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by Sunil Sharma

(Toronto, Canada)

Dread and ways of overcoming it!

To some, the sermon simply brought home the fact that they had been sentenced, for an unknown crime, to an indeterminate period of punishment. And while a good many people adapted themselves to confinement and carried on their humdrum lives as before, there were others who rebelled and whose one idea now was to break loose from the prison-house.
---Albert Camus: The Plague

It is dusk. He is counting shells, again. An assortment of white, grey, blue, orange sea shells, kept in the desk drawer, and taken out slowly, whenever he feels vulnerable, which he does often.
He, these days, often feels empty from inside---like the sea shells. Come evening, he takes out the mini treasure and starts counting the shells, running fingers on the outer bodies, ridged, contoured or flat.

There are stories stored inside these hard cases---marine stories heard by the only select children of the sea! Listen to them, kid, for their eternal wisdom!

That was how his sailor grandpa had introduced the fascinating world of the sea-life to the child who, later on as a drifter adult had gone on to set up a food shack, when everything else failed; a shack with a guitar and a crab as an emblem, along the Candolim Beach that attracted foreigners and locals in large numbers and there, evenings, he played Presley on guitar and sang full throated to the utter delight of his firangi patrons. It had become a popular haunt for the young couples who came there for a feel of sand and sea and some fresh crabs.
He welcomed them with guitar and often invited anybody who could strum to sing for a free beer and snacks.
There was no dearth of talents.
Over the months, it had grown as a mini community of drifters, Russians, Japanese and Yankees who would frequently assemble there to strum the guitar, hum songs and dance into the late night.

Happy souls. Mixing up together and enjoying the beach party and the breeze. Locals and foreigners intermingled freely.
They called him Daniel, the Goan Elvis.
Daniel loved the name---and acted like Elvis, wearing black tights and leather.

Nights, the sea called. Once the guests left and helpers retired, he would go and watch the sea, a black giant out there hissing gently, its languid body shimmering under the soft moon, heaving, pulsating, and its damp breath felt on his round whiskered face.
Listen to the sea! It is saying something.

Sea and sea-kid communed, after mid-night. Daniel saw the shape-shifting sea and the beckoning ships silhouetted against a dim horizon and the monsters rising up from the dark depths. 
Grandpa was full of stories. Kids loved the stories told in a gripping style and deep voice of a traveller who had travelled the world and seen the marvels.

These are your creations! Daniel had observed tersely, as an angsty teen, in a rebel mode.
We create our own worlds, son! A time will come when you will create your own.
Daniel---thin, gangly, pale-faced---failed to understand the beauty of this life lesson at that stage.
Now, he does. Timing is important.
Grandpa’s words proved prophetic.
He had to create his own small world, slowly, in bits, despite setbacks.
Humans! They create monsters and heroes, sinners and saints both. It is your choice to create which one.
Then the pandemic struck.
Lock down happened.
He was out of business---like many small businesses. No activity. All imprisoned inside. No movement allowed.
Everything was shut down. Savings were running out
His world was under threat.
A silent killer was out hunting humans. People dying in big numbers. Of odd symptoms. Very fast. hospitals overflowed with patients. doctors were overstretched. shortage of medicines.
Panic everywhere.
Hell is real!
The shadows deepen. The beach is deserted. Daniel watches the darkness thicken over the sea. Fear is palpable. Of an invisible enemy. People feel safe inside.
The folk tale “Dread”.
He clearly hears the husky voice of the grandpa narrating it; gets yanked out of his current timeframe and enters it as a main character:
…the forest looms large. It is gloomy. Intersecting pathways lead nowhere. Branches overhang. The deep silence is occasionally punctured by an occasional bird call. 
Daniel knows he is lost. 
Or abandoned?
The giant is hungry. He demands tributes. And the king decided to give that to him by offering a youth of strong build.
The arrangement worked well. Now, it is his turn. Daniel as a victim is feeling low, persecuted, angry with the state, family and friends. Family? Well, it can do nothing against the writ of a weak king. Friends? Well, the less said, the better. Most were hiding happiness at his misfortune and were relived for having been spared an act of painful cannibalism. They do not know it can be their turn next Monday---the lottery system cannot be predicted. Once he thought he would be spared and somebody will, meanwhile, slay the giant. It did not happen that way. Most of the time, it never does. The system is not run as per your wish, desire or wishful thinking. It has got its own internal laws of operation and the lottery may leave some and catch others---but eventually, in a mad kingdom, everybody is going to be caught and dispatched as a food to the hungry giant.
I do not want to die…young!

