Grass grows, birds hop around and fly again, waves smash their heads on the shore, then dissipate. I have my sponges. I will watch them as they grow and die, then their offspring as they grow and die. I too will one day die. I am willing to quietly, lovingly watch the honest progress of time. But forgive that that was wrong, I will not.
Two hundred feet underwater, off the coast of Malibu, my students had come to record the progress of the blue and yellow sponges. They were taking pictures and collecting samples of the sponges for their experiments in the lab. I had come just to look at the sponges – meet with them. For a couple of years now, we had puzzled long – thought hard – tried many strategies. Today we had attained a minor success.
We had introduced a single yellow sponge in a colony of blue sponges – the ACGs. Blue sponges produced a substance that we had discovered killed cells of pancreatic cancer in pigs, but not in humans. We were attempting to produce a hybrid with the yellow sponge, hoping to create a version effective in humans too. However, the sponges rejected each other. Neither would accept the other’s sperm. The blue ones mixed among themselves and left the yellow sponge alone. Either the yellow sponge died over the course of time, in which case we replaced it with a new one, or it started forming buds – self-replicating. This morning, Brian, my graduate student had called me to report the breakthrough we had been waiting for these couple years. One of the blue sponges had produced an offspring which was not blue!
Underwater, I swam past sand flat, soft sediments, starfish, pencil sea urchins, a school of bottom fish … then a sponge! Just one small, blue-colored, four-inch long, mushroom shaped organism with three little shells – epibionts – for hat! I hastened the swim, behind the big rock that pierced through the air-water front and towered into the outside world, and found the enormous blue field, our acqua farm. Indigo Land was the name given to the farm by my students. Even from that distance, I could see the single yellow sponge in the colony of blue sponges. How small it looked! I swam closer to the field of sponges and swam for a long time in their vicinity. Perhaps, they’ll get to know me a bit. Of course, I knew them well. As a biologist, I have learnt to relate with my living samples since a long time now. A universal spirit permeates through all living things, only the language is unknown. It’s some kind of a pheromonal connection that I count on to be understood by my samples. I swam by, caressing them gently in a farewell, and turned around to return. I weaved through a kelp forest, swam past several schools of colorful fish. They seemed captivated, stuck in some other time. In such large numbers, they did not seem real. A pageant of sea life – swimming gracefully and in fluid motion in the midst of taut, slowly pendulating, ornamented kelp stalks – just moved on like a vast canvas. So delicate and beautiful, still this was not a fragile world. These orchestrated underwater scenes could be disrupted any moment by a predator and be completely reassembled the next. Loss and pain dissipated so fast, they were indiscernible to the eye.
Outside, I was in Malibu again. Sitting on the beach, watching the sunset, the calm ocean and the fiery water, I considered the day that had passed. I was quite content. Our plans might work, after all. Even if the hybrid did not turn out to be the one we wanted, I was glad we had been able to nudge nature. Yes, today there was reason enough to celebrate.
A pelican made a vertical drop inside the water. Several blazing ripples formed around the puncture it made. Something about today’s news was touching. What was it? Whatever it was, it brought Firdaus to mind. I felt a tremendous urge to tell him how wonderful the world was underneath the water. I watched the ripples until they subsided, was utterly filled with melancholy. When I tell him about the world under the water, he would surely ask me about the world outside. Would I dare tell him that nothing in the world of humans has changed?
An age has elapsed since I first met Firdaus. I was eighteen then. Soon after graduating from high school, before leaving for Stanford, I had visited Delhi, the home town of my parents and met Firdaus there. What a fun guy he was, that Firdaus! He was born curious. Like a sponge! Was always up to something, fidgeting for action; and was kind, the most human man I have met. He would be forty-three, perhaps forty-four now. He died years back. Inhuman forces caused his premature demise.
