| Swayamsrestha Kar | April 2024 | Short Story |


Kapita, the smallest island in the lagoon, and the loneliest place in the world, is less than an hour away from home. Not that I have gone back home. Not that I am allowed to, even if the waters themselves parted. Soon after I had been left here, invisible to everyone but the goddess who rules this place, and the egrets, herons and lily trotters that fly in from as far as the Kirghiz steppes, I learnt that there could be no going back.

Of course, it didn’t happen as neatly as that. Stories about Kapita rarely do. Was it yesterday – it always feels like yesterday these days – that Pallav told me they had trapped a dolphin at Magarmukh?

“But we shouldn’t do that!” I was shocked; this went against local beliefs, especially amongst the Keuta who are fishermen by caste.

“We didn’t know it was there Pinu,” he replied. “Baba had just finished setting up a fishing pen when he saw the damned thing thrashing around in a corner of the net.”

“How did it even get through?”

“Probably swam in before the pen was complete.”

We were selling some of the day’s catch at the market; I wanted to hurry up because the lunch break at school was almost up, and I didn’t want to miss classes. But Pallav was going out to the channel to help his father release the dolphin without harming his net, and I was torn.

“It’s only one day.”

“But what if the teacher tells my father?”

As we argued, he held down a thrashing silver mullet, beheaded it and started cutting it up for a customer. The movements came naturally to most boys my age, and even younger, but watching my friend’s slender fingers weave in and out of the fish, now pulling at the innards, now clipping off the fins, left me feeling strangely warmed.

“All right, I’ll also come,”

“Good, we’ll row to Kapita first.”


Another customer came up just then, and I also got busy with gutting and cleaning. Did he ever answer that question? I don’t remember.

Even though I helped sell the fish my father caught, I never really went fishing with him; he didn’t want it to interfere with my education. Silting at Magarmukh, where the sea’s inlet flowed into our lagoon, was choking off the supply of fish, so there was scarcer hauling out there for everyone, even the Keuta. And father kept hearing of all the pukka houses coming up to the south of the lagoon, where those educated Khandayat lived. Surely there was merit in going to school and then perhaps to college?

But Pallav often roamed the wetland with his father, helping him set up those makeshift fishing enclosures popularly known as gheries. Though lately, he had been rowing off on his own. He didn’t really talk about these trips, but that’s how he was – secretive and self-contained – and that’s how I liked him.

It was late afternoon by the time we packed up and set out to Kapita, but I am sure we must have done it. We must have squelched through the island’s muddy shore and tied the boat by the old shrine. Did I bow before the idol inside? I must have, for I am terrified of the goddess Kalijai who owns Kapitā by right of dowry promised to her groom, the one she never wed because of a miracle storm at sea.

Past the shrine, Pallav and I must have hurried through knotted tree roots, past cobwebs stretched over groves of stone idols, past any number of termite mounds.

“Where are we going?” I had to have asked at some point.

“I left something here,” he must have replied shortly. “Quick!” he would have urged; it was dusk by then, or at least that’s how I remember it.

Something about his tight expression may have set me off or maybe I was just nervous about this place, where large pools of water glistened between the roots of Sundri trees, and the rustle of our feet echoed loudly, as if there were other pairs of feet running alongside us.

In the next clearing, I sighted something through the trees.

“What’s that?” I cried out.

“Nothing, just keep going,” he answered shortly, but I was unconvinced. “I think I saw others.”

“Nobody comes here Pinu, it’s just us.”

Then we came upon a vast banyan tree, the kind they say is swarming with forest spirits and souls of departed sea giants, and Pallav hurried forward. We must have walked for a couple of hours because it was already evening now, judging by how far we were from the sound of waves.

“When are we going out to Magarmukh?” I shouted at Pallav, but there was no reply. How long could dolphins stay alive trapped in a net anyways?

I walked to the base of the banyan. He wasn’t there, but he couldn’t have gone off too far. All too suddenly, I realized something had been tugging at the corner of my eye, and when I spun around, there was no mistaking it.

Just at the cusp of my sight, where light crinkled and folded around the trees… was that a shadow? In hindsight, it was probably a silhouette. It didn’t look any bigger than me, and it rustled when it moved.

I was so shocked that I turned around and started for the shore, my heart beating through my ears as I crashed into one cobweb after another, flies humming behind every leaf, and the air simmering around me. Soon I knew I was lost. In every direction, root and bark tangled together, the forest seemed to be closing in. I decided to sit down near a group of stones that looked holy enough to me, in that drowsy, hazy state before sleep is surrender.


