Nine Lives in One

I am very fond of animals in general. I always believe that animals are better company than human beings are. I am a volunteer for the World Wildlife Fund and Blue Cross (an animal shelter home and welfare organization in the state I live in). I used to visit the shelter home and bathe, powder, and feed animals on weekends.

Can I consider myself an animal lover?

Years ago, we had a dog. It was of a palm’s size when we brought it, and a year and a half old, standing on the hind legs almost as tall as me when it died. We cried, all of us. My dad got his pictures framed and laminated and hang on the walls and placed on the table in the drawing room.

I remember thinking of it all of a sudden and crying, for more than a year after it died.

Just before it died, it became very weak, unable to eat or walk. The veterinary doctor we took it to was of no use — of course, no one charges a veterinary doctor for the death of a pet. Easy escape, reduced sense of responsibility.

So it died. When I would go to place the food next to it, the weak animal tried to get up, with a trembling body and a trembling voice which perhaps wanted to convey the pain it was going through. And I would get scared, looking at its unusual behavior, fearing it had gone mad. We always think for ourselves first, don’t we? That is why fears come to us naturally before our concerns for others.

As the head of the house, dad locked it up in the garage, so that it doesn’t hurt anyone, or the other dogs won’t hurt it. When it died, we noticed the marks on the wooden door of the garage, made by desperate scratching with the nails.

As I write this, I realize, most of the pains that we carry throughout our lives are born of a feeling of guilt.

A guilt for something from the irreversible past.

At home, we never talk about it. About the incident, yes. But about the feelings, no. For some reason, is it always difficult to talk about our feelings. To talk about feelings, to show emotions, to wear the heart on the sleeves — we, the humans.

After a gap of some months, my parents welcomed another dog home. It was not brought home like the previous one, but it was a normal dog that somehow found our home. And my parents allowed it enter the house. They started providing food, a bed, and warm clothes to it. Why we have this habit of going back to things that have caused us pain, I wonder. Someday, this dog was going to die too, and we would cry again, if we allow it to enter our hearts — this was my concern. So I remained indifferent to it, and my living in a different city made that easier.

Could my parents never fathom this simple fact that our love for something or someone plays no part in keeping that something or someone alive? Time has its own rules, and has got little to do with our emotions.

Or, is it human helplessness to keep going back to the love, though pain is an inevitable bargain for it?

Anyways, this new dog found its way easily through the path paved by the previous one, and died just when the frequent pictures sent by my sister was about to change my mind about it. I got the news, about the death and the mourning. And thought, this would be the end of it — of inviting sufferings.

Turns out, life never goes the way you expect it to. After years of accumulated experiences, I have discovered this theory: whatever you fear or avoid, life will invariably bring you face to face with it. Perhaps the prime purpose of life is to open our minds to accept — accept everything, accept everyone. Accept our nothingness in the predefined course of the universe.

So I did not have to mourn the death of this second dog, but had to face another shock very soon.

Soon after this dog was dead, sister broke the news of the arrival of a new member to our family. A cat. “A cat?” — I was equally surprised and apprehensive — I do not like gown-up cats. As far as I remember, none of our family ever liked cats and we always had this feeling that cats are evil. I mean, look at their eyes — challenging, mischievous, hard. And in our culture we have this traditional belief of cats never being faithful to their masters, always wishing ill for the owner.

Sharing the same thought till now, how my parents could let a cat stay in the house! I reminded my sister about all the hostile beliefs that go around as traditional beliefs. I tried, in all the ways I could think of, to persuade them to chase the cat off the house, though in vain. The parents and youngest sister found out ways in which this cat ‘behaved’ like the previous dog — a reason more powerful to keep it than to chase it away for the traditional beliefs.

I was scared. There is no scarcity of ill-wishing opportunists in the human world now to get an additional ill-wishing animal home. And the more they started liking the cat, the more I started to get the feeling that it was the evil ways of the cat that had overpowered their minds.

Sounds funny and shameful for a 21st century person working in one of the top MNCs in the world? For someone whose day starts and ends between touchscreen gadgets, GPS navigation, cashless payments. I know! Ohh fear — the strongest of human emotions! Fear, of which our actions, thoughts, words arise.

I did not stop trying to convince them. And then, when I was convinced that I will have to accept the everyday fear and agony of this little existence till it does not die, sister messaged saying it died.

What a relief! Ideally, this should have made my head lighter and the heart free. But I realized that nothing of this sort happened. The moment this baggage of fear was lifted, a thought visited my mind that perhaps it was my hatred that killed this animal — I was constantly wishing that it should die! And for some unknown reason, this thought took the just-emptied space in the mind with equal weightage.

My sister had put up the picture of this cat as the profile picture of our siblings’ chat group. This time, I said nothing, knowing that images and lives can be omitted — guilt cannot be.

