Cockroach 10: The Doubting Thomas
“There are not seven wonders of the world in the eyes of a child. There are seven million.” — Walt Streightiff
When a writer’s prose goes flat and he can’t figure out what the protagonist will do, it is time for him to pack up. During the Corona Virus pandemic, I have been active writing. I have written about human ambiguity, shades of grey, humour, idiosyncracies and oddities colouring our lives, testing wavelengths, emotional quotient, ambition, deceit and lies. I think, I know a lot about human relationships. I have huge confidence in my ability to handle them. I forget I am a dilettante sitting on Mount Stupid. I am about to slide into the Valley of Despair. My confidence will bottom out, if I do not develop true expertise. I have to develop a better appreciation of human psyche. I am like those noisy empty-headed politicians and film-stars on Twitter, Facebook and TV Channels who give expert opinions on Covid vaccine and cures by reading an article or two. I have misjudged my own abilities. One cannot become an expert by empty talk.
In the Gospel, Thomas, the apostle refuses to believe that the resurrected Jesus has been seen by other apostles until he actually feels the wounds of Jesus received during the crucifixion. He asks for physical evidence to reaffirm his faith in God. His act is looked down upon as distrust in Jesus. Two thousand years later, the famous American writer of self improvement books, Dale Carnegie credits, The Doubting Thomas for progress made in human thought.
It is Friday evening. I am sitting on my desk. I am amused. I wonder whether to believe the Gospel truth or follow Dale Carnegie. I haven’t been in touch with Veronica for several weeks. I am upset with her. I ask my driver to go and return the Little Red Riding Hood doll. In the past few months, I have put Veronica to all sorts of tests (the Mensa IQ test) and experiments to find out her true feelings about me, without much success. She has managed to drape herself in a veil of ambiguity and escaped like a moray eel from my slippery fingers. I think, she has been using me. I want to stay away from sinking into emotional quicksand. Her charade, to take back the doll of the Little Red Riding Hood which she lovingly gave me, has ruffled me. Someone else deserves it more than I do. My self doubt is nobody’s enemy but my own. I doubt her intentions. I think she is a cantankerous woman. I doubt my own capability to woo her. I have doubts whether her ex husband will come back after fourteen years of divorce. I doubt whether Golu will grow up to be a good son or how long he will stay wit her? My feet prove to be of clay not concrete. I need liquid courage to get my confidence back. I am about to discover a new side of Veronica. She will surprise me again. Roy Orbison’s song, She’s a Mystery to Me is playing on the iPhone. I turn the volume up and make myself a drink.
Next day I send her a message. I ask her,“Let’s go for a drive in the evening to Gurgaon. I need to pick up some beer.” She does not respond. She takes a day to reply. “Sorry buddy, I was busy all of yesterday.” I persist. I send her another message, “Let’s plan something for today evening. We haven’t met for a long time.” She replies back immediately, “I have a Management Committee meeting in the evening.” I tell her, “Wow, you are one busy girl. What time is the meeting?” She replies, “I don’t know.” I wonder what keeps her so busy? As far as I recall, I don’t know of any Managing Committee that she is on. I must find out.
A few days later, she calls me in the morning. It is a holiday. It is 15th August. I am sitting at home sipping black coffee. She is in a hurry. “Are you free? Come over to my place in twenty-minutes. If you have some chocolates lying at home, please get them.” It sounds more like an order. I am puzzled. I pick up some chocolates from the fridge. I meet her half an hour later. She is angry. “I told you twenty-minutes. Can’t you come on time?” I keep quiet. She is wearing a long printed skirt and a blue top with white earrings. She is looking good. I want to compliment her, but I don’t. Just then, Golu comes out. He looks busy. He has got two large bags in his hands stuffed with small coloured packets. He asks me to open the boot of the car. He opens the boot and deposits one bag. The other he puts in the back seat of the car. He slides into the back seat from the other side and is all set to go. I don’t like the idea of Golu coming along with us. I look inquiringly at Veronica. She ignores my reaction. She opens the front door of the car, gets in and tells me, “I will show you the way.” I obey.
