Turtles Without Ghosts

Kids shouldn’t be at a funeral, unless it’s their own, thought Jackson, all the bitterness which he managed to keep from spilling making a sudden appearance in the uncool thought.

Jackson- a fan of Kendrik Lamar and 2Pac didn’t believe in doing things uncool, not if he could help it. But today,he was not being able to help it all that much.

Sure, some people say that children being at a funeral gives them a peep at the real culmination of life, that subconsciously, they then adjust themselves better to die a peaceful death. But the way Jackson saw it, it was all bullshit.

His father has had a pretty long life-the man was just two months away from his 74th birthday when they found him dead on the beach in the night, lying facedown, his arms spread “like he was trying to hug the earth” as one of the guys who found him said. But Jackson wasn’t sure if his old man had died a peaceful death. It was a lonely death- according to his mother-of late,  his father was given to going for a walk at the beach in the night, she said.

“At first, I thought he must be out drinking with some of his buddies. But when I found that he would simply be walking the shore on his own, I was rather surprised. Do you think your father is getting sentimental in his old age?” she had asked Jackson one time when he called her on the phone.

“When did this begin? After…after our fight?” Jackson had queried.

“I can’t be sure. But I guess so, yes,” his mother said after giving it some thought.

The fight in question was regarding an 8 cent of land which his father owned. The plot of land lied on the northern end of the beach, near to the Marine Studies Institution. It was supposed to be given to Jolly- Jackson’s younger sister when she got married. However, about three months before the wedding, Jackson’s father ran into some trouble.

The old man had the habit of playing poker. The sessions happened in an abandoned warehouse. The warehouse used to be the storage space for the cargo back when the beach still had a port, before they established a better port all the way down in Kochi and all the ships began to dock there.

The stakes were usually low- a couple of bottles of rum or a few hundred rupees at the most. But if you were willing enough, or rather daring enough, you could rise the stake as much as you wanted. You only better make sure you had the resources to back the raising if push comes to shove- that’s the house rules. But people rarely went for higher stakes.

Partly because the men who played there all knew each other and were just looking for some fun- to distract their minds of the progressively lowering count of fish in the ocean every year and how kids these days when they grew up just didn’t find anything to root them to their place of birth, drifting away from their parents and the moral landscape in which they grew up. Also because, none of the men who went to play- mostly fishermen and small shop owners, had enough possessions to warrant higher stakes.

Jackson’s father himself never used to bet on anything more substantial than two bottles of cheap rum(and on certain occasions, when he was feeling particularly light minded, an extra bottle of good whiskey). But once an accident which put a permanent limp on his leg and a shooting pain whenever he pressed the foot down hard on the ground rendered him incapable of going with the fishing boat anymore, he began to see poker as the only escape from staying home all day long- a terrible mundanity for anyone who has worked regularly since he was 14 years old. An even bigger burden, if your work was out in the ocean, where you confront the waves and the cold of a watery landscape which beckoned to you every time you came ashore.

The stakes went higher and higher, and when Lonappan-one of the wealthier individuals in the locality who owned multiple restaurants in the Kollam city started playing there, the stakes went high enough for Jackson’s father to give up the eight cent of land.

The old man didn’t speak about it to his family. Only when someone in the neighborhood mentioned it to Jackson’s mother did the family come to know about it. His mother called him, told him about the problem.

Jackson-who worked in Banaglore came down the very next day. The confrontation with his father was ugly. In hindsight, Jackson thought maybe he could have handled it better, that maybe if he had not got angry at the outset itself, things could have turned out better. But how better? The deed was done and his sister’s wedding was not to be. It was not until another six months that her wedding-with another man- was fixed. Thankfully, that went through without any issues.

His sister’s wedding was the last time that Jackson came down to his home town of Chalveruvam, some 10 kilometers from the Kollam town, nestled between the inner city and Needndakara. Even then, not even a single word was exchanged between the father and the son.

That was almost five years ago. The next time he came down was yesterday, for his father’s funeral.

**

The ship loomed like a black husk against the dark blue of the night sky. The beach at Calveruvam was not a tourist spot- not until this ship ran ashore a few months ago. It belonged to an French company and was on in its final voyage. Long been in service, for more than four decades, the ship was as frail as an old man with a degenerative bone disease. Only, the company under-estimated the frailness which was why the ship had to be run ashore mid-voyage, at the beach where no ship has come to dock since the port was abandoned centuries ago.

The company figured that in the short term, it made more economic sense to transfer the ship’s cargo- it was carrying steel pellets, tons of it, to another vessel than try and haul the ship all the way to its final resting place on the other side of the Arabian Ocean.

Chalveruvum, they had decided was not to be its final resting place, but was going to be a halting place for a long time to come. Once all the cargo was transferred to the other vessel and the last piece of valuables removed from the ship, there was no one left on board.

The ship was a curiosity that brought tourists down to the Chalveruvum beach. Before long, stalls that sold light snacks and cool drinks and ice cream began to pop up on the beach. And people began to take selfies in front of the ship and posted them on Facebook.

But the last of the tourists had left long ago and Jackson took a seat on one of the small pushcarts on the beach- the assortment of plastic toys which were sold from this pushcart were neatly tied in a tarpaulin, which was in turn chained to the wheel of the cart. Looking amusedly at the silhouette of the ship, he began to sip the beer which he held in his hand.

He used to come and drink at the beach in the night almost every day before he moved to Bangalore. That was with friends, never alone. Now, all his friends had, like him, either moved to other places or were married and settled with family, or indeed both, leaving him all alone to enjoy the full moon over the ocean and the cool night breeze that drifted in from the sea.

Not that he minded the solitude too much. Indeed, it was for the solitude that, about an hour after the funeral, he left home, telling his mother and sister that he would be back soon, taking one of the neighbour’s bike and going for a long ride, on the way back stopping at a bar where he had a couple of beers, brought one for later, ended up with it at the beach so late in the night.

He had hoped that the solitude would help him come to terms with the fact that he never really got to resolve with his father after their fight. He didn’t hold any grudge towards the old man anymore- with the passing of years, he had found it harder to hold on to the anger. But he never really got to tell his father the same.

