A Relic by the Sea by Urmi Chakravorty

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The sea gives back all it takes, you had told me once, as we stood on a large boulder, looking out into the twilight sea. It was our favourite spot, our boulder – a slate grey, oval piece of ancient rocks, smoothed to perfection by centuries of weathering. The sun was a fiery ball of tangerine, splashing prismatic brushstrokes on heaven and earth, before finally retiring for the night. 

I was sixteen and naïve. As my nimble fingers intertwined with your broad, strong ones, I believed you. Amidst the moss-slickened rocks and boulders flanking the sea, hadn’t I spotted an array of articles that were once swallowed by the sea, only to be returned a few days later?  Slippers, ribbons, cracked sunshades, bottles and cans, soggy books, a walking stick, and numerous such things that remained tucked away in the crevices for months, bearing testimony to the generosity and selflessness of the sea. The high winds tossed up a salty sea spray on my face as the first whiff of love invaded my being, filling every nook and cranny of my heart with thoughts of you. It’s not something I had intended or manifested; it just happened. Pretty much like the waves that fanned out all over the sandy shores and mud flats, leaving no corner untouched. Did they seek permission? Hell, no! 

You were eighteen, and quite mature for your age. We walked barefoot on the wet sand for miles – shells, seaweeds and tiny orange crabs nipping at our ankles and scraping under our feet. You were always confident, self-assured, and so in charge – of me, of your emotions, of our situation. I loved the feel of the briny wind on my face, tousling up my brown curls, flicking them off my forehead. You gripped my wrist every time I ran off into the waters, throwing caution to the winds, literally. Even your involuntary touch had an electrifying effect on me. I halted mid-sprint, while you pulled me towards your chest with one rough tug. You assumed it was your firm voice that did the trick, and I knew better than to contradict you. Could I ever confess that I was reeling under the effect of your casual embrace and delicious annoyance? 

I did not know how to swim. And as always, you were aware of that and, hence, very cautious.  Like how you knew about all those unspoken words that transpired between us. Of the pregnant silences, and the frivolous banter. Of my love for you, which waxed and waned like the phases of the moon. After all, I was only sixteen, and you were my first love. How was I supposed to carefully nurture something that was, in itself, my life breath, my elixir? 

Then I grew up some more. And so did you. The first black hairy curve hovering over your lips was a huge distraction for me. I so longed to touch it, feel its stubbly surface, but I desisted. I was happy just being with you. Of feeling your warm breath on my nape as you flicked away a stray leaf from my hair. Or observe your Adam’s apple move tantalisingly as you hummed your favourite movie number. You had a penchant for music and could pick up the lyrics within two hearings flat! But how could I tell you that you were tone deaf, and would best qualify as an aspiring but hopeless vocalist?! You glanced at me for approval – bashful, hesitant, so uncharacteristic of you, like a young schoolboy submitting his first homework. My heart exploded as I hugged you, mouthing incoherent words of praise.

Our quaint little village often looked like a misfit in this fast, frenetic world. We were a fishermen’s community frozen in a strange perpetuity. Every resident was a part of this extended family, as it were, upholding and abiding by the ancient regulations handed down through generations. Nestled in this time capsule, any signs of change or progress were feared and shunned, much like the giant tidal waves which often threatened to swallow up our village whole. Every boy and girl had a fixed age and manner in which to marry, bear children, earn a living, and work for the well-being of the community. No aberration was encouraged or tolerated. We often laughed and wondered – you and me – if there was a pre-decided date and time for death, as well! But underlying all those moments of dismissive laughter, lurked a mortal fear… an apprehension…for the path ahead. We had embarked on a condemned trajectory with no roadmap in hand. The future looked nebulous, but there was no point of return, either.

The lone frangipani tree in our courtyard bore flowers almost all through the year. But monsoons were when the tree regaled in her own sensuous beauty. The simple cream-and-pink blooms produced the most mesmerising fragrance that spread far and wide. I literally grew up with the tree and considered it my confidante. Not surprisingly, we both blossomed around the same time. She bore her first flowers in the stillness of a moonless night, while I writhed in the ecstasy of forbidden love, lying on my cot near her. In the morning, I collected some of the flowers that had dropped below and placed them beside my pillow. Before long, my elder sister swept them away. It was unbecoming of young adults, apparently, to indulge in such foolish practices. But since that day, the frangipani, for me, became an abiding metaphor for your love. And of my longing for you.

