The clouds were full of ink, and the beach was dead silent except for the gentle waves, which didn't seem to care much. The shower came almost in a hurry, rain falling in wild anarchy, the gusting wind carrying them in wild swirls one moment, a straight downpour in another, and diagonal slaps the very next. I deserved it. Every bit. He was disappointed in me...I had failed him.
The mist created by the downpour and the ocean stood between us. I had found him quite by chance that day near the Scripps Pier in San Diego, watching the neon bioluminescent waves, the air smelling of sulfur. He wore a long robe the color of ash. Intermittent sparks of lightning illuminated his face and the long flowing hair and beard, the color of a pearl.
“Shosroddho Pronam Kobiguru.” I tried hard. He was startled by the name, then let a smile unravel, the most tender, like dew on a maple leaf. “You are right; I was remembering you for a long. This is my fifteenth year teaching- Where the mind is without fear. I read it when I was in eighth grade, back in India. It has reverberated in my soul ever since.” I wriggled my right index finger with my left index finger. I’m not sure why, but somehow it felt absolutely necessary. They say a cup can only spill over if there's something in it; my cup, my being like a dumpster, was overflowing, and I needed a landfill to empty. The virulent effects of the virus had shaken the macrocosm and the microcosm. To me, it had upended the very blueprint of life.
“Oh, so you are a teacher. I remember my Santiniketan in Bolpur. You have a big responsibility on your shoulder, my dear. India, my country, Oh! Where in India, Mamoni?” The word Mamoni untangled my index fingers almost instantly.
“Jamshedpur, my father worked for Tata Steel. It is close to West Bengal, but unfortunately, I never got to visit that place. I know you through the titles- Kabuliwaala, Bhikarini, Stray Birds, Choker Bali, The Geetanjali, and the Robindro Songit. My mother says that Maithili, our regional dialect is very similar to Bengali. Jamshedpur had rich Bengali flavor and shubho vijaya, sindur khela, rosogullas, chomchom, and rasamalai, sorshe ilish and chingri macher malai became my reality too. One day, maybe ..."
“Has my country awoken?” He interrupted, untouched by the warm glow of my sepian-tinted nostalgia, “I have woken up after a long sleep. This looks like a different world. I never got to see my country free. Are we free yet? Is slavery over?”
Awoken? Slavery? The grief within me wrestled hard not to escape from my eyes.
“Mamoni, have they left?”
“Yes, Kobiguru,1947, six years after you passed away.”
“My country is free. Ah! I never got to witness it, though, but I was sure, one day we would all find our haven, the rich and the poor...”
“They died on the tracks,” I said numbly, listless. The downpour inside matched the downpour outside.
“Mamoni, what are you saying?” His voice …….
“Kobiguru, the poor died on the tracks.” A stifled cry escaped.
“Ae Meye, are you okay? Why do you say that? Our country is free Meye. Isn’t it what we wanted, an end to slavery, the oppression? We got freedom, Mamoni, freedom.” With each syllable, he inhaled the moist air deeply.
“Yes, Kobiguru. We got freedom; we got so much of it that we didn’t know what to do with it. We forgot how precious and invaluable freedom is. Freedom came to us like the poisoned apple, an angel in disguise, and turned us into monsters. Slavery, huh! We got rid of one and became a slave to another.” The dam had broken. Now there was no stopping.
“Another? I thought slavery ended.”
“No, It never did. It just changed its visage. You see these hands; they are stained red. Soon after independence, the grisly sectarian violence chopped the country into pieces. One after another, the list is endless, but this time, one invisible virus has unleashed such misery it could melt the hearts in the graves. I saw him Kobiguru, a two-year-old Bihar’s railway station, playing with a shawl that covered his mother. No, not his mother, the dead body of his mother, as he played in a tattered baniyan with the lifeless body. They say she died of heat, starvation, thirst, and a back-breaking journey back home. I say we killed her. We also killed the workers that lay on the railway track. Two years back they carried bricks on their head to construct the swanky apartment my family lives in. Yesterday, I dumped them on the railway tracks and let a good train run over them. I failed them. I failed them so miserably that my own eyes refuse to meet me. You remember your words-
Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee!
He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground
and where the pathmaker is breaking stones.
He is with them in sun and in shower,
and his garment is covered with dust.
Put off thy holy mantle and even like him come down on the dusty soil!
