Benjamin Moses, the most accomplished fisherman in Kasimedu Fishing Harbour, took to hard drinking when his wife died a year ago. He wasn’t a teetotaller, yet his fellow boatmen were surprised because he was a moderate tippler all his life and had remained so even on days when the sea was good to him. Within weeks of her death, Benjamin had sold his 45-ft trawler, apologised and compensated his ten assistants; he vowed never to return to seas, no matter what.
“I am retiring at fifty in memory of my lovely wife…henceforth I will devote all my energies to serve the liquor industry,” said Benjamin, “Ave Maria.” Ready wit was his forte; it often kept his boatmen from emotionally breaking down while returning to shore empty-handed.
“Mallya, the good-times baron, doesn’t need your services. He has doomed himself by trying to fly too high,” said David, Benjamin’s only son.
“No issues…I will serve the multinational barons then,” said Benjamin.
“Your funeral,” said David, giving him a hundred rupee note.
“This is for peanuts…drinks are expensive, darling” said Benjamin winking an eye. David gave him a hundred more and walked away despite cries for a hundred more.
Until a few weeks ago, Benjamin had enough money to drink and squander. The disposal of his large boat had yielded enough to last a year. And now when he was left with nothing, David generously gave him as much as he asked for- out of pity to let him to cope with bereavement.
Soon though, disgusted with his father’s twenty-four-seven drinking spree, David desisted from giving him anything more than a hundred. Yet he could see his father drunk and disorderly- morning, noon and night. David had to spend hours searching for him every evening, bring him home in an unconscious state, spoon-feed him, and bed him. His father must be borrowing from his friends, David felt. Benjamin had no dearth of friends.
And then, a few months later, quite all of a sudden, Benjamin stopped asking for money altogether; yet he was always drunk, and always had enough cash left in his pocket. David wanted to know the source of the money. Most of his father’s friends, despite being penny-pinchers, were hard drinkers themselves. However hard he tried, the source remained a mystery.
One rainy morning, David could not find his father. He scoured the whole neighbourhood in vain. At last, when he was about to give up, one of his father’s friends said, “I saw him gulping down a quarter…he must be hanging around Kasimedu fish market.”
An inebriated man cannot drift as far as the market, he thought. David had not been to the market for a long time now since his catch never reached the auction hall; it was snatched every dawn by raucous retailers right on the shore.
A swarthy, sturdy, and handsome young man, David was considered the most eligible bachelor in the colony and girls vied to get his attention. But he was too shy of women, young or old, and treated them as if they were contagious maladies. He believed women to be the cause of a man’s troubles. He also believed that matrimony was no less a punishment than rigorous imprisonment. His simple policy was to stay as far away as possible from women. His father on the other hand had his uncanny ways of beguiling women of all ages in two ups.
Upon reaching the market, David spotted his father sitting on his haunches in front of a stall and begging for money. The young woman manning the stall was yelling and waving him away but he kept pestering her. David watched the spectacle unfold from a shop, diagonally opposite.
Benjamin leapt up, grabbed the woman’s legs and began beseeching like a madcap. Wriggling her legs out of his hands, pushing him away, she threw a hundred rupee note at Benjamin. The note flew away in a strong breeze; Benjamin was brisk enough to perform couple of somersaults and catch the note. He then rushed into the unauthorised brandy shop a few stalls away.
The trader, from whose shop David was observing, told him that this had been a daily spectacle for the past few months, and that this is the first time he had seen Benjamin there in the morning.
“She is new to the market but her stall is always crowded with customers; other stalls are swarmed by flies,” said the trader. “She deals in best of silver-bellies, carangids and mackerels.”
“Too beautiful to be a fish vendor,” thought David. She was too alluring, he felt like seeing her for a second time, and a third time. David reluctantly ambled back to his hut, had half a breakfast, and reclined on his four-post bed. A little later, Benjamin wobbled in, crept into his bed and snored aloud in inebriation.
For the first time in David’s life, thoughts of a woman kindled interest. The more he tried to ignore, the more her thoughts kept flooding back.
The next day onwards, David began marching past her stall at least thrice a day—sometimes on the pretext of buying fish, sometimes as a jaywalker, and sometimes he dashed past her like someone in a hurry, ensuring though that he caught the spilt-second glimpse. The more he looked at her, the more he liked the way she looked, and the more she looked the way she looked, the more he liked her.
Unlike gruffly women manning other stalls, she was too quiet and too gracious to be a vendor in such a cut-throat marketplace.
One stormy morning, David approached her for mackerels. She asked him to sit and began servicing other buyers. She clapped her hands; the tea vendor served him tea and biscuits. Without his knowledge, late last week, she had gathered that he was Benjamin’s son. As he sipped, she began closing her stall. The moment he sipped the last sip, she downed the shutter and walked to her shack without saying a word.
Within weeks, David figured out the reason behind the demand for her merchandise: she procured the first catches that arrived in wee hours; her stall opened at four in the morning, while others opened theirs around six- by which time she closed hers for the day.
He liked her short and sweet working hours—if ordinary mortals toiled eight hours, a beauty like her of course had no business slogging any longer than she did.
Her facial features had the mystery of a mixture stamped across them. Her complexion was as windswept as was unusual for people living on shores of Madras. It was brown, lovely brown. Or was it darkish-brown, blackish-brown, cocoa, reddish-brown, coppery, walnut, or yellowish-brown? Her colour seemed to change every time David looked at her; it seemed to change with the changing moisture in the air, with the diluting colour of daylight. With her accentuated eyebrows, Grecian nose, and blue irises, she was full of beauty- delighting eyes, ears, and other faculties of beholders. Undoubtedly she was a show-stopper, rather, aptly, a market-stopper. And, above all, her name was Rose. Was it possible to imagine a more flowery name? Or a more fragrant one? Or a prettier one?
