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Monday, November 17, 2014

The Girl Who Couldn't Swim

PART I


Not so long ago lived a young fishergirl in a large kingdom in the Eastern Continent. Like all her young friends Veena had dark skin which shone like oil and always smelt of fish. She had narrow almond shaped eyes, straight flowing hair and a slightly pudgy nose. Nobody would ever describe her as beautiful, but those who knew her were drawn to her face because of her vivacious child-like smile. Her smile started from the very creases of her eyes, crinkled her nose and puffed up her small round cheeks, and ended in a gentle bow-shaped curve of her rose-petal lips to reveal two small even rows of ivory white teeth. Veena lead a calm and content life, tending to the small garden at the back of her dark red cottage, helping her father and brother sell their fish in the local market, keeping the accounts of their earnings and also lending a hand to her mother. Together mother and daughter would clean the family's daily catch, separating them into the ones to be sold at the market and the ones they would keep aside for their own consumption.

Yet Veena had one deep sorrow that gnawed away at her heart. She could not swim. Like all the other inhabitants of their village and the other coastal villages nearby, Veena's father Ravi and mother Suhasini had taken their children to the river delta region when they were only about two or three years old. The village children would take to the water like the very fish which were their lifeblood. A few days of floundering in the cold currents, secure in the steady grasp of their parents, splashing about while taking deep gasping breaths; and soon they would be seen effortlessly gliding about amidst the reeds and the long strands of aquatic plants. Their parents, who were wading nearby with ready limbs and alert eyes, would eventually be completely forgotten by the children. By and by, they too would return homewards, leaving their offspring to play about by themselves, shrieking and squealing with delight as they sprayed water over each others bodies and faces.

In Veena's case, however, it had been different. Holding her mother's fingers in one hand and clasping her elder brother's shoulder with the other, she had paddled under water with all her might, practicing deep breathing with her head below the water level while rhythmically moving her limbs. But within few seconds little Veena would panic and start crying loudly to be taken back to the river bank where she would shiver and weep clutching her stomach as sharp bolts of pain shot through her entire body.  The pain would then persist for several days and no amount of massaging with oils and ointments or drinking of the juice of medicinal herbs and plants would be able to afford her any relief. Her anxious parents even took her to several doctors, ranging from the natural remedy-prescribing medicine men in their locality to the city doctors who practiced in the capital city located nearly 500 miles away. None of their pills, capsules, syrups, powders, potions and liquid extracts worked, however. Ultimately, it was decided that the River Goddess and Destiny should not be tested further and whatever the All-Powerful had planned for her should be allowed to unfold in due course.

As a young girl, Veena did not mind this seemingly trivial weakness of hers. Not being too boisterous or energetic by nature she was happy sitting on the sandy riverbank and the white grainy shores of the ocean into which the river flowed, dreaming dreams of far away lands, after reading tales printed in the pages of the books her father bought from the monthly village fair. She would sit gazing wistfully while tracing whimsical shapes and patterns in the wet sandy soil with her fingers as the hours flew by. At the village school she had learnt reading and writing and acquired some basic knowledge of history, geography, mathematics and science. But her mind hungered for more knowledge, beyond the staple academic offerings that were available to her. This hunger she could satiate only through own independent reading. Her doting father always kept aside a portion of the family income to nourish his daughter's passion. In this way Veena grew up to young adulthood and reached the age of seventeen.

After her schooldays ended, her curious inability to swim became a source of regret in her little heart. Now that she did not have to spend hours at school, she grew tired of her limited activities. She enjoyed gardening, growing vegetables and helping her mother with the housework, but she longed to join the other girls of her age who accompanied their fathers and brothers on their fishing trips out into the wide ocean. Often, when she could afford to find some time after completing her household duties, even her mother would join the rest of the family on these trips, because unlike the other kingdoms of the Eastern Continent, the kingdom of Indupura did not follow the ignorant practices of gender discrimination. The Indupurans prayed to both Goddess Indu and Lord Surya with equal fervor and celebrated festivals in their honour with grace, unpretentiousness and sincerity.

Once every three days, her father and brother took their long brown fishing skiff out into the Poorvanchal Ocean, navigating it carefully through the marshy backwaters of the great river Indersehn. They would bring back large nets full of tiny wiggling silvery fish, or fat grey and gold fish as long as ones arm. During these trips poor Veena would sit on the beach lining the very edge of their village, staring distractedly at the horizon where the strong though slightly frayed white sail of their skiff would be visible as a speck against the blue-green sky. Sometimes she would take along with her one of her books which recorded the adventures and romances of common people and monarchs who had lived ages and miles away, separated from her by the boundaries of time and space. The hours would then fleet by and soon her father and brother would return in the twilight hours of the evening and together the three would return home to fill their famished stomachs with Suhasini's delicious culinary creations.

