"I was abandoned..."
It seemed to me, as I listened to Rakesh's litany, that he had been singled out as the Chosen One from the moment that he was born. He had been found abandoned in front of a small garment retail shop. The owner of the shop took him in and brought him up, but only just. There was always a remove between the family and Rakesh, which was not helped by the other children's resentment towards him. This resentment festered and brewed under the surface of seemingly normal and placid daily life, and bubbled over to the surface at the least provocation, and sometimes even without it.
"I suppose", he said, "I was lucky that no one ever hit me or beat me. But they were not happy. It made them dislike me, and I never really knew whether I could blame them for it. After all, my life itself was nothing more than the sum of their kindness. But amma, you know how children are. As a child, you are much more keenly aware of every little injustice that is meted out to you. I resented them, the fact that they ate at the dining table while I sat on the floor for my meals. They went to school, while I was given lessons only when one of the older children had time to spare to teach me. I helped with the housework and in the shop, but I never received any thanks for it. My resentment was coupled by a deep, shaming guilt over the fact that I felt this way, that in some way I was being treacherous and unfaithful to my benefactors, however flawed their kindness may have been. My life passed by, largely unacknowledged. The pain was there, but over time it turned into a dull ache that I barely noticed anymore".
"Things started changing for the better once I started working fulltime at the shop. I found a strange solace in the rasp of the yards of fabric slipping under my fingers, a veritable thrill every time I was able to make a sale and a sense of giving back to the family that seemed to assuage my guilt and resentment. I also grew a lot closer to Baba. He was the one who had taken me in, and he had been good to me in his own quiet fashion. I suppose he had never really thought that I would have needed anything more than food or shelter. He had spent his whole life trying to give a good education and lifestyle to his children, with the inevitable result that they were all doing very well for themselves, speaking impeccable English and trying unsuccessfully to hide the fact that they were slightly ashamed of their not-so-polished father. He and I were joined by our love for the little shop with its peeling paint and dingy atmosphere. To him it was a lifetime's hard work and effort, to me it was a refuge as well as the arena where I proved myself everyday."
As I listened to him speak, I couldn't help but contrast his life with mine. I had spent my entire life bemoaning the dullness of my life while he had spent his life wanting the normalcy that I held in contempt. I was a little ashamed at the pettiness of my perspective. He kept talking about how adulthood had seemed to compensate for the voids felt in childhood, and slowly life started to shape up into something respectable and meaningful.
"After twelve years of working in the shop, I was more or less left in charge as Baba's growing years finally made him more agreeable to the prospect of retirement. He still came to the shop everyday, but now all he did was drink a cup of tea and watch contentedly as the business conducted itself. His regard for me had grown over the years, and he wanted to give me something that I had missed all these years: a family of my own. He had spoken to some of his relatives who had arranged for me to get married to a girl of their acquaintance. He had also built a small annexe where I would live after marriage. I was delirious with happiness. All my life I had struggled to fit in somewhere, to feel like I belonged with someone, and now it would finally happen for me. The wedding date was coming closer, and Baba took me with him to meet Neela, the girl that I would marry. I was already half in love with her although I'd never met or seen her. I imagined her as the one who would be my anchor, the one who I would live for and with, the one I could love, finally. I had trouble sleeping because of the excitement and anticipation. The day arrived, lovely and warm, and we reached her house around noon."
"We met under the watchful eyes of her parents. She came and sat next to me with her face cast downwards. I could not read her expression; it seemed to be a little troubled. She went inside after a while and I asked to go to the bathroom to wash my hands. As I walked in, I passed her room; the door was slightly ajar. I leaned in at the door to listen to her voice. All was quiet for about ten seconds. I was about to leave when suddenly I heard her say, "He short, he's ugly and the smell of his hair oil makes me gag. You can't make me. I'll kill myself if you try". I walked back to the living room, sat through the rest of the meeting and left without uttering a single word. I went home and told Baba that I didn't want to marry her, that I didn't like her demeanour. He was disappointed and behaved rather cold towards me. But I didn't really mind; my mind was consumed by the thought that someone actually preferred death to being with me. Three terrible days passed in this way. I decided that killing myself was the reasonable thing to do".
"Reasonable", he laughed. "Reasonable because it would finally stop her words from echoing inside my head. Therefore, reasonable. I took the train to go to the beach; drowning is the only thing that is free of cost. But when I saw you almost fall off the train because of your carelessness, something inside me snapped. Amma, I'm sorry, but all the myriad little sorrows and pains that had simmered inside me for the last twenty seven years finally came out with that slap. And now we're here, and in trouble too, but I no longer want to kill myself".
"That's worth a jail term, I think", I smiled.
We sat in silence for a couple of hours. I managed to convince the lady who came in to question us that we were just victims of unfortunate sentence construction and inherent drama queen characteristics. She let us go after the mandatory stern warning, and everyone else had a good laugh at our expense. Rakesh went back to his beloved shop and I came home and dozed off for a marathon thirteen hours.
It's been a month since that day. My life is still as dull as it was before. I'm still at my old job. But I did break up with the guy who liked my shoes. I don't know if I'll ever see Rakesh again, but he did change my life irrevocably. How, you ask, since all else seems the same?
1. I'm happy.
2. I've realized that I should stick to dealing with what I can handle, and I can handle humdrum, normal and placid exceedingly well. In fact, I think that's what I'll name my children.
3. Excitement has an unpleasant corollary - a rumbling tummy. And clean toilets are hard to find. So I've decided to leave the excitement for the rest of the world.
And I think I won't tell you my name after all. I've grown to like Jane Doe.