Embers

by - July 02, 2012


I watched the city run faster as the sound of thunder drew nearer. The rains, erratic this year, were coming and many rushed to find a way back home as twilight descended. I looked at the familiar object I held in my hand that was as much my slave as I was its. For a brief moment I debated. A very brief moment. And then, I lit it and brought it to my lips.
"Work-break ?"
I hadn't seen him approach behind me. I didn't turn to greet him either. I'd known him for so many years that it seemed an almost irrelevant formality.
"Ya," I said.
"Looks like rain's coming."
"It is."
"Shouldn't we be getting home ?" he asked.
I smiled at the use of the word 'we'. 
"I've got a late night. I'm working overtime. Got to finish the assignment by Friday."

For a few minutes, we just stood there, looking over the terrace as vehicle headlights started taking over the roads. He spoke first.
"Long time."
"Ya... it has been a long time. Didn't expect to see you here."
"I was in the neighbourhood." he said cryptically as though that explained everything.
Below me, I watched as pedestrians and automobiles fought for the road - a daily rite of passage. I felt the first young droplets land on my nose. Without thinking, my hands moved to cover the lit cigarette and instantly, I felt a burning pain in my palm.
"Fuuuuu..." I cursed, gritting my teeth as I withdrew my hand away and clenched my fingers into a fist to nullify the after-effects of the burn that was already blushing through my palm.
I looked at the boy beside me. He stared back at me, a familiar sardonic grin on his face. One that I hadn't seen in years.
"I meant 'Ouch'.
 His smile got bigger. "Yes. Because I've never heard the F-word in my life. 14 years old and I've never heard it, right ?"
I smiled at that. Already the pain in my palm was reducing. I took another puff and held it in for a few seconds, before exhaling in a perfect circle a plume of smoke. I knew I was trying to impress him though I didn't know why.

"When did you first hear the F-word ?" he asked. I felt a mild twinge of disappointment that he hadn't commented on the smoke trick. 
"Eight standard" I replied. "I was watching Clint Eastwood's 'In the Line of Fire' and one of the characters - I don't remember who - uses the 'mother-f' word. I was totally shocked. I remember, rewinding and playing it back a few times just to make sure he'd said what I thought he said."
I smiled as the memory washed over me. "I remember, I stopped the tape, called up Prem immediately and told him 'You won't believe the word I just heard in a movie.' We must have discussed it for an hour. "
"How is Prem ?"
"I don't know. It's been awhile since I've talked to him."
"Really ? But you all were so close. He was your best friend."

I didn't reply. The boy persevered, taking my silences for what they were - answers we both knew. 
"Did he betray you ? Or did you get such good friends in college that you felt you could leave him behind and move on ? It can't be that hard. If you have his number, he's basically just a button away."
I stared at the dark clouds coming nearer towards the terrace. They seemed heavy with expectation and eager to unburden themselves upon us. It was going to be a wet ride home tonight, I knew. 
"And Divya ?"
I shook my head. That was all there was to say.
"Wow." he said. I took another drag and prayed to be anywhere - anywhere but here where I stood right now - judged by a teenage boy who lived on rose-tinted dreams and castles of love.
"You loved her, man. Even I knew that. How did you manage to undo that ? What screwed you over so badly ?"
"Life." I replied.

"Life ? That's it ? A one word answer which explains everythi.."
"Life screwed me over." I said, interrupting this cocky adolescent who I had once trusted with my innermost thoughts and desires. "Life wasn't a bitch. But it was rabid. And when it bit, it bit hard. It bit hard and it took away large chunks of my hopes, my dreams, my soul. The only way to live through that pain was to take away parts of my life that were expendable and cover the gaping wounds."  
"And you chose the fun parts of your life.. the parts that made you... you ? 
"Yes."
"It was that easy to give up on your dreams ?"
"No. It wasn't easy.. but it was necessary to survive."

We stood there, side by side, pondering my words that were as alien to me as they were to him. Below us, I sensed rather than saw the urgency escalate amongst a crowd anxious to get home before the Rain Gods displayed their wares.
"It just feels like you were supposed to be more, you know." he said finally. I turned to him and saw once more the child he had been, the person I knew so well from before. 

"You were the one who was supposed to be well settled by now, in an A/C office with minions under you and chauffeurs carrying your suitcase to work while your wife batted her eyelids and kissed you good day. How did you become... " he seemed at a loss for the right word to end the train of his thoughts.
"Another brick in the wall ?" I offered.
"God. I hate that song. I have no idea what you guys liked so much about it ... or any of Pink Floyd's numbers, for that matter." 
"You will." I said simply. "As you grow up, you will."

