This month the life beyond doctors section gives you an engrossing fascinating short story written by our very own senior colleague Dr. Venkita. S. Suresh.
Dr. Venkita. S. Suresh has been a story teller since school days! This story is one among the twenty written for Times of India during 2016-18, in response to an interesting challenge.Each month a well-known author would give one line or paragraph as a 'seed' story line and invite the writers to spin out their own story. In this story the first three paragraphs were given as seed lines by the Times of India. The twenty stories were published in Amazon.Com as Stories for our times-tales of modern India.
A Perfect Storm
First thing she sensed when she surfaced from the depth of unconsciousness was that she was lying on the wet floor of the cabin. Eyes shut tight, reluctant to face the light, she let her aching body feel grateful to the yacht that was rocking, gently for a change. The waves seemed to have calmed after their fury the night before. The wind that howled all night was now silent. That silence however troubled her greatly. She knew that he was not on the boat.
She opened her bleary eyes when the cat, all seven pounds of squirming flesh, climbed onto her belly. Squinting into the sunlight streaming in from the open window, she discovered that she was now the weary possessor of a pounding headache, and at some point, had managed to lose both a tooth and a spouse.
The cat had been hiding all night, it was no sailor and this was his first sailing experience. She could feel him trembling, not just purring. It seemed to seek reassurance that all was well.
But she was in no position to offer that assurance, either to her cat or herself.
She remembered the previous evening when her man had quietly said’ I can feel in my bones a storm coming’. He was a seasoned sailor and knew his sea.
She was no sailor and was wary about being on a boat. But she was well read. She remembered Herman Melville’s Moby Dick which wrote that hardened sailors often felt a twinge of pain in their bones, broken several times battling storms during earlier expeditions, when a storm was coming. Their bones were a barometer that sensed the drop in atmospheric pressure that characterized the lull before a storm.
The summer weekend had begun with plans for a sailing expedition from Kochi, on a hired yacht, to explore the confluence of the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal at Kanya Kumari. Those were not the usual waters that casual sailors explored. But the captain of this one was of a different breed.
He was fresh from his week of rest, first in many months. He was in an adventurous mood.
But she was still reeling from the impact of a hectic week at the hospital where she was a pediatrician. She felt happy and safe with children. At home she was lonely and afraid because he was away for long periods. He was a sailor who rode the high seas of the world and had come home on vacation.
Outside of her hospital she never felt in control. She felt insecure, vulnerable, indecisive and weak.
When he was home, she wanted to be held closely and comforted. But, whether far or near, he was distant. He was attentive but not tender, considerate but not loving, smiling but not laughing and strong but not supportive.
Theirs was an ‘arranged’ marriage. Her parents had looked for a strong husband for a fragile daughter; she looked for a supportive one. A year had passed and she was still looking, and not finding.
The lull in their life had begun early. She felt it in her heart just as he felt it in his bones that a storm was coming into their life.
She had stepped onto the boat with several misgivings. But she had also hoped that they would come to know each other better.
She did not know a thing about boats but had a vague idea from the books she read that there were sails to be hoisted and flipped around, which she remembered was called tacking.
She hesitated to ask but at last gathered courage and inquired about how to sail a boat. She was pleasantly surprised to see a smile emerging on his face, a light flashing in his eyes and an eagerness in his gestures. She had never seen him so animated before. He embarked on a discourse and demonstration about controls on the boat that deployed the sails responding to the information coming on wind direction and speed to the on-board computer. Coming from the highly electronic world of giant modern freighters that ran complex operations with a minimum complement of crew, this boat was child’s play to him. The child doctor soon got the hang of it. What gladdened her even more was that she began to warm towards him and he also seemed to be thawing out of his freeze.
For the first time in her life she felt the exhilaration that comes from hearing, and feeling, the slapping of the waves against the hull that kept time with the wafts of invigorating salty air that hit her face. Her long, wavy, raven black hair began flying in the wind till he held them, and settled them down with a navy cap set at a jaunty angle. He also slipped a goggle on to her face to protect her eyes and slapped on her hands and face some sun protection cream. She laughed, which reminded him of bells ringing in the wind. He felt at home and she sensed his content.
‘Captain, you have the wheel’, he said and lounged, with a beer in hand.
She felt happy steering the boat in waters that were calm. She checked course, made the necessary adjustments, checked all other sailing parameters, reconfirmed her position with radio and satellite, and verified the status of her fuel. For the first time in her life she felt in control. She did not feel anymore insecure, vulnerable, indecisive and weak. She was in command.
She trimmed the settings, left the wheel on auto-pilot and turned towards her husband. Confident about her newly acquired sailing skills, he had drifted off to sleep, with a faint smile dancing on his face. She felt that she could learn to love this man.
She was glad she had come on this expedition much against her hesitation. She had relished standing shoulder to shoulder with him learning the ‘ropes’. When he had his arms around her to let her feel the minimum movements that were required to manipulate a power-steering, she felt warm, comforted and even loved. She felt, to paraphrase Eliza Doolittle in ‘My Fair Lady’ that she could have sailed all night.
It was when he woke up, noticed that she was holding the wheel steady in waters that seemed to be getting choppier, that he looked around and said ‘I can feel a storm coming up in my bones’. She instantly wished he was wrong. She wanted those idyllic moments to last forever.
But nature had its own mind, and its own plans for them.
Though it was summer the west coast and the southern tip of the country were vulnerable to dramatic changes in weather. On their present course they would be heading to Kanya Kumari, the site of confluence of three seas and related weather systems. He recalled hearing some mention in the news about a possible cyclone, Ockhi, in the area.
