This is a novel I started a long time ago. I have committed myself to finishing it before the end of this year. Here is the first chapter as a teaser:
The first draft edition is in print!
The sand was hot under my naked feet. After more than ten years I was back on the very beach where it all happened.
My flight from Paris had arrived in Chennai very early that morning. As I stood here, I finally relaxed. I saw ‘The Beach’ for what it really was, an ordinary beach in Tamil Nadu, buzzing with life.
Since the big tsunami wave had washed away my life, the inner movie of those events had played in my mind in an endless loop.
Brightly painted fishing boats were being pushed into the water by slender, dark-skinned men. The rich musky air of India was thick with morning fires and engine fumes. Sounds from the sea and birds were competing with the noises of human activity.
‘I love India; It’s such a crazy place,’ the thought came like an old reminiscence.
‘What am I doing here?’
The fresh morning air carried sounds of hammers on wooden planks. People were repairing boats and building houses on the upper side of the beach. But as I started to walk towards the water, the memories of what had happened a decade ago marched back, like an unstoppable army, inexorably taking control of what my eyes were seeing.
The sight of a smiling chai vendor with his pots and heaters sitting on a heap of stones was suddenly overlaid by vivid images of shattered boats, piles of broken wood tangled with lifeless human bodies.
This flow of images threw me back into a hostile parallel reality. I shut my eyes, but it did not take the visions away. My heart was pounding in my ears, and I could not breathe. Death and destruction were all around. I saw the lifeless eyes of a young girl staring at me through the rubble. The earth shook violently under my feet. I heard horrible roaring sounds, as a dark mountain of water erupted and advanced in a fury.
The monster wave swallowed me into her dark body of millions of broken forms, making me one of them. I was wildly tumbled around, as I collided with hard and sharp debris all around me. I desperately tried to surface, but was inexorably drawn deeper into the hellish soup. Then someting big collided with my head and I was rescued by nothingness.
The next thing I remember was a sweet smell, voices, people talking.
‘This is curious,’ I thought, as I had no clue what had just happened nor was I aware of where I was. Then it all came back in a flash: India! the big tsunami! I blinked my eyes open and saw only a blur of light and colors.
“Where are my children!”, I screamed, overwhelmed by raw panic.
As my vision cleared, I saw a dark-haired woman bending over me. She took my hand, and I got another whiff of sweetness. ‘Patchouli?’ My mind recognized the scent and found its way back to the reality of the beach.
“Sir, can I help you?” The woman asked.
“I don’t know.”
“What happened to you?”
“The wave… my family… I can never forgive myself!…” My voice trailed off as I took in my surroundings and saw where I was sitting. The woman’s eyes had a particular green color and looked friendly. I pushed myself up on my elbows, and she helped me into a sitting position.
My ears were ringing loudly, and the morning light was too bright. The beach seemed to wobble around me like a boat in a storm. I was like a shipwreck, feeling sick and disoriented. Then I heard the other sounds and saw the crowd that had gathered around me.
I felt the soft touch of a hand between my shoulder blades. The woman smiled. It was the first time I saw what she looked like. Long eyelashes adorned her green almond shaped eyes. I was mesmerized by the kind intensity in her eyes. Her face was only a few centimeters from mine. Some of her long, dark and slightly curling hair was touching my cheek. Her skin was a light tone of amber.
“Can you stand up?” she asked in perfect English.
“I guess,” I answered weakly.
She reached out and helped me to my feet. Her hand felt warm and soft.
“You’re welcome,” she said, a bright smile lighting up her face.
The people, who had been standing by, curious about what had happened to that westerner were losing interest, and soon I was alone with the woman. She stood silently next to me until we had to move away from the path of a red and blue fishing boat manhandled towards the water by a group of men.
The water was rising rapidly into the beach. As we walked, I got a full view of her, and saw that she was beautiful. Her dark hair was flowing naturally around her face. What struck me most, were her intense sparkling eyes, full of life and kindness. I felt instinctively drawn to her.
When she looked at me inquiringly, I stammered, “Thank you for your help; I’m feeling better now.”
I wasn’t sure, whether this was true. Searching for a way to relate to her I asked, “What are you doing here on the beach?”
