By Bandita Phukan
Translation: Bandita Phukan and Jugal Kalita
Sometimes we become obsessed with our desire to meet with or talk to somebody we respect, love or lust for from a distance. But for various reasons we may never be able to fulfill our burning desire. Let us take an example. There used to be a time when a well-known novelist and dramatist would walk by the road in front of my house every morning. Whenever I saw him, my heart longed to exchange a few words of pleasantry with him. I had the foreboding that this elderly but scholarly man with a wealth of real-life experience would one day soon stop coming my way. One morning while reading the newspaper, I would come to know that he was no more in this world of ours. In my imagination, I could see all these as real happenings. But, in reality, almost every morning at ten when I left for my office in a hurry, I would face this gentleman for whom I had tremendous respect. But never did I gather the courage to speak with him. I would fluster and fumble thinking of an appropriate way to introduce myself to him. I was also always at a loss to find suitable words or a suitable topic to start a meaningful conversation.
Similarly, now-a-days I want to speak intimately with a person who was a classmate of mine during college. It is most interesting that during those heady days, I never paid him the slightest attention, not to think of condescending to speak with him. At that time, I thought he belonged to a far inferior social class than that of mine. It was not only me, but other popular, good-looking and classy friends of mine were also not aware of even his existence. Anyway, for the purposes of this story, let me call him Nikhilesh because I cannot remember his real name. I just know that he is the son of an acquaintance of my father. There were many types of students in my college class. A few students were brilliant; they always competed for good marks on all tests. They wanted to get the highest grades in each and every subject. Ultimately these students received top marks on the final examinations. They received honors due to their performance, obtained well-paying jobs, and now lead prosperous lives. Thus, they fulfilled their aims in life. There were other students who busied themselves participating in eclectic activities. These types got elected to the college student council; they became well-known names and faces on campus. Then, there were others who were talented in extra-curricular activities of interest to the general student population, such as sports, acting, debating, oratory, and writing. There were some other happy-go-lucky types who did not join any activity on campus, but enjoyed their reckless youth in such colorful ways that one would not easily forget their faces.
As far as I remember, Nikhilesh was not a part of any of these three types whom people on campus knew. Nikhilesh always sat in the last rows in class. He cast his votes serenely in the tumultuous elections for the student council that occurred every year. He sat silently in the audience in cultural shows and debating competitions. He was a voiceless spectator in sporting events. Sometimes he was a member of student delegations submitting memorandums of protest or demands to the principal. But, he was always taciturn; it was as if he was there to merely increase the number of delegates.
Once in a while, I remember one particular event from those days. It was the year when I was the Music Secretary in the student council. On one occasion, some friends and I had gone to the local school for the blind in search of talented student artists to play certain instruments in the annual cultural show at the college. While we were conferring with the music teachers of the school, a blind girl of about fifteen came into the room. I noticed that the blind students in the school moved freely to bathrooms, the dining hall, and class rooms just like ordinary people. Moreover, some of them were busy making chairs out of rattan cane. The girl who had walked into our room also did so all by herself as if she had normal functioning eyes.
Just as the girl walked in, some of my friends commented and laughed in a friendly way. The girl asked the teacher the reason for the laughter. The teacher simply replied that the visitors from college were happy to see, in person, the girl whose photograph hanged from one of the walls of the conference room. Hearing this, the girl earnestly requested the teacher in the presence of everyone, ``Sir, please take down the photograph and throw it away as soon as possible. It's the worst photograph of mine anyone has ever taken."
Instantly, there was pin drop silence in the room. We felt guilty; it was as if we had committed a crime. I felt choked in pity. I asked myself how this blind girl who couldn't see from birth knew that that was the worst photograph of her? How did she know how to differentiate between the good and the bad? I felt sorry knowing it would never be possible for her to look at her own image in a mirror and enjoy the beauty of the lovely face God had bestowed upon her.
It was the last time I visited the school for the blind. Over the years, I have enjoyed many good musical programs given by blind artists from the school. They seem to be naturally very talented. But, I never had the courage to talk to any blind boy or girl even when I had to face one from close.
I was a smart student. I also was popular and well- liked because I was active and talented in several extra-curricular activities. So, many of the girls in my class and classes junior to that of mine, tried to seek out my friendship. However, at that time I was quite studious also since I wanted to do well on the final examinations of the university and to subsequently get a good job. So, I did not have time for much friendship. Of course, all my career hopes and aspirations have now been fulfilled. Later in life, I found that my classmates who were not very bright and who were the happy-go-lucky, ``hero" types had to accept lives as average people.
However, based on my life experience, I am now compelled to think that sometimes great deeds can be performed only by the so-called common people. Those who consider themselves better than others cannot perform such feats. Also, an ordinary person neither wants fame nor publicity for the noble deeds they perform in day-to-day life. They do so being inspired by an urge from the inner depths of their broad hearts.
Several years had passed by after college. Once I visited my parents after being stationed for several years in a small and remote town due to my job. While at home, my father told me that the eldest son of one of his acquaintances had recently married a student from the school for the blind. The young man did so despite vehement objections of his family. For some reason, I had become emotional as well as surprised by the news. I knew my father was speaking of Nikhilesh. But, I did not even think of stopping by his house to congratulate him because Nikhilesh was never a friend of mine.
Many years after that, while traveling by car, I had stopped at a bus station in a small town to have a cup of tea in the restaurant with my family. There, I was moved to see two teenage children help their beautiful but blind mother get off the bus. She was gorgeously dressed in silk mekhelaa and saador, and had a dot of vermilion on her forehead - the sure sign of her married life. The three were followed by a gentleman. This was the gentleman who had married the blind woman in spite of the intense scorn and ostracism which society heaped at her, simply because of the disability God had given her. I knew the gentleman married the woman because of his love for her. He married her in spite of her cruel disability and provided her with a life that every normal person expects with no extra effort. He had become her eyes in the dark world. I observed the two children keenly. They were not disabled in any way. They had attractive blue eyes, and faultless and beautiful bodies. They were physically and mentally well-adapted to become guides, every step of the way, for their blind mother whenever she ventured into the hustle and bustle of the real world.
In the depth of my heart, I then realized that Nikhilesh, who remained very unaccepted and unattractive during his college days, now had become the most courageous, the most loving and the most heroic among all those who attended classes with him a long time ago.
Yes! This time also I was not able to approach Nikhilesh to exchange a few words with him. I reasoned that it would be impossible for me to adequately introduce myself to Nikhilesh at such a short and busy moment. He had never been a friend of mine, so I would have to start at the very beginning. But, after admiring him at the bus station, I began to visualize his face off and on in my private moments. Now-a-days, I know his face very clearly. I now have a keen desire to have a long conversation with him. Next time, I see him I will introduce myself to him and have a heart-to-heart talk.
Bandita Phukan is a prolific Assamese author. She has published more than sixty short stories, several children's novels, and many science-fiction stories. A graduate of Assam Engineering College in 1971, Ms. Phukan was the first woman mechanical engineer in Northeast India. This story is a translation of her Assamese short story called Aantorik. She translated it into English herself. (Published in the Winter 1993-94 Issue of Asomi)