Yesterday, my mother and I sat down to a typical Fijian breakfast of buns and milky tea. A fruit bat, screaming the joys of eating a pawpaw outside my window, had kept me up for half the night. So, it was with tired anticipation that I packed a backpack for a half day cruise leaving from Port Denarau. I’d been at my aunt’s house for two days before I decided to do something touristy.
How I must appear to my relatives was something that had never occurred to me until now. I’d arrived from New Zealand with a laptop bag, kindle, phone, Bluetooth speaker, and a panicked expression because I thought I’d lost my wireless earbuds. I had a bag with me, overstuffed and ready for a day at the beach, and I was more excited to be there for the holiday than the time spent visiting family. My aunt bought me plenty of tropical fruit from the market because she knew I’d like it.
It was here, in Fiji, that my mother imparted stories I’d never heard before. We’d sit out on the porch as she recalled her childhood. She spoke about how she went fishing as a child – we were generations old fishing folk from the South of India. And as she told these stories of a romantic, faraway past, I began dreaming of a turquoise ocean, burning wood fires, banana wrapped spiced fish, endless waters and the gentle bobbing of a fishing boat. The next day, I booked a cruise on a sailboat.
My uncle agreed to come with me. He was pretending to sleep as my cousin’s children ran around the yard. His plump cheeks were gleaming with perspiration on a serene island-time smile stretched across a perfect complexion. My mother told me that Tomi Mama was the blackest kid in the village growing up and everyone teased him. As the youngest in the family, he also had eight older brothers and sisters who picked on him, and when she said she regretted bullying Mama when they were young, I felt an ache in my chest. I found myself asking him if he’d join me on the cruise. He opened an eye, smiled, and said okay. At the time, I thought he was secretly pleased to have his niece pay extra attention to him. Though now I think he’d do anything for the people around him, because that’s just how he is.
Call it my father’s blood – my mother would – but I’m stingy. I told Mama I’d pay for the cruise and then booked the cheapest one I could find. After checking in at the kiosk, we made our way to the boat. I still had the brochure in my pocket, doused in 80s font with a garish pink catamaran on the front. It was depressingly more decrepit and ugly in person. Scratched paint exposed blackened wood in patches like old scars. Yellowing ropes criss-crossed between the hulls in a tramp across the bow, and the name of the boat was fading. ‘The Sand Witch.’ The name made it all the more ridiculous, especially because the ‘W’ was peeling off, so it read ‘The Sand itch.’
Standing on the dock, Mama sneakily ate a biscuit. His eyes widened when he saw me and he feigned shock at being caught eating, brushed his hands on his hibiscus patterned shirt, and clumsily got onto the boat. We were joined by an older woman with a silver bob, wearing oversized glasses and a white linen skirt. She was with a strapping young blond, impeccably dressed but for his wrinkled shirt, which I guessed he’d pulled out from the bottom of his suitcase. I was intrigued. Mother and son? Aunt and nephew? Silver Fox and Toy Boy? It looked as though they’d stepped out of a country club, and somewhere between a dizzying champagne lunch and letting their eyes adjust to their new sunglasses, they’d failed to notice the rubbish heap they’d just landed in.
Roko, the skipper, wore a silver earring in one ear, and looked like a Fijian pirate. I’d watched Pirates of the Caribbean on the airplane, and the imagery must have been lurking somewhere in my subconscious. Five hours later, the thought of Roko as a pirate was going to seem so, so stupid.
We left the marina, and eventually I became lost in the warm sun and the gentle, lulling cadence of the bouncing boat. I was a million miles away from the cold, slewing rain of Auckland’s winter, congested transport, damp hair, and forgotten umbrellas on buses. June in Fiji was perfect. As I lay stretched out on the tramp, the Pirates of the Caribbean dissolved from the floating screens in my mind, and I went somewhere beyond. The smell of the ocean tugged me to my mother’s memories. Her sun-darkened skin, luminous under the clear surface of the water as she pulls at a fishing net, water in her veins.
