May I Have Your Autograph?

— Rickmoy Samanta

 

Long has paled that sunny sky
Echoes fade and memories die,
Autumn frosts have slain July
In a wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by
Dreaming as the summers die…
Lewis Carroll
(Alice in Wonderland)

It was a beautiful summer evening and I was as usual hurrying down the streets of Southern Avenue to catch the 5:15 train back home. It had been a rather dull Friday at school, with two consecutive classes on history (and our Sir seemed really desperate to finish the Neanderthal age. He had made his best efforts to make us understand how clever and intelligent the Neanderthals were but all in vain). And then there was an equally boring map-pointing session in geography where the rivers used to flow through those dull white pages and mountains were just little triangles here and there. So it was a great sigh of relief when our English teacher called it a day after checking a few home-works and some grammar exercises from the old Wren and Martin. Having packed the schoolbag, emptying my lunch box in front of the school dog, I had hurried off to the railway station to catch the evening train.

Summer’s evening warmth had fallen on the bare skin of the earth. The air was punctuated by the sounds of distant laughter coming from the rail station. I always loved this part of the day – little schoolchildren returning home, discussing in loud voices the most dramatic events that happened at school that day, parents discussing about the future of their children, daily passengers having some evening refreshments from the familiar stalls, a group of young college students playing music and most importantly, another weekend waiting full of promise and excitement.

I made my way through this crowd of passengers until I found my regular evening co-passengers – Mrs Smita Gomes and her daughter – our sweet little Mithu. Smita aunty was laughing for some reason and Mithu was looking very cross. I knew this mood of Mithu when she would not talk for several hours just because somebody in the class have made fun of her. So I asked Mrs Gomes instead, “So what have our Mithu done today in class? Another Jackie Chan adventure?” (This was a very popular story in our neighbourhood – Mithu had threatened a teacher for scolding her in school by claiming that she took regular karate lessons from no less a person than Jackie Chan himself and hence Miss would better leave her alone !!)

“No.” Mrs Gomes had replied… When English Miss had been reading aloud a bible story that day in class and asked the children if they knew somebody as great and powerful as Jesus had been, Mithu had declared proudly that indeed she had seen such a powerful person in her dreams… But that was not all, this person had also asked Mithu for her autograph… and just guess who this person was – Our good old Superman!! The class had broken with laughter…

Mithu was always like this… she lived in a different world altogether, where superheroes pop out of thin air and start giving her private lessons on how to do this – how to do that, who is good and who is evil, who is right and who is wrong and all that…

That was all fine – but Superman asking for an autograph? “Well Mithu, this time it is really a bit too much…” – I said.

Mithu was gazing silently at the wild-flowers that grew by the side of the rail-tracks . She often used to express her surprise on how those cute little flowers manage to survive so close to the rail-tracks, brimming with colours and claiming life into this space full of the noise and torture from the wheels of the trains rushing past, day and night…

I offered her some eclairs that I had bought on my way and told her not to be angry… ( Otherwise it would have been a pretty dull train journey if Mithu’s mood was off…). After a while she hissed “You know Dada, the whole class was laughing at me…” – she turned to her mother, looking like an angry rabbit.

“Mithu, it is OK if you see all these superheroes in your dreams and on TV but they do not come in real life, do they? Have you ever seen anyone like superman flying around in the sky using his sheer will power? – No – right?”

Still Mithu had argued “They are here with us. You do not see them because you are an idiot. Whenever our city is in danger, they will come to save the day..”

I remembered “Justice League” and had smiled… It was pointless to show reason to a child. Over the years children grow, grow and grow – and all their childhood imaginations, their delicate and precious disney land full of Mickey mouses and Donald Ducks, their gardens full of angels and pixies, their haunted houses full of ghosts and mummies, their city full of Batman, Superman, Spidermans – all fade away… all vanish as time goes on…

Reality leaves you reeling
All facts and no feelings,
No faith and all fear,
And our lives blow about like Flags in the land….. [1]

I thought – our little Mithu was no exception… As time will roll by, as the first whispers of summer carried by the warm breezes fade away under the cover of the clouds, as streets soak up each and every last bit of golden summer sunlight, summer’s fire extinguishes itself and makes way for the rains… those moody overcast days when children sit beside the window panes and hear the mighty thunder, the rain soaked streets and puddles mirror their pure and sacred imaginations until the blurred light from the lamp-posts and sound of the taxi-horns secretly kill the stillness and beauty of the charming, rain-soaked landscape…

Then comes the days when the grey clouds of autumn try their best to compete with the approach of winter, Those pile of leaves where little children jump in, the cute scarves and socks, ducking into the cosy places to warm up in the brisk autumn breeze where they still manage to live in the wonderland, despite the winter’s chilly winds approaching fast…

“I am Alice to your wonderland here as I walk your gilded path, skipping now and then in giddy joy as I let this emergence claim me. Was there ivy so shaped that it talked back to me as it moulded itself to tree? If I sat on a bench ,I know it would take me for a ride under leaves that danced downward. Do I see a Cheshire Cat on that bench?” … [2]

