HE RIDES THROUGH THE NIGHT
He’s at his friend’s house in the heart of the city. The exams are finally over and he can now relax on that count. He has been a consistent high performer and this exam will be no different he knows. What makes today special is the phone call he received from his father’s lawyer in the evening. And like another one of life’s paradoxes the call has changed everything yet nothing. He feels locked in, almost claustrophobic with all the emotions building inside him. He needs to escape, to run free and he knows the perfect way.
He stares at his friend’s bike with longing. The bike is a vintage beauty; brought in 1986 and passed down to his very lucky friend. It is a Yamaha RX-100. It hasn’t got the speed or styling of the latest bikes but by God the bike is a beauty in its own right. The sound and vibration as the bikes revs up is a drug he can never get enough of. He looks long at the bike and then walks back into the house.
Inside is a mess of tangled bodies and empty bottles. His friends lie in disarray throughout the room. The room’s distinct smell of alcohol and smoke bears witness to the party that ended a few hours ago. He has had his share of alcohol but he hasn’t been able to sleep. His body is a little tired, his mind a little hazy but the call has churned up a ton of pain inside him. And the pain has made any attempt at rest impossible. He needs to find his friend and get the key.
He finds his friend buried under another guy on the sofa. His friend is hugging a bottle of Smirnoff and snoring away to glory. A smile creases his lips as he sees the blissful expression in his friend’s face almost as if his friend were hugging a childhood toy and not a bottle of vodka. Such bliss has always seemed out of reach for him and he envies his friend this peace that he manages to find in his alcohol induced sleep but he has more important matters to attend to. He searches his friend’s clothes for the bike’s key and finds it in the right pocket of the shorts. He grasps the key triumphantly.
Tonight he can feel something pushing him inside to ride the bike. It is like a voice from another world is whispering to him of sweet promises that he will realize tonight. Then he is standing beside the bike and it is only then he realizes that the bottle of Smirnoff is in his hand. He smiles at the bottle as a thought overtakes him to do something he has never done: drink and drive. He gets on the bike to do just that.
He can feel the bike’s vibrations down to his bones and it is an undeniably good feeling. He is roaring through the town making his way to the highway. The highway with its smooth, unending road and the promise of freedom beckons to him like some sweet seductive mistress. Today he is determined to find freedom; he knows will die if he does not. He cannot let the pain free yet, not yet. He must reach the highway first.
He takes the turn and voila, he has reached the beginning of the highway near a petrol pump. The pump is closed but he knows that his friend filled the tank last night so that is one problem he won’t face. He turns into the highway and stops on the side. He opens the bottle of vodka and takes a deep drink of its contents. Then he puts the bottle down between his thighs, holding it tightly and then puts the bike in gear and takes off. And as the vodka races down like liquid fire, burning his throat he lets the pain run free. Now he can finally let it all go.
The bike is racing away in the night. He is seeing if he can literally outrun his pain, his emotion; if he can run free of the pale spectre of his past rising up like a hound, hungry for his blood. For he knows that his past will drag him down, will kill him if cannot be free. Unless he can render powerless the memories that are his existence will be in vain. He pushes the bike to its limits wanting the rush that comes with speed, the rush that comes when you play hide and seek with Death. The cold wind stings his eyes and carries away the tears that form as he remembers.
He remembers the photos he saw of his parents’ wedding. What catch his attention are his mother’s eyes. They seem to sparkle and almost hum with excitement and life. Even then, 25 years ago, his father has been a successful man; a man of means with friends in high places. His mother had been an orphan living with her brother’s family. For any woman it would have been a ‘dream come true’ but even more so for his mother who had not imagined that she could ever marry such a ‘big’ man. The joy in their life was real, very real. And then, after three years of marriage, he had come into the world; another soul to partake in the family’s joy.
He tips the bottle back taking a long sip even as the bike continues on at top speed. His grandma told him this story, the story of his parents before he was born. The memories are growing stronger, more potent. He doesn’t know if he can summon the courage to face the memories but he knows that he must. He must relive the story and then finish it. His eyes are on the road but he does not see it. His mind has gone back in time.