Jackson shook his head sadly, a ghost like figure in the night, lamenting a loss he felt deeper the longer the night got.

**

“Jack!” It was his mother calling. Breakfast must be ready.

It felt slightly surreal to Jackson how everything appeared very normal just two days after they put his father in the ground. Including how his mother called him by the name she used to use when he was young.

“How many times do I have to tell you not to call me by that name! What do you think I am, still a kid?” said Jackson as he came out of his bedroom.

“And how many times do I have to tell you that kids always remain kids to a mother, no matter how grown up they get!” his mother said with the smile that put a dimple on her cheek. Though this time the dimple was not as deep as it used to be.

His sister had gone back to her home in Thangassery where she stayed with her husband and their 4 year old son. She said she would be back the next evening. So for now, it was just the mother and son alone at home, she putting more dosas on to his plate, watching him eat with a delight which only mothers get to experience.

“Are you not eating?” said Jackson.

“Later,” said his mother. “Let me just see you eat. Do you know how long it has been since you have sat at this dining table? You remember how we all used to eat together, me, you, your father, your sister…” Tears sprang to her eyes with a suddenness which surprised even her. She dabbed at her eyes with the hem of her saree.

“Mommy, don’t cry!” said Jackson. “Or I won’t be able to eat!” he added, sure that if there was anything that could make his mother stop crying, that was it.

“I went to the beach the other day,” said Jackson after a few seconds, “I thought I would see some of the Sola Radies. But the people say that they haven’t seen even a single one this summer!”

His mother looked up, a faint but pleasant smile appeared on her face. Jackson knew the reason for the smile. He too smiled, both of them remembering how his father used to take him and his sister out to see the Sola Radie turtles coming to the beach to lay eggs, when they were kids. A couple of times, it so happened that a newly born would make its way out of the egg shells while they were there. And they would help the little one reach the ocean and to the comforts of the waters.

“Yes,” his mother said eventually. “They say that the number of turtles that come ashore has been coming down for many years.”

“Yes, so I heard,” said Jackson.

A few more minutes of silence ensued. Silence was not unusual between his mother and himself. Once upon a time she used to tell him all the time how he should be getting married. And the more she talked about it, the more he pulled into himself, like a tortoise pulling its head into its shell.

He was comfortable as he was. He has seen enough families in the neighborhood and within his own extended family to know that marriage is at best both a curse and a blessing at the same time. Anyone who told you otherwise would be fooling you. And he thought it best to stay clear of such mixed blessings. It’s not as if life didn’t bring you its ups and downs without you asking for it.

Jackson’s increased introversion stopped his mother from posing the question of marriage altogether. Silences became frequent between them. But this was a different sort of silence altogether- one which also reminded them both of the vacuum left behind by his father.

“I think I am going to go down to the marine studies center today, see if they have any idea why the turtles haven’t shown up this year?” He thought of the idea and expressed it to his mother more to fill the silence than anything else. But once he said it, it felt like the right thing to say, and do.

His mother looked up with a frown mingled with a smile. “You never were the curious type,” she said. “I remember when the tsunami struck, you were the only one who didn’t know how a tsunami arises, even two days after the tragedy.”

Jackson nodded. “Yes, but this time, it’s different. This time..”

“…It’s about your father,” his mother finished the sentence for him. It’s about finding a past which you want to connect to- the turtles are part of that past, the thought remained unsaid but Jackson could see it creating a twinkle in his mother’s eyes.

**

The Marine Institute of Science was housed in a five storied building that was built in 1982. The Institute itself started functioning in Calveruvum in 1983. The Institute occupied the top four floors of the building while the first floor housed the office of the electricity board. The only times Jackson has been to the building before this was to pay the household electricity bell.

The colour of the uniform of the security guard who was posted in the second floor was the same pale brown as the paint on the wall- a rather depressing color, in Jackson’s opinion. Even more depressing was the sight of the security guard- a middle aged man with a pencil thin moustache and pointed chin, sleeping with his head lowered, sitting in a white plastic chair. It was just 10:30 in the morning and there was nothing more depressing than seeing someone in duty sleeping at this hour, or so thought Jackson.

He made some noise with his throat which made the guard almost spring up. “What? What is it?” said the guard, his voice still scratchy from sleep.

Jackson told him about the Sola Radies. About how he wanted to know why they didn’t turn up at the beach this time around. Was there someone he could speak to about it?

The security guard looked at him with an ‘Are you kidding me?’ expression. The steady look on Jackson’s face, along with a placating smile told him that the young man certainly wasn’t kidding.

“Are you a journalist?” said the guard. “Which publication are you from?”

When Jackson told him that he was not a journalist, the frown in the guard’s forehead deepened.

**

“I must say we don’t get visitors like you every day. And I must also say that I am glad for this- that someone from the public has come forward with such a question. Let me tell you something, Mr.Jack“

“Jackson, please call me Jackson,” Jackson interrupted.

The woman nodded, continued, “Yes, Mr. Jackson, let me tell you something- the only reason why the environment is in such a poor shape, why so many animal species are going extinct is because the public doesn’t show enough interest or involvement. If only the public would wake up and see that they needn’t be mere spectators to this unfolding drama of carnage, we can have the world back. So, on behalf of the scientific community, let me express our profound thank you, Mr. Jack!”

“Jackson.”

“Yes, Mr. Jackson,” the young woman smiled. It was quite clear to Jackson, from the spirited way in which the woman spoke, that she was more than passionate about the job she does, and the designation she held- Lead Research-Coordinator was something which obviously suited her.

He hoped that she would also have the answer to the question he sought.

“Er..you said something about ‘drama of carnage’ and extinction,” said Jackson. “So, does that mean the Sola Radies are also facing extinction?”

The woman blushed- a reaction which reminded Jackson that despite the hardened veneer built by soft hate for the human apathy against the environment, she was still a young person- not more than 30 years- an age which his mother would think as the ideal age for his bride, he thought.

