Vinu

I remember the driver of the bus I used to take to work when we had first moved to Kerala. Those were days when I was going through the worst phase of my life- loneliness, lovelessness, exhaustion and fear. Whenever I travelled, I desperately wanted to protect my anonymity, and so, my earphones were my defence from nosey strangers who seemed to be all over the place, and did not mind intruding, inquiring. Every day, I would board the bus, sit at the same place, plug in my earphones, and look out through the window. I completely ignored the stares of the passengers and hardened the expression on my face, if I perceived the slightest threat of intrusion. However, the evening trips were different.  A bunch of school kids would board the bus, and the bus would be lit up with their din. I was particularly surprised by the way the driver interacted with the kids, becoming one with them. 

He was a young chap, in his twenties perhaps, and he was brilliant with the kids. He knew each one of them by their names. He poked them, taunted them, played pranks on them, made them laugh, and they in turn, responded to him in the same language. I found myself smitten by the magic of these moments- this picture of oneness that I saw, unfolding in the spell of those moments. The bus would transform into an abode of happiness. Though I pretended to be detached and distant, the truth was that I was soaking it all, and revelling in these moments of uncorrupted happiness- the only happiness in the darkness of my life at that point in time. But I never dared to be open about it. For one, I was not sure if they would accept me as one of them- I was so different, both in appearance, and in my ways. And secondly, I wasn’t sure what people would make of such involvement, especially since I was a woman. So I sat quietly, secretly enjoying every moment.

One day, the driver was not to be seen. In his place was another person who demonstrated no affinity for the kids, no affinity towards this journey. When the children boarded, the feeling was not the same. They sat scattered, and though they talked and laughed amongst themselves, the oneness was profoundly absent. It was then that I realized that the driver had been the soul of the bus. He had brought each one of us under one umbrella of emotion- he had awakened the inner child in each one of us, and that was the power of his spirit. I was saddened by his absence. That day, I did not plug in my earphones. Instead, I just looked out of the window gloomily. 

“Are you not listening to music today?” a voice asked me.

I turned to see a plump, wide-eyed girl peering at me through innocent eyes. I remembered her as the primary target of all the pranks played in the bus when the driver was around. 

“No. Today, I don’t feel like it”, I replied to her with a smile.

My reply helped her find the courage to ask me more questions. She wanted to know everything about me. Who was I? Where did I live? Where did I come from? Where did I work? The questions were endless. By then, all the other kids had surrounded us. They were holding on to every word I said. I was amused and I patiently answered, realizing children were so much more accepting of differences, as opposed to adults. 

Finally, the wide-eyed girl asked me,”Can I touch your earrings?”

I laughed. 

“Sure”, I said.

I could see they had accepted me. The wide-eyed girl’s name was Akshita. Her rival was a lean, outspoken boy called Mithun, who never missed an opportunity to take a dig at her. Suddenly, they were all talking to me at once. They told me their names, gave me a description of their homes and families, and also let me into their little secrets.

“So where is your driver- the regular one?” I asked them.

“He is down with flu”, they replied.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“He lives in our neighbourhood”, they replied.

“So you know him for a long time now?”

“Yes. From as far back as we can remember!”

“Hmm. What is his name?”

“His real name or his nickname?” Mithun asked, his eyes twinkling mischievously.

I laughed.

“Both”, I said.

“His real name is Vinu”, Mithun said aloud. Then he drew me close to him and whispered something into my ear. I couldn’t make out what he said, but I guessed it was the nickname they had given him.

“Don’t tell him we told you”, he said.

“Of course not”, I promised.

By the time Vinu got back, the character of the bus had changed. I had become one with the children. I still wasn’t sure how I ought to react to him though, especially because society is so conservative in these places. So I avoided talking to him directly. He took the cue and did the same. I could see he was amused by this unexpected change in my behaviour, and also perplexed by what had triggered this change in his absence, but he just flowed with the change. So the bus was once again alive with taunts, pranks and laughter, just that this time, I too was a part of it all. Remarks we made were sometimes meant for each other, but we never had the courage to address each other directly. We always addressed it to the children. We also avoided looking at each other directly. Though it felt awkward at the time, in retrospect, those were the most beautiful moments from that phase of my life. In that silence between us was something so pure, so beautiful, so sacred.

I was profoundly attracted to aspects of his personality-the inherent happiness of his nature, the freedom of his spirit, the inner child in him that dominated his personality. I wondered how it was possible for him to be so happy. I desired to know everything about his life. But we never spoke to each other. It was an unvoiced rule we had made for ourselves.

And then, he disappeared again.

“He has gone to Sree Chitra with his sister. She has a heart valve problem”, the children said to me.

That night, after all the chaos at home had settled, and I was all by myself, I sketched him. I had never sketched anybody from imagination; I had only imitated. But at that moment, there was something of his spirit that came floating into my mind, and I tried sketching his side-profile, so that the features didn’t have to be clear. I tried projecting the attitude instead- him, sitting by the wheel, his chin up, the eyes looking straight ahead, and the self-confident manner in which he sat (quite unlike the self-conscious me).  I was surprised at the outcome; there was a strong resemblance. 

Next day, I hesitantly took out the sketch and showed it to the children. They instantly recognized him. They were thrilled and before I could protest, Mithun had snatched it from my hands and tucked it into his bag. He refused to give it back to me.

Next day, Vinu was back at the wheel. But he was unusually silent. I was anxious. Had the children given him the sketch and was that the reason for his silence? Or was it something to do with his sister’s ailment? I looked at his face and tried to find a clue. He suddenly turned around to look at me. I flushed.

