All of us live with our past. All of us allow it to shape our future. But some of us know how to shrug the past. I think that is who I am. I learn from my past, remember it, but don’t carry it as a baggage. I don’t want to be weighed down by my past. But sometimes, when we least expect it, our past saunters towards us and like the magic mirror in Snow White’s tale, depicts selected scenes from yesteryears. This is exactly how I felt when I saw him– the boy with his curly and unkempt hair, wearing a worn T-shirt and trousers, a few sizes big. He looked emaciated and tired and reminded me of the photos of Somali refugee kids.
I walked up to him, debating with myself whether or not to help him. Just then a group of khader-clad politicians shoved him and went around collecting funds for the victims of ‘Kollam Temple Tragedy’. I helped him get up. The sight of the young boy affected me in an indescribable way, it made me travel years back, and in his eyes I saw a faint glimpse of myself.
“Are you OK?”
He remained silent.
“Are you hungry?”
I bought a few bananas and offered him. He took one from me and ate, then another and another.
I took him to my home. My wife had never liked my exceedingly compassionate nature. She preferred to help her fellow-beings through regular donations to orphanages and shelter homes, most of which she did not bother to visit even once, though hefty donations were sent every year, and receipts filed for IT exemptions.
I knew that this fellow would invite sharp comments from my wife. But in the ten years of my married life, I had learnt to ignore these and move on.
“Another of your poor soul?” my wife questioned looking at the boy critically.
I nodded, not wanting to enter into any sort of argument.
“When will you stop all this, Manu? Just because you had to go through a few bad days…”
My angry glare made her stop midway, being well-aware that my past was a sensitive topic, which I’d rather not discuss.
“This won’t do. You have to limit your charity work. We have a girl growing up” she finished off rather weakly and stormed off to our bedroom.
I reported about the boy at the nearest police station. The Inspector being a friend of mine, allowed me to take him to my home, till they get more information about him.
“History repeats”, I thought.
After many years, that night, once again, I had the nightmare – the one that used to haunt me throughout my teenage years –a train rushing by, its horn blaring so loudly that my ears start to bleed, water is pressing me down, down into unknown depths, as I struggle to breathe. I knew that this was a dream and had to wake up before it is too late, but was not able to find the strength to do it. Luckily, my wife intervened and pulled away the pillow with which, I was suffocating myself.
I woke up, tired, all strength drained out.
“Are you ok? What happened? The dream, again?”
I nodded, gulping a glassful of water.
“Sorry… I reminded you of all that…”
“That’s ok. I won’t be able to sleep now. You go back to sleep. I’ll go and sit in the balcony”
I looked at the wall clock, it was 1:30. The accident had also happened around 1:30, but in the afternoon.
It was 8th July, 1988, a Friday – soon to become a ‘Black Friday’. I had turned 12, the previous day. I was sitting by the window enjoying the fast forward movement of nature, as the train sped, unaware that this journey was going to change my life forever. There was a cold wind blowing, as monsoon which begins in June in Kerala, continues well into July. I was travelling with my Uncle, on the Island Express. We had boarded the train from Trivandrum. My Uncle, friendly to the core, was already discussing politics with other passengers.
All of a sudden, there was a violent shake, and we all fell down, our luggage hitting us hard. Our whole world was suddenly upside down. There were shouts, cries, as people panicked. Before the passengers even realised what was happening to them, the whole train had derailed and tumbled into the Ashtamudi Lake, from the bridge. Water started pouring inside through the windows, as I went down into it, struggling to breathe. I tried to stay up, but something had caught on my leg, and was pulling me back. Just then the coach swung to the other side, throwing all of us like a sack of potatoes. I hit myself badly onto the ceiling fan. That was when I understood that our coach was lying upside down. My hands and legs were paining and probably bleeding too. The metallic taste of blood filled my mouth. I was terrified and all I could think of now was to hold onto something.
Very soon help started pouring in, many people from neighbouring areas had jumped into the lake to rescue us. They tried to open the door, but realised that it was locked from inside. Water levels were rising, and as the victims struggled to stay alive, the rescuers were trying hard to get us out. I was perched on to the fan to prevent being washed away. I looked around for my uncle, but he was nowhere to be seen. The body of a baby floated past me. A strange fear gripped my heart as I realised that people were dying all around me.
I do not know for how long I sat there perched onto the fan. I must have dozed off. The next thing I remember was the whirr of some machine, and then somebody pulled my leg. I peered out, and saw a man waving a rope and beckoning me. I slowly clambered down, my whole body was paining. I caught the rope, and someone pulled me to the window.
“Slowly climb out of the window, and we’ll catch you”, shouted a man. I did as I was told and was taken to the hospital, but the mental stress and loss of blood had taken its toll.
Many days later, a kind-hearted man, Mr.Varma, found me. I was sitting under a banyan tree, wearing a hospital gown and looking spaced out. His repeated questioning could not elicit any coherent response from me. He inferred that I was a victim of, what had by now been dubbed by the media as, Perumon Tragedy.
After reporting me to the local police, he obtained a special permission and took me home. With around 150 dead and many more injured, the police had been only too happy to cooperate.
For around six months, I was in the same state of mind – a total apathy to the world around me. It was much later that some faint spark ignited my lost memories and I recollected my past – who I was. With Mr.Varma’s help, I located my family. I was excited but apprehensive too. I thought of my mother, my brothers and sister. They would all be so glad to see me. On my insistence we went by bus, I was very scared of trains, and to this day, I have not been able to overcome my Siderodromophobia.