His remembers the first time he saw his mother cry. He cannot remember anything about himself but he can still hear the sounds. The sound of his parents locked in a verbal duel. Then he hears the sound of flesh striking flesh and his mother is lying on the floor, staring directly into his eyes as blood trickles down the side of her mouth. And then she screams as her husband kicks her again and again in the stomach. Her stomach, her chest and then her face. His brutality knows no bounds. Such savage and vicious kicks that you would think he was abusing a dog and not a human. His father stormed off angrily as his mother lay in a crumpled heap, her tears now mixing with her blood and flowing down her chin. This pattern repeated itself over and over through the years though the violence was nearly always confined to his parents’ room. His father would close the door and then horrific sounds of violence would shatter the silence in the house. When his mother came out her face and arms would be unmarked but she could only hobble along the wall, like an old woman. All of this was done was done without a drop of alcohol. Occasionally his father would turn on him and give him a taste of the savagery. He still has scars from the belt buckle he was hit with when he was ten. His mother’s family reported him to the police but his father had his finger too many pies and too many friends in the right places. No one laid a finger on his father.
Even so he was mostly left alone. He was the only heir of his father’s little ‘kingdom’ and his father brooked no resistance from him. For every rebellious act he did his mother would pay the price. He was expected to be the top scorer of his class. The only time he stood second was in when he was in class five and when his father heard this he had gone into a fit of rage. And again none of the rage was directed at him but his mother had been unable to move for three weeks. After that he always stood first.
The Smirnoff bottle is half empty now but he barely notices it. His face is a mask of desperation as he allows his past to surface and find him again. His eyes have a wild look as he lets the horror of the past loose upon himself, as he remembers.
He remembers his last day in school. There had been a grand graduation ceremony which his father had attended. His mother was not allowed to leave the house. So his father watched proudly as he gave the valedictory speech and had numerous honours heaped upon him. After the ceremony had been a small farewell party. It was during this party that someone had bumped into him. He had seen the other guy around; he knew his name was R—-. R—- was the school comedian, the guy who joked about anything and everybody. That day R—- made the mistake of joking about the absence of his mother from the ceremony. The next thing he knew was that someone was pulling him away while R—- lay on the ground, his face drenched in blood and looking like someone had taken a hammer to his face. His nose lay at a crooked angle and his skin had split in several places. When the hospital report came in it said that R— had lost partial eyesight in his right eye and that he had a broken nose and was missing six teeth. His father pulled a lot of strings and got R—-‘s family to agree to an out-of-court settlement. He went to see R—- in the hospital. Most of R—-‘s face was covered in white bandage and his right eye had a patch over it. Then R—- looked at him through his left eye and he saw fear; the same fear he had seen so long ago in his mother’s eyes as she looked at him from the floor. He had become his father.
The realization of what he had done shook him to the core of his being. He knew he had to go far away from his house, far away from his father. So, for the first time in his life he prayed. He prayed not to any specific God or religious creed but he opened his heart and begged to be saved from the future he had glimpsed; he did not want to become his father. And thus came the first blessing in his life. Apparently his father had been shaken up by what he had done to R—-. So his father decided to send him away down South to do engineering. He still had a lot of connections and friends in the South. Any other future mishaps would be easier to cover up there. And so he was sent away, his prayers were answered. He never knew if his mother found out about R—; his mother hadn’t talked to anyone in the last eleven years.
The bottle is almost empty now, only a quarter of the vodka still left. It has been four years now, four years without the stifling presence of his father. For the first time he has been able to make friends here but even they don’t know the entire truth. He has found a small measure of happiness but his father still cages the core of his being against any lasting joy. No more. Tonight will change everything. Tonight he is facing his demons and one by one quelling them. He does this because he knows that from today he is free. His father’s lawyer had called to tell him that his father had died last night.
The lawyer had called in the evening right before the party. The servants in the house had found the bodies early in the morning. His father had been stabbed thrice in the heart. His mother had been lying in a pool of her own blood; the veins in both her hands were slit open. It was obvious, at first sight itself, that his mother had killed his father and then used the knife upon herself. Tomorrow there would photos and articles in the paper about an important man who had been killed in a metro city by his own crazy wife but he would know the truth. He would know who was really crazy. What the lawyer had told him only confirmed his suspicions. He had known because his mother had called him that night before she cut her veins.
His tears stream afresh as she remembers his mother. His mother has been a mute spectator for the last eleven years. The only sound she made was one of whimpering when her husband attacked her. He remembers her soulless, vacant eyes. The eyes that held such life and joy in those photos of her marriage had lost all hope. Her eyes were haunted by the cruel reality thrust upon her; her husband had loved her until she gave him son. The birth of a son had been the sole motive of his father and his mother had fulfilled that just fine. He used to wonder if his mother hated him, if she hated him for being the cause of her pain. He had never known until his mother called him.
