Evening sands, billowing in the breeze, were creating a little storm in between her toes. It was still a long way till dusk set in, and she had walked long, almost frantically, trying to shake off the stray birds of thought that kept nestling in her mind. Walking was an automatic intuition.
So she set forth on her way back, her blue cloth bag on her shoulder still swinging with little crumbs of sand grains and broken bangles. She seemed oblivious to the sun that was setting behind her. She was looking forward to meeting a new friend whom she hoped to run into , on the main beach. Having made no rendezvous promises or appointments, they had allowed themselves a small door to a serendipitous thrill .
Their first encounter had been like an old petal found in the yellowing pages of a favorite unread novel. Without a beginning, without an end, she had chanced out of humming voices and salt water reveries, just like a fading fragrant petal emerging from floating words and images of the book. As the familiar stranger had exchanged formal greetings and set forth on her way, the wide eyed five year old had called out her name from behind her back, ran up to her and grasped her hand with absolute authority, and taken her to the sea. This new curiously towering ‘Akka’ was her license to play with the waves, and she was not going to let go of her so soon. And so, the next day, with excited anticipation, Akka’s long beach walks had promises of turning eventful.
The waves seemed to have more white foam that day.As the sun set far behind her, wallowing in neglect , Akka spotted her little ball of fire in a distance. There she was, running in circles around her father. He , was sitting with a hunch , complacently distant in thought from this little satellite that was taking its roundoos, almost like a ritual. Her little palms clenched tight, arms outstretched she seemed like she was on her own roller coaster ride in neverland.
On that day, Prathama was wearing blue cotton shorts and a white smugly fitting blouse with a playboy bunny in pink glitter on her chest. She was careful not to venture too near the water. She harboured an illicit attraction towards the waves, which she was not allowed to tread into alone. It was a love hate relationship with the sea. She could curse it, embrace it, caress it, kick it, throw imaginary stones at it, play hide and seek with it, and it would never let her down. It would always come back.
‘ You are late! You don’t keep up your promises!’ , she complained as she ran towards Akka , who she saw approaching in the distance.
Akka bent down and Prathama clung to her red checked shirt with moist sandy salty hands.
‘ I’m going to walk till that end of the beach’, said Akka, pointing towards the hillock at the end.
‘ Go and come back quickly!’ , grimaced Prathama , as she ran back to circling her appa. Midway , however , she had a change of plan , and ran back behind Akka, and tugging at her shirt, said ‘ I’ll also come with you.’
So the two of them set off to take a walk right up to Ramateertha. Prathama dint know where she was going . She had just wholeheartedly surrendered to this two day old stranger. However, distances had conspired to deceive the five year old.
Amidst fellow kids, building sand hills , and turning into objects of Prathama’s curious envious glances, and past the town’s housewives, with sarees tucked up at the waist, who had come for the daily evening walks , two trails of footsteps made their way. It is ‘walking ’ , not ‘walk’ corrected Prathama. She seemed to be present forever in the present continuous.
It had been two weeks. Whispers were making rounds of the little temple town. Mabla was nowhere to be seen; not hanging around the regular Maitri juice centre with his friends in the evenings nor at the late night arom boards games at Sanna bele Mabu’s place. Mabla’s gregarious laughter that usually resounded in the town every time he passed Rathabeedhi on his noisy motorbike, had suddenly fallen silent. The reporter of the town surmised the turn of face as a result of cynicism. ‘Mabla has turned cynical’, he said to peers. So it was on everybody’s lips ; of fellow shopkeepers and grocery store owners, of the retired schoolteacher who spent every afternoon sitting on his front porch katte , fanning himself with a Chinese fan that an odd beach hopper left behind as a token of appreciation for being given legible directions to Om beach, and of the Rajasthani boy who spoke impeccable kannada and sold his disposable beachwear for no less than double the market price. ‘Mabla has become cynical , maraithi. He doesn’t talk to us anymore’. ‘Did something happen? Did some friend betray him? Is he hiding something from us?’
A town would not remain silent , if one of its own goes silent. Many phone conversations featured the recent face-turn of Mabla. ‘ You remember Mabla? The loud large hearted man with the cute little daughter ? I don’t know what has happened to him, he has turned cynical since last week!’
What the word ‘cynical’ really meant did not really matter to the rumour hoppers. Its sounded mysterious and that sufficed.
Along the shore, the two dotted figures made their way . Prathama and her Akka were now somewhere past the main beach, as the rock divided the shore into a smaller lesser inhabited beach, sanna bele . The little boys with their sand castles were left behind. The saree clad walking women had far drifted away in the opposite direction , almost in a gleeful joy of disappearing into the horizon , if only temporarily , before they get back into their domestic dens.
