The Divine Aquatic


Maa sits on the beach watching me swim into the ocean, her face alarmed as she screams, “Don’t go too far, don’t go too far!” I am sixteen and unruly. I keep swimming till the sound of the waves drown out her voice, and her panicked face has blurred with distance. Sand and salt rush over my spine coaxing me farther, farther.

“Ya Allah, this girl is uncontrollable,” scolds Maa when I return to shore, but soon her anger gives way to wonder. Maa, who since the shipwreck ten years ago stopped taking baths in favor of quick showers, who only dips her pedicured toes into the pool and no farther, who has never again submerged her body for the water to have its way, tells me that I move differently in water. Like that is where I belong.

She tells me about the dream she had when she was nine months pregnant with me: Our home flooded knee-deep in pristine blue water, and her sitting on the living room couch nursing a dolphin calf. This is the story of how the sea conjured a child out of silt and sand. This is the story of how her seawater tears dry to salt crystals on her face. All this to say, if you want to turn a girl into a water spirit, put her in a shipwreck. I know this to be true because this is what happened to me.

If only we had stayed on schedule, grumbled Baba. If only Maa hadn’t wanted to stop at the dried fish markets along the beach. It was the pungent smell of rotting fish that lured us into wandering deeper and deeper into the market’s labyrinthine aisles, lost and knocking into the large hanging carcasses of mummified fish at every turn.

By the time the rental car dropped us off at the harbor, we were too late. We ran up to the dock, on the southernmost tip of Bangladesh, to find the ferry we were supposed to board shrunken to the size of a fingernail and disappearing far into the blue horizon.

Our bodies sagged into the rattan chairs of the seaside rest house. I was six and new to the world. Words like “reservation” and “schedule” and “tickets” flew above my little head, exchanged between Maa and Baba in quick succession like a rally between the all-star tennis players Baba watched on TV.

“We have to make it to the island,” Baba said, his thick black moustache twitching under his aviator sunglasses. He would go talk to the boatmen who had their large wooden fishing boats moored along the edge of the dock and see if he could convince someone to take us across.

I brought out my stubby blue Little Mermaid pen and busied myself in drawing little fish on my legs like protective runes. To this day, I feel as if the slightest deviation from how things played out would result in tragedy. What is the difference between a water spirit and a dead girl at the bottom of the sea? Perhaps the dead girl forgot to draw fish runes on the surface of her skin. We’ll never know. She has sunk to the seabed, and the water has washed her skin into a clean slate.

As the hour wore on, Maa entertained me with a coloring book. Seven coloring book pages later, Baba returned with a smile playing on his cigarette-stained lips. One of the boatmen has agreed to take us across for the price he had haggled down to, Baba reported back smugly. We would make our reservation at the island resort after all. By then, the sun had traveled up the sky, white clouds highlighted by gold.

I heaved my glittery pink waterproof backpack and followed Maa and Baba. The wheels of our luggage rolling against the planks of the dock sounded like someone playing a giant wooden xylophone. My tiny flip flop feet moved to the rhythm, a ritual dance.

“Stop messing around,” said Maa, pulling me in.

The boatman, bare-chested and with his lungi knotted over his stomach, waved us down from the wharf towards his boat. She, the boat, was an old-timer and the turquoise paint on her flanks had chipped to reveal the weathered wood below, ashy and umber. From my little girl eyes, the blue sky gave way to dark storm clouds. The powers above laugh every time a child has a premonition.

With a firm grip, the boatman helped Maa and Baba onto the boat. Me, he lifted straight off the wharf with a firm grip under my armpits. I laughed and wiggled my feet as he lowered me down. The boat danced under us, swaying to the rhythm of the waves, before the boatman pushed off the dock with his oar. The motor sputtered to life, and we were off.