One windy day in August, Veena was sitting in her favourite spot beneath a coconut palm tree, lost in one of her usual day dreams after having read a story of a shipwrecked sailor who had finally been rescued from a desolate island in a thrilling manner. He had sent out numerous calls for help through little messages that he would write on tiny scraps of paper and then roll them inside empty bottles and floated them out into the sea. Veena found this device both charming and exciting. She mused whether or not it would be a good idea to write her own little messages and send them off into the unknown waters. It was true, she did not actually need to reach out for help or send out a distress call. She also had many friends and her family members to talk to if she wished. Nevertheless, she had many unspoken dreams and desires, thoughts and musings which she could not express or explain to them. They were wise, understanding and sympathetic folk, she knew, but she was also quite sure that they would laugh away her thoughts as irrational and whimsical and then dismiss her as a silly girl with her head up in the clouds. The more she thought about her plan, the more she liked it. She had never explored the idea of actually writing down what went on in her head as a channel for releasing her pent up emotions. Finally, she decided that on a weekly basis she would write little notes to unravel her scrambled thoughts and send them out into the unknown. Quickly, she rushed back to her cottage, tore a sheet of paper from her old school notebook and retrieved her pen from its place inside the drawer of her mother's dressing table. She also procured an old empty bottle from the kitchen and rushed out without answering her mother's confused enquiries.

Returning to the little patch of grass beneath the coconut palm tree, she composed her little message, neatly writing in her small careful script; now and then pausing to suck the end of her pen. Then she rolled the sheet into a tight scroll and inserted it into the green tinged bottle and corked it shut. The wild breeze on that windy day aided the journey of her bottle and soon it floated away from the surfs at the edge of the beach, out of sight of the girl who stood waiting on the yellow-white sand, her short hair and long skirt swaying chaotically with the direction of the wind.

                                                                                     

                                                                        PART II



The crown prince of the kingdom of Felincia, located in the far eastern coastal region of the Western Continent came galloping on his horse and came to a standstill at the brink of the jagged grey cliffs. His golden brown steed neighed in annoyance because the Prince had pulled the reins only at the last moment. Another fraction of a second and both horse and human would have fallen headlong into the uncharted depths of the mossy green ocean and to their deaths. The usually alert steed hadn't been able to judge how near they had been heading towards the cliff as they had dashed through the woods. The Prince had been impatient and distracted throughout the ride and had persistently been spurring the horse forward by digging his boots into its skin.

Tying his steed to the trunk of a tree at the outskirts of the clearing, the Prince sat at the cliff's edge, both feet swinging outside, the expression on his face morose and petulant. Once again, he had had an argument with his father about wanting to go to the inland kingdom of Borchess to study medicine in the University of Concleve, the oldest and most advanced university for Sciences in the Western Continent. The Prince for the life of him couldn't understand why his father could not grant this little wish of his.  The king, on the other hand, reasoned with his wife and son that as the heir to the throne, the Prince should take lessons in politics and statecraft from his political advisors and ministers to prepare himself for his glorious future. The complexities and contradictions of Civics and diplomatic skills seemed unbearably tedious to the Prince who was inspired only by the study of the wondrous functioning of organs and neurons, the mathematical harmony between bones and sinews and the boundless mysteries of the mind and life itself.  It was only due to the intervention of his mother that he had not already been sent to the renowned tutors of Political Science who taught in the university in Felincia's capital.

Muttering angrily to himself, mentally rehearsing all the debates and arguments that he would have to arm himself with, for his next meeting with his father, the Prince was suddenly distracted by a tiny gleam that flickered from the vicinity of the beach. He looked closely, peering to focus beyond the rocky cliffs to the beach that covered the land where two towering V-shaped cliffs joined together at its base in a horse-shoe pattern. He realized that something made of glass or metal had washed ashore and the rays of the afternoon sun were refracting against the surface to give off the flashing yellow and green glimmers of light. His curiosity was piqued. He untied his horse and then followed the path through the woods, down the narrow trails against the slopes of the cliffs and emerged from the thick trees into the beach. Then, after a bit of hunting around on the sands, he found the object of his search. It was a glass bottle, greenish in colour and stoppered with a cork. He was quite surprised to see that it contained what appeared to be a narrow rolled up sheet of paper. He pulled out the cork and quickly unfurled the sheet. His anxiety was because he feared that the message might be a call for help from some distressed sailor who had been stranded in some distant island. He had read such a story in a book and had always imagined what it would be like to be marooned on a deserted island like that mariner.

