If there is any word that I fear the most it is ‘FEAR’. I am afraid and terrified of the numerous and sub numerous ways my fears tend to blossom – projecting their tentacles from deep within my sub-conscious! I’ve been like this always – since the time I was born. Cloudy sky, smell of antiseptic, sound of train travelling over river, morning alarm, moving cars, carbuncles, lizard, furry animals….my list is endless. Surprisingly, the only thing that I should have been afraid of but am not are cockroaches. I’ve surprised myself again and again with the ease with which I’ve held on to their whip-like tentacles and thrown them out of the window. Much to the relief of my screaming mother!
My fear has however provided comic relief to most of my family members time and again.
When I was in the fourth class, one of our Science teachers had spoken in class about the sun and the universe. With total innocence she had explained how everything would eventually come to an end.
“It may so happen that the sun would set and not rise again”, she had explained. That bit of ‘not rise again’ somehow slithered into my mind as my fear factor. I was ofcourse not aware of it.
That evening I watched ‘Star Wars’ on television. The sun, as usual, was ‘westward ho’, sprinkling the leftover orange and purple hues here and there. I just happened to look out of the window and then suddenly, all of a sudden, that small seed of fear that had creeped during my Science class blossomed into a fear foliage!
At first it was a mild tingling of sorrow bubbles bursting here and there. Then gradually the lava of sorrow couldn’t hold itself together. It erupted with a steady stream of tears coupled with loud howling. It took many minutes for my family to realize that my tears and howling were beyond control. Emotions and expressions varied from person to person.
That Star Wars unsettled her. I had warned you all. Insane, creepy-looking beings can unsettle even adults like us.
Hungry. She must be hungry.
My mind in the meanwhile listed all the things I would miss in case the sun would choose not to rise again.Grandma’s stories, my mother’s little fist-balls of rice that she would feed a sleepy me, the black gooseberry pickles sold in front of the school gate, my secret diary, the doll with a damaged cheek, the wicker basket to pick up the Parijat flowers…..
This only increased the tempo of my howling. Every now and then I would look out of the window to setting sun and improve on my vocal chords. Umpteen glasses of water, temptation of an extra sweet, coaxing, warning – absolutely nothing worked to subdue my fear. Till my exhaustion got better of me. Exhausted and hoarse-voiced by now, I surrendered myself to my soft, white pillow – almost whimpering like a hurt dog.
“And now, would you kindly tell us what exactly is wrong with you?”, my grandmother used her ‘thunder’ policy.
“The sun….”, I sobbed.
Everyone looked out of the window in unison.
“What about the sun?”, they were curious.
“What if…”, I sobbed again.
“What kind of disjointed sentences are these. Have you gone totally insane?”
“ What..what..what if the sun sets now, never to rise again?”, I vented out the ultimate puff of fear that was entrapped within me.
The reaction to this was obviously cart full of silence at first, followed by total disbelief.
“And who on earth, told you this?”, my mother tried to question amidst supressed laughter.
“Miss Nandi”, I managed to blurt out. Somehow within myself I was kind of happy to place the high-heel-shoe and pencil-eyebrow Miss Nandi in the seat of a probable vamp!
For the next few days, Miss Nandi became the talk of the town. Or so I thought. Every second person in the larger family asked me about ‘Miss Nandi and her big, bad sun story’. Till the suppressed giggles made me realize that the joke was on me!!
This has been a well known incident in my family. But there is one incident that I have never disclosed to anyone. But now I think I should.
Now there was this little shop at the turning of our road. Not a shop exactly, a shanty of a shop. A shanty of a shop that spelled MAGIC!! In that little space which could barely accomodate a seller, Bell Jar after Bell Jar sat the components every childhood is made up of. Crunchy peanuts, shiny ping-pong ball sized lime pickles, colocasia chips, mixtures of various hues…
My special attraction however lay elsewhere. With every purchase of 100 gms of peanuts, the seller, called Bhujiawallah, would pack in two to three pieces of green chilly pickle wrapped in a piece of newspaper. It was that age where everyone who gave an extra or a free item was hailed as demi God. And to me Bhujiawalah was one such special magician.
So in one strange-yellow, summery afternoon I set out to meet my God with a two rupee note. To my utter dismay I found a younger looking man in Bhujiawala‘s seat. Most probably it was his son. But this son was no where near the halo-bearing Bhujiawallah. This one was puff cheeked, with three of his front teeth missing and one jutting outside like a walrus.