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The Good Earth

I have done some pretty weird stuff in life. Yeah, weird — and if you go by the conventional beliefs and thought process, perhaps you can categorize them as stupidity. Well then, I’ve been pretty stupid all my life — but I would like to think that I’ve been lucky, more than anything.

This reminds me of an incident — one of the lessons that keep revisiting my mind from time to time.

My initial days of working and living alone in a city far from homeland. One normal, undoubting morning a ten/twelve years old boy knocks at the door, asking if I want to buy milk. He has a few packets of milk with him.

I do not remember whether I needed the milk or actually did not feel like saying ‘no’ to the boy — but I bought a milk packet. A half-liter, cow milk packet that costed about twelve rupees then. But after taking the packet I realized that I had just two five hundred rupees notes at home. So, I told him, I could not buy the packet. He was disheartened, but did not want to leave a customer in the morning and told me that he could get me the change of money for the five hundred rupees note from the nearby shop. The shop was just two houses away, and he was a very young boy. So I gave him the note — I do not think I hesitated for a second.

I waited till it was time for me to leave for office, and I realized that he was not coming back.

Whoever I told this incident to, replied in a matter-of-fact manner, that this is what was supposed to happen. That this is what was normal. That how idiotic it is to trust an unknown boy to give him the money to get me the change! I mean — how idiotic, right?

Oh, if this is not enough, let me tell you, before opening the door after coming back from office in the evening, I checked if there was any money kept anywhere. Hopes — I tell you!

It has been a few years since then. That teenage boy taught me something what my experience till then could not.

Or, have I learned, actually? I am not sure. But if I haven’t, let me tell you, I am happy about it. The dark side of the world is not the only side it has.

Two months back, I went for a wisdom tooth extraction. I purposefully went alone, because I was so scared the previous day that I came back without getting it extracted. This time I had to force myself to get it done, alone. We need to push ourselves to do what scares us the most — one little good thing life has taught me.

Quite ironically, in contrast to me body structure (which people formally put as ‘petite’, and friends call as ‘tiny’), I always need to take a double the normal dose of anesthesia. This time, I had to take three for some reason, in which I am sure the mind too had some part played. So I got the tooth extracted, came out of the room without any pain, and sat in the front room to book a cab for me.

The cab will arrive in about ten minutes, and I should reach home in half an hour. Now, since the brain was still working, a thought had started to worry me. Under the influence of the excess anesthesia, I am hardly able to move my tongue. But I will have to buy the antibiotics and most importantly, the painkillers, before I reach home and before the pain starts. I wasn’t sure I would be able to stop on the way home and get down to buy the medicines. And if any of the medicines would not be available, I did not think I would be able to call the doctor for an alternative suggestion. And I was worried, the longer I take to reach home, more the possibility of the pain to start. On top of that, I did not have much cash in hand.

The cab will still take some time to arrive. I wanted to utilize this time so that I can reduce the time for getting home. So I called one of the caretakers working in the hospital.

With an almost immovable tongue and a little knowledge of the local language, I somehow managed to ask him if there was a medical shop nearby. More impressive — I managed to convince him to go out and get the medicines for me.

Out of sympathy, courtesy, or pure humanity — the caretaker agreed instantly. But I had very little cash with me, remember? And the medicines list was kinda long.

So I handed over my debit card to him, wrote down the password in a piece of paper so that he wouldn’t forget, and watched him leaving from the door. I knew the medical shops weren’t that far, but I did not have the energy nor the frame of mind to go from one shop to another if a medicine won’t be available.

The cab had arrived, and the incident of the boy with the milk packet revisited my mind. These are the times when you know Time is abstract — the more you anticipate, the longer it takes.

I was beginning to wonder what might be taking the caretaker so long to return, when he, with all his humility, came in. He handed over the medicines packet and the card to me, told that he had to go to two shops to get all the medicines, and gave me the bill.

I offered him some money, he did not take.

It was a risk, yes. But with such results, aren’t risks worth taking?

A girl — a woman — a female going alone to an unknown place is a risk, too. Risk, most of the time, is a socio-cultural construction — just that some risks are made universal for a world determined by some dominant behavior of a few species.

It was the last day of my unforgettably wonderful trip to Uttarakhand. It was also my first ever trip to an unknown place completely alone, without taking a known company along. A trip that feels so right and needed to restore the trust on the beauty of human bonding, now when I sit back and think about it.

Eventually, it became a group of six different people from different places, on a trek to Kalap. A trek arranged by Anand Shankar and the team of the Kalap Trust, a non-profit organization working “to make Kalap a better place to live”.

