It was after many years Ramesh visited a beach. He had just retired from his lecturer’s job in a college and suddenly felt too free. All those countless research papers he wrote for academic journals seemed to mock him now. The short stories he wrote for his blog made more sense. His only published novel, Sarayu’s Sorrows, was a better consolation. Nevertheless, a sense of emptiness loomed like a mocking monster before him. That was when he decided to sit in contemplation on a beach.
The sea has a peculiar charm, he knew, though he hardly got the time to visit the beach that was just a few kilometres from his college. He was always engaged. Reading, teaching, and writing research papers in adherence to the university’s norms. He hadn’t found time even to marry in that hectic schedule. Ambitious schedule, he smiled wryly to himself. If he had a wife and children life wouldn’t have been so empty now in the retired life, he thought. He was not sure, though. He had never found human company interesting enough.
The sea is more interesting. There is a kind of monotony about the motion of its waves and yet no two waves are similar. You can sit and watch the sea for hours trying to identify two similar waves. The heart of contemplation is identifying the relationship between one wave and the next.
“Ramesh sir!” A woman’s voice came as a surprise and Ramesh looked up to see a face that seemed familiar once upon a time. Yes, he knew her.
“Devika?” He asked hesitantly.
She squatted beside him promptly. “My God! You recognise me!”
“After how many years?” He hazarded a guess. “Thirty?”
“Almost,” she said. “And I’m as surprised as honoured.”
He looked at her greying hairs. She was still pretty in spite of those few strands. In fact, the grey seemed to add a unique charm to her face which showed no sign of aging. She must be nearly fifty now.
“You were one of my first students,” he said.
“You were one of my best teachers,” she said. “I still remember your lectures on Antony and Cleopatra.”
He smiled. “I remember your poem on them.”
“Really!” She couldn’t believe it. “It wasn’t much of a poem.”
“Well, what I remember is the fundamental question it raised: Did Antony become more of a man when he abandoned soldiering and started loving a woman? Or less of one?”
She gasped. “Sir! You astound me!”
“That question has bothered me again and again after I read your poem. Who was more of a man actually: Caesar who killed other men in order to win – win what, one wonders – or Antony who killed himself in love?”
“I didn’t know my poem had such an impact on you! Did you find an answer to that question?”
“I relied on Shaw rather than Shakespeare for the answer.”
“Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra?” she asked.
“Hmm. Shaw’s Caesar is humane and disciplined in spite of being a conqueror.”
“History is not so reliably certain,” she said to herself.
“Not at all,” he said like a teacher. “Fiction is more reliable. Poetry is more reliable.”
“Literature has heart,” she said. She was repeating what he had said once in the class.
That made him silent. Did he, professor of literature, have a heart? Wasn’t he just another version of Caesar, the conqueror? Caesar conquered lands and Ramesh conquered books. It was all a conquest. And conquests leave you alone in the end.
“What are you doing now?” He wanted to know more about her. The waves in the sea were becoming more restless as the sun began to descend in the western horizon.
“Nothing,” she said with a laugh and a shrug of shoulders. “I’m alone at home. Cook, eat, watch TV, read… I read your blog too. I liked your Rama on Sarayu's bank wondering whether he was less of a man and more of a god.”
“You were quite a bright student. Didn’t you take up any job?”
“As soon as I graduated, father got me a rich husband. A jeweller. He kept me busy at home serving food to his countless business acquaintances.”
Her husband – Jeweller, as she called him – died in 2017 soon after the Prime Minister’s demonetisation wizardry of ridding the country of black money. “My Jeweller had a lot of black money,” she said. “Gold business is essentially about smuggling and black money, as I understand. He did all that he could to save at least some of all that. Nothing much could be saved.”
Demonetisation was a better war strategy than what any Caesar could imagine, Ramesh thought. It laid the axe at the very roots of political parties and many others who were not necessarily political opponents of the ruling party.
“My Jeweller had to send bags full of demonetised currency notes to the incinerator. And soon he suffered from a fatal cardiac arrest. He had lost a lot of what he had really loved. His ambition was to get into the Forbes list of world’s billionaires.” Her sigh was palpable despite the rage of the sea.
The waves were becoming more ferocious. “Today is full moon,” she said breaking the long silence that had fallen between them.
“What about your children?” Ramesh asked.
“Two sons. Both in America. Working there. They were not interested in smuggling and black money without which no business flourishes in this country even after demonetisation.”
She chose to sell the jewellery and live with white money, she said.
She has her sons to love, at least, Ramesh thought.
“They have their girls in America to love,” she chuckled. “One lives-in with a Pakistani and the other with an Egyptian.”
“So you’ve got a Cleopatra in family now.”
“You know something?” She asked.
“I had written a few other poems that I wanted to show you.”
“I was scared.”
“They were love poems.”
He felt an arrow passing through his heart. “Do you know why I still remember you and your poem on Antony and Cleopatra?” He asked.
They were both looking at the sinking sun in the western horizon. It looked crimson. Fiery crimson.
“You used to disturb my sleep at night. You appeared as Cleopatra in my dreams.”
“My God!” She laughed. “I wish you embraced that Cleopatra!”
“But I was Caesar, wasn’t I?”
Was Caesar more of a man than Antony?
The sun had sunk into the sea. The full moon had begun to bathe the beach in its gentle shower though the waves were raging in the sea.