Rizvi had lost his father when he was five. He was thirty five now. And thirty years should have been enough to dull the sharpness of the ache. They were, actually. He wasn’t aware of it most of the time. It was only at times when he returned home to his mother in the old house many, many miles away from where he worked that he felt something of a prick somewhere in his heart’s region, a feeling that came when he turned the corner at the temple and saw the house in the distance and stayed there till he had taken the corner again on his way back. Rizvi would also, at strange hours and at strange places, suddenly feel the familiar hollowness and somewhere within it a dull, throbbing weight that on some level he was glad he still carried. Over the years he had tried to find a pattern to this sudden visitation. Was it a particular hour? A smell? Or a place? Rizvi didn’t remember much of his father. He had a fleeting memory of his father’s laughing face at the centre of a whirling circle that he had much later realised was him being swung in a circle on his father’s outstretched arms. He had fought against time to retain that image, to preserve that laughter. And with no exact photograph to match it against, he had stitched together an image of that memory that may not be a perfect copy of the original moment, but one that he could summon without much effort. Something he often did, when he wanted a moment of peace, whenever he wanted to go back home but couldn’t, on occasions when he needed to convince himself that he wasn’t alone. But as for that dull ache, he had no control over it. Nor could he figure out what brought it on.
For Palash, figuring that out was easy. The longing and the pain came every time the sea breeze dodged past the vehicle exhausts. The madness came with the songs he had found online and couldn’t stay away from when he returned to the shack he shared with many others, though none were from the part of the world he came from, none who spoke his language. For Palash, what also worked in identifying the triggers was that his loss was fairly recent. But the loss had been sudden. Like a child lost in a crowd. And he had been a child. At fifteen years of age, some may argue that he wasn’t exactly one. But if you heard his story about how he was allowed to board the last boat that was leaving his war-torn country in the dead of the night that his entire family had gathered around only to see it already packed with other people desperate to get out before being found by a stray bullet or the authorities’ searchlights, you would know that he really was a child. For that was the only reason why he was allowed on. The instant before the boat was pushed off, he realised that the parents and the brothers and sisters and friends that were left stranded knee deep in the waters was the last sight he would see of them. They didn’t even know where the boat was headed. They didn’t know when the next boat would come to get the rest, or when it did, which direction it would head in. As the boat pulled back into the sea, the sight of his family fixed in their spots with their bundles around them and their fears of returning to what was left of their homes inland was a picture that he would carry framed in his heart, nailed there with the sharp pain that he never allowed to heal in the city that he had landed in three days later, for fear that it would mean losing the picture too. And that’s why he kept returning to face the sea especially at that hour of the night and peered in hard to see if he could bring up the picture in the dark ahead and make it move. He kept playing the music on his phone that he bought from the money he made in his first month, hoping that somehow it would help his parents get in touch with him. And he kept talking to himself in his language for fear that when they did call, he would not understand them. The people he had travelled with on that boat had all been from his country, though from different parts. And in those three days on the boat he had clung to them in the hope that they would be his link to bringing him back to his family, or bringing them over to him. But on the last evening as the boat stood waiting for dark to cover their final dash to the shores of this new country, the runners who took refugees all over the world for money had given a few tips to help them increase their chances of not being caught and deported. Not talking while they picked up the local language was one. They were given some money in local currency and asked to purchase things from shops that were far from the coast. They were taught a few words to seed their new vocabulary. They were told what kind of people might offer them work, people who would know of their status and use it to their advantage by making them work hard for practically nothing. These were the people they were to go to. People who ran eateries next to railway stations. People who drove trucks and needed hands to load and unload. People who worked huge farms far away from the city. Because if they were to survive here long and get lost in the millions, they had to move away from the shores, learning the local language, the accent, their mannerisms. And most importantly, the minute they landed on the shore, they were to disperse. Walk away alone, or at best in twos. Never in groups. And that’s how Palash had lost touch with his own people twice in three days. And while the others moved away from the shore, he had stayed, despite the dangers of being found out and jailed, or deported. Because he had to keep that pain alive, he had to keep looking into the sea in the dead of the night to see if the picture would stir, and a boat would emerge with the people he had left behind almost a year back.
For Rizvi, the beach was as alien as it was familiar to Palash. His hometown where the house stood at the bend beyond the temple was under the steeply rising hills that glimmered with snow in the winters and with tiny red dots that were the clustered rhododendrons in the spring. His own memories of his hometown belonged more to the hills behind his house than to the village in front of him. Strangely, he seldom went there, and yet the seasons he remembered were like an infection he had caught from a distance. The snow that fell there but never here made him shiver. The gentle breeze of the summer that swept people to those higher locations brought him ease here, even though it was several degrees warmer. The nights too, as he sat by the beach, took him back to the glittering lights that flew like a river of lights on the dark background of the hills that merged into the night. The beach was still alien to him, even after all these years. And in all these years it had only become more so, with strangers crowding the place at all hours. Couples who used the gushing of the waves to whisper words into each other’s ears. Old people who found their own kind and made lasting friendships that were threatened not by the ambitions of the young, but by the possibility of death coming in the dead of the night and making them break the promise of catching up again the next day. And Rizvi walked on, aware of another set of people that had recently been showing up. Not as tourists or locals, but still as people who knew their way around a beach. As though they belonged here, to the sea shore, if not to the city. They could wade in deep and they knew exactly when a tide was coming in. They could match their humming to that of the sea. They certainly belonged to the sea, unlike him. But he never gave it a lot of thought for they would disappear as soon as they were seen, and were never seen again. Someone else, looking similar, behaving in a similar way, but not the same person ever again. Till he started noticing a small, frail boy who hung around families that came here for picnic, and when they were ready to leave, he would start cleaning up the area around them. Picking up their litter, their paper-plates and their empty packets of chips and bottles of colas and he would take whatever they would give him — money or food or sometimes the bedsheet they had spread out. Rizvi had noticed all this over many months. For an hour or so every other day. And he never thought about him once he went back to his wife and his work and his night-out with friends or for a week to his hometown and his mother from where he came back thinking about his father and with that dull throbbing pain that he had long realised wasn’t because of a loss he knew, but an absence he had lived with.
