June 11, 2006

Through Her Eyes

Ever wondered why people take comfort in mundane conversations while in the midst of an unspeakable tragedy? Ever wondered why the most important people in your life are the ones you take for granted? Ever wondered if what you have set out to do is the right thing for you? Ever wondered why when all men are created equal, some are even more so?Ever wanted to look into someone's eyes and know their story?

I wanted to die. It was an awful time. I had no money, no job and a kid to support. A hungry, screaming child, no more than a few months old. I loved him to bits, but God help me, I wish I had died along with his father. There was a mortgage on the house, bills to pay, and the insurance policy was insufficient to cover it all. After all, who would have thought he would be plucked away from us, so soon?

Even now, I shudder every time I remember that night.

I had put the baby down to bed and had dozed off in the sofa as I waited for Rahul to come home. The shrill ring of the telephone woke me with a start. It was eleven in the night. Absently I wondered why Rahul was not yet home as I picked up the phone.

"Mrs Kapoor?" said a voice in clipped tones.

"Speaking. Who is this?" I said.

"Mrs Kapoor, I am.. uh the deputy inspector at the Banashankari police station. I hope you are sitting down m'am."

I sat down with a thud on the armchair. "What happened?" I rasped.

"Your husband was in an accident m'am. Could you come down to the DG Hospital please?"

At that exact moment the kid let out a piercing wail. But I could hear two voices, blending as one. I realized I was screaming too.

The caller forgotten, I left the receiver hang as I keened in acute misery.

The rest I vaguely remember. The visit to the hospital, seeing him like that, the funeral, everything seems a blur now. I just couldn't believe that this was happening to me. My friends took care of me for a while. But then they had to go back to their lives. We had no relatives. That was one of the many things that bound us together. That had bound us together, I correct myself.

I found myself in desperate need of help. And wondering if I was specially chosen for the 'Sad Life' program or everyone else was there in the same boat.

With such thoughts running through my head I walked down to the nearby grocery stall. I had to haggle with the street vendors now, instead of buying vegetables at the Greens n Grains outlet. Brushing my thoughts away, I looked about me. Straight into the eyes of a beggar on the street. A girl about ten, she looked at me and I felt as though she could see my soul. She gave me a small smile and moved on. Without asking me for any money. I found myself wondering how her life was.

Living on the street

I saw the lady with an unmistakable aura of sadness surrounding her, enveloping her and giving her a silent dignity. God knows what had put that sorrow in her, but she should take heart in the fact that she was alive and probably had a roof on her head. 'Cause it doesn't help to dwell on the past, as the future will be worse if you don't act now. Amma had always tried to drum that into me, I remember wistfully.

We used to live in the slums. Appa worked on a construction site nearby. There was always a building being put up somewhere or the other on the stretches of the Ring Road. Amma worked as a maid in the surrounding houses. We had some semblance of a family. Then Appa got into some bad company, according to Amma and he started coming home late. And smelling filthy. We were used to the filth around the slum, but the stench would permeate our senses. Then he started taking money from Amma, and if she refused, he would beat her up.

Then the day came when my nightmare became reality. He killed her, while he was inebriated. Appa went to jail, and I was left all alone. Now I am reduced to sleeping on the streets. Depending on the charity of strangers. They say there is a mid day meal program at the government school nearby. Maybe I will go there today, I am particularly hungry.

I look back at the sad woman on the street, and want to whisper to her that things could be far worse. I see her looking at a man in a cab, a look of longing on her face. For the comfort of a man, or the AC car, I cannot tell. I wonder if the man in the cab is happy. I maybe young, but I know that everyone has problems.

An enviable life?

The cab stopped at the signal. I stretched and looked about me. There was a woman looking directly at me. I found it disconcerting. She looked incredibly sad. "No one's life is easy, is it?" I look at my colleague as I ask him.

He looks strangely at me. "What's up with you, mate?"

I shrug and look back straight ahead. It has been 26 hours since I last slept, my thoughts must be getting haywire. In this age of materialism, barely anyone talks about problems that are not his own. For me, it brings back all the things that I don't want to think about.

My life doesn't seem to have any meaning. Often I stay at office for long periods of time, like I did today. My time is not my own. ? It's the age of consumerism and customer satisfaction. I have learned to be more appreciative of the waiters in the pizza places and coffee shops, for now I know just how they would feel if a customer got too cranky.