“I am sorry,” said the woman whose name on the designation board read Suhasini Sukumaran. “Here I was orating and forgot all about answering your question.” The smile which was blooming on her face was soon replaced by an intense frown as she said, “Yes. Mr. Jackson, the Radies are facing extinction. We don’t yet know how many there are left in the world. It’s not easy to get an accurate count of sea creatures- especially the ones like the Radies which have a pretty wide migratory path, making them hard to trace. And things have been been further complicated by the effects of climate change. What we do know for sure is that there are only very few of them left.”

“What caused this sudden downfall in their count?” said Jackson.

The woman leaned forward and beckoned Jackson to do the same.

“Let me tell you a secret, Mr.Jackson,” she said. “Nine out of ten times, there is no just one reason for the extinction of a species. Not anymore. Combined factors contribute- from global warming to poor fishing practices to dumping toxic waste in the lakes and rivers and the ocean. But if you are looking for a single word or phrase to explain them all- it’s ‘human apathy.’” She leaned back in the chair, letting out a long sigh.

Jackson was surprised to see how angry she looked when she spoke about the “human apathy.” He was delighted that someone took their job so seriously in this day and age when all a job meant was making some money. He also was delighted by the fact that the woman finally got his name right.

He nodded thoughtfully. “It’s hard to believe.. I remember seeing them in large numbers when I was here five years ago..”

The woman smiled, a smile of irony if ever there was one. “I think we are annihilating the different species of the planet at the same rate as our technological progress,” she said, maintaining the smile still.

I don’t think it’d be fun to have  chit-chat with you, thought Jacksnon, but I also like you.

He couldn’t remember when was the last time he felt that he liked a woman- sometime during his college years, he was sure- and that too some minor infatuation.

Maybe that was the case with Suhasini Sukumaran as well- an infatuation, he cannot be sure. Not yet. But he would definitely like to find out.

“So, what do you do, Mr.Jackson?” she said. “Murthy, our security guard told me that you are not a journalist. So, what made you interested in knowing about the turtles..?”

“I just live here, in these parts, I mean, and I got curious. As for what I do, I work as an HR Manager for a small software firm in Bangalore…What about you? I mean, I don’t think that you are from around here, are you? I know most people from around here..”

She stared at him for a couple of seconds before replying, as though trying to judge how much she ought to speak about her own personal self, if at all. Thankfully for him, she adjudged him harmless or decent enough to tell him that she hailed from Kottayam but moved to Kollam two years ago when she got this posting.

And, are you married? he almost asked. But settled for the fact that there wasn’t any mangalsutra around her neck or kunkum smeared on her forehead.

He nodded, said thanks for her time before getting up. As he walked out of the office, he noticed that the security guard has fallen asleep again. But this time, he wasn’t too miffed by it. If species could go endangered in so short a time, he thought, there was perhaps nothing unnatural in people falling asleep so soon.

That might be how Sushasini madam thinks about these things, he thought. He couldn’t help but smile.

**

Night times were when he felt the loneliest. Man’s relationship to the night has been altered by electricity. The shimmering lights that came from the houses and the boats which still lined the ocean at the horizon made the night a little less mysterious.

That may well be true,but no amount of lights was going to make it any less lonely, thought Jackson. The cold sting of beer felt nice on his tongue. The night was warmer than the last one by a few degrees more than palatable. The stars which blinked in the sky looked so far away from the earth to give him a heightened sense of loneliness.

During the day, he went to the grocery store and spent some time doing odd jobs at home- there was wood to be cut, some electrical wiring to fix and he had to hire a plumber. In between he slept or watched the television or ate- after all these years of eating poorly made food from the different restaurants in and around Madiwala where he stayed in Bangalore, it felt heavenly to be enjoying mother’s cooking again.

But once the sun went down, his spirits also sank, the soul finally confronting the fact of one more day ending on a lonely note.

Such pangs of loneliness didn’t used to touch him. But once he started staying away from home for good-since the fight with his dad, it was as though he has been given a glimpse of another side to the concept of loneliness- he began to feel as though he was missing a part of his own body, a limb, perhaps.

The beach alleviated the sense of isolation somewhat. For one thing, there was the multitude of stars. There was nowhere better which Jackson could imagine as better for star gazing than on a beach on a cloudless night-assuming they hadn’t ruined the view with the bright floodlights they are in the habit of fixing on the beaches(Thankfully, the Calveruvum beach wasn’t that well developed. At least, not yet). Then also, there was the sound of the waves which echoed in the night. One could, with a little bit of imagination think of it as the sound of the benevolent mother ocean whispering into your ears-that everything’s going to be alright, the ocean has been round far longer than you could conceive and has seen many lives pass through the earth, no matter what you are going through, it’s never as bad as you may imagine…

The necessary imagination to envision the sound of waves as that of the ocean comes easily when you are drunk enough- as Jackson was tonight. Before having the beer he had a couple of bottles of local brewed arrack. Arrack has long been banned in Kerala but there’s a difference between banning something and making it disappear. Though the person who got him the bottles told him that it was “great stuff” it felt more like spirit than anything once he drank. Indeed, he felt it was nothing less than a miracle that he hasn’t shat any of his internal organs out yet. God only knows that a couple of times, he felt as though he was going to do precisely that.

Yet another thing, aside from the stars and the waves, which helped you take your mind off from the loneliness which resided in you as a heart shaped vacuum was the ship. In daylight, it looks like the ugliest ship you have ever set your eyes on. Even inexpert eyes like those of Jackson could see that the ship should have been long out of commission.

God only knows, how many pockets got fatter with bribes from this business, Jackson thought as he looked at the ship’s silhouette. A wind was blowing which made a rope-ladder bang against the ship’s side rhythmically. The ladder was left behind by someone who went to explore the ship earlier in the evening. It wasn’t unusual for local kids to use the ship as a domain to host their late night get-togethers which involved drinking, and if what Jackson heard was true, using crack.

The number of teens who use drugs in Kerala has gone up ever since hard liquor has been prohibited in the state’s bars. And the coastal areas- regions with low income and high crime rates are at the forefront of this looming drug use is what Jackson has heard.

