Bambooka. That was what the passengers’ ship was called. The name was rather odd, or maybe it wasn’t. Why is it that something that we hear for the first time strikes us as ‘odd’, ‘peculiar’ and perhaps ‘weird’? Labelling the unheard and the unread an ‘oddity’ is such a natural response. Frowning upon the unknown is easier than being critical of our own ignorance. There is a character named ‘Dolabella’ in Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra. In college, initially, the name had sounded so out of tune. Surprisingly, the character had stayed with me longer than the protagonists. The act of judging is a shield that subconsciously deflects the ignominy from the self to the other. Well, ego is supreme in a human being’s life. Like a leech, it latches on to us. Because it cannot come off so easily, it is best to nourish the petty thing.
Bambooka, the ship, was to ferry us from Port Blair to Havelock over a span of three hours.
Seat No. 75, 76. First row, lowest floor. A first-aid box, hung on the wall, adjacent to a fire-extinguisher threw blank glances at the occupants across. Had they befriended each other already? Sitting three rows behind, it was difficult to make sense of any kind of activity there. Their faces were not visible. Only the medicine chest and the fire-extinguisher knew how they looked like. Not everyone is privileged. The woman was in a white saree, bordered red. The blouse was either embroidered or had yellow block prints. The distance tampered with my vision. Her hair was short and shiny grey. Or was it the flickering tube-light overhead that made her hair glisten. I do not know. The man sitting next to her, closer to the fire-extinguisher than her partner, loved to caress his wet hair every now and then. The hair looked wet. Or, was it a mirage? The red of the fire-extinguisher reflecting through their bodies made it quite difficult to study the colours on them carefully. Maybe, I was not paying attention. I was getting restless. The tiny cockroaches chasing each other on the floor and the cacophony of voices around, muting the sound of the sea we were travelling by, made it impossible for me to hear the silence. I wanted to climb up the stairs to the upper deck and feel the gush of the winds hitting against my face.
There was a brief argument—after almost half an hour of silence—between the two. She turned her head and, without a warning, snatched the yellow paper-bag from him that had till then been in his custody, resting on his lap, though unguarded. The bag changed hands, the contents remained hidden. After this skirmish which lasted barely a few minutes, the two went back to what they knew best. Their gaze did not shift from the inanimate objects, kept on display as if in a museum; the pair seemed engrossed, almost lost. The surroundings did not please them. Maybe, the noise was bothersome.
Fourth from the left, in the middle row, an Australian couple, hand-in-hand was immersed in each other; as if they owned the cabin. But then, they didn’t much care about the audience; the roving eyes, piercing stares and whispering remarks. Each time they embraced, her silver anklet sparkled and made a sweet jingling sound. Only the ‘Joker’ pasted on his tee-shirt grinned.
A lanky teenager buried in his game, on his phone, was oblivious to the little games unfolding around him on this cockroach-ridden ship. There were ants and mosquitoes too, to keep company. That girl, occupying the aisle seat, right at the entrance door, dressed in a nautical blue shirt and matching pair of shorts, was the only one who looked the part. The look in her eyes said it all. She had been invited by the sea to play. Gazing out of the window, with a faint smile on her lips, she admired at the calm waves, lost in thoughts. There must be another soul lost in her thoughts too.
The wife wears a pensive look on her face. Rightly so. She fears she has left her beach chappals in the hotel room. Will the sea deny her entry because her footwear is not the right make? She should be tense. She is. She was. And across, the Joker expressed no sympathies.
She is feeling cold now. The goose-pimples are visible. A slight shiver and the man unwraps the yellow paper-bag to unravel a thin, woollen shrug. She reluctantly extends her hand and without a word, the man puts it on her trembling shoulders. And very gently, she rests her head on his shoulder and pulls him inside the warmth of the woollen shrug. They again surrender themselves to the ticking of the absent clock on the wall.
Time and company are precious. Each and every soul craves company. Loneliness can only offer a vacuum; solitariness has no vacancy for company. It was almost three hours now. While my shipmates were busy gathering their belongings, I quickly sneaked upstairs to the deck to behold the sea in all its might before the action came to an abrupt standstill. I breathed in the salty air and thought about the woman. Did she wake up from her borrowed sleep on the man’s shoulder?
Seat 75, 76. They were empty except a yellow paper-bag that lay their without its claimant in sight. The Joker was nowhere to be seen, just the shadow of its grin lingered. The girl looking out of the window was missing. Did anyone remember to count the number of sighs? The woman going frantic about her beach chappals would soon be dancing crazy because she had left her pair of sunglasses behind. The Australian woman, too, had departed with her lover; only her silver anklet sat motionless under the chair, a group of ants had encircled it like a pack of youngsters congregated around the bonfire on a winter night.
It is difficult to leave a person, a place, a city, a town without leaving behind a part of our own self. Sometimes it happens unintentionally and at most times, we choose. You cannot pack everything and decide to desert someone just like that. An inward smile, I took my bag and prepared to leave.
I thanked Bambooka for this memorable ride. I stood there looking at the name for a long time till I felt a tear trickling down my cheek. Must have been the heat. I searched for my handkerchief. My hand explored the bag for a while and gave up.
Dolabella had commanded one of his soldiers to kill him. Despair.