“Peanuts for two rupees”, I placed my note over his counter, wishing to wrap up my business as fast as I could.
He definitely was more skilled than his father – he waited till the weighs balanced neatly. Then with acute deftness packed the nuts and handed them to me.
“Chilly pickle?”, I questioned. I hated him. Where was the glory of a free item if one had to actually ask for it?
He paused for a few seconds and then packed four green chillies in a torn newspaper bit and kept it over the peanut packet.
“Fu fu fan fe”, he spoke out in his monotonous tone.
“Fu fu fan fe”, he repeated his question or answer or statement or whatever.
“What is it?”, I repeated my question.
“Fu fu fan fe”, he repeated. His teethless mouth would only permit that much. My repeated queries yielded no other answer, till it reached a level of frustration. At one point of time I began suspecting if he would take away my packets. So I grabbed my packets and ran as fast as I could – till I was out of his sight. But then my fear had already gripped me.
Maybe he was asking money for the pickle too. I concluded within myself. From then on things became miserable. I could neither eat the peanuts, nor could sleep at night. Everytime I would close my eyes, a teethless vest-clad figure would appear and say “Fu fu fan fe”.
To me that “Fu fu fan fe” became the curse spelt by the wicked witch. For days and months together I avoided the shop like plague. I rummaged my brain and found out excuses galore to avoid that shop; that road infact. No amount of coaxing from my mother or grandmother would prompt me to go to that shop. The ‘Fu fu fan fe’ fear went on for many days till one day I noticed that the shop had shut. ‘ A big apartment will come up soon, so they have gone back to their village’, someone informed. My ‘Fu fu’ fear remained locked within the tin shutter of the shop forever. Though I still wonder if they had left the innumerable bell jars behind.
But I’ve noticed one thing strange, that if I fear something the most, it is a species called Homo sapiens. I am mighty afraid of people and their expectations. I have tried, failed, tried and failed an infinite number of times to confront the question, “What if…”. I’ve never been able to convince myself that it is okay if I say ‘No’; it is okay if I am not perfect enough to meet people’s expectations; it is perfectly alright to put my foot down once in a while.
When I was in my high school, I had undergone an intense phase of fear and hallucination. I had just shifted from another state and another board, so this change of school, board and atmosphere was a bit tough for me to handle. But worse was the Principal of the school. Every now and then, she would haul me up for a session of reprimand. Round and rotund that she was, her double chin would blow in and out similar to a toad, while she spoke. I am sorry to ever think of a teacher in terms of a toad. But my fear made me hallucinate that a toad was actually speaking to me. I would look down, up and even try to close my eyes, but the vision of the toad croaking wouldn’t shove off my mind. In those two years that I survived, I constantly battled my under water illusion.
But as they say, every fear has it’s share of triumph. The moving figure in the dark would ultimately end up being the shadow of a hanging cloth, sound of foot-steps in the hall would actually be sound of water droplets from the tap and not everyday would the sun set, never to rise again!
The finishing touch to my final fear story is also one such lesson in triumph. In the two harrowing years that I survived in that school, my every day prayer was to see a day when I would be able to answer my Principal. But the day actually came many, many years later – when I was way beyond my schooling years. It was a programme on Women’s Day and our focus theme was ‘elderly women’. A lot of women from different churches, old age homes etc were invited to the programme. Since our organisation was conducting the programme, I was in charge of being the resource person. As I was in the middle of my presentation, there, amidst a group of fragile, wrinkled faces, shone a face that seemed oh-so-familiar. Croak! Something rumbled within my mind. I felt my feet turning icy cold but I didn’t want to give up. I converted my speech to an interactive discussion. All the while, my lub-dub went croak-croak with fear but this time I didn’t want my fear to win.
Programme over. Applause. Applause. Applause. A pair of old hands came my way. “Congratulations Ma’am. You were excellent! In which school were you groomed”, she said. Her voice was soaked in genuine appreciation.
“Oh, in a lot many schools…I’ve been through around seven schools in my life-time”, I laughed.
“Could you help me get down the stairs”, she requested.
“Sure”, I smiled.
“God bless you! Your teachers must have been so proud of you!”, she smiled.
The toad suddenly jumped into the big, bad pond and swam away. In front of me, stood my old, helpless Principal!
I had a good mind to take out my tongue and wag it – Fear, this is for you!
But then, there was this unbeatable feeling of triumph that didn’t smell of revenge. It was a soft, mellow feeling of happiness….one that surpasses every fear!
Pic Courtesy: Pixabay