The night is darkening round me,

The wild winds coldly blow;

But a tyrant spell has bound me,

And I cannot, cannot go.

A warm touch woke me up. It was a glimmery sort of dark everywhere, and as the pools of water glowed, I glimpsed beds of seagrass under their iridescent folds. Before I could see more, hands grasped me and pulled me up.

“Pallav?” He was holding a small kerosene lamp.

“Why are you sleeping here?” he asked at almost the same time as I said, “Where were you?”

“Let’s go, we need to go now,” he said, hurrying me to my feet, and we set off. The lamp’s arc cut through the black trees.

“What time is it? What about the dolphin?” I asked desperately; something seemed to have taken hold of me by then, a sense of being distant.

“It’s okay, Baba’s staying over at the channel anyways; we’ll go tomorrow.” His voice came fast and urgent as we tugged the boat out onto the water. The sea was calm, but the forest behind us roared in a sudden gale. Were we even allowed to leave anymore?

 “Just wait,” Pallav said and started walking back.

“What, where are you going?” I screamed after him.

“Go, pull the boat towards the water, I’ll come out soon,” he said and dashed back in.

Sometimes I wonder if these things actually happened to me. But numbering the days by the play of light and dark has taught me that I was hardly aware of my hours, let alone the ways in which they brought me to the here and now, to this place of recalling. Under the water is a world of greys and greens that always moves. Silver and metallic red run through it, these are my fins, my gills, the sleepless dark of the water is my dream.

“Why did you go back in?” I asked him the next day.  

“What?” He was tackling a particularly slithery milkfish, its scales kept sliding under his fingers and he was barely paying attention to me.

“Yesterday at Kapitā, you went back in just as we were leaving. Why?”

“Leave it.”

“How often do you go there?”

“I go everywhere.”  

True. His father, like all fathers in the lagoon, was under debt – to prawn traders or commissioning agents. So Pallav often rowed out to the channel and to the sea mouth in search of the fattest crabs, eels, and tarpons to sell.

“And what about the dolphin?”

“I’m going today, come.”

“It’s been really windy; will it be safe?”

“It’ll be fine. Stop worrying. We’ll come back before it’s too late.”

But the wind picked up as we neared Kapitā, so much so that we had to shore up at the old shrine again. We struggled to tie the boat, lit up a rickety lamp and stood at the edge of the forest, waiting for the waters to calm down.

“Where did you go that day?” I asked him.

“What do you mean?” He was looking around anxiously, as if waiting for something.

“At the banyan… I called your name, but you didn’t say anything, and then I couldn’t find you…” I stopped because my friend’s face was pale with fear.

“We shouldn’t have come here in the first place!” he exclaimed suddenly.

“Why? What happened?”  

The trees groaned, expelling a huge sigh that rattled us where we stood.

He looked as if he was struggling with some secret. “Pinu, the dolphin… it died.”

I was cold at this point. “When? Why didn’t you tell me?” This was very bad luck, and we were near the shrine too, surely at risk of enraging the goddess with news that one of hers had been taken by one of ours.

“I have been trying to row out to Baba these past few days, but every time…” He was whispering fast and low now, eyes darting back to the line of trees. “I end up here,” he finished shakily.

“End up here how?”

“I don’t know, maybe the wind picks up, maybe it gets dark.”

That couldn’t be all.

“Why did you bring me here that day? Was the khera… dead then?”

But he was sobbing earnestly now, like I had never seen him do. Boys had to be hardy and help their fathers sell fish. They couldn’t cry at the thought of dead dolphins.

“It died! They all did.” He paced before me, perhaps to hide the tremors racking his scrawny frame. But he had already hidden so much!

“They all? How many, what are you…”  

But of course! Of course it was illegal to set up gheries in some parts because more dolphins swam there, of course fishermen desperate enough to fish in these parts would end up trapping some dolphins, of course their thrashing fins would end up tearing fishing nets already too costly to rent… sooner or later, the dolphin just had to die.

“Why did we come here then?” I stepped in the way of his pacing. “Why did we walk to the banyan?”

“I have been bringing them here… we couldn’t leave their bodies in the water; the rangers would find them and tell the zonal babu…” He avoided looking at me as I realised just what he had left at the banyan

“… and nobody comes here anyways.”