This is what I know now: The journey between our port in Teknaf and St. Martin’s Island is undertaken when the tide is at its highest. This meant that when the deepest, most tempestuous parts of the Bay of Bengal are traversed in a few hours’ time, the tide would be ebbing, and the shores of St. Martin’s Island could be reached on halcyon waters. This is what I remember: The sea, when we began our voyage, was placid, yawning gently in a half-sleep. This should have been a good thing.

From the guts of her travel bag that contained everything from a change of underwear for each of us to tangles of charging wires and travel-size toiletries, Maa extracted our new point-and-shoot camera bought specifically to commemorate my first ever seaside vacation. She stood me against the side of the boat. I tilted my head to one side, put my hands on my waist and smiled rapturously at her. It was, after all, my first time on open waters. Snap, winked the silver eye of the camera.

This is what I imagine that photo to look like: against the backdrop of the open seas, a little girl wearing star-shaped sunglasses. I would wonder if the sea looked bluer still through the sapphire tint of the glasses. Or, in fact, how she was able to tell the sea from the sky at all that day. The image has been lost to us and lies at the bottom of the sea, like a pearl inside the camera’s silver shell.

Afterward, Baba pulled me onto his lap and held me as we let our arms swing by the side of the boat, our fingers soaked in seawater spray. I watched seagulls glide like kites overhead. I could feel the vibration of the boat’s engine move through wood, through femurs and ribs and neck and jaw to chatter in my teeth. Still, the allure and wonder of a first time at sea can only hold my attention for so long, and once the novelty wore off I was bored.

“How long till we’re there?” I must have chanted for the umpteenth time. A daytime moon lingered on the blue afternoon sky like a phantom.

Maa, tired of answering, attempted to placate me with a grab-and-go sized can of Pringles. I popped the lid open and held the cloudy flat circle against the sky. A friend for the moon, I thought. Was this gesture meant to pacify her, she who controls the tides that had begun to turn?

By then, the lazy rolling waves of earlier had begun to move with intention. We were rocking back and forth, our wooden boat groaning under us. The sun turned into an orange lozenge and slipped down the throat of the horizon. The wind picked up, and the seagulls were being tossed around the dusk sky like scrunched up paper balls.

It is one thing to sail along blue waters surrounded by sea and sky. It is a whole other thing to find yourself sitting on the chest of a flimsy wooden boat with black expanses of water as far as the eye can see. Gradients of darkness separated the night from the night sea, broken only by the focal point of bright white that was the full moon.

“Pray to Allah for safe harbor,” said the boatman. His voice drummed with prophecy. His face was ashen as he gazed up at the moon. Later, he would tell us how he would have never agreed to take us across if he had known. The sight of the large bills that had tumbled out of Baba’s pockets had coaxed the boatman into forgetting that it was a full moon night, he said; the night the tide is at its highest.

The waves had become ledges that the boat leaped off, only to find another forming right beneath. Salt water sprayed, sharp as tiny stones, threatening to slice uncovered skin. The boatman said something, and Maa and Baba looked at each other and managed to laugh nervously.

“I don’t feel so good,” I told Maa, as the boat began to pitch and roll, churning my stomach into figure eights and infinities. Metamorphosis is uncomfortable for a little girl body.

Maa pulled me towards her and grabbed me tightly around the waist to keep me steady. We were both soaked in seawater. Under the wooden planks of our seats, our luggage lurched from one side of the boat to the other. Baba grabbed and opened it hurriedly to find my blue plastic raincoat and our beach towel. Maa helped me put it on while Baba wrapped the towel around the three of us. We huddled together like three wet birds shivering on a power line.

Thump, thump. We turned to see the boatman hitting the motor with his fist while the rudder coughed black smoke.

“What’s going on?” asked Baba.

“Just some”—thump—“water”—thump—“in the rudder”—thump.

Waves were rising in crescendos now. Our beach towel quickly became soaking wet with what felt like gallons of water poured down on us.

“Get down,” shouted Baba, pulling us down so we were no longer sitting on the wooden planks, but in the hollow of the boat with our heads ducked. The hull of the boat cried out deafeningly with every lash of the wave. Maa buried her face in my hair, and I felt her lips move against my head, quivering with whispered prayers.

