The sapphire hued beach stretched as far as my eyes could reach, blending seamlessly with the distant horizon. The clamouring waves set me adrift in the mazes of my shadowy past, obliterating all other sounds, but the voices in my head.
Everytime I was here, I travelled back in time, way back to where it all started.
To the first time I saw Neelambari. Back to the old school building in our sleepy sea side town of Varkala. Back to that sweltering July afternoon – I was headed to the staff room, a stack of examination papers in hand, when I saw her with a friend of hers, whose name I’m unable to recollect after all these years. They were huddled outside the chemistry lab, gushing over some pictures in a magazine. One hand casually draped over the friend and the other on her slim waist, her hair primly tied in a ponytail, she suddenly looked up at me with her brown eyes, so full of secrets.
‘’Good afternoon, Sir.’’ She said poker-faced, as her friend hastily tried to conceal the magazine.
I’d been too much smitten to even reply.
It doesn’t stop there. The crashing waves drag me further into the past, reminding me of stolen glances and guilty pleasures. I had tried my best to resist my unseemly desires, sure to bring disrepute to me as her teacher and she, my underage student. But I gave in, all too willingly, to the magic in her soulful eyes. She was in many ways like the sea , unpredictable – calm and playful at times and stormy at others, making me want her, watch her, play with her and love her forever.
My memories fast forward to our sinful trysts in empty classrooms and dark corners of the library. We carried on our torrid affair with wantonness, unmindful of disapproving looks. The sight of the now threadbare mattress in my bedroom where we made love for the first time, opens up a hole in my heart where she used to reside. Just how many years has it been since then? Twenty five? Thirty? Time has indeed taken its toll on my memory.
Strangely enough, I seem to remember all those empty promises I made, with amazing clarity –of how things would change for the better, how we’d get married, where we’d live and what we’d name our kids.
Regretting something from the past is like watching a sad movie over and over again, hoping the ending would somehow change – but it never really does.
The brutality of the waves crashing against rocks, reminds me of my own, as I berated her when she told me that she was pregnant. Wracked by indecision, I did what I thought was right at that time of my life. The consequences of our indiscretion were enormous. Entire lives were at stake- my career, her studies… after all, at 17, she was just a child herself.
It was a dastardly thing to do. I used my future as an excuse, not realising that Neelambari and our unborn child, were the best future I could hope to have. I convinced her to get rid of the baby and took her to a shady family clinic in Thiruvananthapuram. I couldn’t possibly risk getting it done in our close knit town of Varkala where news travelled swift.
In the crowded bus to Thiruvananthapuram, I stood at a respectable distance away, not wanting to be seen travelling with her, as she discreetly wept into her saree pallu in a seat by the window. The pain in her eyes that day, is something I shall carry with me to my grave.
Outside the rickety gates of the family clinic, Neelambari had stopped and refused to take a step further. I grovelled and humoured. I cussed and threatened. But her mind was made. There was a stoic, faraway look in her eyes.
“Something tells me it’s going to be a boy”, she said, almost to herself. “I came up with a name for him on our way here. Neelambari and Indrakumar’s love child – Indraneel! .” Her eyes were hard, set. She looked almost deranged.
I did something then that I’d live to regret till my dying day. I walked away from her, never turning back even for a second. Not bothering whether she even had the money to take the bus back home. I packed up and left town. I didn’t want to come back here, ever. I hated myself for my gutlessness but my desperation drove me into doing what I did.
I boarded a bus, not really caring where it went. I couldn’t rest until I’d left Varkala a few hundred miles behind. The bus took me all the way to Kanyakumari. There, in the temple of Devi Kanya Kumari, the holiest shrines of the Mother Goddess, where the Goddess herself is worshipped as a young girl, I pleaded forgiveness for the way I’d wronged another young girl, hundreds of miles away. I chanted the Gayatri a 1008 times. I bathed in the Holy Sangam , I shaved my head.
However much I tried to mollify my heart with self- professed remorse, like an unforgiving spectre, my guilt returned to haunt me. The hazel blue seas of Kanyakumari mirrored the restlessness of my soul, tugged at my heart sleeves and battered my defences, reminding me of the girl I’d abandoned reprehensibly.
I couldn’t undo my choices, but at least I could try setting it right. I ended up taking the next bus back home. All along the way, I fretted. What if she couldn’t forgive me? It was a frightening thought.
I had by now come to realise what really mattered, but sadly, not soon enough for us. For when I reached her house, it was locked. I could have tried looking her up. She couldn’t have moved too far from Varkala. With a bit of determination I could have tracked her down, but chose not to. The locked house was a sign that it wasn’t meant to be. Truth be told, the mask of guilt that I wore was simply to hide my cowardice.
I went back to work. Surprisingly, her going away had failed to kick up a furore in our little town. The gossip grapevines were silent. People were either clueless or simply didn’t care.
But I wasn’t at ease. I sometimes dreamt of an angry mob led by Neelambari’s family, tearing down my door, but my fears were unfounded. No one ever turned up at my door seeking revenge or justice. I continued to be the soft-spoken, dignified, punctilitious English Teacher till the day I retired.
Over the years, I often wondered how life would have turned out for her. Definitely not easy. Had she fought on despite all odds or ended it all in sheer desperation? Those were days when I couldn’t live with myself. I was too cowardly even to end my own miserable life. I never married. Regret, depression and self-loathing became my constant companions.
