These villas rise out of the jungle, gabled and covered in stucco, claiming half the land for the rich. A portion of the place I come from lies buried under finished courses of blocks, under the preliminary weight of its daintier, more glamorous twin, the Anahita. The day of the big tides, when Sumatra was shaken by a magnitude 9.1-9.3 earthquake in 2004, I had worried that the village would disappear, washed away by a foul onslaught of water, slivers of our lives finding their way to Africa, where most of our people come from. A kind of reverse middle passage. I hadn’t known then that there were other, man-made ways for places to come to an end. That would force them into bargaining away something of their physical form. Or sentence them to subterranean lifestyles, like the bones of the dead.
What I write about this place stems from a rickety constellation of lived moments, sense impressions, stories heard in half-sleep, or perhaps, partly made up. Photographs taken decades ago, that have sepia-ed with age, exhumed from drawers that have lost their keys but acquired a quiet mystery.
This fishing village on the east coast begins, for me, with my late grandmother, Devi Sri Manti. With the stone steps leading to the ample porch of her house. How she crouched to her heels and weeded them, her oily hair slanted across her back. The sea that you could see from her front yard, standing on the balls of your feet: a ghost limping away from the horizon with a vast, blue sheet rucked up between its strides. The Bambou Range in the distance. Mont Villars, a balding peak with a hirsute shoulder. Grey wraiths of smoke moving down its steep escarpments at sundown. The persimmon lights of far-away houses. There are days when these are still true of this place.
Though trees hinder the view of our house on the main road, it is within walking distance from the milestone that announces the village, and within less than a kilometre away from the démi-gros where we sometimes drive to buy groceries. The house itself has partly crumbled, but its sea-sense has withstood the test of time. Its marine dignity is tactile, breathable. My uncle with his boat turned on its sides is always in the backyard. Caulking the cracks through which he says seawater seeps in and laps eelishly at his ankles. Scraping off limpets that jostle for space along the keel with his flat, flexible blade.
He clings to his perforated boat, to his unsafe routine of off-shore fishing. Over the years he’s courted the edges of unknown waters and come home with sea secrets. We come from India, he’d say. And from Africa. We are turbaned men and jeweled great-grandmothers. We are all their sons and daughters. Then in a wistful tone: our memories are scattered at sea, bobbing on spume, with no one to claim them. He will be a reminder of the history of the people of this village, our personal lieu de mémoire, when this place would have completely traded its soul, bartered its lands, waters, and stories for pittance.
Beyond the esplanade street, with speedboats sharing parking space with cars and food vans: a strip of sludge where the Grand River bites into the sea. Last year, it claimed the lives of a two- year-old and the woman who had jumped into the water to save him. This old river mouth is defined by its magnetism. Its dangers. Without them, it will cease to exist. It will dissipate. It will vanish.