In 1981, my cousin Sharad – a student of architecture in Ahmedabad – had invited me over for a visit. I met Sharad and his parents often over the years. Despite a three years gap in our ages, there was a close friendship between us. “I’ll show you my city. My classmates from Ahmedabad are also coming … a field trip to Delhi to study the medieval monuments … ha, ha, don’t be worried , it will really be a picnic. Only my friend, Firdaus, is excited about the educational part. After all he plans to rebuild Delhi, ha, ha … crazy guy … but he’s cool …”
“Come in August … with the monsoons in, we’ll beat the heat. We plan to be in Delhi for two weeks – the latter part of the month and we’ll stay in hostels … no way am I staying home! We’ll have such a blast … Firdaus is such fun … you are laughing all the time when he is around … a bloody entertainer … no, how do you say it in the US … he is the most popular kid in our class …”
Beat the heat? Indeed! On 15th August, 1981, the cab I sat in was a fireball. As for the monsoons, where were they? It rained fire in the air. Everywhere I looked, brightness hurt the eye and I was sure I would be incinerated if I stepped out of the cab. Then when the cab stopped at the QutbMinar, the twelfth century tower of victory erected by the Muslims, and when I spotted Sharad who immediately came running towards me and escorted me towards his group of friends, something changed. It seemed as if the heat no longer prevailed, a cool morning breeze blew instead. What had happened? I met the cheerful group and became part of it soon after the quick preliminaries. There was Firdaus, of course, it was impossible not to notice him. In a way, I was already looking forward to seeing him after reading Sharad’s letters. Each letter had at least a sentence dedicated to the guy. Firdaus’s twenty-year-old face seemed a tome in itself. Many parallel lines etched his forehead – hallmark of the amusement that lit his face as he joked and played pranks on his friends. His eyebrows arched at sharp angles – 110 degrees, giving him a cynical look. In half a minute the brows, along with the dot of hair on the chin, had bobbed up and down so many times, one could get a good measure of the man’s involvement with everything around him. The glint in his eyes and the ever-present lively expressions – a smile, a smirk, or a grimace – betrayed a love for life. He was the life of the group – jovial and wicked.
Everyone was clearly tired, they had been ‘site-seeing’ since the morning, had to eat and was just waiting for me to arrive. As we marched towards the nearby eatery, we talked. For my benefit, they tried to talk in English and when they addressed me, they did so in English. Firdaus, however, asked me something in Hindi, to which I responded back in the same language. Firdaus did not seem interested in my response, only in my accent. His eyes narrowed, a half smile spread, he looked at his friends around him, took my face between his hands in affection, then released it with a gentle slap and said, “Hai! Hear, how cute he sounds when he utters our Hindi words.” He was amused and laughed for a long time. I was not offended, I found him intriguing. There were ten other twenty-year olds in the group – all guys. They were a cheerful, bubbly group. There was one in their midst who was quieter. A perpetual shadow seemed to loom over him. His name was Ashok. Firdaus, who talked with everyone and never missed a detail of what was going on around him, would often throw his arm around Ashok’s shoulder to lean on as he talked.
“So how do you like Delhi, Dev?” Firdaus asked me from across the table, in English.
“I just got here last evening … I don’t know, yet.” The truth was, I hated it so far and till I had met Sharad and his friends, had desperately wanted to return home.
The glint returned. As if he had understood how I felt, he said, “When you see Delhi Dev, look at it like I do … ignore everything around you, just look at the ruins. You will realize soon that this is not just a city – it is a travel through time. The walls that rise and crumble and then rise again after a while – the stone vaults that appear all of a sudden out of nowhere – imagine them as parts of the big mansions that are no longer existent. Remind yourself that they did once exist, that lives as important as ours of ordinary folks pulsated here. For me the wells, the baths, the pillars, the arched gateways are the props that take me to the past and reveal a hundred stories. They reassure me that even though, unique and special that I am …” he looked around shaking his head to get the support of his friends, “… that even though I am unique, what I feel and how I feel, has happened before, has been felt before. It helps validate many of my most compelling beliefs, which others might doubt. Soon, when I look at the ruins, I see what is missing too. In my mind, I can visualize even the colors of the roofs and the domes… turquoise, green, brown, pink … Dev, my plan is to connect those walls and rebuild the lost houses. That city is so vivid in my mind. I just cannot wait for the day when I have actually reconstructed the medieval city superimposed on the modern.” His palms swept in the air as if the surrounding landscape were a canvas.
I was amazed at the man’s confidence. He spoke as if everything was in his hands and he had to roll up his sleeves and just do it. The others laughed, some shook their heads, but it was clear that they admired his thoughts. He spoke with such conviction, even in that half hour I thought his plans were feasible only because he sounded like they were.
