Dear Readers, in line with Throwback Thursday enjoy a looong flashback scene from My Last Love Story
Sleep was a chameleon tonight. Sly and still, it kept changing color and time to hide from me. I counted sheep until my mind began to drift toward warmer shores, black-sand beaches, and home.
My fifteenth birthday had dawned hot and oppressive over Surat, and it had remained so until its phantasmagorical end.
Summers were murder in Gujarat—arid, dusty, and energy-draining. But I hadn’t complained about the weather that year. That last of May’s days, my first birthday without my parents, I’d had many other concerns besides harping over a bit of sweat and grime.
Like the home I hadn’t allowed myself to like.
We’d lived in a four-bedroom flat on the tenth floor of a high-rise complex erected along the Tapi River. In addition to being the diamond and textile capital of the world, Surat had just been declared the cleanest and fastest-growing metropolis in India. As a testament to my father’s success, my family had, only recently, moved into the new cosmopolitan digs from a demographically Parsi neighborhood across town. We’d just begun the process of getting to know our neighbors when tragedy had struck.
With my parents gone, and both my brothers still earning their college degrees and living away from home—Surin had boarded with our father’s brother in Mumbai and Sarvar had lived in a boy’s hostel in Ahmedabad—my maternal aunt and uncle had imposed themselves in our home. My brothers were deemed too young and foolish to shoulder the responsibility of raising a young girl, so Uncle Farooq and Auntie Jai had thought it best to supervise my guardianship.
But that was only a pretense, we’d eventually realize. The real reason for the sudden familial love was my father’s business, which Uncle Farooq wanted to usurp.
Barely twenty-two, naturally, Surin was confused. He didn’t know whether to finish his studies or take over the business. He wasn’t ready to be the head of the family. Relatives from all over the world advised him in various capacities, but finally, any decision that impacted the three of us was on him. For six months, he’d tried to make sense of our father’s affairs, and from what I overheard him tell Sarvar late one night on the weekend before my birthday, he was afraid the business was crumbling about his ears. The factory workers, suppliers, and clients who’d had implicit faith in my father’s business acumen had none in a mere boy’s, and orders had begun to drop like overripe fruit from trees. He’d decided not to go back to college by then.
Surin was overwhelmed by his responsibilities. Sarvar was worried about our future. So, I worried, too.
I didn’t like my uncle and aunt. I’d never liked them, but I didn’t tell my brothers that. I had no wish to add to their burdens. My mother had never spoken against her older sister, but I knew they hadn’t gotten along either. I didn’t like how Uncle Farooq spoke to Surin, as if he were an idiot. I didn’t like how nosy my aunt was about my parents’ life insurance policies and our material holdings.
If Surin didn’t ask them to leave soon, I planned to run away. Where? How? When? The logistics didn’t matter. I felt trapped in my aunt’s presence. I wanted things to go back to how they’d been. I missed my mother terribly.
I didn’t want to celebrate my birthday that year. Friends from my old neighborhood offered to treat me to lunch, but I refused.
“I am in mourning,” I told them.
The truth was, it pained me to see them. They reminded me of my old life, of my parents and happy days, and I couldn’t bear it.
My brothers overruled my wish not to celebrate. They even brought home a birthday cake, as if we were a normal family. We went out for dinner, and I got money as presents, no other gifts. No one knew what to buy for me. It was always my mother who’d bought the gifts in our family even if the name tag on the gifts stated otherwise.
That night, Smriti invited me to a beach party. Smriti was a neighbor, and as she was my age, I’d interacted with her off and on since our arrival in the building complex. Before I could think of an excuse, Sarvar urged me to go and have fun. Surin frowned, clearly unsure of whether to allow poor hysterical me out of his sight since I’d spent the day locked in my room, weeping. But much to my disgust, he, too, nodded and smiled in encouragement. It was the one and only time I wished my aunt would butt in and barricade me in my room. But, nope, she didn’t.
Unbeknownst to me, Surin had already asked my aunt and uncle to leave our home. Within a month, they’d be gone for good.
I squeezed into the backseat prison of a silver-colored Maruti, jammed from door to door with five other girls.
“Whose party?” I belatedly asked.
“Nirvaan from C building,” replied Smriti, the designated driver.
Smriti and I resided in Ram Bhuvan B, and besides her and a few of her friends, I knew no one.
“He moved to California two years ago and comes down every summer to meet his grandparents. He throws the best parties. They’re wild and…” Smriti paused to grin at me through the rearview mirror. “There will be lots and lots of booze. Imported.”
All the girls in the car giggled at the revelation, except me.
