By: Krithika Akkaraju
The drunken chorus wafted towards her warning her to get away. The men were back. Quickly, she placed a dirty cloth over the cement tank and walked home hoping no one had noticed. Her fish were safe for now.
Inside the hut, she held her breath as her father brought in the dripping basket. It made her nauseous; the sight of writhing bodies, the desperate gasping and pleading eyes that called out to her. It took all her powers of disengagement to remain a passive spectator to the bloodbath. She swallowed the bile and casually walked out the door, only to heave into the bushes seconds later – far from her family’s gaze. It was getting tougher each time; for sixteen years she had endured this daily routine and now she pleaded desperately to the heavens for escape.
She rinsed her mouth and patted the dupatta over her damp face. Her stomach felt hollow and raw, her feet squelched in the clay under the tap. She regarded the darned patches on her skirt and for some reason felt a strange melancholy envelop her. Her fingers found the embroidery on her blouse; the fish she had spent hours designing and creating. She touched them gently in reverence.
In the distance, the sun was setting over the sea and the tiny surf was visible to her. It was hard to associate carnage with the sea; it seemed so tranquil and safe. A salty breeze passed a chill through her, giving her goose bumps. This was the way the sea had talked to her ever since she was a child. A curious language of scents, color and texture existed between them. Sometimes the sea sent her treasures in her fathers net, some days a heady scent found it’s way to her at night. Sometimes, she was woken up on full moon nights to see dolphins frolicking in the distance.
Turning her gaze to the horizon and mouthed a ‘sorry’ to the sea, as was her routine in the evenings. She prayed for all creatures of the ocean, the fish, crabs, whales, sharks, turtles and dolphins. She prayed for their safety and long life. She asked the sea to take care of them, to keep them away from cunning fishermen, their bait and fine nets. She hoped that tomorrow, her father would come back with an empty net.
Manjila was clearly the oddball of the family and was treated as such. She noticed how her father ignored her completely and her mother only spoke to her when absolutely necessary, ‘can you dry the clothes?’ ‘Make sure you wash the dishes in time for dinner’, ‘cover your hair before you step out of the house.’ and so on. She was mostly glad to be left to her devices, but hoped in her heart that someday, somebody would understand and embrace her oddities.
She brought herself back to the present and faced her palms upwards. She closed her eyes and turned her face to the sky. She asked God to forgive her family, in particular her father and brothers who killed gentle sentient beings each day for a living. She asked for a life away from the fishing town of Pirispur, the town that she was unfortunately born into. She prayed for the continued protection of the fish in her tank. ‘Allah! Please protect all those who cannot protect themselves!’ she said with special emphasis and ended the prayer by rubbing her face with her palms.
Mercifully, dinner was ending as she re-entered the hut. She quietly pulled out her mat and plate and helped herself to the meager leftovers. She was happy to note that her family hadn’t bothered to leave the so-called ‘choicest meats’ for her – fish eyes and jhingri-saag. Instead she feasted on the aloor-dum and plain rice while her parents and two brothers parked themselves on the khaat outside, burping and laughing the evening through.
Cleaning her plate, she put the mat away and pottered about the hut till she was sure her family was deeply engrossed in their gaiety. Then when she was sure no one would follow her, she took the small lamp hanging by the window, reached under her mattress for the breadcrumbs and walked towards the cement tank. She had to navigate quite a few lantana bushes, creepy crawlies of the night and piles of garbage to get there, but they all served a purpose. It was the path she had painstakingly created over the past few years to keep intruders out. She giggled at the sight of the stinking compost pit; that touch was pure genius– ‘no one would dare get past that!’ she thought.