The paper inside was neither signed nor addressed to anyone. Instead it was what appeared to be erratic thoughts and dreams written in prose, which nonetheless had a quaint poetic quality about it. As he read it the Prince's eyebrows raised in surprise when he discovered that the writer had mentioned the very book that he had just been thinking of. The anonymous writer had also written that they too often daydreamed about being marooned on an island. Then it went on to talk about how, figuratively, the writer felt like he or she was stuck in a place from where there was no release and they felt emotionally lonely, distanced from the people around them. The Prince's feelings switched from astonishment to wonder to empathy and finally he felt an awakening inside him. This writer of the message was like a reverberation of his own being, what people called- a soul mate. He only wished that the message had been a longer one.

Over the next few days, the Prince read the message over and over again. The handwriting expert in his father's court had declared that he was almost completely sure that the penmanship was that of a woman. This had further filled the Prince's heart with joy. To imagine, that he had a soul mate, a woman, who actually existed somewhere in the world! Some days later, a royal informer he had hired recounted a tale that he had heard, a rumour, that in a nearby village, a young boy had found another   bottle with a message. The Prince quickly set off and using a large box full of sweets as a bribe, procured from the child, the second message from his soul mate. This time she had written about a book of poetry that she had recently read. Coincidentally, the poet was actually the famous bard Wingledem, who had been a native of Burchess and lived in the earlier century. Soon after reading the message, the Prince acquired a copy of the book from the Royal Library and spent the next few days in deep study of them. After this episode, the Prince sent messengers to every village and coastal city on the Eastern coastline of the Western Continent.  He announced rich rewards for anyone who would bring to him, if they chanced upon it, a bottle with a message rolled inside it. Lured by the Prince's generous reward, every week, almost right on schedule, someone or the other would bring the starry-eyed Prince a bottle with a message from his soul mate. The King and the Queen indulged in these romantic fantasies of the Prince because he had promised that he would begin lessons in Political Science at the University of Humanities in exchange for the services of his father's court in procuring the messages. At the same time, however, the clever Prince continued his study of Medicine on the sly, by reading medical textbooks supplied by a cousin, a medical student; late at night. In this way seventeen months went by. By now, gathering little clues from here and there, in the messages, the Prince had managed to piece together much of the puzzle regarding Veena's identity. He knew that she was the daughter of a fisherman who lived in the Eastern Continent but knew he needed more information to be able to find her.

                                                                      PART III



At last, one fine day, miracle of miracles! Veena mentioned the name of Kundalim, her village, in one of her more poignant messages where she had poured her heart out about her inability to swim. Tears sprung to the Prince's eyes as he read about the heart-wrenching longing nestling in young Veena's heart, as in her rustic yet lyrical prose she wrote about her weakness seemed to "cripple" her. In a few short sentences she had managed to convey the pathos of her situation, her long-cherished desire to swim with the fish deep inside the sea and feel the refreshing touch of the arms of deep-sea waves. She also wrote about how her inability to swim prevented her from venturing out into the ocean or undertake journeys by water ways, for her family feared that any accident or weather disturbance during the journey would prove fatal for her. Veena's usually unsentimental mother had one superstitious belief; that water was a bad omen for Veena and she would meet her death by water if she did not avoid contact with it as far as possible.

Reading her message and throwing back his mind to Veena's other earlier messages, the analytical part of the Prince's mind prickled with interest. He turned back to his steadily growing collection of thick books on medicine and his own copious notes and research work. Over the next few months he devoted his time to more study and frantic note-taking, digging deeper and deeper through centuries of research, trying to read up on all that he could about neurological conditions and motor functions of the human body.  He found out a lot about the vast variations of genetic, environmental and biological causes behind many similar disabilities and diseases and also delved deep into the research of diverse traditional and modern cures and treatments. Finally, he started witnessing faint gleams of light filtering through the fogs of darkness. He narrowed down Veena's strange affliction to a handful of possible causes and studied their corresponding treatments. Once he felt that he had found out all that he possibly could, the Prince was impatient to go to Veena and remove this one great sorrow from his soul mate's life and prepared to embark on a journey to her land to meet and cure her.

Feeling quite sure that if the true cause of his estimated four-month long journey to the kingdom of Indupura were known, his parents would never allow him to undertake it, the Prince kept it a secret. By a stroke of luck, the Prince was soon to reach the age of twenty-one years, and as per the tradition of Felincia and all other kingdoms of the Western Continent, he would be allowed to arrange a tour of the continents via the high seas for a period of six months. This tradition was introduced as a learning experience for young men and women of royalty to gather lessons of life and enrich their experiences before stepping over the threshold into a life of royal responsibilities. It was an easy matter for the Prince to bribe the ship's crew and his attendants and entourage to slightly modify the direction of the course of his journey.