The waves were turning grey. The evening sun , quite without warning had slipped out of the frame and let the clouds take over a magnetic magenta sky. Evenings were confusing by the beachside. One moment, it would be a feisty celebration of light in the sky and the faces of the town would turn golden and crisp with a sepia aura .The next moment, the town was an abandoned child , reveling in the momentary nostalgia of the feast they just witnessed, and trying hard to remain cheerful in it , even as the sea turned grey and black almost helplessly.
It was past sundown and the grey threathened Prathama. Suddenly , she looked up and saw no one around her. Who was this tall girl , she had come along with? She dint know her. Where was her appa? Where was the town, the noise , the children? She looked down at her feet, and her tiny chappals suddenly started to feel like they were shrinking. She saw Akka , now, pointing towards a rocky shortcut that led to the path to Ramateerth, which was where they were headed. But something felt fishy. It seemed like she had been walking all day , and yet, Akka was saying they had some more distance to go! How could that be possible?
And slowly almost without her knowledge, she started whining .First mildly and then emphatically. She realized she had to act, she must speak out, that she couldn’t be taken for a ride , by her strange tall friend. The unfamiliarity started caving in on her. The beach looked monstrous. She stopped dead in her track. She wouldn’t walk anymore. She just stopped and sat down in her place, hoping her resistance would be heeded.
Akka, was now , helplessly confused. She had no choice but to have to go to the end point as she had to run an errand for her grandmother. So , now with her little bundle of gravity that had planted herself to the ground, she tried negotiating. ‘Just a little bit more and Il get you an ice cream’ , ‘Just a little more and we’ll soon see your appa’ , and so she bent down and picked up Prathama , who was now belligerent . She tried to wriggle her way out of her grasp but Akka was holding on firmly. And then in a fit of sheer helplessness, she caught hold of the elastic necklace that Akka was wearing, which at the moment looked magnified with its round green and brown beads, and slapped it down on the road. Akka was under attack , quiet out of the blue, an unexpected turn of mood she had found herself in. Picking up her necklace from the ground, they lumbered their way up the temple.
At the gate , Prathama refused to budge yet again. In a fit of desperation, Akka took the absurdly irresponsible decision of leaving Prathama behind at the entrance alone, as she ran up to the waterfount to fill her bottle with mineral water for her grandma ; all the while the sound of Prathama’s loud wailing ‘Appa, Appa, Appa’ following her in the background.
The nightmare was only getting worse by the minute for Prathama. So as much as she had hoped her necklace wrenching act would gain her some attention, to her horror , she now found herself, all alone on the steps of Ramateertha , as she saw her only hopeful savior run away from her! She could only wail louder. It felt like a moment of disconnect from the entire time line of the sleepy town. Although just for a couple of minutes ( but minutes can turn into eternities) , this little girl was synced out of her time, and placed in the timeless frame of an evening made of lonely strangers, grey and passionless. Like a sticky green leaf lying incoherently on a corrugated tin roof, Prathama quivered as the chilly evening sea breeze made the ribbons in her pony tails dance.
There was a little wound on her elbow, from her recent fall in her recently concreted courtyard. Raising her little stubby fingers to her face to wipe out her eyes , tears and kohl made a puzzling pattern with the lines on her palm. The four minutes , that Prathama spent, on the steps of Ramateertha , were like a lost piece of film spliced with a new film reel.
Akka was back; the little lone girl hadn’t been abandoned after all, there was a glimmer through the grey.
Lifting up her little screaming bundle , Akka now, made her way as quickly as she could , down the steps and back on the beach, now in a mad rush to get the daughter back with her separated father. Prathama was getting heavier by the step and the slender frame of Akka was exerting all its reserve of energy to carry this bundle back to its rightful people.
As they finally neared the main beach , it was dark. The faces had turned fuzzy. Here and there , were groups of townspeople extending their last moments on the beach, before they headed back in to their sultry deep homes. Peering keenly across the people sitting there, Mabla was nowhere to be found. Prathama had cried her throat hoarse, ‘Appa, appa’ and refused to walk any further. She stayed put like a furious sage. She had been deceived by the uncanny ways of this suddenly formidable world.
Looking around for help, Akka recognized the familiar face of the retired postmaster who was sitting with his friends. He gave her an inquisitive look ,sympathetic at her plight. Akka asked him if he had seen Mabla anywhere and he replied saying maybe he was sitting a little further away , he hadn’t seen him .Trying hard to recall where exactly, they had left the morose stooping father back on the beach, Akka tried hard to figure out from amongst the blurring silhouettes seated in the shrouded evening , on the shore. The man was nowhere in the blurred strokes of that evening.
The little girl’s throat had gone soar, as her tears now started mixing with the rising tide and turning the sea a little more salty. Her fingernails dug into the sand, the black silicon from underneath, etching its way out through the gaps in between her fingers and making its way up to her eyes in place of her washed out kohl as another pair of eyes scanned the horizon , searching in vain for a figure in waiting ,and finally resting on a rising tide , that receded with a tiny chappal floating away into the dark distant.