To avoid further embarrassment, I asked him, “So did you take your sister to Sree Chitra?”

“Yes, she needs an operation”, he replied.

This was the first time that we had directly spoken to each other.

Subsequently, when the bus had stopped, Mithun took out the sketch and gave it to him.

“She drew you”, Mithun said, pointing at me.

I was distinctly uncomfortable. What would he make of it? What would he think of me? Why did I do this? At that moment, I wanted the earth to swallow me. I saw him studying the sketch, smile, and then fold it and put it in his pocket, never once looking at me. Nor did he say anything. He just drove on, as if nothing had happened. I wondered what he would do with that sketch. Preserve it or throw it?

But after that day, there was a change in his attitude to me. A care, a concern that he demonstrated rather subtly, but I could sense it. Little things like making sure I had crossed the road safely after I had alighted, or waiting until I had seated myself. Little things like that which he had never bothered with before. He had mellowed down, and the kids took advantage of it. They roped me in and played all kinds of pranks on him, with me as their leader. He would smile and laugh, but he stopped reverting back aggressively. He liked to lose. I could sense he didn’t want to ‘defeat’ me, even though these were mere games.

One day, the kids invited me home. Vinu was surprised when he saw me get off the bus with them. The kids were excited; they wanted to show me off to their families. They made me a celebrity and I had to visit every house. The whole village seemed to know that I would be visiting and at every house, people had gathered to see me. Old grandmothers held my hand affectionately and fed me unniappams. People had endless questions to ask me, and the children would finally come to my rescue. I had no more space for unniappams, but I didn’t want to disregard their sentiments, so with Mithun’s help, I stuffed them into a paper bag. They were simple village folk, and they reminded me of the people from my childhood- warm, affectionate, and soulful. The children took me to the pastures and showed me places where turmeric grew, where water lilies blossomed and where the goats grazed, bleating occasionally. I felt like Heidi, sitting with Peter on the top of a mountain, delighted at the wild flowers, the wild berries, and the splendour of the sun rays that bathed these mountains. They also took me to Vinu’s house. His house was full of people- parents, grandparents, cousins. I spoke to his sister about her ailment. Suddenly, we heard some noise up in the trees. We looked up to see a pack of monkeys. “Your brother’s friends”, I remarked. She laughed.

When I returned home that evening, I thought back to the day. They had treated me as if I was a celebrity- a star in the sky. But they did not know that they had everything that I could only dream of. They did not know the horrors of my world- its loneliness, its emptiness, its darkness, its numbness. They did not know that there were things that money could not buy. They did not know how empty life was in the absence of human connection. I was so grateful to them. For that one day of warmth, togetherness and affection. For helping me feel the joy of life flooding through my veins again.

The next day, I was quiet. I was still reeling from the contrast of our worlds. 

“I am not very responsible, am I?” Vinu abruptly broke into my reverie.

I looked at him with a question mark on my face.

“I know I am a monkey”, he said.

I couldn’t stop laughing. 

“Please don’t stop being one”, I said to him.

We lived many more beautiful moments in that bus. But all along, I was aware it was all coming to a close. I knew the end was inevitable. But I had no complaints. People had started to interpret our association, and I wanted to withdraw before people could colour the sanctity of what we shared with the ugliness of their minds. So we slowly faded away from each others’ lives.

“Don’t ever change”, he said to me….

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Volatile

“I really like you, Pooja. You are different. I love the way you think. I love your passion for the causes you believe in. Above all, you are such a genuine person”, he said to her.

She looked up at him.

“It is mutual, Vivek. I cherish your companionship”, she replied.

“A woman like you doesn’t deserve to be single, Pooja! You deserve to be loved and cared for. There is so much beauty in you. You are intelligent and thoughtful, and wise from life. And yet, you are sensitive, so full of warmth, innocence and compassion. That makes you very attractive. I think you are being very unfair on yourself, denying yourself the joy of a relationship. Do you realize what you are missing?”

She stood still, her eyes fixed on the tiny speck in the distance that appeared to be a boat sailing in the river.

Without shifting her gaze, she asked, “What am I missing, Vivek?”

“So much! You deserve to be held, hugged, kissed. When was the last time somebody hugged you? Don’t you miss these little things?”

She looked up at him and smiled.

“Sometimes. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t. But I have learned to live with not having these little things in my life.”

“But why? Why should you not have these little things in your life? You need to loosen up, Pooja.”

She sighed.

“No, Vivek. I don’t wish to go back to that life. I am strong now. Relationships make me weak and vulnerable. When I lose people, it is so hard for me to come out of the dependence. It is such a hard journey back to strength and independence. I can’t afford to put myself through that again. I have a lot of responsibilities and commitments. I do not have the luxury of time anymore- the time I take to heal and recover. Life will not wait for me. No, I have to be responsible.”

He shook his head.

” You have had bitter experiences in the past, Pooja. That is why you are scared to get into a relationship. Not everybody is the same. You should not hold on to the past; let it go. Free yourself from its clutches!”

“But shouldn’t you learn from your past?”

“Of course! But the learning should not snatch away your happiness.”

“What is happiness, Vivek? Is it holding hands, hugging and kissing?”

“I know what you mean. You may be happy doing the things you do, Pooja. But a relationships brings with it a different kind of happiness. And you deserve to experience that. I want to see you happy and free in the companionship of a man. In fact, I want to be that man for you. I promise you I will never hurt you or abandon you. I want you to feel secure so that you can experience the joy of a relationship. Give me a chance and I will never let you down!”