While basking in my surreal daydream, I was jolted to reality by a sudden and intense shuddering of the boat. I was airborne, a flying fish in my slow-to-awaken imagination. I heard wood crack against wood, a rushing of water, and a moment later I was staring up at the perfectly clear sky. We’d hit something. I sat up. I’d landed on the bean bag that was my uncle and was unhurt. Roko and the Silver Fox were lying in the tramp at the bow in a tangled and swearing mess, and the young man was nowhere to be seen.
“What in the world?” shouted the silver-haired woman. I peeked over the edge of the boat, which was now leaning on its right side, and saw the most peculiar thing. The blond man was sitting upright in the middle of the ocean, and as he slowly pulled himself to his feet, water lapped his ankles. He stared at his wet shoes, then up at us.
“We have run into a sandbar,” he said matter-of-factly. I thought I heard a German accent. I felt somewhat numb and didn’t notice I was shaking until Roko checked us over. A few minutes later, we were huddled in a group like a school of stunned fish.
Roko paced about before telling us that the radio wasn’t working and everyone groaned. He said we could wait for help and wiped his sweaty brow. Tomi Mama offered to have a look at the radio. Our cell phones were out of range, but I noticed we were by an island, and I could just make out beach umbrellas in the distance. I thought surely they’d have some form of radio communication out here?
The silver-haired woman offered her hand and introduced herself as Camille, and the young German man with her as Stefan. I gave her my name, Sumsara, and told her Tomi Mama was my uncle. She guessed I was from New Zealand, judging from my accent, and then we fell into silence as we listened to Mama talk to Roko.
“This is rubbish radio. When did you use last?”
“Never used it.”
“So, what do you do Camille?” I asked.
“I run a small theatre in London. Stefan is a playwright.”
Stefan nodded. Dark circles sat beneath his eyes and I couldn’t tell if it was from lack of sleep, or the tell-tale signs of age on a boyish face.
“Do you work together?”
“No.” Stefan replied. “That theatre is booked two years in advance. And her husband doesn’t like me.”
“My husband owns the theatre, and Stefan is, well, my boyfriend.”
I was distracted as I spied Roko out the corner of my eye, desperately waving a phone around to get a signal.
“And what do you do darling?”
“Oh. It’s nothing. It’s boring. I work for a bank.”
“Interesting,” said Camille.
“You think banking is interesting?”
“No. You just don’t look like someone who works for a bank.”
I brightened, wondering what alternate life this woman could dream up for me.
“What do I look like?”
“You look like you work for a bank,” said Stefan and my smile dropped. Camille narrowed her eyes, rethinking her judgement, and didn’t comment any further.
Tomi Mama joined us in the nets as Roko waved his cell phone around in the air again. Mama wiped his brow and patted me consolingly on the shoulder.
“We wait,” he said.
And that’s how we came to be stranded, not on a deserted island like in all the films, but a sandbar. With the outgoing tide, the sandbar appeared above water and we were soon surrounded by flat sand, like a giant, beached flounder. I climbed off the boat and joined everyone else on solid ground. Camille had fashioned a seat out of a floatation device and produced champagne from her bag. She asked Roko for glasses. When he returned with two jars he’d polished with his sleeve, she courteously declined and took a swig straight from the bottle. Stefan was brooding on the other side of the sandbar which now stretched fifteen meters.
When I asked Roko if he knew about the hazard we’d run into, he scratched his head and said he thought he went the wrong way. Then I enquired as to how long he had been a skipper on the boat, and he replied he does it now and then when he fills in for the usual skipper, who is off work, sick. I nodded.
“Roko,” I said again.
“If you went the wrong way, how will anyone know to search for us here?”
“Uh.” Roko scratched his nose. “Might be a problem, eh?”
My stomach contracted into a knot. Camille threw her hands into the air and Stefan dropped his head into his hand.
“Does anyone think they can swim to the island?” I asked, turning to the group.
