It was 10 days past the month of June- a difficult period to keep one’s sanity especially in the arid and semi dry belt of northern India. Despite over a million deities worshipped and entertained by the inhabitants of the region, the Rain God, it seemed was the hardest to please, more so during the time when mercury soared at about 50° C. Indian summer at its peak compelled one to skew their eyes giving one a mocking resemblance of a communist oriental neighbor. Wind ‘flows’ like a heavy mass of boiling water, powdering people’s faces with a yellow film of dust, which if allowed to persist coated you in multiple layers, another characteristic feature of the vast wasteland around the western international border. During such days the streets would run barren even in the areas where average density of population ran well over 200 heads per square km.
It was one of these days that I decided to pack my bags and leave. Leave for good. The sun whipped the sky to a scorching white. Shade was scarce on the lonely road that stretched beyond my shelter to the nearest bus depot. The thought of a rickety roadways bus on an equally miserable road sprinkled evenly with potholes, only added to the discomfort. I started to hum the last song that I could remember from the radio that screeched on the nearby tea stall just to wane my thoughts off the bumpy ride ahead. My bag grew in weight over my shoulders as I counted my steps on the road to the bus stop. There wasn’t much in my bag, even lesser I had on myself to cover my journey, yet I dared to venture out. Perhaps it wasn’t the need of the journey that enticed me more towards taking it, but the relief it would bring to the bruises that I had adorned over the years.
It felt terrible being judged by people, more so when I could never actually understand myself completely. Somehow people who had been pure failures with their lives and relationships always knew what was ‘the right’ choice for me. It never ceased to amaze me that people who had never ventured beyond 10 miles of their household would speak at length on how things worked all round the globe. They were masters of the garbed lives that they dwelled and dealt in. They would preach morality for hours at a stretch to the audience they could stupefy and wheedle, yet would reserve a very colorful vocabulary for the members of their household.
I felt gagged in this hobnob of lip service to the extent that words lost their meaning soon. Rarely would I discover a promise to be fulfilled, not without ample surprise. I always believed there was more to accomplish than what appeared getable in my vicinity and I dreamt of ways to realize these dreams. Much as I wanted to escape the rotting written out for me, I found it hard to summon enough courage to break the cage and run away. So far my choices were handed out to me.
Sweat trickled down the back of my head along the neck and into the light cotton T-shirt that I had on, bringing me back on the road that I was walking. The little drop of my salt was caught in the garment and succumbed to vapor after announcing its defeat over my back bone. The observation that the little whiff of cool, that the drop of sweat generated, was the purpose and aim of its short life brought a smile to my dry lips. I shifted the bag over the shoulders, adjusting the corner of the book that pinched me from within the bag. Maybe it wanted to assert its presence too. I was not particularly fond of reading, but this book had been special. I had won it as a reward in a painting competition and it had my name inscribed on it in golden letters. Though the book was on the techniques and science involved in the contemporary art, I never went beyond a few pages. Yet I loved the book. It gave me an identity which went beyond the name that it displayed. It announced to the world that I was a name of the person who had been a winner, who had been successful. It practically did not matter to me if nobody on the face of this Earth had heard of the district level competition that gave me this identity.
My painting came naturally to me. Despite having earned several accolades for the same, I had yet to attend my first formal training class on the subject. I guess, I began drawing much before I started writing. It was more the form of words that attracted me towards books than the meaning that they carried. The years of my formal education saw me sitting on the last bench in the class room and covering the pages of my text books blue with the faces of people I had never met.
I always fancied sketching faces, I would run an abstract line and kept working the details till a face shone through the text that might have initially stood for some law of motion during a Physics class or would draw up a pair of eyes that would wink through the illustrations and equations of a chemical reaction, in another hour. Seldom would I take the labor of finishing the mortal form for the face. The thought that some where in this world actually lived a man or a woman with the same features that were born in my text books excited me to an extent beyond the description and reach of words. Since my early childhood, I would bask in the glory of my knowledge that I was actually helping the Lord above in giving him the faces that he could create. I would think for hours in strands about how the face I created would live his life on Earth, if at all he is worthy of a life. In case I thought otherwise I would slowly turn him into a wasp, blackening out his features and turning his ears to little wings. Insects I always felt were to be pitied, crushed under your feet or to be caught and rested on the shoulders of the sissiest member available in the classroom.
There was a lonely tree adjacent to a small pool that was used by the local herdsmen to wash their buffaloes during other days when it brimmed of muddy water. It appeared no bigger than a big pothole filled with grime in what looked like an island of slake. Having nothing else for shade, I decided to catch my breath under the stunted growth of russet leaves. I rested my bag in my lap and pushed my back towards the trunk. The road was silent and there was hardly a soul around. Few crows pigmented the clear skies at odd intervals, announcing their visitor now and then. I closed my eyes and exhaled. Life seemed to rush out of my lungs, slipping into the fiery sand and getting consumed before eyes could set sight on the falling drops.
Time stood still like the blowing wind and I had flashes of my life gone by in my shut eyes. I had visions of my long forgotten childhood friends and the carefree games that we played. I could recall the trips to my grandparent’s house during the summer vacations where I would be confined inside the house where a ceiling fan, despite its little clucking noise would toil hard to ensure that heat does not get us a stroke. I could see myself winning my first medal at school and how I in a rush to get it under my neck banged my head at the microphone from where the awards were being announced. Then my fancies took over and I saw panorama of clouds and flowers and kites and rainbows and faces. Faces I had drawn over the years in my notebooks and the little sheets of paper that came my way. These faces were different in their complexion and features and countenance. Faces which were kind, assuring and lovable. Faces which were harsh, strong and stubborn. I saw them all as if I was related to each one of them. It appeared that I had created their lives and the narration of their lives. The very idea of my helping God in creating all these people came back to me.
