Translated from the Bengali by Bishnupriya Chowdhuri
Birds guess it first. The eagles, seagulls, and ravens know which one of those monstrous nets, erect skyward along the shoreline, will go down at what exact time. The sleek and agile lot of the ravens perch atop the nets during the day. Wings outstretched, they fly in circles. Comrade crow! Comrade eagle, comrade seagull!—they call out. The dawn breaks.
This indeed is the land of the comrades. There, at the feet of the net, a couple of senior comrades work the ropes. Dawning full-sleeved shirts and mundusrolled above the knees, their dark and lean physique look roughened and tough like the coconut coir…
Only two of them would be enough to get that giant net down?
Mild wonder plays on your lips. Your eyes, behind sunshades; your head, tilted up awash under the winter sunshine. The saline breeze from the Arabian Sea lap at those fine locks of your hair somehow sailing the curvature of your neck. With both of your hands, you keep that wide hat in place on your head. You got it at a bargain price of seventy bucks at the Cherai beach . Your white muslin Kurti holds the hint of your blossomed womanhood. Two butterflies flutter away to the sea. Happiness! How can I ever express it to you? We don’t share a mother tongue.
“Look there, those stones, right under the wooden frames…”
“Yes, the mechanism of the pulley, Newton’s second law ,” I reply.
The stone gets snagged, and all the ropes and knots groan and tighten. Can you hear the wooden frame creak like a monster breaking its long slumber? The technology of a faraway land resurrects.
People take notice from the excited crows. Look at the Japanese tourist couple—the photo hunters rushing in with their cameras.
Few locals too, all swarming in for the day’s fresh catch.
And there are those dogs. Like the salt-laden breeze, they too seem to have free access to all corners of the island.
Now, the net as it gradually begins to disappear into the water, and a goods vessel, moving silently like a specter towards the sea mouth gets framed inside it. A specter indeed. Sailing the ocean of sleep with a zillion maroon containers, caught between shadows and the net.
A clear direction gradually emerges for the gulls and crows. The wooden claws rise, and the pulley gets taut. Look how the entire structure is out of the water again. Swollen at the belly, prehistoric mother figure, hands outstretched to the sky. Pregnant and terrible.
“Let’s go, let’s see what they have…”
Greed flickers in your eyes, on your lips. Sardines, pomfrets, lobsters—crops of the water, blue and silvery gasp for life. On the other side under coco-frond shades oils heat up at those eateries lined up along the strand. Soon, those waterlings would turn brown and crisp, get all dolled up, and be served over beds of lettuce and onion rings, the perfect accompaniment to the brimming mugs of beer.
Then all of a sudden, the fisherfolk disappear. The sand lay strewn with plastics, driftwood, glass bottles, and aluminum cans—migratory trash traveling the world on intercontinental waves—toy cars, dolls, and sex dolls dredged out by the nets.
“Sex doll, you say? Looks like discarded mannequins to me…”
“Hah! Shall I tell you the tragic tales of Chinese sex dolls… Now, look at those—mobiles phones, motherboards, rolls of electric wires, a harmonica, one polythene jacket, sunglass, condoms, food packets, bottles of different shapes and sizes and slippers… of all possible make and colors…”
“Do people actually throw so many slippers into the oceans? Unbelievable!”
“You know, all this trash… Most of it belongs to just a single section of the affluent upper-middle class, a tiny tiny fraction of the world’s population.” Placing your hands on your waist, you tilt your neck to look at me. Indignance and pampering, together play on those lips that get busy suppressing a chuckle. “Here you go again!” Seeing you at such moments, I am reminded, only just faintly, of another woman. Did I meet her long, long ago? Or probably had just read about her somewhere.
The entire day, those nets go up and down to the rhythm of the ebb and flow. If you listen, really pit your ears beyond the cacophony of the port and the birds, you’ll hear them crooning and creaking from far away. The day before yesterday, when I heard it for the first time at dawn through my softening slumber, it felt as if someone was humming in a daze, a long-forgotten tune of a lost civilization. As if it was one of those musical installations in a museum.
“This city itself is like a giant museum, isn’t it?”
