by Ashwin Mudigonda
So much time had passed since History had crossed its arms behind itself and strolled through the island of Pleasant Nagar that few of its denizens even knew how Theru Street got its name. In the early 1700s when the inchoate city of Madras was still trying to find its identity, the marauding French found the island lush with banyan and coconut trees a comfortable retreat, and established a garrison there. Just as quickly as it had become a naval outpost it was abandoned, but the French officers took a liking for the island and adopted it.
Soon, a township grew with neat perpendicular streets, covered drains, shady boulevards, and perfumed gardens inside walls laced with rani pink bougainvillea flowers. Bungalows were constructed with local masons and bricklayers. Imported builders arranged Tamilian and French styles into architectural marriages, giving rise to a uniquely Indo-French style. The houses were storied and box shaped. They were painted bright, tropical colors. The many windows resembled little islands as they floated in a sea of yellow or orange, encased by white whitewashed pillars in the corners. The street names were mostly French: Rue de le marine, Rue du bazar, Rue petit canal, but sometimes they assumed a distinctively Madras flavor: Rue Vinayakar Covil.
As Time ploughed the lazy sands of (the yet to be named) Pleasant Nagar, the island underwent dramatic changes, first becoming a British naval lookout as the French were routed and forced to move their neat streets and villas down the coast to Pondicherry. Then it turned into a British retirement colony, and later served as the home for the officers of nascent Indian government’s navy, before finally becoming a part of Madras.
Long dead French and British architects would cry if they knew that their centuries-old buildings were slaughtered to make space for flats and independent houses, schools and the one tennis court, department stores and temples. In an eye blink of history, the island morphed, the only remaining vestiges of its French heritage relegated to a local British joke – ‘The rue street’ – which, over time, became Theru Street, which made scant sense to the English and Tamil speaking locals as theru in Tamil translated to street. While a few senior denizens clung fiercely to the fact that the name actually was a bastardization of Theroux Street, many preferred the more humorous British explanation, and sometimes referred to it as ‘street street’.
Theru Street perched on a remote bend of the Pleasant Nagar, far from the hustle and bustle of the street markets, temples, and schools, and closer to the sparkling waters of the Bay of Bengal. The scores of once-French houses had been whittled down to the three fossils that still stood on the sepulchral street lined with gulmohar trees. All were mere shadows of their vibrant selves from centuries ago. The paint had peeled and had birthed vines, the whitewash was all dirtied, the central open courtyard filled with weeds, and the delicate arches along the elegant doorways chipped and frayed. Two of the houses were so gone that stray dogs roamed amongst the ruins, urinating on the walls, and peripatetic cows and goats grazed on the overgrown shrubs around the villas. In spite of their decrepitude, they maintained a regal air about them. A distinctive, exotic foreignness oozed from their walls and enveloped the casual morning jogger or evening stroller in an awe-filled embrace, smothering them with the promise of ancient stories, many of which had slipped into the sea.
Of the three houses, two were locked and abandoned. Piles of partially chewed mail, many with French postage stamps lay strewn in front of them. No one knew their owners, but people somewhere held the keys to these properties, and the talk on the island was that these were crafty Parsis who lived in the heart of Bombay, waiting with a vulturine patience for the eventual real estate boom to tsunami over Madras before they would sell the property.
The last home on Theru Street held, besides an old mother and her son, tales of forbidden affairs, illegitimate children, betrayal, a lifetime of waiting for love to return and reclaim what it abandoned, and a vivacious rosebush in the courtyard that sprang the reddest roses on the island almost as a consolation for the tragedy that lived within the cracked walls.
For someone whose veins coursed with Anglo-Indian blood, Nicholas didn’t look any different from his fellow islanders. He was in his late forties, completely bald in the middle, and had sallow coffee decoction-colored skin. If there was something that gave away his mongrel lineage, it was his aquiline nose, the likes of which were never seen elsewhere in the city. Watching Nicholas shuffle by with his stooped shoulders, vacant stare and his flopping leather chappals made everyone wonder what other burdens weighed down on his weakly frame.
