Paperboat

By Abhishri Swarup, I History


Dear Ammu,

I will meet you soon. 

I set my letters afloat as paper boats for you to find wherever you are. Unlike humans, oceans are not hindered by borders.

Ammu, I will meet you soon. I know. 

I have set sail over the agitated waves of particularly infamous waters, chasing a destiny uncertain – and it is not unknown to me that these unforgiving currents are charted by the likes of me too often and too much to carry anecdotes, and not tragedies.

Literal drowning, however, happens to be the least of my fears. Nautical misfortune does not daunt me, Ammu, as does the idea of plunging headfirst – blindsided and blindfolded- into the mysterious. In the dark, my fears assume more gravity. Come nightfall, my backbone seems to dilute in these unfounded terrors.

On-board, in each eye that stares blankly and wordlessly into the horizon, I see the same apprehensions, the same hesitations, the same yearnings and longings. 

I also see the identical, timid hopefulness – in each, it is subtle, but it is there.

This boat, Ammu, is teeming with people – so much that it ought to tip over – but it is also teeming with hope, so I know it will stay afloat, come what may. 

Such times compel me to greedily clutch at the occasional straw that drifts my way.

Brown tendrils of hair are blown out of the sanctuary of my hijab by these brutal Mediterranean winds, and regardless of the effort I invest in taming it, Ammu, some part of the scarf always seems to wrinkle, and then defiantly flap and dance in these saline gusts. 

My hijab seems to be the only thing I own in the realest sense of the word – I can call it mine without the apprehension of losing it to the unpredictable dispositions of fate, as has been the unfortunate case with a myriad of things in my life previously. It is, thus, only natural for me to panic when my hijab, too, seems to be slipping away.

Ammu, isn’t it uncanny how distressed human beings discover a sense of belonging in the feeling of ownership? The cloth truly feels like a breathing, living part of my being. On a variety of levels, it breathes courage into me, even if it is in minute amounts. It shields me – preserves my sanity, more so, by ebbing my omnipresent paranoia. Where will I go? I have no home. What will I eat? I have no bread. 

Will we meet again? 

I hope we do, Ammu. I hope we do. 

Abbu named me Kayanaat. The universe. He wanted me to be as limitless, as borderless as this splendid universe. Yet, here we are, with our fickle kismets. Borders have drained me, and the universe – the ultimate trickster – seems to be taunting its namesake.

My hijab’s defiance seems to be the universe’s attempt at mocking the little things providing me refuge, for this scarf is a straw I am clutching at with all my strength. When all hope seems to slip, straws must suffice. But what are humans supposed to do if the last straw slips as well?

Survival is privilege. Will I live to see another day? This wondering reverberates in my mind too often now to be considered an odd, poorly placed thought. I am aware that the frequency of these ponderings should ideally alarm me. However, I have been rattled too often and too deep to be wary of the forbidden places my thoughts visit these days. 

Ammu, I carry little but my dreams. Oh yes, the baggage is heavy, and my shoulders are frail. Surprisingly, contrary to what one would expect on a voyage as arduous as the one I undertake, it is not burdensome. It does not weigh me down. 

The baggage of my dreams helps me rise. 

It helps me rise, and I know that in such miserable times, wistful imaginings can be fatal, but Thought is notorious for defiance. 

Bitter-sweet imaginings spiral my feeble heart back home. Sleep serves as a wanted, but sporadic escape. The instant I rest my eyes, rather mercilessly am I flung at what simultaneously are the most heart-wrenching and heart-warming of my nostalgic recollections.

Suddenly, I discover my young self, perched in Abbu’s lap by the Euphrates as he soothingly whispers words from Rumi in my ear, to lull my tired eyes to sweet sleep. His careful fingers relaxingly cascade down my tangled hair, grazing my scalp only slightly. In keeping with this nonchalant, daring irony of slumber and peace, secrets of the soul are revealed to me in poetic Persian as the panorama of dreams springs life into my subconscious. 