On the last day of the trip, coming back from Kalap to Dehradun, we were almost three hours late than the time we estimated. There was a huge jam in Mussorie and I was torn between the serenity of the cloud floating around, and the urgency of reaching Dehradun before dark. I was supposed to go to Haridwar from Dehradun, the very same day, which was almost three hours journey.

Praying frantically and cursing people for buying so many cars, when I reached Dehradun, it was past nine. Now I needed to go to the taxi stand, to hire a taxi to Haridwar. Anand asked Arvind bhaiya, the person driving the vehicle all the way from Kalap, to drop me at the taxi stand.

By the time I reached the taxi stand, it was nine thirty. There was one taxi waiting in the taxi stand below the tree. It was dark, the taxi stand had some four-five man standing around the table put as the ticket counter. And I had about three hours of journey lying ahead.

“This is the taxi stand. Let me go and enquire about the fare.” Arvind bhaiya said.
By the time he enquired and came back, my friend from Uttarakhand advised me not to take the taxi, since the route is not known to be very safe at night. I was told to go to the bus stand instead, and to board a bus.

The private bus depot was near the taxi stand, so we went to the bus depot. The depot looked deserted, with the last bus just leaving the depot. Arvind bhaiya rushed towards the bus, and asked the driver if it would go to Haridwar. I sat inside the vehicle and watched him as he came back, disappointed. There was no bus for Haridwar now, he said.

It was about ten o’clock. I was already tired — we started from Kalap at eight in the morning, trekked till about one o’clock in the afternoon. Then travelled to Dehradun in this vehicle, till nine o’clock at night. Arvind bhaiya, driving all the way, must have been tired too.

I called my friend again. Cancelling going to Haridwar was not in my plan, not till there was even one possible way to reach. So my friend told me to go to the public bus depot.

I had no idea where the public was depot was, just like I had no idea of any place in Dehradun.

“How far is the public bus depot from here?” I asked Arvind bhaiya.
“About twenty minutes”, he said.

Would I get a bus, at 10.30 p.m.? I wasn’t sure. And I was pretty sure the last taxi was gone too. And I was sure I wouldn’t get a hotel suddenly at this time of night.
“There would be buses till late. Don’t worry, you’ll get a bus”, all my hopes relied on my friend’s words of assurance now.

Hope is an amazing thing — it always encourages you to push yourself a bit more.
So, when the hope for getting a bus showed its antenna, I realized I did not want to go empty handed to a house I was going for the first time. Especially when the lady of the house must be tired and hungry waiting for me, and especially when I was going to show up at their doorstep at about one o’clock at night!

My eyes were looking for a sweet shop, most of which were shut by then. I asked Arvind bhaiya to stop the vehicle if he spotted any open sweet shop.

I don’t know if I was looking for the sweet shop so badly that the universe conspired in helping me find it, but there was an open shop, on the way to the public bus depot. Again dark, deserted road and a sweet shop at a few yards from the road. I gave the money to Arvind bhaiya, to get two types of sweets of his choice and sat in the vehicle, holding the camera, the backpack, and the jacket that wouldn’t fit inside the bag anymore.

We got the sweets, and reached the public bus depot too. Neither Arvind bhaiya nor I had any idea where to find a bus for Hardiwar, so we decided to leave the bags in the vehicle, and entered the depot. The ticket counters were closed, but thankfully there were quite a few buses, and more importantly, there were people sitting inside the buses — male and female. The risk-meter reading just came down.

Apart from the sleepy people sitting inside the buses, everybody in the depot seemed to be in a hurry. Of course, it was late at night, and people were in the mood of hurrying home. After running from one bus to another, asking, finally someone showed a bus that was to go to Haridwar. Confirming with the conductor, we ran to the vehicle to get the bags now.

I lifted the camera, the sweet packets, the jacket while Arvind bhaiya carried my backpack. He made me sit next to a girl in the bus, placed the backpack in the holder above my seat, and left when the bus engine started. I had no words to convey my gratitude to him, I will never have.

I reached Haridwar safe and sound.

Sometimes I wonder, if we ever realize how much we owe to the people we meet every day for the good things in our lives — for being alive. People whom we have never met before, people we are never to meet again. How much they can do to keep us safe, too keep us alive, to keep us human. To keep the earth still a livable place!

Soul-Feeding

There was no food where we trekked and decided to put up the tent. We didn’t have a proper lunch and it was getting dark already. The sky was heavy with pregnant cloud that might break at any moment. The road was already broken from the day’s drizzle — another shower and it’ll be putting our lives on the throw of a dice to drive back on that road.

It would be safer to go back to the town, to a hotel. But we wanted to camp in the wilderness. It would be wiser to follow the cars and get down the hill before it gets darker. But we were hungy, and we had this persistent wish of resting in our own little tent. Hunger and stubbornness, you know, two conditions that have written innumerable significant pages in the world history.