Unlike most gents, Nicholas had no qualms being spotted at the Pleasant Wines bar and liquor store. He drank there in full view, unlike the other men who huddled inside the dingy tube-lit rat hole of a bar. He sat there, one leg thrown over the other, sipping on a peg of whiskey while smoking a cigarette, looking out of place in his well-tailored clothes and clean shaven face amongst the hoi polloi consisting of fishermen, rickshaw pullers, istri men, watchmen, bus conductors, and other working class poor. There was some latent draw around him, and this was evident in the way the owner of Pleasant Wines fawned around him, offering a glass of Blender’s Pride by first lowering his lungi and bending at the waist. On some nights he even fetched his dinner from Ponnusamy’s Military Mess. The few people who knew Nicholas swore that they had never seen him anywhere else except at his spot in the liquor store: in the corner, atop a blue plastic stool, staring into the sea and smoking. If anyone bothered to acknowledge him, he nodded politely and smiled, but he kept his distance otherwise.
His mother, Elizabeth, was a lady of the night.
She slept in fits during the day, but at dusk she woke up, brushed her frazzled shock of white hair, smeared a generous finger-thick line of kohl around her sunken eyes, and applied a garish red lipstick on her ancient face. She then donned a pair of men’s trousers, an old shirt, and spent a good half an hour applying Kiwi black polish to a pair of antique leather shoes. Once she put those on and after carefully pinning a fresh cut red rose, she would leave home, announcing, “I’m leaving. Wait. Don’t wait. What do I care? I’m gone.”
She walked down Theru Street, humming a tune with the crickets and the sea. On some nights she would clang on the doors, and say, “Hello? It’s me, Lisa. Has Captain James returned?” And on those occasions, the people indoors would turn off their lights, and huddle together, whispering, “She has come. Oh Narayana! Give me strength,” and would recite the gayathri mantra under their breaths.
She loafed the streets with merry abandon, and no one tried to stop her. Once, a group of concerned people got together and, headed by Mr. Venkatraman, made a complaint to inspector Vijaykanth at the police station. The inspector promised swift action, and accosted Elizabeth that very night. She babbled about ghost ships and buried treasures, about her long lost English lover, James. The good inspector made a curt nod at his constables who gingerly coaxed the madwoman into their jeep. The islanders breathed a sigh of relief on hearing that Elizabeth had been committed to the Kilpauk Mental Asylum miles away on the mainland. But their joys were short lived, for within a week, during which time no one saw Nicholas at his usual perch, she was back prowling the streets of Pleasant Nagar at night. And when Mr. Venkatraman stormed the inspector’s office, and demanded an explanation, the latter merely shook his head, and said, “I’m sorry, Venkat, but this is now beyond my power.”
“But there must be something you can do?”
The inspector shrugged and said. “In fact, my boys and I must offer my full protection to Elizabeth henceforth at nights.”
Since that incident, the people kept their distance from Mad Elizabeth, as she came to be known, and her reticent son, Nicholas. Many said that unspeakable acts had happened in their family for the two to be reduced to such terrifying entities. Few even slandered that the duo indulged in tantric practices and unholy unions as they pointed and whispered when Nicholas led a goat or carried chickens to the house once every few months. And so the pair lived in a state of quasi equilibrium. One, laconic and brooding, almost biding for an ominous time to present itself to launch a sinister ploy, and the other, a madmother possessed and tormented by the ghost of a long dead English lover, and now imbued with police protection. Everyone wanted Mad Elizabeth to just die and leave them alone.
Especially, Nicholas, who just wanted her to die and leave him the villa.
When Captain James left the wharf, it was a clear and sunny day with not a fluff of a cloud anywhere along the blue seas. Elizabeth, then young and comely in a chiffon sari, and brimming with his love, bid him a tearful goodbye. Against the tooting of the steamer’s horn and the ribald cheers of the seamen, the young British captain caught his Indian lover by her waist, and kissed her for a long time. “I must leave us now, my love,” he said, and promised to return within a month, two at the most if his deployment to Burma kept him longer. He crossed his heart and swore to die if he didn’t write Elizabeth a letter every night, and ship them all weekly by the mail boat. In return, Elizabeth plucked the red rose from her jasmine-scented hair and offered it to her sweetheart with a promise to wait on the island for his return.