More and more the ladder made its soft banging sound on the ship’s dilapidated hull, the more it felt to Jackson as though the sound was an invitation.

One bangs on the door to be let in!, he thought.

Well, that doesn’t make much sense but I am gonna go into the ship all the same, he thought next, standing up and walking on shaky legs towards the ship, throwing the empty beer bottle into the ocean along the way.

The rope ladder has evidently seen better days. The creaking sounds it made on a couple of occasions during his clim made him all but climb back down. He was curious about the ship- but not curious enough to risk breaking his back. But then, the alcohol-infused rush and the prospect of doing something that would keep his mind off all the forlorn thoughts about never resolving the fight with his father pushed him on, until he found himself pulling one leg after the other over the side of the ship.

Once he was on the starboard, he gazed out into the ocean. He wished he had taken a boat out tonight. What with the cloudless sky and the calm waves, this looked like a good night to be out there in the ocean.

Maybe tomorrow night, he thought. But right now, I must settle for exploring a ship that has showed on our beach like in a fairytale. Indeed, some of the stories that the locals said about the ship were fit for fairytales.

Like the stories about the ship being haunted.

A couple of kids who went in to explore the ship had reported seeing ghostly figures straying in and out of its cabin doors.

‘Mostly, the result of sniffing and injecting all that stuff which has no reason to be in a human body to begin with!’ was what one elderly fisherwoman said when she heard about it. Jackson sided with the fisherwoman’s opinion. Nevertheless, in the darkness which was broken only by the occasional streams of moonlight, it was so easy to imagine there were ghosts lurking in the various unexplored regions of the ship.

For instance, was that a ghostly limb that he saw just disappearing into that door at the end of the corridor, or was that perhaps a curtain swaying in the wind? The ship wasn’t particularly large as far as ships went- one could walk from hull to starboard and back in 10 minutes at a comfortable pace. There were four decks beneath, beside the engine deck.

Jackson was presently on the second deck making his way through, carefully putting one foot in front of the other in the light of the mobile phone which he has taken out from his pocket.

Most of the doors which he had tried so far were locked. The ones which did yield opened into uninspiring spaces- either filled with nothing but emptiness, their contents long cleared, or offering glimpses of empty beds and round portals through which he could see a tiny portion of the sea- altogether claustrophobic places in which two or three sailors could stay.

When another door opened when he pushed down the handle, he got excited- particularly since on the white door was stenciled the words, No Admission Without Permission. But the view inside didn’t inspire much excitement. It was another smallish room- some 20 feet by 20 feet in dimensions. The only contents of the room was a low table to one side and a map stuck on the wall. He didn’t even bother going to the wall to observe the map closer.

“I should have gone home and watched some TV” he muttered under his breath, feeling boredom creeping into his system. He closed the door with ‘No Admission Without Permission’ on it and stepped out into the corridor, which was when he saw the glow.

He wasn’t sure if it was there earlier, before he went into the room. It was a white glow which emitted from the room at the very end, the one that was almost directly under the stairs which led to the top deck.

Immediately, he began to feel his heart beating faster. The boredom which threatened to dull his senses dissipated. For some reason he found it lightly that the source of light was not earthly- for it was pure, purer than the softest white light you could imagine, pure enough to make you redefine pure.

And if mankind has invented a source of light that pure sometime in the preceding years, Jackson has been living under a rock.

More than anything else, what kept him moving towards the light was the will to discover its source- a fancy gadget which was used only in such things as vessels, perhaps? If that was the case, what was it doing being lit, now when the ship was abandoned for all practical purposes?

Some part of his being told him to turn around, the primordial impulse for self-preservation telling him that it was folly to be moving towards something you didn’t know could be dangerous or not.

But what could possibly be dangerous about such pure light?, the rest of his being countered.

Well, what if it’s those ghosts that the kids said they have seen?, said the primordial part which came down right from the ancestors who had spent more time in the inner-jungles than the inner-city streets.

“Ghosts!” Jackson laughed, though there was no conviction in the sound. “How can you be thinking of ghosts? We are on a ship that- notwithstanding its ramshackle appearance, was built using cutting edge modern technology. And you know that when you are in the presence of cutting –edge, there is no space for ghosts!” he told himself. Realizing that he just addressed himself as “we”, he shook his head in an attempt to clear his brain of the alcohol fumes and made towards the open door.

At first, all he could see was the light, proximity of which blocked off any other view that may have been afforded- the entire world and indeed the universe filled with nothing but the pristine white light- just like how they represent God ] in the old Biblical movies they used to show in the Sunday classes at the church when he was young.

And from this close a vantage point, he found the light even more alluring that before, as though at its centre was hidden a sensuous being for which the cluster of photons was just a cloth-in fact, an extension of its own being, through which it sent out the alluring waves, waves which like ropes tugged at his heart, making him wish he could become one with the light.

Though the light’s glow felt sensual, there was nothing sexual about it. He wasn’t sure if he would be able to explain the feeling precisely once he got out of here.

If he got out of here.

He wasn’t sure what was going to happen to him next. Wasn’t sure if whatever presence he was in front of would be willing to let him go now that he was in its cabin.

For that’s what it was- a cabin, smaller than any he has come across in the ship so far, with more or less the same arrangement as in the others: a double bunker bed with a round porthole through which the ocean could be seen, waves glittering, rolling around like kids playing in the moonlight.

The light now retargeted- somewhat. It took on a shape. Two shapes, in fact. Jackson blinked rapidly, trying to make sense of what he was looking at. The source of the light was no man-made apparatus, that’s the first thing that registered in his brain.

The shapes were vaguely human in form, but lacking in any distinct feature. The one on the left was shorter than the one on the right by at least a head, also the latter seemed to have a longer face, if the amorphous, constantly rippling oval mass at the top could be said to be a head.

They both sat in the lower bunker, very close to each other, looking straight at Jackson- Even through they lacked eyes in the conventional sense, Jackson could feel the pressure of their gaze on him. He felt as though a couple of little kids were looking at him to bring them food. He felt also as if someone was looking at him, judging him- judging how much of supernatural phenomena he could take before breaking down.

