Once upon a time – don’t ask me why all stories have to have taken place at some definite time in the past – my story is timeless, I think. Still, for the sake of tradition, I say ‘once upon a time’. To resume, once upon a time, there was a woman, not unlike a certain person who refers to someone she knows as a ‘certain person’ while writing her little stories. I cannot tell you what she was like, for I don’t know it myself, and do we ever really know? But I know one small titbit from the history that her life was, and that is what I am going to recount to you.
This woman, one evening, was in conversation with her brothers. In the course of their exchanges, the girl happened to ask her brothers how long they would be around for her. The wise men knew, if not the exact answer, what answer they should not give, what hopes they should not stoke, what facts they could not hide. They spoke the truth, in a matter of fact voice, like they always did.
The woman heard the answer spoken, and asked her next natural question. She wanted to know whether there would be anyone with her till she was.
Her brothers knew the answer, because they had heard men who knew speak about it. They tried telling their sister what they knew, but she refused to believe it, because she saw that the voices of her brothers lacked conviction, and thought if their words were so flimsy that they could not believe it themselves, then why she should do it.
The brothers wanted to prove to the sister the truth of their words, and the sister wanted to know the truth. So they decided to approach a man who was known to know a lot of answers. They would take their question to him, they thought, and see whether he had the answer in his bag-of-answers.
It would be difficult to approach this man, though. He was and exceedingly busy man. His schedule was completely packed for most of the day, and he was constantly meeting people, mostly new ones, every single day. His mind would be filled with the details of all these people, and the bits of information they chose to bring to him, and all that he chose to take in. No, our people were not sure if they would get an appointment. For the appointment of a recluse, is the most difficult appointment to obtain.
Nevertheless, they managed to get five minutes of his time, and the woman put forth her question to him.
“Is there anyone on earth who will be with me forever?”
The great man thought for a moment, and replied, almost instantaneously: “No”
“But I am afraid to go on with so much uncertainty. When there is no definite end to anything, then why should I do what I do? Nothing matters anyway, not me, nor you. And this kind of apathy scares me. Can you please tell me why?”
“It was never meant to be that way. We were born alone and we go alone. It is a law of nature. What is there to fear?”
“The fact that everything seems so important, but nothing really is. Then, why should we do anything? What is the need, what is the desire, what is the will? There is a huge ‘why’ that looms above me. And that ‘why’ seems pointless.”
The great man then said, “It looks like you have not yet learnt to live with detachment. Your fear is but a consequence of that. I’ll give you a proposition. You be my secretary for the next month, live with me, and see what I do. I am sure you will get your answers by the end of the month.”
And so, the brothers left their sister with the man, secretly relieved.
The woman began her internship with her mentor. Her work involved making his schedule for each day, a week in advance, and making sure he stuck to his schedule. Added to this, she had to make sure that he took his meals at regularly spaced times every day, was on time for his insulin shots and was not disturbed when spoke with his wife for fifteen minutes, every morning, the only time of the day he spoke to her. For all this, she was paid in his time; she got an hour to talk to him at the end of every day. However, she hardly made use of this time for actually talking, and let him use his leisure hour as he usually used it.
No, her lessons were from observation. She saw the enormous number of people who spoke to this man every day. She made memorandums of their lives, as they told it to her, to be passed on to him. She got down names and addresses and other ways and means to contact all these people. She saw her mentor engrossed in the affairs of these people, twenty four by seven, learning about everyday horrors, yet eating his food with relish at the end of the day as if he had been born for the sole purpose of finishing that single meal.
She saw him address an old woman he had never set his eyes on before, and his eldest son, with the same warmth, the same equanimity. She saw him impervious to the circumstances of birth and death, of the vagaries of bonds and estrangement.
That night (it was almost three weeks since she had first come there) she addressed him during the one hour he had given to her: “How are you able to be that way? Don’t you feel pride when those people greet you and wish you and adore you? Don’t you feel joy when you speak to your wife and son? Don’t you feel dread when you know that all this is fleeting, and will soon be gone? Don’t you think of what you will do then, how you will sit and think back and feel everything all over again, only it will all be a memory, a have-been? How are you able to create all this, knowing well that it has to definitely go someday?”
The man replied: “Why is it that you have not spoken a word to me, about what you seek me about, all this time, but do so now?”
“I was biding my time. I was observing. There is more sense in silent observation and then talking than in empty talk.”
“Ah! That is exactly what I am doing. I am observing as well, except on a much grander scale.”
The woman said nothing, but looked back, waiting.
“You ask me,” resumed the man. “You ask me about joys and sorrows which are momentary and elusive. But then, is anything not elusive? No, as I told you on the first day you were here. You ask me what sense there is in creating something that is going to go. I ask you, when you know everything, everything, is going to go, what is there to lose? There is equal chance for everything to go on the rocks, which seems to be their ultimate fate. So why not have it and enjoy it while it lasts?”
“To me, everything I see is like an experiment. I have to account for the results, only to myself. So, I observe. I see what happens, I see what does not happen. It’s a poor hobby maybe, but it answers, for me, the questions that you ask.”
“But what about people? Why are they there? Is there any sense in allowing them to be there when you know that they will not be there always? Why this deception?”
The man laughed.
“People? All your people are all you. What you see of your people are what you see, nothing more, nothing less. So, does it not figure that so long as you are around they will be too?”
He continued: “You may wonder at the fact that I spend so little time with my family, that I am continually obsessed with the random lives of random people, including yours. Does this mean I don’t like them, that they mean nothing to me? Of course not. But don’t you realise, it’s all to do with me? Does it matter where they are, what they do and what they think, so long as I have their image with me?”
The woman said, “You care, don’t you?”
“Who said I don’t care? I perhaps care more than anyone else, and that is the reason why I am able to speak this way.”
“So nobody is definitely going to be around for me, for me, till I am here, except myself?”
“Nobody. Or everybody. Depends on how you see it.”
“A perfect Necker cube.” She laughed.
The woman’s internship was over, and she packed her bags to return, if not with all the answers, at least with the means to find them. Which was good enough.
She thanked her mentor for his help, and set out to leave.
After she had gone, the man sat back down.
He thought about the past month, the silent efficiency of the woman, her keen observatory powers that he had observed, and her persistence in fulfilling the goal with which she had come to him. His schedules had been run smoothly for the past month. He had enjoyed having her around.
And now she was gone.
He gave a short laugh, and returned to his work.