Yoga woke up from her uneasy slumber with a scream. Or she thought she’d screamed loud but when she peered about, no one stirred around her. She shivered a little, feeling goose bumps on her bare arms and realising that in the night, her blanket had partly slithered off her bed and she was covered only with the flannelette top sheet. She bent over and gathered and rearranged the thick woollen cover over her.
For just a few seconds, Yoga believed that she was back home in Sri Lanka but then she understood she wasn’t. Four days ago their ramshackle fishing boat ‘Kumudu Kumari’ ran out of fuel and foundered in the middle of nowhere but an Australian Customs aerial patrol had traced them and a passing merchant ship had towed them to dry land. They’d assumed they’d reached Australia only to discover later that they’d just made it to a place called Cocos Islands, just half way to the destination they’d aimed for.
Daylight, still muted and greyish sneaked in through the gaps between the walls and the curtains. The morning bell hadn’t buzzed throughout the makeshift dorm, so Yoga knew it wasn’t yet time to get up.
Wiping her moist eyes with her thumb and index finger, Yoga recalled the dreams that she’d experienced since landing. They were so similar that she felt that as she slept, a re-play button had been pressed somewhere in her psyche. The sea had been tranquil and aquamarine to begin with, playfully touching the powder blue skies which soothed her weary mind. She’d been on a beach with gleaming sugar-fine sand, tugging her little boy Sathyan’s hand and Krishnan drawing stars on the sand with his big toe, smiling at her side. Then, everything blurred and she was in the middle of a crazed ocean of frothy dark teal hue with waves the size of the palmyrah trees in their backyard in Keerimalai. Then a sudden darkness ensued, sucking out the vibrant azure from the liquid, rendering it a muddy russet which brought her to the end of her vision where she howled and quivered and she grasped she was all alone.
Shifting on her side, Yoga stretched her hand and fingered the lime washed wall as if to make sure it was there. Tears soaked in to her pillow and she suppressed a sniffle as she didn’t want to wake the other four women and two children still asleep on the bunk beds around her.
Krishnan was gone and so had five other men. Yet, the tiniest sliver of hope still twisted and turned inside Yoga that the miracle she prayed for from Lord Ganesha would be granted and they’d be together again. The day after their vessel was hauled ashore, immigration officials had interviewed the travellers to try to identity the missing men and to figure out what had happened.
“Please sir, I beg you. I beg you to find my husband, he’s all I have in this world now,” Yoga had implored the officers, sobbing.
“Well, patrol aircraft are continuing their search-and-rescue operation for your husband and the others who were lost,” assured the officer through the Tamil interpreter and nudged a box of tissues towards her.
After the morning roll call and breakfast, all the passengers who arrived from the disabled ‘Kumudu Kumari’ – fifty-six men, women and children were told that they would be flown to a nearby location named Christmas Island that afternoon where in time their claims for asylum would be assessed.
Yoga’s head hurt and she wandered outside the temporary detention centre’s compound to breathe in the crisp air. She sat on her haunches and fleetingly appreciated the contact of her feet on dry land. Faraway, through a dense criss-cross outline of coconut palms, she caught a glimpse of blue coastline which reminded her of the view from the village she’d left behind in the north of Sri Lanka.
A group of children played hopscotch close by – perhaps they’d already put their distressing marine mission behind them, reasoned Yoga. A little girl danced around with her hands waving around, singing a few notes of ‘Chrismas Maram’ − ‘O Christmas Tree.’ On and off, she changed the words of the song to include that there’d be coloured crepe paper hanging all over and goodies under the pine trees at their soon to be home on Christmas Island. Yoga’s eyes moistened as she thought of her son Sathyan and she bit her lower lip hard and glanced away.
Six years ago, while returning from school just around the corner from their home, ten year old Sathyan had gone missing. However much Krishnan and Yoga looked for him and however many times they threw themselves on the floor of Naguleswaram temple, pleading to Lord Siva for their son’s return, that hadn’t happened.
Yoga pictured Sathyan mucking about with his neighbourhood friends, laughing and ‘shooting’ at a mate playing the role of an army soldier. Emulating a Tamil Tiger, he jumped out of an olive tree, brandishing two sticks tied together and aped machine gun fire…
It was said that the war was over but all Yoga and Krishnan felt was unbearable emptiness. The land their people had lived in for hundreds of years hadn’t felt like theirs for ages.
Then, Krishnan’s cousin Velu had suggested that they sell their belongings – an old sail-powered catamaran, their run down ancestral home and Yoga’s gold jewellery to fund the passage to Australia. He encouraged them to kick off afresh in what he called a beautiful country and a land of plenty. They were still young enough to perhaps have another child. Not that Velu suggested that their beloved Sathyan could be replaced but another may alleviate their heartache a little, he’d expressed.
