Do you also hate dead ends as much as I do?
What is it about them that you hate? Is it that blank, insipid look of the wall at the end? The dreary cracks in the plaster? The old, worn-out red bricks visible at the surface? Tell me, because I hate dead ends too. And who knows, we might hate them for the same reasons.
Is it because of the eerie desolation that greets you there? The silence, the strange, unfamiliar loneliness?
For there is nobody there to greet you. Nobody to offer a kind word of encouragement. Or a heartwarming pat of empathy.
Only the dead, hollow echo of your own footsteps as you approach the end. And the same hollow sound of the feet as you beat a hasty, dispirited retreat.
Where you expected to see a new winding, sunlit path through the farmlands, you reach a cruel barbed wire fence. No, no I wouldn’t recommend crossing over the fence. Not even through that small breach in the middle. There is a saying in colloquial Gujarati, that if you are found crossing over a fence, you are a thief. It doesn’t matter, then, if your pockets are empty or filled with fruits.
Here in the countryside I have developed a fascination for new trails. It isn’t strange. If you were here, you would do the same. Rather than the mundane tar road, you would take the narrow off-road trail up the hill, marked by cow dung. If the cows can get there, so can you. Rather than the busy road through the town, you find the old railway bridge far more enticing. Like this one before us.
Run your hand over these iron girders. Over this thin brown film of rust. I would inhale that sooty smell before dusting off the rust. Feel free to do the same, if you please. It reminds me of the old barn in the farm. It is the smell from childhood.
As a young lad, the old barn would be the second most intriguing place in the world after the chikoo farm. It would house the most interesting of tools. Sometimes while scouring through the articles, you would find your old favourite toy. A dirty fur dog, or an electric top, or that remote controlled miniature police car.
It is like an old grandpa, the barn. It always gives you amazing things to play with. You could sit there in the yellow flickering light from the kerosene lamp, not knowing whether it is day or night outside. Look through old toys, until the kerosene runs out and it becomes pitch dark. That barn always smelt of rust.
It is a beautiful trail, isn’t it? Let us go further, the trail has narrowed, but the feet don’t need much more than six inches, to run, do they?
Look, maybe, if we go up this slope, we find a spellbinding viewpoint. I have learnt one important lesson running in the countryside. Whenever you hit a fork in the route, always take the trail that goes up. The trail that ascends. The best views are all up there.
That is the intoxicating part about taking unknown roads. The exhilaration of the uncertainty awaiting us. At the bend in the road. At the edge of the cliff. Up the ascending trail. All glorious little surprises that make your day. Some that would stay with you for a lifetime.
Like this one time I saw the golden river. It was a hot summer day, and the wind felt warm against my face as I ascended up along the trail. I didn’t know where that place was. All I knew is that I was far, very far away, north-east from home. And then I turned around and saw it.
A long stretch of the river was visible from up above. But it didn’t look the same. The sun sat low over the horizon, and as the sun-rays swept over the landscape, the river was bathed in a glorious gold! It was so awe inspiring, it would catch your eye the moment you threw a look over the vast landscape and seemingly keep you gripped for an eternity. Imagine watching the sparkle of liquid gold flowing before you! It was that!
Keep running, now. Little by little, we climb up. Yes, it is indeed a particularly narrow trail. But wait, why is this trail narrowing up so much. What is happening here? Did we miss a turn somewhere? All I see is dense, thorny bushes up ahead. There seems to be no way further ahead. The trail disappears into the bushes. And look at those massive thorns! You could never go through those shrubs, could you?
Looks like we have hit a dead end!
I see you have your hands on your knees. And your eyes— you keep them low, but they do little to conceal the displeasure. It almost amounts to exasperation, doesn’t it? Or dare I call it fury? But had I known this was a dead end, we would have never ventured here. For I hate dead ends as much as you do.
There. Do you notice that wretched stillness? Not a person in sight. No young shepherd boy. No stray goat. No cows. Not a single compassionate soul to offer consolation.
Well, at least I have you for company this time. Like you have me. Even though it is just a simple journey along the countryside.
But for some, there is nobody to share the desolate roads with, when they hit a dead end on a much bigger journey. The journey of life.
Subir. I invariably think of Subir every time I hit a dead end.
It has been years, but I vividly remember his smiling face. That slightly chubby face, with the dense mass of jet black hair, greased and combed neatly to form a side partition.
And even today, as we stand before these thorny bushes that marks the end of the trail for us, all I remember is his face and his melodious keyboard notes that would linger around the empty corridors in college late in the evening.
