SOUVENIR • by Vaidehi

Often, I travel the world on my way to work. A shortcut on my desktop takes me to places, most of which I’ve captured myself. The rest of the photos either come from travel blogs, or are moiré-patterned scans from old National Geographics. I do have a lot of time for all of this, just not enough time to go on a real vacation, these busy days.

Yesterday on the train, the first blind double-click took me to Ladakh. Every time that picture pops up, I lose my breath. Mini Tibet is where the true meaning of panorama dawned on me with such intensity that I no longer use it for cityscapes. Within the next nanosecond of a click, I’d traveled more than 3,000 miles away to watch two Komodo dragons butcher a bleating, bleeding goat.

A couple more clicks later, I looked with awe at hundreds of tiny black turtles contrasted against a sea of white sand, struggling towards the grey surf.

“Ooo, turtles!” a woman sitting next to me on the train said, staring at my screen without invitation. “They taste the best in coconut gravy.”

That’s when I was reminded of this little souvenir from that trip, a small package that now waited on my desk to be unwrapped. For a year it had remained so, forgotten under the debris of my this-and-that drawer in the etcetera cabinet.

“Buy it, Sir,” the short tribal girl with pretty black eyes had said, dusting her wares behind a makeshift aluminum stall on the Gahirmatha beach.  “Twenty-one rupees only.” She spoke broken Hindi. I noticed a peace tattoo on the left of her chest.

“The money will help our organization save the endangered mini-beasts.” An endangered species herself, the girl, with a scheming government teaching her and her folk to live on electricity.

“Anything special about this?” I asked, picking up a small beige replica of an Olive Ridley turtle. She snatched it away, leaving my hands free to remove money from my wallet while she wrapped the souvenir in brown paper patterned with green, screen-printed logos.

“When it’s gone, sir, only then you’ll know.”

Wow. That was abstract, coming from her. Kind of philosophical. The organization was doing a good job of tickling the emotions of us tourists. My wife was with me and I remember she got misty when the girl delivered that line.

More than a year later, here I was, finally unwrapping the forgotten object. The paper proved difficult to remove, having stuck to the turtle. I was relieved to see it in one piece: limbs, tail, head still on. Ah! What a realistic fellow. Adhering to proportions, form, texture, even gesture—except the colour and the smell. A faint sandalwood fragrance lingered about its body.

Plop. I dropped my soap turtle, for fun and effect, into a glass half full of water on my desk. It bobbed a little then sank rear-first to the bottom. A tiny bubble formed at its carved nostril-hole and rose, breaking just before it struck the surface. The creature appeared to smile, though not as much as a dolphin. Mammals, in general, are a more expressive lot. A wolf cries, the hyena laughs. The croc cries too, but we believe it’s fake. All in all, folks certainly feel more for disappearing tigers than they do for vanishing frogs.

I decided to use it and placed it near the potpourri in the bathroom. Like the phases of a waxing moon, my anxiety for it grew over the fortnight. Meanwhile, the turtle waned each day, layer by layer. Reluctantly, I aided its depletion by washing my hands with it instead of the antiseptic stuff my wife planted at the washbasin.

Not a happy feeling, destroying a beautiful object without being able to do anything about it.

The smile lessened and the hexagonal markings on its back grew shallower. By the end of a week, the smile was a mere shallow line that gave the animal a mean expression. I watched the blunt contours transform into a formless lump, like a video of a hatchling’s growth from a shapeless ball of cells, only in reverse.

Then one day, the barely-recognizable souvenir lay broken in half on its china soap dish bed, while the round moon shone on it through the tiny window. My wife thought it ominous, the beast dying that night. She said baby turtles waddle towards the sea for the first time when a full moon guides them to their real home. Then she sighed, clucked, emptied the remains in the bin under the washbasin and walked away.

I stared at the beige blobs. Something black poked out from one of the halves. My wife whistled away in the kitchen, so I reached for it. Embedded in the soap was a black ceramic button, waiting to be extracted, with half the printed text hidden.

I fetched my glasses to read the fine print under the organization’s embossed  logo:

Save Olive RidleyTurtles.

A website link followed for making donations.

The tribal girl with the peace tattoo flickered in my memory and I reached for the computer, smiling.

Vaidehi is a graphic designer who loves to write.

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