A smile flickered across the woman’s face.
“Enjoying the morning sun, and being at the right place at the right time.”
Something about the way she had pronounced those words made me ask, “Do I know you?”
The woman looked at me in a strange way, as if she was about to say something. But then she only asked, “What happened to you?”
I took a deep breath. “What you saw was because of a sad old story, and I fear, that I’m still caught up in it.”
“If you feel like it, you can tell me the story. My name is Alma,” she said.
“Mine is Luke.” I awkwardly shook her hand.
I felt uncomfortable remaining on the beach, that was getting busier by the minute. As I looked around, I saw a small food stand up near the road.
Pointing towards that place I asked hesitantly, “Would you like to have breakfast with me?”
“Yes, thank you, I’d like that.” she replied.
I felt relief, sitting in the little shed-like place, away from the busy beach. A woman in a cluttered corner was cooking on a stove made of clay. A friendly teenage boy took our orders of tea, tomato omelet and masala dosa, a local specialty. After drinking some bottled water, we both remained silent for a while. I was grateful for the break, as I still felt like a shipwrecked man having just reached land.
“I’m happy to listen if you want to tell me your story,” she said after a while.
I did not know what to say and took a long time to gather my thoughts. Getting lost in my memories and not knowing how to start, I uttered, “I would also like to hear about you. Where do you come from, and what are you doing here?”
“You first!” she said with conviction and an engaging smile.
“Well, I don’t know. I lost my wife and kids here, more than ten years ago. Though I’m still physically alive I feel dead most of the time. Like living in a no man’s land from which I find no way out. It took me all those years to manage to come back to this place. Doesn’t that sound crazy?”
“No,” she said, her eyes boring deeper into mine.
“My life is empty. I lost so much time, trying to find my way back. I had a life and a family before. I was sure of my world, of who I was. I knew what I was doing… I lost it all…”
As she kept here unwavering gaze on me, I continued, “I had dreams, projects, goals. Now I do not even know what that means.”
“What kind of dreams did you have?” she asked.
“I barely remember. Maybe dreams about traveling the world… having a summer house… spending more time with my kids…,” a wave of pain poured from my guts, strangled my voice.
“I guess if I can feel pain, I’m still alive…” I croaked, wiping my wet eyes.
A young boy carrying steaming pots served our breakfast. He poured the food on big banana tree leaves which were laid down in front of us. We ate in silence, using our right hand in the Indian way.
Savoring the food as best I could, I was trying to make some sense of what was happening.
‘Who was this woman who had magically appeared straight into my empty life.’
She already felt uncannily present and real. My fainting on the beach, and the subsequent contact with her had brought me back to some ‘normal’ reality. The dreadful visions had ceased to plague me. I felt my inner chill soften with the warmth of the spicy meal and the woman’s presence.
“Maybe, would you tell me a bit about you, I need more time.”
As she leaned back into her seat, I admired her graceful movements and enjoyed her soft patchouli fragrance emmanating from her.
“Well, in a nutshell it’s this: Ten years ago, I was working for a British help organization that was here to assist western tourists after the big tsunami hit the Indian coast. They sent me as I’m native from the region. Right now I’m here to visit my family, and like you, I felt drawn to return to this place. Lots of people have come back, in an attempt to work through their trauma and pain. I have talked to many individuals as I am a psychologist.”
I instantly felt a knot in my chest, as her words threw me back to the endless therapeutic sessions I had to endure.
Sensing my mood swing, she said, “My contract ended years ago, today I’m here privately, not as a psychologist.”
“I’m sorry,” I croaked, “I have grown weary of psychologists and psychiatrists…, I was in a really bad shape, and they put me through an intense program, which was very challenging.”
“Did it help?”
“I guess, otherwise I probably would not be here today, but still in Paris, living a secluded life.”
Alma stood up. “Why don’t we go for a walk? she suggested.
Then she added, “My life has changed a lot since that time, and I’m not practicing as a psychologist anymore.”
As we went out of the hut the sun had risen high and the moist air was already very hot.
Seeing the woman walk with me, it struck me that she was the first person in all those years who had touched my heart beyond the walls I had built around it. Something new had found its way in, and it felt both delightful and scary.
