The breeze felt like a mother’s caress on her cheeks. She realized that she was getting engulfed in a sense of peace here on the shore of the Bay of Bengal. Something she hasn’t had in almost a year. It filled her with hope for the future. She could feel it giving her the strength go on. To live.
Not for the first time since she arrived here at Velankanni, Mary could physically feel the burden of her past, the ones that were bogging her down, being lifted away. Sitting at the seashore now, she was thankful she made this trip.
She looked down at the two kids lying on either side of her with their heads on each of her laps. Nakul the elder, was her life. 9 years and already showing the same qualities of the man she fell in love with. He had his father’s eyes which were full of joy and kindness. She remembered that it was his father’s eyes that she first fell in love with. She also remembered looking into those same eyes on that fateful day, when life left them.
One of Nakul’s better qualities is unconditional love for his younger sister Jyoti. It was for her third birthday that they made this trip. She has been stuck with a series of ailments recently. Though none of them were major concerns to the doctors, a mother always worries. And this trip to the Lady of good health was mainly for her benefit. But Mary now realizes that the healing was needed more for her than for her daughter.
Things have been a struggle since Satheesh, her husband passed away. God had cut short her father’s life 11 years ago barely year after her wedding. And her mother’s 2 years later. Satheesh filled the void she felt then with a lot of love and happiness. With God blessing them with 2 wonderful kids, life was bliss.
Then one rainy day all that changed. She was late that day and was rushing Satheesh to drop her at her office. She could still hear him scolding her for her tardiness. Before he could complete what he was saying a dog ran across the motorbike. Satheesh swerved to avoid hitting it and lost balance. They both fell to either side of the vehicle and she saw with horror the truck heading straight for him. She clearly saw the panic and terror in his face as he put up one hand almost as a reflex action to stop the impending disaster. That’s the face that wakes her almost every night now.
But today all that feels different. She has a job. And combined with Satheesh’s foresight to have a life insurance Mary knows that financially she doesn’t have anything to worry about. But emotionally she knows she was a broken woman. Until today.
Today she is filled with hope. She knows she has to live for her kids. She has to move on and fight what this world has to throw at them for the sake of her children. She has to be both father and mother for them; protector and sustainer. She has to fight the doubts creeping up in her mind even now. And she is not confident her resolve will hold the next time the nightmares return. But she resolves to give it a try, which is more than what she has done since Satheesh left them.
She was lost in her thoughts when she looked down again and saw that Nakul was wide awake and looking up at her with that infectious smile of his. “Amma, do you love me or Jyoti more”. This is something he asks all the time. And she answers him the same way she always does since he started asking it. “I love you both. But you are my best friend”
She knows he is not jealous. But there seems to be an insecurity in the boy about competing for her love. She believed he would get out of this as he got older. But Satheesh’s passing seems to have made this question a bit more frequent than she would have liked. It’s almost as if the boy is trying to cling on to the one thing that is constant in his life.
It was almost absently that she looked up and saw something strange. The sea which was calm and serene just a few minutes ago, seemed to be receding more than normal. Even for someone like her, who has lived near a coast all her life, this was something of a first. It was more out of curiosity that she stood up picking up her daughter. She ignored the protests of her daughter irritated at being woken up by the movement. She now noticed that boats which were floating on water before were now on solid ground. She couldn’t help but let out an exclamation of surprise at the sight she was seeing. She noticed that some people were heading towards the beach, their curiosity getting the better of them.
For some reason she didn’t join them. Maybe it was the fear of the unknown that stopped her from doing it. She would later recall that out in the horizon, she saw that the sea was turning. It was coming back with the ferocity of a separated lover. The first time she sensed danger was when she saw that the size of the wave was getting bigger and bigger. Where it seemed inevitable that it would rush ashore to where she was standing. She grabbed her son’s hand tightly and started taking a few steps back almost instinctively. But the wave was coming in faster and growing in size every inch that it moved forward. She turned and yelled at her son, “RUN!!!”
Her back towards the ravaging force of nature, she was trying to run as fast as she could. But with Jyoti clinging to her neck, a hand supporting the child and another holding Nakul her progress was limited. It was Jyoti’s scream that she heard before she felt like being shoved from behind by a giant brute. The force of that wet impact threw her off-balance and pushed forward where she fell face first. But instead of land what greeted her was water. The force dragged her under momentarily, twisting and turning her and completely disorienting her. She had lost all concept of time or direction and was just barley managing to keep coming up for air from time to time. Managing to get some air mixed with the dark graying waters of the ravaging sea. Somehow she had still held on to her son through all this. But, her daughter came loose the third time she came up for air.
With growing horror Mary saw her daughter beginning to be swept away from her. Something in her knows that if the child moves any further way, she may never see her again. With an extraordinary strength of will Mary is able to lunge towards her daughter and just manages to get a hold of her dress. She pulls her scared, screaming between chokes, daughter closer. Her son, whose face is writ large with shock and terror was almost dragging her down in his effort to keep his head above water.
Mary could make out that they were getting dragged further inland from the coconut trees which dotted the sea shore passed by her. At one point the water seemed to have lost some of its intensity and Mary grabbed on to a piece of rope that must have been tied to something anchored to the ground because it held when she pulled at it. But she didn’t have the strength to hold on to it with one hand as her other hand was still holding on to her son. That along with the weight of her daughter on her neck made her let go.
