Monday, April 29, 2013


A mermaid

In a little house nestled in a leafy suburb just outside of Omaha, Nebraska lived a young family of four, Raj and Seema, and their two little boys, Adit and Anuj. Raj and Seema were both quite comfortable with their lives, hopeful for the future, grateful for the present, and ambivalent about their past as many thirty-somethings are, both doing their best to measure up to the demands life placed on them. Raj worked long hours, Seema did too, he at a really nice office complex downtown, she at home. 

It had been just another weekday, the family had had their dinner, Dad in front of the TV in the living room, Mom and the kids at the kitchen table, as was their custom, and now they were all asleep. It was a warm summer’s night. In fact the night was almost all gone. It was close to morning.

Seema, always an early riser, woke up in the dark before dawn. She loved the pristine freshness and promise of each newborn day. The infant day is a gift, and you can more or less decide what to do with it, or at least make up your mind about how you will greet the day. As her Ma had always taught by example, she started the day with a little uncomplicated untraditional aside to God to help her get through the day with the best results possible. Somewhere in there, unbeknownst to her, there had been an alignment with the wisdom of choosing to love, unconditionally, every one, irrespective of circumstance.

Not quite sure if she was asleep or awake she found herself dressed in a cotton sari holding a tray with a little oil lamp and a few flowers and other offerings, walking in bare feet through the dark, the ground beneath her feet gravely, then sandy. She was shocked to see another human being out so early, when owls still hooted and no one stirred but her, walking the narrow path, toward her.

By force of habit, upon seeing one draped in a traditional white dhoti and shawl, she raised her hands, tray in hand, in an attempted gesture of a Namaste, a greeting that roughly translates to ‘I bow to you. The light within me honors the light within you’ if you look it up in encyclopedias.

“Namaste,” said the gentleman. Her eyes now getting used to the low light could discern someone who looked like he had in the recent days shorn his hair to almost nothing. She wondered if he was in mourning. He was vaguely familiar but she couldn’t tell where she had seen him before. She thought she must’ve seen him many, many years ago if she ever had because he bore an uncanny resemblance to this fuzzy mental image she had of a face forgotten over the years. 

She stood stock still and had no idea she was blocking his path. Perhaps he was blocking her path, but being quite unsure of her own place in the world she was always the one who got out of the way apologizing profusely and she started to do so again and moved off the narrow path to let him pass.

He almost walked on by but turned around and asked, ”What brings you here every morning?”

“I tend to a tulsi (a sacred plant) by the river,” she said, just a trifle surprised by the question.

“What brings you here every morning?” she asked, as she heard herself speaking without thinking.

“I come here every morning to take a dip in the healing waters of the Ganga of my love. It heals the wounds the world inflicts each day and I’m ready for a new day.”

“Oh,” she said, looking at the lamp and at the large flickering shadows behind them both. A line of light on the horizon began to creep upward and she was really glad for that. “Namaste,” she said again and went on her way.

She woke up with a faint memory of having had an unusual dream and went about her day as usual.



A month later, late one night, Seema was barely asleep, and it wasn’t quite sleep but exhaustion that had taken over, when
somewhere between the ragged shores of faltering awareness and of stupor swam a mermaid in the cold waters of Seema’s subconscious mind. The mermaid had been in the deep, deep waters for days too many to count. She had no clue if there were people on the riverbank, what day of the week it was, or if it were morning or evening. She could see it was dark. Bored, she darted about aimlessly.

Suddenly, she found she was much closer to the surface than she had imagined when she had looked up for no particular reason. Like gold dust in a pan, sparkles shot about in the dark waters. She was mesmerized by the patches of light that danced up there and made a sequined quilt of the surface. She had gazed upon the star spangled sky sometimes and loved it. This was intriguing. Up, up, up to the surface she rose strongly. The circles of darkness grew bigger, around them the rings of light brighter. When she broke surface she saw as far as the eyes could see a million diyas (little clay lamps that are lit for the festival of lights) bobbing gently in the slowly flowing river.

“Wow! I wish I had known sooner. I almost completely missed it. I think I’ll just stay here and pretend I’m a diya on the water too. When this vision of beauty is taken away I won’t lament its loss. I’ll lose myself in its beauty forever never to be found again.”