She continued to stare at the boat in the distance. It had become more visible now.

“You want to get into a relationship with me?”, she asked.

“Yes. And please don’t get me wrong. It was you I kept seeking all along in life. I ran into many women who I thought mirrored what I was seeking. But, from a closer perspective, they failed me. All along, I have been looking for you. But when I found you, it was to realize that I couldn’t own you. You were there, and yet not there. Sort of volatile. Please Pooja, I need you. I want you in my life.”

Her expression did not change.

” Why would you need me, Vivek?”

” I need you because I want to bring in happiness into your life. I want to see you smile. And I want to keep that smile for myself. I want to go to sleep with that smile in my head.”

Unruffled, she asked, “Give me a good reason as to why you need me in your life, Vivek.”

“Like I said, you deserve to be happy. And I want to be the one to make you happy.”

In the distance, she could hear the purring of the boat.

“What are you thinking?”, he asked.

She turned to him and said, ” Vivek, I was thinking of how we are speaking from such different platforms. You are a married man. You speak from within the security of a family. A family that can cater to your emotional needs on a day-to-day basis. There is very little for which you have to depend on me. You are like a man standing firmly on the bank of a river, without the risk of falling. For you, this relationship is an added dimension that you can give to your life- the joy of the intellectual companionship of a woman.”

The boat was now approaching the bank. She pointed to it and said,” I am like that boat, at the mercy of the river. I can be easily shaken. I do not have the security of a family to bank on. I have only myself. And so, if I were to get into a relationship, I would solely bank on it for my emotional fulfillment. Any turbulence in our relationship would put me at risk of falling into the river.”

She started to walk. He followed.

She continued:

“You don’t really know me. How would you? You have not seen me in my moments of vulnerability or dependence. I was always vulnerable, with a very fragile self-esteem. In my teens, I did not have a father to help me overcome the feelings of worthlessness I would often feel. And so, I was always looking for the comfort of a relationship. It was my fragile self-esteem that propelled me to seek relationships. I liked that feeling of being wanted, being cherished and valued. But then, I would so easily get used to the relationship- to the presence of a person in my life, to his gestures, his mannerisms, his responses and reactions. I would get dependent on the little things that you mention- the heart-to-heart conversations, the tenderness, the holding hands, the hugs, the kisses. I would see the very meaning of my life in the relationship; I was dangerously dependent on the security it provided me. So imagine my predicament when the relationship ended. It was like being withdrawn from life support.”

She paused and sat herself on the stone bench. He sat down by her side. She spoke, almost to herself, as if lost in a distant reverie.

“It was so hard to come back to life each time- come back to being comfortable with one’s own company. It was this realization- the awareness of my fragility and dependence, that made me refrain from stepping into relationships.”

She looked at him.

“Over the years, I realized that nothing was permanent. A relationship could never assure permanence. I myself was not permanent. I therefore started filling up my solitude with meaningful endeavors that would leave behind something for the world, long after I was gone. And this made me strong for I learned to become comfortable with my solitude.”

She took a deep breath and continued:

“I have to take very good care of my mind, Vivek. I cannot afford to get used to the joy of a relationship. It would be detrimental for both of us. Of course, I will miss the little things in a relationship. But when did life promise you that you can have everything you want? These are but little pleasures- transient, fleeting moments of happiness. I seek the kind of happiness that sets me free. To me, happiness is the freedom within my mind. I want to feel free; I do not wish to be tied down by a relationship. I do not wish to be accountable to an individual. I do not want my happiness to be dependent on an individual. I want to be free- to do all the things I am passionate about. I do not want the burden of guilt- of being into a relationship with a married man. I want to be free of all such feelings that bind me.”

She looked at him with a trace of affection in her eyes.

“What I have truly missed is the joy of companionship. The kind of unspoken companionship that thrives on a silent understanding of the other’s vulnerability, fragility, struggle and pain. I cherish such companionship. Let us not bring down our relationship to anything lesser than that!”

They sat silently for some time. He stood up. She stood up too. He held her hand and they walked in silence.

 

 

Neeraja

This is a story that one of my students wrote. Through a simple narrative, she takes us through an internal journey of the character Neeraja, who makes us reflect on the imperfections and eccentricities we see in people and choose to be so judgemental about. If only we were to look deep into those imperfections, we would see our own imperfections, our deficiencies.The story teaches us to be sensitive to people and accepting of the diversity of human behaviour. It teaches us to read into the silent stories that people carry within them.

The quest for perfection is an endless journey that we embark on, right from our childhood. We live in a world where most of us are aware of our imperfections, and yet expect perfection from others. Is it okay to be imperfect?

Neeraja enrolled into my school when we were in 4th grade. She had long hair that was straight, thick eyebrows, glowing eyes, and a bindi adorning her forehead. Her bindis changed colour every day- from red, pink and green to mustard, yellow and turquoise. She stood out in her school uniform, especially on Wednesdays, when her white uniform appeared blue from too much Ujala. I remember the boys in my class sing the Ujala ad song that was popular at the time, and make fun of her. But that didn’t seem to wash away the smile on her face.

My class teacher made her sit next to me. At first, I hesitated talking to her as I was shy to initiate a conversation. But that didn’t seem to bother her. She was one hell of a talkative girl. Where she started and where she was headed, she herself didn’t seem to know. My responses to her rattling were limited to monosyllabic expressions of hmmm and oh! I hardly bothered to pay much attention to the content of her conversation. But this lack of interest never deterred or disappointed her. She kept at it. But how long could I go on as a passive listener? So I started talking too, and we became good friends.

