THE Dark Sands Of Marina 

Vincent De Souza 

 

Where is my shepherd now when I am down and out?"Mary Cruz had kept nodding her head in the corner of the long bench, row 10 from the altar.The woman beside her glanced at her, and pressed the rosary into Mary's hand.
It was the 4th Sunday of Easter.The gospel of saint John. The Lord is the good shepherd."Noooooooooo . ."Father Irudhayam froze at the altar, his sermon had stopped midway.The power supply tripped. Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church was in darkness.
Mary Cruz clenched her right fist as she tore across the sands. The metal claws ringed on her middle finger hurt."Don't look back""Nooooooooooooo""Keep walking to the sea . . ."I am going there...I am.""Don't look back now . . ."The red neon of the cross atop the spire of San Thome Cathedral had a streak of purple tonight. Far, far behind the woman doubling up to the seashore.

# # 
The eastern sky in May was the palette of a trained artist. A treat for people who naturally gazed at the blaze of pink, red and orange-yellow of the never-forgiving setting sun. But men of the dark looked the other way. Prepared to invite even the grey streaks into their lives. There was liberation of some kind here. 
Mary Cruz had not looked back. And now, she was on familiar land, the sands of the Marina. She had slipped on to a dry catamaran and let her feet find a reassuring level in the sands. Darkness came quickly. And the red neon atop the Cathedral's spire seemed to reflect on the rather even-tide waters.
The metal claws gave her some assurance. That ring was the only thing that her husband had gifted here. Even the marks of his teeth on her left breast had been erased by the sun that got the better of Airtel umbrellas that fish hawkers raised on the Loop Road.
The Marina was Mary's home for some 12 years now. The bride from Jani Jan Khan Road had left behind the clatter of auto workshops and the heady smell of kebabs and tikkas and quickly got used to the salt of the sea, the smell of fish and streaks of communal strife in the kuppams.
Reuben was an irregular fisherman nowadays. Sometimes, he braved the sea with his own cattamaran which Mary had once given a name and got it painted, like they did to the motor-fitted boats. 
'Mylai Madha', she had called it. The artist had excelled in his own way and with the help of the Cathedral bulletin, drawing the Madha's image with the European gloss.
"She will take care of you," she told Reuben.
But the men who owned 'Murugan Thunai' were his guardians really. Signing him for their regular fishing trips and paying him decently.
Doomingkuppam was not her friendly neighbourhood. Not the edge on the Loop Road where huts, small-roomed brick houses and metal-sheet quarters for migrants made privacy impossible.
Three nights after the wedding, he had woken her up close to midnight, grabbed some pillows and took her by the hand to the shoreside.
"Get in"
"Are you mad?"
"Yes, aren't you?" And he had pushed her inside 'Murugan Thunai'.
They were on top on each other. The bottoms of boats made this rather cosy. 
"Don't you like it this way?"
"Mmm….But we have not been sitting under the shadow of a boat and talking."
He was not listening. He had quickly freed her of the sari. And then slowed. He took a fistful of sand that lay on the floor of the boat and funneled it down her cleavage.
"What are you doing?"
"I am not just a fisherman, Mary. I am also artistic!"
Their love-making though was over in minutes.
"Can we go home?"
"Can't we just lie here under the stars?"
"Stupid woman, the men will be here at 3. This will be sacrilegious??"
Back home, they collapsed on a mat.
"Mary, this is not a gift. But you will need it in this place."
She lowered her eyes to his right palm. A metal ring with claws. She said nothing, took it and placed it under her pillow.

# # #

"Fresh na?"
"You been coming here for many days amma!"
"Yes yes, just asking"
"Slice it?"
"For fry. . . you know how we want it."
Mary half-smiled as the two-kilo vanjeeram nestled in one hand and was prepared for a quick clean-slice-pack job.
It had been a good day's sale and done in double quick time. 
Reuben's random life had forced her into this business. He had begun to drink more than he could afford, spending more time at the TASMAC wine shop just outside the bus terminus in Foreshore Estate. Fishing was not as profitable as it had been but it still brought some decent money.
"It is killing me Mary"
"What else can you do, do you have options?"
"Maybe I can do out to paint?"
"Then do that..but we need that money! There is a baby coming"

# # #

The baby came quickly and their purses were thin. But Antony short-circuited their regular scrapes and seemed to lighten the burden. Reuben seemed a bit more responsible. He spaced out visits to Pattinapakkam.
"Look at his eyes…like the fish na?"
"He is not a fish Reuba!"
"He is born of fishers…….from that curry on your body"
Mary was not prepared for that memory. He had slowly disrobed her, put away the sari, petticoat and inner wear, then lifted a stainless steel vessel and gently poured the spicy liquid. First on the breasts, then on her navel.
That was the fish curry she had cooked that afternoon.
He let his tongue feast on the curry and on her body. She was choked in the fusion of tamarind-ladden spices and the tremors of unknown pleasure.
"You are artistic indeed!" she told him after the exhaustion. 