In the steady twilight so typical of shores, her tan turned pink. Or was it crimson? By the sandy sunset, in the lamp lit ambience, her face glowed and turned golden red. Or was it burgundy? Claret? Cherry? He couldn’t tell. In the hide and seek of shades- of lamps dancing in the breeze-, her smothered smile radiated and blowed him away. The more he saw her, the more he felt like living with her—it dawned on him that such beauty might be essential to fire up a young man.
Before long, Rose was his brown Mona Lisa; her smile was so subtle, her words so soothing, so untouched by evil the harbour was rife with, and her were eyes so deep that, from any angle, she seemed nothing more than nineteen summers old. He had not seen a more beautiful teenager in his life, which was all but a few months shy of twenty five.
One squally morning, David could not find his father in his bedroom. Even before David could begin his routine search, his neighbour said, “He is lying dead drunk in the fish market.”
David reached the spot at a leisurely pace. Benjamin was lying on a dune by the side of Rose’ stall; each of his four limbs splayed in different directions and utterly unconscious. He was so annoyed that he ignored his insentient father and marched past her stall nonchalantly.
A little later, on his way back, David could not see him. When asked, Rose pointed towards her shack. Lying stretched out in the hut, Benjamin’s head kept moving, he kept grumbling, and his hands made crude gestures aiming at no one. Ever since his wife passed away last year, no one had seen Benjamin talking; he murmured, mumbled even when sober- though no one had seen him sober either.
Even as David was appalled at his father’s antics, Rose hustled into the hut, woke Benjamin up with a kick, and poured a bucket of water on him. As Benjamin struggled to recover, she caught him by his chin with one hand, held his head under her armpit, pried open his mouth and poured a mugful of dark potion into it. She then pressed her palm against his lips.
Few minutes later, holding him by his corkscrew ringlets, she shook his head wildly. She waited for a while staring at him to regain consciousness. David shook his head and wondered what was going on; without answering him, Rose dealt a gentle slap and walked away.
At his sprightly best within minutes, Benjamin scurried homeward; David followed him until they were home. He had not seen anything like this in his life even though he had heard of such ways being usual methods of detoxification in Pondicherry, the town Rose was said to be from.
“Whiskey is his food, water, and nourishment for him,” said one of Benjamin’s friends who had followed them into their house.
“And whiskey is my panacea too,” said Benjamin, rushing into his bedroom and, within a minute, snoring away. David slumped into the easy chair that Benjamin never allowed anyone to sit. Thoughts of Rose pleased him as the chair rocked unaided. The neighbour walked out as David did not even ask him to sit. Rose was like the ocean—generous, vast and deep; impossible to fathom in its entirety. She was also full of fine biblical idioms and phrases but she never spoke to him. “Isn’t demurely behaviour hallmark of girls from decent families?” he asked himself. The only way he could savour her speech was to overhear her while she spoke to others.
His acquaintance with her did not making any headway even after months. He could hardly speak to her except to say good mornings, afternoons, or evenings. She returned his wishes not with words but with sweet smiles that took his breath away. No one else he knew had such a consuming smile; her morning smiles inspired him for the day ahead, and the evening ones were potent enough to let him to conquer the world, or the even the deepest oceans.
When the girl is so reticent, it’s a man’s job to propose. After wavering for quite some time, at last, he decided to propose a quick, grand but quiet wedding. And then he would not allow her to be a vendor, would provide her with all the comforts that rich women enjoyed, and would even employ a servant to take care of household chore. In essence, she would be queen of the house. They would have just two children; having too many would not only be too cumbersome but would also affected quality of life.
At last- summoning enough pluck- he went ahead and blurted his in one breath. She looked bewildered, confounded, and almost shocked. And then she remained quiet waving away flies that hovered over heaps of fish.
“Wasn’t this another trait of girls from decent families? Good girls take time; they don’t concur to such crucial things at once, and would of course weigh them over time,” David told himself.
She took too much time just to say one word- yes; but David was not in a hurry because that one word would be pregnant with life-changing momentum. She was quiet. Unable to go through the suspense for more than ten minutes, he ultimately asked her, “Are you ready to take the plunge?”
“If you are serious…come to my place at noon on Wednesday,” said Rose. Even though it was three days away, David agreed and left after bidding goodbye. She smiled.
David woke up early in the morning on Wednesday only to find Benjamin missing from his bedroom. But he had no time to bother about his father; he had hardly a few hours to get ready and meet Rose. He could always find his father a little later and, what more, he could even reveal the good news to him.
He trimmed his hair and beard, put on his black dress and spent an hour in front of the mirror. At last, even if not entirely satisfied sartorially, he left his house because it was almost quarter to twelve.
When he reached Rose’s shack, she wasn’t there but he found a note lying at her doorstep. It asked him to wait until she returned. David entered the unlocked shack and began looking around at the house that could soon be his wife’s.
Few minutes later, an auto-rickshaw screeched into the front yard. Hurrying out, he saw Benjamin and Rose getting off the rickshaw hand in hand, in wedding dresses, as man and wife.
Ram Govardhan’s first novel, Rough with the Smooth, was longlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize, The Economist-Crossword 2011 Award and published by Leadstart Publishing, Mumbai. His short stories have appeared in Asian Cha, QLR of Singapore, Muse India, Open Road Review, The Bangalore Review, The Spark and several other international literary journals. He lives in Chennai cursing the deadly humidity all the time.