Raav was tired of men and women. He was weary of his own family; he was disturbed by human presence. Each morning he was troubled that he was supposed to wish others ‘good morning’, be polite to friends and strangers, answer phone calls, smile at everyone at the workplace and worst of all, endure the bear hugs offered by his friends! Islands appeared in his dreams constantly. Raav remembered how at a very young age he was fascinated with stories of ship -wrecks and people surviving on lone islands. Yes, Crusoe was his favourite. So, one night he walked to the nearby railway station and boarded the next train. No ticket. No destination. He slept on the floor, until the TT hauled him off at Keerumala. That was the beginning of his second life, twelve years ago.
He always believed that the only slices which he would be offered from the big loaf of life was that of the past and the present. Raav did not believe in future. He was living an everyday life. The past was a cauldron of human voices, the present the silence of the forest. But tonight Life has offered him a third piece— a baby. Not of him. But yes, from today on, his responsibility, a future, if he chooses.
He held in his arms a bundle of flesh and bones, kicking and screaming, complaining of the adult ingratitude towards this divine share of innocence. If the setting had been different, Raav should have felt happy. Like any new father, he would have celebrated the coming of this precious being into the world by distributing laddoos or sweets. But how can a forty-five-year-old man, who had isolated himself from the community of humankind more than a decade ago, living in a hut-like settlement which was draped in the deep forests, feel immense delight when he finds a new born who is wrapped in torn clothes, at his door at 2.20 AM? He wondered who would have left it there. Whoever it was, should have been quite brave enough to walk this length of the dark foliage, listening to the trumpet of the wild elephants on roam. Well, he sighed, you are the bravest when you have nothing left to lose!
He was feeling so cowardly. He was trembling a bit holding the baby in his arms. He had never held one before, never intended to. The past twelve years had made him almost a hermit. Those who knew him a decade ago would not be able to recognize the person he had turned himself into, inside and outside. His hair reached just below his shoulders and the long beard tickled him now and then when he took off his shirt. He had a lean and agile body.
Eleven years ago, he had a visitor. Visitors came rarely as he lived in a forest. He preferred solitude as the greatest company. A man with a long, unshaven beard and sparsely clothed knocked at his door one afternoon. He said that he had been walking for eight hours now and wished to rest for a while. Before Raav’s lips could drop an answer, the visitor had stepped in and curled himself on the floor. After an hour or so, he got up to leave. Our protagonist was not a fool. He had been observing the visitor all the while, and decided that his physical strength resided in the mastery of his self and body. So before the wanderer could step out, Raav had fallen at his feet. The man who had asked a little space for an hour’s rest was cajoled enough by the once upon a time HR manager to stay for over a month. By the time the he had left, our protagonist had become a new creation. Raav got a routine. He had made decisions. And he decided to live and let live. He devoured books upon books on solitude and contemplation. He bought them from the book stores during his very few visits to the town. The people at the market respected him because they considered him as some kind of a yogi from the mountains. He spoke very less, just the bare details necessary for buying and selling in the market. He had a good yield of edible vegetables from his backyard which he exchanged for money, in order to buy books and other essential items. But he spoke to himself all the time, muttering under his breath, like an old man. He let emotions flow all over him, still kept the doors firmly shut. But tonight was different. He wished there was somebody around to tell him how to pacify an infant who was growing hoarse from crying.
Raav gently laid it down on his mat and lit up the hearth so that it would be warm for the infant. Not knowing what else to do, he began to hum a song. After a few minutes, he gauged the warmth of the water in the pot. Must be enough for the tiny limbs, he mused. Raav dipped a clean piece of cloth he had saved for himself, and touched the lips of the infant.
Nisha, he whispered, lips close to the baby’s ear…. The only name he wished not to forget…
“Ha! Do you think I am ignorant of mothering?” Raav laughed and asked Nisha. She threw her arms up in the air, and said, “Tell me, who is a mother?”
