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The Gulf of Sidra. A small inlet of the Mediterranean Sea, just off northern Libya. It runs across the coastal strip extending from the Libyan capital of Tripoli all the way to the ancient port of Benghazi. Its warm waters, swarming with tuna, make for a bountiful catch for the many fishermen who ply their boats in them. And as with all primeval haunts, there are many mariners’ tales that allure and alarm the fishermen in their lonely hours of seclusion on the waves.
So it was that in 1910, in a thatched hut overlooking the Gulf, was born a little boy to the village headman. The proud father, an able fisherman himself, named the boy Sayyad. Sayyad, he who is a lover of the chase. A name that bore the fond parental hope of patience and passion for the boy’s destined vocation.
Sayyad loved his parents but despite his lithe swimmers build and his thick wavy hair, could never bring himself around to fit the mould of a fisherman. At heart, he remained a hopeless romantic-tender, passionate and pensive. In deference to his parent’s wishes, he learned the trade. But he never learned how to perform it. He would go out farther into the sea than any of his peers dared, but would forget to cast the net. He would be blessed with a particularly copious catch of fish but would stop to gaze upon the crimson hues of the setting sun for so long that the fish would rot before he got to shore. And all his parent’s laments and reproaches elicited no more than a wistful sigh from him.
It was on one such sojourn into the Mediterranean that Sayyad chanced upon an alcove that he had never before seen. Curious at the new panoramas it might bestow upon him, he veered his little boat towards it. But scarce had it turned the bend than he let out a sharp gasp. For in front of him, seated on the rocks, was a mermaid!
Sayyad had heard one tale too many about these mystical creatures of the oceans. And though none could be tested for veracity, they all concurred on one point- that these beings bore with them an ominous foreboding for any hapless traveller unfortunate enough to stumble upon them. So inauspicious were they considered that the locals had even given them a name-“Daayan”.
Terrified as he was, Sayyad’s curiosity got the better of him and he did not turn around while he had the chance. And as the little conkers attached to the net rattled against the bow, the daayan turned in his direction.
They say that love strikes like a thunderbolt. To Sayyad, it came like a dervish wave slapping into the rocks, splaying its own dismembered parts across its wake. For the daayan, part-woman and part-fish, was more enchanting than anything he had ever set eyes upon. The Moslem women in his village were renowned across the continent for their fabled beauty. But even their emerald green eyes were no match for the limpid black pools that now stared back at him.
As the two innocent souls stared spellbound at each other, the waves nudged the boat gently till it lay directly before the rock upon which the mermaid rested. Almost on impulse, Sayyad reached out for the rock to position his little craft. Taken aback at this sudden movement, the mermaid swiftly abandoned her perch and slipped beneath waves.
The moment had passed, but not its allure. Sayyad took a few moments to regain his senses and much longer to convince them of what he had just seen. He did not know what to make of this occurrence nor did he know what he would do next. But he did know that his folks would have to learn to do without fish for the next few days!
Sayyad returned home with a smile on his face and went to bed with the smile intact. But he could not sleep-the twinkling little holes in the inky black sky kept winking at him, reviving the memories of the eyes that had touched his heart, had pierced his soul.
His parents were astonished to see him set sail well before the first light the next morning. But they were in for an even bigger surprise when this new-found enthusiasm became a daily habit. In the days to come, Sayyad would be the first to leave the docks and the last to return-curiously, his nets always came back empty and just as neatly folded as when he had departed!
However, all was not well with Sayyad. The daayan would always be at her perch when he got there and he would anchor at a safe distance so as to not startle her. She would acknowledge his presence with just a shadow of a smile, the faintest nod of her head. And then go back to busying herself with grooming her hair and basking in the warm sun. He had earned the privilege of kissing the air that had only just kissed her, but then lovers are never satisfied with what they have already received. He yearned for more, much more. Alas, this was where the limits of his blessings ended. He tried in vain to speak to her, to elicit the thriftiest of responses. But all he got, always, was a cheery smile that said that the emotions were understood but could probably never be reciprocated. And with each smile, Sayyad sunk deeper into the wretchedness of a love so pure that it was neither reciprocal nor unrequited.