Staring at the computer, knowingly deteriorating my health - the hunched back, failing eyesight; such problems will hit us even before we reach middle age. There's so much stress on the job, graying heads on 20 somethings is not an uncommon sight. We have to constantly upgrade our skills, what is used today will be outdated tomorrow. There are the most burnouts in our profession, by the time we are 30, most would have left the software profession entirely. They become yoga teachers, start schools or take up community service - anything that's as far apart from the 'software' tag.

The worst part is staying in a different city from your parents. It is incredibly lonely out here. Most of my friends are scattered across the country, and quite a few are abroad. During the week I bury myself in work, the weekends are hard to bear. I find myself roaming the city alone, or just staying cooped up at home. Sometimes I end up visiting office during the weekends, inviting scorn from my teammates. I am termed a geek, who has no social life. But who would like to come to office on weekends if they had better things to do?

The pay cheque is supposed to make all this seem worth it, but why do I feel I am paying the price, not the other way around? I look back at the sad lady. Her attention is elsewhere. Curious, I look around till I find where her attention is riveted. I look at a woman standing in a bus next to the cab; the bus is so crowded I feel a quiver of discomfort at the thought of the comfort of my AC cab. Life doesn't seem so bad, after all.

Living with the in laws:

I feel someone watching me. It's too crowded in the bus, as always. I look out of the window and see a lady. She has a look on her face that tells you that she is sad. Do I have the same look too? I wonder.

I remember the fight I had with my mother in law in the morning. Not an unusual occurrence, but difficult to cope with, nonetheless.

I come from a lower middle class family. And my husband's family is of the opinion that they did me a huge favour by taking me into their home. I have to listen to their abuse everyday. My husband tries, at times, to support me. But the rest of them override him. He is not a strong man, I'm afraid. My mother in law runs the household with an iron fist. I have to hand over the meager salary I earn as a teacher, to the old crone every month. And then if I need anything, I will have to grovel at her feet, literally.

She has another son. His wife is prone to illness, so the household work falls on my shoulders. I get up at five in the morning everyday, to cook for the family. Oh, I have to cook their lunch too. Also, Appaji's special dietary needs have to be catered to.

I then have to clean the house. Unfailingly. We cannot afford a maidservant, apparently. With about four incomes and Appaji's pension, I don't see the logic of that. But what is my life experience? I ask myself sarcastically. I have become so used to the sarcasm in the house, I use it on myself now.

After cleaning the house, I have to get all the kids into the bathroom, help them get dressed and feed them their breakfast. All this, while my sweet sister in law is dozing in her room. I maybe one of the few people who actually wish for ill health.

I am not allowed to own a two-wheeler. 'Oh the cost of petrol is going UP! Take the bus instead. It is cheaper' The shrill voice of Ammaji echoes in my head.

That is how I get to travel in this cramped, miserable bus. I only wish my life were easier, somehow. I look back at the lady outside; she turns away to look at an old man looking quite lost, obviously all alone in the world. At the least I have a family to speak of; I wonder how the old man copes.

A lonely life:

It takes me longer to cross the signal lights now; there is no one to lead the way. I feel curious eyes on me, sometimes I feel their pity. It takes getting used to, this unsolicited pity from strangers. I look around as I wait for the pedestrian light to turn green. My eyesight is not so good these days. I see a lady looking at me, or I think she's looking at me. She has a sad look on her face. I shuffle on my feet uncomfortably. The arthritis doesn't make things easy for me either.

My daily routine doesn't vary much. Every morning, the sun shafts in through a break in the curtains. I unwillingly open my eyes. It's really appealing to lie-in. That way I don't have to pretend that I do have something to do. There doesn't seem to be anything significant filling up my life anymore.

The mirror seems to mock me. I see my youthful face, hair flopping about. I close my eyes for a second as I remember the happiness on that face. When I open my eyes, I reel back from the face that I see. A receding hairline, tired eyes and a wrinkled face. I close my eyes with my hand, trying hard to remember the transition from one face to the other. It is a blur.