Eventually, I came to know that her mother had passed away a few years ago in an accident. I never confronted her on this, but I could now see the pain behind the glow in her eyes. I could now relate to her enthusiastic tasting of the dishes my mother sent in my tiffin. “Did your mother make this?”, she would ask every day. I realized that in truth, her life lacked the colours that her bindis abounded in.

We were in touch even after school. An year ago, we decided to meet up. That was the first time she talked about her mother.

“You know what? Growing up without a mother is not easy. On many nights, I would cry myself to sleep. At an age when I needed a mother, I was playing mother to my younger sister- making ponytails that were always imperfect, packing a lunch of bread and butter into our lunch boxes, and the millions of other errands that needed a mother’s skilled hands- her perfection. Life seemed to demand so much from me. How could I be perfect? However, those imperfect attempts made me strong. Now, I can cater to the needs of a whole family, all by myself. Can you do that?”

She raised her eyebrows with a very serious expression and then broke into laughter. I laughed with her. Then, she continued.

“You know why Lord Krishna is loved over all other deities?”

“Why?”, I asked.

“He was blue in color. He was playful and stole butter. He encouraged Yudhishtira to lie- to say that Ashwathama was dead, in order to upset Drona. He even encouraged the hesitant Arjuna to slay Karna in his moment of weakness- when he had no arms to fight and no chariot to help him escape. Of course, these acts were for a greater good.”

She paused and then continued.

“Krishna was perfectly imperfect. Despite lacking in qualities that describe the perfection of the other Gods, he is loved like no other. That definitely proves that deep down, we all have our insecurities- our imperfections.”

Being a strong Krishna devotee, I found myself nodding in full agreement.

Whenever I see children wearing coloured bindis, whenever I realize there is too much ‘blue’ on my white coat, Neeraja and the wisdom in her words come back to me. The world is never perfect. It never has been. It never will be. And so it is with each one of us. We are all a little injured, a little jealous, a little selfish, a little broken…but a lot more loveable, on account of these imperfections within. We have all made our mistakes and regretted it in retrospect. And so, in this world of imperfections, it is perfectly okay to be imperfect.

A Man who had no Eyes: Critical Analysis

Did you find the story good/average/poor? Why?

I first read this story when I was in school. I remember feeling stunned by the climax. I have read it many times thereafter. Each time, the story creates in me an impact, despite the fact that the climax is no longer a suspense.

I have always loved stories that bring out the invisible aspects of human nature to surface and compel us to reflect on the intricacies of the human mind.  Especially stories that bring out the strength of a character against the backdrop of adversity, and therefore teach us life.

I rate this story as brilliant because:

  • It portrays realism. Both the characters here are samples of real-life characters we encounter in our day-to-day lives. If we were to closely scrutinize the people in our lives, we would discover many ‘Mr Parsons’ and ‘Markwardts’.
  • The story brings out the strength of Mr Parsons’ character by contrasting it with the weakness of Markwardt’s character.
  • The story pays attention to detail. The description of the characters makes them come alive in our minds; it is almost as if you can see them and sense the contrast in their appearance, in their accents, in their socioeconomic status. The environment and setting of the plot is also given due consideration. And yet, the progress of the plot is not hampered by this attention to detail.
  • The author introduces deliberate pauses in the plot, in order to create an impact. For instance, when Markwardt narrates his story and concludes with ‘That’s my story, Guv’nor’, the author breaks the plot momentarily before Mr Parker responds. ‘The spring wind shrilled past them, damp and quivering’, writes the author. This pause builds an expectant air- a space for the reader to anticipate and expect as to what might be coming next. ‘Not quite’, says Mr Parker. The reader is hooked by now.
  • The climax is brilliant. A powerful climax makes the story linger in the minds of the reader because the story ends, but leaves the reader with a lost of unsettled questions and thoughts. The reader’s attention is drawn to the untold parts of the story. Mr Parsons lingers in the reader’s mind. The reader dwells on what it might have taken Mr Parsons to come out of the tragedy. The reader imagines Mr Parsons’ life after the tragedy- of what his immediate reaction might have been to the event and to the deceit in particular, of how he must have come to terms with the tragedy and with the handicap it left him with, of the long journey to become all that he had become. There is endless scope for reflection on this untold part of the story.

What do you think of Mr Parson’s character? Did it inspire you? What trait in his personality inspired you the most?

Mr Parson’s character is full of internal strength and richness. The story illuminates the extraordinary potential of his mind- of how he is able to outlive a tragedy by tapping into his internal resources, and transform the ultimate outcome of the tragedy into a positive ending.

Mr Parsons comes across as a composed and mature character who does not believe in dramatizing the unfairness of life. He believes in problem-solving, without self-pity.

Mr Parsons appears to be in acceptance of the unfairness of life; he does not harbour revenge, spite or hatred. It is this acceptance that enables him to become successful despite the handicap. It is this acceptance that enables him to stay composed despite the coincidental encounter with the man who ruined his life. Mr Parsons is at peace with both the incident and the act of deceit. He has not let either defeat him.

Mr Parsons sells insurance. This reflects the impact of the accident on his mind. Instead of dwelling on his personal trauma, Mr Parsons dwells on the larger picture of such accidents- of how unsuspecting people can become victims of such accidents. He decides to do something about that and ends up in the insurance business. Possibly, his success might have come from the genuine motivation behind taking up such a profession. This was the part I liked best about Mr Parsons’ personality- of how he refused to look at his handicap/deficits and focused on his strength. Of how he allowed the tragedy of his life to move him towards a greater cause.

