uspicions swarm and hover, ready to sting. Is this the place? How could it be? Perhaps the taxi driver got it wrong…
Grey painted doors line the corridor. A regulation grey that makes the dirty cream coloured walls seem like watered down chicken curry. The mosaic floor is chipped and grimy. He follows the boy down the corridor, feeling his heart sink with every step. Why did she choose to come here?
‘There is only one other deluxe room. But that is reserved for the doctor,’ the boy says. ‘He comes and goes but the room is always kept ready for him. Now this is a very good room too.’
The boy unlocks the door and pushes it open. A swash of warm
fetid air rushes out. The boy switches the light on, and the fan. Jak looks around him.
At one end is a bed with a batik patterned sheet stretched across it and a pillow on top of which is a folded sheet. There is a mirror on the wall with a wooden ledge beneath it. By the main door is another door. The bathroom, he thinks, postponing the inevitable shudder at what he would find. A tiny cake of Medimix soap and a sachet of shampoo. A threadbare towel, a grimy bucket and mug. And a toilet he would need to exorcize all his acquired American standards of hygiene to squat upon.
‘Tea, coffee, mineral water? Sir! Sir!’ The boy’s voice splices his thoughts. His eyes are expectant as he stands by the door.
Jak pulls out a fifty-rupee note from his wallet, knowing very well that he is over tipping. The boy beams. He will be useful, Jak knows.
He places his bag on a low wooden table. On the farther side of the room is another door. A grey door flanked on either side by windows. Grey window frames. Overhead, the fan whirrs, stirring air in the still room. He asks himself again, but this dump, why did she choose to come here? What on earth was she thinking of?
Then the boy walks towards the closed door and with the aplomb of an amateur magician pulling a rabbit out of a black top hat, he flings it open.
The tang of the sea. The boom and splash of the breakers. The salt of the spray. The skies. All of it gathers and rushes into the room. Jak walks out into the balcony. He feels his legs tremble. He sees the sea as she must have. And he feels that familiar crouching ache rise and stretch its muscles. She had come here chasing a memory. His memory of this little seaside town, Minjikapuram.
He begins to understand now. He had described to her his first time in Minjikapuram, dredging out the only phrase he remembered from his Perry Mason days: ‘Out there what you get is a lungful of storm!’
He had painted a picture for her. The surprise of it, the grandeur. The overwhelming of the self by the sea and wind. She had wanted all that he had known. And so this.
The taxi driver had looked at the piece of paper he had written the address on. ‘I’ll take you to a better hotel. With cable TV and fridge in the room.’
He shook his head. ‘No, I want to go here,’ he said, stabbing the paper with his forefinger.
The taxi driver shrugged. Each to his own, but don’t blame me if you hate it, the set of his shoulders bristled.
The hotel at Madurai had arranged the taxi for him. ‘The driver is from those parts. He should be able to find the place you want to go to,’ the reception clerk said.
Jak had nodded. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘That will save me some time.’
‘But sir,’ the man’s eyes had brimmed with curiosity, ‘what is there in Minjikapuram? Why are you going there? Are you visiting relatives?’
Jak shrugged. ‘Research! Just research work. I am a cyclone expert. And there are some interesting developments on this coastline that I want to study.’
‘Ah, I see!’ the man said, printing out Jak’s bill. ‘After the tsunami, some scientists came here. They were on a research trip and were going further south, they said. But you know what I think…’ He paused expectantly.
Jak stood there silently, knowing he would hear it anyway. ‘You can study nature as much as you want, but you can’t ever predict it. Actually, there is nothing in life you can predict.’
Jak remembered this as the car turned onto the market road. Had he ever thought he would come back here again? It was almost thirty-one years ago that he had come to Minjikapuram. After the hustle and bustle of Madras, it had appeared quiet and provincial. He searched the road for some familiar landmark. All he could
remember was the bus stand with a façade of shops in front. And the temple on the hill.
‘Do people still come to the temple here?’ he asked.
‘Not as much. Everyone’s rushing to Tirupati or Sabarimala these days. But the people around here still pray to Minjikaiyan and Minjikammal for the welfare of their children. My wife comes once a year and she insists on dragging me along. When it is for one’s children, I suppose you don’t want to take chances. Our children are our wealth, after all.’
The driver’s matter-of-fact pronouncement was something he had heard several times before. But now it had the edge of a gutting knife. It tore into him, eviscerating in one sudden turn.
Jak scanned the shop fronts that flanked either side of the road. The familiarity of it all. Aluminium vessels in one. Sacks of grain in another. A barber shop and an old newspaper and bottle shop. Rolls of fabric at an entrance and saris draped from hooks on the ceiling. The glint of gold from a secluded interior. The fragrance of coriander and coffee that filled the air. The row of flower vendors with huge garlands of marigold and jasmine. A pushcart vendor frying pakodas in a giant frying pan. Beneath a tree sat another vendor with an array of brightly coloured plastic articles spread on a tarpaulin sheet and further ahead, a fortune-teller with his parakeet in a cage. Nothing much seemed to have transpired in the last three decades. It was still a town that happened to be there, going nowhere.