Then the excuses started. Roko said he was too old and unfit. Camille was busy holding the champagne bottle up to the sun to see how much she’d had. Stefan stirred from his thinking spot.
“I don’t swim.” He set aside his notepad and gazed into the ocean. “I can’t. My father thought it was a waste of time to learn. Let’s just say he’s contributed greatly to my bleak outlook on life.”
“Okay,” Mama nodded. “Okay, so not you. I can’t. Thing like me, I’ll float out to sea,” he said and patted his stretched belly.
I stood. I thought about our ancestors, spending hours in the ocean, swimming and collecting food from the sea. I could swim quite a few laps of the pool when I was in high school. I guessed the island was about half a kilometre away. I removed my t-shirt and shorts and stood in my bikini.
“If anyone can save us, you can, darling.” Camille toasted the sky. “Make it your raison d’etre.”
“I think that goes without saying,” I replied. I waded into the water. Mama looked worried, but I assured him I’d be fine.
“Come back okay, girl…” Roko hollered as I dove in. I swam at a steady pace until there was a perceptible change in the current. Treading water, I surveyed my surroundings – a million small waves cresting to glassy blue peaks which gently nudged me this way and that. It was a little windier. A wave lapped against my head and splashed salt water into my mouth, forcing me to cough and splutter. I slowed my breath and pulled a spider web of wet hair from my eyes. With a deep breath of renewed determination, I kept going, falling into a rhythm of long, gliding strokes.
Occasionally, I would look up to see the island appear at the horizon, then disappear as I rose and dipped with swelling water. It was so warm. I felt strong. In a burst of focused swimming, I cycled my arms and dragged aside handfuls of ocean as though I was climbing my way to the island. Stroke after stroke, I went arm over arm as I kicked my legs to a satisfying rhythm. I stopped to make sure I was still going the right way, puffing from the effort of the hard swim, when a wave slapped my cheek and sent a dose of salt water splashing down my throat. I sank in surprise before resurfacing.
In an attempt to take a big breath, I got another mouthful of water and suddenly seemed to lose the ability to swim. Sinking like a stone, I panicked before erupting into a storm of churning arms and legs. My hands clawed the waves as though I was sliding down a canyon. Oh god, I thought, this is how people drown – out of nowhere, the ocean reaches from its morbid depths and pulls you into the heart of its blackest abyss. I kicked with all my strength and pumped my arms until I could breathe sweet, life-giving air. I found myself turning back, swimming as hard and fast as I could. My muscles burned. My lungs burned. It felt like I was making no headway until I touched sand. Then I walked past the boat and collapsed.
“You gave it a go,” said Camille with a slur. “You alright?”
“I can’t move. How far did I get?” I gasped.
“Maybe twenty metres,” Stefan replied.
“Oh. Do you want to use this?” Camille asked, pointing to her floatation seat. “Gosh, you can probably just float over there on this thing.”
A large, warm hand patted me on the shoulder.
“You okay, beti?” Tomi Mama asked. He patted my head and didn’t bother me when I failed to answer.
I lay paralysed in the sand while Camille leapt to her feet with the brilliant idea to create smoke signals because she’d seen it on a TV show. Roko insisted there was nothing to burn, that the boat would get towed back and fixed, and he was not losing his job because we couldn’t wait.
I continued to lie there as a strange feeling crept into my chest. It was regret, and it wasn’t just regret at having completely overestimated my abilities, but another, sickening kind of regret. One of having overestimated who I was, and where I was from.
Dinner time rolled around while I watched the sun set at my toes, nauseatingly picturesque. Mama passed me the cassava cake and roti rolls he’d packed in his bag, divvying the food to share with everyone. He ruffled my hair which he hadn’t done since I was a child. The cassava cake tasted good and at the same time, tasted like guilt; I hadn’t even thought of bringing food. My grandmother’s disapproving stare flashed before my eyes.