Raav slowly stood up. They were sitting under the banyan tree for some time now. That is how they spent their afternoons in the campus. When the other scholars either slept or researched in the library, they conversed under the tree. They talked about everything else in the world, except books. Not because they didn’t like reading. But because they felt that they had many things to read from each other, and hence took a vow not to read anything else but each other for a month.
Nisha and Raav were a rare combination. Raav loved coffee and Nisha liked tea. Raav liked pop music, Nisha’s auditory sense was oriented towards classical tunes. Raav was outspoken, Nisha lived in a cocoon of her choice. Strange enough, yet by the rules of life, they met and loved each other. One day Raav told Vishal as they were washing their lungis in the hostel bathroom, “Nisha is different. She has something in her!” Vishal laughed. “Different? You said the same about Meera and Susan and Sampath…” Raav kept silent. He can’t blame him. Yes, each girl coloured her own female shades in him. Raav never stayed long enough to let them paint a complete picture. As an artist by passion, he never completed any of his sketches too. Life was always an incomplete venture for him. If at all he had felt that there was a need of fulfilment or wholeness or whatever people name it, it was only when Nisha was around. As days passed, it surprised him that it was Nisha painting on the canvas of their relationship, and he was at times the spectator, and many times a model. His ego was rocked gently to sleep by each of her strokes, and he silently watched himself grow branches to reach out to her, and never let go!
The infant seemed to have been pacified a bit. He gently rocked it in his arms. The wind blew its trumpet louder than a wild bull on the roam. More than a decade, he thought. The smell of the human flesh close to his heart made him want to weep. Silently he remembered what he told Nisha that evening. “Mother is a story, oft-repeated and many times cliched. Mother is a body, with a mind. Independent. Mother is strength and weakness; there is a mother in you, in me, in each of the creation. I think it is when you run away from your mother that finally you become a mother…” He had turned around to see her weeping…
As he sat listening to the baby’s breath he was reminded of that night when he walked a long-winding mud path, his blind sister’s arm in his. “Be careful,” his mother’s voice led, accompanied by the silence of the man who walked before them. He could feel his heart in his throat. Where was this stranger taking them? What if the night turned the deadliest of all, and the next day he would repent each step which he took now? They had waited at the bus stand for almost two hours in vain. The mother and the two children were exhausted, after a whole day spent at the hospital running various tests and check-ups to find if there was any way to revive the little girl’s sight. It was almost 11 PM at night, when this dark, well-built man appeared from nowhere, and asked them if they needed lodging for a night. Raav wondered how his mother could say yes to a stranger. Later whenever this topic was brought up, she would say,” I was widowed at the age of thirty-two. I had to bring up four children. If all strangers were my enemies, none of you would have survived.” The next morning, as they walked back the same path, he saw the giant trees on either side of the mud path swaying lightly to the breeze as if bidding them a pleasant farewell. At the age of seventeen, he realised that the darkness and anxiety of a night can also blanket a pleasant morning. How well the garb of a stranger suited the divine who controlled the comings and goings of each of us, he mused. The stranger who accompanied them still remains unknown. He did not say much, other than provide them some space in his small house for one night. The man slept on a cot outside that night. They did not even ask him his name. For many years whenever he passed Thennamla, he used to crane his neck and look around for the dark man to reappear. But Life has this peculiar way of hiding the best and revealing it only when its presence is indispensable. And that man remained, “that stranger at night” in all their family conversations, whenever one of them brought it up.
The baby smiled in its slumber. Suddenly Raav felt a shudder run down his spine. The baby’s smile resembled that which he had seen on many faces in the past- his mother’s when she walked behind the stranger that night, his sister’s when she felt a mango in her hand for the first time in her life, Nisha’s last smile which stayed even as they lowered her coffin to the pit in the cemetery… Raav cried silently, then gently laid the little angel on the mat and wailed as if he had never cried before. The baby too started whimpering. He felt himself as a new-born crying over the womb that was lost, anxious of what was to come in future. He who had given up on the future, yearned for the pains and pleasures of all that had left him, and the unknown tomorrow. After a few minutes he woke up to the complaints of the baby. Gently wiping the tiny lipswith the wet piece of cloth, he said, “Nisha…let us leave for the town”.