I was six when I first escaped my body. Since then, I have done it quite often. Today I am travelling on the hump of my beloved Camel. I call him Makhtub. I can feel the hot breeze of dessert’s late afternoon against my brown skin. My chestnut brown hair are tied into a tight knot with its tiny curls escaping from the rubber band, making me look like a madwoman who has not combed for days. I am not alone; a wise alchemist rides beside me. We are headed to the great pyramids. I have sworn to find my personal legend. As we spot, and with no delay, step into a nearby oasis to get some rest, the wise old Alchemist turns to me and looks at me straight in my eyes. I call him wise because his silver hair and long silver beard with all those lines etched on his face speak of nothing but wisdom. As I stare straight into his green eyes, I see how they are deeper than any pair of eyes I have ever seen, as if they have millions of stories buried in them. “Are you listening?” I was distracted by two shiny heads of stones in his pocket (Urim and Thummim) which he claims are the stones of ancient judgement and are blessed by God himself. “What?” I ask him. “I cannot help you” he states plainly.”Why?” I ask. “Because you and only you can identify your personal legend. The voice that will guide you is deep within you. Don’t try to search it in mine.” “Well, I can’t hear it. It won't surface. How will I know?” What he says next dazzles me. A strong Deja vu hits me in my face. He slowly and clearly says “When you desire something from all your heart, the entire universe conspires to help you reach it.”
It feels like I have heard him say this before. No. I remember reading it somewhere. Not once but a hundred times. Just when I am nearing a memory I hear a loud thud as if heaven had finally decided to talk to me. Then one more thud followed by a loud female voice filling my ears. “Get up Maya! You will be late! I told you to go to bed early!” I am pulled back into my own body finally, into reality, exactly where I should live. I realize I had fallen asleep on the couch. I am covered with a softcover, and Paulo’s “The Alchemist” is lying on my chest, half-open. I must have fallen asleep in the middle of a chapter as always. I giggle silently connecting the dots, although I have forgotten more than half of the dream I just dreamt.
“Will you cut that foolish grin and get ready for your counselling session?” mother says irritated when she catches me smiling at my own little recollection of the dream. “Are you sure we need this? I am but 15, mamma”. “We? It is you who needs It.” she snaps, then adds more kindly when she sees me frown “Honey, you are a talented and ambitious young woman. I am sure you will make us proud one day. But it’s high time you plan out your future and start working on them. You must have a respectable job with a decent salary at least to survive. You know how it has been like after your father. I want to see you independent and make sure you never suffer the way I did”. By the end of her prep talk, her eyes are glistening and her face looks more tired than angry. I do know how she has suffered after my father left us. While I found comfort in books I have seen her weep at night and go back to finding a job with some makeup and a forced smile in the morning. I know she has worked hard to give me the life I have now. This is exactly why I want to do everything in my power to make her happy. I want to make my mother rich and take away all the worries of the world from her. It is my deepest secret wish. I sigh and give her a bear hug before going to dress myself up.
I decide on a peach coloured button-up frock. The hem of the dress crosses my knees giving me a decent girly look. I make a bun and put on my belles. I am not the girl who spends a lot of time getting ready, I don’t put on any makeup but I am always careful while picking up my clothes. I come out of my room with my turquoise sling bag (which I carry everywhere though it does not contain anything important) in 15 minutes and my mum rushes me to the car. We are driving to the best career counsellor in the town and I am about to take a one-month long career guidance program. “Did you take a leave from your work for my session? We could have scheduled it on a weekend.” I tell my mother as she tries to navigate between other cars and some rowdy teenagers driving their bikes as if they have a secret treaty with Yama (the god of death). “Sweetie we can’t waste any more time. I will drop you and leave for work. I’ll pick you up at 2.” I nod obediently because that is all I can do.