What he didn’t feel was threatened. Before either of the shapes has said even a word, Jackson felt sure that he didn’t have anything to worry from these two.

But that’s not to say that he was not amazed. That’s not to say that when he opened his mouth, he had trouble articulating, and not just because of all the alcohol in his belly.

“Who…who are you?” he managed to say without coiling his tongue around itself.

“I am surprised that this one is still standing!” said the one on the left, the shorter one. It spoke in English, British English, from the accent, thought Jackson. Ennobled by the idea that regardless of their alien appearance, he could make conversation with them, he repeated his question, this time not in Malayalm but in English.

This time, the shorter one chuckled. “Well, now that he has asked the question, we might as well tell him!” said the taller one, in much the same accent as the other being. “It’s not everyday that we get to tell our tales to a mortal!” Turning to Jackson, he added, “Why don’t you take a seat.”

The seat he(both of the ghostly apparitions were male, from the voice) indicated was a low stool which was propped against a wall – the only other piece of furniture in the small space. Jackson ambled towards the stool, his legs unsteady both from the excitement and also from the drinking. He relied that he had the light on his mobile phone still turned on. Feeling foolish- after all, he was in the presence of the whitest light he has ever seen in his life, he switched off the cell phone and put it in his jeans pocket, before taking a seat on the low stool, doing his best not to look like a drunken fool who has stumbled into the wrong place, which was what he was.

Sitting there, listening to the story that the apparitions told him, he wished the alcohol-induced buzz in his head would subside, if not for anything, at least so that he could know that what he listened to, and saw, was real.

**

The next day, Jackson woke up with a splitting headache which made it hard for him to keep his eyes open for more than two seconds at a time, let alone stand still. After spending some half an hour under the shower, he managed to bring the throbbing achee inside his head down(it had felt like someone had set up a trampoline in his brain and was doing some circus routine on it). By the time he stepped out of the bathroom, it was almost noon.

“Jack!” His mother came into the room once he was dressed.

“Don’t call me that!” said Jackson, feeling irritable.

“Do you drink every day in Bangalore?” his mother asked, as though she didn’t even hear what he just said.

“What?” said Jackson, a baffled expression on his face, half true, half fake.

“You came home last night stinking of alcohol as though you took a bath in it!” she said.

Well, thought Jackson, I know that the drinking part was real. But what I don’t know is if what happened afterwards- seeing those two ghosts in the ship, was that real?

“What, you don’t have anything to say?” said his mother. He felt like he has time travelled back to his teen years when she would catch him red-handed doing something unforeseen like drinking beer.

“Not really,” Jackson said calmly, “except that I got a little carried away last night…I am sorry. Now, is there anything to eat, mama? I am hungry as the earth is hungry for some peace from humans!”

His mother’s eyes widened. “As the earth is hungry for peace from humans?”she said, her tone filled with as much surprise as her eyes. “When did you start speaking like that?”

Jackson blinked. Even he was surprised by the words he spoke.

That’s the kind of words that that woman might say, he thought, smiling inwards. Smiling at the thought that he still remembered her name- Suhasini. That means she is a Hindu. But so what, inter-religious marriage was not as big a deal as it used to be. He smiled again in his mind, seeing how he was thinking about marriage.

“Now mama, please, can I have some food?” he said. Loving, he was finding, cannot be done on an empty stomach.

**

As he savored the chapattis and the sardine curry which his mother made, he mulled over the things which the ghosts told him last night. They were two sailors who went overboard in rough weather in the sea one night long ago. Their bodies were never found, they said. Forever resting in the belly of the ocean. And that’s why their souls wander around- unless their bodies are found and a proper burial given, the souls can never leave the material plane- doomed to roam the earth for ever. “In our case, it’s more the ocean than the earth that we roam,” the shorter of the ghosts, who also possessed the deeper voice told him. “For the ocean is our boundary-since our bodies are incurred in the waters, you see.”

“Of course!” Jackson has said, as though whatever they said made perfect sense.

Both of them loved the life of a sailor when they were alive, despite the hardships. No good food, no women and the consistent swaying of the ground under your feet- that is, the ship, were things which you resented. But on the other hand, there is a seductive charm to the ocean which the land-even the most beautiful of lands lack.

“Some may wonder what is there to the grey infinity which is the ocean. Isn’t that a little drab? They might ask,” said one of the ghosts. “And the truth of the matter is that it is- it is a little drab. But it’s also immense-extravagant, unfathomable. At no point of time are you unaware of the fact that you are tiny, and for that matter, you are also always acutely aware that you, the tiny dot is moving over the surface of this infinity, and that feeling is a sense of accomplishment which you get to experience over and over again, as long as you keep sailing!” The ghost said all this in a melancholic tone.

There’s nothing more melancholic in the entire world than the melancholy of a ghost.

They were too attached to their cabin in the ship, which is why they stuck to the ship. “But we never thought that it would run aground. But now that it has, and we have been here ever since..how long has it been? You stop counting the minutes once you are dead, you know..Anyway, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we long for the ocean again. And we are torn between our affection for this ship and the love for the ocean…”

Which all sounded rather interesting in its own way when he listened to it in his drink-addled state of mind. But now that the haze has ascended and his tummy was filled with great home-cooked meal, he wasn’t sure if any of those things actually happened.

There was only one way to find out, he thought.

**

“What do you mean, have I added something in the arrack? What do you think, that I add unwanted things in the brew so that it would give people a kick that they wouldn’t forget, and possibly a liver damage that they would never outlive? I know that some people do that- like that Hormis! But not I- not Kunjachahan. Kunjachan has been brewing arrack since before you were born! And two generations of people would tell you that it’s the best arrack money can buy! So, what are you doing here, accusing me of malpractice!”

Jackson thought how technically, what Kunjachan did was more than a malpractice- it was a downright crime-brewing arrack when it was banned in the state. However, he kinda got the fact that Kunjachan wasn’t in the mood to hear about such technicalities.

