The screeching sound of the wheels of the train jolted me out of threshold consciousness. With eyes half opened, I peeped out of the window. A view so familiar, telling me I had arrived, finally.
This is my grandparents’ native village. My father with my mother and 4 sons chose the fast-paced city life and moved out. But my grandparents stayed here, tied to their roots. We used to visit them every year during vacations and festivals. But eventually as life progressed, we got busy in mundane life affairs and hence our visits were cut short.
I collected my travel case and came out of the station. The familiar lanes of this place echoed the times I had spent here as a kid.
Setting my foot on the ground, I marched ahead while my mind travelled in the time zone left behind…
I was the youngest of the four brothers. Often being the odd one out, I used to be a misfit in their elderly games. I used to spend a majority of my time with grandma, who would tell me the stories of the brave prince, evil witches, magicians of the faraway land.
A sharp turn in the lane and I was again in the present, walking ahead in the darkness. Another hour of this parade and I would be home- Grandma’s abode, as my junior self would refer to it as.
Grandpa passed away 4 years after my father moved out, while Grandma died two years back. A week before her death she had called all of us for a visit. But we, taking the pretence of busy schedules, had skipped it again. My three brothers were quite settled in their corporate jobs. I had chosen the field of writing, a choice mocked by all in the family. It was only grandma who respected my decision and supported and motivated me.
The guilt of not being around when she breathed her last or even for her last rites acted like a slow poison within.
Two years after her death, we brothers decided to sell off the ancestral estate and divide the proceeds. But we could not do so before executing her will. It required us to take turns and stay at the ancestral house for a week. Then, we might get the right to decide its fate.
So my three elder brothers had taken their turn. And now it was mine.
It was around 11 p.m. when I reached the house.
Nothing had changed. The glorious mango tree in the courtyard, the free-flowing river nearby, the teakwood furniture, the rickety rocking chair, and the cuckoo clock everything was at its usual place.
The front hall had now huge portraits of grandpa and grandma hung right above the mantelpiece. I bowed to them and as Grandma did every evening, lighted a small lamp there.
The growling sound from the stomach reminded me of its need. The cold sandwich in the bag appeared unappetizing. Nevertheless, I gobbled it up.
The kitchen that once boasted of the various aromas-the burning charcoals, the earthen oven, the crinkling utensils, was all silent today.
I moved to Grandma’s room to sleep as I often did as a kid.
Grandma’s room was a room of puzzles with a locked trunk and a locked chamber. No one had access to them. No one knew where the keys were. No one knew what was inside them. ‘There must be hidden treasures over there’ my brothers would joke.
Today the shut door of the chamber intrigued me more than ever. I stood before it as if my gazing would work a spell and open it. I heard the cuckoo clock chiming in the distance. It must be midnight now, I sighed. I stretched out my hand to feel the opaque barrier. It jerked open and I was pulled inside with a flash of light. I closed my eyes in reflex.
It was stark dark inside when I opened my eyes. It will take a while for the pupils to adjust to this grim darkness, I thought. Let me search for some light switch. I paced here and there to look for a possible opening. I kept banging with things in the way. Things I could feel but still not see. I rubbed my eyes. Vision should have adjusted by now. But all I saw is darkness.
“Good heavens, have I become blind?” I panicked. I searched for some exit but no avail. I banged my head, hurt my foot, felt all the walls, pushed, pulled but nothing worked out. I was tired by now. Resting my back against a wall, I sat down. I closed my eyes… well that didn’t make any difference now.
Someone laughed. I know who it is. A voice I cannot miss even in a crowd.
“Ayesha… Are you here?” I shouted.
No reply. Why would she be here? We had parted ways long time back.
Visions playing in my mind like a film reel.
She had the face of an angel. And I was deep, madly in love with her. We were together in college, promised seven lifetimes together. But life was not a fairy tale as we believed. It was a choice between my profession and her. She found writing a dull and unrewarding affair. And I chose my profession.
“I would have stayed if you wanted.” She said.
Tears rolled through my eyes when I saw her leaving, but now her face smirk an evil grin. It was beautiful no more.
“She would have stayed if she wanted…” A voice echoed inside me.
It was not because of me that she left. She would have left citing any other reason. For years I had carried the burden of this broken relationship but suddenly it felt someone had lifted it now. I felt free and relaxed.
Love is not blind; rather I was blind in love.
Realisation flashed through the veins of my mind like lightening and I opened my eyes with a jerk. A bright sunny day awaited me.
I could see, I am blind no more…
It was only when I lost sight I could actually see.
I turned around and I saw the exit door. It was right behind me. And I had been searching all over.
Considering the ordeal to be over, I made a hasty retreat.
A loud deafening voice welcomed me. I covered my ears with my palms. The voice seemed to fade away.
I looked around. I can see. I thanked almighty. But it was quiet all around now. The birds were not chirping the flowing river was silent; the cuckoo of the clock came in and out without its chime. Something was queer, I realised.
I clapped my hands. No voice.
I am deaf now… Another ordeal to follow, I thought.
It would have been peaceful if not the voices that echoed inside me….’
‘good for nothing….’
‘this is not what you call writing…’
‘not a great story..’
‘You are a failure…’
Idioms and phrases, that had become synonymous to my personality. I had been living with rejections for the past few years be it personal life or work. Every day the parrot inside me would voice out all of them.
