Manu Remakant veers off the usual feel-good travel story to narrate a travel-thriller
A half-moon smiled feebly, half-heartedly. A breeze came in cat’s paw; our boat handsomely moored at a non-descript place somewhere deep in the Alleppey-Kumarakom stretch, bobbed up and down. Bobbed up and down.
The boat moored at a non-descript place somewhere deep in the Alleppey-Kumarakom stretch
The night was spread across the surface of the water. Tearing it, we saw, the headlights of a boat, coming in. It whizzed past us, with its people booing at our boat tied unhappily to a coconut tree. The waves tossed us around for a few more seconds. Another followed, hurting us deeper.
“Why can’t we go like that?” asked my friend, Praveen, a doctor.
“It would be fun,” I joined in and looked at Aji for support. His face lit up at the prospects. The cold air; the deep water, which echoed the burn of bulbs from far away houses across the Punnamada Kayal, and the dark greenery, washed in pale moonlight that pressed on to the water from either side, invited us.
“No. It is against the law,” cut in, Pradeep, the driver, avoiding our pleading eyes. We looked at Reji who arranged the family reunion tour for the four of us who studied in Mar Ivanios College, 20 years ago. “The Government has strictly given us instructions not to drive at nights,” Pradeep said with a sullen face. His pockmarked face looked more forbidding than the law.
Since the journey began, the only hitch of this dream tour was the dour faces of the boat staff. They served us a gourmet extravaganza at noon consisting of karimeen and chicken, but not smiles. They told us in plain terms, where we would get good toddy, but remained icy when we haggled with the toddy sellers. Then they told us, they would close the kitchen at 10, and no ice would roll from the kitchen after the deadline. Adding insult to injury, they didn’t let us act the kind masters who would humanely give them a peg or two when all the job was done.
“No, we don’t drink.” That was the last nail in the humaneness coffin.
“I hate their names as well,” Aji said a few minutes after the staff slammed the kitchen door on us. “It is not romantic to have your driver and cook with names Pradeep and Suresh. Had it been Pushkaran, Damodaran or Kurup, we could have screamed, “Pushkara…oru omlette…” We laughed.
Soon we forgot them. The moment we sent our wives and children to the two rooms in the houseboat, we forgot them too. We went 20 years back to pick up our fights halted mid-tussle. We clinked glasses, toasted the girls we were after who could now be toiling in some kitchen, sighing about the rejection slips they thoughtlessly issued on the way.
We knocked down pegs back to back. I realised I was on the wrong side of my fourth peg. My stomach rumbled as the toddy I took in the evening fought with the newcomer.
‘This is binging.’ I stopped. We supped our way through chappathi, karimeen and chicken curry. Outside, a country dog slackened its pace and ogled at our table. The rooms were all occupied and closed. We had to get out of the boat to pee. For that, a door had to be negotiated. The yawning space between the boat and the land called for a small leap, which we made one after the other. There was another door at the other side of the boat, which opened to mid-river and death.
We got back to where we had stopped. Our half-sozzled conversation drowned the smatterings of muffled gossips and giggles straining out from the rooms inside. We sang the melodies of the 80s rekindling lost youth, quarrels, sweet blunders, and love well into the small hours.
The light from the ranthal vilakku hanging down from the corners, searched out the bamboo roofs and walls, buffing the whole air inside the boat into an unnatural golden sheen. The cold breeze blew incessantly. Soon we found our eyelids straining hard to get a foothold on the roof. One. Two. Three. They all fell into deep sleep in the middle of a sentence, sighs or yawns.
I waited for an answer. Silence.
On the wide dewan, they lay in impossible postures. I smiled. This looked like Jallianwallah Bagh after General Dyer retired with his men.
That was the last image I had before I too gave in to the pleasant silence. Sweet slumber.
But after an hour, Reji, who was turning uneasily on the dewan, stood up shakily to his feet and walked unsteadily towards the door with half-closed eyes, fearing his sleep would fly away.
He opened the door wide, took a long breath, and leapt out. Into the deep water.
It was the wrong door. Reji leapt into a cold, certain death.
At his back, there were his friends and family, deep asleep. A couple of seconds; Reji woke up to a horrifying truth: he was falling. He had never swum in his life. The water was cold, dark and 30 feet deep.
Deep under, Reji made a last struggle, came up and saw the boat still sleeping in silence.
Before he could make a sound, the cold water pulled him down again to the deep.
He thought about Diya, his eight-year-old daughter.