The days passed and I turned twenty-two. We mostly met at the seaside. A cluster of towering coconut trees dotted the coastline at a distance. Walking on the long, desolate stretch of sand, hand in hand, with the waves gently kissing and tingling our feet, gave us joy like no other. In those hallowed moments, nothing else mattered – neither your family, nor mine, and certainly not the community or its austerity. There was no high-flying rhetoric that proclaimed our love for each other, nor any sacred vows taken – we just knew it and felt it in our hearts. The only witness to our fledgling romance was the sea. The infinite expanse of grey, teal and emerald, staring at us with its eternal pattern of rising and falling waves, was hard not to admire. We formed a secret triad, bound together by a sense of enigma and unpredictability. While the rocks and boulders remained transfixed at their place for centuries, there was also the natural ebb and flow of the waves, the changing rhythm of the high and low tides, and the constantly shifting kaleidoscope of colours on the water. And it was this play of contrasts that made the sea so irresistible to us. This was the only place where we could be ourselves, far removed from prying eyes and myopic judgments. 

For a few days in between, I found you getting impatient and snappish, as if searching for something special. And then you found it – a slate grey oval chunk of boulder sitting at the edge of the sandy shore, waiting for us to spot it, as it were. You looked as excited as a child winning his first trophy! In no time, you had gathered your tools – a couple of sharp, pointed stones in shades of red and rust. And then, with an air of purpose, you carved out a big heart, filled it with both our names and added an arrow piercing through them. The scraping and carving took considerable effort. Your eyes watered and your nose turned red as you blew away the fine particles of dust and rock powder. And when it was finally done, you proudly stepped back to see the result. Against the molten gold of the setting sun, two red chiselled names shone brightly within a blazing heart. Time came to a standstill as we stamped our love on stone for centuries to come. You cupped my face in your hands as your lips sought mine. As I melted in your arms, I wanted this moment to last forever.

When you disclosed that you were migrating to the city, I failed to fathom its import at first. I stood rooted to the spot, wondering if it was one of your silly jokes. Unfortunately, it was not. You had probably realised our alliance had no future and decided to shift gears while there was still time. I was in a quandary – should I ask you to stay back? Would we be able to convince our families? But you probably wanted to break free of the shackles that held you from pursuing a more meaningful future. A future that held the promise of freedom, comfort and affluence. You begged me to wait for a year before I took any decision. You promised to keep me posted about your new endeavours. The words seemed to float into my ears from some distant universe. They all sounded so alien, so cruel, but I nodded in approval. I could not comprehend the concept of a loan year but then, when had I ever doubted you? Or questioned your decisions? I understood your desperation…you must have silently felt relieved at my helplessness and quietude. 

You took the sea route to reach the nearest railway station. As the fishing boat carrying you bobbed and bounced on the foam-crested waves and faded from sight, I went and sat near our rock. Two names engraved inside a giant heart – the very sight seemed to scoff at me and at the travesty called love. Something broke within me that day – was it the noiseless splintering of my bruised heart? Or the cracking of that pious citadel of illusions we call trust? 

You asked me to bide for a year – I waited for two. There was no word from you. I started wondering if our shared moments and emotions were a figment of my imagination. The whiff of the frangipani at night was now a torture to my senses. Nothing in life made sense any more. Things were fast spiralling downwards for me. I needed to get a hold of myself, if only for the sake of my mother. After aeons, I listened to her. She was thrilled when I assented to her wish, as she and her folks dived into my wedding preparations with vengeance. I retreated to the farthest corner of my invisible shell, fighting a losing duel with the looming spectre of my impending marriage.

Our marriage was a simple village affair blessed by all and sundry. When we consummated it, I felt the warmth of your breath on my neck and face, and the tenderness of your lips on mine.

Life fell into a predictable routine. I tried my best to be a good spouse – responsible, respectful and affectionate. Luckily for me, ours was a staid partnership and neither of us harboured any lofty expectations or unreal dreams. We soon settled into a timetabled existence which involved doing tasks that were mundane but mandatory. We eventually graduated to being a family of three. I assiduously raised my daughter to become a good human being. She was a sprightly, spunky kid who added zest to my days. I dreaded the nights – the eloquent silence spoke to me while the darkness tossed up bright clear images of you, of us.

