Ramesh balanced himself on the scaffold – a temporary arrangement of sticks and ropes built around the naked and ugly building that he was to paint and transform into a beautiful house. The same building that he and a few others like him had worked on persistently and had erected in over a year. And now, he, along with two more people had stayed back at the same site to paint it while the others had moved on to the next location.
A gaunt man by the physiognomy, and of an age that had since long lost the track of numbers, but if one were to take a guess at his age by the greyness of his hairs, or by his bent back, the ones betting on his being a forty-five or a forty-eight would have been declared the winners and offered the money of all those who would have guessed his age – the correct age – after looking even once in his young eyes. His musculature looked even more precarious than the scaffolding that hosted him. He held a bucket in his right hand and a brush in his left. The sight of him hung in the air like that looked almost effortless, a sight resembling that of a magician lifted above the ground. And he sat there with a degree of perfection that only practice and a considerable number of failures are capable of rendering. The scars on his left hand and the forehead corroborated his share of failures, what he now proudly pronounced, which he rarely did, as experiences. And the shirt on his lean body that once used to be white now bore the shades of yellow and corn silk – he had never heard of the latter shade – they were all yellow to him, some a little more than the other.
‘Have you settled down?’ shouted Kallu from the rooftop. Kallu had been his associate for three months now, someone from his hometown, whose real name was something else, but since he was the darkest of all the people working on the site and since they were all painters, dealing in colours all the time, they started calling him Kallu. Black in Hindi translates to Kaala, and just like Samuel in foreign countries becomes Sam, all the dark-complexioned poor people in India invariably end up becoming Kallu at one point in time in their lives or the other.
Ramesh nodded in confirmation. He now sat on a seat contrived out of layers of rags from old clothes. There was a time when his hips used to resist all that pressure, and when the hairs that grow out of the places where one’s eyes are refused visibility – rendering clearance of the bushes from those areas impossible – the boils used to pop up in all these wrong places forcing him to sleep on his stomach for nights to come, but the wages had to be earned and so he’d resume the work the next day balancing his weight on the good hip and continue painting the house – a house that he knew he’d never get to live in, a house that was being built on the sufferings of so many like him. ‘Building a house is, in a sense, like freeing your nation’ his uncle who got him in this line of work used to say, ‘both demand sacrifices for the good sake of numerous unknown people’. His uncle was once the most read person in their group – a total of 37 people who had come all the way from his village, in search of work, as pilgrims full of hope. But that was all long time back when he didn’t have a multimedia handset and his uncle was alive. Now the uncle was eternally silenced and there were many songs on his phone. And so now whenever the dead man’s words interrupted him in his thoughts he just plugged in the earphones and ignored the voice of the deceased. He just kept painting while listening to the songs, and then when things bothered further he painted even more. But today, on this descend, and after he ascertained it by upending his breast pocket, he had forgotten to carry his earphones in his pocket.
In what might have amounted to a few minutes, he completed a sector on the wall and then heard a call from the top. ‘Come, eat something. Rice is ready.’ But he was not hungry. He was never hungry now, he ate because everyone around him did and it seemed to be the right thing to do. When he was young and when they – he and his uncle – didn’t have any money; he used to get these pangs of hunger, the ones that used to convince him that he’d die if he didn’t eat anything just then but now it was all gone. By experience, he knew that nothing comes easily to a poor, not even death. He had once gone about without eating anything for 48 hours at a stretch, and even then what had brought him back to the food was not hunger, but the sense of his duty, and the fact that he couldn’t have afforded to be ill in a big city he was then working in.
He politely denied the offer of the rice by shaking his head, dipped the brush into the bucket, and resumed painting the wall.
He descended a few more meters and settled again. He was trying to remember something his uncle had told him about his parents – he had no memories of being with them, and worse still, no photographs proving any sort of togetherness. While roaming on the roads he often stumbled across the halves from the photographs that had been torn off, some bearing a girl, smiling, her arm half cut now, an arm that she might have extended across the shoulder of her loved one, some others had clearer demarcation of the personages as if the persons had known that one day they’d need their selves back from the photo, their spaces back from the relationship, and he often thought that why would anyone one do that, when a single photograph could mean so much at a later point in time. But then rich people did many things that often left him beyond words.
And he tried hard to remember, anything that would assure him of his origins, anything that would prove that all the stories his uncle told him about his parents were true.
Amidst this act of remembrance, he felt a pain in his neck – he had been avoiding a doctor for quite some time now, but the pain returned every day – and so he jerked the neck to its left and then to its right, it creaked and produced a sound like a bucket twisted and beat in the winters after its contents have been frozen. As an exercise, he moved his head first to his left and then gradually to his right, and then back to his left. He stayed like that for some time and then turned with a jerk to his right and saw an infant through a partly opened window. The infant was struggling with her first steps, trying to strike a balance atop her wavering feet – the same feet that will later come to her rescue in several precarious situations. Infant’s family – the parents and the grandparents surrounding the child joyously. No one stepping in to help her, as if indifferent, taking for granted that the child would soon learn this art and just like the other children run in the streets. And here he was – 32 by his calculations and 34 by his uncle’s words – hung up on a scaffold surrounded by the risk of blisters and boils and sleepless nights, trying to remember something in particular that his uncle – a man who used to say a lot of things – had said long back. But remembering the right things at times like these now seemed as tough as those first steps of the infant. And in that, no one else can help you.
Amidst all the things his uncle had taught him, he was never taught that one has to, like the other arts, learn the art of remembrance too and practice it time and over again. And now, no wonder how hard he tried, happier times – his childhood – seemed only too distant, making it seem as if he had never been happy. Sadness prevailed. But he tried to sift the memories to find the happier ones, like someone surfing through the tides, craving for a shore, but in the battle between tides and a man, the man often ends up becoming water. He looked at the infant trying again and then again. And finally, the infant managed to strike a balance though it lasted ephemerally. And he clapped – like a coach whose team has just won a tournament – and the paintbrush from his left-hand struck against his right hand, sputtering the paint on his face and his clothes, bringing him back to his senses.
He kept smiling, convinced now of how important it is to remind oneself, every now and then, of the outcomes, and hope for their positivity. Unable to recall the happier times from the past, he believes that everything will turn out to be well in the time to come. This belief made sense. Ain’t this the same belief on which the world runs? ‘What cannot be cured must be endured’, but endured in a way unique to oneself, just like similar ailments are cured differently. He won’t just let the things end the way they are now. And if the things end the way they are, would he be the cognizant being, that men claim themselves to be and base their vanities on, like the heroes in the stories that his uncle used to narrate him during the starry nights. But do these reminders work? What would come out of this whole make belief that seems to suit him best, especially in times like these?
Sometimes, nothing daunts more than a hope.
And so he ascended, halting every now and then to savor the sight of the infant till the viewing angle no longer permitted him to, and having reached the rooftop he sat in the corner of the roof terrace, turned the music on, and ate the rice in silence…
‘What cannot be cured must be endured’ has been taken as it is from Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’.
Picture Credit: The image has been downloaded from google.com