“I know what you’re thinking. Gujarat is a dry state, so no boozing. But who follows rules these days, na?” Smriti said when I remained silent and slightly horrified by her disclosure.
“Even government officials don’t follow rules,” added a pigtailed girl, riding shotgun, in a patronizing tone.
“And Nirvaan has connections. I mean, his father has connections and a green card, so he’s allowed,” Smriti said smugly.
Connections or not, dry state or not, fifteen-year-olds should not be boozing.
What if we got arrested? Would the American boy’s father bail us out? I wondered if Smriti had thought this through.
Too late, it occurred to me, if she was my age, she wasn’t old enough to drive.
What was I doing here? Why had Sarvar pushed me out the door? Couldn’t he stand my company for even one evening?
I wasn’t an adventuress soul. I was wary, a homebody. That wasn’t to say I was timid or obedient. I wasn’t.
But my bratty nature had been blown to bits, along with my sense of security, the night the police had called and informed us about the accident. A drunk driver had rammed his truck into my parents’ car, killing them on the spot. The accident had happened on the highway near Udvada as my parents drove back from a visit to the Fire Temple that housed the world’s oldest Atash Behram, the sacred fire Zoroastrians paid homage to. The irony of my parents coming to mortal harm while on a holy pilgrimage wasn’t lost on me. I’d lost my faith in Ahura Mazda that night.
So, that was how I knew if we got into trouble, neither God nor a green-card holder would come to our aid.
I stayed quiet on the drive while the other girls laughed and yakked around me. When we hurtled down the highway past Dumas Road, I was startled out of my silence.
“Arre! Kya jai che, Smriti? Where are you going? You missed the turn for Dumas Beach.”
“We’re going to Dandi,” said Riddhi, the girl squashed against me. “Dumas is overcrowded, yaar. No privacy at all. Dandi is our go-to place for these types of parties.”
What in Khodai’s name did she mean by, these types of parties?
It struck me that I was way out of my comfort zone here, and for the rest of the hour-long drive to Dandi, I alternated between cursing my luck and crossing my fingers. I also begged my parents to watch over me as my brothers clearly were doing an awful job of it.
The car bumped along Dandi road until the concrete disintegrated into sand. We drove past a massive black granite plaque jutting out of the ground with Dandi March and a long commemoration carved on its face. This was where on April 6, 1930, Mahatma Gandhi had led thousands of protesters—including my freedom-fighting grandfather, Rustum Batliwala—in a Salt Satyagraha in defiance of the British Raj and their overbearing tax laws on Indians. It was a historical landmark, but contrary to its fame, it was not very touristy.
Smriti parked the Maruti next to a jumble of cars. Remixed pop pumped out of a massive music system from the roof of a van. Bunches of girls and boys flooded around an enormous beach bonfire. Half of the girls from my group had already disappeared into the throng.
I became Smriti’s shadow. I went where she went, drank what she drank, and danced when she danced. I talked little and tittered a lot. When you knew no one, it was easy to lose your inhibitions. I didn’t have to make an impression or accept pitiful condolences from strangers. I didn’t have to listen to geriatric aunts compare my looks to my mother’s or my nose to my grandfather’s, the same one who’d fought for India’s freedom. I was no one here, no one important. I could forget my burdens for tonight, forget that I was orphaned.
I finally got why Sarvar had pushed me out the door—not that I forgave him for it, but I understood. There was life beyond death, and it was all around me. I tried to have fun. I tried very hard.
“That’s him!” yelled Smriti, waving her arm in a sort of dance move.
“Who?” I shouted back, squinting in the direction of her wave. “Nirvaan?”
“Yeah. He’s so chikna, na?” She laughed and shimmied to the beats of a pop song.
“I see several chikna-looking boys there.”
There were many, many cuties to wade through. Most of the guys were shirtless. Most of us girls were in cutoffs and thin T-shirts or tank tops. It was nasty hot, even with the tepid sea breeze. The bonfire aggravated the heat, but it was necessary for light and ambience.
My mother had loved dining by candlelight. “Firelight is a boon to women,” she’d told me once. “It erases age and enhances our natural beauty.”
She was right. We glowed golden brown.
Black sand sparkled beneath naked feet, mirroring the night sky. Dozens of ice crates poked through the sand like half-buried treasure chests, openly displaying their glittering booty of imported beer, sodas, and water bottles. The beer, naturally, depleted faster than the rest of the drinks. I’d consumed three cans so far. As most of us were quite buzzed by then, and sweaty and stinky to boot, it was no surprise when some partygoers began to cool off in the water. It was stupid and dangerous to swim in the sea in the middle of the night. But at fifteen, stupid meant cool, and dangerous was even cooler.
