As a child, I was afraid of heights, of the dark, of lizards and cockroaches and even stray dogs. I would hide at the sight of these things. The fear would often keep me awake at nights. I would sweat profusely, even on winter nights and toss and turn restlessly. The little sleep that I did get, was filled with nightmares. Mother advised that I should wash my hands and feet and pray before going to bed. I followed, but to no avail.
I was also scared of strangers and of crowds. Extreme fear would often lead to hiccups. My hiccupping fit would not stop despite drinking several glasses of water. The terror would grip me and make me very tense. The only remedy was to remove myself from the source of these fears.
The most effective cure was to lie down in my father’s lap. He would pat my head soothingly and all my fears would vanish. I wanted to stay there forever. But my fears were too many and my father’s time, too little.
My family knew about my problems. My siblings often made fun of me. My childhood was mostly filled with sadness and despair. I loved the sad songs of Mukesh. Actually, my apprehensions were too many and the consolations of elders too few. Mother used to say, “Lying is a sin.” But I saw liars leading a great life. Father taught me,” Don’t hurt or persecute people.” However, people who did these things were well off.
Guests who came to our place would praise my siblings a lot. My brother and sister were great at cramming up, whereas I would try to understand the gist of things. My sister would learn the poems of Subhadra Kumari Chauhan by rote and recite it to them :
‘Thrones trembled and kingdoms frowned,
‘She fought bravely,
The Rani of Jhansi was renowned.’
The guests applauded. My brother would impress them with the theories of Darwin or Newton’s laws or descriptions of the solar system. But my mind was filled with innumerable queries about the same and I could not talk about them with any conviction. The general consensus was that I was not good at studies.
“Your youngest son is a bit slow. He is a weak student,” the guests would remark to my father. Such derogatory comments made me retreat inside my shell and disappear from my own sight.
My horoscope said that I was in danger from sharp bladed weapons. Father told me about it. But I didn’t believe in these things. The lifeline on my right palm was jagged and interrupted.
I always helped other students at my school. They readily accepted my help, then turned around and teased me and called me a skeleton because I was so thin.
With time, I grew up. I found that there were many crazy people in my city. But I didn’t mind them. An old school teacher lived next to us. People considered him mad. He would talk to the wind and solve difficult mathematical theorems on the city walls. It was said that he had once been awarded as the ‘Best Teacher’ by the President. The neighbours thought that too much studying had turned his brains. His family, instead of getting him treatment, had disowned him. Although the old man never said anything to me, he would often shout at the neighbourhood kids when they threw stones at him.
On the other side of the spectrum, were the local grocers, milkmen and sweetmeat sellers, who adulterated their products and had built three storied houses for themselves. There shops had been raided a few times but to no avail, because they would pay off the inspectors. Such people were considered worldly and successful.
I was now an adult. I was a loner and had no friends. I liked my own company. I had finally realized that most people had selfish reasons for forming associations. I never got along with such mean opportunists. People donned many masks to scam and fool others. They sweet talked you while their eyes told a different story. But the world belonged to such hypocrites. These humbugs would sit with you and have lunch in the afternoon but could be found in the company of your adversaries later, scheming and plotting against you. I would yearn for a true friend in this selfish and mean world.
My elder brother wanted to be an IAS officer, while my sister wished to get an MBA degree and work in an MNC for a big package. By now, I had started writing stories and poetry. I had formed my own opinions on socio-political issues. I wanted to do some good in this world. As yet I had not made up my mind about the career I wished to pursue . So, I had nothing to boast about to the family and acquaintances and they would consider me pitifully. They tried to sympathise with my father as if I had committed a big crime. I nearly drowned in the sea of their commiseration.
Soon, a new family moved into the house next door. They had a young daughter who set my heart all aflutter. I had found love at last!
My mother became friendly with the girl’s mother. One day, when my mother was down with acute knee joint pain, she sent me to their house to borrow the latest issue of ‘Grihshobha’ magazine, which had many new, delightful recipes.
By a stroke of good luck, the daughter came to the door. As she threw the door open, a window of hope blossomed in my heart, through which I could stare at her unblinkingly. Butterflies flitted around me and there were rainbows in my sight.
I often ran into her at the dairy or vegetable stalls or outside the temple. Her name was Surabhi and she talked very sweetly. I found her company intoxicating and when I was with her, I found myself floating a few inches above the ground. There seemed to be an invisible bond connecting us. Wherever I was, I would wish to float away on a cloud and reach her. In her company, crowds and strangers didn’t seem scary and I never hiccupped. She wasn’t afraid of the things that terrified me. With her, I too, lost my fear of the dark, of lizards and of cockroaches. I was now a happy guy. My clothes were ironed and I shampooed every few days. I saved my pocket money to buy expensive deodorants. Her words coursed through me like a melody.
Though we had a few romantic similarities, there was much that set us apart. I was sentimental, while she was worldly and practical. My father was an ordinary clerk, while her father owned a few showrooms across the town. My father only had a scooter, while hers owned two luxurious, chauffer driven cars.
Despite all these differences, I declared my love to her, one sun scorched day. She burst out laughing.
“It seems that you watch too many romantic, Hindi movies,” she said to me.
I started hiccupping again. In between the hiccups, I managed to say to her, “I am telling you the truth, I swear to God!”
“Have you never read Nietzsche? God died a long time ago.”
I tried to carry on bravely. “This is the truth. I will make you very happy.”
“Where will you keep me? What will you feed me? You don’t even have a job!”
Her words brought me crashing back to earth. I tried one last time.
“If you are with me, I will improve both our lives presently.”