The love-ridden captain did manage to find the time to write that night on the boat. He pulled out his paper, quill and bottle of ink, and put down, ‘My dearest Eli,’ when the first mate let loose a feral yell before his voice turned into burbles. What transpired after that was never known, for in those days communication happened at the speed of radio waves and required two warm bodies to be on either side of the radio. And seconds after the first mate had disappeared, so had everyone else.
Many leagues away, inside ochre painted walls, across the open central courtyard with a rosebush bursting with pink, through the laced curtains, inside the sandal-perfumed bedchamber, over the haunting whispers of the sea, Elizabeth woke up with a scream, and felt Nicholas take seed inside her.
It was unlike falling in love.
Months turned and yielded years, and the gossamer threads of once-love inside Elizabeth rotted and fell, and from that compost arose another form of love: mania. She began to spend hours locked inside the little side room that was attached to the bedroom where all of James’ scant possessions had been stashed away. Maids and ayahs took care of little Nicholas as she caressed the one framed photo, and on some days put a garland of freshly plucked flowers across the frame and vermilion dot on his pale forehead. On other nights as her young son dined alone to the nocturnal rhythms of the sea, she wiped the frame clean and spritzed it with Eau de Cologne and tried to fashion a necktie around it. Captain James, who was either long dead, or had long forgotten his Indian lover, stealthily removed himself from her dreams and began to appear around her whenever he pleased.
When she saw him for the first time, she screamed and hugged him. She planted kisses all over his supple cheeks and tore at his khaki shirt. After the moment had passed she found herself kissing a lamppost and strips of a film poster in her hands. A mother protectively placed a hand around her daughter, crossed the street, and hurried away, throwing furtive glances at Elizabeth.
But she was convinced that James had indeed appeared before her. She stayed up all day, pacing her room like a caged circus lioness. When Nicholas came home from college, she pounced at him with fiery eyes and whispered, “He’s back, Nicky. Your papa has come back.”
In that moment as he felt a superhuman strength clutch his white shirt and almost raise him off the ground, fifteen year-old Nicholas realized that the whispers on the street about his mother being mad were more than rumors. “Ma, let me go,” he whimpered.
Elizabeth let go of his shirt, and transferred its creases onto her face. “Believe. Don’t believe. What do I care?” she said and dashed into the bedroom. “I must dress up for him. He always found me dashing in his clothes.”
Nicholas heard the sounds of the old tin trunk being open and shut, and hangers being moved about. He silently stepped out of the house and locked it shut. He walked towards the rocky beach in front of Theru Street, and for the first time craved a cigarette.
If there was one person on the island who knew Mad Elizabeth’s story in detail, it was Periyasamy, the lighthouse keeper. Pleasant Nagar’s lighthouse was not as grand as the one on Marina Beach, a few miles up the coast. It was a little parting gift from the British, a red and white striped cylindrical structure with a panoramic glass top inside which spun a giant flashlight. In spite of its diminutive size it was a godsend for the fishermen who inhabited the southern part of the island. They used it daily as a beacon to navigate the waters around dusk.
Periyasamy’s duties weren’t too many. He had to visit the lighthouse once weekly, unlock the main door, climb up the five flights of stairs, open the light room, ensure that the bulb and the swivel motor were operational, and wipe down the glass panes around the room. If he felt like it, on some days, he would take a broom and work his way down the stairs, removing cobwebs and shooing the occasional trapped bird. On most days, he was content to stand near the rusted railing, and smoke a pack of beedis, happy to get away from the torment of familial life and be one with the sea.
It was one such occasion when he had overstayed his normal couple of hours of duty that he heard the slow footsteps approaching him in the dark. He twirled the knob on his kerosene lamp and brightened the flame. “Who’s there?” he asked.
“It’s me only,” Elizabeth said in a soft voice that echoed through the lighthouse. “I’m looking for James.”
When he saw Elizabeth, he gasped, and quickly regained his composure. He had heard rumors of Mad Elizabeth, but it was another thing to lay eyes on the disheveled banshee. He smiled, and acknowledged her for who she was: a living ghost unable to break the fetters of memories, condemned to relive the painful moments until her last breath.