The mermaid sat at the bottom of the stairs going into the water, half-submerged. Her eyes grew heavy-lidded and she slept half-sitting leaning against a balustrade. Down, down, down the steep steps of the riverbank in the dark before dawn walked a lonely figure in white garb, dark shawl, his head bent in deep thought, measured tread, sadness, light, and finality his aura.

“I have to go now,” he said, turning away to return by the way he came, and disappeared into the darkness.

The mermaid stirred thinking she had heard some one say something to her but there was nobody around. It was really, really dark, but for the few diyas that floated about still aglow. As her eyes grew used to seeing in the dark, a small shiny object a few feet from her on the step at the water’s edge caught her eye. She leaned across to get a closer look. It was a golden key barely reflecting light from a passing diya. She instinctively reached for it but caught herself mid-motion and decided what was not hers she might as well leave alone. If the real owner did not find it first it might delight a little child for a while until perhaps he would be chided for playing finders keepers. Thunder rolled in the distance and by and by gentle rain began to fall putting out the remaining diyas. Dawn would break through the clouds and mermaids don’t wish to be discovered so this one was back in the water in one gentle splash, down, down, down to her home deeply rested from her sojourn into the airy world. She swam round and round in quick bursts expending excess energy.

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Several weeks had passed, the mermaid lay sprawled on a rock on the riverbed. Sunlight at high noon filtered through the water and colored her world a speckled translucent celadon. She pondered, as she sat, on human despair. She thought about how it made its entrance into a human life, what it did while it remained there, and then went away. “Despair does strange things to people,” she thought. “One must invent an antidote to despair. And patent it too. Then maybe not. What if it has dangerous side effects.”

After a while she stopped thinking altogether, tired of the mental calesthenics involved in musing upon such age-old questions. Her mind in a state between sleeping and waking, her senses dulled, she lay motionless except for the soft rise and fall of her steady breathing. She nodded off for a few minutes and was awakened by the gentlest feeling of something small and faintly warm alight on her belly and slip away to the earth below. She sat up and sure enough there lay about her about a handful of beads – teardrop-shaped clear smooth beads the size of sunflower seeds reflecting the underwater glow. She didn’t know what to make of them. They looked harmless enough so she gathered them up. She peered at them closely and saw to her shock and amazement her name etched on every single one of them. She decided to swim to the surface and try and solve the mystery of these beads.

She swam up and yet again the light surprised her making her blink rapidly. Then she saw she was in the midst of some water lilies. Two water birds she had startled flew up flapping their wings noisily, and she thought she saw a small turtle dive back into the water. She unclenched her fists and raised her cupped hands to look at the beads but they were gone!!! The surprise! The horror!

“I know I did not drop a single one of them so what became of them? Did they vaporize upon seeing the light? Did they turn into lotuses? And also into birds and turtles? What happened to them?”

This detective was most distraught.

“What agony must one endure to shed tears such as those? What must such agony do to one? Why does such agony rear its ugly head? Does agony as powerful as that have no end? May the gods have mercy on one so despairing. May there be some good that comes from such struggle. May you find the will to go on for life surely has better days waiting for you.”

The mystery wouldn’t let her rest and wouldn’t let her unravel it yet. But unravel itself it did. Slowly surely calmly a knowing suffused her being. Those beads had been tears of despair that had turned into seeds of hope. They were bewitched though and needed to be plunged to the depths of a riverbed for a mermaid to bring them back up to warmth and light for them to turn into seeds of pure joy.

The mermaid felt so much more at peace knowing human despair was not without purpose, not always, anyhow. “This bodes well,” she thought and busied herself with humdrum everyday things.
image via (Pirates of the Carribean)
Seema woke up, feeling unsettled upon finding herself in the dark in her bedroom, she who had been until a second ago gently bathed in the ethereal glow of an underwater world. She got up as noiselessly as she could and walked softly tiptoeing to the next room and turned on a lamp. The images in her dream were much too beautiful to forget. She wished she was a painter. But she wasn’t one so she scribbled quickly a description of the mermaid she had seen in her dream. It brought such peace to her to be able to do that. She had seen the mermaid twice before, in the deep of REM sleep, and as she began to write, the stories from her dreams came back to her clear and sweet as a song. The feeling of peace was so profound, and it surprised her so, she forgot to breathe for a moment. She had no idea blessings such as these existed. She exulted in the sweetness of the visions and then decided she needed her rest and went back to bed.

Morning came along and turned to night, as it does each day, and Seema hoped she would see the mermaid again, but she didn’t. Many days came and went while the mermaid took a sabbatical.

