside the overall and a pair of waterproof high-top climbing shoes sits on the floor.
The term ‘skyscraper’ has been around since the 1880s, coined for the Home Insurance Building in Chicago which was 180 feet tall. When construction of the Empire State Building was completed in 1931, it topped out at 1,454 feet, including the antenna mast and the lightning rod. For forty years, it stood as the tallest building in the world, stretching over a quarter-mile into the sky.
“The Empire State Building was the first building to give meaning to the term ‘skyscraper’,” says Jan. “It literally scraped the sky.”
Scraping the sky may be a wondrous architectural feat for humans but it doesn’t augur well for the largest nomads of the sky—clouds. For the first time in the history of the world, humans presented an obstacle to the clouds.
Every cloud comprises three layers. The porous outer skin is the softest and lightest. It gives the cloud its cotton-like appearance. Wind works this outer layer into the shapes that we see. The outer skin isn’t just aesthetics, though; it serves an important function as well. It protects the middle layer—the sound and light layer. The middle layer is shaped like an amoeba and built like a mesh. In mature clouds, the constant friction between the middle layer and the other two layers creates thunder and lightning. The innermost cavity holds the rain like a water balloon. When the water gets too heavy, the membrane of this cavity breaks, like a dam giving way. The mesh of the middle layer breaks up this flood of water and the pores of the outer layer dispense the water in an even manner—what we call rain.
A cloud’s eventual purpose may be to rain and snow on everyone but where it does so is of utmost importance. Clouds can travel hundreds of miles before they find the right conditions to precipitate. Skyscrapers can disrupt the natural life cycle of clouds by physically standing in their way. It’s why modern skyscrapers around the world are designed aerodynamically, so that they may coax clouds aside rather than shred them.
The Empire State Building’s famed art deco style, however, ambushes clouds before they reach full maturity and tears them apart. The building’s boxy tapering design guides clouds towards its top where a jagged antenna mast rips into them. In the early 1930s, this resulted in an alarming increase in cloudbursts over midtown Manhattan and a looming public relations disaster. The management of the most famous building in America responded immediately. They created the Department of Cloud Maintenance reporting directly to the top management. They invited squadrons of scientists and commissioned journals’ worth of studies. They inked a partnership with the National Weather Service that continues to this day. Every theory was tested, every experiment documented, and every finding recorded. The Empire State Building has comprehensive cloud data for every single day going back to the Great Depression. All efforts focused on finding the solution to a singular problem—how could clouds safely pass the Empire State Building?
“They tried industrial fans, sonic blasts, electromagnetic shockwaves,” says Jan, counting them off on her fingers. “None of them dislodged the clouds from their path.”
They explored architectural solutions, such as covering the antenna mast with a smooth rounded sheath, but that disrupted the broadcasts of most of New York City’s major radio and television stations. Legend has it that in the mid-1960s, the management tried to hire the United States Air Force to do emergency fly-bys and scatter the clouds when required but President Johnson refused with a single immortal line: “They’re fighter pilots, not cloudherds.”
On the wall beside Jan’s workwear hang three telling photographs, each significant to her. The first is the iconic ‘Icarus’, taken by Lewis Hine in 1930 when he documented the construction of the Empire State Building. A young male steelworker in overalls leans casually against a steel cable, seemingly suspended in mid-air, looking like a trapeze artist moments before launch.
“This is to remind me of the human effort that went into constructing this engineering marvel,” says Jan, “and the responsibility I have to protect it everyday.”
The second equally-iconic picture is ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, shot by Roger Barnum in 1933. A man in overalls scales the mast at the top of the building with a large wooden paddle slung across his back. The mast appears to reach into the gray clouds and beyond to infinity while the man climbs to another world without hesitation or even a backward glance.
“That man was one of the first Officers,” says Jan. “Jack Bailey. He was an actual circus performer.”
The third photograph is the only one in color and it is also the least publicly known. Taken in a studio, it is a portrait of a slim woman of Southeast Asian descent smiling directly at the viewer. She is dressed in a bright yellow overall, similar to the one that hangs on Jan’s wall, with a lemon yellow helmet tucked under one arm. She could have been a NASA astronaut training to launch into the stratosphere.
“Linh Nguyen,” says Jan in an adulatory whisper. “The Cloud Nurse.”
Nobody applies to be a Cloud Maintenance Officer; they are found. In the early days, the Empire State Building management—the only organization in the city to have such a requirement—advertised for and recruited daredevils, giving every Jonny Quest with a penchant for adventure a shot at the clouds. Through the decades, though, they began to scout their Officers not unlike the Yankees finding their next superstar. And not unlike Major League Baseball, they began to find that their candidate profile evolved.
For about thirty-five years, Officers were young white men. When the waves of immigration began in the mid-sixties, the candidate profile shifted to young Asian men—Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesian—who were willing to work a dangerous job for less. When Linh Nguyen broke the glass ceiling in the early aughts, young Asian women were seen as the new candidate pool—smaller, nimbler, and easier on the pocket. This is a young person’s job, not unlike professional sports, requiring peak physical fitness. Officers often retire from active duty before they turn forty and move onto mentoring and training. Linh Nguyen is the current Head of the Department of Cloud Maintenance and Jan’s supervisor.
