“So, is this the best you have on offer?” a sceptical voice inquires.
I am jolted out of my corner, from my meditative mood. I put my pen down and smile.
There is doubt in slit eyes, pursed lips and the tilt of her head.
Oh! This one has high expectations.
I see her eyes wandering through the world in my corner. The mountains, the rivers, the deserts. And a mixture of happy, sad and every other variation of characters going on about their lives.
She shakes her head. And checks her catalogue.
“It says an authentic experience,” she sounds cheated. Petulant like a child who can’t spot cotton candy in a carnival.
I clear my throat. And try to sound calm.
“Rose, I’m sorry if this doesn’t meet your expectations at first glance. Would you like me to give you a guided tour?”
She looks at me gingerly. And shrugs her shoulders.
The ‘Visitors Week’ is turning out to be hectic. But the insights I have got so far are useful. It will help me improve my corner.
“So would you like to begin from the Happy section or Sad section?”
“Mmm… isn’t this corner supposed to have just various sections of Poor and Sad?” She twists the pallu of her peacock blue chiffon sari. I appreciate her effort in dressing for an immersive experience. I just wish she had come updated about the corner she wanted to explore.
I’ll not be surprised if she expects to see snake charmers in every alley and elephants on every highway. And people dancing in a synchronised way on a railway platform.
I’ll have to break it to her gently. That it was never that way.
“Umm not really. It is as much a mix of happy and sad as you can find in any corner,” I gesture for her to follow me. And add with a smile, “Maybe a bit hotter and louder than the other corners. But once you get used to it, you might even enjoy it!”
I cringe at my people-pleasing tone. Nothing screams desi louder than that. Not even mixed-up prepositions.
And that’s the cliché I want to stop feeding.
It was a winter morning. I was studying the sparrows and chicks pecking grains in the backyard. I was hardly a couple of feet taller than them. Pa sat on the steps with a cupful of diced apple in his hands and a printed parrot peeping out of a book on his lap. When Ma chased away the birds and cooped the chicks under a big cane basket, I ran to Pa. He sang in the parrot’s voice as he fed me the apple cubes. The words flew right into my heart and cracked open a door.
Years passed. I grew taller, my voice grew stronger and the words kept flying to me from near and far.
Whenever the world surrounding me became suffocating, the door opened and pulled me in. It led me to a whole new world to hide in. It was my sanctuary.
On the first few days in a new school, which happened ever so frequently due to Pa’s nature of work, I could always turn to my familiar friends from the world of wizards the door had introduced me to.
On nights at a distant dormitory when I cried myself to sleep over heartbreaks, the door quietly ushered me to a corner where someone charming would pledge to stay forever loyal to me.
At home on summer breaks, when I got earfuls stating what a disappointing adult I had turned out to be, the door would guide me to the corner showcasing the kinds of expectations a parent could have. Years later, when I got earfuls for what a controlling parent I had turned out to be, the door would seat me in a corner that taught the art of letting go.
Every door extracts a price for passing through it, sooner or later.
I realised it when the door led me through the exhausting extent of the world it had allowed me to explore, to a trapdoor. And said,
“Go on, open it!”
I opened the hatch and climbed down the creaking steps. The first thing that struck me was the vast assortment of people- young, old, sad, vibrant, black, white, brown and yellow, crafting their corners with laughter, rage and everything in between. The world I had so lovingly explored upstairs was nothing but a mirror image of what they had created!
“So, which corner would you like to claim?” The door asked in a matter-of-fact voice. It had greater confidence in me than I did!
“To create? No…can’t I just enjoy the world upstairs like I did all these years?” I asked wistfully.
The door paused. And then warned,
“You could. But you may regret it later…”
“Yes, when your limbs become too weak to support you, your mind grows into a maze that doesn’t let a single thought pass through it and your heart doesn’t care what it wants anymore…”
I was stunned. There was no way I could hide what was in my heart. For the door always opened into my heart.
It wasn’t easy. To work in the basement. There were cobwebs to be cleared and demons to be slayed before I could claim my corner.
The fact that I had always been a wanderer only made it harder. It meant I never belonged to one place, one group of people or one language. And they didn’t belong to me.
I could barely put a few things up.
Many a time I tried to convince the door, my heart might have wished to create, but I was not meant for the rigours of the basement or the judgement upstairs.
I was even ready to forsake my entry into the sanctuary if the door chose it as a punishment.
Then, something happened. A child wandered into my corner. I didn’t notice him at first. Of course, he couldn’t see me, just the way I couldn’t see the creators in all those years I visited the sanctuary upstairs. He browsed through my limited world. I suspected he didn’t understand it much. But my characters reached out to him, played with him and sent him home smiling.
It confirmed what I had felt all along.
One need not understand everything. Sometimes, just experiencing something with an open heart is rewarding enough.
That day I opened my heart. I belonged to the world. And the world belonged to me. Warts and all.
“So, Rose is this your first visit to a desi corner?” I try to make a conversation as I take her through the Sad section.
She is fascinated by the stories set in slums, industrial towns, bungalows and brothels. And haunted by hungry, angry, hurt and exploited characters.
“Yes, I had always wanted to visit, though.” she continues to look closely at my plot lines.
“You have ended most of them on an optimistic note. I like it!” she smiles.
“I am glad you liked it,” I smile back and lead her to the Humour section.
She remains straight-faced even when I highlight the best ones. I leave it at that.
She parses through the Fantasy to see if there are any improvised characters from mythology and spots a couple of them gleefully.
I am impressed.
“How do you know about Indian mythology?” I ask.
“My great-great-grandfather was stationed in Fort St George, Madras.”
I am conflicted about how to process this information.
I move forward to the final section in my corner, Happy. From here on out she has an option to either explore another corner of the Sanctuary or go back to the political world.
There is a sense of disbelief and awe on her face when she meets happy people going on about their lives at homes, offices, streets and battlefields.
“Are these characters for real?”
“As real as you are willing to experience them.” I giggle.
“Their portrayal is awesome!” her blue eyes twinkle.
“Thank you so much, maybe not as good as in other corners,” I blurt out before biting my tongue.
Self-deprecation, tch… tch… another cliché I should not be feeding.
Then again, I should not be too hard on myself. I am a work in progress.