‘Baba!’ my ten years old son pulls my hand, ‘was it very difficult?’
‘What was very difficult, my dear?’ I smile into his curious dark eyes.
‘Was it very difficult becoming your own father?’
Instead of answering him, I look afar. I look towards the place where time and space cease to have a meaning – the place where all is obscured under a slowly falling golden dust. This is from where a few memories smile back at you, while the others are wrapped in the grey shrouds of sadness. It is a magical place – a place where dead butterflies rest forever in the glass jar of nostalgia, but their colours remain immortal.
I shake the glass jar of nostalgia and pick a dead blue butterfly. I look closely at its shimmering sea-blue wings and see a five years old boy holding a small bicycle. He has a head full of dark unruly hair and eyes full of dark sadness. Usually his eyes shine with curiosity and mischief. The sadness creeps in only when he is alone. And when sadness dances a waltz in his eyes, he appears old beyond his years – very old; a child with the soul of an old man. He will always have the soul of an old man but he doesn’t know that yet.
I look at the child and find him keenly watching something. I follow his eyes. There is a girl of his age learning to ride a red shiny bicycle like his. Her father is firmly holding the bicycle, letting it go once he is sure his daughter would be safe.
‘Come on darling! You gotta learn to maintain your balance.’ The father ruffles the child’s hair.
‘I am trying.’ The girl looks up pleadingly. ‘Just promise you won’t let go.’
‘I won’t let go my dearest,’ the man promises and the girl smiles a bright smile of trust.
The boy watches all. He watches all with the pools of sadness growing big in his dark eyes. He shakes his head, firmly holds the handles of his bicycle and pumps the paddles. The bicycle goes straight but then he loses balance and falls down. The boy gets up with tears in his eyes. His knees are badly scratched.
‘I will never be able to ride.’ He shakes his head and kicks the fallen bicycle angrily.
‘Oh! But you will ride. You will ride fine my dear.’ I whisper silently.
The boy suddenly looks up like he can hear my voice.
‘I will ride?’ he questions silently.
‘Oh yes! You will learn to tolerate the pain. You will learn to get up when you fall. And once you master your fear, you will ride with the best of them.’
‘But I don’t have my father to teach me how to ride.’ The boy has doubts. He will keep on having doubts for times to come but he doesn’t know it yet.
‘No issues, you go on and be your own father and teach yourself.’ I encourage him wordlessly.
‘Can I? Can I really become my own father and teach myself?’ He asks excitedly.
‘Oh yes! You can and you will.’ I give him a reassuring smile.
The boy gets up with a determined smile. He rides again and falls down again. He gets up and rides again. And after a while he is riding with the wind blowing tears out of his eyes. He is riding like he is the Diablo flying through the hell fires.
I put the dead blue butterfly back in the glass jar and take out another – a pink butterfly.
The boy is seven years old. It is a dark December night and all is silent around him. Suddenly he feels something move under the bed. He stops breathing and looks at his sleeping mother. He sits up and watches in paralyzing fright as whatever is under the bed, starts pulling at one corner of the quilt. His heart forgets to beat. He watches on, paralyzed and rendered immovable by fear. Wet warmth is spreading under him but he is unaware of it. His focus is on the corner of the quilt, being slowly pulled under the bed. He tries to scream but no sound leaves his dry throat. He desperately tries to pull back the quilt but the thing underneath the bed is more powerful.
‘God! What would I give to have my father by my side right now.’ The boy silently prays.
I know God will never listen to his prayers. God doesn’t work that way. But I cannot tell him that. The understanding will come at its own time. No need to be cruel to a child.
‘Why don’t you wake up your mother?’ I know the answer but still ask him.
‘She won’t be able to fight what’s under the bed. I need my father.’ The boy insists with tears in his frightened eyes.
‘But you don’t have your father with you right now.’ I plead logic. ‘He is far away and cannot come to your help.’
‘Then what should I do? This thing is very powerful. I cannot fight it alone. I am just a child.’ He whispers to himself.
‘Why don’t you become your own father?’ I suggest kindly.
‘Can I? Can I really become my own father?’ his eyes starts twinkling with hope.