Driven by the hunger, we decided to go looking for a place to eat, and then to come back to put up our tent at a place that looked safe. It was an open ground near a temple. Not really far from the jungle, but less close to the fear of wild-inquisitive animals attacking at night. God or not — there was at least a priest in the temple — we could ask for help if needed at midnight.

Our wishes are as volatile as the mood of a manipulative child. The moment one is granted, another in the queue springs up claiming the most important place — wrapped up in same urgency, same desperation, same sense of the sudden end of Time. Same illusion of oneness of the definition of happiness with the granting of the wish.

We couldn’t be going to the city and come back — it would be too late, considering the chill in the weather, the evening hurrying up to welcome the night, and the merciless clouds coming down floating around us as we hopped in to the car. Our only hope was the recollection of a signboard that we spotted on our way to this place saying there is an adventure camp in another eight kilometers.

Hungry and desperately hopeful, my eyes started to roll all around along with the wheels of the car. After a few feet getting down the hill, we saw a little shop, or so it looked with four or five biscuit/cake/cookie glass jars and two rows of tables and benches.

A small tea stall — how is it going to cater to our craving for a heavy dinner? I got out of the car and walked into the stall, asking if there is any place nearby where we could find some food.

The house-cum-stall had two parts. One part probably had a room behind the front wall that displayed the glass jars telling you that you can stop here for some tea or coffee. Another part had a kitchen — displaying smoke and an elderly woman working at that moment.

No, told the old man in the stall, there was no restaurant nearby. I ran my eyes over the stall quickly again — locally made cookies and cakes. So no food till we reach the town tomorrow — perhaps we could use the chips and chocolate packets lying in the car, I consoled myself.

I turned towards the car and looked at my friend’s tired face staring from the car. In moments like this, you know how killing it is to let someone down.
I turned back to the old man and asked, “Is there a chance that you could make something to eat?”

Don’t know what the old man would have said, but the lady came out of the kitchen and asked instead: “For how many people?”

“Two, just two” — I stressed on the number trying to find some hope.

“And when do you want it by?”

I looked at my watch, it was about five thirty.

“By six, or seven o’clock? Anytime you can.” You cannot always have a choice, I realized.

“Ok. We can cook daal-chawal for you, we are going to cook for ourselves anyway by seven.”

“That would be great. Normal daal-chawal will do. Thank you so much! How much would it cost us?”

“That would be fifty rupees.”

Fifty rupees for each plate or two, I wasn’t sure. Neither did I feel like asking — in that hour, I bet, we would have paid even five hundred for it.

We came back by six thirty, half an hour before time. As we washed our hands and sat on the bench, the lady kept two plates of steaming rice, traditional style sabzi, and papad in front of us. And daal in a different pot.

Thanking her and thanking God, we started eating. Simple, home cooked food that was made delicious by hunger and hospitality.

The lady kept serving in-between. And we ate till our stomachs were full, hearts were content, and lips were speechless.

“Take some more rice”, she came with another serving of rice from the kitchen.
“No, no aunty”, we shook our heads rapidly, “we are so full”.

We were full indeed. Our minds were full of gratitude for the hospitality of this elderly couple, and our hearts were touched by this new-found assurance in humanity.
We took out the money to pay them. It was an old hut, and the couple were wearing very simple, worn-out warm clothes. We offered them some money more than the price of the food.

“No”, said the old man, “you ate so less, did not even finish the rice. So I am actually going to take forty rupees from you.”

We tried to convince him to take the money, and we could not. He told that they have their actual house in a village nearby, and have two children who have jobs of their own. The couple runs this stall so that they can earn their own living — with freedom and self-respect.

The old man took forty rupees for two plates and returned the remaining money. We came back to our car — slient, and full of questions.

How much contentment does it take to live in a humble hut, cook food for random hungry passersby, and refuse to take money more than what is needed? How much contentment does it take to feed unknown people with humility when no manager or promotion criteria watching over you?

I don’t know. We still keep talking about the wonderful taste of that night’s diner and keep wondering..

 

 

The Weight of A Wait

This is the story I grew up hearing. And living — in its sentiments, its pride of purity, its morale. This is the story that shaped one third of my life..well, pretty much.

In a ship in the middle of the ocean, the father tells his teenage son not to move an inch from where he is until he is back. The son nods, the father promises to come back in a few minutes and leaves. Perhaps he needed to go to the men’s room, perhaps he wanted to drink some water, perhaps he just went to get his jacket.

Like drops of dew hanging from a spider web in a winter morning, life consists of moments loosely held together. In a moment life changes. It takes a moment to erase to dust what was concrete a moment ago. In a moment, the precious becomes memory, pain become scars, faith becomes insecurity.