Flashes later, the sun is a brilliant, blinding white, explicitly cruel to us in a most wonderful manner. The Euphrates is still lapping nearby; rippling in its characteristic carefree manner; but Abbu is gone. For a terrible moment, the lines between illusion and reality blur increasingly, and I know I’d rather stay trapped forever in the former. The ghastly Truth saunters its way over – penetrates my subconscious and in its usual brazenness, haunts my senses even in these brittle, momentary escapes.

Like a welcome bolt from the blue, little Yaasir’s infantile laughter resonates in the distance and consumes my hauntings.

I am more awake than ever; more alive than ever. Yielding to his incessant demands, my fingers unskilfully illustrate Abbu’s former mystic whispers for Yaasir, in the fragrant and moist Euphratic soils of our Syria. Just like that, we play childish games in the sludge, before washing our soiled clothes in the sparkling water that is innate only to the lifeline of our land. 

Stealthily, almost like a clever pickpocket, Night falls, and replicates the gentle flapping of a raven’s wings. It burns purple and red. The sky is translucent and smoky, as the clouds shroud the waxing crescent. 

Ammu, you and I spot non-existent shapes in these clouds. With our backs rested against the tin roof, we talk of nothing and everything. 

Our almost-muted voices are jargon to my ears. My mind ensnares a few words – at different points of time – as they inconsistently fly by. Every individually nonsensical word makes sense in its own peculiar way. The seemingly endless conversations rush back to me in one emotional tide of unrivalled magnitude and uninhibited power – the words drown me, making it difficult to breathe. Like a fish out of water, I pathetically gasp my way back to reality.

I question my sanity.

On cloudless nights, till either of us fell asleep, we’d quietly stare at the blazing stars. 

I remember, Ammu. I remember. I couldn’t forget even if I tried. 

I don’t want to. 

I think of you. I think of Abbu and Yaasir. I think of my homeland. 

I think of the perfumed air of Syria, abuzz with life. Raqqa, and its modest, yet mesmerising existence. The rich soils, which housed many a caravan as one of their own. The gurgling Euphrates – the crescent of civilisation. The stoney buildings, flaunting arabesque architecture of the most superior quality. 

I can almost smell the aromatic winds nourish first my body, and then my soul. I can almost see masses of traders from the caravan, accepting my soil as their own, as a reciprocation of my land’s previous, similar kindness. This very two-way acceptance, with the attached feeling of homecoming, is exemplary of the warmth of our people. I can feel the silver waters of my Euphrates envelope my fingers like liquid muslin, as I lay on the damp bank with my hair sprawled all over. The coarse touch of stone walls, scratching my forearm lightly. The tender pressure of Syrian blood flowing in my veins. I can almost experience all of this, but not quite.

That is how my Syria remains ingrained forever in the memory. The sensations are almost tangible, but then I open my eyes. 

Wistful thinking gets the best of me, because Ammu, I anticipate meeting you. 

I anticipate meeting you in the homeland of your dreams and mine – in another place, and in a different time – somewhere far away from this mass exodus.

Miles from dead doves and crushed olive branches, away from warheads and gunned men, and across barbed wires, there is a place. Lifetimes away, yet just within mortal grasp, this place is like a distant reverie; like a long-forgotten dream; like a bygone musing. 

It is like the Syria of your dreams and mine. 

I will meet you there.

Ammu, I will meet you soon.

Love always,

Kayanaat

. . . .

Concentric circles seemed to absorb Yasmeen’s fatigued being, as brackish water rippled around her throbbing ankles buried in the sand.

With gentle, but demanding undertones, something afloat brushed against her aching, grimy calves.

White. Perfectly buoyant.

Oddly intact. 

A paper boat?

Arabic. 

Cautious strokes and well-rounded curves, garnished with careless dots – a familiar hand.

All too familiar.

A letter from Kayanaat.