“I am sorry, Kunjacha..” he said. “It’s just that I had these weird hallucinations last night. But I also had a bottle of beer after the arrack!” he hastily added.

Kunjachan nodded, a knowing smile appearing on his face, “Tell me about that! That must be what brought on the hallucination! I will tell you, son, you shouldn’t trust the things that they sell you through the civil supplies these days. Lot of malpractice going on there!”

“Then, that must be it!” said Jackson. One again apologizing to Kunjachan for asking such silly questions, he left.

**

He went straight home where he watched a movie on the television. He liked to watch action films, especially Hollywood films with big blasts and a lot of destruction. He found just such a movie playing in one of the channels- starring that guy with a bald pate and a lizardish face- Bruce something or the other. And the movie wasn’t bad either, only Jackson found it hard to concentrate . His mind kept straying back to the incident on the ship from last night.

Even before the movie was half-way through, the had decided that he would go back to the ship that night.

In fact, even as the movie progressed and one action sequence after another rocked the screen, Jackson felt the restlessness growing inside him. He couldn’t wait for the dusk to settle and all the tourists to disperse so that he could have the beach, and more importantly, the ship-to himself.

**

He took the fact of the rope ladder still being there as an auspicious sign. But the possibility of finding that the ghosts were real- was that a good thing or not, he didn’t know. An irrevocable proof that there exists an afterlife might change him for the better- maybe he would even become more regular in going to the church on Sundays. But such a fact would also mean that his father- if he was sad that he died without resolving with his son, may remain in eternal sadness, or at least until Jackson himself died and went to the afterlife and they made up- assuming they both end up in the same place.

And what if they both ended up in different places? What if his father was already in hell- for gambling and selling that piece of land? Jackson would probably go to heaven-given how the greatest ill-act of his life so far was trying crack one time with his friends when he was a teenager. So, does that mean, the pain of an unresolved fight would remain forever for his father?

Such questions harassed Jackson’s mind as he quickly climbed down the stairs to the second level of the ship. Unlike yesterday, since he was not inebriated and his mind was clear, everything sounded louder to him- the sound of the ocean and that of his steps on the steel stairs.

As soon as he landed on the corridor, he could see the luminescent glow spilling out of the room on the far end. He felt relieved to see it. A couple of times in the preceding 24 hours, he has harbored the doubt that maybe he was going insane? Maybe, the death of his father has caused a ripple in his mind- a ripple so subtle that he wasn’t perceptive of it, a ripple that was slowly yet steadily ripping apart his mind’s thread of sanity.

Of course, the idea felt too melodramatic to him. He knew that his mind wasn’t that fragile. But still, not until the unearthly glow fell on his pupils from where it transported through the nerves to his brain where the fact registered, did he feel in complete possession of his sanity.

Contrary to yesterday, he was breathing slowly, one might even say meditatively, as he walked into the cabin.

The ghosts were seated just like yesterday, on the lower berth. In fact, if it wasn’t for the fact that the position of the two ghosts had changed- this time, the shorter ghost sat on the left side- he would have thought that this was an exact repeat of what transpired yesterday.

“Hi, I hope I am not intruding.” Jackson felt a little awkward, after having made the opening remark. He still hasn’t gotten used to talking with ghosts like they were humans.

“Not at all!” said the shorter one. “In fact, we were expecting a whole lot of visitors to the ship today. We figured that you must have told a few people about seeing us. And live people are always curious about the afterlife-so they would come to investigate.”

“If too many people came onboard, we were planning to leave today itself,” said the taller one. “We are going to leave at dawn anyway!” he added.

“Oh, no, please don’t leave on my behalf!” said Jackson. He meant what he said.

“No, it’s not that,” said the taller ghost, waving his amorphous hand in the air in front of him. “As we said yesterday, we have a deep yearning for the ocean again. And it’s time we left.” The shorter ghost nodded.

“Oh, okay…” said Jackson, leaving the words at that, not knowing what more to say. Actually, there were a couple of things that he wanted to ask them, but now, given the news that they were leaving the next dawn, he wondered how inconsiderate it was for him to barge in on their final moments in the ship which they so dearly loved.

As though understanding his perplexity, the shorter ghost said, “Was there anything which you would like to ask..Jackson..wasn’t it?”

Jackson nodded slowly. “Yes,” he said, “I do.” Scratching the back of his head- an impulse behavior which he indulged in whenever his higher ups at the office told him that they were not impressed by a report that he submitted, he continued, “Umm…I was wondering if other souls, I mean, souls belonging to bodies which have been given a proper burial, is there any chance that they might be wandering around still!”

“No chance at all!” both the ghosts said together, with so much conviction that it surprised Jackson.

Aside from the conviction, there was also an open glee to their voice now, as though they enjoyed answering such questions.

Seems like we never get tired of showing off how much we know, not even after we die, thought Jackson. Nonetheless, he was grateful to the ghosts for being courteous enough to answer his questions.

“Ummm..another thing I wanted to ask is…my father passed away a few days ago. He died here on the beach. The doctors said he passed from cardiac arrest…I was wondering if…”

The two ghost looked at him as though they were eager for him to complete the question. Jackson, meanwhile was hoping that they would get the question without being asked- it was rather embarrassing, he felt. But the minutes ticked by(Jackson counted them even though the ghosts didn’t) and the pressure of the ghosts’ gaze literally began to tickle his skin, making the pores rise.

“Well, I was wondering if by any chance he saw you on the ship…and..and had a shock or something?,” said Jackson, the volume of his question trickling down towards the end.

It took a couple of seconds for the ghosts to realize what the implication  was. But as soon as the fact hit them, they began talking, together: “No, no, no!” said one. “Of course, not,” said the other at the same time. “We know the value of life, believe us!” “We would never cause anyone’s death!” “We are not that sort of ghosts!” “We always keep to the ship and never go out, not even to the starboard, so that we are not seen by anyone who is on the shore!” “Yes, yes, we are definitely not bad ghosts!”

