“What do you think about that ship?”, Gulu Rao asked. His eyes were so squeezed, in the coming darkness of dusk, I was afraid, his eye lenses would bend permanently and stretch forward to make a telescope. I forgave him. He had a penchant for asking inappropriate questions at a most inappropriate time. Like now. The Bay of Bengal was in front. The waves were savage and furious. The wet black crows on the beach were scavenging leftovers with such a sad concentration that it seemed that they were on a scholarly mission. Plastic wrappers. Coconut shells. Beer bottles. ‘Not eatable, this sir; not breakable, this sir; ugh what’s this? How the humans eat this?’
And the tired seagulls. Because it was at the end of the day and because they were presumably coming home; their wings were flapping in such a tired way, with such a slow wh-e-e-e, wh-e-e-e, wh-e-e-e sound that I was afraid that at any moment they would give up and flop on the ground and sleep on the sand, till they found strength to fly again. Then, there, everything around that great moving water and the surrounding blackness turned so sad and drawn out and mysterious that it seemed almost perfect to be there. Before, of course, Gulu Rao came up with that unnecessary ship question.
“O ma, O ma, hear what our Gulu says. Tell it to your class, Gulu, tell it again.” Tribeni Miss had been the epitome of encouragement. With a mischievous green brightening up her face.
I had already nodded my head to say that I had not wanted to.
“Gulu says,’ – Tribeni Miss couldn’t hold the suspense any longer and had taken the responsibility to announce it to the class herself, mischievous green turning into a full scale smile-pity in her beautiful face- ‘Ships are carried by tall demons on their heads. The demons who can breathe underwater and grow their legs as the depth of the water grows. Understand?”
A roar of laughter had erupted in the class. Everyone had laughed, even the boys who had not ever seen a ship. Who had not even seen a sea. Or a river or a steamer or a boat or anything. The boys whose approval yet I had dearly sought. The good looking boys. The boys from the well to do families. Nirjhar. Probal. Ananta. And Abhishek. Whose hand I had secretly wished to hold and whose cheeks I had secretly wished to kiss. Everyday. He laughed too.
“I think more of a naked man named Archimedes running down the street like a madman when I see ships floating in the water.”, Tribeni Miss had winked and giggled to the another benevolent roar of the nine year olds, who would somehow get a joke every time it had appeared before them.
“But, I will think of you, Abhi, I will think only of you’, I had muttered to myself, ‘Whenever I see a ship in the water.”
When I reached the beach, I was tense. Boddo Babu had told clearly, “Nilamadhab, paancha hazaar tanka. This night. Tumar target.” I was speechless. Collecting five thousand rupees as a fine from the beach at one evening was not a joke. The tourists were getting more and more well behaved, and the locals were not be touched, even if they were selling Tadi on the beach. Then whose father was going to come and hand me over five thousand rupees this night, tell me?
But that was not the main thing. I was tense because of my Devjani. You understand, I wanted to marry her. But her Nauna disagreed. He said, “You don’t earn enough.” Understood? He said, “You are not even a Habildar. You are not even permanent.” Understood? Horrible. So I told him that ‘I earn extra.’ But he cut me short and replied, “My Devjani is not any…” So I had to cut him even shorter and reply, “She is my Devjani too.” That made her Nauna so angry that he drove me out of his house.
Now, I didn’t see any other purpose in life other than roaming around the beach alone with a baton in my hand and my Devjani in my heart. And a rate card. In my head.
‘Caught with a beer bottle: one hundred rupees.
Caught kissing a girl: two hundred rupees.
Caught putting hand in a girl’s blouse: I would see how much I could extract; negotiable.’
But the only tourists I found on the beach were two men sitting near the water, one short and pockmarked and another tall and well dressed. No girls, no half filled beer bottles standing by. Were they so afraid to enjoy life that they had come to the beach only to stare at the water? Pelei Puo tourists! Did they anyway care about my target?
Then I saw the ship.
Glowing like a palace in the mid water. Bright light appearing from the windows after windows. Like a garland of pearls. The garland my Devjani could wear on our wedding night if only I would have some money. And assuming, I already had the money, I would have taken her on that ship and had our wedding then and there, and our flower bed, never to set foot on this wet and rotten beach again.
But then I was distracted by some strange movements ahead of me. The two men who sat in front staring at the sea had shuffled awkwardly. The tall one in one small motion had put his right fingers at the back of the neck of the short one and started caressing him. O-ho-ho-ho, Gandi Mara Sankara! They didn’t know what awaited them.
My phone rang. Devjani.
She poured even before I could speak, “Nauna has agreed Nilamadhab. He has told me, ‘If you love him so much, go ahead then. I will not stop you.’ Do you hear?”
I wanted to.
But the tall man now had cradled the short man with his right hand and picked up his cleft chin with his left hand to bring his mouth close to his lips. They were going to kiss! Like a husband and wife!
Devjani drove me on the phone. “Why don’t you say something? Aren’t you happy?”
Of course, I was happy. This behaviour was completely unacceptable, illegal in this country, a punishable offense. O-ho-ho-ho, my tonight’s target. In one quick swoop.
But the moment I walked towards them the ship went dark. It didn’t vanish. It just switched off its lights. I could hear the sound of the sea all around. And I could feel the movement of the water all around. The sudden splash of the salt water. Only the ship stood calm and far and nonchalant, moving slightly with the rhythm of the dark water. Like Panigrahi’s bhajan.
Devjani called, “Nilamadhab. Nilamadhab.”
Please understand, I was not a sentimental man. That I was not being impractical. I knew very well that my employment was still not permanent and I had to earn to live, to marry, to have children and to look after them. I had to do my duty. But I couldn’t help but foolishly remembered the blind Panigrahi singing bhajan at the courtyard of the temple that I had visited every evening as a little boy.
“ Jaga tar nath-a/
E prithibi tumoro/
Sobu prem tumoro/
Kete daya tumoro/
Mor bhakti tumoro he- ”
The Lord of the World, oh, the Lord of the World, this world is yours, the love is yours, so is all kindness and my devotion towards you.
I said, “O-ho-ho-ho, Devjani. I am happy. I am very happy. We are getting married. No?”
My world had turned. I turned around with it and began to run towards Devjani’s house, leaving behind the sea and the dark ship and two men with an improper behaviour on a unsupervised beach.
Tomorrow morning Boddo Babu would be surprised. He would ask how I could become so lazy, so incapable, so fruitless; not earning a single rupee at the evening’s round. Did I hate my Police friends? Did I not like my extra income? Had I planted a money tree at my veranda? I would keep quite and keep my head down for the whole time and let him scold me for… as long as he wished. Then when he would be silent and tired, I would fold my hands in front of him and say in my most polite voice, “It’s all God’s miracle, Das Babu. Because, whoever were there at the beach yesterday night, I couldn’t find fault in any of them.