Monday, 2 June 2008

Floating Lamp of Shadow Valley

"If there's paradise on Earth, it is this, it is this."

Kashmir. The closest thing to heaven on Earth. A valley sparkling in serene beauty-- snow capped mountains, moss-covered lakes, trees adorned in brilliant green, boathouses, and a little boy named Arif.

This is the story of a boat-"man". Of Arif. A nine-year old child who has the wondrous eyes to look at his world; who, at this tender age, knows what is duty and what is whim, what is right
and what is wrong. This is the story of Arif. And of a reason why I still want to live.

The sole earning member of a family of six, Arif gets up every morning and goes out with his boat for a day's work. He has to work every day; for if he doesn't, the whole family will have to go without food. With such a firm responsibility placed on his tender shoulders, Arif has accepted his fate with cheerful happiness. That is why the cold winter days cannot subdue his spirit-- he still manages to push his boat through the frozen Dal lake with firm determination. His thin arms have already developed the strength to push the oar through such a difficult terrain, which is no different from Arif's own life. And Arif knows that his arms have to push the oar forward so that he can reach the other bank-- for that is where his dreams lie.

Arif lives in a small shack built on the edge of the water with his mother and four other siblings:
two little brothers, an elder sister and a little one too! His father is a terrorist, who does not take care of the family but wastes his time swaying between gun and dope. Hence, Arif has been left with no other choice. On a good day, he gets about 50 rupees from ferrying passengers to and fro. And he hands all of the money to his mother, who is slowly saving up so that one day they can buy some land of their own and build a house.

When asked about his father, Arif says that he does not care for him. Arif knows that what his father is doing is not right, and he does not mince his words when expressing so. Even at the early age of nine, Arif has already learnt one of the greatest, and yet undeniably important lessons in life-- killing people is unpardonable and wrong. He could easily have chosen the gun to eradicate his misery. He picked up the oar at the age of seven instead. Rightly has Dumbledore said that it is choices that ultimately decide who we are.

The little boy has witnessed the burning face of terror himself-- once when he was in Srinagar, the tourist department was blown up by terrorists before Arif's own eyes. That was the day before the now (in)famous Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus started as a conciliatory gesture between India and Pakistan. The boy expresses how suddenly fear struck him that day-- fear not for his safety-- fear from apprehension and a terrible gut-feeling: what if one of the terrorists involved is his own father!

Arif's shack has got new holes in the tiled roof. So he sets off for the big city once more with his younger brother to buy a new sheet of plastic to stretch on the roof of hishouse. This time, he takes a different route than the previous time. What if terrorists attack again? Well, terrorists may attack anywhere, but then Arif will have to find another route then! At least, that is what the innocent child thinks.

The house is mended. But the Dal Lake belongs to none, and most certainly not Arif and his family. The authorities have notified Arif's mother that if they do not evacuate within a time bracket, the shack will be torn down. Arif has no answer this time. He does not know where he will go if his house is demolished. But he knows one thing-- that there is only one gateway to a bright future: education. And hence, Arif takes himself and his siblings school by himself on his dear old boat (which has gone through a repair already so that it does not fall apart from being worn down by water and weather). The image of a nine-year old child in school uniform rowing four other children in his own boat is heartening-- the boy is already performing a duty that elders do. A young boy shouldering the responsibility of grown-ups is something that is rare in our 'normal' world. Perhaps, only desperate times and situations rear mature men! Oh, how happy would I have been to see people my age become only half as mature and responsible as Arif!

And yet for all his maturity, Arif is a child. A child at heart, not one merely by age. It's raining hard, and Arif has a huge lotus leaf perched on his head to protect him from the downpour. And suddenly he notices a small pup playfully balancing itself in a small "island" of floating debris in the lake. A boy who has no friends because he has suddenly grown up so much has a new companion now. He takes the pup home with him, lovingly caressing it's fur in between bursts of rowing. The children rejoice in the arrival of a new friend back at home. But happiness abandons the family again. The little dog is run over by a car. And it is absolutely heartbreaking to see tears rolling down the cheeks of all the small children as they give their lamp of shortlived mirth a proper Muslim farewell.

It's good bye time for us too. Who knows what happens to Arif? No one. And yet, as a viewer, I am optimistic. Perhaps he is still ferrying passengers. Perhaps his family have finally succeeded in affording a plot of land of their own. But we do know one thing. We know that there is something to learn from this story. A few things from that little child. The school-shooting champions (if you know what I mean!) could learn a bit of right and wrong. The spoilt and pampered brat could learn a bit of responsibility. And, maybe, everyone of us could learn a whole lot of unaffected innocence.


Kaushik said...

Extracted from the torn pages of his diary which our friend Sudipto could have retrieved…..

Flowing astern the life’s jolly boat,
Beads of sweat crowning the pate,
The three r’s learnt by rote,
Cocking a snook at the distant fate

The swelling sinews, gnawing sharp
After an endless wait, dragging the oar,
Steering clear the sheets, in a frothy warp,
Carrying the harvest of the season, ashore.

The azure sky nestles the winged delight
Of the halcyon blue,
Caught in a riotous flight,
Pasted in the mind’s map in a timeless glue.

The sudden rumbling of the craters afield,
Shears the calm of the paradise lost
Embracing his brothers in his protective shield,
Azar thinks ‘bout his father’s forlorn post.

The sloth and the slime of his daily toil
The mundane chores of his childhood sheathed
These are all but petty to foil
the dreams of his future, untrammeled and blithe!

Kaushik said...

My apologies to Sudipto, for the mis-spelt name! It should be Arif but it could have been Azar also and even Aman! What do you say?

Take care.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

With regard to your parting comment, Sudipto, I reflected sadly on the fact that all the parents of those city-bred, idle, rude, snooty, pampered, wasteful brats are quite convinced they have brought up their children very well, and look upon the likes of Arif's family with nothing but contempt! And all our 'development' plans (more IITs, more shopping malls, more cellphone connectivity, more fancy cars and hotels, more IPL-style extravaganzas) are focussed on making more and more brats in the same mould. What does that augur for this country - or indeed the whole world? (the May issue of National Geographic magazine assures me that in China the same brat-pack is swelling even faster!)

Sayan said...

I am usually very optimistic Sudipto, but with some recent turn of events, some of which are directly and immediately relevant to me, I have been feeling very gloomy and pessimistic of late. After reading this post I have started to feel that it is indeed time to say good bye and we are indeed out of time - in all respects.
Sayan Datta

Sudipto Basu said...

Dear Sayan da,

Perhaps it sounds a bit too coincidental, but even I am feeling pretty miserable and somewhat depressed with myself of late too. I guess everyone goes through such phases. Don't know if this snippet helps you in anyway, but I thought I might as well tell you that you have people who are empathising with you by going to the same thing you are experiencing.

By the way, if this depression is anyhow a result of my lack of replies to the comments, I beg pardon. I don't have a regular access to the net here in Kolkata (except in the local cafe: which I visit now and then only!).

@Kaushik da
Thanks for that lovely poem. :)
And anyway, how does it matter what name you use? The person is who he is.

@Suvro Sir
You and me and people like us have asked this question again and again: to others, and perhaps even to ourselves. What more can we do other than guide ourselves righteously and set the proper examples and hope for the best? There's no use in brooding much over the dark face of mankind: it's better to imbibe inspiration from the little pockets of goodness here and there.

And again, my earnest apologies to everyone for the much-delayed replies.