Before the father could come back, the ship was attacked and was fired at. Perhaps the father was just on his way back when the firing happened and got injured or died. Perhaps he got locked inside the men’s room. Perhaps in the chaos in that hour, he forgot where he had left his son. We’ll never know what happened to him, for, he never returned.

It is a huge expectation to think that we’ll always get to know the truth eventually. Life is such a complex mixture of events — true and false, that some things never come up to the surface in our lifetime. No matter how much that had made us cry, or how many times we have died wishing to know the truth. How much does our one tiny wish matter in the universe — in the infinite flow of time and space?

Now, in an attempt to find a meaning, back to the story.

As a result of the firing, the ship was set ablaze. The lifeboats were taken out and people were running into the lifeboats pushing each other. Don’t all chaos happen because of the sole reason — that we fail to see anything as more important than ourselves?

Someone called the little boy, still standing where his father asked him to, into the lifeboat. He politely replied that he would wait for his father.

The fire was spreading in, the ship started to sink. Someone tried to convince the little boy that perhaps his father would never return, so he should save himself. The boy refused to move — perhaps he still believed that his father would come back looking for him. Perhaps he wasn’t sure how to face the world afterwards — escaping without taking his father along. There is hardly only one reason behind our each decision.

The last lifeboat was about to leave. Half of the ship was getting covered by the fire, the other half getting submerged by the water. The captain of the ship, the last person to vacate the ship, came to the boy and pleaded him to come with him.

The boy replied that he cannot disobey his father, and stood firm looking at the direction his father went while the ship sank slowly under the ocean.
This is how we should obey our elders, this is how we should keep our promises — I was told.

And like a map curved on a stone surface, I followed. Our beliefs, examples set, values imbibed influence our vision like a tinted glass — what we see through it is mixed with what we are seeing through. Unless the glass gets broken, or the tint wears out in the hands of time.

All my life I have seen people waiting — waiting for justice, waiting for the beloved, waiting for a wait to be over. Waiting in crowded stations, waiting silently within a conversation. Waiting in bleeding handwritings of a letter, waiting secretly under a compelled smile. And I wonder, oftentimes, how easily we travel through time while a part of us remains at the same point. The contradictory self of human soul — the eternal struggle to float free while being tied down.

After my grandfather passed away, my grandmother used to sit in the verandah on her accustomed spot, now alone. The spot next to her where grandpa used to sit when he was alive, would remain empty. And a reflection of it would stick to the weakening retina of grandma amidst her daily conversations with the passersby — morning to evening. I wondered what she used to wait for, sitting in the verandah, alone, every day. To wait is to cherish the moments passed, little did I know!

People leave — with broken promises. And people live — with broken promises, holding with pride the pieces that they own. To wait is to hope — to find the lost nest back.

I remember waiting in the airport to welcome an arrival when an hour seemed to be of a second’s length. And then there had been times when I took the airport bus, as automated as a psychomotor activity, and sat outside the terminal for ages. Waiting, without logic, without hope, without sanity. To wait is to console ourselves, to wish to press a button that would undo a damage.

A wait is a decision, like keeping promises are. A wait is a faith that something is greater than death, longer than Time, larger than life. It is a silent prayer that forever does exist. A stubborn belief people can lay their lives for. No wonder there is nothing “sadder than a train standing in the rain”*.

Promises are like snakes with heads in both ends — it ties down the maker and the receiver equally helpless: one with the consistent pricking of conscience, the other with a candle of hope against the storm of time. That is why promises were born in the first place — to make the nightingale keep her eyes on the nest while flying high.

“Will you visit again?”
“Yes, of course”, I said. There are voices you cannot say ‘No’ to.
“Will you come next week?”
“ummm..no. Not next week, but I will visit again very soon.” I said, trusting myself completely with what just came out of my mouth. There are eyes you cannot lie to.

The little lama of about ten-eleven years age said he would wait for me. An age that trusts people beyond reason. I told him I have come from a place about two thousand kilometers away. He did not seem to understand that distances can be hard to travel for a promise.

I did not keep my promise — at least, not yet. And for the first time in life being on the other side of a promise, I pray that the little lama has never been told the story of the boy in the ship.

 

* ‘Tell Me, Is The Rose Naked?’ By Pablo Neruda

 

The World Within

“So you wrote your address wrong in the affidavit yesterday?”

I nodded, yes.

“How is it that you have lost track of where you belong?” the man in the black suit in the court joked about me not writing the detailed address in the affidavit the other day. He is a funny man, said others and laughed.

I smiled, not knowing what to say and partially accepting my mistake.

On our way back, my dad told my mom, the person was the father of ‘that (with a name) guy’. My mom uttered something to express sympathy.

“Which guy?” I asked. Not living in the state and locality for years, I hardly know anyone from here. I hardly get to know about anyone, or about anything.