“Yes, castles, islands, and museums.”
“And hotels and the homestays.”
“And the bazaars.”
“You mean to say, all these fisherfolk, tourists, stewards, sellers, and pedestrians are all collections at the museum?”
“Specter of a long-lost port city.”
“Hah… Ghost of a city! Nonsense!” You laugh.
“Not at all! Within each city, there lives a ghost of itself. One who believes knows where to find it. Then there are some towns that are the ghosts of some other lost settlement. Call it a ghost, reflection, or an echo… Here, if you listen to the sounds of the nets going up and down in the canal, day after day, every day, who knows, you may be able to catch the lost bustle of some spectral land. Three thousand years ago, right here on the banks of Malabar , stood a port city, before the Romans conquered Egypt… Where were we then?”
“Did we really exist, in some other time, in some other form? Ghosts of the present. Or now, are we just the spirits of the past?”
Massive merchant ships sailed across the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean . Black pepper, gems and silk, beads and ivory, horses and gold, wines and wheat and other goods, and terracotta pots of all colors, shapes, and glazes. Those that had narrow tall necks, a rounded middle that narrowed again downward. A shape resembling the Yakshi figures sculpted on the temple walls of South India . Narrow waist with rounded buttocks. In fact, the pots had handles on both sides, just like the earrings of those Yakshis.
“I know, the pots even had a name.”
“Right, but do you know why they were shaped like that?”
Those pots were used to carry spices and alcohol. As they crossed the turbulent waters, the pots, inebriated by their content of alcohol and the heat of the spices shook just like the dancers. That unique narrowing built of the pelvis balanced their fuller breasts and bottoms. Dancing over the waves, the pots carried spices, seeds, and alcohol from one continent to another. If ours is the age of plastic, that was the time of terracotta . Thank god, they did not have as many people. Else, instead of a floating land of plastic debris, this subcontinent would be existing over a pile of terracotta chips. Terracotta is brittle but not compostable. They are, quite literally, eternal. But let’s just drop it, for now. The black gold of Malabar, the peppercorn was exchanged for gold coins, glass, wine, and wheat by the roman merchants.
“Bread and wine,” you’ll repeat as if to taste them with those words on your tongue…
Yes, the flesh and blood of the lord. Saint Tomas came this way too but that was much later. We are talking about a time that was at least a thousand years earlier than Jesus’ arrival. The sailors arrived from Babylon , Assyria , Egypt , Arabia , China , Rome , and Greece . Anecdotes of their first encounter with this verdant swath of land peeking from the cinnamon grove abound in the travelogs and testimonies of the tourists—”A primum emporium Inde“— A marvelous Indian emporium.
“Then it was lost, abruptly. The sailors simply could not find it anymore! The port of Muziris , sat at the confluence of Lake Periyar . One monsoon, a devastating deluge swallows the entire port city burying it under a pernicious layer of silt and mud.”
Right. But this lava was cool and soothing—watery silt. The monsoon abated and autumn rolled in, calming the oceans. The north-eastern wind welcomed the merchant ships as usual but the port of Muziris was gone. Like the lady love of the overnight inn, as if the entire city has just vanished. The oak-wood ships desperately ransacked the barren land for the swath of green shaded under the grove of cinnamon, the perfectly tiled white villas lined up in perfect harmony. Muziris, as if an enchantress of the oceans, conjured an elaborate fantasy only to lure the sailors to the arid rockface of a barren island. Rumored from one generation to another, Muziris turned into a story, a figment of fantasy of a senile sailor for the next two thousand years.
The mysteries of an imaginary land got lost among others and were wiped from the memories. Time settled all over. Then one day, the rain moved the clay.
This is the land where the monsoon seeks entry to our country. Towards the end of May, the heavy nimbus from the southern hemisphere rolls in first to the sky on the other side of the shoreline and in no time, the news spreads over the rest of the land. From the southern lands to the Aryavarta on the north, excitement ripples all across. Consider this island, the guard’s chamber to the rest of the country. Charred under the blazing summer sun when the country longs like a Chataka bird , farmers wait helplessly over miles of cracked earth, and rains descend like blessings, answering the prayers. It returns like the migrant worker, coming home from the city, carrying on his nimbus-back food, bangles, and clothes, toys for the child. Clouds pervade the southern skies and then come onto the bare breasts of the parched earth that turns wet, thrilled, and verdant green.