The ghosts kept on this this vein, their voices rising to downright panic levels, until Jackson apologized. “I just…I just thought I should ask. That’s all,” he said. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

The ghosts calmed down, but it appeared to Jackson that they were still sad. This sadness, like their gaze the pressure of which he felt on his skin, was more felt in his heart than conveyed to him through any gestures.

Hoping to brighten their mood, Jackson said, “So, you said you are leaving tomorrow at dawn! Where are you guys going!”

The shorter ghost shrugged. The taller one said, “We would just roam around over the ocean. The ocean is vast and unlike in the human world, there are no travel arrangements to me made in the spirit world- not even if you are crossing national boundaries!”

“Yes, in life, we are divided. But in death, united we stand!” said the shorter ghost.

“So, we would just roam around, over the ocean, for eternity,” said the taller one, his voice not at all becoming any merrier. “Or until this planet comes to an end, whichever comes to pass first!”

Jackson noted that, if anything the ghosts’ voice has become even bleaker than before. Thinking that he shouldn’t let the ghosts be in so sad a mood on their last night in Calverumum(after all, technically speaking, he was the host and they were his guests), he wondered what he could ask or tell to cheer them up.

His brain was prevented from overworking by the sound of the shorter ghost laughing.

The taller ghost, as well as Jackson looked at him with surprise.

“What are you laughing at?” said the taller one.

“Your mention of the earth’s end brought to mind something,” said the shorter ghost.

“A joke,” said the taller ghost, then to Jackson, “He likes to tell jokes, you see. Without him, my eternity would be damn boring!”

“That may well be true,” said the shorter ghost, still smiling. “But it’s not a joke that I have in mind now. It’s something that one of the kids who came onboard the other day said to one of his friends. You remember, the one with the curly hair who was pitch drunk? He was talking to his friend about how the Sola Radies turtles are extinct- that’s why they are not coming to this shore anymore, that’s what he said. Remember?”

The taller ghost, once he recalled the incident, began to laugh.

“He was talking as though he was knowledgeable about these things!” said the shorter one and joined in the laughter with his friend ghost.

Seeing the baffled expression on Jackson’s face, the taller one, when he was able to rein in his laughing, said, “We are sorry. It’s just that we get the giggles whenever we have done one up on the living!” And he began laughing again.

Seeing how his comrade’s explanation was far from exhaustive, the shorter ghost added, “The Sola Radies are not extinct. At least, not yet. The reason why they haven’t come in this summer is us. Animals are smarter than humans in sensing ghosts, especially the ones that live in the waters. The waters are more primeval than the land, you see, and so is the fabric from which souls are made…Anyway, the problem is that though animals can sense a ghostly presence, they cannot tell if the presence is benevolent or malevolent. So, in the interest of self-preservation, they stay clear of places where there are ghosts.”

“We thought it’s time the Radies s came to the shore and laid their eggs-God only knows that the ocean is no place for a pregnant Radie. That’s one of the reasons why we decided to leave tomorrow!” added the taller ghost.

In all the times he has seen the Sola Radies up close, they have never come across as particularly perceptive creatures. You could walk right past them and they wouldn’t even flinch. But if the ghosts were saying that a couple of Radies would make the job easier for the Ghostbusters, who was he to say otherwise?

Nonetheless, he was glad that the turtles would be back.

“One more thing I wanted to ask. After that, I would be out of here,” said Jackson.

“Shoot!” said the two ghosts together. Their mood certainly was upped after their little recall about the Sola Radies and how they fooled the natives into thinking that the creatures had gone extinct. Now, their voices were quite merry, in fact bordering on the hysteric, making Jackson wonder if a prolonged stay on the earth made a soul insane?

“I wanted to know,” said Jackson, “if, just as I am talking to you two, would I be able to talk directly to another soul..”

The ghosts didn’t answer. Not immediately. They looked at each other. A second later, Jackson found the shorter ghost standing right next to them. Even though he had already talked with the two souls for some time and ascertained them to be harmless, he felt startled by the suddenness with which the ghost moved, bringing to him in a fresh, forceful perspective the fact that he and they were divided by the greatest ridge of all- between life and death.

“I know why you asked the question,” said the shorter ghost, practically whispering in his ear, “We were wondering why you didn’t appear all that scared when you saw us for the first time..Now we understand, it’s because you lost someone very recently..The idea of an after-life comforts you, doesn’t it? An after-life, even if it’s of a perennial wandering is better than the eternal cold of the grave, isn’t that so?”

Jackson didn’t make any reply. He didn’t feel the need to. Somehow, he felt that the ghosts already knew what his answer would be.

“But let me tell you something,” the ghost continued in his whisper-voice. “It is never a wise move to try and communicate with someone on the other side. Not that it’s easy. For one thing, the departed soul would not be stuck on the earth unless the body hasn’t got a proper burial. Then, there is also the fact that even if you were to establish a line of communication with the departed soul, the latter would be so much changed in its psyche that you would barely recognize the soul as someone you once knew, let alone loved. And that’s bound to give you a lot of pain.”

Jackson nodded slowly as the two ghosts remained silent, giving the mortal the time to understand the import of what they just said- Life gave the living enough pains without having to invite pain from the dead.

Curiously enough, it was with an acute sense of unreality- more so than when he visited the ship in a drunken state- that Jacskon climbed down the rope ladder that night. When he reached the edge of the beach and was about to leave the sandy perimeter for the road that would take him homewards, he turned to look once more at the ship, to see if the apparitions stood on the hull, waving to him, as though he were the one who was setting out on sail.

But true to their words, the ghosts remained inside the ship, not wanting to unwantedly surprise and harm any passing mortal.

**

Though he went to bed late the previous night, Jackson woke up early, earlier even than his mother who was busy in the kitchen preparing breakfast.

When he said he was going to go out, she said, “Where are you going so early? At least, wait for some half an hour and have breakfast!”

“I will be back in an hour or so,” he said even as he walked towards the front door. “I have loaned Kariyachan’s boat for an hour.”

“Be careful! Don’t forget that it’s been a while since you rode a boat last!” his mother called after him. But he was already out of the gate and didn’t even hear it.