It was late in the evening that we reached my home. Ours is a poor family – my mother works as house maid and my father did not have any specific occupation, he would take any sort of odd job that comes his way. Not that he was a jack of all trades, but he was cheap labour, and people called him for all jobs, irrespective of whether he knew it or not. Had he been a responsible family man, that income would suffice, but his drinking habit ruined our life. All that he and my mother earned flowed off as arrack and toddy. What was left were the constant squabbles, and physical assault on my mother – and we were all, but mute spectators. We were not the ideal family, nor was it faultless. In spite of its imperfections and flaws, it was my home – I was returning to my loved ones. Truth is often stranger than fiction, and what awaited me was something I had never imagined.
My mother was shocked initially and then joyous to see me alive. They had all assumed me dead. My siblings too seemed pleased. That night was unforgettable as we exchanged how our lives had been in the last one year. I noticed that my house was in a far better condition. Later that night, my father returned. He stood dumbstruck on seeing me and actually pinched me to make sure that I was not a ghost.
“Why have you come now? Leave immediately” hissed my father, his face red in anger.
I could not believe my ears. I knew he would not jump with joy on seeing me, but this certainly was not the reaction I had expected. It was my turn to be stunned. Mr.Varma, who had all along been silent, now intervened on my behalf, to explain. Though my father listened, he didn’t seem to be bothered.
“I have collected the compensation amount of Rs.1 lakh offered by the Government. If someone knows that you are alive, then I will have to give it back. So leave. Remain dead.”
“He is right. Go and live somewhere far. He has started a new business and we are leading a comfortable life. If you come back now, we will lose everything. So…” added my brother.
All my hopes and dreams were crumbling right in front of me and that too for no fault of mine. I looked askance at my mother. When she too nodded her head, I left my home, walked away to another life. Destiny had waved her wand once again, changing my life forever. I had arrived eager for a reunion with my family, but was leaving as an abandoned orphan. This betrayal left a deep scar which completely marred my life. For days, I was seething with anger and lashing out with rage. Parents, oft described as paragons of love, now appeared to me as fiends. It was not easy to forgive or even forget what had happened, and to move on with life, but that was what was being expected of me.
Blood may be thicker than water. But money is, undeniably, the thickest.
With Mr.Varma’s helping hand, I finally reached a point where I could let go of the past and to some extent even accept my parent’s behaviour. I was the lamb who had been sacrificed at the altar for the good of our family.
The sudden ringing of the alarm awakened me from the train of thoughts. It was 5:30 in the morning. A wonderful day awaited me, and today I had to help out that boy.
“Mr.Varma”, I decided.
I took the boy to meet my saviour. I hoped he would guide me as to how to help this young boy, and bring him back to life. Mr.Varma was indeed happy to help us out. He tried talking to the boy, but could not get much of a response. So he suggested taking him to the famous psychiatrist, Mr.Ahmed, who had treated me.
And thus we started our efforts, to extricate Sanu (I had named him so) from his entangled world of thoughts. However even after months of treatment, there was not much progress.
“A sapphire has to undergo extreme conditions, absorb many impurities, before it becomes a much-sought-after gem. You are my sapphire, Manu, but to make you a gem, I had to be patient, very patient. If you too are willing to wait, you may be able to mould Sanu into flawless nugget”, advised Mr.Varma, seeing me lose hope.
Our breakthrough came when Dr.Ahmed called me up and informed me that he had reacted to a picture of an elephant published in the newspaper. Except that, it had been a violent reaction. We cautiously planned our next treatment strategy based on this lead.
It was the Malayalam month of Chingam, the month which starts off with the celebration of Vishu. It is also a month in which many temples in Kerala, celebrate their festivals, with a lot of programmes, elephant procession and fireworks. The temple near my home was also decked up with a thousand oil-lit lamps and five decorated elephants. I had brought Sanu home so as to take him to the temple. The sight of the temple, the elephants, and multi-coloured parasols all made him restless. He started pulling my sleeve, and muttering ‘go, go’. I tried to calm him, but he was losing his control. Just then, they burst the first of a chain of crackers in the temple. The sound of it made him wild, and he started running.
“Sanu , Sanu, wait” I shouted, running after him.
But he didn’t seem to hear me; he kept running till he became breathless. He sat on the muddy road, gasping, tears coursing from his eyes. A strange light of recognition had replaced the usual vapidity, in his eyes. He hugged me tight and kept repeating “sumi kutty, sumi kutty”
I took him home, calmed him down, and urged him to take a nap. On awakening, after a few hours, he came rushing into my room, and without any prompting began to narrate to me, in an animated manner, about the annual festival held in a temple in Kollam, Kerala. I realised that he was telling me about the same temple where a massive explosion of fireworks had occurred recently leaving many dead and injured. I heard him out, patiently, and as he reached the part where, the storeroom with fireworks caught fire, I saw horror in his face. He had watched his mother burning and when he tried to escape with his sister, she fell down and was trampled by an elephant that had lost its control. It was tragic to see him sob, driven by guilt.
“My mother didn’t want to go. I insisted…” he wept.
Dr.Ahmed, continued with the treatment, but I was now hopeful, for now I knew his emotional state. He had snapped out of his disoriented state. He was heavily burdened with guilt, but he had also taken the first step to come out of it, by sharing it. I knew it would take time, and as Mr.Varma reminded me, I had to be patient. But eventually, I would mould him into a sapphire. A sapphire, so deep a blue, that it will outshine every other every other gemstone of myriad colours.
By Lakshmi A.
Image Courtesy : Google.