We all drive in silence. Golu is playing with the toy Ferrari, I gifted to Veronica. He thinks it is some kind of plane and tries to fly the car. I disapprove of his gestures. Veronica looks sternly at me. I have no option but to drive on. Half an hour later, we reach a farm house in Chhattarpur. I stop the car. There is a board, which says, Stille Hilfe (Silent Help). The guards open the door. I take the car inside. I am taken aback by what I see. It is a beautiful sight.
Inside is a small building painted in white with exposed red bricks. On both sides of the building are well manicured lawns. There is a small piece of land on the left where some vegetables are growing. A small water fountain next to it catches my attention. I am confused with what I see. Veronica comes to my rescue. She explains. “It is Uncle Mohan’s dream project. He saved all his money and put it in this. I wish he was here with us today.” I am at a loss of words. I move inside the building. Suddenly, a crowd of small children comes from nowhere and surrounds Veronica. They are shouting, “Veronica didi. Veronica didi.” I take out my iPhone and click several pictures. Golu mixes freely with the crowd and is on cloud nine.
Shyamali, the care taker smiles at me. She is wearing horn-rimmed glasses. She looks cool. She reads my mind. She offers help. She says, “Sir, welcome to Stille Hilfe. It is a children’s home for the fortunate. It was started by Mohan Sir a year ago. We are not fully functional yet. We have about forty children ranging from age five to sixteen.” She hands me a little booklet about the place. A paragraph catches my attention. It says, “This is a place of worship. We worship little destinies. Life here is one of change, of building survival skills. You are not alone. We are here to offer Silent Help.” I have been to children’s homes before. This one gives me a feeling of Jamais Vu, of being in a novel and unfamiliar place. A children’s home is a place that people are rarely exposed to. Shyamali takes me to her small office and offers me a seat. She is proud of her little kingdom. We have lemon tea. Behind her desk, I see Mohan Uncle’s wall size photo. He is smiling with his twinkling blue eyes hidden behind the fat of his face. It is a recent photograph. On the wall directly opposite, is another much younger photograph of him with a small girl holding his hands. The girl is not smiling. She has a stubborn look on her face. A small plaque below the photo says, “Children lead the path to heaven.” I know instinctively that the girl in the photograph is Veronica. I take several minutes to gather my thoughts. The hot lemon tea is reassuring. A small girl comes running inside the office. She is poised. She sees me and offers her hand. She says in impeccable French, “Comment allez vous (how are you)?” Shyamali tells me, “We lovingly call her Puppi. She will take you around. She speaks good French and English.” My French is poor. I tell Puppi, “Bien(fine)!” She replies professionally, “Merci beaucoup( thank you very much). Veronica didi will see you in a little while. She is busy with the Independence Day celebrations. We have a Chief Guest coming over.” I ask her, “Who is the Chief Guest.?” She tells me, “You are.”
Over the next forty-five minutes, Puppi transposes me into another world. It is an experience, I will never forget. I am expecting dirty rags, short cleanings and unclean bathrooms. I see a modern, well functioning, neat, clean and tidy place. There is a hushed silence of understated efficiency. She takes me to the children’s rooms. Each room has a twin bunker bed, two chairs, desks and lamps. A small colourful ladder leads to the top bunk. There are paintings, small handicraft work, photos and curios hanging from the walls. The rooms are vibrant and full of character. She tells me, “Each room has free Wi-Fi. We have parental controls in place to restrict misuse. There is no one in the rooms right now as all the children have assembled in the playground for the Independence Day function.” She takes me to the classrooms. The classrooms with their little coloured desks and chairs, a small blackboard and an audio visual projector look straight out of a movie set. Everything looks fresh and newly painted. I ask her, “Don’t you feel lonely here?” She answers confidently. “Life here is structured. Children get up, take a bath, clean, eat learn and recreate on time in a organised way.” I think she has rehearsed her lines well. She forgets her lines, takes a pause and starts again, “Life can be lonely at night. You can always call up Veronica didi on phone. She has a story to tell. You can call Shyamali aunty. She will give you a nice head massage.” She has a no more questions please look on her face. We proceed to the playground where a band is playing.