Suddenly it occurred to me if that was actually true. What if I really was creating the scripts of many lives to be lived all around the universe? The faces that I drew were narrative. They gave other people an insight into other people’s psyche. They gave an idea if they were good, kind hearted people or plain evil.
At this very moment a thought flashed my mind. What if I too was a face that some body else in some other part of the world had drawn up? Was I living the expectation and the script that some body had drawn up in his/her notebook? Did I actually have a script to follow? My earlier conviction and notion about the faces I had drawn was too strong for me to dismiss the idea altogether. Probably I was also following what somebody else had drawn out for me.
The very thought was disturbing enough to send my pulse rushing. Was I actually running away as it was slated for me? All along I thought it was my decision of breaking free. If it was pre-destined then who was I running away from and what for? And now if I decided against leaving and stay back will it again be as per what is destined for me?
I found it hard to answer if there was actually something that one could call destiny. Why should I be accountable for any thing that I do in my life time if every action that I perform is already destined for me?
A ‘thud’ came in and I opened my eyes. My bag had fallen from the lap and the contents therein came in contact with the malleable ground and caused the sound. I had probably dozed off a little and the bag had dropped off.
I picked up the bag and dusted it. There was still some distance left to plod on. I picked my being and subjected myself to the track again. Though I had rested for a while, my feet were heavy from the thoughts that ran in my head. I could still cover the distance that was left in time to catch the next bus to town, get myself a job and live on my own, yet I stood transfixed looking back at the tree where I sat few moments ago.
The afternoon sun stood at a steep angle to cause dwarf shadows. The tree seemed to burn bright and hardly cast a shade now. My vivid imagination was witnessing a mirage unseen by any mortal before. I could almost see a thousand faces entangled in the brown branches of the tree, even a greater number in the leaves and the trunk and the roots. These were the faces I knew. These were the faces I had drawn on my notebooks, faces that I had created. All these faces were looking at me. There was this crooked nosed thug that adorned the cover of my English text book, the old south Indian lady was peeping from behind the trunk, there was this rough milkman with a mole on his temple riding high on a branch and there was the hefty truck driver that had abandoned the multiple pages that I chose for him and who now was smiling from within the leaves. I looked at these people, they were smiling at me. I smiled back.
I could not go further. Even if it was destined for me to counter people who were critical of my ways and the way I wanted to lead my life, I could not just shy away from them. The faces-their faces would haunt me forever. There is no escape from that sort of a thing. Running away would give a meaning to their otherwise useless words and phrases for me. I would then never have a respite from their jeers and sarcasm even if I would never hear them ever again. Perhaps I would never get to see the people I was trying to avoid, maybe never in this life. However, I knew that their faces would last forever. These faces would reside and hang permanently as a plaque on the cage of my memory. I never forgot a face that I had drawn on my notebook. I had the expression of these people drawn on a different notebook that I could not tear, that I could not put to fire or destroy in any other way possible. This notebook was my mind, my retention. These hoi polloi were part and parcel of my being and could not be wiped off without me having to go down with them. I could not outrun them. I could not win this race.
The only thing that I could possibly do was to kill that expression, wipe the smug off the faces and transform the scorn to a smile- a smile of approval, of respect, pride and admiration. The only way to do that was to go back and battle the oddities and brave the winds and reason them out. I had to light the candle in the storm without canvassing my back. There could not be an alternate path that could be taken.
I stood at the same road looking at the tree from where I could now see the weary toothless rickshaw puller that was torn off the cover of my English book by the teacher. Right next to him stood the little girl that I often saw at the crossroads selling bundles of jasmine flowers to a very uninterested clientele. I saw her smile and wave out to the snooty old lady with layers of bright red lipstick and dark shades on her brow who would snub her from her car each single day on the crossing that the two met. The lady as usual was not smiling and the girl as sheepish as ever kept waving. Somehow things started to make sense and fall in their right perspective.
I stared at the entire panorama that the tree offered until several minutes passed and the sun after walking several miles looked tired and groaned the sky orange. Then all of a sudden from no where clouds barged in and captivated the sky. The wind suddenly turned mild, the boiling water it carried turned to a brook. The hostile yellow dust suddenly was left with no power in its limbs and feebly rested on the bed of the Earth. Then it happened, little droplets came down the skies and stirred the surface. The dust was taken by surprise and as if, unsure of what was happening rose a little, looked around, changed its side and took to slumber again. Aware of this minuscule triumph, the drops gained strength and hurried their steps.
I looked up, rain kept soaking me. Water drenched my head and washed my face. I could feel the skin melting; the face I bore was being washed off. Beneath it there was a fresh layer, unknown to others, unseen, untouched before. This was the face that was being drawn afresh. It had no preceding script, no pending obligations; no half hearted commitments adhered to it; no promises to be fulfilled. I could feel my brow relax, a load taken off my head. My body and my being seemed to blend in with the soil and soak in all the water it could from the pouring heavens. I stretched my arms wide and felt the shackles breaking. I was fluid that moment. The faces in the tree were no longer to be seen. Perhaps the ink on the notebooks also got washed away. The tree changed its hue to a darker brown in the rain. It no longer stood significant; just an old block of wood with burnt leaves.
I looked toward the sky. Somehow I knew I would find it there and yes, there it was. The clouds arranged themselves in a pattern. An ignorant eye would have passed it off as a mesh of grey and white cotton. I could however, clearly see a face in it. Mine. It was smiling. I was smiling too. I knew the faces would never leave me. I also knew that I would never again find such a large mirror ever.
Rain was receding now. I flung the bag on my shoulder and started walking back.