Here, for three months it rains smudging those salty backwater rivulets, sprawled among the coconut groves and waterbodies. The boats roam about sluggishly like herds of oxen. Green Naali grass grips the Nallukettu doors in a fierce embrace. One writer from this part had once described, rain comes lashing like threads of silver, jabbing the earth loose like bullet blows and stirring up smog. One such fierce monsoon rain once unearthed beads, shallow neck-terracotta, shards of glass, weathered bricks…
The villagers, at first, did not care. Life was hectic enough in the monsoons, who even had time to care for the washed-up debris? But, those beads, they were unique and unforeseen. A student of history at the University of Pune came home for the Onam . She took a few beads back to show them to her professor. Soon, it was discovered that they belonged to Mesopotamia , at least twenty-five hundred years old.
Thus it began. More beads and shards, amphora ears, and pottery began to turn up from numerous corners in different villages of Pattanam . Peasants who went to teal the land would come home with brass cutleries, and tortoise-shell combs in abundance like the fodder they cut for the cattle and umbrellas they carried. Excavation began. Following the dilapidated brick structure peeking from the layers of soil, storehouses, inns, and foundational designs of the port showed up.
Piece by piece, the lost port of Muziris began to come back but not how the exhausted sailor would catch the first glimpse of her, dazzling in her full glory. But standing under the open sky, among the vestiges of her lost architecture, we can conjure that past. Come. Hear the bangles, and bustles of human life in that water. Can you?
You listen carefully while your fingers play unmindfully at your necklace. Even though the beads on it look like it, those aren’t Mesopotamian. For the past few days, you have been rummaging through stores to collect strings of beaded jewelry, mortar, pestles, trinkets, and mementos made of shell, wood, and stone. “Gifts for others”… Oh, so many of them… Do you even have that many people to share mementos with? Or, this is just your way of trying to touch the time that is now lost. Primum Emporium Inde. If you look closely, really deep into the glow of these beads, in the shape of the mortar and pestle, you’ll probably catch the shadow of a long-lost civilization. A memory, a residual fragrance. The smell that drew us again and again to the spice markets of Mattancherry . You wandered among the jute sacks and tried the spices on your palms. They slipped through your boney fingers, your coral-encrusted ring. Old Jewish seller Ben Ezra grabbed pepper, cinnamon, jaiphal, star anise, ajwain-e-khursani, salih-e-misri, gul-e-armani, gul-e-bukhara. Rubbing them softly on his palms, he let you take a whiff. Your hair shifted leaving your neck and throat bare and oh, how very delicate and brittle, almost like an amphora it seemed. Encircling them lay the beads, like frozen moonshines of Babylon. I saw and ached. The man within me was suddenly taut and eager for the night.
Our Nallukettu, surrounded by grassland and rows of coconut trees, is located at one end of the island. Right beside, there is an old Dutch cemetery, a beach, and the sea. Wild sea breeze invades the rooms leaving the lace curtains aflutter. The wide window alcoves resemble those in the old mansions of Bengal . You climb up and sit with your legs folded, a book in your hand, and small waves of your loose locks lap at your murmuring lips.
Here, there lives the city of Muchiri
Where brimming with gold
Those handsome vessels
Would come, spreading their plumage
White over the dark of the Lake Periyar
And returned with peppers.
“Akanunuru,” you say tucking the stray feather you have been running through your hair between the folds of the book.
In the middle of the night, fallen out of sleep, I find you poised on the alcove looking out.
Out there, the wind blows, wildly tossing the coconut palms. Your face, I cannot see. You, I cannot touch. You, as if waiting still like a light-house for the ship to turn up. The ship that has been bashing its head against the waves desperately, looking for the lost port. A thin trickling jealousy turns me blue before it moves me back into slumber. Waking up at dawn, I see you lying on your back, asleep. I get tea and go out for a walk on the beach by myself. The coconut fronds, dislodged by the winds, lay on the sand. The rice boats appear darkish through the morning fog but the air feels strangely warm. Hard to believe it is December.
