Letter from Home: Farasan Island

Jose Varghese


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Dear Friend,

I can imagine you trying to open the envelope that contains this letter, as weariness conquers you. I know you are still trying to come to terms with the life you didn’t bargain for. This can be an additional burden, but I can’t help writing to you, plainly because today I had a glimpse of the life we used to dream about. How can I not share it with you, when I felt you next to me every moment my eyes carried slices of new visions directly to my old conscience?

Boredom pushed me to this unusual journey early in the morning. What I had to do was to take a taxi to the ferry, show my residence permit card and get on the passenger ship. And in a few minutes, I was floating over the Red Sea, along with a few hundred people on board. I assume I was the only one on a trip to the unknown. I could read on everyone else’s faces what we shunned the most in our youth – a sense of purpose. It didn’t matter whether the trip was related to their work, family, or mere pleasure. They all seemed to know where they were going. I was also one among them today, till my feet took me away from the regular track. In fact, though I had been working as a teacher in the quiet town of Jazan in Saudi Arabia for a while, I had no idea that I was so close to Farasan Island, in many ways. A ship could carry me there from the Jazan port for free. The journey takes just forty-five minutes. All they need to let you in is to see your citizenship card, or residence permit card, if you happen to be an expatriate like me.

There are certain things which come in search of us, like poetry, when we expect them the least. Moving towards the island with an unfamiliar crowd felt the same to me. I played ‘people-watch’ for a while and tried to figure out the thoughts that could escape from a few pairs of eyes — some wandering above the placid, turquoise sea disturbed by the movement right below us, some sipping in the sights within the barge, some transfixed on a loved one, some keeping guard over children, some analysing life through mobile phone cameras. I could make out a few variations of Arabic, as well as other languages from around the globe. Quite a few women seemed to be traveling alone; I assumed they worked in the health and education sectors in the island. I sat in the men’s section, where loud conversation over cups of tea seemed the best form of entertainment. Children from the family section ran around a bit trying to catch a glimpse through the glass windows of the mainland slowly fading away. A toddler in a yellow shirt offered me a chocolate cream biscuit, in such a friendly way that I couldn’t refuse it. It tasted good, and lifted up my spirit. I tried to rub off the dark cream that was on his shirt, but ended up making a mess. He giggled.

The first time all sights vanish, except the sea and the sky around you, is as profound as the first time you could trace signs of land emerging from the borders, breaking the serene line that unites the sea to the sky. The time between these two seemed to pass in silence. Or, I must simply have dozed off. I had an imaginary argument with you as a thought dawned on me. I challenged you to capture these moments in a painting. You mocked me for being so hopelessly poetic. If we had argued enough those days, we could have traveled further in each other’s company, I felt. We could have explored the world in our separate ways, you with your incurable idealism and me with restless perceptions that refuse to subside.

After the chaos of disembarking, I found myself standing directionless in the port. A few cab drivers vied for my attention, and I ended up striking a deal with the one who promised to take me around to places where all tourists went. I hope you remember that we never liked the idea of being tourists, no matter where we were. We would rather claim the places; make them our own; refuse to label anything unfamiliar, the ‘other’. Silly dreams. I am sure that life has taught you too, to feel the pain of being seen as the ‘other’, by others!

There was a lot to do in a whole day. A speed boat ride, sighting of numerous dolphins in playful mood, snorkelling, coming face to face with coral reefs and underwater life, a boat trip to another island that combined fishing and experimenting with local cuisine, meeting friendly people everywhere…that’s what tourists would have loved for legitimate reasons. I have to agree that these are experiences that anyone would cherish in an island blessed with natural beauty. The weather was perfect, and one could get a lot lucky with photographs that could be worth framing, if one just kept clicking the camera. But what took me closer to the life of our dreams was the walk on a coral beach. That was the last thing I did before going back to the room I took for a night. My attempt to walk barefoot on the beach proved unsuccessful after a few steps. What pricked my heels were, on closer look, coral reefs. A whole beach covered with them. The pain woke me up. It was you who told me the first time about such beaches. You heard about them from your cousin. He was so filthy rich that he could afford to go anywhere. And here I am, on a free trip to a beautiful island and suddenly I find myself walking on a coral beach!

The reefs were in many shapes and sizes. I stayed in the beach long enough to see the place gradually deserted by people who went in search of more exciting things. My taxi driver offered a ride to a family and promised to be back for me before it was dark. Suddenly, I was there all alone, except for the birds hovering above the sea, and of course the unimaginable diversity of life beneath the water. I didn’t feel lonely. There were a million homes scattered on the beach. The reefs, that carried myriad forms of life long enough, and in the process have become relics, beautiful in their own ways, though they speak stories of an unimaginable dimension of extinction as well. I remembered our homes –  places that we never wanted to leave behind, always afraid of finding ourselves in houses where we didn’t belong, of having to follow the house rules of strangers. But we had to leave our homes, our comfort zones. It’s been long since I even wondered how they look, or feel like, or even existed these days. Do our homes survive, even after we leave them forever, making sure that no lights are switched on as we lock the front door? We have even failed to retain old friendships, the next best thing to homes. Be it for reasons that are natural or man-made, the flow to the unknown, losing things, leaving behind things that we once considered precious, seems to be order of life. As I take a few reefs and feel them one by one, run my fingers over them and explore their curves and sharp edges, I feel a sudden calm descend on me.

It was Thomas Mann who spoiled us. Gustav Aschenbach, the enigmatic Tadzio, the late realizations of Death in Venice–we were smitten by the “desire to flee” and could sense the “yearning for the distant and the novel… desire for liberty, for being free of burden, for being able to forget…” But we never took that step; to go beyond the usual temptations of youth and to take a path together, to go on a journey of self-realisation while we were still young.

We were restless creatures. Despite our best efforts to keep our mission of life permanent, things kept falling apart. The idea of a dream itself had defied us, as we went our separate ways. I realise that no journey is wasted, even if we venture out with no purpose. At least, this island and its coral beach of lost homes has made me think of you.

I am sure that both of us experienced intense disappointments in life, our own ways. Have you felt defeated too, like me, when the invisible forces around you took you away from places where you/we wanted to be? Were your grey cells invaded too, by numerous sense impressions, clouding your perspective? Were you lost too, like me?

But I am sure that you too have found beauty, and a sense of relief, in life; in places where you expect them the least. Perhaps I am totally wrong. The ‘you’ in my mind after all these years is perhaps a projection of myself.

I wanted to let you know that I have just found a bit of myself today, surrounded by a million homes, while I wait for the taxi. And it’s not dark yet…

Jose Varghese

is the

Asia Editor for Panorama.


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