‘Oh yes!’ I assure him silently, ‘you can become anything you want.’
The boy smiles, he gets up from the bed and switches the light on. He takes a deep breath and then carefully peeks under the bed. There is nothing there. Whatever was there has receded in the face of his courage.
I gently caress the wings of the dead pink butterfly and put it back carefully.
The scene changes again and the boy is ten years old. School has ended and he is fighting with a few classmates. He has got a bloody nose. He doesn’t lack spirit but he is one against four.
‘Hey! What’s happening here?’ The father of one of his classmates approaches angrily.
‘You!’ he points his finger accusingly at the boy, ‘what is your name? I will complain to the Principal against you. You should be ashamed of yourself.’
The boy doesn’t answer him. He just stands there silently. When he does not respond, the man angrily grabs the hand of his son and walks away. The boy silently watches them leave – the son’s small hand secure in the father’s grip. The boy watches them leave and two tears slip out of his eyes, tracing muddy lines on his cheeks.
‘I will never have a father to hold my hand,’ the boy whispers to himself.
I know he is right. He is never going to have a father to hold his hand. I cannot tell him that but I also cannot be dishonest with him.
‘It is definitely a possibility little one.’ I gently whisper in his ears. ‘You may never have a father to hold your tiny hand.’
‘Then how will I fight the world without a father by my side?’ His question resonates with logic.
‘You can either wait for a father who may never come or……….,’ I deliberately leave my advice hanging in air.
‘Or? Or what?’ The boy looks up with hope.
‘Or you can become your own father and fight the world.’ I can see his future and his path is littered with fights, both big and small.
‘Can I? Can I really become my own father and fight the world?’ He asks, his voice ringing with hope.
‘Oh yes! You can and you will.’ I give him a knowing smile.
The boy smiles and gets up. He washes his face from the drinking fountain. He picks up his school bag and starts walking home. He doesn’t look defeated anymore. He walks the walk of the victorious gladiators – with a swagger.
This dead butterfly is purple and it also goes back into the glass jar of nostalgia.
I intend to close the jar shut but then I see a golden butterfly. I take it out delicately. There are rusty heart-shaped patterns carved into the fragile wings. I gently trace the lines of these patterns and see the boy again. He is all grown up – entering into adulthood. I look into his eyes and the sweet pain of loss tells me he has been in love. He is looking forlornly at a house across the street, all decked in glittering lights. The girl he loves is getting married.
‘I wish my father was here. I could have confided in him.’ The boy thinks.
‘What good it would have done?’ I ask him gently.
‘He could have listened to me. He could have arranged something.’ He whispers in a broken voice.
‘Has it broken your heart?’ As usual, I know the answer.
‘I don’t know what is broken inside me. But it feels awful.’ His voice is clouding with tears.
Yes I know how it feels – the feeling of loss. I know how it hurts – the pain of knowing that what you want will never be so. But this is only the first step on the long path of loss. The boy has to walk far. He has to suffer many more loses. His legacy is the legacy of loss. But I cannot tell him that. I cannot make him see the future.
‘What if your father was here but could do nothing to prevent this heart break?’ I ask again.
‘He could have picked up the pieces and mended my heart.’ The boy looks up.
‘Why don’t you become your own father and pick up the pieces yourself?’ I suggest.
‘Can I? Can I really do that?’ A hint of hope glimmers faintly in his dark eyes.
‘Oh yes! You can do that. You can pick up the pieces. Examine them closely and see what went wrong. You can learn and then move on. Moving on is mending.’ I smile kindly.
The boy looks up with a new resolve burning in his eyes. He turns his back on the house with glittering lights and never looks back.
‘Baba!’ my son pulls my hand again, ‘you haven’t answered me. Was it very difficult becoming your own father?’
I carefully put the golden butterfly back in the jar. I look at all the dead butterflies – the blues, the purples, the pinks and the golds. I tighten the lid on the glass jar of nostalgia and put it back on the shelf of past. I look down at my son and smile:
‘Yes son! It was very difficult. It was very difficult and very painful. But in the end it is the only thing that matters.’