- Winner of the 2006 award
I stood on a beach. The tour guide faced the group I was part of. He was quite an intriguing figure, animated and yet possessed of the sort of measured control that can only be the byproduct of a hard, eventful life. He was reading out from a slickly printed guidebook, but I was not listening to the words. He was dressed in faded jeans and a T-shirt that had flowing Japanese script emblazoned across the front. The cool breeze stirred his black hair. A leather satchel hung from his bony right shoulder, and I could not imagine what he carried in it. His frayed sneakers seemed rooted eternally in the sand on which he stood, as though he had grown right there into emaciated adulthood. He did not smile.
I looked around. This tour group was quite prototypical. Three middle-aged couples, dressed very similarly in gaudy shirts, white shorts and broad hats. Two young women who were friends, probably colleagues from the same steno pool. This must be the vacation of their lifetimes. A grim man in his thirties, greying before his time, with a boy of ten or so standing with him. His son, possibly. They were all listening intently to the tour guide. I looked past his slight figure. We were about a hundred yards from the edge of the sea. In this space lay a small shanty town. There were at least thirty hovels in the cluster. They had been improvised rather ingeniously from a bewildering variety of materials that included galvanised sheets perforated by the brine-laden air, disused shipping crates, long and crooked bamboo beams splotched with whitewash from some past role as scaffolding, a cracked plastic water tank and even a long-corroded intercity bus, sitting on its axles in the sand. The bus regarded us in sightless, reproachful silence, its headlights long scavenged. The only sign of habitation in this little settlement was a group of children. They played hopscotch among their decrepit homes. Their laughter reached us faintly.
A short distance behind us was the far edge of the beach. A two-lane road ran alongside. On the far side of this road, the hillside sloped up about a hundred and fifty feet. Shrubs and bushes, some with crimson flowers, covered it.
I turned back to face the tour guide. He was looking straight at me as he spoke. I saw that his eyes were deep green, and then I heard his words clearly for the first time. He had a crisp, thin voice, with an accent which I could not quite place.
“A tsunami, sometimes mistakenly referred to as a tidal wave, is caused by seismic disruptions on the ocean bed. It is quite imperceptible in the open sea, though it is incredibly fast-moving. When it reaches the coast, it slows down and grows higher and higher.” He paused, and flicked his thumb over his shoulder at the sea behind him without looking around.
“And here it comes.”
We stared at the horizon silently. Out of the sea had risen a wall of green, adorned with flecks of white foam. It was moving slowly, very slowly, towards us. The children still laughed and ran around, oblivious, in their junkyard world. The wall of green water must have been a hundred feet high, extending as wide as we could see.
“It is time to move to higher ground, I believe,” the tour guide said, and walked past us towards the road, gesturing at us to follow him. We paused before crossing the road to let a huge, growling articulated truck pass. The ground shook slightly. I looked over my shoulder at the approaching wave. It was still moving very slowly and did not seem to have moved forward from the horizon at all. But then, it was the horizon.
We crossed over to the hillside and climbed it. The two young women were laughing as they climbed, apparently sharing a merry office anecdote. The slope was not all that steep and none of us were winded by the climb. I looked inland from the ridge on which we stood. The terrain swept down and away from our vantage point. Several miles inshore there was a large town. The landscape was lush, dotted with trees and green fields far into the clear distance, shaded in patches by the still clouds that hung broodingly above. I looked out at the sea again and discovered that I could see over the wave now. It had moved perceptibly closer. To my left, the ridge dropped away into a bay. The highway skirted the edge of the water which was marked by a narrow band of mangroves. A small red car streaked along the road. It seemed to be a red Austin Mini Cooper. I looked at the tour guide, who looked back intently at me.
Time passed, though I had no idea how much. The guide did not speak. The members of our group ambled around aimlessly on the ridge. One of the middle-aged women sang a song to herself and picked at some flowers. Her companion glanced at her momentarily in irritation, and then proceeded to reload his complicated, expensive camera. His fingers were studded with an array of rings.
I peered over the edge of the hillside. The water was now almost up to our ridge. I could have dangled my feet into its rippling calmness. There was no beach, no road, no shanty town. To our left, the bay had been inundated. No red Austin Mini. No mangroves.
It began to rain lightly. The ten-year old boy shivered and moved closer to his stone-faced father.
“Tsunamis are not usually alone. They come in pairs. The second one should be arriving soon. We will need to move to higher ground yet.”
The tour guide smiled gently as he spoke. There was no higher ground. The second tsunami had risen out of the sea. I gazed upwards into its vastness. It must have been several miles high. Its crest was lost in the blackness of thickening stratonimbus clouds, occasionally outlined by flashes of lightning. The giant wave closed in silently. The water that made up its body was the same shade of green as the eyes of the tour guide.
Jayant Sankrityayana is an automobile designer in Pune. He maintains a close interest in jazz and classical guitar, science and technology, evolution and world history, and suffers from “unpredictable bouts of writing”.
He favours science fiction and “vaguely metaphorical short stories”.
This story (2004), his first in print, won the TLM New Writing Award, 2006