The ringing of the bicycle’s bell was the first thing Shaman heard in the morning; the chirping of the birds came later. It had always been this way. Quite unlike what they showed in the Bollywood movies. He owed his acquaintance with the reel world to the ‘screen on wheels’. An arrangement in which a utility vehicle carried two abutted 55-inches television screens and four bazooka sound systems forming a makeshift theater that ran movies for three consecutive days, four shows daily. In the movies that were run on the screen, and whose settings were mostly a big city from somewhere far, the mornings were pretty much the same. The actor was always fast asleep on a bed, awoken by a servant who’d enter the room with a tray bearing glasses of fluids — of juice and of water. The actor would then make his way to his parents who’d be breaking the fast on a luxurious dining table. And before picking up one of the myriad fruits adorning the table, the actor would mount a kiss on his mother’s cheek.
As a 14-year-old, a good movie had meant 3 hours of picturesque scenes, sequences wherein the hero beat the villains, and the loud music. Shaman used to marvel at the scenes being shown on the huge screens and at the beats from the sound system that used to pierce his ears. But as he grew up and watched more and more of these movies, the difference in what was being exhibited on the screen and what he experienced in his life became Shaman’s first realization of the fact that realities are local, that what you feel can’t be felt by anyone else no matter how well you put it all across in words, just like what they showed on the screen was far from what had ever happened in reality to him.
He often thought about the bed in the movie. It seemed such an extravagance — a bed as big as that occupied by a single person. He often imagined how so many children from his village could have comforted themselves on it at the same time. Besides, in the movies, everything was immaculate. The water in the glass was so clean that if it were in the village it could only have been used for the ablution of Shiva’s lingam. Purest of the things were God’s creation for themselves. People in his village knew that and so no one would have dared to drink such a pure thing.
Deaths, however, seemed to be the only thing that movies got right. In the cities, the people died just like they did in his village. When someone died, people around them cried, dressed in whites, and prayed. The dead were then burned and liberated. But this was also ruined when he saw that in many movies the actors resurrected to life. No one in his own village has had ever returned after their funeral. With time, everything that the movies showed began to feel like a fallacy, a reality so distant and distorted that it became impossible for his heart to accept it.
By the time he turned 26, disenchantment remained the only prominent feeling in his life. What had started towards movies now seemed to have encompassed everything else — other people, his own family, and even his own feelings. The turbulence inside him began to increase. So much so that even the calmest of the places failed in calming him down. The prettiest of the children failed in healing his dilapidated heart. The loudest of the places failed to overwhelm the constant noise nagging him from within.
A whirlwind of memories played so fast within his head that it became increasingly impossible for him to shut himself off completely. And soon, sleep hardly came to him, words stopped making sense, company of people made him feel all the lonelier. With the passing of time, he became delirious. Reality began to get mixed up with the dreams, and the dreams… the dreams brought back all kinds of people, people whom he had left, people who had left him, people he had never heeded much to and even those whom he had met on just a few occasions.
Not so long from then, the worst that could happen to anyone happened – the present vanished. The hands of the clock kept changing the positions. His laptop waited on his table for days before he reached out to it and opened it. He began living in the past. Kept thinking about all the times that constituted the little happiness that his life permitted him. And it all came back to him, in pieces. In the form of dreams and delirium.
He must have been 11 years old.
The hawker always used to arrive on time. Cladded in a dark blue lungi and a shirt that had once been white but had now the appearance of a wall that stands by a dirty road. His head covered in what appeared to be a turban from some distance, but as one approached nearer to him, it manifested itself as a small cloth wrapped around the temple, tucked behind his left ear. He pedalled his rusted cycle warily, like a rookie making love to his partner in the first few nights, careful that they have a lifetime of romance ahead of them. He sold bread that he claimed to be the freshest in the village, bought only hours before from the nearby town, a matter that he took utmost pride in. And though the cycle used to bend in both directions as he talked to the customers and bent to pick their orders, everything on the cycle seemed to be under his total control. The bread hung on all possible places on his bicycle, it used to remind Shaman of the climbing plants in his own school that his teacher had shown his class in one of her lectures. Would the plant still be crawling?
Shaman got up to the sound of his alarm. His head heavy like when he gets out of the reading room after perusing page after page of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Last few years had been dramatic. Nothing short of a feat for a boy like him. From the village to a neighboring town and from there a decent scholarship had taken him to the city. It still seems as surreal now as it had that night when the warden had wished him good luck and handed him a note of Rs. 2000. Shaman had said ‘No’ but the warden had insisted ‘Return it to me once you start earning, a city can be a terrible thing for a person with an empty pocket.’ Shaman bent down and touched the feet of the warden, ‘I’ll always write to you Kaka’. This was yet another of the many promises he had broken since his childhood. He shook his head as if by doing so the ghosts of that night would escape him. Was the Kaka still alive?
