'What happens if the boat capsizes?'
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The ferry is late. The sun blazes over the angry green waters of the Arabian sea, inviting and perilous at once as they devour the steps of the jetty in the sleepy little fishing hamlet of Murud. Gulls screech, rise and swoop.
The overpowering smell of dried Bombay duck rides the breeze rustling through the coconut palms. I'm hungry and my throat is parched as I have just got off a two-hour ride through dusty roads on a rickety, overcrowded bus from Alibaug, a town near Mumbai.
I've wanted to visit India's only never-conquered marine fort, built by the Siddis in the fifteenth century. It is ironic that I have come all the way from New Zealand to see a place so close to my birthplace Mumbai, three decades after leaving it.
I shade my eyes with my palm and squint at the horizon in vain, looking for the elusive ferry. Everyone tells me it will be here in 10 minutes but 40 minutes have passed and still no sign. No one else seems to be bothered.
Teenage schoolgirls in blue and white salwaar kameez huddle around the jetty steps sucking ice lollies and chatting animatedly. Boys play an impromptu game of cricket, men smoke and play cards, fisherwomen argue loudly and vendors do brisk business.
"Abhi aayega madam (it'll soon arrive)," the ticket clerk reassures me, not quite understanding why I am so perturbed. Living in New Zealand has spoiled me. I expect everything to be on time - well, most of the time at least.
My stomach growls and I treat myself to coconut water and chikki, a crisp slice of peanuts bound with jaggery, when all of a sudden there is a flurry of activity as the hoi poloi surge towards the jetty. I jostle my way forward towards the ferry. And then I see it - it's a little rickety motorboat!
Wait. There must be some mistake. I am expected to cross over to that distant fort island on this contraption with so many people, sacks, babies, hens and goats, not to mention a bicycle? And where are the lifejackets? What happens if the boat capsizes? "Shhh... never say that before a crossing. Brings bad luck," grumbles someone behind me.
There is no escape as the burly, bare-chested and sweaty boatman holds out his hand to hoist me unceremoniously onto the boat, which wobbles dangerously even as the sea of people behind me breathe down my neck impatiently waiting to get on.
"Ouch!" A sack of something lands on my feet. "Could you move this out of the way please?" My plea goes unheard as the engine starts up and the boat lurches forward. I kick the sack and stub my foot. Someone giggles. As the wind picks up, the boat bobs up and down over the undulating waves as we all get drenched in the spray. More laughter. My mood is now militant. The blue skies, cottony clouds, aquamarine waters, seagulls, frisking fish, the fort looming in the background cut no ice with me.
"Where do you live Didi (elder sister)?" asks the schoolgirl with oily plaits and white ribbons sitting across me, eyes filled with curiosity. "New Zealand", I say, trying not to bark. Her eyes light up as she fishes out her geography book and eagerly turns the pages to the world map. Her friends huddle around asking me questions and I find myself pointing out the country I now call home on the map and telling them my story. How I crossed the seven seas (in India all legends have princes crossing seven seas and thirteen rivers to win their princesses) to fulfil my dreams. My young friends tell me how they would have to go home and help their mothers cook and clean and look after their younger brothers and sisters while their mother goes to work. Homework by candlelight.
The elderly fruit seller beside me listens intently for some time and offers me an orange lamenting inflation. The fisherwoman in her tinkly glass bangles, large bindi on her forehead and flowers in her hair proudly displays her catch of the day nestling in her basket. A bejewelled, newlywed woman in sequined crimson peeks from behind her pallu (veil) to look at me. Someone passes around a bag of peanuts. The boatman breaks into a song and simultaneously someone turns on the transistor to listen to the cricket scores.
The wind has subsided and the sea is calm, giving me a moment to reflect as I look ahead at the blackened walls of the impregnable Murud Janjira steeped in history and mystery.
I think of all the crossings I've made in life - from Asia to Oceania, from ignorance to knowledge, innocence to experience, revolt to acceptance. I think of the people of Murud and wonder whether the schoolgirls will ever visit New Zealand or even New Delhi.
The boat is docked and as I get up the schoolgirls gather my belongings. Someone takes pictures. The fisherwoman beams at me and a bunch of eager schoolboys offer to show me around. At least five pairs of willing hands help me off the boat. I smile and feel at home. A great crossing.
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