Islands in the stream

Islands in the stream

Islands in the stream

Iam a rock; I am an island... And a rock feels no pain; And an island never cries... sang Simon & Garfunkel famously some 50 years ago. In metaphysical terms, islands foster an illusion of being cut off from the rest of the world. It is that illusion which the poet and novelist Keki Daruwalla explores in his Islands: Short Stories.

Daruwalla’s islands and their insular characters seem complete in themselves. Getting away from it all seems a desirable state of mind, especially for those of India’s holy men who prefer the isolation of an island to that of the Himalayan ranges.

“I have,” says Swami Yogananda to a female foreign journalist with whom he has a relationship in his ashram on the Ganges, “been obsessed with islands, their solitary existence, the way they cope with themselves. We try to cope with ourselves, our interior thought-streams. We fail our thought-streams. They fail us.”

“Disillusioned dementia” is how a hard-headed male foreign journalist reacts when Yogananda walks into the raging river one night. Jal-samarpan (sacrifice by drowning oneself in the holy river so as to merge with the paramatman or cosmic soul) is how the more spiritually-inclined see it.

There are as many perspectives as there are islands. For some, the island is like “words thrown in all directions, to die in the winds, if the mainland is far off, or if there is no mainland. Without it at its back, what is an island but a plank of wood floating in the sea?” asks one of Daruwalla’s characters.

It is a query which reminds one of Somerset Maugham’s short story, Flotsam and Jetsam, a title derived from the debris of a shipwreck. Another of Maugham’s celebrated short stories is about a beachcomber on an island in the Indian Ocean, a drunkard who is reformed through the love of a good woman, a missionary’s sister.

However, Daruwalla’s insular characters, by and large, seem content to remain what they are, lost to the world but secure in themselves. An island in the river is where the landlord Sudhakar finds his long-lost son Sukhdeo, a loner who walked out of home 10 years ago and was given up for dead. Exactly a decade later, Sudhakar goes on a duck-shoot with a nawab, who studied with him at school,  and a friend, who is now a retired colonel.

They row on the Ramganga to an island that is full of waterfowl, unafraid of men. They land on the island and see a bearded man in a tattered robe. “What is your name?” the colonel asks the bird-man. The man replies, “What has a name got to do with it, Sahib? One lives with the river-wind and the river, with bird and fish, and with silence, with the seasons and the night.” And the landlord recognises his son, Sukhdeo.

Reality is what is, and not how we see it, a political observer in Athens quipped to Time magazine during the late 1960s when Greece was ruled by a military junta. In Daruwalla’s Islands, it is the perception that matters. Off the Kerala coast, there is an island where the corpse of an unknown man is found and buried in a grotto. A bush suddenly starts flowering and miracles keep happening.

Scabs fall off diseased skin and people from other islands go to pray in the grotto. Suddenly it is discovered that the corpse is that of a defrocked priest who had been accused of swindling the church. The body is moved to the mainland and the miracles stop. Years later, after the scandal has died down, the island authorities insist that the body be returned in the same coffin and buried in the grotto. The miracles resume.

“If miracles decide to land or leave, you can do nothing about it. A guitar decides where to sing,” quips an expat Israeli writer.

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