The Sand Castle
by Celin Jay
Radha lived with her father on the banks of River Hoogly. Her father was a fisherman and used to be away most of the day returning late in the evening or sometimes after two or three days. She would get up early in the morning, do the cooking, cleaning and washing and by noon she would be free to visit her friends in the neighbouring huts for afternoon chats or go to the market with them. On other days when Baba remained out in the river for a couple of days she would indulge in the activity she was most passionate about – making figures in sand.
Radha enjoyed capturing real life movement in her sculptures. A Ghariyal partially submerged under water with a fish struggling between its long snout fringed with jagged teeth with an evil glint in the eyes with the water foaming furiously around the scaly predator. Peacocks dancing in the rain, a kingfisher gracefully skimming the surface of the water, dolphins frolicking, fishing scenes with men frozen in the act of casting their nets in the river. Maa Durga , the beautiful goddess with ten arms, each carrying a lethal weapon, mounted on her lion.
Radha would be so caught up in her act of procreation that she would be unaware of the descent of the sun from its highest perch to its lair beyond the golden waters and black forests.
One afternoon one of her closest friends came over to see Radha. Her friends came around often as they enjoyed watching Radha transforming the innocuous looking sand into lifelike objects. As Radha prepared the sand dough sprinkling water now and then, Gouri told her about her marriage proposal and that the boy and his family would be visiting the village in a day or two. Gouri wanted Radha to be with her on that day because they were childhood friends, almost like sisters and Gouri’s mother had taken care of Radha ever since she was a baby. Both of them chattered excitedly for some time till it petered down into a companionable silence and Radha’s nimble fingers started working on a bust of a human head in right earnest.
Radha worked at a furious pace and concentration so total that she was unaware of the heavy lock of hair that had escaped her plait and fallen over her left eye. With the tip of her fingers and palms she shaped out the head, the forehead, the angles of the cheeks and the jaws. The chin was strengthened and shaped. With a small flat piece of driftwood she set to work on the details on the face. The lips appeared wide, with a hint of smile, the sharp nose with an almost imperceptible bump close to the forehead, the wide eyes beneath the thick brows, the ears and finally the hair which appeared to be windblown. Radha took short breaks during which she inspected her work and then continued nipping, tucking and shaping. Few hours later she contemplated her work with an aching shoulder. The finishing touch was provided with an indentation in the lower left cheek with a slight pressure of her index finger. Before the two girls, emerged the profile of a very handsome young man which had both of them thinking deeply.
Two days later Gouri’s mother came to call Radha as the guests had arrived. Radha entered the hut through the back and looked about
for Gouri. Her friend looked pale and deathly white as though she had seen a ghost. Radha turned her gaze in the same direction and covered her mouth to suppress a scream. Before her stood a young man looking exactly the same as the bust in her backyard, down to the dimple in the left cheek.
Radha was terribly disturbed after this incident and forced herself to pursue other activities like sewing and making flower garlands in her free time.
Gouri was as intrigued as her but she did not pursue the matter because she found that her dear friend had become restless and withdrawn and no longer engaged in her favourite pastime.
Dismissing the incident as a wild coincidence she gently coaxed Radha to resume her normal activities.
In the next few days Radha recreated a tiger crouching stealthily behind his prey, a group of ducks wading in water, a crane standing in water on one leg, a hippopotamus and her baby, a monkey sucking a fruit with relish and other such snapshots of nature which she recollected from her occasional boating trips with Baba.
Gouri got married the next week and left for her husband’s house soon after. Radha was very lonely after her friend’s departure. Baba had also come home last week but gone off immediately again for a week as he wanted to visit his brother who lived further south near the river.
She sat on the threshold of her hut staring into the sky. Heavy black clouds were gathering rapidly, the birds had suddenly fallen silent and strong cool winds had started blowing. She went inside as the rain started pelting and it turned unnaturally dark in the afternoon. She lay down on her mat, wishing her father had not gone out in such weather. She chided herself for not having gone with him. Filled with unhappy thoughts she slipped into a troubled sleep. When she woke up, the rain had stopped and the atmosphere had lightened up. She slipped out of the back door and sat down on a tarpaulin sheet.
Off their own volition her hands started kneading the sand, patting out extra water. A curious energy took over her as she started giving shape to a dingi a small boat, a man sitting at one end with an oar in the hand and looking skyward. Unaware of the hours slipping by Radha worked without a break. She was also unaware of the presence of Gouri’s mother who had come to check on Radha after the heavy spell of rain. Exhausted she turned to face the older lady, who had an odd expression on her face. Radha turned to inspect her work. Realising what she had made she let out a wild cry and ran into the hut.
Outside, her Baba sat in his dingi looking skyward with a look of terror in his face, mouth wide open as though screaming in pain while his neck was held tightly in the steely jaws of a tiger that seemed to be dragging the figure out into the wilderness.
Early next day Radha’s uncle came to the village and solemnly broke the news that her father had been fatally attacked by a tiger when he had halted on an isolated stretch to avoid the downpour. His mauled body was discovered deep in the jungle by a group of men belonging to his village while returning from the forest. ***