I look deep and long into the eyes of the dog admiring the guileless depths of its eyes. The dog responds by wagging its tail and traipsing at 180° to match my steps as I pass by. Quickly withdrawing my gaze and moving ahead, I deviously glance back to ensure that the dog is not following. The draught gnaws at my wet, cold body through my dripping sarong as I wade through the squishy, grating sand, plucking out one foot at a time. Everything looks pale, like I am looking through a bit of translucent glass, and I wonder why.
The wind brings faint resonances of ringing laughter. I spin around to scan the sea front eagerly, hoping to see her. No one... like so many other times. The restless sea chuckles as it rides up the shore on the swirls of luminous foam. I sigh, turn back and trudge towards my temporary abode carrying the listless waves in my heart. Past the rows of beach loungers, past the picture perfect garden, past the neat porch scattered with cane chairs, I amble to enter the foyer. Not a soul in sight… as expected.
The past seven days, since that blissful Wednesday afternoon the cabby had deposited me at the door of the resort, I haven’t known a moment of calm. Strangely, the surroundings are always peaceful, as I had hoped for when I started from my bustling city.
“Kanchi, a ten day stay at Whispering Waves, a beach side resort in a coastal village in Kerala. It will be a blissful break,” Asha my dearest friend had told me, “I have to attend the wedding; otherwise I wouldn’t miss it.” It was a vacation she received as a gift from one of our multimillionaire clients.
I ended up accepting the offer as I too felt that it would bring me out of the boredom I was experiencing. Jay, my husband was on a one year project in Estonia, and my dear daughter Sunidhi had got married last year and did not seem to remember me much after the first five months.
“I am busy learning life, Amma,” she had told me in her small earnest voice when I had asked her to call me more often.
“Go, enjoy, it will be a change for you. Don’t worry, months will fly, I will be back in no time,” said Jay giving me the final push to take the decision.
I landed up at the resort, a wide eyed tourist eager to soak in the luxury of the waves and the sun. Dreams of daylong writing sessions beside the soothing waves and the prospect of being on my own in the distant yet warm, comforting presence of strangers coursed through my veins as a tingling excitement. The first sight of the property had put whatever fears I had to rest. The classy building, painted in the lightest of blues and surrounded by a picturesque garden was the perfect setting for an idyllic holiday.
But the excitement evaporated after a very long and fretful 30-minute wait in the reception lobby. After sweating under the imperial surveillance of sea deities on the wall murals and snooping about a little it was the contact number from one of the brochures lying around that brought someone to the desk. The lanky nonchalant youth in dangling white pajamas did not feel that anything was amiss even after sharp anxious questioning about the unmanned desk and empty environs. But the room comforted me with its spacious, tastefully furnished interiors and the wide windows facing the beach.
The first sight of the beach had taken my breath away. Beyond the vast stretches of sand lay the crinkly sea shimmering like a bed of sapphire. A playful breeze, loaded with the fish-salt smell of sea filled me with an exhilarating feeling of freedom. But the quietude of the sea front matched the empty, silent corridors of the resort. Neither were there souvenir shops, food shacks or vendors on the sea front nor were there the throngs of tourists I expected in the resort. By night I had started feeling a little strange as I hadn’t met a single soul so far. The only waiter in the dining hall was stone faced and impenetrable and muttered monosyllables in answer to my many questions.
After a long evening on the beach and a lip smacking dinner of fish and rice I had spent a long time in the balcony taking in the night sea under the canopy of a sky lit with the full moon and a thousand sparkling stars. The question was why was the place so eerily deserted? I was able to sink into the depths of the soft, welcoming bed only after pushing a heavy table against the already bolted door. Still, a cloud of nagging discomfort hovered in the environs every coming hour that I spent here. Occasional sightings of a friendly attendant who came to clean the room, the always unmanned reception desk and the endless expanses of the sea front utterly devoid of another human soul… I was almost about to pack my bags and leave. But I stayed on because of the elusive child.
It was the third day that I perceived the child at first.
It came as a bubbly laughter like shells being emptied on a metallic surface. Shaken out of the afternoon siesta brought about by the heavy lunch and the humid weather I was utterly confused. But then there was the same stillness outside the room… undisturbed, timeless, and punctuated by the sights of the heaving sea. Then the bewildering presence kept me engaged all the time in a futile search. Distant resonances of running feet at all times of the day, the glimpse of a frilly white frock just disappearing beyond the majestic mermaid statue outside the dining area, an ice cream cone just abandoned sitting desolately in the pink molten ice cream pool on the garden bench... it was torture. Then one day I heard the girl crying. It was more of a whimpering sad cry, not the usual vigorous bawl of a young girl. Though I thought it was coming from the swimming pool area the sound died out as I reached the pool.
