Three Stories. One Epilogue.

 

What if the dog bites me?”

Asked my then seven-year-old niece to her dad.

It wasn’t the first time that I had heard her offer this reason for not going anywhere near our pet dog. But I had no inkling that this time it was going to end differently and offer me a valuable lesson in life that I’d fail to learn then.

Like always, on that day too, my brother’s standard explanation to his daughter was: “It won’t. It doesn’t bite anyone. It never has.”

Her standard retort too came: “But what if it loses its mind and suddenly bites me?”

But this time her dad’s standard two-hour sermon that starts with logic and moves on to rage, and ends in plea, was missing. Instead, he smiled, put his hand around her and settled in front of her, looking into her eyes.

When dads do something this reassuring, you can be sure a well-rehearsed, clincher of an argument is coming up.

It did.

“In that case, why fear only the dog? What if I suddenly lost my mind and hit you? What if this house suddenly crumbled on us? What if your uncle suddenly turned into a Chimp?”

I found that stupid, especially the last part.

But, sometimes good recipients can make even poor logic seem effective.

My niece changed overnight. I saw her make friends with the dog the next day.

At the end of that vacation, she wept inconsolably when she left our home, the dog and the Chimp. Most for the dog, I assumed.

That story of her transformation was shorter than a tweet and more instant than noodles.

But let not its insignificant size and absence of mythical characters make it any less an epic than, say, the Bhagavad Gita, because if all things in this world could change that fast and as absolutely, we’d be living in an ideal world within an hour- something the epics have failed to do even after thousands of years.

Her story sums up one of life’s biggest lessons for me. That I failed to learn it then and took many more years and even a death to understand it, is entirely my failing, not the story’s.

* * *

“What if my dad dies one day?”

Not exams, teachers or bullies, not ghosts, demons or monsters, not dogs, chimps or tigers, you know what I was most afraid of as a child?

The possibility that my father could die one day.

Every time he fell ill, I would fear he would never recover. Every time he travelled, I would have nightmares about accidents.

What if he never returned home from work today? I have sat there worrying many days.

In all my growing-up years, I would easily have imagined more than a million such horrific scenarios. Influenced by the Hindi and Tamil films of those times, I would imagine us, as orphaned mother and sons, roaming the streets, me as a burdened first son singing on trains to make a living, and my brother, wailing and tagging along with a leaky nose.

I tried almost everything to break free from this predicament, unsuccessfully. The origin of all my life’s superstitions, beliefs, rituals and prayers, directly or indirectly can be traced to this one fear.

As a kid I’ve written numerous petitions to God, sometimes making impractical promises in return for my dad. One of them when I was probably ten, was to give up chocolates for good. Another was never to look at girls ever again. Those fierce vows must have lasted for all of two days at most, I think.

For long, I believed that it was our financial dependency that made me fear losing him. But I was wrong, because even after I matured into an adult, left home and raised a family of my own, the fear refused to go away. The What Ifs only got worse.

There are times when it bordered on paranoia. Every phone call from home was like an alarm. His every cough, cold and sneeze, I feared would be a symptom of something more terrible.

As an adult, the only progress I made was moving from a childish Please God, don’t ever snatch him away from us to a more realistic Please God, don’t do it this year, please, please!

Finally, when I was 51 and he was 78, an innocuous cough was diagnosed as an irreversible lung dysfunction.

Just as I had feared. But nearly five decades late.

I expected the world to shatter around me. It didn’t.

I thought I would blame myself for breaking sacred vows and eating chocolates or looking at girls. No, I didn’t.

In fact, there was a huge sense of catharsis. Fear, worry, anger, doubts, envy, greed, ego, everything left me, all at once. And I discovered a self, unknown to me until then.

For the next eight months, before he finally succumbed on the 7th of April this year, I shared with him some of our best moments together.

We chatted almost daily about work, life, human nature. We openly criticised and appreciated each other like we hadn’t earlier. We pointed out to each other our wrongs, which if corrected could make us better human beings.

By the time he died, I was filled with a sense of completion and wholeness about our relationship.

I found myself telling a mourner, “I am happy he died. It was the right time for him to go. No regrets.”

On one of those days that followed his cremation, I recollected my niece’s What if the dog bites story.

I appreciated and enjoyed the essence of that incident better, though the Chimp bit still hurt.

* * *

What if the world ends on 12.12.12?”

Two days ago when I heard someone say that, I laughed aloud.

I have seen quite a few doomsdays in my lifetime.

People sell properties dirt cheap, quit lucrative jobs, marry an available option and sweat it out to make babies before the world ends.

It’s very reassuring to know that there are millions who are more stupid than I am.

“No, it won’t!” I told my friend, displaying a newly developed disrespect to life’s What Ifs.

“It will,” he insisted, and went on to quote an ancient civilisation, a scientific paper, numerological derivations and astronomical observations.

Surprising how so much of knowledge and information can make a man look stupid.

“Are you willing to bet on this?” I asked, drooling over the gullible, like a cheetah would at the sight of a lame deer. Like a chimp eyeing a banana bunch.

He fell.

So on 13.12.12 if I wake up, I’d have won, and would be richer by a cool 10k.

If I don’t wake up, neither would he. Nor would the world. And his What If wouldn’t have mattered.

It’s a win-won’t-lose deal.

* * *

The Epilogue

Horror is when you don’t know what.

Thriller is when you don’t know when.

Mystery is when you don’t know how.

Suspense is when you don’t know who.

And future is when we don’t know any of those.

That’s why there’s nothing more unknown or feared in this world than the future.

It’s the biggest bestselling fiction that the world writes, day in and day out. Everyone contributes, often building on others’ imagination, making it larger and scarier. It’s got to be the world’s greatest co-creation effort.

Everyone is at their creative best. And no one’s burdened with the need to be logical or having to substantiate their worries, as fears demand no reason.

The human mind has this destructive capability of seeing many things in nothing, to see harm in the harmless.

So a simple goodbye on long-distance trains begins to seem like the last. People run with the train for a last wave to their loved ones, for a last touch of hands.

Clothes on hangers become limbless ghosts dangling inside closets. Handshowers behind shower curtains become psychopaths waiting with daggers. Old stuff under beds turn into monsters crouching to pounce. Meteors become UFOs, geographical phenomenons become alien attacks and unique dates become doomsdays.

No wonder humans spend 90% of their waking hours, often sleeping ones too, worrying about things that aren’t true and never happen.

A friend summed it up for me, rather nicely.

“We are like the dads and moms driving for a family picnic. We live our lives worrying about What Ifs. What if it rains? What if there’s a road block? What if we have a flat tyre? Instead, we should become like their kids at the backseat- playing, nibbling, fighting, looking at the scenery outside, putting their heads out to feel the wind on their hair. Enjoying the moment.”

What if he’s right?

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Very strong; insightful!

    Reply

  2. Similar fears articulated brilliantly, there were times i’d wake up in the middle of the night only to walk into my dad’s room to see some movement coming from his end to reassure myself he’s still there, Lost him 8 years ago but I’m happy too…. we shared, we bonded, we lived….despite the fears.

    Reply

  3. I love the Middle Seat in the airplane approach to life. Will try to put it in practice.

    Reply

  4. This is beautifully written! Thank you for writing it! I also liked the form and even the title, “three stories and one epilogue”!

    Reply

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