I have been stung by a sea creature twice in my life, both times on the beaches of Karachi’s coastline. Fishermen from the village (who doubled as local lifeguards) would warn us to watch out for bluebottles when it was the season, and as a young person I felt a mix of terror and fascination to see those glistening, gelatinous bodies washed up on the waterline.
I was around sixteen the first time, and the only one to be stung that day. All I remember is the intense ache in my stomach as the venom made its way through my blood, and I spent the rest of that miserable afternoon doubled over in a haze of bright sunshine and pain, despite the application of onion juice as an antidote.
The second time was last year, as I circled the Sun for the forty-ninth time. I was one of a group of five people in the water, all of us in the mood to stay there till sunset. As always, it felt so beautiful to be immersed, letting wave after wave lift me off my feet and set me down again on the soft sand. That sense of bliss wasn’t destined to last very long that day though. All of a sudden, I felt something wrap itself around my hand and a multitude of painful sensations ensued, making me scream and flail my arms to shake it off. Of course, I knew immediately it was a jellyfish of some kind, the nematocysts in its tentacles releasing relentless amounts of venom-covered barbs into every bit of my skin they touched. No one knew what was happening as I shrieked and flailed, and in the drama of the moment my precious moonstone ring flew off my finger and sank into the waves.
If the rapidness of the way my dismay shifted from the agonizing sting to the loss of my ring wasn’t funny enough, how my sister responded to the stricken look on my face was hilarious. She instantly directed her focus to locating the ring under the water with her feet and quite miraculously, she found it! I have never felt such gratitude and love for Fatu’s existence as I did that day. She had been with me when I bought that ring from a tiny shop in the bazaar of Kalaam on one of our trips together.
Evening effectively destroyed, we all made our way out of the water as no one wanted to be in it anymore. What followed was a series of potential antidotes to relieve the pain in my hand which had built to excruciating levels. If you’ve ever been stung by a jellyfish, you know.
Having a painful experience, whether it is physical or emotional, can be deeply isolating, and so it was with the jellyfish sting. None of the others had ever experienced it, so even though they were concerned and kind and helpful, I had to sit alone with my shock and suffering, reflecting on the why. Slowly, like a light in the darkness, it began to feel like the universe had just delivered some kind of message to me, though I had no idea what it was. There was a great sense of consciousness, not just of my own physical existence but that of unseen creatures all around, who had as much right to be where they were as I thought I did. And my hurt and distress gave way to acceptance, with this mystical glimpse into the Great Mystery.
I didn’t see the little beast, so I don’t know if it was a bluebottle or a Portuguese man o’ war or some other kind of jellyfish. My left hand swelled up for a week, and I was left with interesting dotted scars along the back of it to remind me of what had happened. The respect I feel for the sea realm, and those who dwell there, was now mixed up with enough fear to stop me from wanting to go to the beach again let alone enter the water. It made me sad, as the beach is the only expansive landscape I have access to.
It took two months for my hand to heal and the pain to fade. I wore my battle scars with pride, they told a story…like a tattoo.
And then a year passed, the scar slowly began to disappear, we moved homes again, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, had a thyroidectomy that left me with a new scar, and Amu went on a solo trip to Nepal where she met a backpacker from Brazil, the land of the Amazon, who spoke Portuguese, and sported long hair, an earring, and a tattoo on his chest, right over his heart, and after eleven months of traveling through many different countries, he decided to make his way to Pakistan from India next door, and Amu had to write a letter of invitation for the Pakistani embassy to give him a visa, and he got it, and he bought me sarees from Delhi an hour before his flight, and we picked him up from the airport when he arrived in Karachi, and he ended up staying in our house for a month, and he turned out to be the most emotionally intelligent young man I have ever met, who learned to love desi food, and rabri was his favorite Pakistani dessert after gulab jamun, and he loved wearing shalwar qameez and talking at length with Huz about politics and Latin America and electrical circuits, and he swore not to go back if Bolsonaro won the election, but Lula won! And we all hugged and danced at the promise of it all, and we cooked together, and he said grace when we ate together, and Amu took him to St Patrick’s cathedral where she attended Mass for the first time in her life.
Why did this strange boy from Sao Paulo feel like soul family and was that why he so quickly become a comfortable presence in our home? Why did he lose his mother to Covid the same year I did? Was it her spirit that guided him to another mother when he needed one, on the other side of the planet? And what made him feel so at peace near bodies of water?
We took him to the beach, and it was in his presence that I jumped back into the sea without any fear, after more than a year, and I didn’t get stung by a jellyfish, because a little baby turtle showed up on the towel he had laid out on the sand, and after it made its way down to the water, all of us cheering him on, he told me that turtles are the natural predators of jellyfish, and I took it to be yet another sign, and the water was beautiful, and I declared him to be the Jellyfish God, not just because he broke the curse, but because the tattoo on his heart is of two dancing jellyfish, tentacles trailing over his shoulder.