He was a decrepit figure; heat-crazed, parched, entranced in his thirst induced mania.
As he dragged himself onward, he left the imprint of a sagging spirit in his wake, the result of a suppurating left foot, too wasted for half measures. His eyes were screwed into slits in a pretense of protection against the intolerable glare. His dehydrated, emancipated body was held together by the most powerful glue in the universe- human will. Three days and a lifetime ago when he had finished the last of his food and emptied his water bottle, he had decided that he would not die.
And he hadn’t. It was as simple as that.
The dunes stretched endlessly all round him. He didn’t look up but dragged on, head bent to his chest. With the desperate and abnormal focus of a man who no longer has anything to lose- but is not yet ready to give up his life- he gave ‘putting one foot in front of another’ a whole new meaning. He shuffled along like a man possessed. His fanaticism for pushing on might have given the most rabid fundamentalist a few pointers.
He knew of no religion save one- that his life was precious and cannot be given up without a fight. The fight in him was a testimony to his courage; for it is easier to lie down and die than to prolong a torture fighting a battle whose only outcome would be the ultimate- and ignoble- defeat. But even a precipitously tough life hadn’t managed to tame him- or to teach him how to give up. He walked on, eyes screwed up, head bowed, limping painfully knowing the only sin was to give in to the silkily persuasive voice in head coaxing him to rest awhile. He’d never get up if he sat down now, he knew it as a certainty in the ache of his bones.
He walked on.
It was instinct that threw his head up with a jerk. With as violent a jerk, he lowered his head again, to escape the lie his eyes painted in front of his eyes. He walked on, his eyes closed.
Surreptitiously, he stole a glance, hoping against hope. Once again his glace scurried away in panic. The lie was still vibrantly there. He began to pray.
Fifty steps, fifty steps and then I’ll look again, he bargained with his panic. His terror whispered in his ear, mocking, derisive. Fifty steps, he told himself firmly. Surely, I can wait fifty steps. He began counting.
On the count of thirty-two, he heard the shrill cry of a raven. He sounded petulant, that raven, as if his favorite food had escaped and he had to make do with something below his standard. The man lowered his head further, and started counting aloud.
The raven cried again. The man was shouting now, he didn’t know he had begun to run. At fifty, he stood still as if he had taken root. He dared not lift his head… it mattered too much to him. For almost half an hour the wasted man stood still, the sun beating mercilessly down on him. His sweat dried adding to the countless white patches down his back. His legs stopped trembling. He sank down silently, unable to bear the burden any longer. He curled into a fetal position, his head buried between his arms, covering his eyes, ears and face.
Even in this moment of absolute irrationality, he was struck by a luminously rational thought. With a feeling of total detachment he thought, “Oh, isn’t it strange that while adversity only served to strengthen his resolve, the first possibility of a respite so weakens him..?” The question kept playing in his head over and over… keeping him so engrossed that he didn’t realize it was of himself he spoke.
After an age, so it seemed to him, he moved one of his arms. Though he kept his eyes closed, his face was now uncovered. He felt the hot air rise off the sand and sear his already raw nostrils some more. His lungs, already on fire, burned a little more. He still didn’t dare to look.
At last he decided to open his eyes. He felt stoic, almost indifferent, now. He neither hoped nor gave up. He didn’t think what he would do if his glance confirmed the presence of an oasis. Equally, he didn’t think how he would get up to walk again if the vision turned out to be another mirage. He was truly numbed.
His eyes opened slowly. He focused them on the sand under his face, buying himself a few more minutes of delusion. When he couldn’t escape it anymore, he raised his glance and stared ahead. The vision was the truth. The oasis was barely ten paces away. There were houses there and trees. He saw a man leading a few goats.
He pinched himself. His brain was compelled to accept the truth of the oasis, there was no escape from it. From under his numbness, came a feeling of such raw intensity, such fierce pride, that it threw him up to a sitting posture. The predominant emotion in him was not of relief, but of pride in his victory. It was the moment of the greatest joy a human being can experience.
He didn’t let adversity break him. He didn’t let pain stop him. He was the master of his life..! He had won!
Having experienced that moment of incomparable, uncontainable joy and pride, of the ultimate freedom, his spirit flew away.
Its journey had been completed, its purpose realized.
Re- posted. Originally posted in Nov 2011
THAT, for me, was a winner! Winning is also about what you take away from an experience in terms of strength of character and NOT what you add to your bank balance 🙂
Was winning ever about bank balances? As the Bard has said- ‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;.
Hardly a worthy benchmark, methinks.
Wow! I read that and then went back to re-read …
Intense, extremely identifiable. Yes the journey, the determination and the focus, that is what defines the quality of life lived. I just had an aha moment
Ritu, your comment delights me. This story is one of my personal favorites. Somehow, it conveys my own mindset so eloquently. 🙂
Beautiful, a skillfully crafted message.
Thank you 🙂
Very well written.I thought he will live.
His living or dying wasn’t the point. His victory was. Thank you for your words and visit. 🙂
This is the most beautiful post I have read recently. Touching, powerful and beautifully written.
Thank you for that comment. I’m delighted. 🙂
It is an amazingly graphic narration of a soul withering and wilting in the deserts. What is more, you put me in the moment and the mind of the traveller. The closing is a shock, yet so credible, and it expands the impact of the story manifold.
Thank you Umashanker. This story is a personal favorite. I am pleased it finds resonance in you. But I sort of knew it would.
You are such a terrific writer, appreciation from you truly matters a great deal to me. But a request.
When you read something ‘not so good’ please tell me so frankly. If possible, also tell me how I could have improved upon it. I would truly appreciate such feedback. As Charles Kettering said- Don’t give me good news; good news weakens me.
Thank you for being the kind of person I can say all this to. 🙂
Thank you 🙂
It is a visually rich writing! I was seeing this man all throughout as I kept reading. Beautiful. And that last sentence just brings it all home.
Beloo Mehra recently posted…Agni, a Cure for the Hunger for Praise
Thank you so much Beloo. The truth is, I had completely forgotten this post. I came to read it by chance and I was pleasantly surprised myself. I’m not only surprised at what I wanted to put across, but also at how efficiently I have done it too. 🙂