The smell of smoke masked even the smell of brine now. The boatman was screaming. The rudder was on fire. Baba stood up, tripped, and stood up again. Small tongues of flame licked up from the motor. Baba found a bucket where we sat crouched to help the boatman put out the fire, but the boat was slick with water and the impact of another behemoth wave threw his body nearly off the boat. Maa gasped, choking on her own fear. The boatman grabbed Baba by the waist and pulled, but I could see his knees shake, and his arms taut and trembling. Just as the boatman was losing his grip, another wave swole beneath Baba and cradled him back onto the boat. This is when I should have realized: This wasn’t a drowning but a baptism. Baba lay flat on the floor, panting with his hand on his chest. Warm liquid rushed into my sandals, and I realized Maa had peed herself.

“I should probably cry,” I thought, but the tears would not come and the salt on my lips was just seawater. How could I cry when the water danced so ecstatically around me? When being enclosed in the hull of the boat felt like returning to the womb? What was this chaos but the great heave and suck that preceded birth?  Yet, none of this I could articulate or decipher as a child. I only knew that it felt so, so familiar.

While the waves smothered the flames from the motor, they had now picked up speed and began to swing the boat around like a pendulum.

“Land!” shouted the boatman pointing towards the horizon. The swinging of the boat had distorted our sense of direction but had at last pointed us towards shore.

In the brief second between one pair of waves parting to make room for the next, we saw it too: a sliver of land. A crazed look came over the boatman’s face, his eyes bulging forth with a final determination. The motor was still smoking when he yanked and tugged on the pull cord bringing it back to life. Black smoke billowed behind us as he pressed the engine ever onward for more, more, more speed. The motor growled angrily, but the boatman, knowing the engine could ignite again, did not falter. With the increase in speed, the weathered hull bounced higher and higher, slapping the waves harder with each fall. We felt each impact in our bones, waiting for the hull to fracture from under us and pour us into the hungry sea.

Approaching land, the rudder was roaring with fire, and it seemed like we needed to jump off. To me, the island seemed simultaneously inches and miles away, but children are new to the world and poor at judging distances. Forced to choose between burning to death and drowning, we chose to swim for our lives. When we jumped off, I was on Baba’s back, hanging by his neck, but the thrashing of the water slackened my grip and the water carried me away.

The sea enveloped me in a crushing embrace, like a mother who had found her lost child. I held my breath till red and black splotches danced in front of me, unable to remember if my eyes were open or closed. Just moments ago, I had been shivering around Baba’s neck, but now a desperate hot wave came over me warming even my frosted toes. My heart was beating as frantic as a hummingbird’s. Still, my legs beat under me, moving me closer to land. My screams floated up as dainty bubbles of air at peculiar angles. The blotches in my field of vision began to fade. All of it felt like love. Now, it was all black and I was falling, falling.

Then, I was forming again. My body was molded out of sand. My skin conjured out of silt. My hair shaped from dark kelp. My eyes were black pearls. My ears whelks and my teeth and fingernails little white cockles. Finally, my mind materialized from the inside of a conch, humming. Then, before I knew it, hands were grabbing at me, dragging me from sea to sand. Footsteps, urgent voices, shouting. Only then did I open my eyes and wail like a newborn, gasping fistfuls of air into my jellyfish lungs.

Later that night, finally tucked into a warm hotel bed, I slept like a baby to the lullaby of waves crashing on the shore. I stirred in my sleep only once that night to find Maa and Baba sitting up on their bed. Baba’s hands crawled across his head like crabs, pulling at fistfuls of hair. His eyes bulged into two pink pearls as he whispered over and over again, “But how will we get back? How will we get back?”