“I enjoyed that breakfast with you,” I said, looking at her shyly.
As a response, she smiled again. Her smile made her whole face shine, and it felt like a fresh shower in the growing heat of the beach.
We walked towards another part of the beach. There were mostly women and children left on the beach. They were cleaning containers and repairing nets. The typical smell of the fishery utensils floated in the light breeze coming from the sea. Most boats were already far out, on their way to the horizon line, where they would soon drop out of sight.
“Why do you feel so familiar when I’m sure I’ve never seen you before?” I said, more to myself than to the beautiful woman who walked at my side.
Not waiting for an answer, I continued in a low voice. “Maybe it’s because I felt so lost before I met you. You are very kind to me. Being here hurts…”
“You also look familiar,” she said, pausing for a moment, then continued, “but it’s not from the past, maybe it’s from the future?”
I felt an inner vertigo hearing her words. They rang true, and I left them hanging in my mind that had gone blank.
We continued to walk, zigzagging around people and boats, towards a calmer part of the shore. The woman’s caring presence by my side was slowly filling my empty world.
As we reached a calmer area of the long bay, I recognized that part of the beach, where rocks and big boulders seemed to grow out of the sand There were kids running, shouting; some of them pulled self-made kites.
The hot, humid air was heavy, despite the proximity of the water. The coarse sand ground noisily under my feet. As I watched the kids running and playing, my wounded mind went back in time, and I saw my two little girls running just like that. A red hot searing pain pierced my chest, and it hurt like hell.
As the remaining walls around my heart crumbled, I felt the woman as she took my hand and put her arm around my shoulders. Her touch and warm presence gave the final blow to the cracking walls, releasing an unstoppable torrent of tears. She held me as the dam broke, a tsunami of grief poured out, submerging everything.
I barely remember what followed; a rickshaw ride to my hotel, worried faces. The woman supporting me, talking. The tsunami rolled away, letting me feel smaller waves, less scary ones, strangely sweet and bitter; waves of the grief, my guilt for still being alive, for having been unable to save my wife Simone, and my two little girls, Noémie and Camille. I felt their loving presence, the life we had shared.
As I opened my eyes, I saw the woman sitting next to the bed on which I was lying. Who was she? Where was I? The woman smiled. I remembered her name, Alma! The colors of her sari appeared to be alive, dancing in the rays of the afternoon sun falling in through the room’s small window. But what made my head spin was her delicious perfume. I felt I could get drunk on it.
“Welcome back,” she said, “how are you feeling?”
She was bending over me, her long hair touching my arm. I could see all the details of her amber skin. I looked into her green eyes, and my heart exploded towards this woman I had met only a few hours ago.
“I love you, you are the most beautiful being I’ve ever seen.” The words had come out without the usual mental censoring.
She smiled, but some seriousness entered her eyes.
“So, you are feeling better!”
I felt vulnerable, and did not know what to say.
She sat next to me on the bed. I rested my head against her, loosing myself in her fragrance and her warm presence, and I gradually slid into a deep sleep.
I woke up from the buzzing of my phone. I felt disoriented, at first not knowing where I was. I switched off the alarm and saw it was four in the morning. I remembered setting it in the plane, before arriving in Chennai.
The room was dimly lit by the golden light of a candle, but there was no trace of Alma.
Has this all been a dream?’ I wondered. But Alma’s rich perfume still lingered in the room. I eagerly breathed it in, but then a sense of dread filled me at the thought, that I might never see her again.
I put on fresh clothes and went outside, hoping to see her somewhere. It was a typical Indian shopping street. Big colorful signs written in alien looking Tamil characters were advertising small shops and food places. Many of them were tiny, their narrow front side squeezed into the spaces between bigger constructions. Most of the shops had their painted blinders still down. A few street lamps, looking old and worn, diffused a dim light. I shivered and closed the jacket around my neck.
An early cycle rickshaw squeaked by in unison with the rumbling of my hungry stomach. I realized that I had not eaten anything since my breakfast with Alma the previous morning. I looked around but could not see any food or tea vendors, nor any trace of Alma. So, I continued to walk, enjoying the fresh morning breeze.