I took another long drag of the cigarette. The first heavyweight drops of the night-rain were arriving. I could feel it. I shivered a little.
"That's cool. Can I try it ?"
My eyes focused away from the approaching clouds to the circle I'd once more blown. I extended my hand towards him, the butt of the cigarette facing upwards to avoid burning his palm. I turned to face him and noticed for the first time the familiar sheep-dog hairstyle, the well-pressed school uniform, and the badge adorning his shirt pocket. It read a simple, familiar word. 'Monitor.' 

I withdrew my hand just as he reached out to take the cigarette from me. He looked at me quizzically.
"You've got three years. You can wait."
"Really ? Seventeen ?"
I nodded as I brought the stub back to my lips that greeted it like an old friend - a more welcome friend than the boy beside me. He stared at me and I looked away, ashamed of what I was revealing just by looking back at him.

"You've changed. You're lost. You're not the guy from a decade ago, that's for sure. And it's a pity, really. That guy was cool - he used to draw cool cartoon strips on the back of his notebook, he used to make personalized gifts, he used to go to any lengths for what he believed in..."
"THAT GUY IS DEAD. WHY CAN'T YOU UNDERSTAND THAT ?" I shouted back.

 He continued as if my words had gotten lost in the cool winds that hugged us both. "Remember the time that you waited for an hour for Divya at the card shop ?"
I smiled at that. "One hour ? What about the rest ? I waited for nearly two hours because a friend had told me she'd be coming there."
"And you did get to meet her."
"Ya... for all of five minutes."
"And what do you remember of that day ?"
I felt my grin fade as I recalled the words written on a diary that had long deserted me. "Best five minutes of my day."

He looked at me. "Best five minutes of my day." he repeated the words. 
Those words were a portrait of my love for her then. Today, they were icicles in my chest. I didn't know why, but for some reason, I knew this young boy beside me understood.
"See. You remember. That part of you isn't dead. But you need to believe in yourself again. You're not dead yet. You've torn bits of yourself away so that you could survive. But those are scars which heal, not death blows. You will get through this." 
I looked at this boy - naive and hopeful, his white school uniform yet to be tainted by the dark colours of reality.
"I wish I could agree with you."

"Hey, you coming down ?" a voice behind us called out. I turned. My colleague, Victor, stood at the door. He covered his receding hairline from the fluid blows being above, his shirt sleeves darkening as a consequence.   
"Ya, coming." I said as I took a deep breath and exhaled. 
"Gotta go," I told the boy who looked back at me, troubled. He knew he had not convinced me of the joys of my past, just as I had not convinced him of the vagaries of the future that awaited him. I didn't wait for a response but walked slowly back towards the doorway. 
"Keep in touch." I thought I heard him say. I didn't turn back. I didn't respond.  

"Who were you talking to ?" Vic said as I approached.
"A kid I knew from a decade ago." I said as I took a last deep drag of the cigarette and flicked it with my thumb and middle finger towards the rusted bin that had stood a silent guard at the doorway. 

Like everything else in my life, the flick too missed its target.  
It fell unceremoniously on the ground, narrowly avoiding a growing puddle by a few inches. I watched the lit end burn brightly as the droplets of rain pummeled down on it.  
"Who was he ?" he said as I crossed the doorway and descended the stairwell.

But my mind was still there - on the other side of that door. Even though I no longer faced it, I could see it clearly in my minds eye - I could visualize the final burning embers of the cigarette as they fought the torrent of drops valiantly till the end, struggling to relive the energy and brightness that they had experienced momentarily in their brief existence.

"What ?" I asked.
"I asked, who was he ?" 
"Me." I replied as I entered the office and became once more, another brick on the wall. 
"I was just talking to myself."

____________________________________________________________________

Authors note : 
I play agony aunt to a lot of my friends. But this year has been tough. A lot of good people I know are having the worst year of their lives. A lot of good people. And I know my advice isn't good enough or even piercing their armours of suffering. 
I know how much it hurts to give up your dreams and beliefs. No words from a well-wisher can help you carry your own personal albatross. 
All I can say is - 'Hang in there. Fight to bring back the radiant being that everyone loved who was once you. Believe that that person isn't dead. A dream may die, but you're still alive. You've survived.' 
I know I fight the same battle every day of my life.
  
P.S. Of course, cigarette smoking is injurious to health. That goes without saying.

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31 comments

  1. How do you do this everytime ?? Although I was all along thinking that the conversation is with the self, there were times where I really felt it is someone else :D
    You are a different league all together, you know that??

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    1. Ya... gave a lot of hints along the way that they were both the same person. Because it seemed the only logical conclusion once you thought of it. And thanks...

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  2. Agree with Maithili...you should not be on blogger even..you should be a full time writer...the way you think, and put it down is totally different class, you know? The ending was nice, and overall it has a warmth to it. I sat thinking about how different a person I was back in my school days- and how I continue to exist, but so differently, losing people, dreams and goals on my way.

