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THE LOST MAN

By Kamal Bhandari                                                                                 

First written in the year 1976 / 77

 

HE was walking slowly through the forest. A weary man on tired legs. His mind was in despair as he walked on.

The forest seemed endless and the undergrowth denser. He had already been walking for two days, sleeping on branch forks at night, afraid of the nocturnal animals whom he had not seen in daylight but heard in the vast silence of the night while lying under the protective foliage of the tree which, to him, who had never cared for trivialities and fantasies, seemed almost maternal.

He now knew he was lost. Where he had taken the wrong turning while returning, he could not recall for he was new to the region. He should have reached there at the dawn of the second day but now it was the third day’s sun fighting hard to stay above the abyss of the far horizon, as if afraid of the creeping darkness which would envelope it in another half an hour.

Standing on a hillock, the man watched the sun slowly slipping far far away, wanting with all his heart to help it from sinking and raise it, if not to the zenith where he felt its true abode was, then just above the horizon.

He sat down facing the sun. It turned yellow then orange and finally blood red hanging precariously over the horizon. His shoulders stooped. He could not gather the courage to look behind at the black universe that was still at bay – not able to ride in triumphant victory across the skies against the glory of the last rays of the dying sun.

But the sun finally sank and the sky bowed to the other power of the Universe – the Night. The great victory was celebrated by the joyous twinkling of the stars that had fought all day long first retreating and then advancing. But the Queen of the skies was yet to rise.

The man did not see this, he did not see anything. He saw nothing except the darkness that lay between the soles of his tattered boots over which his head was bowed. He had not had the power to witness the defeat of the sun for he was overcome with fear.

He sat there a long time looking at the ever-deepening darkness of his shadow – a mirror of the state of the turmoil in his mind as he fought for the courage to face his memories. Shadow? He slowly raised his head.

Oh! What a sight it was! The queen was there, up in the sky, with her round, radiant face majestic but tender in compassion, dressed in the dark robe of the night, bedecked with millions of twinkling, tantalizing, minuscule pieces of jewellery.

The man could only be speechless as he had not seen anything as beautiful as this nor had he had occasion for such fantasies.

She was looking down at him, he felt. He just sat there, carved out of stone, looking at her with an inexpressible emotion rising in his heart. Awe, love, worship. An emotion which he had never known before, but when others spoke about it, he had used to laugh at them sure that they were weak people allowing themselves to enslave themselves to another’s will. He yet did not know that his mind was face to face, for the first time in his life, with an aspect of pure love. He thought how beautiful was this being and how much she appeared like – his wife. Compassionate, gentle, forgiving and loving.

But now she seemed to be beckoning. So he knelt and extended his arms and when she did not stoop down to take it he folded them and prayed with a silent mind. He did not know the reason or the purpose or the words of his prayer but he prayed as all men, evil and good, have called upon god in times of distress from time infinite. He did not know that Truth is the only word which god hears and that Beauty is Truth. But, still, without the conscious knowledge of all this, he was worshipping that what had always been deep inside him.

 And when he opened his eyes, he was a man transformed.

During his silence he had come across a simple truth, which had been her answer to his appeal. He had found out that night and fear and sorrow is not except in man’s mind, that one can find peace and joy and love anywhere if one cares to find them, that there is no sorrow which does not have some inherent good, that servitude in not in vain.

Then with a sudden force his past came back and stood before him. 

He remembered his search for happiness in the form of physical pleasure. His throat started to choke when he remembered the times he had beaten his wife in the belief that she was the ultimate source of all his unhappiness. She had never uttered a word of reproach against him. His eyes began to fill up when he thought of the way she had always awaited his return and how she had sat by his side when he lay exhausted drunk, hearing his vile words with just one sigh sign of protest – a hand which caressed his forehead until he fell asleep. She was the obstacle between him and total freedom, he had thought. She was the personification of his guilt every time he did her wrong – even though she had no hand in his deeds.

Then his mind went to the last fight. He had beaten her up and had told her that he was fed up with her, that he did not care whether she became a slut or she died, that he would leave her for good.

He had left her two days ago. Why? Only now he realized that he had never been able to withstand her inner courage and will power, her power of forgiving and humility for him. He knew now that it was her virtue in face of his own degradation that had made him flee. And he had turned back only because he had realized that he needed someone to look after him, that he could not take care of himself. But he had turned back, he recalled, not in submission but in anger and he had been planning how he would beat her, to prove to himself that he did not need her and to show her that she needed him for her survival.

Slowly he came back to the present. He felt something soft and tender running down his face. He cried in sorrow until his eyes were empty. He felt a need for urgent action. He could no longer wait to see her again. He had to go back immediately. He would fall at her feet. He would make up for all his wrong he had done her. They would become the happiest persons in the world because now he had changed. They would roam the forest together – what need had they for anything else, he thought in his joy. Who says that heaven cannot be on earth?

When the stars faded away to melt into the light silver of the dawn, he knew not. He had only one wish – to reach his home immediately. He started but he could not find his way. He recalled that he had been lost.

------ He searched all day long and the next two days. His unshaven face had grown stumps of beard, his dress was torn. He wished only one thing – to reach her.

Then, at the dusk of a day – he had lost count of them – he stumbled on to the well known path – the path to his home and peace and love. But now, so near to her, he was overcome with fear. Will she be waiting for me on the doorsteps, as she had always done? No! No! He should not expect that. He had been out a long time. How could she be waiting there? He stepped on to the path and began to proceed slowly. No. She shall be inside lighting the lamps, she shall be so happy to see me. Will there be tears in her eyes? I shall cry. Yes! I shall cry with my soul in her arms.

The last turning came. He stepped forward slowly. There was his little cottage, the hen-run he had cleared himself, the small kitchen garden that she had planted with such care.

His thirsty eyes were on the steps. She was not there. She must be inside, but why were the windows half closed in this fine dusk? He ran, calling her, expecting her to rush out in amazement at being called by him in joy. No response. Had she left the house and gone to her mother’s place 5 walking days away? He climbed the steps and went inside. He entered the room where they had sometimes dined together. No sign of her.

He called her again and then entered the bedroom. Silence greeted him. Utter silence. He stopped as his eyes adjusted to the growing darkness of the dusk. There she was sleeping, her face fresh and soft in the orange red of the setting sun. Let me wake her up, he thought. He touched her face lovingly and he recoiled. stone cold. He shook her. No response. And then he saw the phial on the windowsill and it dawned on him that she had poisoned herself. A poison, which he had often asked her to take in his fits of anger, so that he could gain his freedom.

Had she thought that he had abandoned her forever ? And for the second time in his life, he again knew how much she had really loved him in spite of all his weaknesses.

His heart cried: But I am here, it is I, I have come back. Wake up, dearest. Why did you do this? Oh why? Why? 

 He sat down at her bedside caressing her cold forehead as she had done for him so many times. And tears rolled off his face. She had cried for a long time, he thought, wiping her face of the film of dust through which he could see the now dry tear lines running from her eyes down her cheeks.

In the middle of the night, he took her limp body in his arms and went away into the dark forest, which had shown him the light.

He knew that he was truly lost now.

 

END