The turtle lies there completely motionless, its head turned to one side. He or she is (or was?) about a metre long and 30-40 centimetres tall. He lies there, on the north end of Juhu beach, right where the jhuggi colony starts. The crows haven't found him yet but a couple of dogs are sniffing at his corpse. I wonder how that turtle - let's call him Bob - I wonder how Bob felt in those last minutes of his life. I wonder what it was that finally took him. There is of course the possibility that Bob is only feigning death because let's be real it is 6:08 am on a Tuesday morning and everyone in their right mind would, at the very least strongly consider death over that horrible feeling of dry eyes and aching muscles that comes with rising before dawn. Does the early bird always catch the worm? What if the early bird played dead too?
The air bears the scent of salt water mixed with the putrid smell of decaying waste. The people in the orange suits who tote around those little plastic tubs have not cleaned this section of the beach yet. I see disemboweled coconuts abandoned from various pujas, unnaturally white plastic bags sporting pools of water, used straws, wayward socks, the occasional solitary slipper, and other waste of human consumption. I turn, and start to run back southward. I dodge the crowd, the early morning walkers and joggers and the amateur priests and priestesses. Religious ceremony loves an ocean – nothing like the vast expanse of salt water to make you feel legitimate, your God is the only true God, and he is most certainly on your side.
The waves reach for me, their fingers grasping greedily at the shore beckoning me. "Not today," I tell them smiling. But perhaps soon. The last bit is merely a whisper within my mind but I believe the mother ocean can hear me and she knows sooner or later I will answer her call.
I imagine what it would be like to give in to it, the temptation to walk out into the water and not turn around, to give myself to the tides. How long would I be out there before I started to panic? Would I claw at the foamy water for dear life? How long before I gave up and allowed the ocean to swallow me? How long would it take for the water to fill my lungs and what would it feel like to drown? Would I change my mind? That is my biggest fear - so far I have not been able to commit to anything – I can barely even decide what sandwich I want to order for lunch and my resume is a cocktail of entry-level jobs in industries ranging from publishing to janitorial. What if I cannot even commit to death?
This, in fact, is the problem I have with death: too many unanswered questions
As a teenager I became obsessed with the afterlife. I researched famous ghost stories and after-life mythology. What if they didn't check your pulse properly before stuffing you in a coffin? What if you were actually alive during your cremation? What if you found yourself all alone with a bunch of anonymous bones atop the tower of silence and weren't actually dead? Would the vultures still come for you? What would it feel like to have the flesh picked off the bone? Would it hurt the entire time? Or would you reach that state of numbness they describe in fiction where the pain appears distant, even remote? For someone obsessed with death possessing a high threshold for pain, I am puzzled by the fear I feel for the end. That hobby too I gave up - it bored me after some time the academics of it all. The philosophy. The reasoning. Or maybe I’m just weak.
There is a grey space between life and death. I should like to linger there, my body deciding between breath and darkness, the proverbial two roads diverged in a yellow wood, the point at which I have the ultimate power over my own destiny, the point at which I can choose. But what would I choose. How many times can I put myself in that grey area? Me, who has never made a decision I could stick to my entire life. How would I make a choice that I could not change my mind about? Will I always chicken out and choose life? How long will it take me to take the plunge?
Two weeks ago I took a knife carefully out of the kitchen drawer. It was that sharpened butcher’s knife that I use for slicing through bone of the poor hapless dead goats whose body chunks I purchase from the butcher. I slid down to the kitchen floor the knife between my fingertips turning it round and round, examining the serrated edges the smooth wood curving along the handle. I press my index finger against the tip gently and then harder till I see a single drop of red emerge. I put my finger in my mouth and taste the metallic saltiness of it. It doesn't hurt much but then again, you can hardly bleed to death through pricking your finger. I place it on my wrist, and I feel my heart quicken at the coolness and sharpness of the steel against my skin. Just one simple slice and it would be over. It thrills me, so much that I start salivating at the mouth; I feel my armpits get damp, and my skin tingles. This could be it; it could be one of my last moments on earth.
I don't have the nerve.
I don't have the nerve so I separate the knife from my wrist. I place it further down my arm, on a nice soft patch of skin and press and slice, drawing a sinister looking red line on my flesh. The pain feels good, almost cathartic, orgasmic, like a burden has been lifted from my shoulder. I am high on the power over my own body and limbs. I watch the blood gently ooze and I stand gingerly so as not to bleed over my carefully scrubbed kitchen floor. I wash the knife thoroughly as. I rinse out my wound. It stings slightly but I enjoy it. It feels exciting. Dangerous even.
On this day of the dead turtle, oh, of course, on this day of Bob, a slew of hotels ranging from swanky to shack hurtles pass me on my left. The tide is coming in closer, the water's enthusiasm swelling with the ascent of the sun overhead. Nearby four or five sari clad women are conducting an elaborate ritual in the ocean with a stainless steel thali, garlands of marigolds and the descendants of the disemboweled coconuts. Random sticks and debris continue to block my path, crows hopping on both feet to get to the items that interest them the most. Coconut water vendors punctuate the beach at irregular intervals, surrounded by groups of early morning joggers and yogis. Every once in a while I pass a pot bellied man reaching in vain for the tops of his feet, the sharp pain I assume in his hamstrings turning his facial expressions to grimace. Close to the Ramada Hotel, the beach opens up on the street. Pigeons and crows cover half the beach nibbling on leftovers from last nights’ trash, while groups of them swoop and swirl over head. By now they must have found the turtle. It's a beautiful process if you think about it. Every cell of that turtle will return to nature, every piece will be recycled to bring new birth and new growth.