I am relieved to see Veronica there. She is practicing with the school choir. I have a feeling of Deja Vu. The choir is singing, खुद जियो, औरों को भी जीने दो, यही तो है ज़िन्दगी का रास्ता,तुम्हें अमन और शांति का वास्ता(live and let live. That is the way of peace). I remember singing the same song for the school choir. Veronica takes the mike. She introduces me to the children. There is an applause. I unfurl the national flag. It opens, flutters in the wind and rose petals drop on me. Veronica asks me to make a speech. I am unprepared. I talk about patriotism and virtues of life. I am lost. I notice after my speech there is complete silence. No one is interested. Suddenly at that point a cloud bursts. I am drenched to the bone. Everyone rushes inside the building. They run towards the refreshments and break into an animated discussion amongst themselves. They gorge on samosas, pastries and chips. In the confusion, the Chief Guest is forgotten.
STRONG CHILDREN, NOT BROKEN MEN
After the refreshments, I observe a boy, not more than fifteen or sixteen years old. His eyes follow me, as I move across the place. He wants to ask me something but is feeling shy. Veronica notices the boy. She introduces him to me, “He is our Kamikaze pilot. His name is Rahul.” I laugh at the generous introduction of the boy. Without waiting for me to ask a question she says, “He ran way from this place nine times. Every time, he was brought back as his mission failed. Finally, when he returned the ninth time we made him Head of Search and Rescue Operations.” The boy looks at Veronica. He likes his introduction. I know Veronica’s reference is to the Japanese Kamikaze pilots sent to destroy American aircraft carriers in the Second World War. I remember the story of a pilot who came back alive from his Kamikaze mission nine times and was finally executed by the Japanese. The boy gains confidence. He walks up to me. He asks me, “Have you watched the movie Interstellar on Netflix ?” I am surprised by his question. I tell him I have. “Don’t you think it should rate higher than Dunkirk in terms of sheer cinematic genius? Christopher Nolan outdid himself in Interstellar.” Quite frankly, I am at a loss of words. I don’t want to get into a debate with the boy. I admire his question. I tell him, “I agree with you.” His face lights up with a smile. Veronica is not surprised by our conversation. I wonder whether she even knows who Christopher Nolan is? I marvel at the boy’s intellect.
I think it is time to leave. I am wrong. I am standing next to my BMW waiting for Veronica and Golu. A small boy approaches me and says, “Uncle can you please open your car’s doors and the boot?” I do no resist. I open the doors and the boot using a remote. The boy is impressed. He thinks I am some kind of James Bond with cool gadgets. I am not prepared for what happens next. Little children with coloured masks climb into my BMW. They don’t need my permission. They have never seen a BMW before. It becomes their pirate’s ship. They plunder it with all their might. They take out a large bag from the boot and another bag from the back seat of the car. They tear open the bags. The bags are full of gifts for them. Some of them stick small tricolour paper flags with scotch tape on the car. They throw the spare tyre and tool box to one side to make more space in the boot. They get inside the car and ask me to drive. Some of them sit inside the boot. I take a round of the place. I drive very slowly. I have never enjoyed driving the BMW so slow. The one’s sitting in front shut down the music system playing a meaningless song. One guy gets his guitar. He starts off. Everyone joins the chorus and sings the song, “कैसे बताये क्यूँ तुझको चाहें, यारा बता न पाएं बातें दिलों की, देखो जो बाकी, आँखें तुझे समझाएं (I am not able to tell you what is on my mind? Perhaps my eyes will tell). I am surprised. I ask them who taught you this song? They tell me,“Veronica didi. We know it is your favourite song,” Veronica stands in a corner enjoying the fun. Golu is leading the chorus. He is feeling at home. He makes the maximum noise. I take a round and stop at the entrance of the building. Another bunch of kids climb into the car. I see several head popping out of the sun roof of the car. They remind me of a bunch of flowers popping out of a flower vase in Veronica’s drawing room. In the third round, Puppi comes and sits next to me quietly. She has a doll in her hand. It is the Little Red Riding Hood. I know it is the same one that Veronica gave me the other day. Puppi climbs into my lap. She whispers in my ear,“Veronica didi told me you are the woodcutter, not the big bad wolf. You are the hero in her story.” She gives me a kiss on my cheeks, climbs back and sits peacefully in the car. I am dumbfounded. I look closely at her eyes. She is a little embarrassed and looks the other way.
