I walked down that road among hundreds and hundreds Of wayfarers moving in gaiety towards what they believed was a fair.We all walked.We walked for three days and two nights not knowing any weariness, for, at the end of the road the cheer of a fun fair beckoned. We spent all day talking, laughing and holding hands of this and that. All conversations seemed meaningful. “There is a purpose.” we thought.
“There would be glass bangles,” said a coy young girl to her husband. He marched on quietly beaming like one who would buy her the world. The children ran ahead hopping and skipping. They had been told a thousand tales of the fair. Anxious mothers kept watch over every move they made. At midday, we stopped under vast banyan or tamarind trees and unpacked our lunch. Some could afford expensive spices. The rest of us ate a square meal. Some of them cooked on clay stoves. All along the parents kept warning their children on how to conduct themselves.”Don’t touch anything!”,”Don’t go anywhere!”,”Don’t talk to anyone!”,”Don’t eat anything!” The children sulked and walked on with their heads hung low. Some children never understood the implications of these rules. Some broke free for fun and ran ahead laughing at strangers and stuffing mouthfuls of raisins offered by gypsies. Off with nagging parents. Evening sunsets were beautiful on our dry arid landscapes. We saw no need to rest our feet. On and on we walked.
Soon, someone raised a doubt. “Are you sure it is this way?” There was a murmur of discomfort. He was a clever man – the one who raised the doubt. Some other men dismissed it with a laugh. “We are on the right track alright!” said a man with a big moustache and a red turban. Men with big moustaches and red turbans could never be wrong. So they continued walking. The doubtful man was still skeptic. He managed to spread the doubt among a few others by pointing to various landmarks. He said, “Look there! That hillock…it must be in the south! Where are we going fools?” None of them knew for sure and so they halted. The red turban called this guy aside and said, “What is your problem? Why don’t you just be quiet?” The skeptic said, “No! We are all walking aimlessly. There is no fun fair at the end of this road. I am going back.” Some others said, “Where are you going back to? There is nobody back at home to cook your food or wash your clothes. Just walk along!” He walked along but nobody ever knew when he would cause some confusion again or when he would walk back the way they came or if he would choose a different path at every crossroad or if he would drag some others along. Thus walked the doubter and others in doubt about him.
There was a singer in our band. There was nothing that did not inspire him to come up with songs. He only had to see a stork flying and he would break out into song, and then it was a flower and then a bull and then a crow and then a girl. In the beginning people sang along. They played their drums as accompaniment or they clapped and appreciated him. Some girls eyed him through their veils. Then, as he continued with his singing, people began noticing that he repeated the same words in every song. It was always a kind of beat out of the five odd beats he knew. It was the same highs and lows. The same voice. The same emotions. People grew indifferent. Some of them thought he was a pain and should be left behind. His songs made them uneasy. Sometimes they seemed so pure and childlike because he cared not for what they thought. And one day he saw a red flower. It was the reddest of flowers and he stayed. He refused to move away from the place. People got impatient. They cannot have someone lagging behind. Said the red turban, who had by now had enough of the singer and his antics, “See! If you cannot march along you have to stay and die. Nobody is going to stay back with you till you finished admiring your flower and made up a hundred songs all sounding the same” This hurt the singer immensely but he did not show it. It only brought another song to his head. He laughed at his own helpless creativity. He said firmly, “I am staying! I am not interested in your fun fair..I am sure it is not half as inspiring as this little red flower. You can leave me behind.” There were a few who were anxious for the singer and they left some food by his side. They said, “Don’t tarry too long..catch up with us somehow or you will die!” He only smiled. He knew that his inspiration would die that very evening and he knew all of them were only marching towards what they thought they were running away from.
As we walked on, the singer was forgotten. Somebody said as a consolation, “He would have found his way back home!” All of us knew he could not have but none of us said anything. The fun fair seemed to be too far away. Now the doubter began to say, “See? What did I tell you? Now what has happened.. we have been walking down this arid land for days. There is little food left and energy, none. The children are looking up to us to guide them and we give them false promises of fun fairs and drag them all over the place. Fools!” This caused a great lot of commotion in the crowd and the red turban had a tough time explaining to everyone that we were indeed walking towards the fair. He himself was doubtful at times but he confided in nobody.
