Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Art by Tony Sebastian
Venkat thrashed against the waves, stretching his arms towards the distorted image of his glasses. When his fingers almost grasped the ends, he was yanked backwards. Air replaced water and he could see Aunt Arivai wrenching him away from the violent waves. She was dragging Alar, the neighbour girl, along too.
“Why would you both do something like that?” she demanded, voice louder than the waves.
“My glasses!” Venkat said, throwing his arms up in defence. He could taste salt around his lips as he spoke. “I was trying to wash them in the water and the waves just took them away.”
“So?” asked Mother, hitting him hard on the shoulders. Once, twice. And a third time.
“Ah,” said Aunt Arivai, separating Mother from him, her harsh grip loosening. “Don’t beat the child.”
“Still!” was Mother’s argument.
“See Venkat,” said Aunt Arivai, clasping his wrist. “What is more important—your glasses or you?”
“Me,” he muttered, tracing circles on the sand with his toe.
“In situations like this, you have to choose yourself, right?”
“Yes,” he mumbled, lifting his head so he no longer looked down at his temporary canvas. “That’s because I almost died. If I didn’t, it would’ve been the glasses being more important for Mum.”
“What?” screeched Mother, hints of embarrassment in her voice. “Say that again?”
“I just said that my glasses are important too because I can’t see without them.”
Mother arched an eyebrow. Venkat took a deep breath, bracing himself for her scolding. He was saved by his younger brother Varun tugging at Mother’s dress and pointing at a cotton candy vendor. She fixed Venkat with a stare before walking away.
Aunt Arivai dropped his hand and began collecting their stranded beach toys.
“Why did you run?” she asked with a soft voice.
“My glasses—” he began once again only to be cut off by Alar.
“The waves took away my toy.”
Aunt sighed, pressing two fingers to her forehead.
“What is more important—you or the toy?”
“Me,” she said, glancing at him before she turned to face Aunt again.
“We can afford to lose the toy. We can’t lose you now, can we?”
Alar bobbed her head up and down. Aunt smiled and motioned for her to walk along. Alar picked her slippers instead of wearing them and it struck him then that she had run into the sea as well. She still held the toy she had run after. His glasses, however, weren’t with him.
The trio walked towards the footpath lining the beach. Venkat observed the people around, his eyes solely falling on those with a coloured frame around their eyes. He felt empty with the weight of his glasses missing atop his ears. Beside him, Alar stood on her toes, swivelling to look at the beach. She dropped to her heels, face scrunched in annoyance and advanced a few feet forward before she turned to look back again. She repeated this ceremoniously and Venkat had to force himself to not say something unkind.
“What are you trying to do?” he asked unable to keep it any longer once Aunt Arivai had moved ahead of them. He tried not to sound too friendly since he didn’t want the little girl anywhere around him. His friends had mentioned how this neighbour of his was a complaint box, always telling the elders about their pranks, always trying to be Miss Goody Two Shoes.
“I’m looking for your glasses,” she said as though it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“My glasses?” he scoffed. “You honestly hope to see my glasses from all the way here? We’re not even standing on the beach anymore.”
“I know we’re on the footpath,” she said, pointing down. “But what if the waves decide they don’t like your glasses and drop them back on the sand? We could go pick them up.”
He was baffled by the childishness of her words. Another surge of annoyance flared in him.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Is that a rhetorical question?”
“No, really, how old are you?”
“Eleven,” she said, hopping and turning around to face the beach behind them. She went on her toes and scrutinised the beach before dropping back to her feet.
“And you think the waves will drop back my glasses onto the sand because they won’t like it?”
“Yes,” she said, starting a game of hopscotch on the footpath tiles. “They look hideous.”
“Looked,” he corrected before jogging to catch up with Aunt Arivai.
Mother and Aunt Arivai decided on an early dinner in the beachside restaurant. His head hurt from trying to read the minuscule letters on the menu, because of which he ordered the usual chapatis and paneer. Everything blurred into shapes and colours like Varun’s drawings—as though the colours were made to fit into the shapes by a little child.
Mother was probably guilty about her outburst in front of everybody else and tried to serve him but he made sure to snatch the flatware and do it himself. Alar spent the whole dinner playing Rock Paper Scissors with Varun, something Venkat found irritating. Both of them seemed to have bonded over dinner, this being the first time they all spent more than ten minutes with the girl next door all because her parents would be late from their office.
After dinner Alar suggested, with Varun looking at Mother and Aunt Arivai with puppy eyes, that they stand at the beach for five minutes only before leaving for home. Mother thought it was a brilliant idea and Aunt Arivai was easy to persuade anyway.
Varun’s hazy form ran to meet the waves, yelping as the sea touched his toes. Mother and Aunt Arivai laughed, wide smiles plastered across their faces as they watched him. Alar crouched to the sand and Venkat couldn’t make out what she was doing. He yearned to run to the sea, wet his clothes all over again and play with Varun but heard Mother’s reprimands from earlier in the back of his head, and thought it better if he stood alone. He hoped she’d notice, call him, apologise for shouting at him and make him feel better about losing his glasses.
With no watch in hand and nothing else to do, he began counting numbers. At 50, his feet lowered into the sand, at 67 Mother laughed looking at Varun, at 126 Alar squealed in excitement and at 127 she was bolting towards him. His head hurt from trying to focus his eyes but he could make out the blurry navy blue and white of her dress.
“Aunty! Varun!” she shouted as she made her way towards Venkat. “All of you come here!”
His insides squirmed in anticipation of what was coming. She was going to complain about him standing alone, or maybe something he did when playing cricket. His friends’ words rang in his head, a cacophony of voices with Alar’s excited squeals presiding over them.
She stopped when she reached a few feet away from him and waited with her hands tied behind her until the others arrived. Every step Mother took towards them felt an eternity long. He remembered how he had knocked over Alar’s cycle with his football a few weeks back. That was the only bad he had done to her. He had been wearing the same green shirt then as well. Maybe that prompted her to remember and she was going to—
“Look at what I found!” she exclaimed, thrusting a blur of black and blue in front of his eyes. A familiar black and blue.
He snatched it away from her, wearing them in a flash. It was his glasses, no doubt. Brown spots and dried salt caked the lenses allowing him to view an ugly image of the beach and the people around him. It was the most beautiful sight he’d seen all evening.
“Thank you Alar,” said Mother. “Thank you so much, dear.”
“It’s nothing,” she replied, hopping and twirling on her heel.
“Good girl. Now Venkat has his glasses again,” remarked Aunt Arivai patting him on the back. Venkat felt warm for the first time the entire evening. “Can we go home now children? We spent about five minutes already.”
Varun protested, leaning towards the sea and in a moment, trotted away from their group. Aunt Arivai was quick to catch him by the arm.
“We’ll come back next weekend?” she offered and Varun stared for a moment after which he wore his slippers without whining.
They strolled on the footpath once again, this time searching for a cab. Alar was playing her game of hopscotch on the tiles, trying to persuade Varun into joining her. The gratitude slipped out of his mouth effortlessly.
“Thank you,” he announced.
“I told you the waves wouldn’t have liked your glasses,” she said nonchalantly, hopping from tile to tile. “They dropped it back.”
“Yeah,” he said, smiling at her for the first time. “Glad to know the waves think like you.”