That night my connections with the place returned. On a cot next to Sharad’s, I felt I was sleeping amidst friends. Slowly, I drifted into a dream, or was my mind just recapping the day. Someone droned. That old, lost city lives like a wild beast here. I saw him tap his temple, but his face was in the shadows. I will connect those walls and rebuild the lost houses. He continued in a murmur. I will reconstruct the medieval city and superimpose it on the modern. The others on the table were laughing at something, I had lost the thread of their talk. I was following this man’s words. I saw the man readying himself next, rolling up his sleeves, beginning the work any moment.
Around us it beeped and hooted, outside it scorched – again, no rains – and there was anarchy on the road. Our three-wheeler was not moving. It was percolating. It filled a hole in the inching traffic wherever the operator found one. There were no lanes here. The road was chockfull, vehicles ranged back-to-back, and the only way for this traffic to move was by caroming about.
Between us, we had hired four auto-rickshaws. I shared mine with Sharad and Firdaus. Throughout the ride, Firdaus was pointing out the ruins and coloring them with tales.
“See that sprawl of stones and ruins out there?” On the more fluid stretch of our trip, he pointed out. “The mortal remains of a prince are buried there. Can you see the Sultan waiting at the tomb, holding a conversation with his son?”
Another place, the traffic was thicker. Every now and then, the back wheels climbed a side-curb and fell down again, or jolted on a pot-hole as the driver made adroit maneuvers to keep moving on the road. “Mind you, we ride the boulevards through which raced daily Empress Razia with her general and lover, the hardy Yaqut!”
In a particularly clogged part of the road, where wayfarers vied with the vehicles in screeching, his face turned dreamy. “See that crumbling structure standing forlorn up the hill! If you can imagine twenty such structures, each crowned with light purple domes, and connected by thick solid walls you will have imagined the magnificent mansion of Sultan Balban.”
A traffic light brought our pauper’s palanquin to a croaking stop. The driver turned the engine off and an interesting silence dawned upon us. This was a long light, it seemed. I looked out and noticed a swarm of three-wheeler scooters around us, all in their turns grinding to halt. There was one parked next to us. A smart city woman had the entire passenger seat to herself. A queen graced her throne. Empress Razia! Firdaus was quietly studying her. When he caught her eyes, he sent a discrete kiss flying her way. His eyes too sent forth a message. His antics embarrassed me and I looked elsewhere.
“Driver, how many auto-rickshaws do you think there are on the roads in this city?” The girl made a lame effort at breaking the undesired interaction. The driver looked nonplussed, “How many auto …”
“People of this city prefer to go about their business in auto-rickshaws.” Firdaus started to tell us. “There must be a thousand around us right now. The city is big. I say, there must be at least fifty-thousand of these bugs crawling around the city roads at this moment.”
“Fifty-thousand, ma’m,” we heard the driver of the three-wheeler next to us tell his passenger. The girl pretended disinterest. The lights must have changed because engines around us were revving up. Their eyes met again and again Firdaus blew a kiss towards the girl. She looked away and he laughed. Next moment we were moving.
Why, after so many years have passed by, am I thinking of Firdaus? I had never forgotten Firdaus. Someone like him one is not likely to forget easily. The memory of that man arose like a question in the simple life that I have learnt to live when last month I returned from a family reunion in Kerala. Since then this question has been tormenting me allowing no reprieve. I must, at any cost, arrive at a solution. I had met my parents, my brother and his family after several months. We were all waiting with impatience for the arrival of Alaknanda, my younger sister. She has turned thirty recently, is an architect in Boston, and is betrothed to the lead-architect of her firm. The boy we had learnt is also an Indian, Mother was simply concerned about the wide gap in their ages. Alaknanda’s fiancé was more than fourteen years older than her, but this was the first time he was getting hitched, a fact that gave a measure of comfort to my parents. On her part, Alaknanda had made clear that she was bringing her fiancé just to introduce him to our family, not to get our approval. So it was with a lot of enthusiasm that we all awaited their arrival. Great amazement was what I felt when I first met her fiancé. I had already met him earlier; the same time when I had met Firdaus. He was one in the group of Sharad’s friends, the most silent one of all. He was Firdaus’ best friend. All the while Firdaus would be chatting away with the rest of us, his arm would remain rested on his best buddy’s shoulder. His name was Ashok. He has changed quite a bit since then. He has learnt to talk now, is quite a leader. He has aged a bit, otherwise looks pretty much the same. I too have not changed that much, still he could not recognize me when he first saw me in Kottayam. In the course of our conversation I mentioned to him the last time that we had met. I think it startled him. In any case, he changed the subject quite rapidly and did not return to it once. His behavior did not disappoint me the slightest bit. My sole concern now is how must the matter that if there are to remain any sibling relations between us, then the idea of marrying that man must be dropped be presented to my sister?