# # #
Antony was two years old and Mary made her decision. Join the fish-hawking women on Marina Loop Road. There were dozens of them tempting the hundreds of city-dwellers who could not go to sleep without a rice-and-fish curry meal. 
"Mary….go to that far end..we don't want to see you anywhere close"
"As you say Kannamma"
"And don't show us any tricks by undercutting us. I will have the claws on your face!"
This was clobber-in-the-open land. Even fish bones would do to tear the flesh of your rival. Mary quickly learnt the unwritten rules of this market. No wonder Reuben had given her the ring of claws. As if he was initiating her into the world of Marina's kuppams.
But God sent her a guardian angel. Sophiemmal. Silver-streaked hair, cut short and bristling, a large red bindi on a small, sun-baked forehead, a white rosary around her thin neck and always in black blouse.
"You want to learn my trade trick?"
Mary smiled.
"Just deal with select stuff. Vanjeeram and pomfret and prawns if they are medium and fresh. The moneybags in the city don't care for the rest."
"You have been long here na?"
"22 years. . .doesn't my body show. This bloody Madras sun has made me a karavadu"
"I like your big bindi"
"It makes me look like a don na?"
"I wanted to ask you . . . do all these hawkers carry the claws?"
"Now you are asking too many questions . . .these money bags won't even look at the season's fish…why not ..because that is too much trouble…romba mull ma . . .moneybags"

# # #

Mary not only found her place down the Loop Road but earned decently, sticking to her guardian angel's advice. If Sophiemmal ran out of her stock, she would wave her shoppers down to Mary's Airtel umbrella.
"Go to the umbrella with 'Mylai Madha' picture"
Antony got admission to San Thome High School. Kavitha, the social worker in these parts had helped.
"Thamizh medium paravillaiya?"
"School pona porum Kavitha"

Reuben turned alcoholic. Every time, she lay in bed and the claw ring scratched her arm under the pillow, she felt like slipping it into her middle finger and tearing apart her husband.
He would die in minutes and if she could tear him up on a moon-less night, she could carry that withered body to the sea and let the waves turn outwards just for a  few minutes.
"Lord, if you could let Moses part the sea then turn it away for me. Take him away."
The abuse had got severe. Antony was in class three and she didn't want their son here. But where could she send him? Kavitha suggested they could try a hostel nuns ran on Madha Church Road.
"Let him be here. I live for him Kavi."

# # #

The fishing season got going well that year. 
"Don't be greedy Mary," Sophieammal told her. "The wretched women will cut their prices but you stick to yours and promise your customers the best."
It worked. Mary's earnings doubled.
Kavitha helped her open an account in the bank. Mary kept back two hundred rupees every day.
"Murugan-anna! Get me Brihans Napoleon Brandy"
"Enna Mary, you too have started drinking eh?"
"Have to anna. This Madras sun scorches me"
"Then you must have Strong Beer."
"Thats for kids anna……get me 300ml okay?"

# # #

Mary gave up on the idea of using the steel ring of claws. The Brandy would work better. 
"Reubena . . .you don't have to look for your drink. I will buy it for you hereafter"
"So you are making a pile eh?"
"Why does it matter? You will have your bottle every evening. You don't have to hang around that stinking bar anymore"
The evenings got pleasanter. No more abuse, no more rants.
But the stories flowed as long as the brandy refueled Reuben's memories.
"When I was ten and studying in the Doomingkuppam school we made some fast money selling arrack in sachets after school. Three rupees for a sachet sold. One day, a fight broke out between two gangs. All school boys. They punched us because we had sold fast and sold well to their clients. Only then did we know that the arrack we were selling was from Andhra, it was good stuff. Theirs was from Pondy. . ."