Come out of thy meditations and leave aside thy flowers and incense!
What harm is there if thy clothes become tattered and stained?
Meet him and stand by him in toil and in the sweat of thy brow.
I failed them all, not once, not twice, but each time they suffered, they died, covering their dead bodies with worms of my words-such is life.
“Didn’t you do anything for them?”
It was difficult to look into those eyes. My stomach shifted uneasily, and my eyes wavered, not wanting to meet his.
“Of course I did. How could I not? Yes, I transferred some money to local charity organizations, collected dry ration for Feed the Hungry program, and then washed my hands with soap and water, sanitized my home, cooked a healthy meal for my son, spoke to my parents, switched on the AC and went to sleep.” I unloaded my guilt and shame in one breath. The bioluminescent waves had started to dissipate, the rain much tender, and the air hung heavy with guilt.
“If you cry because the sun has gone out of your life, your tears will prevent you from seeing the stars.”
“Kobiguru, in this heart, there is no sun, no stars, only crimson. She lay there, 75 years old, frail and lonely, unconscious and naked in the bathroom, her body carried in a bedsheet by the police to the ICU as I worried under the glorious Californian sun. I failed her. My soul screeches me from within, its voice shredding through my being until it becomes a hammer in my head, asking me the same question that it did a second ago, “Why are you not with her when she needs you the most? You are not just anyone; you are her daughter; you have come from her, she gave everything she had to see you become your own person, and now, you left her side. How could you? Why? When these questions pause for a while, I chew the insides of my mouth, gnawing at the flesh, soon it will fill with blood, my mother’s blood rather. Why am I here? Why did I make a choice to plant myself so far from the tree that cradled me? Which American dream Kobiguru? Is any dream worth the life and loneliness of your parents? My blueprint is uprooted, and my choices stand before me naked and mutilated. I can’t think coherently about what I did, why, and how. Everything is a blur, a big blur Kobiguru.”
“If I can't make it through one door, I'll go through another door- or I'll make a door. Something terrific will come no matter how dark the present.”
“No Kobiguru, listen, for my tale isn’t over yet. My palate is stained in scarlet. Turning a blind eye and a deaf ear, I marinate the steaks, chops, briskets, and roasts. In the background, the cackle of the chicken, the moos of the cows, and the grunt of the pigs turn into a distressing wail. "They didn't feel the pain. We followed the process- stun and then slaughter'. I have failed them too. In the process, I have failed mother earth. My conscience lays shrouded in black, a charcoal black. You see, I am my biggest slave. I have failed myself for a long time. Back when I was a child, I read stories of kindness and compassion, I recited poems of bravery and courage, and I sang songs of faith and wisdom, only to later become a slave. I don’t understand this world anymore. If you meet Mark, Mark Twain, do inform him I continue to be the lowest animal. Now, I can’t breathe, Baba, I can’t breathe. People talk of hope and joy; where is hope, and where is joy? These are the words of the privileged. ” My frame shrunk as I collapsed on my knees, drilling the wet sand.
He kept looking at the vast stretch of nothingness spread over the ocean, his white beard swaying gently, his shoulders hunched over his tall frame, his voice a husky drawl as if my words had caused much affliction to his heart.
“Mamoni, We read the world wrong and say that it deceives us. I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted, and behold, service was joy. The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence.”
“You know Baba,” I wondered at my instinctive change in the way I addressed him now, “the thought that plagues me, that I will die with fear in my heart, regret imprinted on my soul that I could have... that I should have, that I chose to overlook.”
"Mamoni, dying is hard work; dying while living is harder, worse. You are doing exactly that. Either you choose to live, or you die. Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers, But to be fearless in facing them. Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain, But for the heart to conquer it."
"Courage is a choice Mamoni. I see the chains that slave you. I will pray for your freedom. However, this is a battle you need to fight...alone. No one else can. You alone can break the shackles and set yourself free, for you alone are your assassin and its victim. I will go now, Meye. I will go. I have a long journey to make, but let me tell you, Meye- from where I am, I see you, I hear you, I feel you- preserve your sensitive heart, for in it resides the seed of love and love alone is enough. It always was, it always will be."
He left, the neon waves quietened as if following command, and the starless sky stood close, giving me company as I sat wondering about the iron bars that imprisoned me.
Please note the phrases/sentences in italics are some of the famous words written/spoken by Rabindranath Tagore.