[I wrote this short story just after the tsunami in 2004. It was well received. I am re- publishing it in the context of the Japanese tragedy.]
Songs of the sea
The little girl wearing a faded green dress sat alone on the deserted beach, a few feet away from the waterline, looking westward and waiting. She tried to flatten her hair that tossed about in the strong evening breeze with her hands but the strands wouldn’t stay back.
The sun was setting against a dull, cloudless sky. Waves rolled in with foam on their crests. Some new, colorful fishing boats along with older ones were out in the distance on their way back home. Birds flew around looking for prey before returning to their nesting places. But the girl was not concerned with the details. She was watching the vast expanse of the Arabian Sea. Somewhere under that water mass was the Palace of Kadalamma, the Mother Goddess of all oceans and fisher folk.
Occasionally there was talk about the waves striking again. But the girl was not afraid. After they shifted to a small new cottage beside the beach, she went to the seashore every evening all by herself. It had become a routine. Sometimes when she was tired of sitting up, she would lie on the sand. Often she dropped off to sleep and had dreams that were mostly pleasant.
She loved Kadalamma in spite of what had happened. Her grandmother had told her so many stories about the great ocean goddess who was kind, loving, and caring. It was only when her subjects broke her laws that Kadalamma became angry. And once that happened, the goddess was blind and raving mad. Someone somewhere would have breached the rules. That was why Kadalamma had sent those huge waves of destruction.
One of her grandma’s stories warned that if a fisher woman went astray Kadalamma would take her husband away. The old lady had a song for it. She had songs for most of her yarns. She would sing exposing the few teeth she still had, clapping her hands in rhythm and then give the narration.
The girl didn’t know what ‘astray’ meant and guessed that it was something not good. But she couldn’t understand why the innocent man was taken away? May be it was to save him from the shame of his wife turning bad and the troubles of the world. People were always talking about problems and difficulties.
Many of granny’s other tales though, were of men who braved angry seas and fought giant sharks and returned victoriously to become heroes. And they lived on. Strange were the ways of the grown-ups, the girl thought. When she asked her grandmother about it, there was a ready answer – the actions of bad people sometimes caused loss and hurt to good people as well.
Granny was away at the girl’s uncle’s place in land when the sea attacked. Her father had gone there to bring back the old woman. They had not seen Kadalamma’s fury. But the girl had, and remembered every little detail till she become unconscious during the rage of the waves.
When she opened her eyes again sometime in the night, she was lying on a bench in the partially damaged schoolhouse near their hamlet and a tired-looking doctor was examining her. Her father was back. He stood nearby with tearful eyes, along with other people. Someone was describing how she was found trapped among the fronds of a fallen coconut palm.
She looked around and whispered, “Amma”.
Nobody answered. Father told her later that they were searching for Amma and other missing persons. Hope lingered for a few days and slowly turned to numb acceptance. The girl couldn’t even cry.
They were housed in a crowded temporary shed after the tragedy. The girl didn’t like the place or the people there and kept aloof even from children of her age group. Some called her dumb because she hardly talked. Initially, food was scarce. Fisher folk were used to that during times of poor catches or when the men were careless with money. Then supplies started coming in regularly. The first lot of old clothes distributed to them were the type the sahibs wore, thick and warm. Those were taken back and lighter garments were brought. The girl got three dresses. One was slightly torn and another a bit too large, but they were all nice.
Everyone was talking about tsunami all the time. It sounded like a girl’s name. However the she realized soon that it referred to the disaster that had ravaged their hamlet and had left a strange impact on the victims. People were grumpy and very irritable. They fought amongst them even over small things and always blamed government. She too was angry.
Then, one day, she got to see government.
He came in a big, fat car accompanied by others in several vehicles, and Jeep-loads of policemen. Initially the girl was a little afraid but forced herself to look. Government was an elderly person with tousled hair and seemed like other men. His name was Chief Minister. He listened to complaints of the inmates, talked to important-looking people, and gave a speech.
