Mohan is a family physician, film and TV aficionado, a keen bibliophile and an eclectic scribbler.
I was fifteen that summer I fell in love with a dead woman. It all started innocently enough, on a bright day at the seaside under a clear sky. It ended in a damp cave with shadows and strange sounds, the cave that nearly killed me. I dream of it even now, but it always turns into a nightmare. I wake up with a pounding heart and my mouth tasting seawater.
I could blame my uncle for starting it all, but he only meant well when he let me accompany him on his expedition. He worked for the archaeology department at Chennai University and was spending the summer in the fishing village of Simmapatti, studying the ruins of Pallava temples. These were pretty much decrepit, three out of the six having already become submerged into the sea. My uncle lamented our Government’s cavalier attitude towards such cultural landmarks and I pretended to be interested. I wished I had stayed back in Chennai, where all my friends were discovering girls and booze, while I was beachcombing among smelly Catamarans.
I excused myself that afternoon from the site and went for a walk. Simmapatti was growing on me. The coconut palms lining the beach were waving their fronds in unison, the sea breeze was pleasant and the sand yielded some interesting looking shells. I thought of Chennai, with its narrow, crowded streets and speakers blaring election manifestos in every corner. Maybe I didn’t miss it that much after all.
Couple of miles from the temples, the beach ended abruptly into a hill. The rocks invading the sea looked treacherous but inviting. The water was deeper here and the stones had been eroded into sharp edges. I hopped my way across to the one farthest into the sea, sustaining a few cuts on my shins.
The view was worth it. To my left the beach glittered in the afternoon sun. To the right was the hill that had dwindled in size with the relentless assault of the weather and repeated quarrying by ancient sculptors. Numerous seagulls were roosting in the niches among mossy rocks.
I watched one of them take flight and dive towards the sea when my eyes strayed to an outcrop where a woman was standing. There was a dark opening in the hill behind her that looked like the mouth of a cave.
I was startled at first, wondering how she managed to get up there. She stood looking at the sea, one hand trying to hold down her windswept hair, the other cradled over her eyes, as if waiting for someone to return. Her naked shoulders were draped in the folds of a sari billowing in the wind.
I watched for a few seconds, forgetting to blink, when I realised she wasn’t moving at all.
Her colour was all grey and she wasn’t even complete. Her hips ended abruptly into an amorphous lump of granite. She was a statue. A stone mermaid rising from a sea of rock.
I didn’t know how long I had been standing there until the orange glow of the sun hinted at dusk. I started walking back when a voice called out,
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
An old man was reclining on one of the Catamarans, his gnarled fingers busy mending a fishing net.
“She is.” I said, approaching the boat. But he wasn’t looking at me. His eyes had a faraway look, lost in the mists of the past.
“I knew her when she was alive,” he said, “and I saw her when she was dead”
I started to ask him what he meant, but I didn’t need to.
“Beautiful she was, like a princess. I used to work for her father like everyone in the village those days. He owned all the fishing boats, you see. Us young men were all in love with her. Her father had arranged her marriage to a rich groom. She would’ve still been with us if not for that sculptor fellow.”
He spat over the side. “He was evil. Said he came to study the temples. More like studying her. He followed her everywhere like a puppy. Convinced her to pose for that statue. He said he was sculpting a memorial to the fishermen lost at sea.”
He reached behind his ear, brought a half smoked beedi and lit it. He squinted at the smoke as if looking for images.
“Thirty years back and I still remember it like yesterday. Her wedding was on Diwali day. The whole village was there, except the bride. She disappeared. We searched everywhere. It didn’t take long to find out that the sculptor was missing too. Some claimed they had eloped. But we knew she wasn’t that kind of a girl. He must have tried to take her by force. Why else did she die? The bastard killed her when he knew he couldn’t have her.”
He pointed at the hill. “We found her in that cave by her statue. All tangled up in seaweed she was. We never saw him again. Maybe it was for the best. Otherwise we would’ve all become murderers. We would’ve lynched him for certain.”
He flicked the beedi and picked up the net again. I knew I was dismissed. I thanked him and walked away but something he said made me stop and look back.
“They say she comes back to the cave . Dying like that, she is bound to be restless isn’t she? ”
His hands straddled the net like busy spiders but the eyes were still distant.
Shadowy Gods watched me from the shore temples as I went back to the camp. The solitary flame of an oil lamp shivered in the darkness.
That night I dreamt I was in the cave. The stone maiden stood bathed in moonlight, staring at the sea. She turned as I touched her shoulder, granite eyes glistening with tears.
Her lips moved. “I am waiting,” she said. I wanted to hold her, to lay her head on my shoulders. My hand froze as I reached to wipe her tears. My fingers turned to stone. It took over me, fusing my feet to the floor. We stood there, the stone maiden and I, as the sea roared restlessly outside.
I woke up with my heart galloping, hand clutching the sheets.
It was then I made the decision that would haunt me for the rest of my life.