So my mother told me a story. A nineteen/twenty years old boy was on his way to his college hostel with his dad in an auto. The auto driver charged a bit more than the reasonable fare. Something very common in India. Greed fueled by an excused compulsion of poverty.

The boy argued with the auto driver for trying to extract more money than the ‘fair’ fare. Something that most of us do. Especially when you are an outsider to a locality, you always feel the pressure of being taken advantage of. Regionalism is such a strange thing – we trust and distrust people according to where their home is. How easy it would have been if people could so easily belong to each-other!

Since they did not have change for the money needed to be given to the auto driver, the father went to a nearby shop to get change. The son and the auto driver kept arguing. The young blood, yet to get toned down by the frequent injustices of life, tend to stand up quick, firm, and uncompromised. On the other hand, like even a dog in its own territory, people find it hard to accept to be fought back in their dens. Most of our fights are not about a need or logic – but about ego.

By the time the father came back with the change of money, the boy was surrounded and being beaten up by a herd of localites in favour of the auto driver. There was no place for reason, or question of justice, of course. Sometimes our fights are mere shadows of the struggles within us – the worst torments are always brought upon by another suffering soul.

Ignoring the cries of the helpless father against a huge storm of people blinded by ego and driven by rage, the beatings continued till there was no fun in hurting. The boy lied still, without even an effort to breathe. The people eventually went home, getting tired by so much of workout or cursing the boy for giving it up so soon. And left the father untouched, but injured for life.

This man I just spoke to was that father.

I tried to remember the face of the man. I was in a hurry and was worried about the task getting completed on time. All I needed was his sign on the piece of paper I held – I had no time to look at his face and analyze what he might have gone through in life. Even if we see faces day in and out, on how many of them do we see what they have been through unless told? We all are broken except babies – and we all get habituated of covering our scars under our smiles. That is the most logical thing to do – we see and meet people every day, everywhere – we cannot afford to listen to everyone’s story and suffer for everyone.

Some pains are forever. Perhaps we accept their existence like that of an incurable disease – no matter how much we would like to get rid of it, it becomes a part of us. Or, perhaps we learn to live with it –trying to chase it away with the fond memories of what we had before we lost. There is no escape from pain – there are just different ways to deal with it.

 

After some initial information sharing and goodwill gestures, I could recognize this lady sitting right next to me in the bus. She told she was a professor in the college my father and uncle studied in. In fact, she and her husband both used to teach in the same college. I remembered the mutual fondness between her husband, the teacher and my father and uncle, the students. Like a light, faint ribbon of fog floating above the ground in that winter morning, pieces of memories came floating in the mind. I remembered where her house was, though I have not been to that side of the town for decades. I remembered her husband, who had developed a fondness for me thinking that someday I might turn out to be an eligible daughter of my father, the students’ union secretary and the best literary participant in college. And I remembered the reputation of a married college professor couple in the small town we lived in. For woman of that status, she is wearing a very simple saree, I thought as I looked at her getting off the bus for some tea at the depot.

“You are not going to eat anything? In the whole journey?” She was genuinely concerned.

“No, I just don’t feel like..” I smiled and tried to coil in inside the shawl pretending to be sleepy. Casual talks, coffee, smiles – all easy and effortless but not in a seven hour-long journey when you are already struggling to fix the torn pieces of a mind that feels alien to your own self.

What’s lonelier than a long journey with a bleeding heart? And what’s more comforting than loneliness when you are bleeding inside?

“You did not recognize her”, mother exclaimed in astonishment, “She is the wife of (the name) professor sir. He died a few months back.”

I said nothing. Perhaps I got an answer to my curiosity over the simple saree the lady was wearing. I remembered looking at her from time to time to find her sleeping too, after my desperate effort to sink myself inside the shawl till neck.

I knew she and her husband had a love marriage. What does it feel like to lose someone you love forever, without a hope of getting back? How do people live without whom the whole world looked dark the other day?

All these faces that we meet every day that have broken hearts, dried-up tears, bleeding scars masked underneath, what do they convert this pain into, so they can live?

She mentioned about her son and doting daughter-in-law. And how she was going to surprise them by visiting them without informing. And how her son would have never let her come in the bus had he known about it.

She never mentioned anything about her husband. And now I wonder – sitting in the two seats next to each other, lying eyes closed, looking outside through the window, in silence and pauses between words – perhaps we both were fighting our own demons inside. Perhaps each person in the bus was. Perhaps that is how we live – with similar pains but covered in individual boxes. In the similar inferno of suffering, yet alienated by the boundaries of own worlds.

Coming Back, to Journeys

“We have reached safe. Hope you have reached too. Thanks for everything.”

I typed in the message and pressed Enter. Waited for some time. It did not display two blue ticks below the text – undelivered.

Two hours, two weeks, months – undelivered.

I checked the last Whatsapp status my friend has put – “Will come back soon :)”.