You are still asleep when I come back. The same posture except now, you have one of the legs folded. Your nightgown crumpled over your thighs, one arm, resting on your waist. The white muslin carries the hint of trivali. Your full lips remain slightly open and wet. Fine hair, ant-like, cover your thighs. Your jawbones have an Australoid curve and the vein that swells up when you go deep into thought, that too sleeps.
I find you like that dancer girl from Mohenjodaro . Even though you are not a girl anymore.
Or, a Malabari woman.
Are you the migrant Malabar girl, the one who the bard had described? The one, shivering under the menacing cold of the faraway city in gray, desperately looking for the coconut groves, blue skies, and blood-shot afternoons suffused with fluttering sunbirds? Or, probably you are asleep on your back in the womb of a time as red as a melon. You lie disheveled, your lips parted slightly, a fine trace of saliva, running down the corners of your mouth. A hum from some lost civilization guards you like a bee. You, oh how you exist like a seed inside a chimera! I cannot reach your soul. Instead, I take you into a harsh embrace, pushing you against the wall. Coarse grains of sand bruise your naked back. Your shoulders come folding down like a pair of wings beside your chest, your sharp jaw, those eyes, like rusty old armors keep me hooked. I grab you down and enter you, salty, slippery. You slip away, leaving only an odor, piscine. Waking up, still dazed, I find you, again, seated by the window, your legs raised, gazing out. The breeze swells up the lace curtains, sailing our Nallukettu across the trembling shadows of the tamarind and the sunshine like the ripe redolence of pineapple to the island of the purple-rumped sunbirds.
The structure of this quarter-century-old residence of a spice merchant resembles that of a heart. A deep shadowy corridor connecting the four atria, ventricles, and valves. A square open yard at the center has a jackfruit tree, lined with wooden benches. They set up the evening fire every day, music plays, and the aroma of the spiced fish kebabs over smoldering charcoal wafts, blending with the notes of Konkani guitar. The dark-skinned servers, dressed and gloved in the white move as silently as the photographic film negatives with the food trays and alcohol. Even though it is December, here it seems like an untimely spring with blooming mango trees and cuckoos calling out every so often. According to the locals, this is how it is here. But my mind goes back to that migrant girl, longing in her illusion of coconut grooves amidst a chilling Parisian evening.
How shall you return to your island? How, in your immigrant dreams, would you conjure the canoe that will sail you across the two oceans to the southern land?
We are here to see the canoe, a vessel six meters long, carved from a single piece of log. Mr. Krishnamachari, the assistant curator, informs us that as per scientific investigation, it was built during the first century AD. An ancient trunk of a tree still carries the chisel marks like fish scales made two thousand years ago on its body.
“This is the trunk of an Anjili tree —a lot like the bur flower except much bigger. Back in my childhood, we could find a few around the Pattanam area, the backlands of the port of Muziris but not anymore. Maybe some are left in the forests of the western ghats.”
We gasp in wonder at the vessel which was hand-carved and sailed the oceans two thousand years ago, now hanging in the air from the wires on the ceiling, as if still sailing… the ocean of turbulent breeze.
Matter and form—thought and timber coming together who knows how many years back took shape as this canoe in the imagination of the unknown artist. At that time, these shorelines were not the edge of some land named India. It didn’t exist. It was the uprooted tongue of the Gondwana land that reached here floating. Awash in the glory of knowledge and expertise, redolent with fragrant spices, this was the heart center of an ancient world. Probably, this awareness of ‘center’ is what drove the idea of such a massive, imaginative boat.
“You know, what’s even more surprising?” Krishnamachari goes on, “This entire structure was hidden under the earth for so long. Recovering it in one piece is an archeological wonder. Most things except metals and rocks are generally found in pieces. Pottery, for example. One may have been broken during its existence or if not, they crumble lying underneath for centuries. Because the earth keeps shifting due to numerous movements–the shifting of the tectonic plates, quakes, and quivers…”
The earth beneath pulls on like frightening wildlings rushing the midnight forest across continents from one hemisphere to another.
