This is not the apocalypse I had imagined. I have Netflix-ed and chilled so much that I’m exhausted. My eyes burn and I have dark circles.
I turn away from the mirror and look at my watch – it’s almost dawn. I must sleep now, so I can get some work done tomorrow. I mean, today.
As I close my eyes, a portal opens in my brain. Regurgitating old memories. Random, meaningless visuals of disparate events. Or so it seems. Something has been bothering me all day, ever since I watched the news bulletin. I tried to suppress it with a binge-watching spree, but it’s coming back now. That image – a mother and her two young kids.
Wailing. Helpless. Hungry. Walking in the scorching heat on the highway. I think I’ve seen them before, only I couldn’t remember when or where. But it was all coming back now as I sank deeper into an REM abyss…
The lights come on in the theatre and suddenly hundreds scamper towards the exit sign. It feels as if an aircraft has just touched the runway and every minute spent sitting from here on is a minute wasted. I have just spent the last two hours watching a rather dull, run-of-the-mill sequel part of a superhero movie franchise.
I look around and find solace in the fact that I am not alone – there are a few more dejected faces slouched in their seats. United by a traumatic experience, this last bunch exits together. My friends are still laughing and discussing the oh-so-funny one-liner (yup, singular). They seem to have enjoyed the movie. I, the square peg in this round hole, seriously reconsider my friendship with them.
Stepping out of this literal and metaphorical darkness into the light of day, I find myself in another equally insipid world. But I try not to express my emotions at this point, for I may be dismissed as a cynic who fails to appreciate the finer pleasures of life.
After a quick lunch at an unremarkable fine-dining restaurant inside the mall, I decide to deprive my friends of my company. I figure the wounds inflicted by one bad movie can only be cured by another good one. I wait at the main gate of the mall for my cab. As I stand there, I realise how much the place right outside the perfume-scented mall stinks. There’s a pile of garbage a few yards away. As I battle this olfactory assault, I am distracted by a distinct sound.
On the other side of the road, under the flyover, lies a naked crying infant on a thin piece of soiled cloth. A young girl, five or six at best, most likely the infant’s sister, tries to comfort the infant with a toy. There’s a half-eaten bowl of dal-rice and a dusty old doll next to the girl. Behind them is a woman, likely their mother, who is washing clothes with a bucket of water by her side. I see that this little patch under the flyover is perhaps their home, comprising a stove, one metal trunk, some clothes, and a shed made using worn-out saris. I notice that the sister’s efforts have paid off and the infant’s cries begin to subside.
But just then, the signal at the junction changes to red.
The mother looks at a water tanker that has stopped at the signal and quickly picks up an empty bucket. The girl also jumps into action with her toy in one hand and a bag full of pens in another. She rushes to the cars nearby and knocks on their windows. Meanwhile, the mother stands behind the water tanker and turns the screw that controls the flow of water with all her strength.
Soon enough, water starts pouring out. Meanwhile, as the precious few seconds on the signal tick away, the young girl pleads with as many people as she can to buy the pens – some oblige, some ignore, others yell.
Then, the signal turns green and the drivers start honking in practiced unison. The mother panics and starts to close the pipe. As she is doing this, the truck starts moving ahead slowly amidst the incessant honking, but she doesn’t give up. She manages to tighten the screw just in time and carries her bucket of drinking water back, all this while earning the wrath of people in cars who have suffered a delay on her account.
The young girl too runs back to her brother, whose cries have been drowned in the honking all around them. She smiles, holds the toy over his head, and starts making sounds and gestures to distract him. The mother keeps the bucket of water securely inside the little shed and covers it with a metal plate. I look at the timer on the green signal
130, 129, 128…
Standing there, I realise that I had just stepped out of a parallel universe. The boring movie, the glitzy restaurants, the shiny people, my own gloominess – it was so unreal, so immaterial, so fake in front of this stark reality.
I had probably spent more money in the last three hours than what this family had seen in weeks. It’s hard to describe what I felt at this moment. I crossed the road and stood beside the young girl. She didn’t notice me. Neither did her mother. I figured having people trespass their home was a normal sight for them. My heart sank at the mere thought of what that must feel like.
I waved to the girl and asked her how much the pen costs. “Rs 5,” came the answer.
And all of it? She was surprised and looked at her mother. Her mother thought for a moment and said Rs 100. I gave her the money and took the packet. The duo looked happy with the sale, perhaps having made a small profit.
As I got in the cab, I realised I hadn’t done this for their happiness, but for mine. This little gesture, although important for them, won’t change much in their lives. What awaits them is another day, another water tanker, and another race against a few seconds…
I finish typing and lie back in my chair. It’s almost dusk and I’m wide awake. I clearly remember that family of three now, it all came back to me in my sleep. I’ve tried to put that story into words. I stare at my laptop screen. “Not bad, I’ve finally filled some pages,” I tell myself, as I scan through the last few sentences:
“He walks as if sterilised by the alternate reality of hollow marketing slogans. He sees as if sedated and locked away forever in a dark theatre watching a fictional story unfold, even as the real one fights for survival. How long will this sedation last? Someday perhaps the cries of a naked infant will force him to…”
Arrrgh! It’s so gloomy. I don’t like it. Why do I write such stuff? I shouldn’t be so cynical. The world isn’t such a bad place. I close the file, and shift + delete.
Also read: A Lamp for Shathrugn Bhaiya
I need to cheer up. I need some fresh air. I pick up the cup of chai kept on my desk, walk to the window, and draw the curtains. Hoping for positivity and light, I look outside.
But it’s so…dark. Why is it so dark? A power outage? No wait, there’s light. Diyas, candles, and torches. Shining through windows and balconies. Not one building or two, but as far and wide as eyes can see. What are they celebrating? Light everywhere, except under that flyover. That flyover where that family of three lived. But they are no longer there. And what’s that noise? Sharp metallic noise.
Celebratory clanging of metal plates and utensils. Drowning out every other sound. What’s going on? Is this a dream? Or another nightmare? Either way, I must wake up.
Kumar Sambhav finds it hard to describe himself. However, when pressed for an answer, some adjectives that do come to mind are incipient entrepreneur, perspiring writer, and eternal seeker. In no particular order.