Sunday, September 26, 2010

Why I Left You

Twenty five years back, a teacher presented to me the novel Roots (by Alex Haley). From what’s given on the cover, I know that the book is about a man’s search for his own roots starting with an 18th century African slave named Kunta Kinte. I have not yet read that book and maybe, that is because I wanted to embark on that personal journey myself without another’s help or thoughts or prejudices.

I started that task when I was in my twenties. I constructed family trees, tracing branches and even pruning when I had to. Each member gave me stories begging to be told but I knew that I could not use them or give them dialogues they had never used.

There were the legitimate and the illegitimate; the aristocrats and the paupers; the educated and the illiterate; the physicians, the farmers, the labourers; and then, the unknown or the crazy or the irrelevant. One day, some descendant might put me in one of those boxes. For now, that life is just irrelevant.

In that massive tree, there were two people who really stood out – the one and only famous person in my family; and the second, the only criminal. One had used his life nearly to the full and the other had wasted nearly all. But, these two had one common feature. They left their wife.

The famous person was a great man, a good man too, a social reformer and a teacher. His students were mostly those who had stepped a few paces away from bonded labour. From the numerous books about him, I learned that he started when he was in his twenties and with remarkable purpose and clarity continued and extended his work for over fifty years.

In the initial phase, he used his education and conviction to give the downtrodden community the right to pray and learn. When he gained the faith and respect of many, he asked them to get rid of damaging beliefs and rituals. He taught philosophy but stressed more on practical matters like the importance of personal hygiene and healthcare and, the need for faith, trust and respect in social institutions including marriage. He laid a lot of emphasis on education and secular ideas based on inclusion rather than differentiation.

In every stage, he tried to make people go beyond what he could teach; to go beyond the idols he had himself installed. I realized why he deserves to be called a Guru. Sadly, very few follow his simple teachings today – even in his, I mean, my family.

There was one incident in his life which intrigued me. When he was about twenty, he got married. His wife belonged to a family of similar background as his. Apart from that, there is very little known about her, not even her age or education. A few days after the wedding, he left his house and his wife. He never returned to that life ever again, remained a celibate and immersed himself in social work.

I searched in many books, essays, biographies and critical studies but I could not find any information about that aspect of his life. In one, there was a brief mention about a meeting many years later. During a public gathering, she came to him to ask for his blessing, just like a student with a revered teacher.

In my mind, I could imagine that meeting. He would have recognized her and they would have shared a look of regret and deep longing. In my story, the man had left his wife because he knew that he had to give up that life for the sake of the society he was trying to rescue. When I am drunk and depressed, and closer to my true nature, I cursed that great man and even abused by calling him an impotent, a cheat or a crazy idiot.

One day, I meet an old lady, a relative of the Guru’s wife. In her house, I try to explain my ‘research’. She tells me that the Guru’s wife stayed in that same house, but died young in a boat accident.

Then, she tells me “There’s a lot of old stuff in the attic (thattu)…stuff which people forgot to discard. Since she did not have any kids, after her sudden death, there might be some of her stuff.”

After two hours in that dusty place, I find a small old steel trunk. Inside, there are some clothes but no books or diaries. Near the bottom, between the folds of an underskirt (pavada), there is a folded piece of paper.

I open it and read the first sentence,

“Have you wondered why I left you and why I have to send this without anyone’s knowledge, to be a coward unable to express his love for you?”

I close the letter and slip it into my pocket. I do not tell the old lady about the letter and I leave that house.

If I tried, I could prolong that dream about meeting that relative or finding a long lost letter. But, even in my dream, I do not read that letter any further. I use it to light a cigarette and let it burn on my palm. I grind the ash in my palm, hardly feeling the burn. It was like doing the last rites. In that dream, I hear my own voice,

“It’s their story…not mine to tell…will I ever talk about why I left you?”

As for the life of the criminal, did I not tell you that that life is irrelevant?

[Words: 933]

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