Seema had been troubled many days in a row now but she could not identify the source of her anxiety. On the surface all looked well. The children were well, prosperity seemed to be seeking them out, she had her days packed with things she loved to do. And yet beneath the calm there was a sadness that was beyond sadness. Seema kept that hidden from view behind a cheery smile. Talking to Raj would be no help at all. He never really knew what not to say so she had learned in the first few weeks of marriage to expect no compassion and no companionship whatsoever from him. It was not his fault really. That was just the way he was.

After a fitful hour or two of tossing and turning late one night she fell asleep. She fell into a dreamlike semi-wakefulness perhaps because this wasn’t exactly a dream. It was too real. Yet it wasn’t anywhere near realistic in a three dimensional sort of way. The emotions and words were very real. The place was not in the vicinity of her home, not by a thousand miles. And there was a mermaid on the premises, so how real could that be? But nonetheless it was all very engaging so Seema walked closer to the river’s edge to get a better look at the mermaid. She looked familiar. She sat on a rock in the middle of the river, floodlights throwing an amber glow on the scene. She sat alone. She wore a dainty pale pink flowing lehenga, sequined and long, that very nearly concealed the telltale mermaid tail. And if Seema wasn’t so into fairytales she might have missed that little, barely perceptible detail. But mermaids don’t fool someone so familiar with mermaids.

Nothing happened. The mermaid did not, or could not see Seema. She sat quietly playing with her tresses dark and wavy and long, in that typical mermaid hairstyle of free-flowing abandon. The air was still. Seema noticed movement in the distance, way higher than where she was standing, across the stream. A gentleman was making his way down the steps. Seema wondered who he was. He did not seem to notice her. Perhaps he could not see her either. He walked toward the mermaid and started to speak. Seema was listening in English while he spoke in Hindi so she completely missed the first few lines of what he said. She was also trying very hard to figure out who he was by listening to their conversation. Now she was listening in Hindi still ruing the fact she had missed the first few seconds of his speech and did not fully tune in well into it.

“I meant the world to you just yesterday and now I mean nothing to you? I have repaid my debt to you, interest and all, and I have nothing left. What could you possibly want from me? “

Seema was beginning to see this was a romantic interest. He was Eric in this version of ‘The Little Mermaid’, overwrought, and puzzled. Seema wondered what the mermaid would say. But he did not wait for her to answer. He said, now speaking in English, ”You are throwing away our last chance at happiness.” He said that accusingly.

The mermaid turned, now facing Seema, her back to him, stony, insensitive, yet very lost, she asked him very quietly,”Do you know the difference between right and wrong? Please accept the fact that this is my penance.” And she started to cry without moving.

He left without another word. She sat unmoving, crying.

Seema could see far, far away, since perhaps this really was a dream, snow on the ground, a window with a grille, a fire in the fireplace, a lambskin rug on the floor, and she turned and walked away turning her gaze to the immediate, the uneven ground underfoot, a cold realization chilling her assailable human heart that perhaps a human and a mermaid were always meant to say goodbye.

It is one of the riddles of the human condition that people are frequently incapable of recognizing their own stories when at first they see them.

Summer had given way to fall. Late one afternoon Seema was sitting by the window, watching cars go by. She almost shot out of her skin as she heard a loud splash, and absorbed the acute sensation of panic in the air as she thought she saw some one drowning. In a flash she turned into a mermaid and caught the descent of a human struggling in the water. She used all her might to drag him to the shore and realized there were many people there. Hoping someone would see him fast so she would not have to call out to them she stayed above water moving around trying to draw attention without giving away the fact she was a mermaid.

“Surely there must be a family who very much wants to see him healthy and happy. He needs help now,” she agonized. The mermaid’s angst was quickly relieved as she saw three seconds later five men rushing down the riverbank and attended to the man who had been drowning. They resuscitated him reasonably quickly. He sat up with some help and spoke to the men.

Seema was not sure what had happened in those five seconds while she had believed she was a mermaid but did shake herself out of that feeling, her knees shaking from the abating adrenalin rush, and feeling rather loopy went to get herself a cup of tea. The evening gave way to nightfall.