It is the eighth day today and I am eager to leave the resort behind and go back to the familiar city with its simple life. The roads overflowing with streams of crowds, busy food joints, the local trains coursing through the city like its veins and the familiarity – not this silence and mystery.
I speed up a little, but slow down as the icy grip of fear entwines around my feet. I hear the little feet prancing, right behind me. I don’t dare to turn back. Somehow I know that I will be looking directly into the child’s eyes if I turn back. I quicken my steps, sweat flowing down my face. But the girl comes closer and closer. I muster the courage to turn around hoping that it will be empty air behind me if I turn back. But I don’t dare… because she is right behind me. I can hear the tinkling of her anklet now. I am almost running.
Then I feel the tiny fingers, warm, moist and coated in sand curling around my flailing fingers. I freeze.
As I look down into her cute pixie face the bright noon fades around me.
“Amma, amma, wake up, I am hungry. Let’s go have lunch.” It is the child. She is squatting beside me on the warm sand – an almost complete sand castle and the scruffy black dog lying beside her. I watched a small crab dancing away from the sand castle and look at the child wanting to ask her, ‘Who on earth are you?’ But I remain mum. The girl is pulling at my arm, her big, lustrous eyes peering into me. I realize that it has been an hour since I passed out and struggle up holding the child’s hand.
In the dining hall the waiter smiles affectionately at her and offers her a toffee from the tray.
“Sunaina, your teeth are already rotten,” I scold her. I bite my tongue... Sunaina? Is that the child’s name and how on earth do I know her?
“Amma, I will have pizza today. You made me eat rice and curd yesterday,” she says scrunching up her nose.
“Pizza, ok, just for today,” I say. “Capsicum, fresh tomato and baby corn,” I rattle out to the waiter.
I drag my wobbly feet to the chair and fall down to the chair supporting my head on my palm.
After dinner I follow the dancing child to my room. She inserts her little hand into the secret inner pocket of my handbag, takes the key and opens the room. Inside, she throws her shoes near the rack near the door and jumps onto the bed pulling out a comic from under the pillow. With shock I see two more pairs of cute girls’ slippers and even a pair of small red shoes on the shoe rack.
I go to the cupboard to take out my night dress and find stacks of baby frocks beside mine. There’s even a photograph of the girl and an unfamiliar man holding us together. Everything is clearer now; the haze that had coated my vision has lifted. I pick up my wallet and extract my passport.
No, I turn my face hastily from the mirror as I turn towards the light. I don’t dare to look at me, not today. Maybe tomorrow…
In the passport my name is Mrs Subhadra Raghav and I am only 34, not 48 as I was earlier. Suddenly I remember Raghav’s loud resonating laughter and dear ways and the smell of his cigars... Baffled, I go back to the bed, and sink down to the soft folds of the comforter, holding the child close to me.
“Don’t forget to brush. Do you remember Hamid uncle’s dental clinic?” I smile and cuddle the child though I am utterly bewildered about what I am. But everything about my behaviour is spontaneous and natural. Is Kanchi, mother of Sunidhi and wife of Jay, just a figment of my imagination or am I going to wake up as Kanchi, the one that will go back to Mumbai a couple of days later?
“Sunaina, papa will come tomorrow morning. Go to sleep,” I say rocking the child gently in my arms.
The AC hums softly and I just lie there, my mind blank, devoid of any thought. But before I could sleep the phone rings loudly and I grab it quickly to confirm that the number on the screen starts with 372. It’s the Estonian number from which Jay calls me.
“Hi Jay, you’re late today. Hmm… I know… of late your official parties are becoming a habit.”
I glance at the sleeping child and tiptoe to the balcony. The stark white night beach and the shimmering black night sea stretch till horizon in front of me. The heavens above are strewn with a million stars. I feel very tiny, this two person me, now talking to Jay, my husband from one of my lives.
Who will I be tomorrow? Who am I?
“Amma…” Sunaina cries out in sleep. I disconnect the phone and rush back to her to put her back to sleep before she starts one of her night terror episodes.