Which was why Jak had been puzzled at first. Why had she even wanted to visit Minjikapuram?
The taxi continued down the market road, past a church. The shops began to thin out and Jak could smell the ocean.
‘How far is the sea from here?’ he asked the taxi driver.
‘Behind the lodge,’ the man said. ‘But it is not a sea you can swim in. The coast is dangerous.’
‘I know,’ Jak said. ‘I have been here before.’
‘Then I don’t have to tell you to be careful,’ the man said.
‘No.’ He spoke quietly. If only someone had warned Smriti to be careful.
When the taxi pulled up outside an ugly bleached building, he asked, ‘Are you sure this is the place?’ The driver stared at him blankly, then shrugged. ‘This is the lodge. Not at all suited for people like you. You want me to take you elsewhere? I know of a really good place…’
Jak held up his hand to pause the flow of words. He paid the driver and pushed open the metal gate. Somewhere in this dingy seaside lodge he would find the first clue, he thought.
The reception clerk made him wait as he filled a register. There was a wall-mounted date sheet. 30 September. A line of red plastic chairs stood alongside a wall. A few men sat there, idly flicking through different sections of the newspaper. One man was talking on a mobile phone.
He felt their eyes on him. The smoke from their cigarettes stung his throat. Were you here when it happened, he wanted to ask them. It was in the last week of February. On the twenty-eighth. Do you remember? Wasn’t there something you could have done? Anything?
You sir, he wanted to ask an elderly man in a cream coloured half-sleeved shirt and dhoti who was reading a newspaper, you look like a father, a grandfather; an educated man. Shouldn’t you have said something? Asked her why she was here. Damn it, isn’t that what we do, poke our nose into everything, probe and question all we see? She wouldn’t have liked it. She may have asked you to mind your own business. She may have walked away muttering, ‘Indians!’ But if you had asked her… Maybe.
As he walked away, he heard the elderly man ask the clerk, ‘Who is that? Not the type we see here.’
He heard the clerk mutter a response.
‘Who is that man?’ Jak asked the hotel boy, feeling the elderly man’s scrutiny brand his back.
‘He owns the hotel. Dr Srinivasan sir. He owns everything here in Minjikapuram. Shops. The hospital. The theatre. Everything. He is a very important man.’
Jak nodded, feigning interest. He felt his thoughts crowd in on him again.
Jak shifts in the chair and puts down the book he is trying to read. He has read the same line twenty times over and it is still only a series of meaningless syllables. He lights a cigar but it tastes bitter and dry in his mouth. He decides to go for a walk. The reception clerk pretends not to see him as Jak walks past. Jak wonders at the hostility of the man’s averted glance. It makes no sense at all. They don’t even know each other.
He ambles slowly along the road. It is dark by the time he reaches the Minjikapuram main road. He looks at his watch. It is a quarter past six. He stands on the side of the road rubbing the bridge of his nose. What is he doing here?
The cinema theatre is where it used to be, ahead of the bus stand. Jak buys a ticket and enters the darkened hall. He has a seat in the balcony, right at the back. But the theatre is almost empty, so he chooses for himself a seat in the front row. He leans back, propping his feet on the parapet wall in front. He can’t remember the last time he was in a cinema theatre.
Appa had liked going to the movies. They would go for the night shows – Appa, Amma and he. It was the one weakness his otherwise austere father allowed himself. Amma wouldn’t say it, but movie nights made her especially happy. She would dress in her silks and braid jasmine into her hair. Her laugh would echo through the house and she would cook something special for dinner. As Jak sat there watching the story unfold, of caring husbands and patient wives rewarded, of villains being beaten to a pulp and of
a life blessed with fairness, he wondered if in the movies Amma had found hope, while Appa had sought something else – respite from his everyday. Escape from the life he was condemned to. Or perhaps what he saw in them was the banality that strengthened his resolve to abandon this life.
Late in the night, Jak approaches the bed. Did she sleep on it? Was she alone? Or was there someone else with her? Did they share this room that trapped the sea within its dingy blue walls? Did they make love here? Please god, he prays, let her have known what it is to be made love to gently, carefully and with tenderness. The horror of what happened will never be mitigated. But it makes it one fraction more bearable to know that someone loved her. And that she knew how to give, not just be ruthlessly plundered and violated.
He slams his fist against the wall.
He didn’t mean to do this, go back to where it happened. Recreate each moment, examine and deduce. What is the point? Knowing the how and why isn’t going to reverse Smriti’s condition.
But what is Smriti remembering? He knows he has to find out the genesis of that scream, the source of that terror.