The Town by the Sea

“Amitav Ghosh, renowned novelist, accompanies the Director on a search through the island of Car Nicobar towards the seafront where the town of Malacca once stood. Discovering in stages how little he had understood the power of the tsunami, the writer finds himself completely unprepared for the experience. This is the concluding part of a special three-article series for The Hindu.”

I turned to follow him and we were heading back towards the blazing palms, when he stopped to point to a yellow paint box, peeping out of the rubble. “That belonged to Vineeta, my daughter,” he said, and the flatness of his voice was harder to listen to than an outburst would have been. “She loved to paint; she was very good at it. She was even given a prize, from Hyderabad.”

I had expected that he would stoop to pick up the box, but instead he turned away and walked on, gripping his bag of slides. “Wait!” I cried. “Don’t you want to take the box?”

“No,” he said vehemently, shaking his head. “What good will it do? What will it give back?” He stopped to look at me over the rim of his glasses. “Do you know what happened the last time I was here? Someone had found my daughter’s schoolbag and saved it for me. It was handed to me, like a card. It was the worst thing I could have seen. It was unbearable.”

He started to walk off again. Unable to restrain myself, I called out after him: “Are you sure you don’t want it — the paint box?”

Without looking around he said: “Yes, I am sure.”

I stood amazed as he walked off towards the blazing fire, with his slides still folded in his grip: how was it possible that the only memento he had chosen to retrieve were those magnified images? As a husband, a father, a human being, it was impossible not to wonder: what would I have done? what would I have felt? what would I have chosen to keep of the past? The truth is that nobody can know, except in the extremity of that moment, and then the choice is not a choice at all, but an expression of the innermost sovereignty of the self, which decides because nothing now remains to cloud its vision. …

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