A scratchy note. A flicker of a memory. Old age had caught up to me. Telling stories, I had forgotten to get a grasp on the reality around me. I look around and hang my head in shame. A shabby room with no personal effects. What did I have to show for 70 years of my life? Even the stories I told have become mere shadows in my head-left to haunt me. I had one thing growing in me that was mine to show. The disease in my lungs. See this cigarette in my hands? My kryptonite. It is both my saviour as well as my murderer.
It was a relationship that started almost 56 years ago when all I could afford was a beedi, which I smoked on the sly so as to avoid a lashing from my parents, yet flaunted in front of my peers, to demonstrate how cool I was. How the other boys revered me! “how does it feel” “smooth” I would say, not knowing what that meant. I was the 14 year old boy with the attitude. And with a dream. To be the best storyteller.
I would run home and write a story for the evening’s talent show. It was the best story I had thought up and I was so proud of it. I read it till I knew it better than anything I knew in my entire existence! As the evening drew nearer, I became more and more excited. I was about to win my audience over. They would love me. I would become world famous! With confidence, I stood on the stage and narrated my story with action, drama and wild gestures. I was lost in the world of my story. When the story ended there was silence. It seemed no one believed me. No one clapped. Not even the boys who looked upto me! I didn’t win. I ran out of the hall into the darkness. The night called me.
A hacking cough breaks my thoughts.
I clear my throat and continue to write.
Thoughts seemed to escape me. Retrospect only made me wish I had written this earlier. A glimpse of the past. A flicker. A flash. A sliver. A chunk. Finally, a memory.
Close your eyes and speak your mind, said my heart.
The road seemed endless. It was a new-laid road, the villagers had fought against. The sarpanch had decided that progress was the need of the hour and agreed to destroy miles of our fields to lay the concrete and tar path to his el dorado. It just meant more money in his pocket.
I ran. The cold of the coming winter caught my lungs. I wanted the comfort of my beedis. I stopped running and sat down under a monstrous banyan tree by the side of the road. I envisioned the monsters of my stories jumping out from the tree and devouring me. The scary part was that I wasn’t scared. I waited for a long time and finally as the rays of the sun creeped up on me, closed my eyes and fell asleep.
When I finally awoke I mustered the strength to go back to the village, expecting the worst. Slowly, I took the long road back home. When I reached the village I had a fresh resolve. With my head held high, I boldly went upto the boys and spun new tales of my adventures of the night. I was immediately accepted as one of them, the incidents of the previous evening forgotten. Slowly a crowd gathered around me to listen. I told them about the horrors of the road and the banyan tree and the monsters that lay in them. I began to be appreciated and slowly every day a group of faithful listeners would gather- wide-eyed, ready to listen with jaw-dropping fascination.
One day I turned the story into a piece of fiction I felt very proud of. I felt confident of my stories- waiting to get out of the village to tell my stories to the world. How I dreamed! There was an evil wizard who kidnapped the fairy princess. The princess was beautiful- with long golden hair, big blue eyes and green wings, she was almost radiant. She struggled to free herself from her evil captor until he finally put her under a spell and locked her in the big banyan tree. All the boys were outraged! How dare he harm the poor princess!
Bittu, and I distinctly remember his eager face today, wanted to go search for and free the fairy princess! He was hardly 8 years old. He cried and had to be sent home to his mother. We didn’t give it a second thought and I continued with my story, intensifying the evil character of the wizard and the fragility and beauty of the fairy princess. By the end everyone wanted more stories from me and I was on cloud nine. At least here, in my village, I had made it. I had arrived. I went home to a sound thrashing for running away the night before. It ended with my parents threatening to throw me out if I ever pulled a stunt like that again. I promised them I wouldn’t and went to lie down on the woven mat on the floor, pretending to sleep., but all the while reveling in the glory of my storytelling triumph. I was a hero. Slowly I drifted off into sleep.
Panic took her full form at 3 in the morning, when a group of adults came back with the body of the little 8 year old boy. Bittu. He had been found halfway on the highway by the sarpanch who had been traveling from the neighboring village. He had been hit by a car. No one could imagine the state he must have been in. No one knew why he had run away from home or whether he would live. But I knew. He had gone to find the fairy princess. He had told me he would go. In return we called him silly and sent him home.
Quietly I turned onto my back and stared up the sky through the thatch of the roof. What had I done?! I had to see if he was okay. I ran to his house and watched as his parents tried everything they could to get him to wake up. I then saw the mangled body of the little boy. Gone was my attitude, my ambition. I stared down at what had happened due to my foolishness.
Guilt pounded through my veins. My head hurt. Seeing me, Bittu’s brother started cursing me and beat me, blaming me for everything that had happened, their ruined lives, their poverty, their misery. I had no idea what to do. I felt the wrath of the family on me and stood there, taking it all in. Until I could take no more. I ran out. I went back to the road. The tree, that had given me comfort before. I resolved to never tell stories again.
I left the village. I went to a town in the city, where I earned a meager sum that helped me put myself through a higher education in order to one day be able to pass it on. I lived a poor life of misery, poverty. I could never marry. My dream of storytelling that consumed me had left no place for any other dreams. I felt I lost it all, but my one companion. I smoked away the remaining 56 years of my life. And I never forgave myself. The more I thought of my childhood, the more I smoked wishing on myself the worst death.
A hacking cough brings me back to now. Clutching my chest, I grope around for a pill. My poor sight has rendered me quite helpless. As I reach out a jug of water, I fall over a makeshift table and everything around me crashes down to the ground. Everything turns red. I close my eyes and open them. Red.