The story unfolds. In the next round the children drag Veronica into the car. She smiles at me and says,“I love kids. I found Golu here.” I see balloons floating in the air. Some of them have Veronica’s name and some have a question mark on them. I am lost. I realise a lot of the children have little puppets in their hands. I recognise some, I have seen them in Veronica’s showcase. I recognise the busó — triple mask puppets, the Herod and the Devil. Suddenly it dawns on me, she has given her entire collection of Hungarian puppets to the children. It feels like a dream sequence. I know it is a snapshot and slice of real life. I have this eerie feeling that all the children know about my story. They are all delighted to be a part of it. Veronica through these little children is trying to tell me something. The children rekindle feelings in me that I haven’t felt for a long time
I sit in the car. Veronica will take a little while to come. She is meeting other members of the Managing Committee of the Silent Home. I think, we all grew up on photoshopped photographs of beautiful children with chubby cheeks and pony tails. Reality is different. Children feel, understand and react. They are Masters of the Game. They display fine nuances of human behaviour. They are perfectionists at the art of innuendo. They observe, understand, learn, memorise, decide, solve, intuit, exploit, reason and imagine based on genetics and environment. They teach adults a lot using their limited abilities.
I think we forget our villains and our heroes even faster. Veronica and Uncle Mohan’s Silent home is an attempt to build strong children rather than repair broken men. As we leave the place, all the children stand in line on both sides of the car to see us off. It feels grand. I am touched. Once in the car, Veronica looks satisfied. She reclines against the car window. She is tired but she has a glow on her face. I tell her. “Thanks. I had an interesting day. Does doing what you do give you fulfilment? Does it fill the vacuum in your life?” She does not answer. Even Golu thinks it is a stupid question. As I drive back, I am filled with an overwhelming joy. Golu is playing with his toy Ferrari. Suddenly, he asks me mischievously, “I love my didi. Do you love her too?” I look back at him. I slow down the car. I have always seen Golu as an adversary because he spends more time with Veronica. She changes her profile photo on WhatsApp every day. All photos are of Golu and her together. Golu sitting in her lap, going to school, eating breakfast, getting kissed by Veronica on his cheeks, the list is endless. I wonder whether Golu has timed his remark. I look at Veronica who is looking out of the window. She feels vulnerable. I am careful. Golu’s question has shifted the balance in our relationship. I reply with hesitation, “I love what your didi does?” Golu is satisfied with the answer. He goes back to playing with his toy car. Veronica ties her hair in a bun behind her back. She looks at me in the eye. She acts as if she has not heard my answer. She has a gift for me. She hands over a bottle of Hennessy Cognac picked from her home duty-free bar. I know the bottle has been bought overseas. She tells me, “Thank you. This time I will not take the gift back.”
BUMPS ON THE ROAD
After dropping her and Golu, I am alone in the car. There are a few bumps on the road. I realise, I have not been in touch with my feelings for a long time. I try to think from her perspective. I try to comprehend what she is trying to tell me? I do not feel the need to touch Jesus’s wounds. My faith in humanity is restored. I know, I have to keep my life simple and uncomplicated. The more efficient and complex my system gets, the more likely it is to collapse. Fortunately, for me it is not time to pack up. The box of chocolates is still in the car. I have forgotten to give it to the children. I take out one and munch it. It is my reward for not being a Doubting Thomas anymore. I reach home and open my iMac. I think Dunkirk is a better movie. I watch Interstellar again. I learn from the movie that our survival instinct, honour and sense of self preservation are our biggest sources of inspiration. I have a better understanding of Veronica’s thoughts and actions. The protagonist in Interstellar says jokingly that according to Newton’s third law, the only way humans figure out to get somewhere is to leave something behind. I promise to leave my doubts behind to get ahead. I have to get out of my three dimensional reality to understand a six dimensional world of human relationships. I promise myself I will deliver.