Maa rested her head against him. Her tears gleamed on Baba’s bare shoulder. I realized then, for the first time that day, that something tragic had almost happened to us. Even at six, children understand the shape of tragedy, of danger. Then why hadn’t I been able to recognize it while the sea threatened to smother us to death? Why had it, instead, felt to me like a mother’s embrace? After all these years, I know now that what felt like rebirth to me had felt like—had been—near-death for them.

When my mother tells this story, she never ends with us being pulled from the shores by the fluorescent rescuers, though being saved feels like the obvious ending. No, her version of the story ends abruptly as we are whizzing past waves the size of cliffs on a boat with a motor on fire, the flames growing, and amidst it all, her six-year-old daughter on her lap, laughing rhapsodically. While I do not recall this, I know it to be true.

Decades later, this has become a familiar pattern. I watch Sufis whirling at a dervish monastery in Istanbul, their skirts swirling into a hurricane. On a pilgrimage to the shrine of a saint in Northern India, I see a tree full of sparrows dancing to the soulful voices of Qawwali singers. I watch thunder strike a tree on my front porch at sunrise, my ears deafened from the sound and my ribs reverberating in my chest. Each time, my chest caves in from the weight of the divine and my whole body is ripples of warm water. I sink under wave after wave of transcendental awe. I wake myself up from the reverie with the sound of my own inappropriate, ecstatic laughter to meet, sometimes turned heads and angry stares, and other times, silence.

When I fall asleep at night exhausted by euphoria, I dream of the sea. I am floating, alone, miles from shore. When I squint, I see the dark figure of fir trees lining the beach. No, not trees. They are people, standing shoulder to shoulder. Is that my mother I see? My father? Friends and lovers past, present, and future? Their arms reach out to me, and I wade toward them, but the distance between us never closes no matter how passionately I swim, how hard I propel myself forward. They are of land. I am of sea.

On that day at sea, barraged by wave after titanic wave, salt air whipping ruddy cheeks, adrenaline coursing through young blue veins while sitting on a boat climbing rugged water mountains, I must have been driven to a similar euphoria as I would years later by the whirling dervishes of Istanbul. Rapture is too voluptuous a feeling to sit comfortably in my mind and body, so it had poured forth, like water from a vessel brimming over, in passionate laughter.

My connection to water never fades. It stretches like a limitless umbilical cord forever tying me to the closest body of water. At eighteen, I am diagnosed with a rare genetic illness with a name like a tongue-twister. My muscles paralyze and freeze like glaciers. For hours my legs are pillars of ice rooted to the floor. Later, they thaw but are flaccid as puddles. When the acute gives way to the chronic, my body permanently becomes a lumbering bag of wet sand that I push and pull around space. Everything aches, swells, stiffens, cramps. I wish to shed my body.

When a new neurologist invokes aqua therapy, Baba takes me to a warm water pool at a physiotherapy center. I have not been in water since my diagnosis. I am afraid of paralyzing in water, but I push myself in. The water holds the contours of my body lovingly, strengthening and soothing my tattered muscles. My pain and stiffness dissolve like powder in water. Suddenly, I am gliding. I am a thing without edges, fluid and nebulous.

My laughter starts as chlorine blue bubbles. By the time I break the surface, I am cackling madly. The geriatric patients in the warm water therapy pool give me a wide berth, scowl at me with their mineral eyes, but I am used to it. The way I embody euphoria has always made me an other. Baba is sitting on the nearby bleachers smiling the way you smile when someone tells a joke in a language you don’t understand. I spin like a ballerina or a whirlpool, hop like a frog. I am doing underwater handstands, cartwheels, back flips; moving in ways I never thought I would move again.



Rumpus original art by Mike Tré

Nafisa A. Iqbal is a Bangladeshi writer and MFA candidate at Columbia University's Creative Writing program. They are part of the Nonfiction Editorial Board at the Columbia Journal, and co-president of Our Word—a student organization at Columbia that advocates for diversity and inclusion in the literary community. Her work has been published in Tint Journal and Commonwealth Writers’ adda magazine. Last year, she was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize among over 5,000 applicants. More from this author →