Days turned into months and the months rolled over into seasons. But the rendezvous never failed. Back home, his family had given up hope of their son ever heeding their admonitions. With the newly crowned “Lion of the Desert” Omar Mukhtar intensifying his resistance against the colonising Italians, their only wish was to see their son spared the ordeal of a forced conscription.
Oblivious to the tumultuous events unravelling all around him, Sayyad remained obsessed with his quest towards moving another step closer to the destination he did not yet comprehend. The ardour of his efforts had not dimmed but the futility of it all was slowly starting to sink in. And it was in one such moment of melancholy that the poet within him burst forth...
“Yeh na thi hamari kismat ki visaal-e-yaar hota...”
Sayyad himself knew not from where these words had sprung. And as he struggled to complete the verse, he heard a voice, mellifluous and honeycombed, add...
“...agar aur jeetey rehte, yehi intezaar hota”
The mermaid, his daayan, had spoken! He knew not how, he knew not why. But that was irrelevant-she had spoken and that was what mattered! His ecstasy knew no bounds and as if in reciprocation for his glee, she glided off her perch and swam towards his little craft. As he watched, mesmerized, she swam around him for a while before plunging into the waters and vanishing from his sight.
Sayyad returned home in utter euphoria, his mind swarming with scores of unfinished verses that he hoped she would complete in the days to come. But as with the best of men, Sayyad too was destined to find his fate on the very road he had taken to avoid it. That same night, Omar Mukhtar’s men came to his village to recruit men for their glorious cause. And among the youngsters who left with them the next morning was a very reluctant and immensely dejected Sayyad.
Sayyad had never been able to understand what the logical culmination of his yearning for the daayan would be. And fate spared him the answer. Just two days after he left his village, far away from the sea that had been his benefactor and companion, Sayyad was killed defending a land he had never known enough to love.
And for years thereafter, the locals would tell the tale of a mermaid who cried gently in the sea, her sobs mirroring the waves lapping at her feet...
Seperated in time and space from this un-accommodated tragedy was the world of Sangram Singh. Born into Rajput royalty, he was one of the fortunate few to grow up in the shadow of horses and swords in the twenty-first century.
As was wont in his circles, scarce had he entered upon his ninth year than he was packed away to one of India’s elite public schools, to earn the education that four generations before him had already enjoyed. College followed school and the charm he had honed while living in such close proximity with a bevy of girls was put to good use in the Delhi social circles. He was the life of every party, the cynosure of every eye.
And yet, there was a longing deep within. He loved the stark and desolate beauty of the desert that held within its sands his home and hearth. But often, in the stillness of the night, a fitful sleep would bring with it visions of the oceans. Of forgotten bays littered with rocks, lashed at by unrelenting waves. And the recurrent vision of a forlorn face. A face he tried hard to get a look at but was always deprived of, with his dream breaking just as he was about to get a glimpse.
Brought up on a firm diet of bravado and chauvinism, Sangram was too far gone to ever admit his longing for that face even to himself. And as the years rolled on, it came to the point where he had craftily learned to disguise his sentiments behind an impenetrable veil of insouciance and arrogance.
But as with the best of men, Sangram too was destined to find his fate on the very road he had taken to avoid it. It happened the night he was visiting home and found himself the unwilling host at yet another party thrown in his honour. Jaded stiff with the usual pretences, he hurried outdoors to find refuge in the solace of the night sky.
As he stood pondering the vagaries of life by the poolside, he saw a woman walk across the courtyard, into the living room and on towards him. Screened by the bright lights all around them, her face was still obscured to his sight. But the emotions that had so far been wistful accompaniments to his restive nights became all too palpable.
Unaccustomed to this uncontrollable upheaval within, Sangram averted his gaze and stood contemplating the gentle waves of the pool. And as their rhythmic lapping found a mirror in his heart, he found himself uttering a verse he had never heard before...
“Yeh na thi hamari kismat ki visaal-e-yaar hota...”
And almost as if on cue, a mellifluous and honeycombed voice concluded his reverie...
“...agar aur jeetey rehte, yehi intezaar hota”
Sangram turned. She was standing beside him now. And as she smiled at him, it all came back to him with an unmistakable lucidity.
The daayan of Sidra had returned.