He joined his palms together and said the morning prayer, the only prayer he knew. Done, he rubbed the palms against each other and when they were sufficiently warm, applied them to his eyes. He went out of the house to buy a packet of bread from the grocery store in front of his apartment. A girl in blue shorts and a white t-shirt was busy talking to someone over the phone, the wires of her earphones tangled, complimenting her hair. She had a glass of Chai in one hand and a half-burnt cigarette in another. The smoke from the cigarette reminded him of his first morning in the city. It was the first time he had seen people smoke so freely, paying no attention to the person next to them, each busy chatting or talking, forming rings of smoke. His first few steps into the city had left him in a daze.
In his own village, smoking freely was a privilege that came with age. He had seen his grandfather smoke leisurely while discussing the Panchayat issues with the other elders. And though his own father smoked Beedi all his life, it was only after his grandfather’s death that he first saw his own father smoke freely in their own aangan, making liberty to smoke in public look like a legacy. But things were different in the city where everyone seemed to smoke, happily, freely.
He disliked the odor that emanated out of the cigarette while it burned people’s lungs. He covered his face with a handkerchief and returned with his order. The breakfast looked the same on most of the days. 3 loaves of toasted bread coated with the Amul Butter. And a book. It only looked different on the days he was too lazy to go out to get the bread, and on such mornings, he filled himself with just the book.
He had the breakfast, but his head continued to throb. He knew it was due to the dreams that he was regularly experiencing. All the events from the distant past with so many people in it and then waking up to a lonely present. This juxtaposition was becoming increasingly difficult for him to bear.
The recurrent theme in these dreams was the village where was born; the hawker, the sound of his bicycle’s bell that used to wake him up at the fixed time. Why was he being constantly pestered by the events from such a distant past especially since it has been so many years since he had last visited his village? Past, he thought, seemed to have a terrible habit of accompanying the lonely. He got up and made his way to the balcony, oblivious of the book clutched between his hands, one of the many books that have had helped him navigate safely through numerous such days in the past.
“It is typically human to crave for things which can never be theirs”. His mind wandered off and he looked around, trying to make where he was. He was in a car. ‘Papa?’ The voice continued, “We are all tormented more by what we discard than by what we choose to keep. Discard wisely.” But his father never drove a car. Neither owned one. He tried to make the face of the person. He extends his hand, like a blind person trying to identify their loved one, and he feels long curly hair. The person was sitting on the next seat but with their face turned away but there was no mistaking that the person was a girl. He tries to reach out to them, and the moment he touches the hair, he knows. His girlfriend from years back. The only true love he had known, perhaps he will ever know. “You have lost your one great love forever Shaman. We all love just once, and only lucky ones find their true love come to them. All that love can happen twice shit is a pretense. All that happens after our true love leaves us or if we leave our true love are arrangements. To satiate the bodily needs. Most people get married to calm their families down. Sleeping with someone next to you in this lonely world can be reassuring. Good sex can be fulfilling, preventing the world from going berserk…” it seemed as if the voice would go on and on. He tried to shut his ears, his left hand over the left ear and the book on his right. The voice ceased. After some time, he pleaded to the voice that has now left a void, ‘Please don’t…leave…Please…come back…Please…’
What the voice had told was all true. He had lost the once chance that life gave to everyone. But was that also not true that she had promised she won’t belong with anyone else. And where was she now? In the arms of some well-established man from someplace far? The truth was, that realities were local. And nobody else could ever come closer to understanding them. No matter how well you try to put them across.
He got up and made his way to the bedroom, and voice-commanded Siri to play the music on the Bluetooth speaker. The speaker sprung to life and played ‘Ik Tu Hi Tu Hi’ from the movie ‘Mausam’. While listening to the song, he remembered the song that his girlfriend from the long back had once dedicated to him. He picked up his phone but paused just before playing it. He locked the phone and put it next to him. He lied down on his bed and put an open book on his face shutting the light off his eyes. He dreamed again. In the dream, he was seated in front of the screen on the wheels and was watching a movie, transfixed, just like he used to when he was a child, mesmerized by the loud music and picturesque scenes in front of him. When he woke up the speaker was playing ‘Norwegian Wood’. And he listened to the majestic composition with an ease of manner that was so rare lately.
Akarsh Jain is an Engineer if one were to go by the long-abandoned degree that rests peacefully between the pages of a folder. He was born in Ashoknagar -- a town in the heartland of India. He works full time as an IT professional in Bengaluru, where he lives without any pets and without any wife but this is only because his work-life balance might be injurious to the pet and to the wife. He loves to read.