Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Deccan Queen

Life in Bombay was hard and who would know it better than him, having spent each night on a different footpath. When it rained, it usually got better, at least pandu on his midnight beat wouldn't bother to evict him from the park bench that was his for the night. The worst of course came around Diwali time, when some rascal would invariably plant a dada bomb under his bench. But overall he was happy with life. He would often look at the match-box apartments all around him and wonder how people could stand to live in the same place for more than a day. Other times, he would be found on marine-drive, just after sunset. Oblivious to all around him, he'd be lost in the riddle he'd invented for himself, namely, what would happen if the colours blue and green were swapped with each other. Green ocean, blue trees. And peacocks only mildly confused. And that's when it hit him, that he should visit the peacock bay in Pune. Granted it was inside the campus of the national defence academy, but the universe always seemed to conspire favourably in his wild peacock chases. Visions of dancing peacocks he could control no longer and before he knew it, he had made his way to VT station and into the general compartment of the Deccan Queen where no ticket collector dare ventured. Besides, he didn't have a rupee on him, and so the thought of buying a ticket never crossed his mind.

It was soon time for the Deccan Queen to begin its journey to Pune. The motions had to be gone through as they found their way to his seat. A warm tiffin box silently exchanges hands. One last embrace and wet cheeks touch. Shifty eyes meet, and avert as the engine sounds the departure whistle. She doesn't look back while walking slowly down the platform. The train pulls out and the rain plitter-platters on the roof, little rivulets of water rush down the window in ever changing paths, scattering the city lights as they flow. Fascinating, till they disappear into the gutter below. The inexplicable, yet inevitable had happened and emptiness lay ahead. Soon, the train began pulling into the hills and disappeared into the dark tunnels. He sat in the train door with his legs dangling carelessly outside. A homeless man lay asleep on the floor next to him. United by the rhythms of the train, they were together in solitude.

He thought his mind was going to explode from the sheer weight of memory. Memories of a past that held in its grip the dream of a future without fear, but was not to be. Memories of a love, that was no more. That night in the forest. The woods resounding with the piercing sound of the bansuri. Suddenly all around him lose the power of speech. Stand still, and play their parts mute. He shrieks into the pitch dark sky, turning to her for an answer that she herself doesn't know: Why? Why, he screams, when I can be all you want? He, who has long lost a measure of himself. She, who doesn't know what she wants, but knows who she doesn't. What can be worse, than to be denied resolution? Not by design, but by inability. Life's bitter ironies; she who had brought out the softest in him also inflicted the maximum cruelty, leaving a large gaping wound.

Hearing his shriek, the homeless fellow woke up with a start, and the two who were united in solitude not too long ago, were now one in alarm. His pleasant peacock filled dreams were suddenly cut short by this young boy, who, it seemed, wanted to be all that somebody else, a girl no doubt, wanted. How absurd, he thought. Well, only one way to nip this absurdity in its bud: out came the shoe whose sole had a hole and down it came, whack!, on the head of the boy with a hole in his soul. "You rich people never satisfied go home to mummy and let me sleep in peace!" It is often thought that such moments are ripe for epiphanies. What is not so well known, is that our epiphanies are often reflections of what lies beneath the veneer of our consciousness. And so, our hole-in-the-soul boy whose vision was clouded by the black smoke of immense self-obsession invented an epiphany that only somebody wallowing in self-pity could, that of jumping off the train to end it all. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he summoned up the courage to stand up at the bogey door and face the darkness that was rushing past. Liberation, any moment now! And that's when the grinding sound of train-wheels coming to an untimely halt shattered the darkness.

It was just his rotten luck to be thwarted, for somebody had pulled the chain just as the train was nearing Khandala station! With a heavy feeling, he got down from the bogey and walked up to the platform and found his way to the nearest tea stall. Maybe the hot tea will clear up his head, he thought. With the steaming cup in hand, he sat down on the empty seat on the bench behind the tea stall and was soon lost in reverie. It took him a while to realise that the girl sitting next to him was sobbing. And the sadhu sitting next to her seemed to be deep in meditation. And sitting next to the sadhu was the same bum who had whacked him on the head. He quickly averted his gaze from the bum, lest he strike again. How incredible, he thought, the bench was verily a microcosm for the world itself!

The girl had clearly been crying for a while, for the kajal around her eyes had been smudged to the point where she could pass of as a Gothic rock-star. Maybe she had also been planning to jump off the train? He offered her his handkerchief without a word and she was only too glad to have it. He waited for her to dry her eyes (and ruin his kerchief). "I have just run away from home." So she wasn't even on the train. Maybe she misses mummy already. Shh, don't say it out loud, the bum is sitting not too far off. "Nobody understands me at home. They all want me to be something else. Why can't I just be me?" The bum who had been listening to all of this burst out laughing and nearly fell off the bench. Having caught the undivided attention of the others on the bench (and a now-startled dog that was sleeping under the bench) on account of his little antic, he exclaimed "He wants to be somebody else and she wants to be herself. What's more, you both seem equally miserable!" Turning to the sadhu,
"O learned sage of the Sahyadaris
won't you explain these dichotomies?"

The sadhu appeared to reflect for a while.
"It is through contact with the six senses that is born desire, repulsion and subsequent attachment."
"The mind, of course! You could be 'watching' something or 'listening' to someone without anything registering. The faculty of the mind is involved, be it through a combination of memory, cognition or intelligence, in interpreting the various inputs that come by way of the sense organs."
"Haha, if that is so, then just by living in this world, we are bound to be attached to it, in some way or the other!"
"Clever, my friend. While it may seem that way at first, it might be possible to prevent attachment by being aware of the mind in its quest for identity."
"What's wrong with having a sense of identity?"
"Like with most things, there is nothing inherently right or wrong in possessing a sense of identity. I merely made a statement of fact, that the mind tends to be in a perpetual quest for identity and meaning. Astitva aur arth. Take our two companions this evening, for instance. Isn't their state of despair on account of a veiled quest for identity? Both want to be something. What, isn't very important. What is common, is the desire for an identity that seems genuine. And you can see where it has brought them."

By this time, hole-in-the-soul had earphones plugged in, and kajal-smudge had fished out her Ayn Rand novel. "Well?" asked the sadhu. Hole-in-the-sole got up, finished his last gulp of tea, and as he began to walk back to the train, said "Well, I am off to find them peacocks. As for what you just said, its probably best to quote Confucius;
Not teach ripe person: waste of person
Teach not ripe person: waste of words."

[Inspired by some, whose paths crossed. And one Kirli.]

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