Nelycynda _ a novel, Susan Visvanathan
We set sail from Hormuz, it was dark, and the waters rent the air with a loud and terrible noise. Egypt lay behind us, and India ahead. The whale was behind us now, and so were the blue skies. Food was in plenty since we had stored bananas, which we fried in batter in hot oil that sputtered to the sound of the water. There were pineapples, too, and sweet coconut water, which we had left in the hold for several years without spoiling.
From Hormuz, we sailed over water that was so deep and dead, that it had no depth. Whales appeared, we speared them and ate flesh of fish, flaccid and white for weeks after that. The days were without end, and no one realized that one year had come to an end, and another had begun.
Nelycind was still weeks away. Muziris had appeared in the first dawn of morning, chill and sunny, trees looming before us without end, the perennial season of coconuts hanging heavy like heads, which had been decapitated from the bodies of men. We had seen that too, in the warm desperate days of haggling for hot bodies in ports, the hot bodies of slaves in Arab and African ports. Our memories of those bloody fights were as coarse as the imagination could serve. We were guilty, not like slave traders were, but guilty none the less, for we had sought battles, after tedious weary days at sea, as if it were food for the limbs of the mind. Those slaves were sold like yams in a country market. They lay tied and trussed like goats for slaughter, their hands and legs and wrists and arms and necks had striations like those on tapioca stalks, knobbly, strange, goat horns of time and the tangle of teeth and torso. I think of those markets with fear and loathing, because some of those slaves were untied, black children of strange fathers and lost mothers, and brought to our boats for pleasure. I flaggelate myself, my monkhood disrobed by these thoughts, but then, we are witnesses to history, describing death and life with equal felicity.
Our cargo was, among other things last year’s pepper, and our payment was by gold coins, amphorae of beetroot wine, that stained the teeth, cheaper than grapes, and was had in sunny sea side towns, as easily as salad oil in the countries which turned the coast at the heel of the shoe. We travelled this way and that, unafraid of the tides, of the rain, of the hot sharp stench of sudden death. We were the bringers of songs and perfumes, of light cotton and linen, of goat’s meat and sheep’s wool. Sometimes we forgot to speak, lulled by the sound of water, and the questions we could not ask one another. We left everything for the last, sitting on the dry sand, near clear blue water, waiting for the boats to take us to the ships.
In some odd way, my ravaged past appeared before my eyes, ancient in the sense of manuscripts and iris of eyes caught the tinge of the sea, rimmed in blue ink, sometimes providing anodyne to the soul. The warm winds were caught in the warp and weft of tides, rain would fall, we would be caught for a while in the coldness that could descend in the tropics when the sea smouldered. Romans we were to the last hot breath, waiting for the tide to turn, longing to see the egrets which would bring us news of fresh water, and the sound of boats swishing in the water like the sarongs of the women. Nelycind was where the heart was at peace, where the Pamba awaited us, the gnarled knots of trees, polished by waiting into fine furniture, where the reeds in the water floated alongside the black water snakes, and where the women swore they were faithful to us. Our religion was the same as theirs, the Greek they spoke to us as rough as the fishermen’s Greek in such of our lands where the Lord’s word was remembered. By the sign of Pisces they made themselves known, and swore fidelity to their saint, Thoma, who had brought them news of the Lord. The lord’s going was now more than a century, a hundred years of war and death and blood, but to us, who believed, the time of tomorrow was never fearsome.
Nelycind was where I had left my tunic and sandals, in the house of a merchant. His home was made of wood, and the rain fell every night when I slept there last year in the month of Augustus. Coconuts fell with a sound that would have woken armies from their troubled sleep, but the family of Thoman, whom I lived with, slept soundly. They fed me the food of their forefathers, sang me their lullabies of the wisdom of the King Solomon, of whom they knew much. They feared nothing, not even my speeches on the world that was to come.