What is longest in the world? Is it the Great Wall of China or the course of River Nile? Neither! It is the daytime of an unemployed person. Worse is a day in the life of an unemployed who is already married. It moves like a snail!
Are you observing the squirrel which is playing on your neighbour’s coconut palm, lying down on the floor with a pillow to support your elbow, which is supporting your chin, after seeing off your wife for work, keeping the doors open, your mind filled with thoughts and your heart heavy with some deeply buried sorrows, which can be shared with none? Then you are surely an unemployed staying at home during the day! I am one such person!
You will never dare look at the mirror on the wall. Is there any other object that pricks you as much as a mirror in your house? By chance if you happen to look at your image in a mirror, it will clearly show the black rings of sorrow around your eyes. You cannot look at your reflection for more than a minute. Something is missing from your face. When children identify that as laughter, you refuse to accept. You try to compel a smile on your face in front of the mirror. Is a compelled smile so ugly?
A married unemployed person gets fed and treated with laundered clothes. There are enough coins to meet his demand for cigarettes. He gets new clothes for his birthday. He also gets a kiss in the night. Children hug him and play with him. Despite all this, the pain of unemployment lies wound like a centipede inside his heart. The most painful fact is that everybody loves him!
Just as one keeps listening only to the sounds of the road, lying on his bed, when he is ill, I kept listening to the sounds of the road, without going out of my house, when I was unemployed. During a day at home, strange sounds pass by. The voice of the vendor of greens sounds like green leaves waving in the breeze. The footsteps of a courier delivery boy sounds hurried. The two children of the dhobi knock at my door, calling me out in their squeaky voice.
One day I heard someone calling me out and I went out. A mother was standing with her two children. She looked like a North Indian. She held out a laminated sheet of paper to me. ‘We have lost everything in the Gujarat earthquake. Please help us’ said the sheet in Hindi and English. One of her children was drawing lines on the road, with a stick.
When I offered her money, she refused to accept it and said, “kapda, kapda”, pointing at her children. I could not communicate to her that I had no suitable old clothes for those children in my house. She kept staring at the picture of Lord Krishna that hung on my wall. I had brought that picture in which Krishna was playing on a swing, from Mathura. Krishna was swinging from a tree below the blue sky. A herd of cows were grazing at a distance. The small patch of orange evening sky was attractive.
She showed the picture to her daughter, who was playing on the road. They were looking at the picture with awe. She asked her children to bow to Lord Krishna. Both of them obeyed her. The women’s face behind the veil had the scar of some unshared misery.
I asked her, “Do you want some food?” She again refused and said, “kapda, kapda”. I brought out an old pink sari printed with flowers and offered it to her. She accepted it with hesitation and again looked at Krishna. The children said something to her and she wiped her tears.
I pointed at the picture on the wall and asked her whether she would want to take that. She quickly refused with a nod and adjusted her veil. The girl, however, held out her hand. Immediately, the mother glared at her and the girl bent down her head. I removed the picture from the wall and gave it to the girl saying, “that’s okay. Take this.” She took it gently, as though she was carrying an infant.
The woman thanked me and said that they had a similar picture in their house. She said the earth had swallowed the picture along with a cow and her husband. The girls were caressing the picture with joy like they had unearthed the God buried deep in the soil! I kept watching the three of them carrying the picture and walking away with pleasure.
A cockroach with a long whisker, stuck dead on the wall on the spot where the picture hung all this time. Having lost everything in the earthquake and wandering around the streets of an unknown city for food and clothing, on which wall are they going to hang this picture?
Why do they so intensely love a God, who had not come to their assistance when the earth swallowed their loved ones, their wealth and their whole town? Why are her eyes getting wet on seeing this picture? One needs strength only to love life. It is not during pleasure, but during pain that one experiences life’s real taste
Seeing that woman, who had not lost her optimism despite losing her house in the earthquake, the pain of unemployment that filled my heart slowly started vanishing like smoke in the air. How long has a hill stood firm and rigid on the same spot? Why not I enjoy solitude like that hill? As I kept thinking, my hatred towards life started disappearing. My heart became clear like a polished glass of a lantern.
As I started understanding my house, I felt my two hands were not sufficient to hug it. Maybe, only because of that we need the hands of a wife and children!
Once I had started understanding the house, I felt daytime was escaping my clutches like mercury moving around attractively.
A new job dawned on me, who lay still like a lizard on the wall. I join the busy crowd that leaves home early in the morning.
The bus passes by Saidapet Road and I spot that pink printed sari on the footpath. I look out of the window.
The picture that I gave hangs from a tree. Four or five men and women have started living under that tree. The stove is burning and a small radio is playing Hindi songs.
I thank the woman, who taught me a great lesson that instead of brooding over the things lost, life is about creating things that we want. Look there! A house is being created under the tree, with no walls! My heart feels light and happy!
Translated by Sudha Narasimachar From the book Thunai Ezhuthu.