The plan to escape had been shrouded in silence and hatched with severe wiliness. Velu knew people who knew other people who were masters at smuggling persons to different parts of the world. Sometimes it was plainly by air with fake identity documents, at times in barely seaworthy craft or on occasion a mish mash of bus and air travel, train trips and congested shipping container all thrown in together.
Money had exchanged hands through Velu and up the chain of accomplices and the couple was instructed to make their way to the small port of Negombo on the west coast. Then in the wee hours of a Friday morning under the hushed streaks of daylight and a waning moon still suspended in the sky like a wedge of pale honey dew melon, the fishing vessel had set sail in to the vast indigo surge of the Indian Ocean.
In spite of having grown up in a coastal village, Yoga and Krishnan had been petrified and ill at the beginning of the voyage. Many including them were often nauseous and in a boat that ferociously rocked to and fro, it was not always possible to throw up outside the vessel. Gusts of blustery brackish breeze drew out the sting of the day’s heat but also whirled around the lingering odour of human waste.
On the first couple of days, they received some bread or plain coconut roti as food. Later, there were carrots or raw eggs and then later still tinned mackerel or vegetables. There was a small gas stove inside the cramped cabin but apparently it was faulty and the crew were not able to boil any rice or warm any food on it.
As the days rolled along, people seemed ashen and disoriented, frequently constipated or suffering from diarrhoea. In a corner of the cabin were old aluminium buckets which were utilised as crude lavatories which the passengers had to take turns in emptying and washing down several times a day.
Some mumbled a few words occasionally to one another but most of the time the travellers gazed out vacantly towards the horizon or sat on the wooden deck, holding on to the coir ropes dangling on the sides and squinting at the clouds passing by above them.
Time and again, despite fatigue and feeling poorly, Yoga managed to shut her eyes in prayer. She prayed and muttered an old Hindu hymn called ‘To the waters, for strength and power,’ which she’d learnt as a child. She visualised their lives at the end of this nightmarish passage, imagining a modest home that they’d create one day and in her mind’s eye, there was Sathyan or a boy who resembled him – playing in the garden, kicking a ball and laughing out loud.
However, that was before she lost Krishnan.
That day would forever be carved in to her memory, Yoga recognised.
Twenty days in to their nautical quest, they’d run out of fuel, food and drinking water. When this happened, the crew had begun transmitting distress calls and were hopeful of shortly receiving assistance. Like a discarded plastic duck in a bath, the craft had rocked sluggishly back and forth, unable to move in the direction it wanted.
Children had started to wail with hunger and by the third day, several folk fainted out of lack of hydration and sheer weakness. That’s when Krishnan and five other men who considered themselves good swimmers decided to construct a raft of sorts and set out in pursuit of help. They’d ripped old wedges of plywood from the side of the cabin and tacked tyre tubes on to them to make the rough-and-ready watercraft.
While putting on his lifejacket, Krishnan had tried to comfort his desolate wife. She’d wanted to hold him, to give him a hug but she couldn’t in front of all the others who were gathered around, staring at them. Then, he’d jumped in to the cold frothy waves outside and everyone stood sentinel around the deck until the rickety structure swayed out of sight.
It was three days later, as if in answer to their group supplication that a large ship emerged in the distance and came to their aid. Yoga had imagined that Krishnan and the others had found the assistance they’d gone in search for and that they’d be on board. When that notion was ruined, Yoga just sat on the floor and closed her eyes.
The crew of the new ship had provided them with food and water and then hauled their stagnant temporary sea abode to the Cocos Islands.
Then, just the previous day, an immigration official had summoned everyone to the centre’s office and through the interpreter had parted with the information which they’d hoped they’d never hear.
“As you know, coast watch and rescue aircraft have covered many square-nautical-miles around these islands looking for the men missing from your group,” the officer had stated, tensely holding a clipboard and focusing his eyes on a vague point beyond the doorway.
“Unfortunately, I regret to inform you that the searches have only yielded orange life vests and some tyre tubes,” he’d added.
“The search has been called off due to medical advice that the likelihood of survival is no longer a reasonable possibility,” he concluded. His hands clutched the clipboard so tightly that his knuckles appeared translucent, as if all blood had drained from them.
A wispy sprinkle of rain fell but Yoga hardly noticed it. She got up and ambled along the sketchy footpath around the fence, taking stock of her life. There was still time before they were to board the plane to Christmas Island.
Whispering a prayer to Goddess Durga The Invincible, Yoga paced thrice around the building complex and asked her to protect and safeguard her from evil powers. She envisaged the self-sufficient goddess with her eighteen arms, riding a tiger and delivering mortals from situations of extreme anguish.
Yes, she was alone but not totally. She felt sure that she’d meet good people who’d help her face whatever was in the cards for her. If that failed, she’d still have faith in the Divine Mother.