Suddenly I heard a faraway voice calling my name, and turned to see Alma waving from down the street.
“I went out to get us some food; I’m glad I did not miss you!” she said happily as we reached each other.
I was overjoyed to see her radiant face. Part of me was surprised to see her there, in flesh and blood. She had not been a fantasy after all!
“Look what I have!” she said, waving a green cotton bag.
“Let’s go and sit in that park,” she said, pointing down the street. It was a small square patch of dry lawn with a few sad looking shrubs and a couple of palm trees. We sat down on a bench behind a leafy bush. Alma unpacked the richly smelling food and we ate in silence. It was heavenly delicious and spicy.
I looked at her, grinning happily.
The first rays of the rapidly rising sun lighted Alma’s face. Everything was intensely present in these early morning rays of light.
“Alma, are you real? You feel like you come from a different world.”
“Wow! That’s an intriguing thought, Luke, who knows, maybe you’re right,” she said, a mischievous look on her face.”
“Why did you stay with me? I don’t understand. You are an unusual Indian woman…”
“Do you always need to understand?”
“I guess not, as long as you stay with me and not vanish in a big puff of smoke.”
She laughed. “I’m as real as you; what makes you think otherwise?”
“There’s something unusual emanating from you, something I have never felt before. And you are very beautiful…”
“Come on…” she said, giving me a friendly punch in the ribs, “let’s move a bit.”
She took my hand, and led me across the street. The town had finally woken up. The street was rapidly filling with people on bikes, scooters, rickshaws, cars and all sorts of man- or animal-pulled vehicles.
A big bus came roaring and honking into the already crammed street, spreading a cloud of dark fumes and dust in its tracks. It looked like the driver had no intention of slowing down the clunky bus, expecting all other vehicles and people to magically move out of its path; which amazingly they did, some of them by the tiniest of margins.
“One has to be completely nuts to drive here,” I said, looking at the noisy chaos left in the bus’s trail.
“Or one has to think differently and have no fear,” Alma replied, the corners of her mouth twitching slightly.
“I call that insanity,” I insisted stubbornly, covering my nose against the smoke and dust.
Without a further reply Alma turned into a small side-street. Happy to leave the noise and dust behind, I followed her down the narrow alley. The sun was rising above the houses. We had to move out of the way of a pushcart that appeared from an alley; two men hidden behind a thick load of long fabric rolls were pushing it wherever it could pass.
“Where are we going?” I asked trying to keep level with Alma in the crowded street.
“There’s an interesting place with temples near the river, not far from here. Let’s go there!”
“Sounds good to me,” I said, relaxing, surrendering to the present and its unfolding events.
We continued our walk through the intensifying activities of the streets. It was like a flowing dance around changing obstacles, who themselves were caught in the same process of moving around each other. Even after having been in India and other Asian countries before, I was still dazed by the sheer sensory overload.
As we left the streets behind, the land was beginning to slope towards the banks of a river. There was a herd of water buffaloes lazily moving about on the shore. They were huge animals with enormous pointy horns.
When we reached the river, I walked toward the mighty animals. I wanted to have a closer look at them.
“Be careful, they can be unpredictable towards strangers!” Alma said, pulling me away.
“Hey, I think I can take care of myself, and it’s not the first time I’m in India!” I said, a little more irritably than I had intended.
She took my hand, and held it in a firm grip. “I’m sorry if I have hurt your feelings. Those buffaloes can be very dangerous.”
“No need to be sorry,” I said, “I reacted stupidly; I do love your care… it’s just… I’m quite confused, and I don’t know what’s happening to me, nor what I’m going to do with my life.”
Alma gently pulled me away from the grazing buffaloes, and said, “I also have had challenging times, years ago, and it led me to an entirely new world,”
“What kind of world did you find?” I asked.
“A world where people are happy and wise, where everything is connected, abundant and in tune with the true nature of life.”
“Wow! That sounds great, but isn’t that a utopia we are very far from?”
She took both my hands, her gaze intense, as if she was sizing me up. “That world exists, and I have the feeling you are going to find it.”
I was not sure what she had meant by finding that world, but her words touched my heart and left me with a new inner warmth.