Daniel is raging within. Angry with the limitations of his humble station and lack of weapons to defend the dreaded giant.
I do not want to be a victim of a tyrant. I want to face him and go down fighting! Somebody has to face the grim situation and kill the man-eating giant or get killed in that act of decisiveness.
Here I come, Giant! 
Daniel shouts in the forest. The voice echoes there and returns, altered. He gets scared! The returning voice sounds different, disembodied. He keeps on walking the trail, near the lake. It goes up a hill and to the cave where giant waits hungrily for his next human meal. The versions supplied by the elders are frightening and have some common elements---oversized monster, ferocious, wild, eater of human flesh, extremely brutal and powerful for a puny human.
Their advice: Although tiny, human has got intelligence that the beast does not have. You can beat the giant with your brain!
Daniel wants to do that.
He walks slowly. There are bones scattered around---and skulls. The air is rancid. Something rotten! He can hear the roar of the impatient monster and it sends down a chill. Suddenly, courage deserts the human and he trembles, as the cave springs into view.
Daniel feels sense of impending death.
Of emptiness within.
Meaninglessness of it.
Facing death needs courage but he feels weak. Wants to vomit. Run away. But where? 
I cannot run away from the giant in his own country. He will follow me easily in the forest, an unknown territory for the human and familiar for the beast. Besides, he is no match to the towering creature with strong sense of smell, fangs and talons for hands.
I have to face this dread, this giant, this death, on my own---nobody else can do that for me.
And he hears the roar of the giant again…the heavy footsteps that make the ground tremble underneath the would-be tribute, hapless being, full of uncertainty, a dark fear overtaking the rational part of the brain. He wants to run but a voice sounding like grandpa stops him from fleeing: 
---Face the Brute, son! That is the only way out.
---I have no weapon.
--- Dive deep inside and find the weapon there, hidden. You can defeat any monster with that resource---and world is plentiful of such devils!
Grandpa is right.
The world is full of such monsters.
We have to squarely deal with these dark figures, alone, and defeat them in an unequal battle.
The roar increases. The giant is coming closer now. No way out. He is like a raging cyclone, tearing the trees and kicking the boulders. Trapped, rooted to the spot, the human looks up, this time firmly at the approaching death, suddenly fearless, calm and prepared for the inevitable battle, a battle unequal, unpredictable, vicious; a grim battle where the ogre has an upper hand, in a territory owned by the former. The victim/subject waits patiently. The ground shakes further. The breath vapid. The air heavy. His heart skips a beat but he does not budge an inch from his position. Ready finally to confront the existential dread…

---“Overcome your fear. Master it. That way you can survive in a world gone hostile, meaningless and irrational, at least for you, as a participation. That is the only key to survive the wilds!” That was Haru, years ago. Haru means sun, sunlight. His disciples treated the Zen master as their sun. Daniel was going through a bad patch---rejections; no savings and fixed address, problems with parents and siblings, and, crisis of faith in view of the looming failure everywhere.
“Find the anchor.” Haru told him one evening.
“How, my master?” Daniel, with low self-esteem, asked. They were watching the sea outlined against a dim horizon. A cloudy night. Few stars. Adding to the despondency of Daniel, at 28, young but broken.
“Inside. Internal anchor works the best.”
Daniel mulled over the enigmatic piece of advice.
“And God?” Daniel had persisted, a curious but blunt schoolboy.
Haru had smiled and given a typical one-liner: “Discover---God is in front of you.”
He had scanned the empty beach---nothing but the sea.

Tonight, Daniel understood the profundity of that simple message, in an instant.
It rushed back as a clear revelation---that brief exchange, lesson in survival---like the tale told by the grandpa, combining into a new pattern that could unlock newer meanings and insights.
God is: the sea, the beach, the wind, the surf.
And the hermit crabs!
Yes. Hermit crabs.
He has always found the crabs as the stoics of the aquatic life---carrying mobile homes on their backs. Hermit crabs fascinate. 
His trained eyes spot one right now, slightly undistinguished from the shadows of the palms; it lying like an elongated tin object, bit away from the detritus of bottles, cans and plastic, left causally by the tourists, irresponsible behavior hated by the greens. 
It is the land hermit crab. Snuggled inside the shell. Soft moon illuminates the creature. He has studied them with a group of local enthusiasts led by an NGO, Save Our Marine Friends ( SMF). Earlier too, hunting for empty shells on the beach, Daniel had come across the terrestrial species. He has read a lot on the genus Coenobita. Taken photographs of them, bodies, seashells, movements---another passion after Presley. He read a lot on the bivalves and gastropods and other things. The slideshows by him on the local variety of the crabs and their habitat were later published by the NGO on their website. Over the years, Daniel and SMF have come together on many occasions. And hermit crabs had brought them together. Few months ago, Daniel had successfully conducted a field study and a workshop on them crustaceans for an inquisitive school audience. He was happy. So were the children from that elite residential school.
“We are not alone!” He had intoned in the workshop. “We have got friends from other groups and families---different order, kingdom than the homo sapiens, yet so close, intelligent and full of life lessons. Question is: Are we listening to these species out there on land, sky and sea?”
The youngsters were all ears. Some had raised hands in affirmation, these earnest and eager teens and preteens, ready to do something for their inherited world---and change its ugliness by collective or individual actions.
The speaker, often a drifter in search of some good cause, was impressed. And reassured by their honesty and right intention. Future seemed safe with the young idealists who had not yet turned cynical, although they might or some of them, later on in life.
The  two-hour session on marine life, particularly crabs, was successful.
Daniel had then shown them the recent slides on these wonderful creatures living in the murky depths and on land, having their own social norms and ways of communication.
“Searching home is a big challenge, an enterprise for them---as it is for us. The striking difference is that they are not covetous like humans.” He had continued. The boys and girls had nodded agreement.
“The crabs are the stoics of the marine ecosystem. Wish we could carry homes with us. Lot of disputes and murders would thus stop. Also a fact that wandering monks and hobos are like them, carrying the worldly possessions in a bundle or two!”
The children were enthralled by the unlikely comparisons and had clapped for him and his simple way of presenting the other side of reality---a whole rich world out there, hardly noticed in the daily urban grind for majority caught up in a rat race.
“Notice the non-human species before they get killed by the human predators or it is too late!” he had exhorted the keen learners. “There is life beyond human civilization. Discover. And respect that.”
This was the moment of discovery and respect for Daniel---again tonight.

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