Despite being blind, Mr Parsons retains his sensitivity to the world. He is delighted at the fragrances of the season- they evoke in him memories of spring, and he is content with these memories. He chooses not to be sad about the fact that he can no longer see spring in all its splendour. This reflects the immense potential of the human mind- of how if we choose, we can experience everything within our minds, and derive joy from our perceptions.

What do you think of Markwardt’s character? Did you feel hatred towards him at the end of the story or pity for him?

Markwardt’s character is manipulative. This manipulative behaviour in response to adversity could stem from multiple factors. It could be related to his early experiences as a child (particularly the attitude of the parental figures in his life), his limited cognition and poor problem-solving skills, the fault in his moral judgment. When people adopt manipulative behaviour from an early age in order to get away from negative feelings, it can become a habit, operating at an unconscious level. It can get registered in their minds as the means of confronting problems. This is the case with Markwardt. His behaviour in the setting of the gas explosion at Westbury, reflects his dire selfishness. But given the nature of the situation, one can overlook this behaviour in the light of man’s survival instinct. In the setting of a life-threatening event, a human being might only think of his life. However, following the incident, Markwardt has no guilt. Instead, he manipulates the incident and distorts the facts to earn sympathy. He lives off this sympathy.

With regard to the ultimate outcome, Markwardt is defeated by life. I initially felt repelled by his meanness, but eventually, as I analyzed the whole picture, I felt sorry for him- for his lack of insight.

By presenting these two characters, what is the ultimate message of the story?

The story is woven around a common tragedy and it explores how two different personalities take different paths in response to the same tragedy. The story teaches us to rise above denial and self-pity, to internalize and accept the trauma, and most importantly, to focus on one’s strengths than one’s weaknesses and tap into this strength. The story teaches us as to how our sorrows can move us enough to drive us to create a better world- not just for us, but for society as a whole. We must transform our tragedies into such stories that cause us to look at ourselves with pride.

Have you ever gone through a similar experience where somebody manipulated facts and deceived you? What did you feel then? How did you handle it?

The highest instance of manipulative behaviour I have seen is in Kerala. A good many people accept this as the norm here. They feel it is of survival value. Perhaps that is what their experience has taught them in a conservative society like Kerala that sets very high ideals to live up to (humanly not possible), and people find the easy way around it. In my initial years in this society, I was perpetually the victim of this behaviour. I was in denial for a long time and I hated the people here. Over time, when I realized I had no escape, I started to reflect on why they were so. When I analyzed them against the social climate here, I found it easier to forgive them. I feel acceptance has transformed my attitude to them and to my own issues here. I now feel only pity for them, and I feel motivated to take up initiatives that would change the social climate here. Today, I look back at the Kerala chapter as valuable lessons learned in life.

Have you ever been in a situation where you had to deceive somebody?

Yes. Though I like to think of myself as a conscientious individual, there have surely been incidents where I have felt it is alright to deceive since it isn’t causing great harm. However, the guilt would eat me up for days.

Let us learn to read into the people we come across- into their untold stories. Let us enrich our own lives with their stories.

 

 

 

To love, and to be loved

Trying a hand at fiction…

I had seen the message notification in the morning, but I ignored it, certain it was from some random stranger. It was evening when I finally opened it.

“Happened to read your publication. And also the feature in the newspaper. Beautifully written! Keep writing!”, it read.

The profile picture was that of a little girl, clinging to a man who was in all likelihood, her father. I zoomed the picture and realised that the man in the picture was none other than Faisal. 

I felt a sudden pang of nostalgia. Memories of London suddenly flooded my mind.

London is not a chapter that I open often. Not because I dread the memory, but because I cherish it way too much. Like the presents we cherish and open only when we are alone and free from preoccupation. I like to open it slowly, gently, and with much feeling. And then hold it close…become one with the memory.

But now, I found myself at the doorstep of this memory, unprecedented. I was hesitant. I hadn’t talked to anybody about those years for a long time now. There are memories that I like to carry in my mind as raw perceptions. Perceptions meant to be felt. I didn’t want to touch them and spoil their beauty with analysis. So I refused to share them; I never talked about them. I felt they were alive only within me, and they would die the moment I let them out. On every occasion that I unwrapped them, they overpowered me and rendered me speechless. In the dark solitude of my life, they often made me feel rich.

I ruminated on this text message for a long time, unsure of how to respond. It was like a little comet that had landed into my world from that land of fantasy. I thought about my life then. It was so full of people, so full of love. But after the lonely battles I fought and the numbness they left behind, I wasn’t sure how I was to respond to the warmth of this text message. Its warmth made me glad, but there seemed to be an infinite distance between the numbness that had become my natural state now and the emotions that this text was calling for. There seemed to be an infinite distance between this numbness now and the emotional excess that defined me in those years. I had changed beyond recognition. Necessary for survival, but at the expense of a precious part of me that I seemed to have permanently lost. Except within the confines of my mind.

I was struck by the child’s face in the picture. She had dimples and her curly hair was tied up into a pony. Faisal held her hand and she clung to the security it provided her. The picture was blissful. I could sense the deep meaning the child instilled in Faisal’s life. She was Faisal’s world. It made me happy. Happy that his life had not taken a bad turn after we parted. Happy that he had what I could never have given him. I suddenly felt free.

“Thank you, Faisal. I was surprised to hear from you. Is that your daughter in the picture? She is very cute”, I replied to him.