As her lamp shone over the tank, she noticed the happy shadows within circling about ecstatically, as though awaiting her arrival. She gently peeled the cloth away and her heart lurched, as it did every single time she carried out this ceremony. Light shimmered off the surface and colors of every hue danced in unison. From dazzling pink to royal blue, vivid violet to tiger yellow, they were all there, in this little world rescued from her fathers net. Their eyes glittered in the lamplight and their fluid movement made gentle swishes in the water. She emptied the contents of her palm into the tank and watched mesmerized as the fish ate their dinner. If there was heaven, she thought, it is this. If there is peace, she thought it is here. If there is purpose to my life, this is it. She was so engrossed in the moment that she didn’t notice her fathers swaying figure approaching her.
For the first time in 10 years, he had missed Manjila’s post dinner presence on the khaat and come looking for her. The sight of her standing in the dark with the halo around her face, peering into something had drawn him past the toughest obstacles she had laid out, including the compost pit. He was about two feet away from her when she suddenly smelled the country liquor on him and broke out of her reverie. At that moment, she knew exactly what it felt like to be a fish trapped in a net.
He held her wrist roughly and peered into the tank. Years of hard labor at sea peered back at him. The times the boats had almost capsized, the storms he and his sons had weathered to make a decent catch, the sinking feeling when their nets came back empty, the hunger rumbling in his belly when the monsoon was upon them. The thousands of rupees that were denied to the family because his daughter had been stealing his hard earned catch!
With a mighty roar, he threw her to the ground and kicked the tank. The fish gathered together in a tight protective column and stopped their swimming, their eyes shining fiercely. There was something rather forbidding in their sudden stillness, thought Manjila.
Later, her family had held a conference (without her of course) and all she could make out from inside the hut were the words ‘shaitaan’, ‘hai allah’, ‘tauba tauba’ from her mother and angry abuses from her brothers. She also gathered that her treasured tank of fish would to be sold in the wholesale market the next day; every one of her glittering, beautiful creatures. Her pitiful filled the thatched hut but sobbing moved no one. And so, exhausted and defeated, Manjila drifted off into a tired sleep.
It was the darkest part of the night when she woke up with a start. A great uneasiness gripped her and the stillness in the air chilled her to the bone. Not a leaf moved and funnily, she couldn’t hear a single sound from the ocean. She felt her way around the darkness and found a tumbler of water. Drinking thirstily, she made her way outside the hut. Her family was snoring in different corners of the cottage, the excitement of the evening knocking them into a dreamless sleep.
Outside, her fish lay in a colorful line on an old mat, a couple of them still moving imperceptibly, their mouths hanging open and eyes glassy with near-death. Soon enough, though, all movement ceased as the last of them gave up their desperate struggle for life.
Her eyes were dry and her heart hardened. She turned up to the sky, her faith in God all but gone. The moon was full in the sky and hanging strangely lifeless and cold. As her eyes got accustomed to the light, she gasped at the vision in front of her. The sea was no longer visible – it had disappeared! She squinted to see better and found herself in a bubble of extreme motionlessness.
And then a mighty rumble began, deep within the depths of the earth, shaking the ground beneath her feet and causing cracks in the earth around her. She heard the start of something gigantic, the way it was desperately gathering momentum as it came racing towards her. Behind her, her family was running helter-skelter, pots and pans flying in all directions as they tried to make sense of all that was happening.
Her fish were claimed by a giant crack in the earth, flipping almost joyously into its depths. With that last vision, a giant wave engulfed her and she became one with the ocean.
It was 26 December 2004. The time in Pirispur, Bangladesh was 6.58am.
Hundreds of kilometers away, in another village by the sea, a queue stands reverentially outside a cottage. An age-worn girl sits on a reed mat sowing resplendent pictures of fish onto fabric. She arrived here 12 years ago and people say she literally walked out of the sea. She’s never spoken a word, but tells mystical stories through her exquisite embroidery. There’s one about a girl trapped in a giant water bubble and another about a school of dolphin carrying her to the oceans surface. One particularly striking piece shows the girl wearing a crown of pearls while violet, blue, pink and yellow fish swimming happily around her as though she was their deity.