I sat under the shade of the banyan tree gazing at the lone figure rolling a rock up the hill. The sun was blazing hot and I was the only human in sight other than the figure which was now halfway up the hill. When at last he reached what appeared to be his destination, after a few hours, he paused, as if the task had been accomplished. All the while I sat in the shade watching, wondering what would happen. It was not only a curiosity on my part, but it was also a welcome escape from the boredom which had engulfed me. He had been there for only a few minutes when the rock started rolling down and came to rest at the bottom of the hill to the place where it had originally lain. I saw him walking down the hill following the path that the rock had taken. Still, I sat, not moving, more out of lethargy and listlessness.
I perked up as soon as I saw him come down and walk towards the stone. I knew that he would once again start rolling it up the hill for I had watched the same exercise being repeated over and again for a considerable period of time now, from dawn till noon, and I felt more exhausted than the subject who was under my observation. Out of sheer exasperation and as beads of perspiration trickled down my face, I decided to accost him.
“Hello,” I called out.
For a minute he seemed perplexed and stopped in his tracks. He then slowly turned towards me.
“Who are you?” he asked, annoyed at my intrusion.
“I am sorry. I have been here, sitting under the shade of that banyan tree since morning and my attention was drawn to your seemingly endless motion,” I replied.
“You still haven’t told me who you are. Have you been sent by the Gods to spy on me? In that case, God help you,” he threatened.
“No, no, no!” I cried out, “in fact, I am just an ordinary man and am on a journey to understand the meaning of life. Seeing you makes me wonder as to whether this is what life is all about.”
“Ha, ha, ha! You are a fool if that is what you are searching for. I don’t mean to be harsh, but that is the truth,” he replied, a hint of arrogance in his demeanor.
“Sorry, but can I talk to you? Hope you have some time to spare?” I asked.
“Strictly speaking, no. I guess I can spare some time for you since you seem to have been waiting here for quite a while. Whatever you have to say, make it quick. I have to get back to my work soon. But first tell me who are you?” he asked.
“I told you that I am just an ordinary man. For the moment I think that would suffice as I do not have anything great to talk about myself. You can say I am a representative of the majority of the people living in this world. But I am curious. Who are you?” I asked after mustering up enough courage. Despite the fact that he was tall, muscular, handsome, and reminded me of the sculptures of the Greek Gods, there was something intimidating about him, a pent-up fury in his eyes.
He looked at me with an amused look and said “I really don’t know how that is going to solve your problem. But since you seem so persuasive, I will tell you. My name is Sisyphus”.
“Sisyphus? I have heard that name before. Oh yes, now I remember. When I was reading stories from Greek mythology, I did come across a character named Sisyphus. Maybe you were named after him,” I said.
“What do you mean named after him? I am he, I am that Sisyphus,” he replied with a hint of irritation creeping into his voice.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. But how is it possible? If what you say is true, then you must be at least five thousand years old,” I said.
“How does it matter whether I am a thousand years or just a day old? Isn’t it all the same?”
“I am just curious, since it’s midday and you do not appear to slacken and stop this senseless exercise,” I said.
“You find my actions absurd?” he retorted.
“No, no. Not like that. You seem to be repeating the same thing over and over again,” I said.
“The sun and the moon have been doing the same thing day in and day out, ever since this world came into existence. So, what’s the big deal? My actions are similar to what they have been doing”.
“But they are heavenly bodies and not subject to our laws. You are still a human being, I presume.”
“Heaven and Hell, I have seen them all. They are no different from this world. And the Gods, they are no different from the human. They get angry and curse you if you go against their wishes and try to exercise your freewill. They reward you when you appease them through offerings by way of gold and sacrifice. Tell me how different is it from what you have here? But you see over the course of time I have gotten used to this routine. Now it does not affect me,” he replied.
“I don’t believe that. There must have been times when you had questioned the futility of your actions?” I asked.
There was a prolonged silence, I waited. I could see that he was in deep thought. I was sure that something disturbed him.
Breaking the silence, Sisyphus said “Initially I did not mind it. Of late, I have wondered what the purpose of all this was. But the reality dawned on me that I did not have a choice as I had been punished by the Gods,” he replied.
“But don’t you realize that you are now an immortal and cannot die? Well, that must have banished all the fear of death,” I said.
He gave me a curious look and then laughed and asked, “Don’t you want to be an immortal also?”
I was caught off guard. I had never dwelt on the subject of immortality before. I was puzzled by the suddenness of his question and stared at him.
“Well, take it from me, you are better off as you are. But tell me how you live, and what is it that you look forward to? We can then talk of immortality,” he said.
“Like any other human being in this world. I do my duties,” I replied.
“And what might they be?” Sisyphus continued.
“Well, I look after my family, earn my living and father children. Of course, I want to achieve something and be somebody of consequence,” I replied.
“And why should that be?” he pursued relentlessly.