Roko hung a couple of kerosene lamps off the boat and it smelled like Fiji did every night. Everyone settled into the boat to sleep, and Camille used some old sails from the storage cabin to make a bed, then complained it was scratchy. Stefan gave up on the tattered sails and joined Tomi Mama in the tramp. Club music from the nearby island bounced across the water in a faint dissonant echo and I turned to see lights on the beach from a party. I wrapped my t-shirt around my head.
“Hey, I found something.” Roko appeared at the bow, tugging at a flare.
“Roko, no!” everyone shrieked. A red fireball ricocheted off the edge of the hull and bounced across the water, skipping four times. A faint cheer rose from the island.
The sandbar shrank with the incoming tide, and I was forced to join everyone else on the boat with any hopes of privacy gone.
In the morning the sandbar reappeared, larger in size, but still suffocatingly small. Stefan was circumnavigating the perimeter with notebook in hand, and I retreated to my spot in the sand. Twenty metres.
“I didn’t know I looked like I work in a bank,” I blurted on his thirtieth round. Stefan returned his notebook to his pocket.
“I’m sorry.” His eyes fluttered in thought. “I didn’t mean to say you looked like a banker and make it sound like a bad thing. Well, no. No, actually I did. What I meant in that moment, that I probably should have kept to myself, is that you seem uptight. And for some reason I think I associate uptightness with being a banker. It might be from having a loan refused.”
His apology made me feel worse. I was uneasy the moment I stepped off the plane because my presence here never felt quite right. Though that uptightness existed back in New Zealand, too.
“I didn’t know I was just another tourist here,” I said. “Being Fiji-Indian doesn’t mean what I think it does. It doesn’t mean what other people think it does back home in New Zealand. Why is that? And why am I only realising this now? I’m twenty-seven and I feel like I’m still growing up.”
Stefan pursed his lips.
“I felt that way at your age. Then a friend of mine, a doctor, told me the frontal lobe doesn’t finish developing until you are thirty years old, so in a way, you are still are growing up. Your outlook on life is bound to change, for a biological reason at least. So at least that’s not such a bad thing.”
I dug my toes into the sandbar – exposed and no longer lurking just inches underwater for unsuspecting boats, and I thought about the distance between me and the mainland – the place I thought defined me. And then there’s India, a place I’ve never set foot – that defined a part of me too.
Stefan cleared his throat.
“You know, because of Germany’s past, I never feel like I can be proud to be German. I can’t imagine what your history might be like for you, but I find thinking about it actually helps.”
I nodded. I knew Fiji-Indians were still carving out their identity in the wider world, especially the girmit. And especially because so many of us had left. There was also such an abundance of culture and unearthed history, I didn’t know where to begin. I glanced at Stefan. I imagined he, too, could see the abundance around him.
The sandbar had made its full emergence from the sea, stretched out like a giant flounder and humming with warmth. It wasn’t an island with water or food or a satellite phone. It wasn’t what we think of when we think of Fiji, but it was everything to me for a few moments.
There was a roar of an outboard motor, and a moment later a man wearing a t-shirt with ‘Scavenger Island’ written on it pulled up to the sandbar.
“The guests said you were lighting fireworks last night. I knew it sounded like a flare, eh. Need some help?”
And that brings us to our present moment. Tomi Mama speaks in Hindi as we head towards Scavenger Island. It’s a type of Hindi only spoken in Fiji. He is suggesting we do this again. I raise my brow, but find myself nodding. I think I need to do this again. I never expected to enjoy being around Tomi Mama so much. I look at his once stuffed satchel containing food, now empty. His large brown eyes and full, smiling cheeks. Maybe sometime in the future we could take a boat from the island and try to find the sandbar. If it still exists. Maybe we’ll find it, and maybe we won’t.
Anjula Prakash (she/her, they/them) is an Auckland based writer and actor. Her work includes writing for the children’s television show Tales of Nai Nai, as well as being published in RNZ. She enjoys writing theatre reviews for Theatre Scenes and looks forward to debuting her first novel — a reality-bending, YA drama set in Auckland.