Mary was reaching out and trying to grab at something, anything, that she could. She reached out and grabbed what she realized was a tree branch. She dragged herself and her children towards the branch and wrapped her free arm around a sturdier part of the branch. But she knew that the struggle is far from over. She knows that the sea has a rhythm of its own. Every wave that rushes in has to go back. The onward rush of the sea had become a crawl now. She used that time to wrap a leg around the branch too. It was a miracle that she still had her daughter around her neck. It could have been out of pure fear and survival instinct. But the child held on to her mother all her might. She tried to pull her son closer to the branch and thought of hoisting him on it. But she didn’t have the energy or the strength to do that.
And then the water started receding.
Mary held on with as much strength as she could muster. Holding and clinging on to the branch while still holding on to her son. Praying that her daughter would not let go of her grip. But the receding waters were get stronger and stronger. Mary was getting hit by all kind of debris, but the tree served as good protection from some of the larger ones that would have surely knocked them out otherwise.
But Mary realized that the struggle was far from over. He daughter was tiring and her grip around the mother’s neck loosening just a little. Mary realizes that she will have to use her other hand if she has any hope of saving her daughter. She is faced with a dilemma that no mother can face. She has to choose which of her children she has to let go. She tries to look at her son. The son who had absolute terror on his face. And Mary thought of Satheesh on that day.
Mary resolved not to let go of either one of them. She continued to fight. But her daughter’s grip was loosening and it was only a matter of time before she was going to be pulled away by the sea. Mary looked one more time at her son again. Their eyes met. And she lets him go.
Mary grabbed her daughter just as she was about to completely loose her grip. Without her son Mary now had the leverage to get a better grip on her daughter and the branch. She was now able to wrap both her legs around it and held on for dear life.
When Mary opened her eyes again, the first thing she saw was the roof of a cloth tent. She saw a bulb hanging from the top on an electric wire. For a few moments she didn’t have any memory of what had happened to her. She saw that there was an IV drip being administered to her. She saw her daughter in the bed next to her. But as soon as she felt happy to see her, the memory of her son and the associated guilt returned. “What have I done”, she thought. The guilt hit her just like that first wave did. She cursed the idea to come here. She cursed the gods that granted the health of one child only to take the other’s life in return. “What sin deserves to be punished like this?” she silently asks the Matha for whose blessings she had come to Velankanni.
Mary and her daughter were in the make shift rescue center for a day before the doctors told her they were healthy enough to go. She had checked every bed there to see if her son was there. They still had injuries sustained from the ordeal, but the doctors were understaffed to deal with the calamity that has befallen this small town and had to prioritize their resources for those who needed more help. Some of the nurses even told her that she and her daughter were extremely lucky to have only sustained such minor injuries. She didn’t tell them anything. The nurses didn’t understand why she would break down completely when they say this.
But Mary doesn’t leave. She sticks around hoping to hear any news about her son. He manages to get herself and her daughter into the cramped temporary rescue co-ordination center. Which has started looking almost like a refugee center with relatives of victims searching for any news of their missing loved ones. With the cries of anguish outnumbering those joy every passing day. Every day Mary goes through a pendulum swing of emotions when she scans the list of survivors and the list of dead. She always scanned the unidentified dead bodies the last.
On the 4th next day since the ordeal started, while at the rescue center, news started trickling in of survivors in another part of the town. She learns that these are mostly children who are unclaimed by parents or relatives. Mary rushes there hoping against hope that her son is in there. With deafening heartbeats she looks at the list of names posted outside. Her heart sinks when her sons name is not in the list.
Despondent and on the verge of losing all hope, she is at a loss as to what to do next. “Have you checked the local hospitals?”, the Officer at the rescue center asks. “Some of the early survivors were taken there. Since they were unconscious we didn’t get their names. A lot of them were on the edge of life and we never got around to collecting their data”.
Hope rekindled, Mary goes to the hospital taking her daughter with her. She is told of a boy who gained consciousness that very day after fighting for his life the last couple days. He had washed ashore at a remote part of town and it was the local fishermen who found him. They took him to the local clinic who gave him first aid and then had him transferred to the local hospital. The boy’s description matched that of Nakul.
Mary rushes inside and see that it is indeed her Nakul. She grabs him and hugs him with all her might. She feels an indescribable sense of relief and happiness at having found him. She thanks the God who has been merciful to her at least once. But something feels odd. Mary doesn’t realize it instantly. Its only later that she realized that Nakul is impassive to all this. He is not returning her hugs. Tears seems to be rolling down his eyes but other than that, Mary doesn’t sense the happiness he should feel at seeing his mother again.
“Amma, do you love me or Jyoti more?” That’s the questing which ring in her head at that time. She wants to explain why she did what she had to do. That it wasn’t preference. It wasn’t lack of love. But she can’t find the words for it. What words would explain to him what she had to do. What words would make him understand what she went through.
The future that looked so hopeful a couple of days ago looks dark to her. It scares her more than ever. She worries if Nakul can live with what she did. She worries if her son will forgive her someday. She worries if her son will ever trust her to not let go again. The future looks back at her, smiling monstrously with its hidden mysteries.