“I want my existence to mean something, something authentic,” I replied again.
“And do you think you have achieved something, and do you believe that you have enough time to achieve all that you want to? Do you have a goal?” he asked.
“I really don’t know. Every time I achieve something, it fades away, and I relentlessly chase other goals.”
“Let me ask you what your typical day is like?”
“That’s not really a question. I get up in the morning when the sun rises, have my breakfast, go to my place of work, have lunch, come back, relax, have dinner, and then go to sleep as the night settles down,” I replied.
“And you want to carry on doing this endlessly?” he asked again.
“What else? Is there really a choice? These are the basic actions to keep us living,” I replied.
“Do you think there will be an end to this? I guess that you will grow old, maybe sickness strikes you, and one day your life comes to end. You die.”
“Yes, I guess that is what will happen?”
“Then why did you break the routine and come all this way and sit under the banyan tree? Is it because you found that it was absurd to carry on like this?” he asked.
“Yes, it is something like that,” I answered.
Suddenly he laughed and said “I know you are puzzled. You really do not know what it is to be an immortal. Believe me, immortality is a curse,” he said.
“But tell me truthfully, why did you have to leave a life you were leading and come over here, sit under that tree, doing nothing? I cannot understand. Were you also cursed by the Gods?” he continued.
“No, no, our Gods do not curse nor bless. They just watch the fun. You see, if we ask them a question, they say that the answers have all been laid down in the scriptures and it’s our lookout how we interpret and live. In that sense, they do not interfere like your Gods. There are many others like me. Day in and day out we have been reduced to doing the same thing,” I replied.
He laughed again and this time louder. It echoed around all the rocks and hillocks surrounding us.
“So, your state is no different than mine. Then why did you call mine a senseless exercise?”
“I did say that, yes. And as I speak to you now, I am more convinced that it is so. You see yours is a futile exercise and there does not seem to be any end to your state of being. You do not have an option. For me, though my present condition is absurd, it cannot last forever since as mortals we die. We have a choice,” I said.
“You mean to say that as a mortal, you have a choice and as an immortal, I do not,” he asked.
“You mean there is no redemption for me?” he asked. His tone betraying an inkling of self-doubt.
“That depends on you. As long as you believe you are an immortal, there is no redemption. In your own words, you said ‘Immortality is a curse’. Now looking at you I believe it is indeed so. But I believe that you can still beat it,” I said.
“And how is that?”
“A wise man once told me that when you are faced with the absurdity of life there are only two options. You end your life by committing suicide or rebel against the forces that seek to control you. His idea of the rebel is one who searches for order and clarity, and in the process comes into conflict with the universe. Maybe it is this conflict which would take him nearer to understanding this life. But I guess you do not have the option of ending your life since you are an immortal,” I said.
“So, you want me to stop what I have been doing all this while and go and sit under the tree and contemplate? Zeus will be enraged and punish me again, maybe something worse,” he replied.
“Does it really matter? You would make him sit up and take notice of what’s happening. Maybe he is waiting for you to think. In any case, something will happen, and that is better than continue in the state you exist now, till eternity.”
He remained silent and looked around him, maybe for the first time. I knew he was confused. For the first time since I came to sit under the banyan tree and then talk to Sisyphus, I saw the inklings of clarity dawn on me. Immortality was not unending existence, being exempt from death, but ultimately accepting one’s mortality and transcending death through an authentic and meaningful existence.
This was what I was waiting for. I decided that I should leave him to his thoughts which had for the first time occurred to him since he started rolling the rock up the hill.
“Is life really meaningless?” he asked me.
“It’s for you to find out. Now I shall leave.”
As I started walking back, I turned to look at him one last time. There he was sitting under the banyan tree and looking towards the top of the hill. Maybe contemplating on ways to overcome his predicament. Maybe it was for the first time he had moved away from the rock, lightening the burden he had been carrying for so long. I was sure he would find a solution.
I had found mine.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the king of Ephyra (now known as Corinth). He was punished by the Gods for his self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it neared the top, repeating this action for eternity. He is the hero of Albert Camus’s essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ in which Camus examines the absurd nature of human existence.
NOVEMBER 2020 AUTHOR OF THE MONTH at Spillwords.com
I explore through all my books the reality of human existence, whether it is aging and loneliness, infatuation and love, or finding authenticity in one’s life. I am also an active book reviewer. An Engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, India, by qualification and a Banker by profession, I retired from the State Bank of India in the year 2010 and settled down in Chennai, India. After retirement, I have been devoting my time to writing. I also write regularly on my blog ‘Sublimation’ covering various topics ranging from art, philosophy, and culling out slices of life from my various encounters which have found their way into my books more specifically ‘Darkness and Beyond’. My published books include: I am just An Ordinary Man, Darkness and Beyond – A Medley of Many Lives, Autumn Leaves – Seasons of Life, Secrets of the Soul – A Journey in Verse.