Do I remember well the last day that I had spent with Firdaus?
I had spent a full week with Sharad and his friends, now also my friends. We were roaming around the Qutb complex. Near the tower, Firdaus was addressing me while the others walked lazily under the hot sun, tossing the Frisbee to each other as they walked. His arm was around my shoulder as he expounded his views further, “For me, history is the only real thing, Dev.” His eyes looked intense when he said this. “History and …” he pulled on his cigarette, emitted a cloud and pointed towards his head, “my dreams. Everything else is changeable – undependable.” He played the historian that day. Pointing at the ruins in the complex, he spoke of the yearning of the men of power to leave behind their imprint on posterity.
Look at the tower of Qutb the Afghans built to remind the Indian population of their defeat. I marvel at the stupidity of my Afghan ancestors.
Or was the tower actually an older monument built by the last Hindu king for his beloved daughter? A temple of love the steps of which were climbed every morning by Princess Bela so at the top she could catch a glimpse of the river Yamuna and pray.
On one side was the half-built tower, now just a heap of bricks built by AllauddinKhiljiwho owned the nation, ruled it with the sword, but couldn’t complete his tower.
He marked the final resting places of various monarchs, princes and princesses, the marvelous cloisters and graceful pillars where they prayed. Monument after monument he pointed out. Tombs, towers, pillars and arches, acts of desperation committed over a span of several centuries, ruins now, celebrations of triumph of one man over all in another time. Butonly Time rules – he laughed, mocked at their ignorance of the important fact; or moaned, they couldn’t rule with love. Didn’t they know that with the fall of the last brick shall come the complete erasure of their names, for who remembers those who never cared?
In that vast complex, a national monument guarded at all times, untouched by nature, where no trees grew, nor did any plant, no animals ventured, not even birds flew down, in that museum of human ego, untamed spirits did roam and Firdaus’ recounting of history that day fell in my ears like a recital of the poetry of life. A few hours later he died.
We had climbed the tower, had had lunch and were lying under the shade of a tree in the Qutb complex, lazily discussing if we should return yet or while away some more time at that tremendously static place. And just when Sharad rolled on his belly and looked up to say, “Let’s get going now,” Ashok let out a cry that he had forgotten to take pictures of a particular vista from the first storey of the tower he had promised his grandmother. He sprung up on his feet and started to run towards the tower. “I won’t take long,” he cried. By now, even I knew that Firdaus would get up and join Ashok. Like the yearning of water thrown on the flat ground to spread, he went where action was. He was taking quick steps already to catch up with Ashok. I wish someone had stopped him then.
The white sunlight caused a throbbing pain behind my eyeballs. Lazily I watched the two friends as they approached the QutbMinar and to this day remember distinctly them being swallowed by the arched black mouth of the tower’s entrance.
A group of visitors, mainly country women and men, were climbing up the medieval steps. There was a metal railing on both sides and the stairwell at this lower height was still broad enough. A couple could walk side-by-side comfortably and three or four more people could easily be inserted in between. But, on that day entrance was free, the day being a Friday. All around – back, front, on the sides – there were people.
“Slowly, slowly, the QutbMinar will be climbed.” It was relatively dark inside, light entered through narrow slit windows cut in the outer wall. The voice was a man’s – old, impatient, complaining.
No one said much. The man with an old voice spoke again, “I feel like a hawk shut up in a cage.” This time there was a hint of exasperation in his voice.
A woman giggled. Light from a slit window fell on them as slowly we spiraled up. The man was middle-aged, his chin curtain mostly white. The woman beside him was young, in her twenties, dressed in glittery clothes.
“What was that about? Are you enjoying this?”