**

Kariyachan was his neighbor who now spent his elderly years at home, sipping rum mixed in coconut water and eating beef fry which his dear wife made for him- all thanks to the money that rolled in from his boats that went fishing. He owned 4 boats altogether- small ones that carried up to 6 fishermen every evening or morning into the ocean and back.

There were days when one of the boats may stay ashore- especially during times such as these when the fish was lesser in the ocean. During such times, those who were really serious about bringing in fish would hire bigger boats- the ones with sophisticated radar and wireless equipment, the ones that could be taken farther into the ocean than the smaller boats the kind of which Kariachan owned.

Jackson made use of the low season and loaned one of the boats that was sitting idle. Karicahan, even though he chatted with him amicably whenever he saw him, and was a drinking buddy for his father when the old man was alive, nonetheless charged Rs.2000 for the one hour for which Jackson hired the boat, and that’s excluding the diesel cost. That’s an extortionist price if ever there was one and Jackson knew it. However, Jackson didn’t want to fight about it and paid the money upfront.

For one thing, it was the only boat he could find in short notice. He would be boarding the bus to Bangalore the next evening and wanted to go out into the ocean once before he left. There were many things which he liked about India’s Silicon Valley- the fun work culture, the wide choices of cuisine, the pubs, and during the winter, the weather…But there was one thing which he felt the city lacked and that was the ocean- You practically have to travel overnight to reach the nearest ocean.

The boat was painted yellow with a blue border and was named Stella- after the first of Kariachan’s two daughters. With the help of a couple of the locals, Jackson took the boat out to the ocean, glancing at the ship on the shore as the distance between himself and the vessel heighted, more and more water appearing between them.

Turning his face around, he gazed at the horizon- the sun was still on the ascend and the sky was slowly shifting from a dark blue to the lighter azure shades. Notwithstanding the fact that it’s been more than five years since he has taken out a boat, he navigated it quite easily- partly because riding the highly mechanized boats of today is no rocket science, but also because his father taught him well.

Sitting towards the back of the boat, one hand on the lever on the engine, he thought about how his father used to take him on the boat during his childhood. The first few times, the old man just made him sit on his lap as he rode the boat. He would explain the mechanisms of the boat which kept it afloat- the material with which it’s made, the aerodynamic design, the engine which propelled it forward..he would explain about all of these things.

Jackson’s father didn’t go beyond the 3rd standard in school, but sitting on his father’s lap, hearing him explain about such intricacies as the relationship between the wind and the art of riding a boat, Jackson never felt that way. Those were times when he came across as erudite, those were times when he came across as particularly warm and affectionate.

The theory lessons gave way to practice sessions as he slowly began to give command of the boat over to Jackson- who was barely more than 8 at that time. Some of the other men who rode with his father would joke about this- asking if he wished to kill them all by handing the rein over to a ‘novice.’

But the novice got better very fast, proving that it was not only in school that he could be a fast learner. And one day, to prove that he has every bit of confidence in his son’s riding skills as he was proud of it, his father took out the boat, having Jackson and a bottle of cheap rum with him.

Some way into the ocean, his father turned off the engine and hit the bottle. Hit it big time, that is. So much so that, in no time he was just a mumbling bundle lying on the boat’s floor, looking at the sky and laughing, occasionally singing songs the words of which barely made any sense. Sometime during this incoherence, he managed to tell his son to turn on the motor and take them back to the shore.

The boy protested, hard enough to make tears spring to his eyes. But the father continued laughing and singing, as though he were partaking in some carnival. In fact, the sound of his father’s laughter, which felt oddly eerie in the expanse of the ocean, was what made the boy finally sit up and start the engine-a feat that required a bit of muscle power, but something which his father didn’t help him with. He simply raised his head and watched in the supine position even as his son kept trying, over and over again, until, his hand feeling like a length of rubber without nerves, he succeeded.

“Yes! That’s my son! You see him! You see him?” his father shouted at the sky, lying on his back once again and clapping his hands.

By the time the boat neared the shore, his father was in a near state of ecstasy. The only other time he has seen his father in such a state of elation was at his sister’s wedding.

Back at the shore, clapping him on his back, his father gave him the most contradicting of cheers: “You may not yet be 10 years old. But you are now man enough to take a boat into the ocean, you hear? But I don’t want you spending your time in the ocean, so you must study hard!”

Jackson didn’t like the bit about studying hard but he did feel happy about his father congratulating him for his riding prowess.

Decades later, taking Kariachan’s boat out into the wide expanse of the Mother- as all the fisher folk called the ocean, Jackson felt that same happiness once again. He imagined his father patting him on his back, telling him, “I am glad that you studied well and got a good job! And I am equally happy that you still enjoy the wind on your face when you are out in the ocean!”

Jackson smiled, looked up at the sky. Just at that moment, the two souls from the ship passed across the clouds, leaving no trail behind, two white bursts shooting towards the horizon, starting out on a new episode of wandering.

By the time Jackson got back to the shore, the sun was firmly on its climb up to the helm of the sky. Everything looked bright, as though washed in the colour of happiness.

But what made Jackson smile was the slow steps from the water to the beach which the little turtles took- in their swarm, they looked like soldiers doing their crawl towards the enemy line, slow motion soldiers, fighting to live another day. The Sola Radies were back.

Taking his eyes away from the Sola Radies, he looked towards the ship. Jackson saw a fading word that was stenciled on the side of the ship- the vessel’s name: Memoire. Jackson knew it to be the French word for memory.

He couldn’t help but smile, wondering how he missed the name before, also thinking how it bode well with his current situation- when the memories of his childhood, more precisely the memories of the time he spent with his dad as a child, were still fresh in his mind.

Yes, his dad was now a memory. But life in the beach would continue, starting with the Sola Radies, Jackson thought as he walked towards the road that wound to his home. He would have a good long bath, then the breakfast that mother made for him, after which he would go see Suhasini at the oceanic institute on some pretext- maybe to tell her that he came to inform that the Radies were not extinct.

But his real intention, of course would be to start something beautiful, something that may give them both a lot of good memories to cherish in the long run.

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