When he saw his father’s number flashing on his mobile phone he had wondered why his father was calling. His father only called the day exam results were announced to confirm that he was indeed the top ranking student in his college. And he had been, all through the engineering course. But yesterday night it had not been his father on the phone. As soon as he said hello over the phone his mother’s clear and soft voice had talked to him. How long has it been since he talked to his mother? O God he had almost forgotten what his mother’s voice sounded like.
His mother had only said a few words: “Son, I love you”. He had forgotten how gentle his mother’s voice had been. Even now it is hard to believe that his mother had talked to him after eleven long years of silence. His heart had yearned for her voice even when he forgot what her voice sounded like. Her voice had been as beautiful and as welcome as rain on a dry, parched land. I love you. It was the first time that he had ever heard these words from his mother. She might have used only three words but the words had conveyed to him her entire soul. In the last moments of her life his mother had been able to say what she had not said in 21 years of his existence; she has fulfilled the debt of her motherhood.
And in his mother’s voice he had heard a beautiful and strange note, the note of freedom. He knew that if he looked into her eyes at that instant, his mother’s eyes would be shining with hope. And not hope for herself but hope for her son. Like some great seer from the past she knew that her time had come. She had killed her husband so that her son would live free. She killed her husband so that her son could finally find freedom from the oppression and tyranny of his father. She had freed his life; she has fulfilled the debt of her motherhood.
His mother has opened a path to his freedom and the entire night he has been trying to seize it. His mother has set him free in this life, now he must free himself from the memories. He wants to be sure that he fulfils the hope he heard in his mother’s voice. His mother’s words are a balm to his soul, healing his lovesick heart. He never knew he needed the words so.
He raises the bottle to his lips for the last time. The last few drops float around in his mouth and burn their way to his stomach. Ah! Sweet release. His chains are being slowly broken; his burdens are losing their hold. As he flies through the seemingly endless night he knows that this night, his night, has not been in vain. The sweeping wind is raking through his hair and body, chilling him outside even as the fire rages inside. He screams raucously out of the sheer pleasure of the glorious oncoming of freedom. Freedom is coming and he is rushing to catch it because he knows that this may be his last chance, his only chance.
He glides on in the night, realizing, for the first time, what the words “soaring on the wings of eagles” means. His soul is free from its cage, the cage of his father. His soul is flying free. He turns the bike around, just before he crosses the state border. He is on his way back to his friend’s house and the bike is still doing top speed as he rounds bend after bend. In a little more time he reaches petrol pump from where the highway began. The area is pitch-black in the moonless night without any streetlights to illuminate the way. The road to his friend’s house lies on the left and he takes the turn without a thought to reduce his speed. And then the bike’s headlight illuminates a most frightening sight: in the light he can see the mournful eyes of a cow staring back at him. His mind forms one coherent four letter word as he desperately tries to swerve the bike away but he is going too fast. He hits the cow at full speed and feels the sensation of weightlessness as he flies. Then his body hits the ground and all grows dark.
When he opens his eyes all he sees are blurred shapes swirling around. The surroundings are white and he can see light all around. It takes him a full minute to focus on the blurred shape and realizes that it is his friend, the one who owned the bike, standing at his hospital bed. His friend sits down near him and tells him what happened. When he had tried to swerve his bike to avoid the cow it had actually saved his life. The bike had turned partially and hit the cow sideways, not head-on. Everyone from the doctors to the friend himself agreed that this simple fact had saved his life. He had flown off into a clump of tall bushes on the side of the road and that had saved him from any life threatening damage. However the accident had still fractured his left arm in three places, broken two of his ribs and damaged his right ankle. One does not drive at high speed while drinking copious amounts of alcohol and get away unscathed. His body is broken but his soul is still free; and he knows his body will recover in time. His friend’s mother is sitting there beside the bed and she tells him that she had tried contacting his parents. She had been put in contact with his father’s lawyer who told her about his parents’ deaths. He looks at her and he can see tears form in her eyes as she tells him all this. And then for the first time in his lifetime he trusts a human being with all his secrets. He tells her the truth of his father. By the time he reaches the end of his narrative both his friend and his mother are crying. He has two people who are sharing in his pain. He may be an orphan but he is not alone. That is when he realizes that perhaps these tears that they shed are not the simple tears of a human being; they are the blessings of God. And like a far away echo he can still hear his mother saying: “Son, I love you”.