The light shone brilliantly, cutting across the storm-darkened night. He blinked at its intensity. The fisherman’s lantern!
It was a dark stormy night and the ocean was in turmoil.
Rain lashed at the tiny boat like a merciless executioner. The lone fisherman on the deck was drenched to the bone as he struggled to pull down the sails before the wind ripped them off.
“Perhaps we should have heeded the warning and stayed home.” Kumaraswamy told Mathai.
Mathai threw him a mocking glance. “Where is your sense of adventure?”
“You were never the practical one! If you had only listened to me we could have been home drinking hot gruel instead of battling for our lives on this damned boat in the middle of one of the worst storms of the decade!”
“Does this experience not thrill you? Do you not feel the excitement — the hot blood and the adrenaline coursing through your veins?”
“Do you never fear for your life?”
Mathai let out a loud laugh. Lightning struck as thunder-wielding clouds crashed head-on in the heavens above.
“I would rather die like a hero than live like a spineless craven!”
“It is a thin line between being brave and being reckless and stupid.”
“I don’t care!!”
It was this reckless and free spirit that had drawn Lakshmi to Mathai. The same happy-go-lucky, wild and irresponsible nature that had her entranced so much so that she was ready to forsake everything, the comforts of her house, her parents and the society.
Kumaraswamy was hurt. He was badly hurt. Lakshmi and Kumaraswamy had been on the verge of getting married before Mathai came back. For Lakshmi, there could be no one else after Mathai. She knew she could never love Kumaraswamy with the same innocence and purity as she loved Mathai.
She was on the shore, waiting for him to return, her eyes riveted on the restless ocean, scanning the endless waves for a tiny white boat that held her beloved. It was only for her sake that Kumaraswamy had agreed to accompany Mathai, knowing well that death was imminent.
Rain continued to slash at the boat, battering its already worn out hull. It was just a question of time before the boat capsized. Could they outlast the storm?
“What are you searching for? We are still a long way off from land.” Kumaraswamy shouted above the deafening roar of the ocean.
Mathai sneered at him. “You are an educated skeptic. A coward. Will you believe me if I tell you what I am looking for?” Hatred blazed from his eyes.
Kumaraswamy refused to be drawn into a quarrel. Neither could forgive the other for loving the same woman. The hatred was omnipresent, stalking them forever like death’s shadow.
“Tell me. If it does not sound like some wild story reeled off by that highly imaginative brain of yours, maybe I will believe you.”
“Then listen. I am looking for the fisherman’s lantern to guide me home.”
Kumaraswamy stared at him incredulously. “You believe in that cock and bull story of the fisherman’s soul holding out a lantern to guide lost sailors to safety? My dear Mathai, if we are to survive this night, we only have ourselves and our wits to rely on. Not some ghostly guide who exists in the imagination of superstitious fishermen!”
Mathai glared at him. “You don’t have faith. The coward that you are, you have only played in tame waters by the shore! I have called to the fisherman’s soul. He stands by true love. He will come. If my love for Lakshmi is undying, I will come out of this unscathed.”
Kumaraswamy winced. The barb had pricked him where it hurt most. Just as it had been intended. But nevertheless, he hoped for Lakshmi’s sake, that it would be true.
The waves had grown rougher. Lightning struck, briefly illuminating the wild seascape. Kumaraswamy rushed inside. Mathai stood where he was, still searching. “Don’t be a fool! Come in before you get struck by lightning!”
Mathai ignored him. The wind was howling a mournful dirge. The boat swayed in the swirling ocean, its rusty insides gradually giving in to the onslaught of the killer waves. Mathai stood on the rain battered deck, his stormy eyes searching desperately for the fisherman’s soul to guide him to his love.
The sails were ripped from their masts. The boat was adrift, at the mercy of the marauding sea. Hope of survival was bleak indeed. Even that bleak hope ebbed as minutes ticked past.
“He will come. He will come…” Mathai murmured. His voice had gone hoarse. The cold had driven him close to unconsciousness and he was already half-dead when the lightning struck him.
Kumaraswamy ran and pulled the unconscious Mathai to the relative safety of the bunker. He stared at Mathai’s white face. “You fool!” He cried “To think Lakshmi had fallen in love with a complete fool like you! If it were not for her, I would let you die. But I cannot bear to see her tears.”
Kumaraswamy’s face was contorted in sorrow. He had always known that his love was unrequited but never had it caused so much pain. He wrapped Mathai in a blanket and went to the steering wheel. He would save Mathai or he would die trying.
Kumaraswamy tussled with the steering wheel. The salt water sprayed across his face and mouth, blinding him, burning his tongue with its acid taste. The gale lashed out against him, flattening him against the already rickety sides of the boat. Kumaraswamy struggled to keep his consciousness and his balance.
The boat was beginning to break. Kumaraswamy stood on the deck, his body limp with defeat, his tired eyes staring at the endless waves in despair. He would never be able to keep his promise to her.
They were predestined to die deep in the middle of the ocean — their strong mahogany bodies torn apart by hungry sharks and scavenging sea gulls. Lakshmi — dear Lakshmi fated to wither away on the shore, waiting for her Mathai.
The ocean swirled like a mad woman thirsting for blood. Waves leaped out like sparks from an icy fire that raged and ravaged. Kumaraswamy stared despairingly at the watery grave that loomed large before him.
The light shone brilliantly, cutting across the storm-darkened night. He blinked at its intensity. The fisherman’s lantern! The hairs at the back of his neck stood straight, and Kumaraswamy could feel a supernatural presence guiding him. He renewed his frantic efforts.
Fortunately, the wind was pushing him towards the light. He rowed with all his strength, unmindful of the pain that seared through his arms. He followed the light, struggling to keep his fading consciousness.
The boat bobbed up and down the troubled waves, guided by the light of the lantern. Suddenly, the oars struck sand.
Kumaraswamy let the oars fall from his tired hands. He said a short prayer of thanks just before he collapsed from sheer exhaustion and fatigue. The torrid sea gradually grew calm and the darkness slowly but surely gave way to the first rays of the Sun.
The boat was spotted by a couple of villagers who rescued its unconscious occupants. Both Kumaraswamy and Mathai survived the ordeal.
But Lakshmi who had spent the night by the sea, holding out a lantern to guide her beloved to land, died from Pneumonia.
This short story was first published in Meghdutam.com (between 1999 to 2002).
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