“Come,” he said. “Welcome to my humble abode. Please make yourself comfortable.”
Elizabeth approached the old man, placing one careful footstep at a time. From the ground, through the mists of the night, it was as if she was about to devour him. The few that walked the street along the lighthouse crossed themselves whether or not they were Christians in the hope he would send succor to the trapped lighthouse keeper. But Periyasamy, having faced the wrath of his wife over a lifetime was immune to all known fears. “I’ll give you some kaapi,” he said and fetched his thermos flask.
Elizabeth clutched the chipped porcelain cup with both her hands and drank the stale, lukewarm coffee.
“Amma,” Periyasamy said. “What’s your trouble? Why are you here?”
She stood silent for a long time, her gaze distant and limpid. The old keeper lit a beedi and took a drag. After a while, she said, “The last time I saw James was from this spot. I waved, and he waved back.” She pointed into the darkness at the calm sea. “He went there many years ago.” She turned and stared at Periyasamy. Now a smile crept on her face and inched towards her ears. Her yellowed teeth bloomed. She scratched her hair, and she said, “But he’s back now. He visits me some nights.” Now, a pained expression flooded her face. “You believe me, no?”
Periyasamy quickly nodded his head in assent. Minutes later, lights flashed as a police jeep pulled up next to the lighthouse. A couple of constables and inspector Vijaykanth dashed up the stairs, their police boots clip clopping. The inspector was out of breath when he emerged out from the door. “Everything alright?” he asked Periyasamy, casting a careful eye at Elizabeth.
“Aiyah,” Periyasamy said, bringing his palms together. “Yes, yes. We were only chatting.”
Elizabeth grinned. Then she pointed at the inspector. “James said there was treasure in the sea.” She stretched her arms far apart. “Lots of gold and jewelry. He said that I could have it all.”
Inspector Vijaykanth cleared his throat. “Madam, this way.” He stepped aside and pointed his baton towards the door. He nodded at Periyasamy who fumbled ahead with his kerosene lamp and beckoned Elizabeth to leave.
As they were about to leave the inspector took aside Periyasamy and whispered, “Use the siren if there is trouble. Understood-aa?”
The lighthouse keeper bobbled his head and bowed.
Over the years, Periyasamy dealt with Mad Elizabeth’s visits by letting her ramble about Captain James’ final words and kisses. Sometimes she kissed the glass pane, mumbling, ‘I must leave us, my love,’ and on those evenings Periyasamy had to wipe the glass with a bucket of water and soap. On other nights, she raved about his favorite dishes or how he loved her paan-red lips and kohl-lined eyes, but mainly, about his sunken treasure and its contents. She morphed from a wide-eyed madwoman into a pondering philosopher as she gazed at the sea, and mumbled, “Right there, Periyasamy, where the breakers always froth the most, right there is where the treasure ship is buried.”
Periyasamy would nod, and say, “Hmm,” egging her on, hearing, but not listening to her, his mind numbed by the swishing waters, the flashing lighthouse and the lightheaded vapors of his beedi.
When she had run out of words, she sat on the concrete and wept, rocking back and forth, muttering, “Take me with you, James.” In those times, Periyasamy cleared his throat and walked around the perimeter of the landing, checking for invisible fractures. When he returned to the front, the phantasm was inevitably gone.
The residents of Pleasant Nagar generally avoided Mad Elizabeth. If they saw her coming down the street, they quickly ducked into an alley and walked another way. Kids on bicycles made a U-turn and sped away. If they didn’t, she would race after them with inhuman speed, catch them and ask them if they knew the way to the harbor and what time the ship from Burma was to arrive. Many children were left scarred after these incidents, and taught newcomers with bicycles to immediately go the other direction at the sight of Mad Elizabeth, even if it meant biking right into the sea.
Like this, she floated through life, softly terrorizing the denizens of Pleasant Nagar during the evenings and nights before returning, vampire-like, to her villa on Theru Street, and then passing out in the cluttered bedroom to the chatter of sparrows and the cries of the fishermen as they oared into the Bay of Bengal. Nicholas arranged for her afternoon meals to be delivered from Ponnusamy’s Military Mess. The delivery boy merely placed the parcel at the doorstep and bolted for his life.