His reply was instant:

” Thanks for replying. You are a wonderful human being. Yes, she is my daughter. I did not have your contact details. I stumbled on your publication one day and tracked you down. Congratulations for all your achievements! I am so happy for you!”

I could sense the happiness in those words. Once upon a time, we were really close to each other. I could decode the emotions that fuelled his words. I could sense his joy now, at having found me. His uncertainty and silent quest had come to an end. He had found me and I had responded. He was at peace with himself.

“I am an ordinary human being, Faisal. Leading a very ordinary life. London feels like a distant dream now. I cannot believe I lived there once!”, I replied.

“You are a determined person. I feel you can achieve anything you set your heart on. I remember your inclination for writing and art”, he wrote back.

Achievements. The word always makes me smile. From the perspective of the system, I am more of a rebel and a failure, than an achiever.

I replied:

“Most achievements come from being a nobody, Faisal. When I moved back from London, I had no plans. It was suffering, loneliness and misery that I moved back to. But I guess that enriched me as a person. I saw much that I might not have seen otherwise.”

“Can I talk to you?”, he asked.

I suddenly felt uncomfortable. I wasn’t ready. 

“I need some time, Faisal…”

“Don’t worry about the call if you are not comfortable. But I am honestly very happy with your achievements. You have done very well in life!”

I wondered why I wasn’t ready to talk to him. The last we had spoken was in 2005. After that, so much had changed. I had changed as a person. There was so much I hadn’t wanted to talk about, after London. How could I explain my journey thereafter? I couldn’t. I think the one journey that is best left alone is the journey of suffering. Somehow, that is a journey that you cannot risk talking about- the journey that broke you until you were born again. That journey is so sacred that you do not wish to undermine its value by verbalising it. I cannot talk to him about the millions of wounds that now lay within me. Wounds I had painstakingly sealed, all by myself. I was more comfortable with my mask. 

I thought back to my life with him. I remember what had brought us together. It was the journey of pain and suffering that he had travelled and that I could see in his eyes, though he spoke about it matter-of-fact. His father’s early death had put an early end to his childhood. He had learned to deny himself the pleasures that children of his age indulged in. He had witnessed helplessly his mother’s solitary struggle and that had seeded in him the urgency to grow up fast and shoulder the responsibility of the family. These circumstances had shaped his attitude to women. He was driven by the need to protect them and to shoulder responsibility. However, he believed that beyond this, a woman had no needs. As our relationship progressed, the monotony of it weighed heavily upon me. The beauty in my life gradually faded away. His inability to engage meaningfully and find joy in the little things in life- in conversation, in nature, in travel, in hobbies and art- it suffocated me. I found them all vanishing from my life. I felt a huge barrier come between me and the world. I found myself sinking into depression.

I found it hard to communicate this to him. Especially since it wasn’t something he could change. It was probably rooted in the fact that he had alienated himself from all these joys very early in life. For him, achievements were pleasure. And that was understandable. But my personality thrived on these simple pleasures. I couldn’t do without them. Perhaps, if he wasn’t so caring towards me, it wouldn’t have been difficult for me to communicate this discordance in our personalities. But he was a wonderful human being and he cared deeply. That made it difficult.

While I was struggling to find the right words to communicate, he surprised me one day by speaking out my mind.

“You are in conflict. You feel suffocated being in this relationship, but you find it difficult to step out as well.”

He sensed it. I remember the melancholy in his tone when he said this to me and my heart went out to him. 

That conversation propelled me to try harder to stay in the relationship, but I realised that the natural course of our relationship was headed towards separation and so, it was futile working against the inevitable. Our relationship staggered as we found ourselves caught up in confusion, insecurity, guilt and agony. That made us a little bitter. When we parted, we were bitter. But now when I look back, I realise that bitterness was superficial. It was only human- a transient emotion that was necessary for us to find the courage to part ways without damaging our self-esteem.

I remember the freedom I felt when I stepped out of that relationship finally. I remember sitting in a sidewalk cafe on a cold winter morning, eager to feel the warmth of the sunshine. I remember feeling the joy as the warmth of the bleak sunshine percolated into my senses. I remember feeling ecstatic at the aroma of coffee, at the sight of people walking on the sidewalks, at the sight of the ferries on the river. I remember feeling alive again.

But today, when I read his text message, I look at Faisal against the backdrop of the years after London- the years of loneliness and suffering. It is gratitude I feel- for what he gave me, and for what I haven’t had in my life for the last several years. 

Not that I miss him. Or that I repent or regret. But today, I see the abundance in him; I see his worth. And it makes me happy to see that he got what he always deserved and longed for- a family to come back home to, to call his own.

This makes me appreciate the irony of life. We don’t need happy marriages. What we need is truth- in our relationships, in our emotions. Unfortunate are the ones who lose love and their ability to love, to traumatic relationships.

The unwritten memoirs

They had moved with me to wherever I had moved.

They had flown with me to London. They had accompanied me to the rented house in Thalassery. They had moved with me to this house in Kannur. They had kept me company during my post graduation at Manipal and Mangalore. They had also moved with me to Calicut. Now, they are back here. They are inseparable elements of my life for they carry within them a part of me-

A part of me that I cannot locate within myself anymore.

 

I look at the dust piled up on them. And the cobwebs that spiders have woven around them.

My diaries…

They span the years from 1994 to 2008. In 2008, I had started blogging. There were no diaries thereafter.

diaries-2 

I took them out from the shelf. I wiped away the dust and the cobwebs that time had woven around the fragrant memories that I had tucked into the pages of these books. It struck me then that I had not read them for many years now. The only year I had revisited was 2002. And perhaps 2006.