Linh Nguyen, known as the Cloud Nurse, is a trailblazer in more ways than one. For the first seven decades, the Department’s strategy had been iterations of “push the cloud aside”. For the next two decades, Linh—who had trained as a nurse in her native Vietnam—pioneered experimental strategies that championed “working with the cloud”. Her greatest success came with needles and cotton.
Abruptly, Jan turns from the window and stands.
“Let’s head upstairs,” she says.
She zips up her yellow overall and clicks the attached harness-belt around her waist. She dons her helmet and slips on the boots. A quick check of her tools and implements and she’s ready to go. Her bright outfit draws eyes on the observation deck but Jan is looking skyward where dark clouds block the sun. She knits her eyebrows and motions to the security personnel stationed at the door. They nod and step out to marshall visitors back indoors, announcing that they’re closing for routine maintenance. Jan ducks into a service elevator and goes up to the hundred-and-third floor, one higher than the enclosed glass-cased viewing deck open to the public. She then disappears through a ‘service workers only’ hatch. A security team takes me to a control room where four screens show us the bottom-up view of the antenna mast from each corner, while a fifth camera affixed near the top of the mast gives us a 360 view.
The cloud cover looms thick and dark over Jan’s head and the winds bluster around her. She points at a large billowing cloud and traces its collision course to the building’s antenna mast. She attaches her self-locking device to a rod at the base of the mast. This protects her in the event of a mishap by arresting her fall. She pulls on her compression gloves and begins to scale the service ladder. Her yellow figure is emblazoned against the dark gray clouds. On the screens, she appears as a modern ‘Jan and the Beanstalk’ reinterpretation of Robert Barnum’s photograph.
Jan watches the incoming cloud as she climbs, judging its height and path, as well as the direction of the wind. She needs to position herself such that the ripped cloud passes directly overhead and within arm’s reach. She gets only one shot. The margin for error is no more than a couple of inches.
At one point, Jan steps off the ladder and directly onto the antennas sticking out of the mast. She regards the incoming cloud and adjusts her position one final time. Then, she clips a carabiner onto the mast and runs a length of rope through to another carabiner on her belt. She leans back on her harness and adopts a reclining position, looking as casual as the steelworker in Lewis Hine’s ‘Icarus’ photograph. She pulls out two balls of cotton yarn and clips them to either side of her harness-belt. She threads two darning needles and tests whether the yarn flows seamlessly. The cloud bears down on the antenna mast like a zeppelin. The rumbling thunder reverberates across the roof. Jan focuses intently on the cloud, a darning needle threaded and waiting in each hand like a sword. There is a moment of stillness as she waits.
The large dark cloud crashes with a sigh into the jagged mast, which slices it like a hot knife through butter. Jan extends her needles to the ripped underside of the cloud as it passes over her. Her arms fly in a crisscross motion, threading alternating paths across the cloud’s gash. Jan darns the cloud like an orchestral conductor conjures life. The balls of yarn on her belt spin furiously.
The cloud takes the longest minute to pass through the mast. Jan’s arms are a blur, racing against nature itself. She doesn’t flag until the entire cloud passes through her needles. Finally, she darns the last of the cloud’s gash and her hands drop to her side. Exhausted. Victorious. A tail of cotton yarn dances behind the escaping sutured cloud.
Jan takes her time to regain her breath, then sheaths her needles. She unclips herself from the mast, finds her way back to the service ladder, and climbs down. Her double-helix stitch has given the ruptured cloud a chance to heal itself by holding the water in for just a little while longer. She has bought the cloud time and saved midtown Manhattan from a deluge.
After the Homeland Security Act of 2002 was passed, the State of New York recognized the Cloud Maintenance Officer as a local nongovernmental emergency response provider. Janma Patell climbs to the very top of the Empire State Building in the roughest weather. She is always in danger of being swept away by storm winds and cloudbursts or even being struck by lightning. Safety equipment is constantly improving to minimize the possibility of accidents but the chances are never zero. However, ask Jan about the dangers of her job and she responds with the joys of being a Cloud Tailor.
“In Joni’s words, it’s cloud’s illusions I recall,” she says. “Rows and flows of angel hair, and ice cream castles in the air, and feather canyons everywhere.”
Venkataraghavan Subha Srinivasan (author)
I am a writer and actor from south India. My bestselling nonfiction book The Origin Story of India’s States was published by Penguin in 2021. My children’s books have been published by Pratham Books and my short fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, among others. The plays and films I have written have been awarded at festivals. I have been an audiobook narrator for Audible and an onscreen actor-presenter for Byju’s. I have been a cohort member at the Nature Writing for Children Certificate Course by Azim Premji University (2022), the Helter Skelter Writing Workshop (2021), and the Dum Pukht Writing Workshop (2019). I am currently writing, directing and performing a children’s play about a tremendously tall person.