I remember my visit to the Hall of Fame in Ladakh  – a memorial and museum constructed by the Indian army for the war heros. I remember standing in front of the glass cases that had equipments displayed that are used by the jawans in extreme cold and snow – in places like the Siachen glacier. I remember looking at the pictures of army personnel climbing the glaciers and how I wiped tears in awe.

How vague the borders, wars, bloodsheds are is a different issue.  What is sadder is how silently people lay their lives for us, or so they believe, when we are, unaware, perhaps fighting with someone over a scratch on the car.

My first morning in Leh. Abiding by the suggestions of experts and well-wishers, we planned to acclimatize ourselves and stay the first day in the hotel. After unpacking the bags and freshening up, I was just about to sleep.

Three hard knocks on the door and I had to jump out of the bed. My sister had told me that she had asked a friend’s friend to hand over a local sim card to me for my use. Pretty extended connection in terms of familiarity – but a friend in need is a friend in deed!

I opened the door and shook hands with the unfamiliar friend in the unfamiliar town for the first time. As a courtesy, I asked him to come in. And without hesitation he came in with hurried, strong, habituated soldier-steps.  A warm, jolly breeze turned the unequivocally blue sky of Leh comfortably welcoming.

“He’s in the army. On the day you have your return flight, he’ll be leaving for Siachen. Look at his Whatsapp status”, my sister messaged.

I checked the status two days later, when there was working internet connection for about half hour. It had three sad emoticons along with the text – “6 days to go”.

I was in Ladakh for ten days, for which a local sim card for me was arranged. There used to be very limited internet connectivity, almost every evening making me stand at the hotel balcony, shivering, just in the hope of the hotel wifi working for a few minutes.

Ladakh is a safe place for even a solo woman traveler. And we had a comfortable arrangement made to stay, eat, and travel places. Yet families would care – leaving messages, calling every day. Distance is such a horrifying thing – it puts our fears to test. As if anything beyond the eyesight can cheat us, and leave us abandoned any moment.

How do people live, day after day, miles apart, when with each step their loved ones are flipping a coin for life or death? When you cannot hear them for days, cannot see them for months, cannot hug them for ages?

“Have a safe journey. Sorry I couldn’t get anything for you. Wanted to take you out for coffee, but you were busy.”

“That’s ok. Next time”.

“Sure thing.”

“For how long are you going to be there?”

“It is for a year. But I hope to get some extra leaves and come back in 3-4 months.”

When we say ‘Next time’, there is always an element of hope – and to some, far more meaningful than we can imagine!

I remember waving hands to army vans as a kid. Somehow, as kids we always know what time and socio-political expectations make us forget – that living beings, cast-creed-border irrespective, have a longing for their homes that is similar. That coming back to the loved ones is always healing – no matter what keeps you apart.

Our depth of inference is always in direct proportion to our degree of pain. That is how some good byes don’t mean a thing, and some ‘come soon’s mean the reason to live. Some promises are never kept and some are waited on forever.

The army vans kept coming, and with years I grew skeptical about waving a hand to them. There were other people who were taken in those vans and never came back. People known and unknown. People innocent and guilty. People honest and selfish. The newspaper headlines would grow bigger and bigger about it.

Someone amongst them might have said he would come back soon. Some might have uttered, ‘for your tomorrow, I gave my today’. Someone somewhere might have waited for them – for days, months, lives – language, border, culture irrespective. Army, rebels, common men – ideologies irrespective.

Of all the promises we utter, or leave unuttered, why this is the hardest one to keep – to come back? When we travel from moment to moment, from life to life rifling for a breath of meaning, do we leave ourselves in bits in a way impossible to assemble it all together ever again?

It has been ages since I last asked you to visit again. Ages since I boarded a flight and you called to say – “Come back soon”. Layers of lives have passed, yet every time, a journey feels incomplete – like coming home after years to find a lock on the door.

Nothing chases us more than the inability to come back. It is a curse – a curse of travelling through life in infinite circles without being able to locate the point of origin. Perhaps that is why Man has invented the concept of rebirth – running all through life after mirages of desires, we need a sense of an ability to come back, to start afresh. A sense of an ability to undo the loss. A hope.

Who do we leave for, if not for love? All the responsibilities, chores, duties that keep us away from the loved ones – who are they for, if not for them?

Six months ago I visited Sikkim. Standing at the Indo-China border in NathuLa Pass, the Indian guard called the Chinese guard to shake hands with us. They smiled at each-other, sharing jokes. And I wondered, what is it that will make them pull triggers on each other just at a command? What is it that makes people guard sleepless, roam in jungles, freeze in snow – knowing that million others like them are, perhaps, sleeping carefree in air-conditioned rooms?