Of course, this must have been his idea. His father was still too superstitious about Kapita, about the whole ordeal of burying even one dolphin – let alone… how many? – in Kalijai’s own island.


This time, the walk to the banyan seems to take mere minutes, as if we step through hidden crevices in the darkness between trees. Again, I sense other footfalls besides mine and Pallav’s, but now in the understanding that they are meant to be there. Maybe this time I will remember the exact instance I was left behind, the precise moment Pallav’s hand slipped out of mine as he ran towards the banyan’s base.

But is that the actual point of our separation? I remember another night when Pallav and I had hurried to the banyan, trying to outrun the wind itself as the forest howled and silence lay over the sea. Was it then that I was lost?

Maybe I find out this time.

“It’s the dolphins,” I had told him, as it seems, only the other night. “I think you have to send them back to the goddess, or she won’t let you go.”

“How do you know?” He stepped through the thicket with ease, perhaps from frequent trappings on the island (this I assume in hindsight).  

“That’s what happens in stories,” I replied.

“But this is Kapita, Pinu,” he said, as if he already knew how this place flattens the curves of full-bodied experience into unbending lines between event and consequence: You kill a dolphin, you are punished.

Though it still didn’t explain why he had coaxed me to come with him the first time –if it had even been the first time he had “ended up” in Kapita.

“Where did you go that day?” I asked again, knowing fully well by now that he had intended to be unreachable to me that night.

“Nowhere, what are you saying? I was there the whole time. I woke you up, remember?”

“Where did you go while I was asleep?” I asked but we were already close to the foot of the largest tree in the island, and in a moment, the wind dropped completely, and the forest sang us its sounds.

As before, he hurried towards the base, and this time I followed. Vines and thick grass covered the forest floor, but there was a conspicuous patch where Pallav was kneeling.

Did I start digging with him? Or was I already watching then, through the thicket of trees, as one of the diggers jumped back shouting, “What’s that? Run Pallav, run!” while the other kept crying out, “Pinu! I don’t know why it’s you, I promise I didn’t know anything about it, please…”

I do remember the wet soil caked under my fingernails, the sharp sea smell when the hole had been dug deep enough to find… what? Was it the silhouette from before, the same shade that had perhaps haunted me from the first time I saw it? And what was Pallav shouting on about?

This time, I get lost quicker on my way back to the boat. The Sundri trees stand quiet in their vigil over the goddess’ sanctuary; they don’t even whisper to the wind. Fireflies glide gently through the night air, in every direction root and bark tangle together before I come to a nest of stones that look holy enough in that drowsy, hazy state…

But all this is a matter of memory, like the sea remembering to crest and dip, or like an animal remembering to name its god before it chokes. What I want to know is how Pallav finds me, always, before I wake up. How he finds the strength to drag me all the way to the banyan to whom I am held hostage, how he manages to pull out the body of his friend from the hole he had dug to bury – again, how many? – dolphins not so long ago (or perhaps for longer than ever) and where he now lays down a sleeping boy who just wanted to help his friend. Most of all, I want to know why he stops and looks up to the thicket of trees, where I now stand on watch.

But I do know what happens afterwards. A warm touch, a glimmery sort of dark everywhere, and beds of seagrass under the pools of water caught between the Sundri trees’ roots. Soon, the sound of hurrying feet, the roar of the sea growing louder…

Just as the boat is being tugged out to the water, a voice shouts, “What, where are you going?” and another replies, “Go, pull the boat towards the water, I’ll come out soon.”

Soon after, I hear my friend running up to where I am now, here, at this place of recalling. I wonder if this time he will tell me his secrets: what bargain had he struck and with whom; if his father was still out there on the channel, perhaps trying to row home just like his son was trying to row to him; and if I too would ever return, if there even was a space for me outside this island.

I hold my questions and wait for him to find me.

“Pinu!” he shouts, breathless, afraid.

“Pinu, it’s you, I know it’s you!” He steps around frantically, perhaps unsure of what he is looking for.

But of course, I can’t answer back. I can only stand and listen, right there, in front of him. 


Swayam majored in English from the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad in 2016, and has been working as an editor ever since. She wants to write feral and ferocious words, much like her idols Grace Paley, Denise Riley, and Ismat Chughtai.

Her fiction has been published on Kitaab, forthcoming in Indian Review and shortlisted at the Bombay Review and Indian Ruminations.


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