The steamer’s outline bobbed against a canvas of orange, the night peeling away into the salty air, the dawn bringing with it the uncertainty of another day. Huddled against the wooden walls of the tiny cabin, surrounded by other sleeping forms under blankets, Velappan’s bleary eyes settled on the solitary form of a tern resting on the bow.
Some journeys are momentous; characterized by the mind’s attempt to retract as the passage progresses. The mind steadfastly remains where it started, while the physical world changes, in form, in tongue, and the clothes people wear. When time moves forward, it becomes the predator we know. Biting, clawing and eating into our sanity – our forever battle with the unclear future. The only way to beat the pride of time is to deny it with memory. Time retreats in the face of memory.
Velappan’s journey by train to Madras, all of two days, had been in the company of other Malayalis. There had been no dearth of conversation, most of it abuzz with news of the Great War, though the questions from the young ones rifled through when the talk waned. Most of them teenagers, characterized by their unsure glance and disheveled appearance, were on their way to Madras for the first time. Velappan described the city to them, how his first time had been, as they hung on to what he told them in the small hours of the night. It was not that long ago, it now seemed, though it had actually been almost five years, when he stepped off the train for the first time in Madras.
What had surprised him then was the bustle; the hurried pace things take on in a city, and the complete absence of the leisurely stares you encounter in the countryside. Nobody was interested in you. You felt instantly alone.
And, now, Velappan knew that he had felt it again, in Madras, the moment he let himself be sucked into that human maelstrom just outside the bogie. And he knew why. The loneliness had made itself known. Something which he thought was dead, something he had completely forgotten. How it knifed through him, rendering him weak and besotted with a face back home. And it hurt unlike anything.
At the newly built NQ berth in the Madras harbour, Velappan realized that the service to Singapore was erratic. The steamer, scheduled for departure two days back, hadn’t still left the dock. He was lucky to get a ticket for himself on the SS Heera Varna since a few passengers had already left, disgusted by the indefinite wait.
Rumors floated around about submarines lurking in the straits of Malacca. Possibly Japanese, they had mistakenly torpedoed two sister steamers of Heera Varna, assuming them to be supply vessels in the past month. Nobody knew when Heera Varna would commit herself to the crossing – the passengers waited. Fear for their lives was least of their worries, consumed by the growing apprehension if they could make it to Singapore and the commitments that awaited them. Death was something that happened to others. The sustaining drive of life – the material pursuits which paled everything else that stood in its way – seemed to reign in every mind aboard that ship.
In the dark of the night, to avert possible aerial bombing runs, Madras lay cloaked in the safety of an official blackout. The waters of the harbour engaged in the cyclic work-out of the tides, constantly lapping the vessel’s sides to a pre-set rhythmic beat. Velappan sat in the pitch-black cabin, his mind caught in the recollective trap of the last week’s events. Most of it was a blur now, the way it is for those who get married, where you hardly remember a single detail of the ceremonies, even though you were there in the flesh. The smiling faces, congratulatory nods, the raucous pops of the camera flashguns – all of it seemed unnatural now. For the mind had been engulfed in the tumult that accompanies a man’s greatest transformation, of becoming a woman’s man, a husband.
But Karthi’s face outshone anything else. For a brief while, on that train journey to Madras, the hope that burned in the eyes of the teenaged travelers and their questions had threatened to distract him. But when sleep cast her enchantment on that urine-reeking bogie at night, Velappan had been glad to have his private thoughts returned to him.
There was something about this woman he had wed, he could not decipher the transcendence she cast on him, and he felt himself drawn inexorably to her. If this was love, then he had been wrong all his life. It was unlike anything he had imagined love to be; based on what men knew and in itself, a concoction of theories with an inbuilt timer, something that blows up all ideas you hold as pertinent until then. It was a certain blinding redundancy that accompanies the state of falling and being in love. And, therefore, Velappan could not even label it as love. All that emotions had sublimated into a powerful longing, which threatened to drive him wild in his wakeful hours and render him a zombie at nights.
In a sense, in that short time they were together, in the midst of her tearful concerns about her sisters whom she had left behind, he had sensed an innate strength that arose out of the sensitivity that she so easily wore. And that strength weakened him. For a man is instinctively drawn to securing a woman’s safety, expecting her dependence in matters both worldly and emotional. Nothing can render him inconspicuous than a woman who negates that thought. Man has consistently ridden on that weakness or at least the pretence of it, deriving his strength and validity from his mate’s need to be protected.
The morning sky stood witness. And the deadening light of the stars gave into the kindness of a stronger light, of the sun and the winds of the oceans, all mute witnesses to this madness played out within the mind of man. And, just as the tern on the bow, Velappan sat lonely, unsure of what the future held for him. For the while, he rested, the ocean’s rhythm bringing life to the feathers, for the long flight ahead.
A rhythm that placed faith in the love for a woman.