‘There is one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea,whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath.’ – Herman Melville (Moby Dick)
Once upon a 2008 March night…
“I think I need alcohol,” Sanju informed me in a manner most matter of fact. It was quintessential Sanjay, to want alcohol in a most matter of fact sort of way, even when we were on a ship.
“You already know its not allowed on the ship,” Divya reminded him, without sounding like a preacher. And correct she was, for the M.V.Harshavardhana, as well as all other passenger ships that ply between the Indian mainland and Port Blair prohibit liquor drinking on board. The six of us ambled along the remaining distance to the deck in silence.
There were a large number of people lined up on the deck. The stood at the edge, their hands on the railings, chatting away under the evening sky. And then the breeze hit me. Not like the pleasant variety that gently passes you by on a cloudy city day; this was a wind that did not care much for manners, strongly youthful and in your face. It whistled, marched along like a man on a mission, setting to conquer all. It did not want you to smile at it, it wanted you to gush in awe.
And then, I noticed her, smiling at him.
Sanjay caught my look and shook his head. He couldn’t accuse me of inconsistency though. I had been furtively looking at her for two days now, right from when the group had first reached my house in Chennai. “Not really great manners to keep your mouth open while staring, you know,” Aditya helpfully informed. And since I am a receptive man, I closed my mouth with such a clang that all those who stood at the deck railings peered over, to gauge if the ship had hit an iceberg or something.
She was pretty. Worse, she was composed, enviably so. A kind of composure that maybe comes from being completely secure about yourself, from being brought up well and by a loving family, from being liked by all. Her grace unsettled me, even made me feel like a child in comparison, and I found myself falling deep. Rahul however was doing a significantly better job at the opening-the-mouth business, for every time his jaws parted and he said something that, she would, and this the part I don’t understand, laugh. Highly unacceptable behavior from both.
I figure that you have now been introduced to the six of us – Sanjay, Aditya, Rahul, Divya, Shweta and I. Notice how subtly I put Shweta and my name together without you realizing it? Sheer class.
We found ourselves a small vacant spot on the deck and spread a bed sheet. In a move cleverer than the one I last spoke of, Rahul ensured that when we lay, his diabolical self would be lying next to her. I meanwhile was left rotting in between my two best friends Sanjay and Aditya.
“You really had to call Rahul for this trip?” I hissed to Sanjay. “I think they are kissing,” was the helpful reply. “Oh please. There is only so much space on the sheet. That’s the only reason why she’s letting him lie that close. No body contact.” I croaked, peering over the bodies. The roar of the waves smothered the guffaws of my friends, if not the tremors in my heart.
The wind won over us all, one man one woman at a time, and we dozed off, on that tiny bed sheet, on the deck.I do not know why I woke up when she stood and left. If life had a way of replaying itself, I would have known that it was Adi placing his thigh on my stomach that had roused me (not aroused me), but since nature does not allow any such replays, I deluded myself to believe that it was love that was responsible.
She went to the railing and looked at the sea, possibly for answers she would not get back. From the corner of my eye, I saw a man who stood a couple of meters from her, go closer. His face was unshaven, his hair tousled and wavy. The wind pushed his mop of hair back in a way that one might think his hairline was receding. Concerned, I stood up and seeing me, she beckoned me over with a smile. When I reached her, the man grinned at us, and retraced his steps. He had just been a regular guy wanting to talk to a regular girl.
“Are you a good swimmer?” she asked me, looking into the black swirling waters below. “Like a fish, in my tub back home. Err but put me in any water that rises above my eyebrows and all you have is an expert drowner.” After a pause, I added “And you?”
“Oh I have always been a water baby. My father used to take us all to the club pool every day. Despite his weight, he was the best, cutting through the water like an athlete”. The pride in her voice was too glaring to miss. I tried to imagine an overweight man meters ahead of a floundering family in the pool. Years of courting has taught me that it’s always better to tease, than to admire. But at that moment, she had too much power over me, and despite myself, I found myself complimenting her father – her man.
“Have you heard of the Moken?” she asked me, looking at my eyes for a moment. When I shook my head, she pointed to her left, out a long way into the sea.
“The Moken are the people of the sea,” she said and the waves swirled, as if it was their, and not her, secret she was revealing. I touched her forehead and she smiled a bit, at my mock attempt of checking her temperature.
“Deep in the Andaman Sea, somewhere between Burma and Thailand, live the Moken people, or the sea gypsies . They travel the seas in the boats that they live in, eat from the sea, only return to land during the monsoons.” Aditya had now stirred and was urgently trying to wake Sanjay up to tell him about us standing alone. My friends, I realized, don’t let up ever, not even on nights as starry as these.
“The Moken,” my story teller continued, “are extraordinary divers. Having lived in the sea all their lives, they can see better and stay underwater for longer duration than other humans. They are lightning fast in water and can catch fish and sea cucumbers with their bare hands. You know Neeraj, Moken babies can swim even before they learn to walk. Isn’t that awesome!” I liked how she took my name. I must admit I found that relatively more awesome.
The boat was leaving a beautiful wake behind, that gleamed silver in the moonlight. “Maybe we shall spot them tomorrow during the day,” I remarked, envisioning several dark semi naked people, staring back at us as curiously, from their handmade boats.
That night, we spoke of other things too; of the constellations in the sky, the books we liked, and why Adi looked so ungainly while lying down. When we returned and took our respective spots , I looked at my friends, expecting they would ask me all.
“I need some alcohol,” Sanju informed in a manner most matter of fact. Quintessentially him.
P.S. Later in that trip, we saw flying fish, and dolphins that raced with the ship for dolphins will always be show ponies first and cautious later. But we never saw the Moken, for they who have been living in the sea for centuries know how to hide themselves if they want to.
I wasn’t to know until many years later that when the tsunami struck the coasts of the South Asian countries that 2005 December, and caused such widespread death and destruction, the Moken were left untouched. Having lived so close to the waters, they knew its every mood and whim, and had retreated to high ground a day before the tsunami eventually struck. What we and all our modern technology could not foresee, these people had just by being close to, and respecting the sea. That day, however the sea stayed quiet, taking care of all those who rode it.