Story: Sail Away
By: Nilanjana Nag
The shore at dawn blushed when touched by the first rays of the sun and caressed by the voluptuous waves of the tide. As the night sunk into its watery tomb, its final breath rose as a mist from the ocean, dispersed by the frolicking wind. The sea breeze brought with it the call of gulls , the taste of salt, the roar of waves and the distant hum of voices from the lonesome moth-eaten jetty that forked out into the ocean at the far end of the beach. The voices seemed like the murmur of the dead from the distant land carried across the eternal ocean.
Yet, this desolate landscape witnessed a curious pair gliding in the semi-darkness along the horizon: a sturdy youth whose silhouette radiated a sinuous vitality, guiding a fragile old man stooped under the burden of his long-lived life. However this scene did not raise any curious brows from the few fishermen and maids from the village who were the only ones who populated the shore during these early hours.
Over the years they had witnessed the pair move down the cobbled village streets winding between the shadows of the low thatched huts to the beach. They had seen the little infant transform gradually into a youth while the upright figure slowly shrunk with age. They had observed the circle complete itself. Just as each day the waves left only to return, just as the winds receded only to kiss their sails out into the ocean.
Old Joe had been a sailor all his life. He himself had heard sea-faring stories of his grandfather and had watched his father sail out to sea never to return. He had witnessed his eldest son being washed away from the deck as the beast of the ocean clawed and pawed greedily at the lone vessel struggling in the tempestuous waters. Yet today, Old Joe was accompanying his grandson Junior Joe, to the jetty for his first sail.
The villagers called Junior Joe, JJ. They had seen him grow, always holding Old Joe’s hand; first to be guided as a child and then later, guiding his old companion, as Old Joe lost his eyesight and vitality. The tales that JJ’s grandpa recounted fascinated him. He was held like a puppet, attached to a string. His amazement, fear, love, awe, rose and ebbed like the tides. He too like other children had sailed paper boats. But his need to feel the sway, his need to pull the rope, his need to throw the anchor into the deep ocean was overwhelming. And he fell in love with the sea.
As they walked towards the jetty, Old Joe remembered his first sail- the excitement, the fear, the reverence. He now missed the rolling waves, the creaking timber of the vessel, the raw pungent smell of seaweeds, the stickiness of the salty winds and the pleasure of the burden of a good haul from the womb of Mother ocean. The glittering spoil always made him feel as if he had captured a host of stars in his net.
The sea had been the greatest paradox of his life- its demands were demonic and its pleasures ethereal. The guilt of his lost son rivalled his passion for those infinite waters which like a mirage, led him to explore for months on end. The cold brutality of the sea competed against the surrealistic peace of solitude enjoyed beneath the starry sky. The sea ensnared him with its glimmer, its ever changing colours and its abysmal depth, while his heart craved for the warm bed and the companionship of his wife and girls.
His painstaking observations of the nautical charts gradually deprived him of his eyesight. However, JJ became not just his guide, but his eyes. Each day the young boy would lead the old man to the sea shore and describe the imprints of the waves left on the sand, and how the rays glided over the crests of the waves to disappear into the depth. They stood together at the edge of the shore, so the waves gently stroked their feet- while one remembered the past and the other contemplated about the future.
And in all those years the child’s mind became a diary, recording the adventurous history of his grandfather, leaving an indelible impression about the subtle nuances of the sea and the seafarer. The old man taught him well the cycles of the tide, the currents that brought in a good haul, how to attend his bark and what a deceitful mistress the sea was. JJ, mesmerized by the instructions and the enigmatic tales absorbed the spoken words like a sponge, just as a pen is attracted to a blank page, just as the earthly waters are ensnared by the celestial moon.
More than anything, Old Joe taught JJ to fear and respect the wide open waters- its enormity, its power to nourish and destroy. Old Joe remembered his grandfather’s words,” The heaving swaying waters beneath our feet teach us to stand firm and strong.” And today, when JJ would set out on his first sail, the final lesson that Old Joe imparted to him was hope and longing to return. No matter how much the shepherd may like to travel, he can never forget his sheep. He has to return- the need most felt when his heart longed for the women who stayed back home to make sails and nets, sell fish and shell jewellery and to pray for their men.
The jetty thronged with life despite the early hours reeking of fish, seaweed and rotten wood. The farewell was silent, yet pregnant with emotions, memories and blessings. Armed with the wisdom of ages JJ boarded The Seafarer with his crew- folks who were sons and grandsons of those who had sailed along his grandfather and father. They were to be his comrades- folks who would share his solitude in the desolate ocean, his good fortune, the rigours of the monstrous tempests, a lone smoke and a ruddy tune, their stories merged by the eternal flow. Amid joyous shouts they set sail while Old Joe listened to the wind-kissed sails that bellowed and swooned like the skirts of his beloved and his heart prayed a prayer and blessed a blessing.