Things you hold dear are like pearls on a string. Cut the knot and they scatter across the floor into dark corners, never to be found again. You move on and eventually forget what the pearls even looked like. Years passed. I moved on.
And then, the letter from Neelambari arrived. It was a short one – a few lines in her childish scrawl. And a photograph of a young man. She was dying. She didn’t ask to see me, she merely wanted me to know that I had a son who was in college. And yes, she did name him ‘Indraneel’ after us. With the arrival of the letter, old wounds in my heart resurfaced, raw and painful as ever. I wept for the love of my life who was withering away, for the son I never knew and the relationship we never had.
I longed to meet them. But, was it even right to visit someone whom I’d abandoned callously thirty years back? Alas, there was no book of etiquette setting out rules of deathbed rapprochement between people!
When I did gather my wits enough to make a call to the number given by her, it was too late. She was gone, and with her, my final chance at making peace with my past.
The salty breeze, reeking of seaweed and fish, caressed my unshaven face, dragging me back to the present. The setting sun bathed the beach in its golden glow. Shops were lit up and the crowd of beach goers was dwindling. Somewhere a dog barked. It reminded me that I had to get back home to Prince, my doggy companion of many years.
He had been sick for days now. It warranted a visit to the pet clinic that I was loathe to take.
I hadn’t been to the clinic ever since the day I went by to pick up Prince’s medicines and noticed the freshly painted nameboard above the doorway that read – Indraneel. N , Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine and Science (University of Kerala).
Some say that you simply can’t let go of the past without facing it again.
Over the years I’d stared at the photograph of the young man often enough to spot him from miles away, but nothing had prepared me for seeing him thus – in flesh , a few feet away, breathing in the same air that I did , examining a calf. Almost as if he could sense my presence, he looked up. Our eyes locked. I froze. I expected an outburst of emotion – anger, happiness, grief. But nothing was forthcoming. He turned away barking instructions to his assistant.
Neelambari had had her sweet revenge by making sure that I was completely erased from our son’s life. To him, I probably was as good as dead.
I couldn’t reach out and hug him or call him ‘son’. It felt so wrong. And so, I walked away.
In my weak, misguided choices, I had missed out on the most precious things in life – watching my son grow up and setting out into the world. I had not had the chance to take pride in what he’d achieved. Was he married? Were there grandchildren? The very thought that I might never get to meet them was too much to bear. In a way I had suffered more from the loss of Neelambari and Indraneel than they had.
I had given the pet clinic a wide berth ever since.
As I came up through the dirt road leading upto my house, Prince welcomed me with his furious barking. It had always been like this. Every single time I came back home. The old fellow was waiting for me as I came in, pleased as ever, his long fringed tail gently swish –swashing. He tried jumping onto my lap, but couldn’t quite make it. Even such a minor exertion sent him heaving and panting. I knew there was some trouble with his heart. I gently stroked him and he whined in quiet satisfaction. After laying out his dinner I made myself a cup of tea. When I returned, I saw his food untouched. Prince was sprawled out, his tongue lolling, limbs at awkward angles.
That decided things for me. I didn’t lose another minute deliberating. I wrapped him up in an old blanket and rushed out into the evening. I was lucky to get an auto almost immediately. All along the bumpy ride, I kept talking to Prince like a mad man, for it struck me that it could be our last ride together.
It was dark when we reached the pet clinic. Under the lamplight, I could see the assistant locking the gate. I literally bellowed from the auto, asking him to stop. I could make out the silhouette of Indraneel a few feet away, smoking.
I was crying so hard, I can’t seem to remember what happened next. It was all so hazy.
Indraneel gently took Prince away from me and disappeared into the examination room. I spent the next hour pacing restlessly. After what seemed like eternity, the assistant called me inside.
Prince was lying on the table sedated. Indraneel was stroking him gently. He didn’t look up as I entered the room.
“His heart valves are weak. I’ve given him something to steady his breathing. He might be out for the next few hours. He’s an old dog. Let’s hope for the best.” He was curt to the point of being rude.
I nodded mutely, tears welling up in my eyes. I didn’t know what hurt me more – seeing my son address me like a stranger or the sight of my beloved companion on the operating table.
“You can take him home.” It was a subtle dismissal.
I picked up the sleeping dog as gently as I could. The room suddenly swam dangerously around me. I staggered and almost fell. Almost. Indraneel caught me just in time.
“Let me drop you home. I know where you live.” And seeing the surprise in my eyes, he continued “My mother used to live by the beach as well.”
We drove in silence. Prince was curled up on my lap. We heard the sea before we saw it. It was deserted. The frothy waves under the moonlight looked milky white. It was almost holy in its exuberance. As I saw the wonderment in Indraneel’s eyes, I realised that he connected to sea the same way I did.
I thanked him profusely as we reached my place. He dismissed my thanks with a casual shrug.
He was about to drive away when he suddenly paused and blurted out, “Tell me this one thing, was naming me Indraneel , your idea or her’s?”
I wasn’t expecting that. I stared at him too startled to even reply.
Behind us, the waves roared and crashed.In those brown eyes of his, so like his mother’s, I saw gentleness and perhaps pity, but no anger.
When regret and pain has become a way of life, you expect it to be there forever, colouring every minute of your life with its bleakness. Sometimes, you almost fail to recognise happiness, only because it is a feeling so unfamiliar.
Walking under the starry skies, with the waves and my son for company, I’d finally managed to find happiness that had eluded me over the years.