I remember the time my mother took me to see the city where I was born. She was a young woman then. There were sea-birds rippling through the warm white sky high above her head, drifting like ashes on the summer breeze. I was in her lap, slightly nauseous from the motion of our vessel on the cresting waves.
“Look, sweetheart,” she said, her chin moving against my head as she spoke. Her strong hands clasped me under my armpits and lifted me up to get a better view over the side of the boat. I looked out at the sea.
“We’re here. Kolkata,” she said softly into my ear, and even then I remembered being astonished at how beautifully sad her voice was, saying the name of the city where she and I took our first breaths. I looked, and saw only endless miles of undulating water. But I followed her pointing finger to the silver line of the horizon, and found the skyline of a city shimmering there like a mirage. She said no more, lifting me off her lap and patting me on the back. “Go play,” she said, staring out at the distant city. I watched one of the crew cut fish on the wooden deck, his smile broad and white against his dark skin.
“Do you live here in Kolkata?” I asked him, fascinated by this new Atlantis at the edge of my world, this sea-city that twinkled over the water as if it were a dream, a myth made real by my mother.
“No, little one,” he said to me. “We used to live in Kolkata, but now only fish live there. So we sail our boats, and we catch them,” he held one up, its gills sucking at the moist air. “And we eat them.” Disconcerted, I ran to the other side of the boat and clung to the edge, pulling myself up with quivering arms. I just managed to see the dark green line of the mainland. It was still there.
I walked back to my mother. She was marked out among the line of tourists taking photos of the sunken city by the crimson pennant of her dupatta lashing around her neck in the wind. She touched my head, nails raking through my short-cropped hair.
“Remember this. Before it’s gone forever,” she said to me.
“The British called it Calcutta, we called it Kolkata, and now it’s just the sea,” she once told me, holding my hand firmly to keep me from tumbling over the rails of the tour boat (she took me on the same tour many times, as I grew older, and I struggled to keep her from holding my hand). Despite this, I noticed that she still called the city, or whatever part of it still showed itself to her, Kolkata. It is now part of the Bay of Bengal. Even seas have names, after all, because we need to call them something. Kolkata is still my mother’s city, and I have always envied that. She was alive in this Atlantis of the Indias, and lived to tell its tale.
The boat under my feet feels familiar. High tide swallows more of the city than I remember. I look at the few lights flickering in the windows of twilit high-rises reaching out of the water. Despite what that stranger on the boat told me as a child, the fishermen have since inherited what remains here, living in the abandoned apartments behind those windows. Kerosene lamps burn where electric lights once glowed and boats sail down avenues of water where once cars, buses and auto-rickshaws made their way in a noxious haze of fumes.
The lamp-light from the buildings throws quivering streaks on the water. Through the windows I see the shadows of families against flame yellowed walls, going about their lives in rooms much like the ones my parents lived in. The women use chopped furniture or other flammable leftovers of urban civilization to make their cooking fires next to the apartment windows, as they once burned firewood under the open sky behind their huts and houses on the mainland to prepare meals. The smoke from their fires trickles in white streamers from the buildings, pushed outside by the flapping of hand-fans. From the rooftops of the drowned buildings the men of the city watch the tour boats pass by while spreading their nets out to dry, filling the evening air with the stench of dying sea creatures.
I wonder what it is like to wake to a city filled by the sea, in apartments and offices filled with the damp relics of middle and upper classes vanished to the slowly shrinking mainland. To see the sun rise over these flooded urban chasms, to crawl out of an open window and into a boat, and sail through a vanishing city reaping the fish and crustaceans that have reclaimed it.
I wouldn’t be able to live here. I can almost smell the bitter air my mother once described to me, now clean and salty but for the hint of diesel from the motorized tour boats. I can see the haphazard metropolis in the photos I gleaned from her old, scratched discs and yellowed newspaper cuttings.
I think of my father smiling, one hand on the peachy mass of my mother’s belly (full with me), in his last photo with her, taken days before he disappeared during the first chaotic floods that heralded my birth. I have inherited his receding hairline. I look around my hometown, at the relics of its skyline as it perseveres above the tide. I have rarely thought about the fact that my father might still be down there in one of the city’s weed-choked, fish-thronged streets, his skeleton calcifying into a coraled statue. If the city were to sink forever, what pilgrimage would my mother make? What marker would tell her where her husband, whom she loved for just three years, lay at rest? It matters little now. I knew neither my father nor this city, except from my mother’s words.
“It’s still here,” I say, and open the lid of the urn. The ashes land on the waves of Kolkata, where they swirl away a liquid ghost.
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