I saw grandma standing at a distance. She is speaking something, I cannot hear. Then there is Mira, my only true friend, telling me something… ohhh! Why can’t I hear what are they saying….
‘Because you only heard what you chose to hear…’
This voice had a soothing effect on my nerves. Yes, I had shut myself to all the encouraging words and focussed on all the negativities.
I have not become deaf today. I had been deaf all through these years, when I didn’t listen to Grandma’s pleas to visit her once, when I shut out the honest reviews of Mira.
Selective hearing is as good as being deaf. As I realised this, the distressing voices seemed to wear out. It was all peaceful now. I took the shelter under the tree and what have been in ages had a sound sleep.
I woke up with the stomach churning. It’s been two days and I haven’t eaten anything. I searched for something to eat. Soon I saw a sack of chillies. I won’t eat it but hunger outgrew my will power and I grab a handful and started eating them. It burned my tongue and hurt my stomach. My eyes are teary, but I cannot stop myself from eating them.
I picked another, but it’s not a chilly anymore.
They have become the spiteful words I have spoken to all those who cared for me, who had come to me for help. I remembered how I shoved that boy next door who had come to me for help in his English homework, or the girl who looked for guidance in her composition. I was rude and arrogant to them and many others in this life.
So today I am eating all those harsh words, hurting me the way it would have hurt others.
“Be careful with your words, choose them wisely. Keep them sweet. For a day would come, you never know, which ones you’ll have to eat.”
The voice over scared me no more. I welcomed the wisdom it brought along.
I was running no more.
Next day began with relative peace.
I saw beautiful roses all around. I plucked one and proceeded to smell it. It had no fragrance…
It was strange…
What is a rose without its fragrance? I thought.
The view was beautiful no more.
Soon the roses seemed to wither away. And what became was garbage all around. I was deep inside dirt, shit, garbage, but I could not smell it, it didn’t matter at all.
The rose without its fragrance wasn’t nice and the garbage without its odour wasn’t filthy.
I smiled, waiting for the divine wisdom to pour through.
“Choices and decisions, without conviction, lose their importance. Decide wisely and stick to it with all your heart. Without the fragrance of faith, there is no difference between good and bad decision.”
The voice echoed again. And I knew what it had meant to convey. I chose my profession with qualms. I didn’t believe in myself and hence success or failure meant the same.
What started as an ordeal was not one anymore.
Eyes, ears, tongue, nose.. .all took their turns… I knew what was to follow next.
I moved ahead. There was a fire burning right before me. Fearlessly, I put my hand inside it…
I guessed right; the sense of feeling was on leave today. I slipped, I got hurt… but there was no pain. I saw grandma standing around. She caressed my cheeks. I couldn’t feel a thing. I couldn’t cry, I won’t laugh. Hot cold had no meaning left for me. Flowers and thorns were one and same.
‘When you stop caring, life also stops its concern. You started the game of being indifferent, that is the life’s way of ending it.’
I heard the divine voice.
Without any knowledge of time, I again woke up but this time only to find Grandma looking at me smilingly.
I can see her.
Fondly, she starts feeding me food. I can taste and smell.
Scared, I hugged her. Her warmth seeped through my senses and calming my nerves. I can feel her.
She spoke. I can hear her.
So what is in store for today? I wondered.
Tears of regret rolled down my eyes.
“Sorry grandma… I had to come….that day but… but… a meeting with the prospective publisher… I got struck up…..I missed…missed… my… train.” My words combined with sobs.
And she smiled.
“I know. And don’t feel any guilt. It was not your fault. Sometimes we are just puppets of fate.” Her words alleviated cleansed me through.
“But why all this? Why me?” I interjected.
“A diamond has to pass intense quality checks and go through various polishing and grinding tests to acquire its distinctive sheen.” She said.
I relaxed. “It’s over now. Please take me back.” I pleaded.
But I saw her sailing away from me, her face never leaving the serene smile.
I saw there, all peaceful and quiet. The senses shutting down one by one. I cannot see, hear, touch, taste, smell….
I was only a soul.
I was being one with myself, with the universe.
With all senses on leave, I was on introspection.
Life with terms and conditions was a life lived sans all senses.
Be your own destiny.
Be your own master.
Be your own path.
Then consciousness descended and I opened my eyes only to find the care taker Ramdeen standing before me.
Ramdeen…. I voiced out.
“Chote sahib, you remember my name. None of your brothers didn’t.” He sounded surprised. “Madam ji had asked me to give this to you.”
I looked as he forwarded an envelope.
I opened it to find a key and a letter. A letter in handwriting:
“Seven steps, seven doors.
Enter them with your mind and soul.
Cross each and you’ll find,
An awakened being, a wiser mind.
Free yourself from every guilt,
Just enjoy the life you have built.”
Around here we bear our own burdens. ***But it’s equally important to leave them here only.
Leaving senses behind each a day and finally, everything made sense now.
The intentional pun made me smile.
“What is this key for?” I asked Ramdeen.
“It’s the key to her hidden treasure.” Ramdeen replied in a jest as he pointed towards that locked chamber. “The locked chamber here was Madamji’s meditation room. She never allowed anyone inside, but she asked me to pass on the keys to you.”
I unlocked the chamber and the trunk. Not the room, but the trunk did have a hidden treasure for me.
I was named as the sole owner of the ancestral house and I was to decide its fate.
*** from ‘How Far She Went’, a short story by Mary Hood.