“Nothing. Your mention of a hawk brought the imagery alive.”
“What? You think I should not refer myself as a hawk?”
“No darling! Why would I think that way? You are like a new water-pot.”
It became dark again. The little movement came to a halt too. Chattering picked up behind me. I was in the midst of a large group of peasants.
What was I doing climbing the QutbMinar again? As soon as I saw Firdaus and Ashok vanish inside the tower, I rose from my lying position to discuss with Sharad our plans to go to Jaipur that evening. We were to spend a week in Rajasthan, just him and me. As I sat up, I felt the burden of Ashok’s camera that hung around my neck. He had asked me to take care of it in the restaurant when he had paid a visit to the restroom. I had slung it around my neck and forgotten about it. Sharad’s first response was to let him come down and take it when he realizes it was missing. But thinking that would prolong our wait in the complex even more, we thought it better that one of us followed them with the camera. No one wanted to climb the tower again. It was hot and crowded. Three hundred and seventy nine steps led one to the top of the tower, my guide-book had told me. But visitors were allowed access till just the two lower storeys. How many steps was that? That question for the travel-journal I liked to keep was sufficient to bring me on my feet. It sent me running to catch up with the two young men.
“Better the eye be blind than the way be dark!” We were stuck and again the old voice complained. “You wanted so much to come to the QutbMinar. Here we are, my beautiful. QutbMinar! Are you content now?”
“The outside was beautiful. Once we are at the top, I am sure it would be even better. But will the fly understand the revolutions of the moth?” Her husband did not seem like a sensitive man and I sympathized with her. Still, I wished the young woman had not added that remark. The softness too was gone from her voice. “It cares only for the juice.” She went on. “Things like love and beauty escape it.”
The man let out a bitter chuckle. “So the hawk has been reduced to a fly now. Whatever. Can you move faster, young man?”
“Sometimes, if he delays the traveler reaches quickly, but if he hastens he gets delayed. Have you heard this one, Uncle?”
I was thrilled. The loud, lively voice was familiar. It was Firdaus, just a few steps ahead of me. I was about to call him when the old man replied in irritation, “What’s this? Neither I know you, nor I recognize you and Good morning Uncle! There are some strange people here. At least you get to enjoy the honeymoon you had been pestering me about, my dear wife.”
Apparently, the man’s words had broken the back of the camel of the young woman’s patience. The air around us was pierced by her shriek. “You call this a honeymoon after a year has passed since our wedding? Besides, you call this a honeymoon. And, who told you to come here on a Friday? A cheap man, that’s what you are!”
“Oh God! Now that the dam has broken, there will be a torrent of complaints! No one told me marriage would be such a difficult thing.” The man visibly – in that dim light – shaken, fell into a muttering fit. “First there is trouble finding a good bride. Then one must work to keep her happy.”
What a mistake! We had just started to inch up again and the old man chose then to make silly utterances. The woman stopped and said, “I want to go home. Let’s go down. Let’s return. I don’t want to climb this tower anymore.”
The people around started to plead with her. They told her fights in married couples are common happenings. Everyone fights.
“Oh! Shah Jahan will come, drop a long ladder and save the delicate bride.” The old man was crying at the top of his wife. “I cannot take you down now. Can’t you see? We can neither move forwards nor turn backwards. We are stuck here. But will an uneducated woman understand this?”
The woman began sobbing and I felt a strange relief. Their outcry had started to take dangerous turns in this delicate stairwell. Better that she sobbed than continue their fight. Firdaus spoke again from ahead of us.
“Uncle, we all know that it takes two to fight. But can’t you for once remember that one and one also makes eleven. Why don’t the two of you just enjoy your honeymoon?”
“Why do you insist on meddling in our affairs, young man? Are you the kind who likes to warm his hands with the fire that burns a man’s beard? Just keep moving.”
People around had started to laugh. Soon there was a general prattle and the woman’s sobs were muffled in that. I took that opportunity to squeeze through the people ahead of me. It was not easy. I made earnest pleas in my accented Hindi, told them about my friends ahead. They looked at me and let me pass. However, I could not go past the sulking old man and his sobbing wife. Neither could I call Firdaus from behind. There was this look on Ashok’s face.