Not every journey we make takes us somewhere. Not every staying back finds us at the same place. What is worse – having to remain somewhere when the heart has already made its journey, or having to leave when the heart is happy settling in? How different the world would have been had no one ever needed to leave for anywhere, keeping the heart at home?

De-Fabled

Boy goes walking and finds an ant drowning in water. He saves the life of the ant by pulling it up from the water, keeping it on the grass. He keeps walking and saves a snake, a bear, and some other wild animal I don’t remember on the way.

The wild animals, grateful to the boy, help him later in his greatest distress.

Fable – right? Yes fable.

Fable, because no matter how beautiful and simple they construct your minds into – one fine day you realize that you do not free a wild animal from pain, out of empathy, without any safety measures. Fable, because you learn that gratefulness, like love, is a rare phenomenon that has nothing to do with memory but with wish. And boy, isn’t wish the most unpredictable thing on the earth?

Actually the whole process of growing up is tied to your performance on how you differentiate life from fairytales. Life is not a fairytale, life is reality. An antonym for fairytale.

In life, or reality, you learn that things attack when you are unarmed. That animals – wild, tamed, or civilized – have wishes you cannot always rely on. That the helping hand you extend can be pulled in to drown you in turn.

And whatever it is – social responsibility, fear of future, or inclusion instincts – we all love to make sure that the others too get a taste of the actual life!

There was a time when I used to think fables are true. We all have had times when we thought so. The eras of innocence.

So I would think of the particular personal life and sentiments it could have and let an invading ant or cockroach go. Did I expect it to come back to me in some form to pull me out of a danger some day? Perhaps I did not, perhaps I did. I don’t know – the ego boost generated by a good deed is so overwhelming that we love to forget our self-interests behind it.

I remember – finding this giant, rare butterfly on our coconut tree. You always sense the different and precious somehow – no matter what your experience is. So I caught it immediately and confined it to a circular bamboo stool with some water and asked my mother to keep a watch until I come back from school. And I went to school, flying the two little ponytails in the wind with each hurried step, excited to tell my classmates about this precious discovery of mine.

There is a reason why telling your secrets to anyone is not safe – not everyone perceives things the same way.

By the time I came back from school, the butterfly was freed. Mother told me it would have died otherwise – that it was not reasonable to let it die for my fun. Sounded logical – it had its own life, relationships, body to feel pain – it is unfair to hurt someone just because you can. Empathy – remember?

And right now, at this moment, looking at the lizard I managed to trap by my window pane, I wonder where did it all go – the empathy, the conscience, the morals?

While closing the window I discovered this lizard which got stuck by the window pane. This was the culprit I was looking for, for quite a few days now – after finding the black pieces of bio waste with a white dot left here and there every day in my clean flat.

Of course I was irritated. One, I have to clean my whole flat all by myself. Two, I have an average energy-level which depletes to 30% of the day’s stock by the time I reach home after nine hours of work and two hours of journey. This makes it impossible for me to sweep the floor every day. Three, I am not insane – if I have to choose between erasing the reason of discomfort and suffering every day, I would choose the former.

So I kept looking for a lizard, deciding that once I see it, I will chase it away and then close the kitchen window forever through which it might have entered my province.

And here I am. With the lizard trapped accidentally on my window pane. I am perplexed – whether to release it and let it go, kill it and thus erase the reason for my irritation forever, or keep it stuck and let it die.

Remember – I am an adult. Adults do not believe in fables.

If I release it, it might just jump on me – how would it know which way I want it to go out anyways? It might hide somewhere and this time more alert – I might never get the chance to chase it away. It might attack me – aren’t lizards a cousin species of the snakes? Snakes are poisonous, snakes are scary and according to stories, snakes never forget nor forgive who hurt them.

Three days pass by – each day with the same perplexed me, coming near the window and standing – looking at the big, round, scary eyes that never got closed. Eventually it had to die – something that I started to hope slowly, for I was too cowardly to kill it right away.

It is a bliss – never having to hurt anyone. Hurting is a double edged sword, it cuts your opponent and your conscience equally deep.

To kill in order to live is the basic survival strategy of any species, I tell myself. The survival of the fittest – life is a constant battlefield.

Then how do you define what is selfishness and what is necessity? Aren’t necessities born of selfishness? How do you know where to draw the line between cruelty and humanity?

You run your car over someone and leave him/her dead. You are unable to convince yourself to accept the lawful punishment – to put your carrier, your good name, your whole life behind the bars – for a reckless mistake. So you deny the accident and in a desperate attempt to fix the only witness, watch him die too.

Selfishness – cowardice – crime? So easy to cross the thin lines of should and shouldn’ts – we are always our greatest weaknesses and worst judges.

And, perhaps, struggling secretly between your fear of punishment and wounded conscience you wish you still lived the fables. Perhaps.

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