Thanksgiving break was next week and Seema was glad for it. Life had been hectic for a while. Navratri (a nine day festival in the months of September–October) and Diwali (the hindu festival of lights) had kept her occupied with social engagements and it had been fun. She drifted off to sleep counting sheep. She was dreaming again, of far away places, again. It was perhaps escapism. She had so badly wanted to experience just once again in her lifetime a real, full-blown, Indian festival replete with the noise and confusion as she had many years ago on her last trip to Kolkata.

At this hour in her dreamscape it was one of those days of the year when a visit to the temple was seemly, so the family of four, Seema, her husband, and the two little children, had headed that way. The crowds were increasing. They parked a few streets away and walked. At the second entrance, where the crowds were somewhat thinner, they turned to go into the temple, leaving the river bank behind them. Seema stopped inches away from stepping on a shiny object. Perhaps some one had lost jewelry she thought, then realized it was a key, perhaps ornamental, a charm, or perhaps functional, made of gold, seemingly. It looked precious enough either way that whosoever had lost it might want it back. As she bent down to pick it up the rest of them walked on and she was fifteen paces behind them now and would never catch up through the throngs. She called out to them, they turned and waved. She decided to take a little detour through the temple office, deposit this object at Lost and Found, and proceed to darshan (viewing of the temple deity), hoping they’d wait for her.

Lost and Found was locked and barred. She’d leave it with Panditji (the priest) she decided. She walked through the labyrinthine lower floors of the temple and made her way upstairs. She managed to find her family as they waited their turn. The altar was very small. They’d have a second or two to gaze upon the deity. The forward flowing crowds would then gently disgorge them out of the sanctum sanctorum.

They walked in single file, children in the middle, Seema at the rear, hoping to stop an extra second for a proper vision of the Devi (goddess), but that was not about to happen. Seema had hoped to quickly pass on the golden key to Panditji telling him it was for Lost and Found, but that moment had passed her by and she, in the hope that he would find it, was extending her arm to place it on the corner of the marble pedestal where he usually placed the aarti (sacramental fire and offerings) after all was done. Scarcely had metal touched stone when a voice called out to her from behind two or three people, but she couldn’t see the man at all, “That’s mine. I’ll take it. What does it do?”

That was not exactly the question she had expected to hear from the owner of the key, but there was no time to stand around asking counter questions. Seema heard herself say, ”It unlocks the place in your heart from where love flows.”

Aghast at what she’d done she blushed deeply feeling very foolish and yet triumphant like she’d done something right, she scurried out the doorway and did not look back. Nothing was adding up, logically speaking, but the microcosm within of the Universe without had shifted slightly, for the better, in that moment, and she felt light, felt like she walked on air, and felt profoundly good.

Running low on supplies of trust from years of being lied to she hoped that man had not been just another liar, thug, opportunist, baddie who had seen something of value and pinched it. And she hadn’t even seen him.

“Not right under the Devi’s nose. Not when he seemed so sure of himself. Not when he seemed to be reacting rather than carefully carrying out a heist. It probably did belong to him. And why O why O why did that completely nonsensical sentence leave my mouth? I hope it made sense to him. I hope it isn’t just a key to a trunk or something. Or he has to be rolling with laughter right about now thinking I’m nuts. Whatever, that’s his problem not mine. The words left my lips before I could think.”

This was a very cold Sunday morning in late December, a little snow remained on the sidewalk. Seema was up earlier than the rest and happy to have some time to enjoy her morning cup of tea, and to have the computer to herself. Christmas had been wonderful, with Santa bringing lots of new toys for the children, and a nice evening out with friends. The new year was about to commence, now just hours away, and an anticipation that precedes all new beginnings filled the air. Memories of her mermaid dreams had begun to dull and fray replaced by newer memories and new year resolutions and such. Seema sat down at the desk, on an otherwise unremarkable day, to explore this new thing in her life called the Internet. She found an email waiting for her. It described a time and a place exactly as she had seen in her dream. Her hands shaking she decided to call her aunt in Kolkata to wish her a happy new year as it was nearly midnight in India. Woven into the fabric of that conversation was a little detail, the neighbor’s second son had returned from England after ten years to settle down in Kolkata. Suddenly it all fell into place. She hadn’t realized this was her own story, a fantastical story, she a mermaid in it, in a land far far away where people came and went in disguises, time and space could be transcended, and dopplegangers were just as real as the person next to you. Seema was so shocked she couldn’t think. When she found her sense of humor again she decided this odd little thing in her life was a bad case of “fairytalia” because, realistically speaking, it would be quite a surprise if he even knew her name. Time would convince her otherwise.


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