I screamed just before I hit the water. Then tore its surface with a loud clap. The water crawled up my nose and stung me with the ferocity of a dozen angry bees. Blinded by the white of a hundred, thousand bubbles, I flailed my arms and legs in a grotesque dance. GULP! GULP! GULP! Was I drinking the water, or was it drinking me? I continued to sink, the orb that was the sun growing paler, the water calmer. Then at one point, in one brilliant speck of a second, we froze – the water and I. The fuzzy blob that was the sun turned white, the water became silk and I, fluid.
At the age of four, I discovered a singular joy when my mother pushed me into a swimming pool - the joy of weightlessness. Thereafter, I spent many, many summers in the pool until chlorine bleached my eyes red and the water wrinkled my skin. Then one day, summers grew cold.
“…a seizure while swimming could prove fatal.”
When I was diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of sixteen, summers changed forever. Change did not that memory though of my first tryst with water, not built like a wisp that would waft into my conscious every now and then, no, but made of flesh and blood and muscles and bone, as real a part of me as my limbs. Every time life would throw me into waters too deep, I reminded myself - the sun is weakened but not gone.
In ten years I never once stepped into water, made the land my playground instead. I ran marathons now, did a week-long high-altitude trek in the Himalayas too. Yet nothing could beat that silken embrace of water. I ruminated, it had been two years since I had a seizure, maybe now was the time to pursue that dream I adopted long back.
A fortnight before my 26th birthday, I stood on a beach in Pondicherry staring at waves that appeared timid. It was reassuring. I had only swum in a pool before. I can take this on with ease. I ran into the waters, my surfboard trailing behind me, and collided into the joy I had last felt a decade before. Weightlessness, of not just my physical being. My thoughts, my anxiety, my problems, my fears all completely spent in a moment leaving me utterly, abysmally broke yet richer than I had ever been. Oh, how I had missed my old friend!
The first few times the water birthed waves, Juan, my instructor, gave my surfboard a push. All I had to do was to jump on it the moment he yelled - “Now Trish, NOW!” It was almost like learning to ride a bicycle. Once the wave waned after pushing me as far as it could, if I did not fall i.e., I would swim my way back and start all over again.
“You did good!”
I nodded, breath clogging my words. I had swum back to Juan for the fourth time in twenty minutes. Another wave was rearing its head behind us. I got on the surfboard promptly.
He was swimming away from me. “You’re a big girl, you can do it on your own now,” he said.
I was not expecting the training wheels to come off so early. It was like being pushed down a slope on a bicycle only moments after learning to ride one. I could feel the water swelling behind me.
“Trish, paddle! PADDLE! PAD-DAL!”
I started paddling as hard as I could with muscles that by now had transformed into spaghetti. But adrenaline cuts spaghetti better than scissors do paper. So I paddled my dead arms like I was being chased by a shark and jumped on my surfboard when I thought the moment was right.
For a brief moment, the fisherman’s village stood erect in my view, then started tilting to my right as I fell, cut through lukewarm waters, gulp, gulp, gulp and rammed face-first onto the sandy bed of the Bay of Bengal. My mouth hit a sharp edge, of what I am not sure for the water was muddy the shade of brown of Irani chai. Several volts of pain frisked me with a singular violence and pried my mouth open. The chai tasted like dirt smothered in caffeine. It had barely reached my tonsils when the surfboard slammed onto the back of my head and pushed my face into the dirt. The water gulped my scream. I was now being dragged backwards by the surfboard, tied to my left ankle with the leash, as it followed the path of the current, chai swirling in my face, heart palpitating.
“…just don’t get yourself killed,” my neurologist had told me.
Nothing lasts forever though, not even choppy waters. The current drained, the bullying stopped. I swam to the top, dragged my surfboard, now floating behind me, and rested my arms on it. The air tasted sweet. I took long drags off it with lips already swollen to twice their size.
Surfing wounds deep.
On day two, I ripped a huge chunk of my elbow, the scar from which I still bear and always will. By day three, I had lost two toenails and as many kilograms of weight. By day four, my lips had swollen enough to land me the role of an extra in the vaanar sena in Jai Hanuman.
But surfing also lifts. I could ride a wave now, slice the air as the water pushed me forward, just as time had life.
My wounds still raw, my last day in Pondicherry arrived. I put on my swimsuit and slathered my face with zinc one last time, my body aching, my heart even more. Forty minutes in and several waves later, I sat on my surfboard and let the wave cradle me, Juan and half a dozen other surfers for company, the village behind us. We all sat on our surfboards, waiting for a good wave. The water shimmered in the sunlight like a foil of aluminum, stretched out as far as we could see. We waited like two strangers waiting for the other to speak.
The waters spoke first; rose through the calm not a wave but a fin 50 metres away from us. The fin of a dolphin, two dolphins, three. One after another, just like the waves.
And then I felt it, a searing heat deep inside my stomach that radiated to the rest of me. That one thing that had evaded me for many years, that one thing I had desperately sought in moments both big and small. Often it fled before a moment could exhale. Yet one had prevailed, nestled itself so deep in the folds of my brain that no matter how many times life attempted to slip past it, it caught up. That thing I felt, the summer sun inside me, that thing you and I call happines.