In a Post-Truth world, I am wary of messages on social media. But a recent one has got me thinking for some time now. And having just watched ‘71 – a hard-hitting independent British movie about a soldier inadvertently left behind on the riot-ridden streets of Belfast at the peak of Northern Ireland conflict, I began to realize the enormous significance of hope in the midst of fear and violence.
At National Defence Academy, India’s premier training institution for young military cadets, the dining hall is a prime attraction for outsiders. Officially known as the Cadets’ Mess, it has a seating capacity of 2100 cadets at one time. But little do people know that just outside, stands a solitary table set just for one with its chair tilted forward. This arrangement is in remembrance of all those brave souls either Missing In Action or taken Prisoners of War.
On the table is a vase with a single rose indicating the love of the families who still hope for their return. Tied around the vase is also a red ribbon to show solidarity with all who demand a proper accounting of the missing. The candle on the table is never lit, symbolizing lack of light and happiness in their absence. A slice of lemon placed on the bread plate stands for their bitter fate while the salt is reminiscent of the tears shed by their loved ones. Finally the glass is upturned indicating that they cannot dine with us tonight.
What a remarkable symbol of the sacrifice of all those who left to do their duty by their country but never came back!
The more I think about it, the more I wonder…How would it feel, knowing that you are not allowed to?
OK, then let me start from the beginning.
There was a time last month when we had guests drop in rather frequently for dinner. I found myself hosting three get-togethers within less than three weeks, I think. Fortunately I had help with the preparations since my exams were right round the corner. Though I prefer to cook for parties myself, having someone to peel, chop, grate, crush, mince, dice, julienne and such-like paraphernalia is a blessing. But something has been bothering me recently about those memories – how would it feel to handle meat, exotic vegetables, imported fruits and quantities of expensive ingredients, when you know you cannot afford them in your own home?
Even though we are not regular party-throwers, my insistence on a wholesome diet means that I often buy foods that ever-rising inflation places out of the reach of many families, like that of my help. So perhaps one day, searching for a spice, she comes across bottles stocked with dry fruits like cashews, walnuts and almonds. Or she may find herself cooking an amount of goat meat enough to feed a party of 15; Or she is washing up even she feels heady with the aroma of saffron-infused basmati pulao that I have just taken down from the gas range – what can possibly go on in her mind when her own children may not have had such stuff on their table for many many months. Then there is the boiling of chicken, daily, twice a day for my dog!
Indeed, my train of thought began ranging further. How does it feel for a poorly paid accountant to handle vast sums of money – especially in cash – when his own child may be suffering from lack of expensive medical treatment. Or perhaps for a night-shift nurse in a hospital caring for patients when her own mother is old and alone at home, with nobody to pick her up if she stumbles in the dark room and falls.
Such morbid thoughts, you say…but just think, once, how much we take for granted!
“You mean you are actually – willingly – doing this?”
My daughter’s incredulity would’ve been funny had the scene been playing out on the TV screen, like in a Man with a Plan type of family comedy series where teens perpetually talk to parents with an arched eyebrow.
“Why should it be so strange that I might want to do a course?” I tried to keep my equanimity even as I felt fine tendrils of self-doubt uncurling in my heart.
“Who would want to voluntarily study, take an exam, go through this —?!” the last word was quite expressive of the hatred that kids have for exams.
As you may have guessed by now – this mini inter-generational drama was all about my signing up for a college course. I had a sneaking suspicion my teen daughter’s reaction was actually resentment at the possibility of not having me at her beck and call for a few months the following year when I would be in the thick of my studies. But over the next few weeks my suspicions evaporated. I found her actually happy that she had a co-sufferer now and eventually my darling even began taking on the much-despised pet-related chores off my shoulders.
The rest of the family was just relieved I had found something to plug my intermittent whining about the absence of a ‘proper’ career.
Outside, my revelation was generally met with varying degrees of interest – from an off-hand “oh really” in the middle of a rambling description of shopping in Dubai’s Gold Souk to real concern that I might be subjecting my brain cells to more than it could bear at this age. Two reactions stand out in my memory – one:
“Really – But why? What possible good can any course do now – will you even make enough to cover course fees?”
And the second was, of course, what started it all:
“I see…if you are so interested in the subject, maybe you should go ahead with it – just find a way.”
Some words, uttered by someone, in a moment of pure congruence – you never know where it can lead you.
I remember the first post written after I settled down in my cosy nook here, in the Nilgiris. There I had reflected on difficulty of uprooting oneself and changing homes ever so often.
And almost exactly a year later, I am back facing the same questions. Freshly moved to another house though still in these sylvan surroundings, here I go planning wall decor even as my half-awake mind seeks the familiar door handle at 3 in the morning when I have to let out my dog.
But most of all, my heart searches for the colours and blooms of the garden I have left behind. The burst of colours on the flower-beds, grass so green it would hurt the eyes and the perpetual humming of bees as they hovered over the hedges.
And yet I find myself embracing my new surroundings with some equanimity now. I roam its expansive grounds, feel the silken warmth of gladioli petals that bloom here in abundance and admire the gorgeous bougainvillea that embraces the porch.
But curiously I feel no desire to do more. No compulsion to impose my ideas of Beauty on these grounds, no need to recreate what I have left behind. I sit in the filigreed shade of the pine trees and watch my dog chase squirrels and rats. I know the boundary is secure but thankfully I have no more exotic flowerbeds to obsess over.
Am I moving towards the Nirvanic ideal of detachment? I’d like to think so…and turn towards an ancient Australian Aboriginal proverb for understanding,
“We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. We are here to observe, to learn, to grow, to love, and then we return home.”
With eyes closed, move my head around; stop randomly, open my eyes and then the first thing I notice – write about it.
Yes, writer’s block can make you do strange things.
Back to my fun experiment – my gaze had come to rest on a suitcase. Old but not too battered, roomy but without the works. The piece of luggage had been with me for almost eighteen years now but none too worse for the weather. It had accompanied me to different parts of the country, the most recent being my trip to Kohima but this was already after having breathed the cool climes of Landsdowne, basked in the southern sun of Kovalam, romanced the stone forts of Mandu in central India. This sturdy dame had done it all.
But, then I remembered with a shard of regret how it had also missed out on the Rhine cruise from six years back as well as the Seoul city tour from two. It was not deemed fast enough for the airport of Hong Kong nor fashionable enough for the luxury of Venetian Macao.
And yet, I have it still. When I have to zip across nearly two thousand kilometres to my hometown at two-days’ notice or worry that my snazzy luggage will my ruined in the grimy train interiors, or need to pack in so much of my Kolkata shopping that I have to sit on it for the lock to click shut – I fall back upon what else – my old trusted suitcase.
Not too pretty, a little frayed around the edges, understanding of my needs and the proud bearer of so many marks and stains that on the conveyor belt, it just cannot be confused with someone else’s luggage – that’s my trusted travel companion.
So here’s looking forward to many more journeys together !