If life were a beach I'd wear cockle shells in my ear
I'd douse my hair in yesterday's leftover beer.
I'd love the smell of spiced pig blood
Every newcomer in my square foot of sandy paradise would be a long lost bud
I'd wake every morning wondering which crustacean to skewer
And go to bed dreaming about a pink and juicy porker.
This is the tale of Shushanto which took place in the winter of 2008. But before we meet him, we have a courtship, a wedding and a voyage.
As I fell hook, line and sinker for the artful poesy of a romance stolen from Woody Allen and Satyajit Ray involving country boats, rainy days, shared umbrellas and stolen moments under bright city lights, there was little that could stop the deal from being sealed.
And so a whirlwind followed and the events ended with a missus tag, a bag full of sunscreen and an air ticket to Port Blair and a raging appetite for something other than the rich Mughlai kebabs and curries that had dotted the week-long wedding festivities.
I had acquired the look of a half starved newlywed through a rigorous cud-chewing diet of salad leaves and boiled chicken in order to squeeze into my expensive wedding outfit tailored to perfection to a size I used to be three months before the wedding. Now that I had survived the endless photo ops without a major wardrobe malfunction...I was a woman on a mission.
A mission to make up for all those missed luncheons and dinners.
Knotted, be-ringed and otherwise tied to each other for what was to be presumably a long time, we set off to the Andamans with love in our hearts and a rumble in our bellies.
Our first port of call was Port Blair - a strait-laced administrative capital...a rocky non-beach...the dreaded home of the Cellular Jail, a pitstop serving toast, chicken sausages and tea.
I remember going on a long ferry ride. I remember the smell of cauliflowers which despite my fondness for the vegetable is a very rotten smell indeed. I remember the smell following me to the corners of that boat. I also remember the endless shades of blue as the sun glinted off the water. I remember a European girl with a very flat belly that she promptly decided to sun on the deck. I remember two very sullen newlyweds (not us!) and an American Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.
I remember arriving at the island that unlocked that perfect picture postcard which had been in my head since I was a youngling. I remember glimpses of white sands, a pair of elephants, red-roofed villas, coconut trees and a long menu of seafood specials. And I remember every detail of the first meal.
The sun shone benevolently. The bamboo curtains in front of our lovely gazebo style resort restaurant parted and we walked in, our bare feet slip sliding over the burnished wooden floor warmed by the balmy weather.
The meal ordered, we sipped on chilled coconut water and whetted our appetites which seem to have grown meaner and keener with the smell of the sea and could slash a poor crustacean to shreds with its sharp-edged fury.
And I remember my first meal. All these years later, the taste of that freshly grilled, gargantuan crab doused in garlic butter still makes me burst into a corny song:
You know I'm such a fool for you.
You got me wrapped around your finger, ah, ha, ha.
Do you have to let it linger? Do you have to, do you have to,
Do you have to let it linger?
Garlic buttered crab has truly lingered in my taste memory just like the Cranberries' song is a persistent earworm in my life. You could tap into some neuron and see the dark fantasies of my teeth closing over a tender, bright red claw or my hands pulverizing a belly full of sweet flesh.
We had all the conventional must-haves for any honeymoon.
There was the dappled sun, azure seas, sun dresses, glorious tans, canopied four poster beds, open-air luxurious showers, yellowfin tuna, wine at sunset and kisses by the moonlit sea.
We also had games.
We played scrabble on the beach and 'count the tentacle game' with our deep-fried whole baby octopus platter.
We had accidents and adventure.
We fell off our scooter on day two of our honeymoon after deciding to see the island like the other young and freewheeling sporty outdoorsy sorts. Thereafter the husband being too traumatized by the 'accident' decided to nurse his wounds in our lovely four poster with a book and his ipod, while I decided to continue on our scheduled activity for the day - 'kayaking for two'. With the first fledgling wings of adventure sprouting on my shoulders, I rowed my not-so-sturdy sea vessel into the ponderous roots of the mangrove-studded riverine canals.
After the first half hour entangled in acute embarrassment, I managed to steer into the widening rivulet, all the way out into the open seas. Buffeted by the salty air and carried by the gentle waves, I freed myself from my city sloth and pulled and pushed with my gravel-scraped palms into a wonderful ride over yellow coral beds.
We also had alcohol.
We drank a most exotic tropical cocktail. If there could be a drink that could act like a portal into a land of summer, spices and the ocean breeze, the starfruit martini would be it. This tiny drink without any frills or cocktail umbrellas packed a deadly punch with the muddled fruit, dollops of salt and lime and some sugar syrup and oodles of vodka/white rum. We rubbed the salt off the rim and watched the last rays of the setting sun getting distorted through the condensed glass.
We also made friends.
The man in question was a jolly Italian cook, who for some strange reason had chosen this spit of land to get marooned on (Four years ago, living on Havelock Island was akin to getting marooned. Dark patches of forest, erratic electricity, basic infrastructure, lots of fresh seafood formed the universe one inhabited and was definitely not for the fast-living city bred types).
The cook and his talented wife had started a lovely restaurant on stilts called Mahua, serving rustic Italian fare with seafood as its focus. It's the kind of place I dreamed of owning, the kind of life I wish I had, every time I found myself in a quaint beach cafe in any part of the world. Yet at the same time some part of me also secretly rejoiced that I would always have the glittering city lights to return to and this lovely place was rendered more beautiful by its temporariness.
We had a murder.
Two minutes after we met Shushanto and posed for a photo together, we ended up murdering him.
He was handsome after the green-blue fashion popular among his kind, dripping salt water and smelling of the sea. He struggled bravely trapped in the Italian man's vice-like grip in what he knew were about to be his last moments. There was an air of gravity and tragedy about him. And in a spurt of sentimentality we decided to name him, Shushanto, a perfectly peaceful name for a creature that grew more thoughtful and stiller as its end drew near.
We sealed the deal with the Italian and became the sea lobster's de facto executioners.
In order to honour him, we dressed for the occasion and ate a meal akin to the last supper. We were so deliriously well fed by Shushanto that we didn't mind if the punishment for our crimes led to an eternity in an underwater hell inside the belly of a giant green lobster.
We had a haunting.
In an odd twist of fate, we got lost after this meal and as the last twinkling light of the restaurant (which was a good 30 minute walk from our resort) disappeared, we found ourselves in utter darkness. We walked through damp undergrowth on that especially moonless night with all kinds of night creatures hooting around us and little crabs crawling across our flip-flopped toes in a spine chilling manner.
We were convinced it was Shushanto's revenge from the beyond and we laid our feet carefully on the ground in order to avoid stepping on his crab cousins. The husband sang some old silly ditty about farm animals (most of which we had eaten in the recent past) increasing the dread in my heart at the awareness of our growing ledger of sins.
We had a moment.
But just as I was about to take a dreadful vow of vegetarianism, we stumbled back on the path we knew. The gods had spoken. Shushanto was at peace and we were ready to fly back home with love in our hearts and our bellies full of optimism for the life ahead.