Upon returning home from a trip to the mainland one morning, when Nicholas found three unopened food parcels on the doorstep, he realized that his mother’s reign of terror had come to a quiet end. He lit a cigarette and pondered his next set of actions.
Elizabeth was buried in a corner of the St. Thomas church’s cemetery overlooking the sea. The people of Pleasant Nagar collectively heaved a sigh of relief when the ferryman informed some of them that he had seen Nicholas leave the island with a couple of trunks and suitcases. To many, the ordeal was over. No one knew what had happened to the house on Theru Street, but some people speculated that Nicholas was always waiting for his mother to die so that he could inherit the house, and then turn around and sell it, for the property was worth many lakhs given its acreage and its seaside location.
Other people with relatives in Pondicherry said that the French government was terrified at the thought of these ancient and rare houses being razed and converted into ugly flats, and was paying the owners many thousands of rupees per month to leave them as they were. There might have been some element of truth to this as, a few months later, people noticed that Mad Elizabeth’s house sported a fresh coat of paint and whitewash, the hedges trimmed, and the windowpanes fixed.
Very soon the people of Pleasant Nagar wove the tale of the odd mother and son into their own lives in their own ways. “Eat your food or Mad Elizabeth will come screeching and take you away into the night sea,” young mothers said as they tried to feed their children boluses of rice. Teenage boys would sometimes dare each other to stay until midnight on a full moon’s night outside the house on Theru Street because they wanted to believe that something more sinister used to inhabit the house, something more malevolent and terrifying than a simple case of a shattered heart. Many secret lovers used the villa as a shrine for their budding love, unable to think of any other monument to give them strength in their furtive and uncertain affairs. They were told to place a red rose and pray outside the house, but they found it hard pressed to procure a single rose as red or as redolent as the ones that blossomed inside the courtyard.
If anyone on the island rued her loss, it was Periyasamy. Only he understood that somewhere inside the thicket of the madwoman’s fierceness was a heartbroken girl yearning for her abandoned lover. He would light a beedi, and say, “May peace finally be with you,” and smoke it as if it were an offering to her spirit.
With Nicholas gone, Periyasamy was the only one with any tenuous connection to the house on Theru Street. When asked, he would tell people stories of the madwoman, of her nightly sojourns to the lighthouse, of her laments and the way she cooed English nursery rhymes on the landing. Some residents liked to take their guests to the lighthouse and ask Periyasamy to narrate his experiences, especially, the part about the treasure.
Periyasamy would guffaw and say, “Aaah! Madam would point to that spot.” He’d lean across the iron railing and point in the direction. “You see where the waves start foaming…there…aah…yes there only…right there she said a ship was sunken with lots of treasure.” He held his arms wide to show the astounded, and sometimes terrified, visitor the extent of the wealth. “Jars of gold, diamonds, and other items. She would always say, ‘Believe. Don’t believe. What do I care?’” With wide eyes he would then add, “Ship had four tall sticks.” He would then gesture his best to explain masts. “And eight holes on either side.”
“For what?” the curious story listener would ask.
Periyasamy would fashion a gun with his fingers. “For large tuppakis,” he’d say, trying to describe cannons.
With a shudder the people would leave the lighthouse, eagerly chattering down the stairs. Someone would ask at times, “Can we go see the house?” Periyasamy would shake his head and sigh, sad at what a sideshow spectacle Mad Elizabeth had become.
One night many years later, when the sea gradually retreated before rushing back into the island and destroying all of the fishermen’s huts and other tenements, and dozens of people went missing forever and many were drowned, when the word tsunami entered and was instantly absorbed into the local dialect, at a precise moment between the heaving of the ocean and its merciless exhalation, Periysamy’s heart leapt to his mouth at the sight of a shipwreck on the shallow shore, a ship with four masts and eight cannon holes on either side.
Editor’s Note on She Whom the Sea Beckoned:
She Whom the Sea Beckoned is not Ashwin Mudiginda’s first work to appear in Eastlit. His previous published pieces are:
- Monkey Business appeared in Eastlit December 2012.
Ashwin Mudigonda’s Eastlit interview appeared in Eastlit in March 2015.