Autumn gives way to the silent stillness of winter and all the sweet dreamy summer afternoons, all the sweet thoughts of magic and disney land and the brave superheroes fade into the haze like a sudden cold metal sound killing a familiar melody… the dreams die… the dreams die…

But I was wrong… Mithu was not meant to walk along this usual road where we all walk. Mithu never walked with all of us in this long road… she was too close to her beautiful fairyland and she had chosen to leave the road and play in the bushes by the roadside, hop and skip in the green lawns and roam around with all the Scoobys, Noddys ,Toms and Jerrys… Alas… I never saw her grow up in that beautiful land of imaginations… I had moved along leaving her way behind in the long road… I do hope she is still playing in those roadside bushes with all the beautiful creations of her mind. For all I know today, her sacred little figure rests in mother earth’s cool shade, covered by the autumn leaves in the graveyard of the Sacred Heart Church… While the church bells ring and the sweet prayers reach my ears, I can see Smita aunty looking through the windows of Astaraag [3] , far away where our little Mithu rests in peace…

May my prayer like incense rise before you ,
The lifting of my hands a sacrifice…
To all creations, I can see a limit,
But your commands are boundless and have none…
So your word is my joy and meditation,
From the rising to the setting of the sun…
All your ways are loving and faithful,
Your road is narrow but your burden light,
Because you gladly lean to lead the humble
I shall gladly kneel to leave my pride…
I will seek you in the morning
and I will learn to walk in your ways,
And step by step you will lead me
And I will follow you all of my days… [4]

It was the day before Christmas… Mrs Gomes being a doctor,was often too busy treating patients in the hospital. On these days she used to call me up to pick Mithu from school and together we used to come home, merrily chatting about how superhero X was going to fight with super-villain Y in the upcoming episodes on TV.

I was just about to buy tickets in the railway counter when Mithu came and said in a slow voice “Can we go by the next train?” I was shocked- next train meant Mithu was going to sacrifice the evening cartoon episodes to which she looked forward the whole day…
I said “What is the matter with you? – do you want to buy those spiderman posters? Your mom wont be happy Mithu, if she knew that I buy you these things while coming back from school…”

“ No Dada… actually it is those little children who live below this rail station, in the slums right beside the rail tracks… they are just as beautiful as those wild-flowers… they also do not have a proper home. Yesterday I had some extra cake from lunch and gave it to one of them. The others started quarrelling for their shares and they started fighting… their parents run those small shops in the station and scold them so much… I cannot bear it… I do not want to see them fighting for food… they are so cute and innocent like those wild-flowers… they endure such a hard life… and you know Dada, few days ago police had come and were threatening to put fire on their houses if they do not vacate soon… Can we not help them out?”

I had never expected this and was taken aback. How am I to tell her that we cannot help them despite the very deepest and desperate desires of our heart… We can only give them momentary joy by giving them some left-over food from our lunch-boxes… or some old clothes lying carelessly at the back of our wardrobes…

Mithu also seemed to have realized this… but at the same time she had a smile in her face that I remember even today. The smile told me she was hiding a secret… and the secret came out of her schoolbag a few moments later… it turned out to be tons of chocolates and small cakes that our Mithu had bought that day, spending all her savings, which she would have otherwise spent on buying her favourite books or jigsaw puzzles…

I was so moved by the little girl… her beautiful heart full of compassion and kindness… Mithu, whom I had known for years to be obsessed with her wonderland full of magic and dreams had turned out to be a lover of the society in disguise… I still marvel how she had dedicated herself to the task of bringing her little wonderland right here on our earth. For a few moments I had a vision of the slum children as beautiful creations which have been left unadorned like those wild-flowers that grew beside the rail-tracks… left without proper home and food… and here was little Mithu who saw no difference between the wonderful creations that live in her wonderland and these slum-children except the very fact that they have been left unexplored, their beauty unsung and their wisdom and intellect undiscovered…

We had the greatest pleasure of our lives that evening while distributing chocolates before Christmas day, to all those eager eyes and smiling faces. And that winter evening, even though the air was bitingly cold, even though the leaves had started to fall from the trees, the evening sunlight was dancing on top of the trees and the earth, which was full of these happy children, was as if holding the sun’s light with hands out-stretched… As the last sunlight faded that day and we were heading home, I felt how precious that evening had been… I had been so close to feel what human love was… and how this unfailing love binds us all together, making this world a truly beautiful place to live…

Memories of Mithu still haunt me today, diffused by the pain in the heart and the lump in the throat , while synthesizing an overwhelming feeling of connection with the past, ultimately taking on the hues of nostalgia…

Mithu still lives in all of us and her beautiful wonderland exists right here on earth, waiting with eager eyes and sweet smiles for all of us… to discover their beauty and decorate them with our precious love and compassion. And no wonder , time and again we will always visit little Mithu while walking along this long journey of life and ask her –

“Excuse me, may I please have your autograph?”

Notes:

[1] from the album ‘Flags’ composed and sung by Kiwi pop singer Brooke Ligertwood.
[2] by Lee Daniels, a lover of nature and a person fighting with lung cancer.
[3] a home for physically and mentally challenged people.
[4] Psalm 141:1-2

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