After eleven weeks of the long and tumultuous journey crossing the waters of the vast and deep Calimus Ocean then traversing the Prestic Straits into the Poorvanchal Ocean, the Prince and the other Felicians reached Indupura. Then after another five-day long journey by horse and carriages from Indupura's port capital, where he had been compelled to suffer the necessary social and diplomatic meetings and in formal gatherings; on a rainy day in the second week of August, the Prince reached Kundalim. He had arranged for almost the entire strength of his entourage to stay behind in the capital city, while he ventured onwards with only fifteen close and trusted attendants. Even to these fifteen he had requested to be left alone for a few hours of solitude as he set out to finally meet Veena. It was only then that he felt unsure of his next step. The story of how he had come across Veena's messages, collected all of them and eventually grown to become attached to her in an inexplicable way, seemed, in the light of day, impractical and even somewhat ridiculous. Nevertheless, he couldn't turn back now.

As he had hoped, he found the girl sitting on the sandy shores of the little beach of the village and after an initial moment of self-consciousness and hesitation he walked to the spot beneath the shade of the coconut palm tree and cleared his throat.

Veena looked up in surprise at the lean and pale young man with strange physical features and stranger style of clothes. "Good afternoon, Miss" said the Prince and took out a small bundle from within the inner pockets of his jacket. Veena's eyes widened in surprise when she saw the familiar-looking sheets of papers. They were all neatly folded into small squares and tied together with a satin ribbon. While she snatched it from his hands, untied the sheets, and examined them one by one, the Prince gazed at her; his feelings switching from apprehension and hesitation to wonder and adoration. He drank in the animated expressions of her face, her fluid jet black eyes as they kept darting from the messages to his face and back; and the way the haphazard motion of the strong coastal breeze kept tangling and untangling her hair.

After the initial exclamations of surprise and gale storm of emotions, Veena too was overcome with extreme, shyness and confusion. She blushed to think that she was not the sole possessor of all the deepest secrets of her heart. Apparently, they had found another home, the mind and heart of this unusual looking boy, with serious eyes and colourless skin, unburnt by the strong rays of the sun.

When Veena's brother and father returned a few hours later, they found the two still sitting on the now cooling sand. One was tracing swirling patterns on the loamy soil and the other sitting a little distance away, rhythmically digging his toes into and out of the sand grains; both staring out into the waters, watching the setting sun in silence.

That day, the Prince went to Ravi and Suhasini's house and over dinner narrated his story. He explained that he had found Veena's curious condition interesting from a medical point of view and was anxious to try some experimental cures and treatments on her. However, neither Veena nor her family members were left in doubt about the fact that he was in love with her. The scholarly Prince's face was an open book. The Prince returned to his attendants at their lodgings, and the next few days Veena and the Prince spent walking on the beach, getting acquainted. At the same time the Prince started preparing different treatments with the help of local medical practitioners and the service of his attendants in procuring herbs, chemicals and medical tools from near and far. It was not long before Veena was as deeply in love with him as he was with her.

The Prince started treating Veena by experimenting with different concoctions and natural herbal preparations. Finally, at the end of the year, one of the Prince's potions showed signs of succeeding. During one of the swimming exercises, after a trial of a special mixture of chemical and herbal remedies, Veena did not complain of any physical discomfort. Within a few weeks much to the joy and sheer amazement of her family and friends, Veena was swimming effortlessly.

In the meantime, seeing the delay of his son's return, the King had sent out spies and discovered the actual motive of his journey. Initially he was furious, but when news of his son's growing popularity as a medical advisor in Indupura and the so-called "miracle recovery" that he had delivered, came to him, the King and the Queen were pleasantly surprised.

The royal couple travelled to Indupura and saw the dedication and passion of their son with their own eyes.  The royal household of Indupura had, by then, welcomed the Prince as their own son, and his medical expertise had improved the lives of many of their subjects. The Prince's parents were ultimately convinced of the Prince's true calling and vowed that they would let him pursue his real passion. The wise and spirited Veena, who had played such a crucial role in motivating the Prince to finding his vocation, was also accepted as a worthy match for their son. The two were married at Veena's hometown, in the temple of Kundalim amidst stately celebration and melodious music.

Since the lands of the Eastern Continents, which was rich in diverse natural vegetation, would provide more resources for the Prince to continue his medical experimentations and research work, the newly-weds stayed at Indupura for five more years before once again returning to the Prince's native Felincia.

When Veena boarded the huge, elegantly crafted yet sturdy royal ship, she had tears in her eyes. Clutching a little object in her hand, as if seeking some strength to flow from it into her body, she wiped away her tears and frantically waved goodbye to her family, friends, villagers and all her near and dear ones who had gathered at the harbour. The object was a gift, hand-carved by her brother, a going-away present. It was a miniature model of a fishing skiff with a proud white sail glued to its mast, fluttering gently in the wind.

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