Many a times I find myself running with him. On cold, gloomy mornings. And sometimes, on warm, sunny afternoons. Plodding along the old country trails. Carrying a burden of regret that comes when I think of him. And the thorns of remorse that sting when I hit a dead end. Yes, I run with him sometimes. I don’t know if he runs with me, though. Because he is no longer a part of this living world.
I still remember the last time I saw him. It was in the men’s washroom back in college.
It was a rather sultry evening. There was an air of perturbation around the place. The kind associated with semester end tests. You could see it in the empty corridors and the barren canteen hall. You could sense it in the gleaming eyes of the photocopy guy making good business just outside the college gate.
Now when I think back, it was a strange journey for all of us in the same boat. Not really knowing where we were headed. Going where the current took us. Not quite looking forward to the destination, but enjoying the journey with friends. That was everything college was about. Friends. They made dead ends feel much less hurtful.
But take away the friends, and all you see are the dreadfully dark and lonely corridors. And doleful men’s washrooms.
“Hey Shroff!” he had greeted me.
Every single time since then that I think of him, I wish he hadn’t greeted me that day. Because it reminds me of what could have been. And of the brutal reality that is. And it makes me think of him every time those thorny bushes prick my conscience.
For that was the day Subir reached his own dead end. And it was the last day of his life.
So, late that afternoon, he said hey to me. But I simply walked away without responding. I wonder why. Maybe, because I always saw him as a loner. Maybe because I was worried about the exams myself.
It turned out, that day he never reached home. Evening turned to night, and nobody knew where he was. His parents frantically called up the few “friends” he had. No response. They called up the college. No response. Nobody had any clue of his whereabouts. And late that night, while the rest of the city either slept or studied, he jumped before an oncoming train, and ended his misery for ever.
It felt like I was suddenly transported to a cruel dream-like state the moment I heard of the news the next morning. At once I thought of the previous evening. Could I have talked him out of taking the drastic step? Could I have been that one word of encouragement that I myself would long to hear when I find myself stuck at a dead end?
I didn’t go to his funeral. I couldn’t. What good would it have been, anyway? I just wept that day. All by myself, locked up in my room, I wept until my eyes ran out of tears to weep, and my heart ran out of emotions to express.
I ached to see him once. One last time. Just talk to him over the phone, if that were permitted. Maybe tell him how much I liked his music. Or if nothing else, just convey a ‘hey’ back.
But no. What was gone, was gone. He would never return. And I would never hear the musical melodies in some lonely corridor in college ever again.
And now, with every passing day, the memory of those keyboard notes recede a little bit further away. Like old impressions being fast covered up with a layer of dust.
And sometimes when I run, to my surprise, I find myself fighting hard to reclaim those faint memories. Clawing away desperately at the sand burying up the reminiscences, to recollect what the notes used to sound like. But they all seem vague, distant and unclear.
All but that ‘Hey, Shroff!’.
It continues to show up every single time I find myself before a dead end. And that is the reason I am telling you this story today.
Today as we stand facing these thorny bushes that mark the end of our trail, all I hope is that when the time comes, you would go out of your way to offer one word of kindness to somebody facing a thorny end in their own journey of life. That you would reply with a ‘hey’ when you see someone defeated at a dead end.
For who knows, someday you might find your own self facing that insipid wall, the barbed wire fence, the thorny bushes there is no way around. All alone. And God forbid, if you happen to hit a dead end in your journey, I pray that you find one kind voice in the stillness to lift you up and help you follow the road once again.
I see the sun has begun to set, and we must make our way back. The hot yellow sun is now merely an orange ball cooling down. And the pink clouds have given way to a wonderful sunset. Tell me, don’t you think we would have missed this view if we hadn’t hit the dead end?
Tell them. Tell the disheartened souls, the broken warriors, to turn around and enjoy the sunset as they retrace their paths.
Now, as we make our way past the old railway bridge, I must pause for a moment to smell the rust from the railings once again. Ah, the smell of the old barn. The smell of my childhood.
Tell them, will you? The tired warriors who are ready to give up. Tell them like me today, who knows, they might get a pleasant whiff of their childhood along the way.
As we run down towards the base of the hillock, past the tiny huts that breathe smoke and smell of cooked rice, our journey for today comes to an end.
But something tells me, someday those warriors would rise to the occasion and in turn help another wounded soldier rise to his feet at a dead end in some strange, lonely, thorny part of the world.
And just like that, someday the world will have more bridges, than walls. Wide open gates, rather than fences. And glorious sunny trails, in place of thorny dead ends.
And that day Subir would look down over us with a silent tear of happiness shimmering in his eyes. He would sweep away the fringe of hair off his forehead. Then he would smile and play the most melodious notes on his electric keyboard.
[PS. This is a true story of a dear colleague from college, whose name has been changed to protect identity.]
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