Dandi Beach, like many along Gujarat’s coastline, was endangered land. Due to overdevelopment and deforestation, the unstable coast had succumbed to the Arabian Sea. But I ignored everything my father had cautioned against. I dived into the water, breaking free of all restraint. I didn’t panic when I lost sight of Smriti in the floating crowd. I was a worry-free bird tonight. I didn’t care if Surin found out I’d been boozing. I didn’t care that my father would have disapproved of my midnight swim. He wasn’t there to lambast me, was he? No, he was dead. And Surin…
Surin…with his stupid threats of locking me in my bedroom, of washing his hands of me and leaving me to rot with Auntie Jai. I wished Surin were dead instead of my parents.
My gut heaved like the buoyant waves, making me vomit and cry. I clawed my way to the shore, and after grabbing another beer, I started running down the beach.
Why did you die, Mumsy? How could you die and leave me so alone?
I wanted to curl up in a dark hole and sob my heart out. I ran farther and farther away from the party. Had I been thinking straight, had I not been upset, I would never have set off alone. I ran past cars, kids, desert-like vegetation, and the hemline of dilapidated shacks, abandoned and eerie little huts, along the sand. The villagers had been forced to move inland to safer ground. The government had started projects to save the beaches, but it was a long-haul process, and most of the villages had become ghost towns. I knew all this because Daddy had been passionate about saving the environment.
Daddy…oh my Daddy…
The beach came to an abrupt end on a jut of rocks rising out of the sand. I had found my black hole to sink into.
I began to climb. Please, no snakes, no crabs. I could abide anything but snakes and crabs. I stepped on something squishy—yuckity yuck—and then something poked my sole, and I nearly lost my balance. I was barefoot, my slippers languished in Smriti’s car. I’d thought it sensible to remove them there. I’d stopped feeling sensible the minute I stepped onto the beach.
Tossing away the beer can, I clambered up the rocks on hands and feet. A great sense of accomplishment swept over me when I reached the top. It wasn’t high, just a few feet above sea level, but I felt like I’d climbed a mountain.
I breathed in deep and let it out. I flung my arms out, staring at the limitless horizon. Without the music blaring, I heard the waves whoosh and slap against the rocks. Without the bonfire, the full moon dribbled silver light onto the world.
My name meant silvery light in Persian. I was born on a full-moon night, and so my parents had named me Simeen.
I dropped my arms as guilt stabbed at my chest. No! Khodai, please, I don’t want to feel anything anymore. If only I’d gone with my parents instead of arguing.
“I have plans for the weekend that don’t involve driving from temple to temple with a couple of old killjoys. I want to hang at the mall with my friends, okay? Why are you forcing me to go and not Surin or Sarvar? I’m almost fifteen. I can stay home alone. I hardly need you to babysit me.”
My last words to my parents had been antagonistic, churlish.
If only I’d gone with them…
If only I hadn’t been so selfish…
I remembered thinking that. I vividly remembered the feeling of sinking breath by breath into the quicksand of despair that night on Dandi Beach. I remembered screaming into the dark, raging at my parents, calling for them, begging them to come back.
Just come back, please. I need you. I lied. I need you, Daddy, Mumsy.
I screamed and cried and sobbed. I pleaded with Ahura Mazda to take me, too, to stop punishing me. I wished the sea would swallow me. I should’ve died with my parents. If I was dead, I’d stop feeling, stop grieving. I didn’t remember leaning over the edge, but I must have because, if only for a second, I was staring at a pile of shiny black rocks before I was yanked back hard.
Someone shouted, but I didn’t know who or why or what. A pair of arms locked tight around me. A hand pressed my face into a wet, warm chest.
He’d smelled of the sea and tasted of it, the night Zayaan had saved me. He let me go, only to push me into Nirvaan’s arms. Hopping from boulder to boulder, Zayaan had disappeared behind a large outcropping, only to reappear within seconds in swimming shorts.
With gentle but firm words, they’d calmed me. They sat me down on the sand and made me drink overly sweet Frooti from a Coke bottle. They petted me like I was a newborn kitten. And I, desperate to confess my sins, had spilled my guts.
Only after they’d handed me over to Smriti and I was on my way home with the taste of cake in my mouth, did I wonder how they had known it was my birthday or why I’d sipped Frooti from a Coke bottle. Only then did I recall what my peripheral vision had first registered but hysteria had censored.
Zayaan had been naked, totally completely naagu, when he saved me. And there had been a girl half hidden between the jut of rocks where he’d come from—a partially naagu horrified-looking girl.
© Falguni Kothari.