Muthu was wandering along the Marina Beach quite aimlessly. He often came here on Sunday evenings when he was free from college. A few metres away there was commotion and crowd. Some fishermen had fished out a body from the sea and already the police had arrived to investigate. Muthu had moved on. He had not much interest in death. But then, he hadn’t much interest in life too.
But now, as he sat on the warm sand, away from the commotion, he thought about Death; and that too, because he remembered that his ancestors had died in as nondescript manners as the body that had been fished out on the beach. His father had gone out fishing just as a cyclone was building up in the bay and returned just before it made land fall. As he was walking back home, a coconut dislodged from the tree and hit him on the head. The coconut survived the impact; but, his father’s head didn’t. Then, there was his grandfather who returned from fishing, was chased by dogs and when he bent down to pick up a stone to shoo them away, one of them bit him in his left calf. He later died of rabies.
His uncle and virtually the entire family had been wiped out at sea when they went fishing and a wave swept them away. No one survived.
Recently, one cousin of his, whilst fishing off Nagapattinam, strayed into Sri Lankan waters, was picked up by the Sri Lankan Navy personnel and nothing was heard of him after that.
Mutthu closed his eyes and prayed to Lord Venkateswara that he should be given a death that should be remembered by people. May not be as famous as MGR’s on the day prior to Christmas in 1987, in which 30 people committed suicide and 29 died of violence. But, nevertheless, people should at least remember him after his death.
Other than fantasizing, Muthu hadn’t done anything to have a beautiful death. He and his family and hundreds of other fishermen families had stopped dreaming of a beautiful life; they had concluded that it wasn’t even remotely in the realm of reality. All they could pray for was beautiful death.
The same uncle, who together with his three sons had met with a watery grave, were fishing in Palk Bay one fine summer day when they were captured by Sri Lankan Navy personnel. It made big headlines in the local as well as national dailies and it was reputed that this problem would be soon licked by negotiations. However, it had continued and then his cousin too fell prey to it. No one knew whether his cousin was alive or not.
Tamilnadu (the erstwhile state of Madras) was the leading state in the country for fishing at sea. For centuries, his family had been fishing along the thousand kilometres of the coast. It was tough going but they hadn’t known another way to earn a living. They risked their lives at sea just to earn a little more than a thousand rupees a month. His parents had, therefore, thought of a bright future for Muthu by giving him education. He helped with the fishing when he could but the family wanted him to become someone big by studying.
He was 19. He had been to sea many times with his father and once entirely on his own. He liked being there, battling against elements. There was no sleep at nights too since they had to show the light in case of ships passing close to them lest they should be run over. The best catch was when ships passed close to them, scared by the propeller movement and the noise they’d get caught in the net. Else, they had to beat the cans endlessly to attract them. The cans were, however, poor substitute for propeller noise underwater that really attracted the fish.
He had got a fair hang of the fishing skills. However, his father, before he died two years back, still wanted him to become something big by studying. He hadn’t yet figured out what that something big amounted to. As he heard the footsteps of Lakshmi behind him, he knew that once again they were going to discuss this and their future. He would always come out even more confused than earlier. All his attempts to dodge the topic hadn’t succeeded in the past. However, this evening he was determined to evade it as much as he could.“Lakshmi” he told her hoarsely, “I have to share a secret with you”.“Hold on”, she said eagerly, “First I have to share something with you.”
She delved into an inner crease of her half-sari and took out a red coloured arm-band with beads. As he looked at the beads, he saw their names, in short, inscribed on the square wooden beads: LakMu. She told him that she had wanted the craftsman to inscribe the complete names Lakshmi and Muthu but he had told her that five letters on five beads was the limit. She didn’t tell him that she had spent all of thirty rupees on getting two identical bands made; one for him and one for her. Hers was pink and his was red.
“So now” she urged him, “What’s the secret that you wanted to share with me?”
He told her about his dream of eventually having a beautiful death; something that he would be remembered by. She sat on the sand next to him, put her head on his shoulder and told him never again to utter such nonsense. She said he had his life ahead of him. He was good at studies and very hard-working; who knew he might just become the Prime Minister of the country!