The councillor’s building looks more like an antique shop. It is in the middle of one of the most crowded markets of Aaryanagar. There is a range of shops on the left selling cheap clothes, fake brands, and a variety of metal ornaments that are very likely stolen. To the right, there is a vegetable market, which is empty at this time of the day, but by the evening it is sure to be flooded with women in kurtas and sarees trying to bargain the market off. My mother leaves me at the door telling me she has an important meeting soon and cannot risk getting stuck in traffic. I take a deep breath and enter through the glass door into the building. The interior is decorated in an old fashioned manner. The wooden furniture looks like it was built for British luxuries in the pre-independence era. There are Sanskrit texts framed on the wall. The ceiling is covered with mythological paintings. I can see scenes from Ramayana and Mahabharata carefully carved on the roof and painted with odd colours which are neither too bright nor too dull. If I were to estimate the additive age of all objects in the room, I am quite sure I would reach the Jurassic era.
A woman in white saree steps in front of me. Her saree is plain but it has a thick golden border which makes the simple saree look quite extravagant. With a warm smile, she says apologetically “You must be Maya. Your appointment was scheduled at 10, but Mr Mehra is running a little late. He had a family emergency”. I don’t know what to do now. I certainly can’t go back alone. Should I call mother? But she said she has some important meeting. Before I can ask anything else, she reads my perplexed face and continues “You need not worry. Mr Mehra is on his way already and will be here soon. Till then you can sit in the tiny library we have next to the building. We have some nice books that will keep you occupied for a while. I am afraid you will get bored in the waiting room” and she points to the small library next door.
I am relieved to be between books. They make me feel welcome and safe. Although there are not many options to suit my taste I manage to find a copy of translated “Indulekha” and start reading it. The scent of paper and ink fills my nostrils and I relax as I skim through familiar words and enter a fictional land again, amongst my non-existent friends. I don’t realize how quickly time passes.
I am totally engrossed in my book when a figure appears in front of me. He is tall and lean and has a familiar smile. He looks old but his personality radiates the confidence of a young man. He takes a seat directly in front of me and says with a deep voice, “Hello! You must be Ms Maya. So how can I help you?” So the councillor is finally here. “Hi sir” “Call me dadu dear, sir puts a lot of distance, think of me as your grandfather.” He interjects and I continue “my mother says I have to figure out what I like the best and take my education and training to have a stable career. But I don’t know my interests yet.”
He looks at me for a moment and then speaks “When a person does what he wants, he knows in an instant his heart’s desire. It cannot be achieved by working hard or thinking about it for days and weeks. Your soul speaks to you when you know your purpose in the world.” This is of no use to me I think. “So you cannot help me? Because my heart hasn’t spoken as you say.” I state dryly because his superstitions and dreamy face make me wonder if he really is the best councillor as they claim. Perhaps he reads the uncertainty in my eyes. He gives a little laugh and continues “Well sometimes when the mind is too distracted, the inner voice doesn’t surface the way it ought to. I can’t catch your voice but I can help you find it.” This satisfies me a bit.
Hours pass like seconds and it’s already 2. My mother is at the door to pick me up. I leave with mum and tell her I’ll ride my bicycle for the rest of the days. She must find some time to rest.
The next few days at the counselling are merry. We talk about me most of the time and I discover parts of me I never knew existed. He being a man of years of wisdom and experience shares anecdotes and stories from far off lands separated by ages. I tell my mother about it all. She is happy to see me explore myself, I can see it in the way she hums while cooking and the hope in her eyes when she looks at me. She thinks I’ll figure out my plans soon.
It is a drizzling Thursday and I am sitting in the same library when the receptionist walks in. “I think you are very fond of books Ms Maya. I see you almost every day here. Mr Mehra is here, I am sorrywe had to reschedule your sessions. Mr Mehra told you all about it I am sure. Anyway, he wants to see you in his office.” I don’t understand why we can’t sit in the library just like every day and I have no idea what she is talking about. I oblige and follow her to his office. I see a man sitting on a black leather chair in front of a long desk. But this man does not have a long beard, nor does he have those magical green eyes. This is not my dadu. I make no efforts to hide my confusion and enquire about dadu. “There is no other councillor but me Miss. I was out of town for a family business, I texted you that day remember? ” I remember ignoring the message thinking he must have texted when he was running late and managed to reach finally. “The building belonged to my uncle who ran an antique shop here. I haven’t worked on changing the interior as it looks unique. I have very few employees to manage my sessions but only me as the councillor” he throws in details to make things clear. He further says that there is no old man as I described who works there, and adds to my annoyance that for the 20 years he had lived in the area, he had never seen such a man.