I discovered my addiction to pain as a teenager, when I, examining the glowing ashes at the end of my cigarette, pressed it gently against my hand. I was 14 years old and smoking in the alley behind my house. The only people that came back there were the kids from the jhuggi colony, and I was as invisible to them as I was to their wealthier peers. Besides a huge release of anxiety, which itself made singing my flesh a high of sorts, it also fascinated me – the way the pain receptors in your skin communicated with your brain in a fraction of a second. Sensations felt instant but these neurotransmitter messages still occurred in real time. What if I could sever the message, what if I could delay my brain’s response to pain? What if I torched my flesh and screamed about it five or ten or fifteen minutes later? Or the next day? Or the day after that? Or the next year? You get the picture.
Please understand I am not suicidal. I harbour no thoughts of hopelessness nor do I just want to end it all. My life is pleasantly boring, and I feel little to nothing on a daily basis. But I have this inexplicable thirst for death, to taste it, roll it from the tip of my tongue downwards, savouring the flavours as they reach the various digestive juices that linger behind my gums. I'd like to bite into it, understand the texture of it, is it soft and squishy or so hard that it'll chip your teeth right off? Does death crunch or is it chewy like bubblegum? What is the truth of it?
The most interesting thing about me is that parents are separated. They live with new partners in different cities. It is probably for the best, since they barely spoke when they were together – to each other or to me. It is only my Dada and Dadi here now, and they’re extremely restrictive. I need to be home by 7pm, my pure vegetarian Jain meal is served by 8 pm, and I’m expected to retire by 9. I often don’t, preferring to stay up and read, but when they force me, I lie in the dark, stare at my ceiling, imagining the places where the paint has flaked and could fall on me, watching the fan circle round and round and round, and return to my macabre fantasies.
I wonder if I should see a psychiatrist. It’s becoming acceptable, even trendy to have one. I try to imagine a reaction to these things that go on in my head, how I would even start explaining it. Perhaps I could just show them this. Perhaps I could sit and cry. Perhaps I could talk about the childhood trauma that did not occur? But what would be the fun in that? My tastes and hobbies are just a little different. Right? Right.
I stop by a man flanked with a decrepit wooden cart piled high with coconuts.
“Pani wala,” I say, pointing arbitrarily at one of the coconuts as if I know which is which. He takes a knife to it, hacking chunks off the top, one at a time, till finally he burrows a small hole and sticks a straw in it, and hands it to me. I drain the coconut in about 30 seconds, and ask for another. Giving him 80 rupees, I toss my second murdered coconut into a big green plastic bin he has placed by his side, and walk towards the water.
Removing my shoes, I wade in the part that is ankle deep. The sand is squishy underneath my toes, and I will have to wash the soles of my feet thoroughly. I pray there is no fecal matter on this part of the beach, and yes, it is rarer around these parts. I pass the small collection of shops selling snacks like vada pao and those frozen drink things I can never remember the name of. The Ramada hotel towers over them smugly, and I wonder how many people are pressed up against its windows, watching the shores below. I wonder about strange things I suppose.
The ocean murmurs again. It is so delicious, the thought of giving myself to the salt water, the ultimate sacrifice. I take a deep breath, and I move a little deeper. I feel a few shells underneath my toes, but nothing serious. I keep walking. Games of cricket pass me by, as do more couples, their children dashing suddenly from this way or that way. The bits of debris are lessening as the cleaners scoop them up, but they are no match for the force of environmental apathy. I walk deeper still, the water is up to my knees now. The bottom of my track pants are soaked, weighing me down. My heart starts to pound a little faster, and a little faster still as the pull of the tide gnaws at my legs hungrily. I hear a chant, I’m not sure if it is real or in my head, but its growing louder and louder and louder. It is coming from salt water lips, those gentle yet strong fingertips that are caressing my limbs, beckoning me. This is my moment of truth. I could decide today, at this very moment. But once I do there is no going back. I feel a rush of adrenaline, and a strange euphoric sensation that I am finally face to face with my dream. I bite my lip and look deep into my heart. I want this. I’m doing this.
I’m taking the plunge. Literally and metaphorically speaking.
I turn to my right, where the waves rise in anticipation. I walk deeper and deeper into the water, till I feel the tide tug and pull me inwards. I’m vaguely aware of the shouts from the shore, but turn and smile and wave. I open my mouth and let myself swallow a mouthful of salt water; though it tastes acrid on my tongue. I am still treading water in anticipation of my big moment. It has been warmed by the rising sun overhead and flavoured by the various bits of garbage that float about in its midst. I think I’ve swallowed a piece of trash liner. I finally let go, when I turn and see the rescue teams are within a few feet of me. I shake my head and wave my arms wildly at them. The water is pulling me out just beyond their reach. I give myself to the ocean, body, mind and soul. It is a blissful few moments while my lungs are filling with water, and I have to let go of my natural physical instinct to panic at suffocation. This is supposed to be the most beautiful moment of my life.
Well it isn’t. I panic, and struggle and fight against the very love of my life. I feel some vague shame at the back of my mind, but my animal being overrides that and wants to live. I fight it down. “Death is our friend,” I try to convince my obstinate survival-obsessed body, my stubborn lungs, my rebellious adrenaline. I hate myself at that point, every living, breathing, multiplying cell of my damned body. But then something wonderful happens. I relax, and allow the tide to carry me away while slipping into blackness.
But then I open my eyes to blinding sunlight, steadying myself against the rock of the rescue boat beneath me, vaguely aware of the heat on my skin.
“Shit,” I say, through salt water-laden coughs. “I need to try again.”