The girl didn’t understand what was said. But after Government left, the grown-ups argued as usual. Some said that they would get new houses and boats soon. Others were doubtful. Many felt that people with Government would cheat the poor fishermen and make money for themselves. Her father kept out of such discussions. He was always sad and quiet. She felt sorry for him. She knew that he had loved Amma very much even though sometimes he used to fight with her. Men were like that.
One night the girl saw the waves again in her sleep and woke up crying. She couldn’t stop. Some of the people in the camp cursed loudly because they were angry at being disturbed in their sleep. That hurt more and she wailed louder. Father carried her outside and they spent the rest of the night on the moon-washed sands.
By morning the girl had high fever and started vomiting. The doctor said that it was partially a delayed effect of the trauma caused by the tsunami and needed expert treatment. He sent them to a large hospital run by nuns in the nearby town.
They were directed to a doctor who attended to tsunami related cases. The lady faintly resembled Amma. She wore a white coat over a pink sari, and smelt of jasmine. The girl secretly named her ‘Jasmine doctor’.
“What’s your name?” the doctor asked.
“Parvathy,” the girl answered. “Amma used to call me Paru.”
“Shall I also call you Paru?”
“Yes,” the girl said with a shy smile.
After examining the girl and asking questions, the doctor said, “You’re fine, Paru. Only a little frightened inside. We’ll remove that fear.”
The doctor went to the refugee camp frequently and took Paru for long walks along the beach. They talked a great deal, told stories, and played games.
One day the girl asked the doctor abruptly, “Have you ever played chasing crabs?”
“No. What sort of game is that?”
“You find little pinkish crabs on the seashore. Go near them and they start running. You run after them. It’s very exciting.”
“Well,” the doctor said, “I missed the fun. There were no crabs where I grew up. But why did you ask?”
Paru suddenly burst out crying. The doctor knelt beside her on the beach and hugged her. After a while she asked, “Paru, what’s the matter?”
“Amma died,” the girl replied between sobs, “because of me.”
The doctor hugged her again, gave her a gentle kiss, and said, “I’m sure that you’re wrong.”
“No, it’s true.”
“Would you care to talk about it?”
The girl nodded.
On the day of the waves, Paru said, she was walking back from the local shop with Amma around noon, carrying Dolly, her plastic baby. She wanted to chase crabs. That was something they did together often. Amma told her that it was too hot for the crabs to be out. But the daughter ran to the shore anyway and was surprised to find several of the little creatures moving around frantically. She called her mother who was waiting by the shade of a coconut palm at the edge of the sands.
Amma came out to the beach. She looked concerned when she saw the frenzied crabs.
It was then that they heard the roar like a thousand motorboats racing together. Amma looked towards the sea once, lifted Paru and ran, her blue and white checked dhoti flapping about. She did not scream or shout for help but sprinted with all the speed she could muster.
But not fast enough.
When they reached the coconut grove the gushing waves overtook. The last thing Paru remembered before becoming unconscious was Amma trying desperately to reach her in the swirling waters and Dolly drifting away.
The girl told the doctor between sobs that if she hadn’t stopped for chasing crabs they would have been safely home.
“My dear child,” the doctor said gently, “you’re wrong. Your house too was washed away.”
That was true, Paru thought.
After months at the camp Paru and her father shifted to one of the few identical little houses that were newly built near the beach for the tsunami victims by some good people. Father said that it was theirs. Others who weren’t so lucky complained that Government wasn’t doing anything. There were protest marches and slogan shouting. The girl didn’t care. Now they had a home again.
Jasmine doctor had come to see them off to the new place. As they were leaving she had told the girl, “Paru, you’re a good girl. You are all right now. Look after yourself and your father.”
Shortly after they moved to their new abode, grandma joined them. The old lady told the little girl that she shouldn’t worry. Kadalamma wanted Amma at her Palace and had called her. She was happy there and would come to see Paru one-day.