“Exactly,” Krishnamachari laughs brightly like the white flowers peeking from the foliage of an Anjili tree. “Then, there are those things that simply crumble at the touch of an excavation brush.”
“Like dry flowers pressed between the folds of a book?” You comment, casting a sidelong glance at me. As if mocking my incurable tendency of crafting metaphors.
“Like unrequited love,” I reply.
“Love!” Your eyes sparkle in skepticism.
“Yes, love, that went a long time without a single encounter, one that was only nurtured by imagination. Love that simply crumbles to a touch of reality.”
“Nonsense, what are you even talking about?” You turn on me.
I turn to Mr. Krishnamachari, “What do you think of love, Mr. Curator? I am looking for an unbiased opinion. Have you read Love In The Time Of Cholera ? No? Then, listen.”
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful girl named Fermina Daza, the daughter of a rich widower and there was Florentino Ariza, just another worker at the telegraph office. It was only a small town and they fell for each other. Fermina’s father, when he caught a whiff of it, exiled the daughter to a faraway relative, thinking distance will be the end of young love. But Florentino, the son of a poor mother, was a man of effort. He wracked his brain till he found the way. Connecting each and every one of the postal and telegraph points across the mountains and the jungles between his town and the beloved’s exile, he sent out his messages of love via the morse code. Their separation continued to glow under the unflinching flame of a strange, immortal love.
Then, after a long long time, she returns. Yet to meet ‘him’, she goes out to the market accompanied by the maid.
Her long time in transit, the exile, those new friends who revealed the first lessons in sexuality, her coming of age, and the indestructible bond of love have only added to the depths of her beauty. Wandering aimlessly among the variegated stocks of goods, Florentino’s memory, unspoiled and sharpened by the distance, hums in her mind.
Right at that point in time and place—what an amazing coincidence—he, the one at the center of it all—gets a glance at her from a distance. He stands speechless, overcome by the fragrance of his beloved’s body. Like a bee, he follows her. Her enchanting beauty stood out like a flame from the market rabble, their uncouth chaos with such grace and glow that Florentino wondered why others were not falling as miserably for her as he was. Why, he failed to understand, her footsteps and movements of her hands, a maddening flick of that scarf, that shifting braid and golden smile was not making their heart go breathless as his?
And he chased her like a shadow from behind as she ambled past the gullies of the scribes of love letters, the shops of stolen goods from the ships, the bird market, corners of amulets and old books, fruit sellers lacing the fruits with sweet words offer them on over a knife to the pretty customer. In the middle of all these, as Fermina was moving like a ship sailing high, Florentino emerged from her back and whispered, “How do you do, my crown princess!?”
She heard the secret message, the coded address of love that would leap across mountains and jungles on the telegraph wire, and turned around startled. He stood at a hair’s length. He, the destroyer, reincarnates. His eyes seemed cold, his face flushed, and his lips petrified in excitement and fear.
They were meeting as if after ages, yet—what a surprise—no magic took place, unleashed no long-restrained tidal wave of affection. Instead, a bottomless pit of disenchantment pulled her in an instant. Fermina, with all her heart, realized it was all going wrong. Only two words rolled in her throat, “Oh lord! Poor thing!”
Florentino smiled. Trying to say something, but Farmina whisked him away like wiping a glass, she removed him from her life. “No, please forgive me. Forget me.”
After returning home, she sends a letter of only one line. “Today, after seeing you, I realized, whatever has been there between us, was nothing but an illusion.” Along with the letter, she also returned all the telegrams, poems, and flowers ever sent by him. Yes, flowers—camellias, pressed and dried between the pages of books. In all, a strange capharnaum of love.
After listening to the entire story, Mr. Krishnamachari’s eyes, lost in thought, fell on a blue Phoenician bead necklace. You laugh, brushing the locks from your forehead with a flick. “Now, this is what we call an epic simile but capharnaum?” You ask.
“Instead of capharnaum, It could be called Muziris, too. A unique Muziris of love.”
“Indeed,” I say. “But here we see a million pottery shards, arranged in order, each one labeled with their time and country of origin. From Mesopotamia to Greece, Phoenicia, Arab, and China, starting from before Christ and going till the time of modern colonization. But how does one know all these from these broken bits? Measuring the depth of soil?”