“Stupid man, with you, neither my present nor my future will be taken care of. Your ideals will not light the fire, your writing will not provide for the household. You live in your imaginary, dream world. We have nothing in common.”
I shivered like the flame of a dying candle. The romantic comedy had turned into a Shakespearian tragedy. I tried to dispel her from my thoughts and ran. There were scorpions scampering down my back, hornets stinging my brain. I wanted to shout at strangers. I felt like narrating my woes to the lamppost. I wished I could explode into a thousand pieces. I wanted to curl up and go to sleep for a millennia, like Rip Van Winkle or to lose myself in the farthest corner of the world. I had failed in every life exam. The rivers of emotion inside me had dried up. I was like a flag at half- mast. My mind was a barren desert.
That night, I didn’t go home. The skeleton of the moon and the stars were buried in the night sky. I sat by the pond near my house and skipped stones in it. I stared at the broken moon in the waters of the pond. By morning, my eyes were scorched by innumerable shards of moonlight. Everything reeked of betrayal. The glass of my life’s water had been poisoned. The morning was powerless and somewhere inside me was trapped an internal injury. I was destined to traverse the hellish paths of my vast life alone. The shore for which the lost sailor had aspired, turned out to be a mirage. An unmuted silence stretched out beyond the lightening sparks of my memory.
When I finally emerged from the torrents raging inside me, I started looking for a job. Even though I had scored good marks, I lacked any source or ‘push’. I didn’t have the resources to pay homage at the right doorstep. As such, jobs continued to evade me.
At this time, riots between two communities broke out in my city. It all started with a kite fight between two kids and soon escalated to stoning, lootings and knife fights. Country made pistols and bombs were being used. The police force stood silently by, as the goons of the majority community terrorised the minority. When my neighbour, Liyakat Miya’s shop was attacked, I was there. I helped him escape through the back door but became a victim of their rage myself. I was attacked by stones and sharp weapons and got hurt badly.
I lay in the hospital for a month and a half. I was a burden on my family. Acquaintances would comment, “Why did you have to be a hero? You should have saved yourself!” Relatives remarked, “When it is in your horoscope that you are in danger from sharp weapons, why did you get involved?” Someone said, “A man who can’t look out for himself is completely useless.”
Lying in the hospital bed, I would think, “Had Gandhi been alive today, they would have said the same things to him. What sort of a world are we living in? The race to become worldly had made us lose touch with our humanity. The bigger the bastard, the more his success! People called me ‘Simple’, which in today’s world equated to ‘Idiot’. I realized that men like me were misfits among these hyenas and vultures. No values or ideals remained in today’s world. They licked their own spit and would trade their mothers and grandmothers for profit. Their ambition stemmed from their self- interest, their double standards and opportunism. Everyone was panting for money. There were no rules in this cut throat world. Stepping on others was the only way forward! The handful of humanity, that was unable to stoop so low, was made fun of. They were the relics of an earlier age and their only place was in museums.
My body wounds were healing but the trauma , the internal wound the world had given me since childhood, still pulsated deep inside me. The imprints of the heavy steps of time were still on my soul.
When I returned home, I learned that Surabhi’s marriage had been arranged with an IAS officer.
I finally got a job in a private college in town, as a temporary lecturer. But they would pay me only half of the actual salary. After a few months there, I learned that the rest of the staff also got half of the official salary. Anybody who protested was given the boot. Corruption was all pervading.
A few months later, I was returning home from college one evening. Suddenly I saw a few goons beating up an old man. As I got near, I recognized him as Surabhi’s father. A crowd had gathered but nobody tried to help him. I was told that they were the youth squad of a political party and had close ties with the local mafia. I tried to dial ‘100’ from my mobile but the call couldn’t go through. “All routes on this line are busy” kept repeating itself on the other side.
It was becoming impossible for me to witness this any longer. The old man could die! I looked around at the by-standers . Everybody was watching a free show. I stepped out to help the old man. In the struggle, I was hit on the head with an iron rod and knifed in the stomach.
I opened my eyes in the hospital. The same friendly advice and remarks began to pour in again. “Why did I interfere in a matter which didn’t concern me?”
“Why did Lala Rajpat Rai get beaten up for the country?”
“Why did Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru go to the scaffold for their country?”
“Why did Mahatma Gandhi go to prison again and again for his country?”
“Why did Subhash Bose…..?”
“Why did Jayprakash Narain…….?”
“Why did Anna Hazare……..?”
After two and a half months in the hospital, I am back home again. My wounds have healed and the doctors have certified my fitness. Meanwhile, I have lost the job in college because of my long absence.
Surabhi came to meet me a week ago. She came to tell me that I should harbour no illusions that she would marry me just because I had saved her father. She said these things quite forcefully and even threw her marriage invite at me. Her wedding is set for the coming Sunday.
The newspapers these days are full of fearsome news— corruption and scams, rapes of minor girls. Some page has the news of the murder of an intrepid, corruption investigator, somewhere the news of the killing of an RTI investigator or a secular personality. My dreams are scarred by nightmares .
My soul cries out every morning at the news and a deathly gloom settles on me. The whole world seems to go dark in mid-afternoon. The trauma has badly scarred my psyche .
Lately, I have been experiencing unbearable pain and aches all over my body. It feels as if my entire body is hurt. I have undergone MRIs and CAT scans. Nothing has been detected and the doctor declares me healthy. But I keep crying with pain. Do any of you know how to treat my internal injury?
What dire times are these
When long shadows are being cast
By puny men?
(From my diary)
A-5001 , Gaur Green City ,
Vaibhav Khand ,