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We moved away from our village to a faraway bustling city, apparently in search of a better livelihood. But the truth was, this was the only avenue of escape from the ghosts of my earlier alliance. The grey, carbon-filled air of the city happily invaded my nostrils, blowing away memories of the sulphurous smell of seawater. The cacophony of both man and machine drowned the echoes of the rolling waves hitting the shoreline with a fascinating urgency. I enjoyed the anonymity the city offered. It helped me bury my past under the layers of my present hustle. I visited our village twice a year to meet my mother. And to take a stroll along the seaside…sit near our beloved rock…and mourn the passing of love. The sea was still the same – warm, welcoming, solacing. During every visit I made a very casual, matter-of-fact enquiry about you to our common friends, but each time I was greeted with the same ominous negative. No, you hadn’t returned. Neither were you in contact with anybody in the village. Your parents had long passed. It seemed you, too, had vanished from the face of the earth without a trace. And with every resounding ‘no’, my heart was fractured some more, till all that remained of it was a carmine landscape zigzagged with woebegone veins and oxygen-starved arteries. I succumbed to the finality of the situation. You no longer formed a topic of enquiry or discussion during any of my subsequent visits to the village. Nor did I venture anywhere near the sea. The triad was broken and dissolved, and I steeled myself to face an emotional whiplash. 

Today, more than two decades later, I’ve returned to the sea, looking out into its infinite depths, my eyes straining in vain to catch a glimpse of you. A rare telephone call from the village conveyed the news. You were gone. Dead…drowned! You had suddenly surfaced after all these years and were eager to pick up the threads of life. You were always taciturn, but now you had almost become a recluse. A chance interaction with a neighbour revealed that you had migrated to foreign shores with a well-paying job. And this visit was scheduled mainly to sell off your paternal house and land. The only thing that seemed to kindle a spark in you was the sea. You religiously went for walks, both at dawn and at dusk. And one fateful day you did not return. The sea was particularly choppy that morning, with rough tempestuous winds fanning out in all directions. A passer-by had casually warned you against venturing out anywhere beyond the boulders. But when did you ever pay heed to others? A couple of fishing boats at a distance had spotted you being dragged away by the surging waves – arms flailing, legs struggling, a mop of salt and pepper struggling valiantly to stay above the waters. But by the time they managed to hem in close, you had sunk into its unfathomable depths, never to be seen again. 

The sea is known to be generous. It always returns whatever it swallows. So why did it make an exception this time? I search for answers across the sea and the sand. I find none. The assortment of debris still remains, snuggled among the fissures. Things that no one needed any more. But then, you were always so admirable, so endearing…everyone wanted a piece of you. Suddenly, I find the sea looking very old, grey and tired. The moment it took you in, it lost all its magic. Now what remains is the stale compounded smell of aquatic fauna, algae and weed assailing my senses. My spirit tree – the frangipani in our courtyard – had also wilted a few years ago. The heady fragrance that marked my first flush of love, had faded out forever.

I’m not sure if I feel any sense of real grief now – it’s been so long and so hard – loving you, losing you, getting over that loss, and now this fresh cycle of events playing out with an uncanny similarity with the past. With you resting in a watery womb, my last sinew of kinship with the sea has snapped. There is neither the pull of family nor the anticipation of love – only the rubble of memories lying buried under the rockpile of unfulfilled passion. 

I start walking back, dragging my leaden feet across the wet sand. I know I shall never return to these parts now. There’s something that catches my eye – I stop momentarily. It’s our favourite rock, our comfort couch, looking at me askance. I walk over and stand by its side – the only player in our love story which has weathered all storms and stood the test of time. I lovingly caress its stony surface. The large engraved heart is obscure now – the arrow piercing through our names even more blurry. And yet, for me, this carving will remain the biggest and the most enduring truth of my life – Shiva loves Venky – two innocent young boys caught amidst an eternal, abiding romance between the sea and the land. While the land slipped from beneath our feet, the sea crashed on our virginal dreams. Only the rock stands as a relic – loyal, undemanding, sacred. I cast a long, loving look at it and head back to the village, wrapping up decades of yearning, and junking it to a moth-eaten niche within my heart.

Urmi Chakravorty

Urmi Chakravorty

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