Oh, so they were back to discussing his future, he thought; a subject he hated. He brushed aside her hare-brained idea as totally impractical. You had to be born into a family that produced prime ministers or even chief ministers. He gave the example of Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi and also of MGR and Jayalalitha. Rajiv Gandhi, after finishing his full term as PM after the assassination of his mother was out of power now. However, he was slated to sweep the forthcoming elections in a huge manner and was addressing all rallies as if he was already re-anointed as the Prime Minister. And all because he was the son of Indira Gandhi, the second longest-serving Prime Minister. Even after MGR died, they didn’t look beyond to find his replacement. They found his wife Janaki to be the heir apparent. Jayalalitha caused a split in the party being the other woman carrying forward the legacy, if not of MGR, but, at least of the party AIDMK. Lakshmi would be really out of her mind if she thought that someone as ordinary as him, the son of a dead fisherman, could become the PM. These were all life issues. He had resigned himself to having a beautiful death. Even though she had exhorted him never to bring up the issue, he repeated it with all the emphasis at his disposal. “You must bring a huge garland at my funeral”, he told Lakshmi and she left him in a huff with the expressed threat that she would never talk to him again if he talked in this vein again.
As she walked home, she was angry with him for having ruined the evening with a crazy and horrible dream of his. He was the brightest student in their First Year Bachelor of Arts class and particularly his knowledge of Political Science was already extraordinary. It was for this reason that she had dreamt big for him to become the Prime Minister of the country. Little did she know that with all his brilliance he entertained a deplorable dream of having a beautiful death. Didn’t he ever stop to think of her? She had known him for the last dozen years or so and it was already decided by the two families that eventually they would marry. However, this defeatist idea of his had drained her enthusiasm. She looked at the pitiable contrast. Here she was giving him an arm-band with the beads having LakMu inscribed on them; and, there he was thinking of beautiful death. Life could be cruel, she concluded.
She avoided him in the college the next day, even though he tried to block her way at least twice. In the afternoon,, when she was walking in the corridor with her best friend Jayanthi, he came close to her and whispered, “I am going to study to be a prime minister”. In the evening, she finally met him and he explained that Rajiv Gandhi, the Prime Minster in the making, was going to address an election rally in Sriperumbudur just 40 kms away and he had decided to attend and see for himself at close quarter what made a man a prime ministerial material. She patted him on the right cheek and said excitedly, “Muthu, you are already my Prime Minister.”
The next day, 21st of May, was a Tuesday and both Muthu and Lakshmi knew that beginning anything on an auspicious (maṅkaḷakaramāṉa) day of Tuesday was subha muhurtham. She had already started dreaming of becoming the wife of the prime minister. As he took the bus to Sriperumbudur, she whispered to him not to ever forget LakMu even after he became the PM.
Muthu reached the rally spot in the evening. Already the crowds were milling and no one had any idea as to when Rajiv Gandhi would arrive. Hours of waiting and he was getting frustrated. There were a lot of men in Khaki and they moved around importantly as if they had everything under control. Muthu’s enthusiasm to study to be a prime minister was already waning. How can I aspire to become someone who kept people like him waiting endlessly even before becoming the PM. They would probably have to wait to see him for days if he would actually become the PM for his second tenure.
The buzz was that he was addressing various rallies in the neighbouring state of Andhra and had taken an Ambassador car from Chennai and his cavalcade had left Chennai but he was stopping all over to address rallies.
Finally, there was a flurry of activity and the cavalcade had arrived. That was the time he noticed that a girl in spectacles, yellowish orange kurta and greenish dupatta had brought a long white garland for Rajiv Gandhi. Why couldn’t he, Muthu, think of this? This was the surest way to get close to him as people jostled to get a glimpse of the would be PM in a shawl. All that Muthu could do was to stare at the jasmine flowers in her hair from behind and even get a whiff of the fragrance. She, and another girl in braids and ribbons and another in sari got close to Rajiv Gandhi and all that he could do to study becoming a PM was to look at him over the heads of these women. He was near and yet he was far.
The girl garlanded him and bent down as if to pick up something. The last conscious thought of Muthu was to hear huge explosion.
It was late in the night when Lakshmi heard of this. Next day, it was on the television as well as in the newspapers. Rajiv Gandhi assassinated, the headlines said and there was a small mention of nearly 16 others killed in the blast. Muthu was amongst the nearly 16 others.
A beautiful death? Nowhere near; but, then, she thought, with pride, he must have been quite close to him, amongst hundreds who had gathered there, to have instantly died in the blast. Having been mentioned amongst nearly 16 others is the closest his love had come to be remembered after his death.
But, one thing she knew was that even as he died he would have clutched at the LakMu band that she had given him.
Disclaimer. Muthu and Lakshmi are imaginary names and persons and bear no resemblance to any person dead or alive.
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