“Yes, it is a marker for sure—the level of earth where a piece is found. But these days, we use another technique that appears to be even more right. First, a piece of terracotta is crushed to dust with grain perimeters finer than that of a thread of hair. Then, light is refracted through it under the microscope. So we know which ore particles are there inside it. Now, looking at that pattern, geologists can say which part of the world it came from. Using this method, we have identified pottery from Asiria, Egypt, Rome, China, and the Arabic nations. We can now see a map emerging from them.”
“Is it possible to piece together these bunches of shards like jigsaw puzzles to their former selves?” You ask playfully, careless, strolling like a duck by the rows of gallery exhibits.
Krishnamachari laughs out, hands on his waist. “Of course, why not. Probably it will take centuries, as much as the entire duration of the port of Muziris but the real question is, do we have it? The climate change, global warming, destruction of biodiversity, and plundering of natural wealth.”
“Discrimination, greed, destruction of democracy, and the capitalist state system.”
“If we, keeping everything aside begin to recreate from this ton of terracotta shards, the lost port, to reinstate all the capharnaum to their old glory, to rejuvenate all the lost languages and all the colors, sounds, smell, and beauty reflected on those languages down to every bit; if we really can turn to a mission like this, we may buy us some more time.”
Krishnamachari led us to a massive box at the end of the exhibit. An amphora of about five feet in length, covered in a web of cracks and a motley of shades.
“See, here we have recreated an amphora from 1896 with bits of terracotta shards. We went to school children to do this but they quit after ten days. Then 11 boys from an institute for specially-abled children in Pattanam, took two and a half months to put this piece together. All of them had autism to different degrees.”
“If you closely observe this narrow neck-double-eared amphora, you’ll see the mosaic of terracotta of different shades and textures. You can understand that this was built with shards of pottery from across the world and from different time periods. But, look how wonderfully they have all come together as if a complete pot was first broken and then put back together.”
“But see here,” you point out, leaning forward. Your face reflects over the amphora. “Here, there is a hairline crack, light is seeping through.”
“Yes, it is there but isn’t that normal in 1896 pieces.”
“Probably they could have been set in another arrangement? Couldn’t they?”
“Would it be a different edifice then?”
“Quite possible, really. 1896 possible shapes are latent in this amphora. Who knows we might even be able to see them if we stare for long! As children, we would find shapes in the autumnal clouds. One of us would see a fish, another, a dinosaur, and someone, a Tagore in the same plume of cloud. How long has it been since I looked at the sky like that? Nor are those friends around. But, I can see all their ‘seeing’ here, now. What a surprise. 1896 shapes moving within one amphora right in front of my eyes!”
Inundated amphora moves dizzily, revealing a kaleidoscope of shapes!
But, Mr. Krishanamachari, is it really necessary to rebuild a pot like this? Each shard has its own story. Something beyond what is written on all these labels against each piece. They carry the charm of being first revealed to the world through excavation; each broken bit is complete in its own dream of perennial incompleteness.
Just the way, an image comes to the poet, a sudden flash of lightning, one sentence at a time, an echo—you went for heaven, why come back?
Why do they come back? Why does the poet embed that image, that line within a verse or a work of prose?
Why does a writer, sieve through his journal entries to gather ideas, and aspire to conjure an illusion of whole by putting together the shards born in from different times? Each piece, a unique story, each sketch, an undivided dream, each amphora, an anthology of writings.
Here, I give you my fistful of debris. Hold the way you did the spices at the Mattancherry bazaar. Each piece glows with a hint of another piece that will complete it the way each human has a glow of another who fulfills their existence. As people, we are all fractions, all looking and longing for our one, definite reciprocal. We search by connecting our bodies with one another, blending memories and sometimes in the ways of the past. And we want to be full, complete. We keep reflecting on each other, expressing and absorbing a myriad of people in a myriad of ways. The way that woman from Malabar radiates from within you, the woman, inundated under the pineapple glimmer and filigreed shadows of the tamarind tree.
Here. Take it.