I decided to spend a night with the stone mermaid.
It was fate that made me choose Diwali day. It was my only opportunity to slip away unnoticed as my uncle and his team watched the fireworks at the village fair. I had made a few daytime visits to survey the hill and check the route to the cave. It was difficult than I thought, the rock faces slippery with moss. My torch beam lit the path as I climbed down to the cave.
She stood there, silhouetted against the dull glow of the evening sky.
The slope of her shoulders and the tilt of the neck made my throat tight. I went closer. Every little nuance was sculpted to perfection: the longing eyes, the delicate hands, loose strands of hair worrying her forehead – the attention to detail was startling.
I held her cold hand and we watched the sunset. Darkness came quickly. There was a staccato burst of fireworks and distant sparks vied with the stars for momentary glory.
I thought about what the old man said.
Sometimes she comes back.
I heard the clink of a pebble from somewhere inside the cave. I walked in, surveying the rocks. The torch beam cast eerie shapes in the corners. A group of translucent crabs scuttled away from the light. There were barnacles clinging to the walls. I tried to imagine what must have happened that night. There were no answers, just hollow echoes of my footfall. The air was musty with the smell of dead fish and bird droppings. I felt uneasy. My initial bravado was draining away as the walls closed in on me. I turned around and went back to her. Something wasn’t right. I realised what it was when my boots sloshed onto the cave floor.
There was water in the cave.
The tide was coming in.
It lapped around my ankles as I stood there, unable to think.
The water was up to my knees when I moved. I waded awkwardly, shoving the torch into my coat and started to climb.
My boots slipped and I fell, clawing at the rocks. I felt my ankle crunch as it twisted. Lightning shot through the leg, making my vision blur. I screamed, but it echoed feebly inside the cave. The torch rolled down the slope and splashed into the water. The submerged beam shimmered over the stone mermaid.
I lay still, as even the slightest movement triggered a fresh wave of pain. Water soaked my clothes and seeped up my chest. I knew then I was going to die. Tangled in seaweed, like her. My feet went numb. Strange noises filled the cave. Muffled whispers. The clink of a chisel. A woman crying.
As I drifted away, I saw her, huddled in the corner, head buried in her knees, sobbing silently. Another face floated towards me. I moved my arms feebly as if to fend the ghosts away…but everything went dark.
I came around choking, seawater running down my nostrils. I retched till nothing came but trickles of saliva. There was a fire crackling in the sand before me.
“Are you alright, son?”
A man came into view clutching pieces of driftwood. He knelt down and water dripped from his beard, hissing into the flames. Firelight danced on his eyes.
“What were you doing in there? Didn’t you know that the tide comes in?”
I tried to prop myself up.
“Careful. That ankle doesn’t look too good…” He threw some more wood into the fire.
I lay there letting the flames warm me. He said how he had seen the light in the cave and swam up to investigate. He had found me and managed to drag me to the beach. I thanked him for saving my life.
“Another romantic looking for ghosts,” he said. “ Did you find any?”
“No.” I lied. “I didn’t.”
“Was she worth dying for?”
I thought for a moment.“Yes.”
He hugged the blanket close around him. “ I suppose you heard what happened.”
He looked up at the stars. Firelight smoothed the wrinkles and he looked younger somehow. “There’s another story should you care to hear. It may be the truth. But who knows? With time, everything gets worn away and submerged, like these temples.”
I waited. Steam rose in thin wisps from my clothes.
“It’s the story of forbidden love. A wandering sculptor and a rich man’s daughter. She was his muse. He fell in love with her as he sculpted her. She was reluctant but soon knew she loved him too. Her father would never allow it. But love can’t be arranged, can it? She loathed the prospect of marrying a stranger. They planned to elope. She would wait in the cave so he could meet her in a boat.
“But it wasn’t meant to be. Her father found out. His men caught up with the sculptor. They tried to make him talk, to find out where she was. He wouldn’t tell. They left him to die, but only after severing his thumbs, so he would never sculpt again, even in the afterlife.
She must have waited. Who knows what went through her mind. Maybe she realised something must have happened to him and decided to sit there watching the tide come in, not wanting to move. Maybe she got trapped like you. Worse still, her father may have found her and killed her rather than face the dishonour.”
“What about the sculptor?”
“Gypsies found him and nursed him back to health. He comes back to see her sometime. It breaks his heart to see her standing there, waiting. He would’ve died, if only he believed in afterlife. But he is afraid that to die is to lose sight of her; to miss seeing her.”
I wanted to say something but I knew it wouldn’t matter. I was just a listener. An empty canvas for the story to be painted on.
The fire was dying.
“We better get you home.” He stood and came around to help me up.
I reached out for his hand, feeling the cicatrised scar where his thumb should have been.
I limped back to the camp, leaning on him. He was humming a nameless tune under his breath. I looked back at the stone mermaid. She was still waiting.
2006 - Broadcast on BBC Radio 4
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© 2010 Mohan Kumar