Soon our water supplies dwindled. People began worrying and there was a lot of discord. The doubter gathered his own supporters and there were constant clashes between the doubter’s group and the rest. One day, there was a big banyan tree under which sat a holy man. He was naked and had holy ashes smeared all over his body. His beard was long and white and he could have been a million years old. There were anthills around the tree where he sat and this man had managed to find devotees in this god-forsaken place. They had provided him with enough to eat and drink. Unfortunately for us, he refused to share the food with us. He only said something uselessly philosophical, “Each man must find his own fruits.” Some of us were too tired to take this in. A hungry man has problems in hearing. A man with a full stomach can go on philosophizing for days especially if he had a million years at his disposal with other people to forage for his food. However, the doubter took to this man. The doubter was an emaciated fellow who hardly had the need for food. Yet, he saw an opportunity here. He thought he would die of hunger and thirst if he were to walk along with what he thought were a bunch of fools. He had gotten into this whole business unwittingly and he had to find a way out as soon as possible. He began coaxing the “Swamiji” to take him in as a disciple. The million-year-old man smiled through all the white facial hair and many thought they saw an aura around his head. Most of them were hungry.
Now, came the biggest task for the red turban. He had to convince the people away from this unexpected distraction of an old man, and take them to the fun fair. He slowly began elaborating on the various objects that would be available at the fair. “The last time I had been there”, he said, “there were heaps of mangoes and apples,” “One man was making the sweetest jalebis and served them piping hot. Ah! And how can I forget the dancing girls. They were something!” The truth was that nobody from our parts had ever been outside the boundary of our village, let alone to the fun fair. The doubter laughed loudly at the red turban and asked him to keep his bluffing to the rest of us mindless fools who had been following him for days. He said that he had had enough and was not falling for this fellow’s temptations. Most of us liked to believe the red turban because it sounded so true. I mean, all our lives we have heard of fun fairs and they always had mangoes, jalebis and dancing girls. This doubter has been trying to create discord from the beginning. Who could even suspect the red turban? It was blasphemous. He was absolutely correct. Off with this doubting Thomas and we would reach the fun fair in a while. We will have everything to indulge in while this fool will remain here with the million-year old man eating raisins and dates and drinking goat’s milk. We willingly believed the red turban because he painted to us an image of whatever we wished for. However, the doubter and few of his supporters remained behind with the old man and his disciples. The doubter remained for the food but who knows,he thought, the old man might even know the right direction to the fun fair.
The children had now grown docile and listened to the parents. Sometimes they played games. These games were called “Rule games” There were no winners or losers but everyone had to follow the rules. Whoever failed to follow the rules was sent out of the game. The children even meted out harsh punishments to the rule-breakers. Mostly the child who came up with new ideas or thoughts was called “mad” or “stupid” and was pushed to the ground. The other children kicked this child and refused to talk to him. The parents appreciated this game because it meant that the children were learning discipline, obedience and self-control. The mothers of the children who made the rules were proud and the mothers of the rule-breakers were ashamed and refused to acknowledge this.
When nobody was watching, the unhappy mothers slapped the misfit child. This caused some children to grow timid, some others began to stammer, some of them rebelled and bit everyone but all of them were branded “misfits”. The misfits began to gel and formed their own groups, where they thought they were inventing some phenomenal games to play. They said “Off with all the rule games. We will play the no-rules games.” In these games one had to do sacrilegous and blasphemous acts of breaking rules and the more one was non-conformist, the better respect he gained. Some of them claimed to have invented various things. Some others said they had discovered this and that. All of them were mere hypotheses and a bunch of other misfits said “Hear..Hear!” It only seemed like they were consoling each other. Nobody noticed them.