I convince myself that a stranger in the library made conversations with me perhaps just because I remind him of his granddaughter or he was just a kind man trying to help a young girl.
I try to visit the library a few more times but there is no sign of him. It’s strange how he just vanished right after I discovered he was not the person I thought he was. I have started to wonder if he was a criminal. Although his actions were strange but never suspicious, I wonder if he had any bad intentions. I can’t be troubled with this thought a lot since he never really did or speak anything inappropriate.
After a while, my visits to the library become less frequent. I do not enjoy talking to this real counsellor because first, I have to start all over and repeat a lot of things I have already told the old man, and second because my conversations with Mr Mehra are plain and boring. He preaches more and understands little; he analyses more but does not feel.
It’s Saturday (and hopefully the last day of my program). As usual Mr Mehra is running late. I decide to wait in the library till I see his black car. I have given up any hope to see dadu here again, but I like the warmth of the place. Besides, on trying a few books from the rack I have grown a taste for the books here too. As I run my fingers over the very last shelf of the hall my fingers stumble upon a yellow-orange covered book. I take it out and it is Paulo’s “The Alchemist”
“The Alchemist”. I stare at the title blankly for a while and my body freezes, my heart rate hikes, my hands go numb, my feet go weak, and I feel dizzy as a memory shoots. The face of the man I dreamt of on the first day of my session flashes in my mind. I remember the wise old face and the long silver beard. I try to laugh out at the coincidence but I can’t. The resemblance is shocking. Not even a single line on dadu’s face was different. How can I dream about someone I have never met before? Or how can I meet someone I dreamt of? Did I actually meet him? Am I dreaming again?
The logical part of my brain is still alive; I must be overthinking as usual I believe. I head down straight to the librarian and enquire about the old man. I am astounded when she says she does not remember any such man entering ever. She had greeted me when I entered with dadu quite a few times. I even made some small talk with her once or twice when he was with me. How can she not remember him? Although he never uttered a word she must have seen him. I ask almost everyone around the place, shopkeepers, people in the vegetable market, security guards outside the ATM, and everyone who could have possibly seen him. But I don’t get a single affirmation. I think his face was quite remarkable and not easily forgettable. I request the librarian to see the CCTV footage but in vain. I don’t have a solid reason (not something I can tell her) and I am a very bad liar so I fail to convince her.
On my way home I cannot stop thinking about the resemblance of the Alchemist in my dream and dadu in the library. I cannot help but question my memory. As soon as I reach home I do the most obvious thing a person does to find an answer. I Google. I don’t find him on the internet but on trying out some keyword combinations I reach an article that talks about delusions. I learn that there is something called Dream–reality confusion (DRC), which is a difficulty or an impossibility to determine whether an event or an experience took place during wakefulness or if it was the content of a dream. I read about a boy, who complained of being bullied by a man he saw in his dream, and a nine-year-old girl who introduced her parents to her “friend from the dream”. On further reading I realize that the symptoms are quite consistent with me, like having realistic dreams, I always felt pulled out from my body while dreaming; cognitive and sleep disturbances; confusion etc. I get to know that false memories also play a large part in this. So, was my memory of the dream or the old man fake? I stop reading when I see there is no cure, although some neurotransmitter based drugs are given, they are not very effective. I am very close to believing that I am going crazy. I cannot talk to my mother or anyone about it. I don’t want to be declared mad.
Months pass and I forget the episode since I never see the old man again nor the library or anyone else from my dreams. I am leaving tomorrow; I’ll be shifting to Dehradun where my University is. Those sessions with dadu (dream or not) did help me find my passion after all. I am emptying my turquoise sling bag when two shining stones fall out of it with a small note that reads: “Remember when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” Urim and Thummim I whisper into the air and remember my favourite quote from the same book “It's the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.”