I don’t remember the precise moment when The Decision became a living entity amongst us.
I think it came home with us that night. Somehow, none of us protested against its right to thrust itself upon us. We accepted its presence wordlessly.
Next day Aditi, Raunak and Ritika dug out three sleeping bags, four haversacks and four large ground sheets. Avi and I went shopping for the rest. The next day we were on our way. Actually that was all there was to it, wasn’t it?
I don’t know what happened that night. It was a perfectly ordinary Saturday night. We were hanging out together, the five of us. Our usual hangout was the pool room at Balwant’s. Actually, it was Raunak who triggered the events that snowballed into this trip.
Raunak believed he was an expert at pool. Most of the regulars at Balwant’s didn’t mess with him. That day there was this stranger who got into conversation with us.
He was a compelling presence, Aditya. When we asked him what he did, he grinned at us and said, “I live… something most people don’t do.” His words were thrown to us in a deliberate challenge.
He had a strange face. The wrinkles around his eyes were like a sun-burst. His smile was the radiance of the sun brought to earth. His teeth, startlingly white against his dark skin, had spaces in between them. He would make the most hilarious quips with a straight face. For all his rollicking humor though, he was a very serious man- as we found out later.
I still don’t know what make Raunak challenge him to a game of pool. After losing two rounds with relative ease, Raunak should have understood that he had met a greater expert. Instead, he begged a last game- a wager.
Aditya scoffed at the money Raunak wished to bet. “I want something more than money and I want it from all of you”, he said as he looked around at us all. I don’t know why, but I had the same feeling in that moment as I have when I am standing on the diving board of the pool, waiting to plunge into the cold water at the deep end. When I looked round at the others, I know they felt the same.
That sentence of Aditya’s was the seed of The Decision thrown into the fertile soil of our minds, waiting for the touch of dawn to make the seeds burst forth.
We reached Lahoti on Wednesday evening after travelling on foot for two days, camping for at night.
For twenty days we ‘lived’ in the earthquake torn region of which Lahoti was the epicenter. When Aditya joined us two days later, he found that we had already taken over the entire relief and rescue effort. That’s when we understood what Aditya had meant by ‘living’.
I guess he was pleased to see us getting a real education.
A chance encounter can change your life.
My life was a testimonial to that statement. Over ten years ago, another chance meeting with a stranger on a perfectly ordinary Saturday night had given me an experience to last a life-time, and changed the channel into which my life was to flow. My favorite pastime, when I was in an introspective mood like today, was to launch into a trip down memory lane.
As I sat sipping my second cup of tea, I reviewed my life beginning with that Saturday night. Today I run an NGO that specializes in proactive disaster management. My office is just across the road. A solo visit to this humble road-side tea shop at mid-day was one of my biggest pleasures.
I saw her because of the kids. Ragged, dirty street urchins who came running from all over. Suddenly, it seemed as if even the flat, bare pavement had begun spouting these noisy, irrepressible kids! Once again I was astounded at the spirit of these little creatures. With so little excuse for happiness, their laughter defied the sound of the most strident bugle. They were running to a point beyond my range of vision.
Curiosity got the better of me and I got up to see where they were running off to- and why. There was a young woman who stood at the topmost step of the house fifty meters away from the tea shop. She stood there, smiling, two large bags and a cardboard carton beside her. Still smiling, she sat down on the top step. This seemed a signal to the kids. They too scrambled to find places to sit on the steps, their eager faces turned up to her. I couldn’t hear what she was saying to the kids, but it seemed like she was asking them questions. From the way those kids were behaving, it was obvious this meeting was a routine for them.
As I watched, once she finished the questions, she began telling them something. From the play of expressions on her face and her hand movement, she seemed to be telling them a story. They laughed uproariously and listened raptly.
I brought my tea over to a table from where I could observe her. Her story over, she took out clothes from the two bags and distributed them to the kids. Even from fifty meters away, I could hear squeals of delight from the little urchins. I hastily threw down some money beside my full, untouched cup of tea and walked briskly over to her. As I reached her, she had begun distributing fruits to the children from the carton. She wouldn’t let them leave until they had all eaten the fruits. With an admonishment to return again next week same time, she hugged them by turn and let them go.
You know how one thing leads to another, don’t you?
We got married three months ago.
To a casual observer, I am sure the two of us must seem like two middle-aged buddies enjoying the sunset. They couldn’t be more wrong. We aren’t buddies, we are brothers.
I have an affinity for this place. The vantage point affords a spectacle which is as rare as it is beautiful. But it is not beauty that binds me to this place. I come here every evening to look at the sun before it slinks away for the night.
Just about to bid adieu to a populace too busy with its petty concerns to notice its setting, the sun drapes itself in a vibrant orange, militant and defiant. The effect, far from being convincing, is actually laughable. It has the same shade of meaning as the bared teeth of a cornered rat, trying to brazen out of its hole, pretending it is not petrified.
The world continues in its frenzy, ignoring the aggressive colors of the sun, mocking it. Naturally, this offends the sun, lending it an edge of embarrassed, peeved red.
We must look like drained men, sitting slumped like that. We look as if the sun has sucked the spirit out of us and we too are about to set. Somehow, that seems so accurate. The idealism and spirit of youth, which was like the radiance of dawn, seems a forgotten dream. In that dawn, my heart was full of the promise and potential of the life before me. In that long forgotten dawn, I had dreamed of moving mountains, and moved them.
I feel a strange brotherhood with the sun as it looks now, defeated. The orange of its color is a potential shamelessly wasted. All the capacity it had for making a stand, bled away ignobly in a shoddy display of a pride never earned. The red staining its edges has no trace of valor… it is just sluggish rivulet leaking from a wounded ego. I cannot imagine a bigger shame than of a pretense as pathetic as this.
If these are the feelings this place arouses in me, you’d ask, why on earth do I come here? With that question, you’d open a coffin full of rotting bones. Sure you want to ask me, still?
You see, this is a penance I have sentenced us to, my brother and I. The penance has never worn the protective garb of futile words. The guilt can be felt more intensely when not wrapped in the insulating layer of words, a guilt that binds us both, eternally.
This is the place I had run to that day eighteen years ago. This is the place my brother had found me. This is where we had realized that we had both betrayed the meaning of being men.
This is where he had told me that my bride of one year- burned alive by our mother- had become another statistic of dowry deaths.
Note: These stories are picture compositions. They are all less than 500 words each. They may be read individually or as three phases of a man’s life… recounting his journey from the dawn of his life to the sunset.
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