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    1. short blog posts ( even 2000 worded long ones like these ) are okay... holding someone's attention for 50k words, having a relevant theme to carry forward.. don't see myself doing it.
      And yes, very few of us ever become the person we dreamed we'd be. Some adjust well to the loss, others take it really hard. They/we've had to let go of some our best qualities just to survive in our surroundings.
      As I wrote, "it's not easy... but it's necessary."

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  3. AnonymousJuly 03, 2012

    I read somewhere that you turn into a different person every decade.
    And most of us turn up as a brick in the wall. Very few have the courage and circumstances to get what they want.

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    1. Sounds pretty accurate.. the vast majority do indeed end up as bricks on the wall. How much they can adjust to the loss of their dreams is based on the individual... but if we can help them through the sadness, why don't we ?

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    2. I mean, that's what friends are for, right ?

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  4. But what if the dream is all there is to life?

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    1. then atleast you go down with hope.
      It's true. Many may never realise that dream they had as a kid... life will continue to beat them down... but if you don't have hope against the odds, you've already given up. You've already stopped living.

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  5. Wow!!! is all I can say :-)

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  6. Nice one as usual.. But u know how tough it is to be the same person when life has screwed u really bad. But in a way that is also part of growing up I feel.. U just can't be the person u were 10 yrs before. U have got much more experiences, u have widened ur horizons,... If u r still the same person, then haven't u stagnated?

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    1. Dhanya, you raise an interesting point that I didn't address in the story at all.

      True, the experiences change you - they help make you stronger. But not everyone survives the transition gracefully. This isn't for those who're just 'awww' sad about not getting their childhood dreams fulfilled. This is very much for those who are entirely disillusioned.
      I'll try to say it mathematically, if that makes sense - it's not for those who after starting at zero are sad because they are at +10 when they aimed for +20. It's for those who are lying defeated at - 10 and are ready to throw in the towel... its a reminder that there is still a way back... but that route starts by looking back and remembering that atleast once before you were at 0. Does that make sense ?

      And yes, even I know that after all I've seen in life, I can never be the same carefree guy from school days... I had to grow up fast but the way through that suffering is believing in a brighter tomorrow.

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  7. Your gift of writing is amazing Rosh! Well penned! And straight to the heart!
    And about the philosophy discussion going on here.... I would say its still one's choice to remain a brick in the wall or keep up the good fight! No matter how many rounds I'd go with life, I still buck up in my corner and come back for another round! ;)

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    1. Thanks Danny.
      Again, you bring up another nice angle to the initial concept that I haven't focussed on at all in the story - what if the person is content being a brick on the wall, right ?
      Definitely, it applies to many of us... I just wanted this one to focus on those circling disillusioned ponds and on the verge of giving up... you might remember some of them.. I recall you advising a grateful one of them in a YMCA room a few months ago ;)

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    2. Yeah... Won't forget! But its sad but true that some just want to give up.... Wish we could see a world where no one quits till the last breath!

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    3. Be careful what you wish for... that wish is like Pandora's box... in trying to motivate the good not to give up, your wish also would free the bad guys to keep on cheating till their last breath :) see the sadness of praying for the right thing in a world gone sour ?

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  8. good work rosh..

    u have changed a lot..

    is the moral of the story that u hav started smoking?

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    1. Thanks Kalu... and no, no plans of starting smoking :) The funny thing is the cigarette wasn't really a part of the main story.. just added it as a background prop and then found a more metaphorical use for it as I kept writing.

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    2. ok.. but its very nice .. hope to c u soon..

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  9. Hi Roshan

    Very well written and all of us need some quite moments with our own selves one point or the other...

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    1. Thanks... and so very true. We all need moments to talk with our own selves also.. just maybe not a little too loud :)

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  10. Nice post. And , yes, smoke rings are really cool . heheh

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    1. haha.. glad to see someone found them cool eventually :)

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  11. Ups and downs are part of life and one may not be able hold on to his dreams all the time.. But time is the best teacher, as time goes by, as we get older our perspective of life changes.. We realise becoming and astronomer and going to moon is not that easy..

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    1. time is the best teacher indeed.. if you are willing to learn.. and yes, perspectives change... i know im trying to convey the hope of youth , but then has the inner child seen whatever the protagonist did... does he realise whatever the personal pain was that brought him to this stage... just the other side of the coin, I guess.

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  12. Roshan... no words, absolutely... no words!

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    1. ... i just felt a pain :(

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    2. At some level, there was a lot of pain while writing this and I guess it got transferred into the post.
      But I meant what I said at the end - am watching a lot of good guys having a horrible year and feeling really sad because so many are giving up... reading it now, I feel there were never any answers in the post - just wanted them to realise they weren't alone in feeling this way.
      Sometimes that's all that's needed.

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  13. Another classic! Thanks Doc.

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    1. Thanks Sandheep... its an old post... but still feels relevant today.

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