The sea was getting rough and the wind was building up. Sun light had dimmed and the sky was darkening.
She was not sure what lay ahead and what they should do. A landlubber like her would have thought the best course of action would be to head for the shore. She looked at him and he was unfazed. In fact, his eyes seemed to take on a greater sharpness and his body looked taut, like a boxer eager to get into the ring and slug it out. She decided to overcome the unease and be with him to give a hand.
Perversely complementing her on her new-found courage, sheets of rain materialized suddenly out of the dark skies and stingingly slapped her cheeks. She would have been drenched in seconds had he not pulled her into the cabin and pushed her into a brilliantly yellow waterproof overall which covered her from head to foot. He stepped swiftly into his kit too. Weather proof goggles were slapped on and he also expertly tethered them to the boat through life lines. Even if one was washed overboard it should be possible to pull oneself back in. Her swimming skills were strictly urban, acquired in placid pools, but it was good enough to stay afloat.
They were never this close at home. Kitting out while helping each other, strapping on gear while adjusting each other’s and knowing that their safety and survival depended on their cooperation generated a camaraderie hitherto unknown in their lives. Just as the life lines that held them to each other and the boat, bonds of trust began to hold them and bind them together.
The fury of the weather began to escalate by the minute and the boat began its battle of survival from the wayward elements of nature.
They shared the task and the challenge together and lost all track of time. All electronic systems on board that monitored the weather and communications failed, possibly from the enormous electrical disturbances from the thunder, lightning and the sheer violence of the wind. Rain fell torrentially, bringing visibility to just a few feet. They feared the boat would take on water and sink.
By now only manual controls responded to the steering as on-board power failed. But together they held on to the wheel and rode the waves. They became one with the boat and one with each other. There was no fear, no sorrow, and no regret. There was only a great exhilaration over their ability to ride the storm thus far.
Respect was clearly born and perhaps love was too. They were not sure what came first. But they indeed hoped that a future together lay ahead of the storm. For a brief moment they left the wheel, held hands together and then held each other tightly. It was only for an evanescent moment but it seemed like eternity.
The spell was rudely broken and then smashed by the vagary of nature. What happened next seemed like a tsunami.
The world stopped. The rain, the wind and the waves stopped for a few dizzying moments. The water level dropped by several meters as though some one pulled a plug on the ocean.
Then came the equally swift, but deadly, aftermath. The water level rose equally spectacularly and the height of each wave rose exponentially over the previous one.
They stayed together tightly, held the wheel and rode each wave, each successive one growing dizzyingly and dangerously taller. The boat rose to the crest each time and then crashed with a thud into the nadir. The thought flashed through their minds that this cannot go on forever. It took two to play this violent game but one would break at the end, and that will not be nature.
Then came the tallest wave they could ever imagine in their lives. It was an immense and sheer wall that seemed to fill the earth, the air and the sky, bloating out even the light, the rain and the wind. They held each other even tighter, held the wheel with the maximum power and courage they could muster and called the gods they knew from childhood to help. The boat rose vertically to the crest of giant wave but there was no way it could be ridden. It should have looped and fallen backwards, instantly drowning them and dragging them into the heart of the ocean. But it flipped at the top and crashed sideways. The last thing she remembered before losing consciousness was the breaking of the rope that held them together, and to the wheel, and she falling into the cabin through its smashed door and landing on her face.
When she woke and she and the cat stepped onto the deck, it was like waking from a terrible dream. The boat was bobbing on gentle waters, the sky was bright and warm, the wind was dead and there was not a drop of rain.
The mast and sails had been ripped off and the boat was drifting. She wondered where she was, there was no way to know, all instruments had failed last night.
‘Perhaps we are at Kanyakumari’ she spoke to herself. That was their intended destination. She dimly recalled the story told by her grandmother, about the teen age goddess who presided at the temple on the shore the sparkle of whose diamond nose ring acted as a beacon to direct sailors lost at sea to safety.
For a moment she prayed and then her new found sailor’s instinct took over. She was the captain of this boat and she recalled what he had said about the convention at sea- ‘The captain of the boat never abandons his crew; he may opt to go down with the boat than save himself’.
‘Watch what I am doing and meow if I am doing it right’ she told the cat.
She turned the instruments on. They all worked, charged by the solar battery, now fully operational after several hours in the sun.
The sails were beyond redemption. She looked for an out-board motor, the first one she ever touched in her life, and flipped the switch on. It coughed, spluttered and jumped to life.
‘Okay, now I have to find my crew’ she told herself. She knew that the monster wave that snapped their life lines had washed him overboard. But she also knew that he was a sailor, the sea was his natural element, he was well geared in a thermal all-weather suit, had an emergency bottle of water strapped to his side and was a survivor.
More than anything else, she knew he had a GPS on him.
She turned her on-board GPS on and began to track him. She guessed that he would turn the beacon on only intermittently to save power.
She patiently waited to pick up his signal, under the watchful eye of the approving cat.
When the GPS picked up the faintest of signals her heart jumped. She quickly verified the coordinates, fed that into the on-board computer. It plotted the course and she steered the boat by that.
Soon the signal became stronger and the beeps became louder; she knew she was closing in on him and that soon he would be found.
She missed him.
Like Professor Higgins who sang in ‘My Fair Lady’ she had got accustomed to his face over that memorable summer weekend.
Article by Dr. Venkita. S. Suresh
Group Medical Director