I was still not comfortable with the fragility that was palpable in my entries before 2002. Particularly 2000 and 2001.

 

However, today, I read through a few entries. I started with 1994. They were childish narratives. I read a few entries from 2000 and 2001. I wrote so differently back then.

In those entries, I was the centre of my world. I was the theme around which everything revolved. There was a simplicity to the emotions that I had poured into the words. Those entries were raw and highly personalized. But today, it is perhaps impossible for me to retain that tone. Somehow, a whole lifetime creeps into the spaces between my words. Today, I can only write from a broad perspective. A perspective wherein life replaces me as the central theme.

As I read the entries, it is possible to feel the vulnerable self that I lost to survival over the years. I love this feeling of briefly being in the shoes of someone I used to be once upon a time. It is a bitter-sweet feeling- this feeling of missing one’s own self. To the writer in me, this contrast is precious- this contrast between what I used to be and what I am now, between the vulnerability then and the numbness now.

It is in these moments that I am alive.

A spans the entries from 2000 to 2001, and then fades away towards the end of 2001. 2001 is in 3 volumes. My relationship with A is the central theme in those volumes- entries that represent my persistent effort to make sense of my feelings for him. All those entries radiate an anxiety and uncertainty I felt for I was baffled by the nature of our relationship.

So was he.

Sometimes I wonder if I will ever hear from him again…if I will ever see him again. In 2001, it would have been impossible for me to imagine that it was possible to lose someone who mattered so much…that they would disappear permanently from your life. It was impossible to imagine that you would see them in a different light as time went by…that you would see your relationship with them in new light.

It would be interesting to meet him after all these years. I wonder what changes time has etched onto him. I wonder if life has hardened him further or if it has managed to mellow him somehow. He was a rebel when I had known him in school and thereafter, but I could always spot the vulnerability and sensitivity beneath his defenses. His mother had expressed on many occasions her anxiety about his personality, but I was too young to understand then.

Between us, we had a strange chemistry. The verbal communication between us was always disastrous. He was fast, witty and brash, with interests that were different from mine. I was slow, dumb and shy. However, the non-verbal chemistry between us always perplexed us. There was something beneath the language of words that moved synchronously and in perfect rhythm, creating a strange bonding between us.

I loved him unconditionally. There was a certain sadness that I could feel in his heart that I wanted to heal and pacify. That sadness was not acute; it was deep seated and had therefore lost its fury. It was a sadness that had lost its voice, but was still needy. A sadness that responded to love, briefly silencing the rebellion in him. But then, it had been left on the burner for too long.

Those years lit up as I turned the pages of 2001. These pages bore the nostalgic fragrance of our relationship. I closed the diary and put it back in its place. There was a strange sadness within me- the sadness of melancholy. It had replaced the numbness of the years.

diaries-3

I suppose there is not much that a second person might identify in those words. The entries may sound silly. Entries that can only be brushed off as the impulsivity of adolescence. But having walked those paths, it is an altogether different story for me.

To me, these entries are my life. Life that somehow escaped me, unnoticed.

These diaries are sacred to me. For within them are people, places and the emotions that once connected me to them. People and places that would have changed with the passage of time. And so, it is only in these pages that I can find them again- the way I knew them to be…the way I want them to be.

Mere khayalon ke aangan mein

It was an afternoon class.

I was teaching a small group of students. It had only been a few weeks since they had started with the course. They were anxious-

The anxiety that marks the early months of medical schooling until every student finds his own means of coping with the stressful curriculum.

 

I feel the first year of medical school demands the most intense mentoring. The transition from secondary school to medical college is a huge transition for the student. Most students do not even know what to expect. The syllabus is vast and complex. The environment is unfamiliar and intimidating. From the protected world of secondary school where they receive individual attention and ample guidance, they suddenly find themselves insecure in an environment where they are expected to be independent. Dissection is a nightmare for many. Anatomy, Physiology and Biochemistry start off simultaneously, and before the students have oriented themselves to the curriculum and to their new environment, they are already into the second term. In most colleges, the orientation programme is only a formality. It does not really orient the students to the curriculum. Many students fall prey to stress and anxiety. It reflects in their performance. However, mentorship is never given the necessary priority in medical colleges in India.

 

Every new batch takes me back to my own MBBS days. I remember how frightened and lost I had felt in my first year. However, there was more human touch to life in those times. And so, with friends who were empathetic and sensitive, we managed to scrape through our first year. That ceases to be the case today. And so, it pains me to see our children end up as victims of depression, anxiety and personality disorders by the end of the curriculum.

This understanding has moulded me as a teacher. I mentor them in my own capacity. I make myself receptive and approachable, bring in warmth into my interactions, and focus on making learning an enjoyable experience. I teach them to love their subject so that they lose fear of it. I help them set goals, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and overcome the obstacles that come in the way of their goals. In my role as a teacher, I am inspired by Randy Pausch’s perspectives. His book, ‘The last lecture’, is a book that every teacher must read.

Students are like clay- raw and mouldable. It is up to us teachers to carve them into something beautiful.

 

So, as I addressed my students that afternoon, I tried to be as interesting as I could. For this was the worst hour for a class- right after lunch. They listened and responded.

All, except J.

J yawned. He distracted me because he was so restless. I could tell from his eyes that his mind was far away. Occasionally, he looked around or fiddled with his pen. All in all, he was completely disinterested.

Could you tell me why, J?

