Monday, September 29, 1997

It happened on a beach

In those days, Gorai was, to us overcrowded, mass-produced Mumbaikers (rhymes with ‘New Yorkers’), the closest we could get to the sunny Caribbean. You caught a train to Malad and a bus took you to the ferry which crossed you over. Then you haggled with a tonga-wallah, and twenty-odd rupees got you to a small patch of paradise. It’s been several years since I actually did the journey, but something tells me that the route hasn’t changed much. Other things have, though – the crowds and litter there, to name two.
It was April 1990, and I was there with a certain precious three-year-old who was having the time of her life; Frouk, who is Dutch, full of fun, loves to cook, eat and feed her friends; and another friend who Frouk was staying with. We proceeded to roast ourselves to unpleasant complexions, collect drifts of fine sand in the hems of our clothes even though we knew that hundreds of washes wouldn’t stop it from pouring incessantly out for years to come, and get bitten by assorted creatures of the salty, oily body of water that undulated graciously before us.
The expanse of sand stretched out seemingly to infinity on both sides, with water doing the same in front. Not very long ago, we had stood on another faraway beach with Frouk – where the wind and velocity and near-zero temperature compelled us to shiver as we pulled our overcoats tighter shut. Remembering that moment, we sunned ourselves and laughed gloatingly.
A group of urchins danced and played on some jagged-looking rocks in the distance and a couple of mongrels lurked in the background, hopeful of sharing our picnic lunch. Two girls – one white, one brown, strolled into view. They settled at a small distance from us and at some point during the day, introductions were made. As the lazy afternoon stretched before us, we began to chat. They were, as it happened, young New Yorkers – imagine, we rhymed! – on holiday. One, who we would have mistaken for an Indian, told us her romantic story. She was indeed an Indian by birth. When she was just two weeks old or perhaps even younger, she had been left on the doorstep of an orphanage in Pune. From there, she had been shifted to an adoption agency in Delhi, where an upmarket New York couple – her father was a professor of Mathematics at Harvard; her mother had been a poet and part of the exclusive New York art scene – with four sons, had adopted her. She had a wonderful childhood, full of love and material comforts. When she was sixteen, her fairytale mother died suddenly. The girl, let’s call her Sunita for the time being, went into depression which only worsened when her father, lonely and unhappy, remarried. And, like many other young people in her position might – she had run off to India to try and find her roots.
Sunita travelled to Pune to try and find the man and woman who had deserted her at birth. What, on this sad and depraved earth could have compelled them to do such a thing? She knew very well that there wasn’t a pretty story behind it, but she was equally determined to find out exactly what it was.
Fascinated, we listened as she went on. Her search had led her back to the Pune ashram. Twenty years had passed, everything had changed, including the entire staff.
Long and persistent enquiries led her to one old, old mali who, after a great deal of probing confessed that yes, he had been there when the orphanage had taken her in. Now he remembered! A rich man in a big car had driven up, dropped her off on the doorstep and driven back again.
Frouk and I exchanged quick glances infused with equal proportions of compassion, cynicism and amusement.
The talk turned to other matters, and I filed the story in my mind, knowing I would never forget it. The sun began to veer towards the horizon, and we suddenly realized that the tide was coming in in great whips and lashes. It was a choppy sea we would be leaving behind that evening, and we began to pack our things to leave.
Suddenly Sunita realized that her slippers were missing. She was very upset, because she had borrowed them from a friend to whom they were dear, on condition that she would take great care of them. She walked frantically up and down the beach, but they were nowhere to be seen. We said goodbye and headed for home.
Much later, the precious three-year-old indicated to us, when we bothered to ask, that she had indeed seen a pair of black slippers, bobbing up and down. “The sea was playing with them,” she giggled. But of course by then it was too late.
first appeared as ‘Tides tans tourists’ in Maharashtra Herald on 28 Sep 1997