“I want you to go away.” I heard him say. He spoke in English, perhaps he did not want the people around to understand. His tone was so grave, I felt a cold shiver run through my body.
A puzzled look crossed Firdaus’ face. “What? Now you? Shall we call Shah Jahan. He will order a long ladder…”
“That’s not what I had said. Don’t distort my words.”
Despite the impatience that had brewed in the stairwell, no one stopped to visit the balcony at the first storey. Thinking of stopping by on their way back down, they continued their climb. The promise of a better view from a higher level kept them going. Ashok’s words seemed to have brought concern to Firdaus. He pulled him out the doorway that took them to the gallery. A kind of trepidation stopped me from joining them and I walked up with the stream of people. A few more steps and I excused myself and sat on a step, leaning on the outer wall, unable to decide what course of action to take. People did not seem to mind me blocking their way. They skirted by me instead. Some even asked if I was alright and even though preoccupied in my thoughts, I was impressed with their kindness. Then, I noticed I could actually see them. Where my head rested was a long slit window. Firdaus was just a couple yards away from me, outside in the gallery, downwards from where I sat. He was talking to Ashok who seemed extremely agitated now. Soon I could hear his words. The stream of humanity that was flowing towards me from down the stairwell was completely forgotten. I heard only the words exchanged outside in the balcony. It became clear that taking pictures for his grandmother was just a ruse. Ashok had wanted to have Firdaus alone with him.
Ashok, as I had said, was in a rattled state. His face was red and I think, he was even crying. Firdaus, it seemed, had been watching him. I noticed them when I heard him say, “Now, tell me. Something is bothering you. What is it?”
It took him some moments to gain back some composure. Still, he spoke between sobs.
“Father is coming this afternoon. He is suspicious. He will thrash me if he finds out about us.”
“Suspicious? Of what?”
“You know what I am talking about, Firdaus. As it is, there are so many fights in my family. I don’t want to be another reason to bring them unhappiness.”
Firdaus shrugged his shoulders and said, “Give me your camera, I’ll take the pictures quickly. We must leave. They are waiting for us. Remember Sharad and his American brother have to catch the train.”
“Firdaus, their marriage is not a happy one. I think, my father was never supposed to marry. Do you understand what I am saying?”
Firdaus smiled an ironical smile.
“That is the reason he is now suspicious of me. He suspects I am like him. Perhaps, there is something he must have heard – about us.”
“When God took a rib from Adam’s side to create woman, he removed amongst other things from man that part of the brain that produces sensitivity. In the case of your father, the removal of the rib made him suspicious too.” He sighed in exasperation. “Come, let’s not waste our time. We’ll talk later. Let’s go.”
“No.” I was surprised by Ashok’s adamancy, given that he was so shaken just moments back. “We must talk now.”
“What talk? You want me to go, alright I will go away. What is the problem?”
“Can I trust you then?”
“Of course, we are friends. If you want me to vanish from your life, I will.” He started to head back.
Ashok held his hand and stopped him. “So, this is what our love means to you? You can just as easily walk out.”
“Listen, stop talking nonsense. First you must take some time to remove your confusion. You tell me you are just like your father. So, it’s a truth that you are gay. Now you are trying to fight with that truth. Somehow defeat the truth and prove it wrong. That’s your choice. That is why you are confused. But I don’t waste my time on such pointless arguments.”
“Don’t you see that I am scared?”
“You are scared because you want to be. You are out of school now. Man up. That’s all I can say.”
He tugged at his hand and pulled it loose and walked towards the stairwell.
Ashok sprung up and blocked his way. “So, you never loved me.”
“You are beginning to annoy me. This is not a question of how I feel. This is about your state of mind – immature, unstable, confused. Only you can work on it.”
“So, you are clear in your mind about everything. You never suffer any doubts.”
“Listen, Ashok. For me, it is important to have the freedom to be who I am. That is why I have told my mother. Everyone in my family knows who I am, what I am. I mean to them more than just that stupid issue. It might be different with you. I don’t know. Of course, it’s difficult for people to be flexible. One has to work on making them understand your point of view. If they really care for you, they do change and accept you for who you are. But, you are afraid of the thrashing. Life will threaten to thrash you many times, son. What will you do? Hide or run away, each time. For me, to be manipulated by the stupidity of people is wrong.”