We followed the river out of town for a while. We passed women washing clothes on the shore. At that moment, that particular reality, a South Indian town, a woman named Alma, a river, was all I had. I was like a child again, fresh to the world. There was this intensity and immediacy of reality.
We passed several temples bordering the shore, but did not stop. We continued our walk towards an area from which swirling, dense smoke was rising. It was packed with people.
“These are the local cremation grounds,” she said, holding my hand firmly, “it’s the place where the bodies of people who have died are burned on wood pyres next to the water.”
We passed a procession of chanting men carrying a body wrapped in a white cloth. Nearby, flames and a dark funnel of smoke were rising from a pyre. The whole area had a very particular smell of burned wood and spices mixed with musky sweet odors that were undoubtedly related to the burning of bodies. It was surreal, but to my surprise, I felt at ease, as something sacred emanated from the place.
A family was putting a corpse on a pyre that had been prepared near the water. They were around twenty men of different generations, their hair color ranging from deep shiny black to brilliant white. They opened the shroud, exposing the face of the dead. Then each man went around the body, putting ointments on it and sprinkling the face with water. I was mesmerized by the scene. Alma took my hand, and instantly I felt a flow of warm energy.
I caught sight of a man observing us from his place next to one of the pyres. He was a naked sadhu, one of those ancient holy men of India who want to transcend all attachments as well as their own physical body.
The burning of the fires was reflected in the sadhu’s eyes. His matted hair came down in long unruly dreadlocks. His brown body was smeared with ashes, a reminder to what it would become. He was sitting cross-legged in a meditative posture, but all about him felt fierce and wild. Ashes were still smoldering next to him. I could distinguish the remains of a skull and a leg bone.
I was intimidated by the scene and all the more shocked as Alma pulled me along towards the sadhu. Before I realized, we were standing in front of him.
Alma folded her hands and bowed her head.
He silently returned the greeting and made a gesture for us to sit in front of him.
Alma did so without hesitation, lowering herself to the dusty ground in one gracious movement. I remained standing and looked at the flowing river in front of me. I tried to take a deep breath, but the air was thick with heavy fumes and smells. Finally, I reluctantly sat down.
My unease increased as the sadhu’s gaze bore right onto me. As a protection, I instinctively closed my eyes. I could still sense the sadhu’s presence, but it shifted from something threatening, to a powerful inner presence I could feel in my heart and mind. I gradually relaxed, and the inner chatting and turmoil of my mind faded into silence. A wide inner space opened up, that I had never felt before. Then something else shifted in my awareness.
I rose from the ground until I hovered above the sadhu. I saw him very distinctly, and in front of him, Alma. I was also aware, that the man sitting beside Alma with closed eyes, was me. But I was beginning to feel, that I, the observer, was so much more, in that vast, vibrant dimension I had entered.
My view expanded an I realized, that I was leaving the Earth. I had an inner knowing that I was following the light back to its origin in the Sun. As I approached the gigantic solar body I could sense its enormous energy, not as heat, but as something burning in my own heart and radiating outwards. I could call it love, but it felt much bigger than that word. Finally, the radiating energy that had expanded from my heart reunited with its source as I dove into the Sun. Her fiery body absorbed my tiny speckle and I became pure radiant light energy.
The duration of that inner journey could have been seconds or as much as years. I had been in a realm where there is no time as we know it. But then, as suddenly as the vision had started, I was back on the noisy river shore, sitting next to Alma, facing the old sadhu.
I was disoriented and dazed by the sounds that felt very loud. As I looked around, I had a sense of recognition, it was like coming back from a long journey. As my rational mind kicked in again my first thought was that I must have breathed in toxic fumes that were surely floating around the place. Somebody had burned some powerful stuff that had caused my hallucinations.
Alma and the sadhu had not changed their positions. She had her eyes closed. The fire next to us had stopped smoldering. The sadhu’s gaze was still resting on me. I looked straight at him, but his eyes were like burning torches that went right into my mind. I quickly averted my eyes.
Lost in an inner vertigo, I had not noticed that Alma was looking at me. I started to open my mouth to say something, but she put a finger on it, motioning me to get up. After bowing again to the sadhu, we left.