I was so busy with everything else, I didn't realize that age was catching up on me. And then suddenly a year ago that realization came. When my lovely wife died in her sleep. At fifty, death is something we never thought much about. Of course we planned for it, but never actually paid much attention to what a wrench that could be. Every night when I go to bed after an unfulfilling day, I pray fervently for death. I imagine it will be like a beam of sunlight enveloping me, caressing me with It is warmth, and cocooning me in it. But then I wake up, into the reality that is my life.

My granddaughters had visited just a few days ago. Their visits are too few and too far in between. I understand. I didn't pay constant attention to my grandparents when I was young either. My neighbour seems to get far more visits from her children and grandchildren. There is an aura of happiness in her face; I wish I could borrow some of it from her. As I ponder that, I look for the lady that set me on my train of thought. She is now looking at a train that is passing by the signal.

As you sow, so you will never reap:

This is not the first time I am coming to the city, and not the first time by train either. But the sights and sounds have changed drastically since my last visit. The pace of life seems faster now. But in comparison to my sleepy village, any city would seem so much faster.

I look out of the train as we pass by a signal and I find not many faces are turned toward the train in sheer joy or surprise. At the village, boys still run after a train, or wave excitedly. The city folks must be so used to trains and planes, every means of comfort is taken for granted here. I wonder how many people have even seen a village in their lives. As the train slows down almost to a halt, I happen to make eye contact with a lady standing by the side of the road, and her eyes seem to see into my very soul. Surprisingly, I feel the same. She seems incredibly sad, that much I can gather. That reminds me of my own reason for visiting the city.

I am a farmer. The last two years have been especially bad for us. First came the drought, and then the last year saw a surplus of rainfall. The crop of both the years was destroyed. I am seeing increasing reports of suicides by farmers.

I doubt if my family will have to resort to that, yet. But if the meeting with the agricultural bank doesn't go well this year and the government doesn't do anything to help us, it might well become an option. I till the soil, carefully sow the seeds, but more often than not, I don't reap the fruits of my labour. Nature's fury always catches us at the wrong end. And even if we did have a good harvest, it is extremely difficult to protect it from thieves or prevent it from being destroyed by pests.

We can handle that. But the middlemen bleed us like leeches. They make a hefty amount buying our produce at dirt prices and hiking it up in the market. Sometimes I feel like giving it all up and moving to the city. But this is my land, my ancestors have been the proud owners of it, and I will not have it any other way.

I hope my children too feel the same way after they grow up and finish their education. I don't want them to join fancy jobs and think they are too high and mighty for the back breaking work of the soil. I hope the meeting today goes well. My livelihood depends on it. As the train moves away, I wonder what the sad lady is thinking.


"Would you like some more carrots?" a voice breaks into my consciousness. I am slightly dazed as I look at the earnest and slightly worried face of the vegetable vendor.

"Are you ok?"she asks, concerned. "You have been rooted to the same spot for the past few minutes".

"I am fine, thank you." I realize I actually mean it. It's the first time in a long while that I have felt 'fine'.

I begin the trudge back home and try to make sense of what happened in the past few minutes. It was as though I could read their souls in the few seconds that I met their eyes. It's something I have never experienced before. I doubt if I am beginning to have psychic powers. Then how did I manage to look into their eyes and read their stories?

I try to catch the eyes of everyone, anyone on the street. A couple of people meet my eyes and look away. But I don't see anything, or feel the emotions that they are feeling. What happened at the signal must be a one off occurrence then.

Slowly my heart settles on the one plausible explanation. I had been given those minutes of psychic ability to shake me up from the slump I had been in. I was wallowing in self-pity and helplessness instead of moving on.

The nameless strangers somehow helped me get on with my life. Their lives were filled with problems too, but they found courage and hope. They were looking at the silver lining, and trying to make their lives better, instead of being bitter about what life had thrown their way. They looked at each other and took comfort in the fact that their circumstances were perhaps not as bad as someone else's seemed. Maybe the man in the cab took to teaching lessons at the slum and met the little girl. Maybe the old man struck up a friendship with the lady next door. Maybe the farmer got the loan. Maybe. My three minutes of clairvoyance did not return again.

I got myself a job in a school nearby. Teaching seems to have been my vocation all along, I just needed a tragedy to find out. My son goes to the same school now. We lead a happy life. Life is for the living, and one has to let go of the dead. I miss Rahul of course, but then life has to go on. And whoever said life's fair?

No comments: