TIME IS THE CRUELEST OF ALL THINGS
It was an early August afternoon and it was raining, when I rode a train.
‘Nothing special about riding a train in August!’. That is what you all must be thinking.
But the afternoon was epic because I was young and was sitting on the front grill of the locomotive, my legs dangling a few feet over the gleaming steel track. The rain drops pelting my face, were cold but the chill was balanced by the warm glow of the locomotive’s heat, spreading across my back. You have to be a lover of both the trains and rains to guess the height of my ecstasy. It was a dream which came true.
#english #story #fiction #philosophy #time #cruel #life #love #memories #fate
The world that the train was passing through, was magical.
A thick sheet of falling rain, drenched God’s earth and everything on it. There was harsh poverty surrounding me, but it was all hidden behind the steamy curtain of rain.
I looked up – the sky was a great grey pavilion, where the dark shadows of mythical gods, fought each other with spears made of lightening. I imagined the gods looking down from the dark billowing rolls and seeing a giant earthworm, riding a pair of shiny steel tracks.
A long hoot by the engine driver vibrated in my bones and disturbed my reverie. I looked around.
Trees looked tall and graceful, dancing in the wind; and their long branches filled with glistening olive-green leaves, were swinging and playing invisible cellos. I imagined being a dervish and felt the moisture-laden wind spinning me around. I moved my hands and could hear myself playing long-forgotten symphonies.
I saw naked children playing in the brown dirty rain water, waving madly at me with a barely hidden envy. Their faces lighted up with shiny and surprised smiles, when I waved back. I imagined being one of them; and felt the pure pleasure of my worries being washed away by the rain.
Even the overly-clad women gave me a smile, secure in the most temporary nature of our chance encounter. I peeked inside their delicate hearts and found them brimming with love and security and a bit of fickleness.
The train passed by small lonely platforms. The old station masters holding their green flags possessively, peeked at me from under their sodden umbrellas with an open-mouthed disbelief.
‘Keep on looking my friends. I am unstoppable’. I laughed at their helplessness and disbelief.
The smell of smoke from the wet and smoldering cooking fires; the stink of the open and overflowing drains; the seduction of the dark wet soil; and the songs sung by the dark green trees. I was a king and the land all around me, was my humble and most beloved kingdom, for a short period of time. I was a fascinated traveler wandering head long at more than seventy kilometers per hour, into a land of wonder, unfolding its many secrets with each jolt of the turning steel wheels.
The train gradually slowed down and finally crawled to a stop at a small station. It was a train-cross and the wait for the express train coming from the opposite side, was expected to be quite long.
It had grown almost dark when I jumped down onto the crumbling concrete platform. The rain had stopped and the tired engine was throbbing, but the romance was still vibrating in the moist breeze.
I looked around and found that I was not alone. There was a small family sitting on a wooden bench, under an old fig tree. The family comprised of a husband, wife and their three young children. The couple was quiet, enjoying their solitude, but the children were playing. Their care-free laughter and cries created a strange contrast to the somber silence of their parents.
Suddenly, a small crowd appeared onto the platform. It was a wedding procession from some local village. They were all probably going back to the groom’s hometown, as was obvious from the presence of the shy and red-clad bride.
I watched them with interest, while the procession hastily occupied the few left over benches. They were all tired of the day’s festivities and were irritated by their sodden clothes. The bride sat sandwiched between the groom’s relatives, looking uncomfortable in her heavy attire. The women though as tired as the men, were teasing the girl. Her discomfort was obvious from the way she was constantly fidgeting with her clothes.
‘Poor girl!’ I thought to myself. ‘She cannot even ask her companions for a visit to the toilet.’
In the distance, I could see a waving light floating towards me. Gradually, the waving light became an old lantern, swinging from the gnarled hands of an old man. He was dressed in tattered and soiled clothes and when he approached me, the smell of his long unwashed body nauseated me.
His eyes were hidden behind thick grey and bushy eyebrows. But when the light from the lantern touched his eyes, I could see that they were filled with an ancient weariness.
Despite his shabby appearance, I greeted him, but his disinterested and growling response dampened my spirits a little.
‘Who are you?’ he eyed me with suspicion.
‘I am a traveler!’ I blurted out.
‘A traveler?’ He examined me from head to toe. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Well….just observing life and enjoying the weather’. I was growing a bit uncomfortable and confused, unaccustomed to such strange inquiries.
Suddenly he laughed a deep cracking laughter, which ended in a phlegm-filled cough.
‘So….what have you observed so far?’ he questioned me sarcastically.
‘Colors, romance and mystery’. Undeterred by his sarcasm, I maintained my optimism. ‘Colors of the green fields and muddy earth; romance behind the smiles of beautiful women; and mystery in the emotions I can appreciate, but still cannot understand’. I carried on.
‘Did you also hear something?’ The old man queried me once more, but this time without any barbed sarcasm.
‘Yes!’ I nodded my head. ‘I heard the deep rumbling of the weeping clouds; I heard the laughter of the playing children; and I heard the wind singing a thousand songs.’
The old man sat down, gesturing at me to do the same. I looked down suspiciously at the wet platform and the muddy water still running through its numerous cracks. Anyway I sat down, while feeling like a damn fool for doing so.
‘So…..how have you found this world so far?’ He gently plucked an ant floating on a very small pool of muddy rain water; cupped it carefully in his dirty hands and while gently blowing on it, released it safely on dry ground.
‘It is beautiful and filled with a thousand colors and a million songs’. I replied after thinking for a moment.
‘Hmm!’ He asked and waved at the thankful ant scurrying along. ‘What else?’
‘It is a world filled with happiness and joy and smiles and laughter’. I made a wide gesture with my hands, waving at both the playing children and the wedding procession.
The old man kept on looking down, his fingers absent mindedly combing his dirty beard.
‘You do not agree with me, old man?’ I felt uncomfortable with his prolonged silence.
‘Do you see this lantern?’ he apparently did not hear my question. ‘Once it was shiny and new. Once its light shined with brightness and its round glass cover, magnified the light manifold’. He continued in a deep thoughtful tone.
‘But now it has gone dirty; the badly scratched glass has lost its transparency; and the light shines brightly no more.’ His dirty fingers gently caressed the grimy surface of the lantern’s glass.
‘Yes, it is old. You should buy a new one.’ I was getting bored of his self-dialogue.
‘Oh! But it is not old.’ He looked up at me. ‘Rather, it has been kissed deeply by time. Time kisses everything and like a leech which feeds onto blood, time feeds onto light, brightness and happiness.’
‘I believe it is a matter of perspective.’ I insisted.
‘Perspectives are individual in nature. You develop perspectives once you see through the colored goggles of time. The color deprives you of your ability to see the true nature of time. Perspective is time’s weapon and its tool, which it uses to disguise its true self.’ His last few words were lost again in a deep rumbling cough.
Spitting a dark green glob of phlegm aside, the old man waved a hand at the red clad bride.
‘Do you see the bride?’ He did not wait for my answer. ‘From your perspective, she is life; from the perspective of her groom, she is lust and a commodity; and from her own perspective, she is hope and desire. One day, time will pass and all these perspectives will vanish into thin air. Then you will see what she really is: a pawn, an object and a slave.’
Sensing my growing discomfort, the old man softened his tone. ‘Life is not happiness and romance my son. It is sad and tragic. Time makes it so. Happiness is temporary and sadness is eternal. Happiness is ignorance and sadness is maturity and understanding.’
‘Then I hate time.’ I blurted out.
‘No, do not hate it because it also brings along empathy and acceptance.’ The old man consoled me. ‘And these two gifts make you a human being. One day you will shed off the colored goggles of perspective and see life in its true manifestation.’
A sudden blaring of the engine horn, brought me back to reality. I got up and saw the guard waving the green light. I looked around. The romance had gone and so had the old man. I cursed my dark imagination and mounted the train, thinking I would never see the old man again.
I was wrong. I saw the old man again many years after that train journey. He lives with me now. Rather, it would be appropriate to say that he lives inside of me now. I hear him laugh all the time at the cruelty of time and the fickleness of life. And I see him each time I look in the mirror.