Palash also started noticing Rizvi among the many regulars he could now pick out besides a few words of the local language. The man was about his father’s age, and had a strange way of looking over the sea, as if looking for something over the horizon, or for someone. Palash could now remember the first time he had seen him. Or the first time he remembered seeing him. He was standing at the edge of the water, just where the sea reached out the farthest and then pulled back, retreating like naughty children who knew the extent of their permission. He was standing there, looking down at the sand as grains of it trickled and rolled and then stopped, like someone left out of the promise of a great voyage that others had embarked on. Palash looked at the same grains thinking of his family that had been left behind. Was this man thinking the same? Did he too feel that he had left someone behind? Rizvi didn’t notice as the boy edged closer to him, along the greying, frothing water on this early Sunday morning when they both liked the beach for being almost empty of people. The sky above was equally grey, so that the line of horizon had disappeared, making the world appear like a closed ball. Rizvi was aware of the grains of sand. He was aware of the sounds the sea and the occasional rumble of the clouds above. He was aware of his own heavy breathing. And he was aware of being a little concerned about why he was breathing so heavily. Though the reason he was out here and looking out at the sea and the rolling grains of sand could have accounted for that, he wasn’t in a state of mind to think straight. It was the day his father had died. At roughly this hour. He was five then. He didn’t really remember much, other than being woken up in a strange house with many people. Or was that memory from some other day? That was what made him really upset. To think that even as he reached out to the farthest corners of his mind and returned with a memory, he couldn’t really be sure if it matched with the days and months of his first five years. Once, at school, he had sketched a picture of a festival that he remembered celebrating with his father. He remembered that there were lights all around the house, and sweets inside. He was given new clothes, and he remembered being picked up by his father and hugged. And he had tried to draw all that. And for many years after that he had kept the sketch with him, even carrying it with him in his trunk when he left for college. Much later, when he finished studying and was back and was sorting his room did he come across a letter that his father must have written to his mother. He had written to say that he wasn’t going to come from where his work took him for another week, and that he would miss the festival. Again. Just like he had missed it for the past two years. Rizvi had looked at the date again, and confirmed that it was the last year of his life. So there were no festivals after this year with him around. And he couldn’t possibly have remembered the lights and the sweets and the embrace from in first two years of life. He read the rest of the letter with a sense of betrayal. His father had asked about him, said that he missed seeing him, and as Rizvi folded up the letter and took it back to add to his collection of his father’s memories, he knew he would have to lose another.
Every single year since he had left home for studies and then for work to distant lands, he had made it a point to return home to his mother on this day. Never had he spent this day alone, or let his mother be alone. Never had he spent this day in another city.
There is always something about the first time something happens. Or rather, the first time that something does not happen. Only that once, the first time it happens or doesn’t, it seems momentous, almost dramatic. But after that, it is just routine. Rizvi stood filling up his heart and his lungs and every pore of his body with this feeling of guilt and remorse and with the desperate yearning to run back home across this sea. Because he knew that this was the only time he would feel it. He may be home next year. But the next time he wasn’t, even his guilt won’t be beside him to comfort him. He would have moved on. What was unthinkable, unprecedented till now, would be just one of things that made him what he was. In his mother’s thoughts, in his own wife’s thoughts, in his own and in his father’s eyes looking down at him from wherever he was, he would no longer be the man who would be home on this day, no matter what. Today, the first time it would happen, expectations would break, new rules would be set, a new acceptance would emerge. And at some point Rizvi heaved with the rising sea and broke into sobs. The moist air with the familiar saltness to it added to the flow of tears and entered his open mouth leaving a taste that would take days to leave.
To Palash, it was something that he carried with him too. He had wept watching the older man weep as they both looked out across the sea, wanting to be swept up and taken to distant places, to waiting arms. And through his tears Rizvi saw a young boy weeping with him, even though he stood a few metres away. And he wondered if he too was lamenting the beginning of a new normal. Or was he already living one.
Palash never left the city after that. Nor did Rizvi. Though he did keep returning home, and eventually brought his mother to stay with him. But the two, unknown to each other, would often stand at the edge of the sea and look beyond and smile, or weep, or just silently gaze. Though separated by some distance and a few revellers, always together, joined by a loss they both understood they shared.