As time passed, people began talking less and less about the fair. Some imagined that they should have stayed back with the doubter. Still others said that the singer was indeed a wise man. The red flower was only an excuse. That cunning fellow had outwitted them and stayed behind. Now, they mistrusted the red turban. Yet, they knew that they were too far away from home to walk backwards. Some of them suggested that they settle here and there and forget all about the fair. That was when the young women would come up with their requests for bangles, vermilion and mirrorwork saris and the children would look up into the eyes of their parents pleadingly. They had a million dreams for balloons of many colours and for candy floss and slingshots. Above all, everyone, young and old harboured a passion for this invisible fair. By now, the large group had split to several smaller groups and many had gone ahead. None of them came back to tell us what the fair was like. We imagined that they were too happy there that they had no mind to return. Rumours floated in the air that they had all turned too tired to walk back and they had just started begging for food from the other travelers. We dismissed these talks as rumours. After all, why would they beg for food when there were enough jalebis for all three worlds at the fun fair.
One evening, I myself saw some light glimmering in the distance. I was too taken up with it to notice if others had followed. I did not even feel like telling the others. I began walking towards it and slowly broke into a run. A mad frenzy. I ran ahead tears streaming down my cheeks. Hahaha! Piping hot, juicy jalebis here I come! Hurrah! Merry-go-rounds here I come! Giant wheels here I come! Dancing girls here I come! I noticed my wallet falling off and then my bag too fell off. Why was I not stopping to pick them up? I was running ahead. Something there made my head spin in sorrow and pain and joy and what I thought was the overwhelming “truth” of it. As I got closer, I stopped dead on my tracks. There was silence. There were no lights. This cannot be a fun fair. Am I in the wrong place? Oh God! Where are the colourful tents? Where is the gypsy woman with her crystal ball? Where are the dancing girls who whirled and whirled like dervishes in my dreams all night their mirrored skirts swirling around? Where are the fragrant yellow mangoes succulent, with juice that trickled between my fingers? Where are the orange jalebis full of sweet syrup that nestled between my teeth before melting into nectarine bliss? Where are the merry-go-rounds with dizzy music and colourful horses? Where are the giant wheels that would take me close to heaven and swing me back to earth?
But..There was something. There was something shimmering in the dim light. As I neared it my heart throbbed to my mouth. It was a grotesque creature stuck to a shiny wall. Realization dawned on me. It was me. It was a mirror. I was the grotesqueness on the mirror. I was all skewed and out of shape. I seemed to have been poured into a hundred different moulds. I was only a child. I had been one among the misfits. I had been slapped many many times…punished too. I had been twisted and turned. I had become something else..someone else that I am not and someone else that nobody is. I had become awkward and alone. I was shapeless and then was a million shapes. I was not identifiable. My face was a twirl. My arms were two ripples. My body was a huge balloon with wavy edges. I ran away from that horrible mishap. I ran and ran as fast as I could only to realize that I had nowhere to run from that horrible memory of the image I had just seen. I ran through the crowds of people walking towards what I just seen. I shouted to them but they were too smug to listen. I ran on to the children and told them to stay where they were and continue their games..rules or no-rules. They all threw stones at me. I ran to my parents. I asked them what they had done to me and they only gave a knowing smile. Had they seen this before? Had they? I ran through the gypsies who seemed to walk on with no fears. I tried clinging to them but they shunned me. I was a stranger from another world. I was a nobody with a million shapes and colours, none of which I had asked for. Nobody asked me before painting me these colours. Nobody asked me before carving me into these shapes. Someone told me something that I heard like a distant echo, “The mirror is not reality.” What is reality then? That I had been walking towards what they said was a fun fair and came upon a silent place that showed me a grotesque image of myself. Is that all? Is that all?
As I ran on and on through marshes and stones and crags wounding my legs and bleeding I knew I had to die. I had to crumble and die. I had to break and burn before I died. The singer would die but he never came here. The doubter would die too but he never came here. The million-year-old man would die but he never came here. I came here to see what had been made out of me while I had watched like a fool. All you wayfarers traveling towards the illusion of a fun-fair, there is none! You cannot return because it is a one-way journey. There is an exit but nobody knows when and where. All are liars and nobody knows anything. There are actors and there are hallucinators. There are evil robbers and cunning politicians. There are skeptics, singers, dreamers, philosophers. Some walk longer some walk lesser. All have an exit and it is the same old one. Walk on, stay, dream, delude, believe in lies, break rules…but
..never, never ignore the fun-house mirror and the reflections on it!