The mention of his name made him snap out of his reverie. He hadn’t heard the question. He hadn’t heard anything at all. I repeated my question. He gave me a blank stare.

Sleepy, after lunch? Or is the class too boring?’, I asked.

He only smiled.

Any way I can make this more interesting?’, I asked him.

And then I continued. Following the class, when they were doing the experiment on their own, I went to J’s group. I concentrated on him and asked him questions as he continued with the experiment. I encouraged him at all the times he did something right.

I suppose it is very difficult for you to sit still and listen. You like to be on your feet all the time, right? Too restless!’, I said to him at the end.

He smiled, amused. I could see that he was surprised that I had taken note of his restlessness and inability to sit still. He was grateful for that understanding.

In the subsequent class, I stopped to ask a question to the class.

So, where is my favourite student?’, I asked.

Everybody laughed.

Yes, J. By now, I am sure you know that I am referring to you’, I said to him.

He answered something, and I nodded, correcting him subtly.

It worked. J loved this attention and he lived for my classes. I was amused to see that he was more attentive than the rest in my classes. When they had to divide into groups, he would come running to the group that I was to take. Over time, I grew very fond of J.

He would respond to all my posts on FB and I could sense that I had become his hero.

J did well in his final exams and made it to second year.

J was passionate about photography. He was a true artist at heart- he could never subscribe to systems. I had seen the photographs he posted on FB, and I could see the artist in him. He had been doing portraits at that time and one day, he asked me if he could click me.

‘I would make a very poor subject, J. I am very camera conscious’, I said to him.

But he insisted. That evening, he turned up with his girlfriend, and we had dinner together.  Over dinner, he tried taking a few pictures. But I was very conscious. Following dinner, we walked out and he managed to get a few pictures. His girlfriend left for she had to get back to her hostel on time.

Could we take a walk?’, J asked.

Of course’, I said.

We walked. Like I always say, cities are very pretty by night and I love walking their streets at night when traffic has thinned.

That was the beginning of our friendship. Until then, I had only known J as a student. I knew little about his personal life. We spoke a lot- about childhood memories, about parents and grandparents, about movies and songs, and about a million other things. When it was time for me to leave, he looked at me and said:

Today, I feel so happy. You are really special.

He was trembling with excitement and happiness.

But what makes me special?’, I asked.

I don’t know. You are different. When you teach, you always have that little smile on your face. You are in love with the things you talk about. I love your happiness. I always wonder if it is possible to be this happy. You are not like the rest’, he replied.

I smiled.

You are special too. After all, you are my favourite student’, I said.

Yes. And I hope it will remain so forever. I couldn’t bear to see someone else take that place’, he said.

I smiled.

That night, he put up my portrait on FB and tagged me. I was overjoyed.

I shared very special moments with J. We loved walks and we loved conversation. There was something very special about our relationship.

I thought about it one day. I was aware that our emotions had stepped out of the confines of a student-teacher relationship though we had never expressed this to each other. However, I had to be mature enough to handle the relationship very carefully. It is one thing to feel, and it is quite another thing to act upon it. I could sense that he was going through the same conflict.

He voiced this to me one day- his discomfort pertaining to the nature of his emotions towards me. That was the most difficult moment in our relationship. Until the moment the truth of our emotions had not dawned upon us, our relationship was effortless. There was no worry surrounding our relationship. However, the moment the emotions permeated consciousness, we were uncomfortable.

What is it I feel for this person?

This was a question that troubled both of us. While we both loved each other’s companionship, we did not wish to long for more than companionship and complicate the scenario. And yet, the plane on which we related to each other in our interactions, made it easy to feel that way for each other. We related so effortlessly to each other that it was hard not to fall in love.

Eventually, the worry dominated the joy we derived from our companionship. He stepped back. He brought a deliberate distance between us. This was very uncomfortable because it took out the life from our conversations. When we chatted, we were both careful to keep the conversations rather formal. We would strip the conversations off their emotions and talk. We had to think before talking.

This process was so disturbing that I decided to step back a little further. And so, we distanced completely. We stopped talking to each other. I shifted my focus completely to my career. It was very hard initially because my interactions with J meant a lot to me. However, it was necessary.

Two years later, he texted me.

How are you, ma’m?

I replied to him. We had a conversation.

I am so relieved. I feel so happy we spoke’, he said.

I smiled to myself.

Images from the past flashed in my mind.

J yawning in my first class.

Walking on the streets on moonlit nights, holding hands and talking about childhood memories…

Holding hands and running on the beach, the waves lapping up our feet…

Looking into his eyes when he sang for me- ‘Mere khayalon ke angan mein koyi sapnon ke deep jalaye’…

To this day, I have not found the right words to describe our relationship. For it was far beyond conventional definitions of relationships. It was a relationship where I was loved unconditionally. I could be a child, I could be a woman. I could be dishevelled and ugly. I could be immature and stupid, I could be mature and intelligent. I could be all that I was capable of being, without worrying about not being loved.

The relationship was less about us and more about all that we loved. It was always about the enchanting world in which we lived.

 

What was right? What was wrong? Was it wrong to hold hands and walk? Was it wrong to look into each others’ eyes and sing? Could somebody delineate the boundary between right and wrong? Where does one draw the line? I still do not know the answer.

 

However, what I do know is that in the realms of the mind, there are no barriers. I like to keep J as a beautiful perception and memory in my mind. And I am aware that he feels the same. That is all we both ask of life. And of love. There is nothing that we ask of each other in real life.

And that makes our relationship special.