And the girl waited.
She would look towards the sea often during the day though the glare hurt the eyes, and went to the beach every evening. It was good that she hadn’t started school yet, she thought. Otherwise, when Amma came she might be away in class.
Her one great worry was whether Amma would get sick, being wet in the sea because Kadalamma’s Palace was underwater. Grandma said no. Would Amma stay when she came? No, she would have to go back. That was the rule. In the end everybody returned to Kadalamma’s castle, which was the real home. It had different tiers. The sinners and the bad people would be at the lowest, in the muddy filth of the ocean floor. Forever. Slimy snakes and fearsome fishes and craggy crabs would keep on nibbling at them. They would freeze and thaw, freeze and thaw, as the water temperature changed. That was bad enough, but knowing that it was coming, the wait for it, made them even more miserable.
It was frightening. Clutching grandma, Paru resolved silently that she would always be good. She wanted to be on the upper levels of Kadalamma’s Palace where Amma surely would be. That was the place for good people. Grandma wouldn’t describe those parts of the castle except saying that they were beautiful beyond words. That didn’t make a picture in the mind. May be that was one thing the old lady didn’t know.
That evening, after sitting up on the sands for some time, Paru lay down. The breeze had softened and caressed her hair gently. It felt nice and she drifted off to sleep.
Then her mother came.
Amma rose from the water suddenly and rushed to the shore where the daughter was. She looked more beautiful than she was when the waves took her. Paru ran forward. Amma lifted her, held her against the bosom and whirled around like a top. Amma’s clothes were dry even though she had just come out of the sea.
They sat on the sand and talked. There was so much to tell each other. The girl gave details of the camp and the problems they had to face. She described the new house. Even now they had no money because the fish catches were poor. Father was always sad and silent. The mother explained that one had to be patient and bear the difficulties. She said that the situation would improve. Kadalamma was rearing large schools of fishes to be sent out to the sea for her sons to catch. The beach would soon see days of plenty.
Paru wanted to hear the song, which Amma had sung to put her to sleep on the night before the tsunami. It was about men venturing out to the endless sea on catamarans and women waiting anxiously beside wick lamps in windswept huts praying for the safe return of their husbands. Amma’s beautiful voice rose once again over the murmur of the waves. It lingered in the air briefly and faded away.
The mother described Kadalamma’s Palace. It was made of innumerable types of seashells and pearls of sizes that ranged from little beads to huge boulders. The garden around the building had corals of different colours and lovely plants that swayed with the currents. Pretty fishes of varying hues swam around like little angels all the time. There was continuous music that often changed in pitch and tune and tempo like wind on the palms, and the waves danced in rhythm. Certain types of sea life emitted light and kept darkness away. Everybody inside the castle was happy and cheerful and loved each other.
Now the Palace made a picture in the mind – clear, like a photo. There couldn’t be a lovelier place, the girl thought.
“Amma, I want to come there,” Paru said.
“Of course you must.”
“Now. With you.”
“No Paru, only when Kadalamma calls.”
“When will she call?”
“When it’s time,” Amma explained. “After you grow up and have babies of your own.”
“You mean real babies? Not like Dolly?”
“But Amma, you’ll be very old by then, like grandma.”
“At Kadalamma’s place each one would be herself. Always.”
The girl thought for a while. “Okay,” she said. “But will you come again?”
“If Kadalamma permits. Now I have to go.”
By the time Paru awoke and scrambled up Amma was gone. After a moment of hesitation she raced to the water, thinking that she could follow her mother’s footprints, reach the Palace and be with her. But there were no marks on the wet sand to guide her. May be, Paru thought, Kadalamma had the waves erase Amma’s trail because it wasn’t the time yet. She had to stay back. She had to look after herself and her father. And, she had to grow up and have babies of her own. Real babies. Not like Dolly.
Paru looked at the last remnant of the sun for a moment and turned around to the long way home.