"Did you also drink arrack?"
"I did but not when in school. I dropped off in class 8. And joined my father."
"Finish the bottle"
"Looks like I am solidly drunk tonight"
"Drink a little more and I will throw away the empty bottle into the sands"
"Aei Mary, don't dump it in the sands. These are our sands ma . . Blood has been spilled on it"
"The way you men get drunk and fight that blood won't be good blood"
"Do you know the police shot our fishermen on the Marina sands. They shot us like dogs because we refused to move our boats parked on the shore. Those khaki dogs..they took out their guns and shot us. Shot us in our sands…this is our land…we came here first…we were here first before the vellaikaran, before the Mylapore vakkils . . . before those dubashes…"
"Drink fast na…it is getting late"
"I have more stories Mary. I have more. I don't want to ration them like your brandy"
"Now you are being ungrateful"
"Why don't you get me a full bottle?"
"Finish this now. . ."
"Those Corporation men now want to beautify this road of ours. They want to relay it. They want to widen it. And they want to clear our hawkers and dump them in some new market. Those goons don't know that this is our purvi land that we have been nice to grant them. Where will you sell your fish tomorrow? Do you know how this Loop Road came to be?"
Mary had fallen asleep. Under her pillow, the steel ring of claws brushed her arm.

# # #

Reuben died in his sleep. Doomingkuppam's fishermen put out black flags on the head of their boats. They would refrain from going out to sea that night.
There was little wailing and no fuss.
Fr. Irudhyam prepared the funeral Mass at saint Lazarus Church. 3 p.m. it would be.
"He is now in heaven Mary," Sophiemmal whispered in her ears. "He was a good man, yes he was . .  he gave me some great fish on a good day."
Fr. Irudhyam was reading the Gospel.
'Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in Me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with Me that you also may be where I am.'

The funeral procession reached Quibble Island Cemetery as the algae in the shallow, stagnant water of the Adyar Estuary began to release its stink and fill the neighbourhood air.
They had dug a grave in the small plot Reuben's family had for themselves. The old frangipani tree stood here.
Fr Irudhyam gave the last blessing as the coffin was lowered. And sprinkled holy water.
"Mary, you may drop the first fist of mud now," he said.
She dug into a small bag she was carrying, pulled out an empty Napoleon Brandy bottle and flung it into the grave. It hit the coffin and broke into a dozen and more pieces. The grave-diggers then got to work, shoveling the dry soil in.
"Mary, good you got rid of him," Fr Irudhayam whispered.

# # #

"Look at the horizon Mary, look far, far beyond"
The clouds cuddled the sea.
"The sea goddess will be with us soon"
Was she now, like Jesus walking on the waters?
"Let your thoughts not wander. And don't look back"

She was a bit desperate. Any goddess, any god was welcome now. The pandemic had shut down the Loop Road fish market and she had subsisted on the free bags of rice, some oil and borrowed dhal. Aunty Betty had given her some housework - swabbing, cleaning the stairs and watering the plants. And one hundred rupees for every effort.
 'Take home this curry too."
Mutton paya, cooked to perfection by Rakkiamma, her kuppam neighbour.

"The goddess is coming into you Mary"
But she was thinking of Aunty Betty.
"Is she with you Mary?"
"I think so"
"Listen to her now"

It was a December. She was at Aunty Betty's apartment - called to do some odd job. Colin, Aunty Betty's neighbour was busy in the kitchen.
"Mary, you have strong hands?"
She nodded and got to work under Colin's directions.
She had dipped her hands into a massive jar, and mashed kilos of grapes, squashing them along with all kinds of ingredients.
"What do you think it is?"
"You making jam, ayya?"
"Wine"
"For Christmas ayya? Will it be as strong as whiskey?"
"Come later, I will give you some."

# # #

"Listen to the goddess Mary..don't turn to the cathedral now"
She closed her eyes tight as  the lids squeezed out the tears.
That night, Mary slept deep.

# # #

"Antony kanna. Take the bottles in the bag and give them to Murugan-anna in Pattinapakkam. Don't ever talk to anybody or open the bag"
A strange fragrance filled the corners of Mary's little home hugging the Loop Road.  Stronger than the smell of karavadu being fried at her neighbours.
She pulled out the bed sheet and hung it firmly across the door. Teenagers had begun to peep in.
"Edavadu irrukka Mary-akka?"
Had the news got around?
It had.
"Romba joraa irukka business?"
The Pattinapakkam police constable patrolling the Loop Road had asked her one late evening. Mary knew trouble was lurking. She stopped her son from doing his daily trips to Pattinapakkam.

It has been a sleepless night. Mary washed herself, got into a fresh sari and stepped out. 
"Is Father Irudhayam in?"
"I think he is in his office"
She walked to the locked doors of Our Lady of Holy Rosary Church, said a quick prayer and headed to the church office, knocked on the door.
"Father it is Mary from Doomingkuppam"
"Come in Mary"
"Father I want to make my confession"
"What is the hurry Mary?"
"Please Father. . ."
She knelt down beside the priest's chair. It was over in a few minutes.
"The Lord has forgiven you Mary"
She got up.
"Is that Mary inside, Father Irudhayam?"
"Who is it?"
"Inspector Jeyaraj from Pattinapakkam, Father."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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