I was impressed with Firdaus’ reasoning. I understood him better now. He was a courageous man. That is why he stood out amongst many. But I do not think Ashok had climbed up the tower to have such a discussion. “Why can’t you just tell me that you never loved me?” He said.
“What do you want me to do? Stand up on this railing and prove my love” Firdaus spoke losing patience.
“Yes. Let’s see if you can do that. Then, we’ll leave. Without a word, I promise.”
I could see anger rising in Firdaus. He gave him a look, I thought of disgust, then to my shock he took brisk steps towards the railing – it was just two quick steps. I was alarmed and stood up. I watched him climb up the railing and panicked. I knew I had to run down swiftly and bring him down. This was madness. But then I noticed his expression. His hair flew about in the wild currents at that height and suddenly he looked like he had reached another place. He looked ecstatic, even though his stance was precarious. With both hands he held on to a pillar and threw his head up in the air. For a brief moment he had forgotten Ashok. People from the top story had started to shout. That moment was broken when Ashok clutched his hand and held it in his. Looking up at him he said, “You know that I love you, Firdaus.” Firdaus looked down, and suddenly a look of horror came upon it. That’s when I rushed down.
By the time I reached the doorway to the balcony, a group of people had clogged it. Something had happened.
Ashok had everyone fooled. An hour later we were outside in the courtyard. It took us a long time to exit the tower which now they were in the process of sealing. Firdaus’ corpse was already taken away. Ashok, sprawled on the ground, was trembling, shuddering, crying – oh, that despicable creature! When finally they helped him sit up, his hair was wet with sweat, his face was crimson, pathetic with fear and his eyes tore out of their sockets. He was staring into the ground. When they were up on the first floor – he was telling them in a shameless monotone – Firdaus had dared him to climb the railing and balance on it for a minute and when he refused, he took the challenge himself. He convinced them with his lies. Several witnesses came forward describing the stupidly, ecstatic state in which they saw Firdaus perched up on the railing. A few hours later, Ashok’s father was also there, a very important man, someone influential in the police force, I think. My own attempt to reveal the truth started with Sharad, who informed his father – my uncle, who promptly called my father in the US. In a single lightning call between the brothers it was decided that I be packed into the first flight leaving for Los Angeles. Just eighteen and shaken, I could do nothing to get Firdaus justice.
Now when I see my sister and Ashok together, arm in arm, beside themselves with joy, I turn to my parents. When I try to talk with them, they doubt my memory. Or they start to find faults in ‘that’ Firdaus. They try to end the matter by giving me their pearl of wisdom, that a stream near its source might be playful, but as it flows it gains gravity, often even becomes a great river. I stop my talking then because life has shown me as well, it has shown me many, many times that once a nail is bent, it rarely goes through a hole straight.
I had come with my team off the coast of Dolphin Rock near Santa Catalina Islands to study the sponges in this region. My students had long collected their samples. I had been swimming in circles, slowly heading towards the coast where a dinghy was secured. I heard a loud bark and when I looked around, saw a tan sea-lioness swam right beneath him. She had turned belly up and was studying me with her large soulful eyes. Then, as if she had arrived at a decision, she flipped and accelerated. Behind her followed a slate gray pup. Mother and child cruised peacefully for a good ten minutes, caring little for the presence of the human spy in their wake. Like the pup, I did what the mother did. I cruised most of the time, flipped two circles, turned, glided some more minutes, spinned again … soon lost in another world … dancing to an ethereal tune … entranced … in the most serene place on earth … at peace … Firdaus, Firdaus, Firdaus.
I reached the beach, tore off the wet suit and the mask and returned to the inviting waters to get one last swim and some salt on my skin. When I came out, the moon was staring down at the world. The ocean surged restlessly and the nearby rocks watched quietly. When the waves broke on the rocks, they were tempered down and as they sobered they let out loud roars. Awed by the scene, I must have clenched some sand on which I leaned, and on leaving when I opened my fist to rid it of the sand, to wash it off, I noticed its color. In these parts the color of sand was white – calcium carbonate, not silicate. Crushed coral washed onto land from the ocean. I was sitting on the land of the sea, not on terrestrial land.
“From the moon, this land would look like the moon,” I thought as I started the motor of the dinghy.