Mitali threw herself down on the stone slab under her favourite tree in the park. The park was a serene and soothing place. She thought she’ll sit there for a while and let her office seep out of her before going home. She’d had a long and tiring day.
She was vaguely surprised to find the park empty. Then she remembered it was seven o’clock on a Wednesday evening. People must be sitting glued to their TV sets watching one of those sickening reality shows… something inane called somebody’s swayamwar. She grinned mirthlessly. Yeah, that one was crowd puller. People adjusted their schedules to make sure they didn’t miss it. The slow flame of anger burst into flame within her again.
She was tired. It was not a tiredness born of overwork, nor was it new. The quantum and quality of her work did not justify this exhaustion. The exhaustion was like a separate physical presence, like a shadow in strong light. No matter what, she hadn’t been able to shake it off from herself for the past few months. She felt as if she had a lead ball tied to her feet- one which was growing heavier inexorably.
She knew she needed to think things through. She decided not to go home until she had found a way of dealing with the challenge she found staring her in the face on a daily basis. She lived alone, there was nobody to inform if she went home late.
She put her laptop bag under her head and stretched out, looking up into the tree. The dark tree above became the screen on which she could project her life. Every time she became bogged down with a challenge, she would do this. She would see only those events which had a bearing on her current challenge. It was as if a higher intelligence selected snippets of her life and strung them together to make an uninterrupted movie for her. Sometimes it included events she did not even remember herself- at least not consciously. The movie began to play, her age during the event becoming the subtitle.
11 years old: She was sitting alone in her class during lunch break, deeply engrossed in a math question. She forgot she had to wolf down her lunch box and then play with her friends. Her friends kept calling her, but when she didn’t even look up, they got angry and left. She solved the problem in 15 minutes, just as the lunch break got over. The question was not from her curriculum, but from an 11th class refresher she had found lying in her teacher’s desk. She had excitedly told her teacher that she had solved a tricky question. After looking at the book and the copy, the teacher had slapped her- for lying. Mitali stared at her puzzled, tears running down unnoticed down her stinging cheeks.
16 years old: Her 10th class results were out. Her performance had been extraordinary with 96% aggregate. Her highest marks were in science and math. Her parents had decided that she would be an engineer. She neither agreed nor disagreed. She came home from school the next day and told them quietly that she had chosen humanities because she wanted to be a journalist. When the storm broke over her, she sat looking at her parents with an open, polite and quizzical expression. Their pleas broke into smithereens against the rock of her placid will. Almost a month of constants appeals and pleadings had not shaken her. She had sat through them all, looking at them with the same unmoving, puzzled glance.
21 years old: It was her final year of graduation. She was majoring in Journalism. The head of her department was a lady who had held the post for seventeen years. She was reading a report she had written on the squatters of the biggest slum in the city. The report was part of her mid-term assignment. The rest of her class had written brilliant pieces using the milk of human kindness for ink. She had merely written the truth. She had mentioned that the government gave them flats to go to, which they stayed in for a couple of months and then gave out on rent. Then they returned back to the slums. She wrote that most squatters had a TV, a couple of fans and fridge. But they paid the minimum one blub charge for the power they used. The HOD read it through and looked up at Mitali, glaring. Holding her glance, she slashed angry red lines across the neat printout. In her remarks she wrote that the piece was substandard and could not be allowed for submission. Then she told her to re-write it, in two hours. Mitali refused courteously and sat quietly while the HOD raved and ranted at her. There was a quality of a personal affront in her anger, as if Mitali had slapped her. Mitali looked at her puzzled, unable to understand her outburst.
22 years old: She was in the second semester of her post-graduation. There was a writing contest organized by a top European newspaper. The winner would get not only a prize of $5000 but also an apprenticeship with the newspaper. The entry was to be submitted through the college department with the recommendation of the HOD attached. None of her batch mates were participating in the contest. There were only twenty-four entries from India. She had been requesting her HOD to write her the letter of recommendation. The HOD kept postponing it. Now there were just three days left for the emailed entries to reach the newspaper head office. She was determined to obtain the letter today. When she reached the college, she was told that the HOD was on leave and gone out of station. She would return the day after the deadline would get over. She tried to call her on her cell phone- but her cell was switched off. She sat looking at her cell, puzzled. Her entry was rejected.
23 years old: There were still three months for the semester- and her post-graduation- to be completed. The day before she had received a call from a reputed English daily with a strong national presence. They had offered her the position of management trainee for their city news section. The Editor had read her article on slum- dwellers, in which Mitali had scored a dismal D grade, thanks to her HOD. She had attended the interview- and had bagged the position. Two weeks later someone told her that the HOD was going around saying that she had obtained the position through pull and bribe. The Editor had read the article on the college website. No one knew how her article had been uploaded to the site, even though it had scored a low grade. Mitali was very puzzled about the mysterious uploading of the article.
27 years: The Editor who had hired her, died suddenly of a heart attack six months ago. In four years, Mitali had moved steadily upward on the paper. Under the tutelage of the old Editor, she had gone from brilliant to exceptional, as if purified. She now had sole charge of the city section with her own by-line. The new editor had a totally different thought process from the old one. For the past three months, Mitali was conscious of a one-sided antagonism from him. It was not visible to others because there was hardly any cause for it. Mitali was competent, dedicated and very responsible. Though others were not aware of it, each time Mitali entered the editor’s room she could feel the putrid stench of the silent malevolence clogging her throat. In the beginning she had thought she was imagining things. Imperceptibly though, her best assignments and stories were either quashed or given to someone else. Mitali watched on helplessly, puzzled.
Today: After four months of patient probing, Mitali had finally uncovered a fake degree scandal involving her old college. Her old HOD was in it neck deep along with many others. They were supplying fake college degrees to people. The city was flooded with graduates and post-graduates who had not even cleared class 10th. She had submitted the story to the editor two days ago. Today, it had been published. Only, it had been re-written by a supposed freelancer no one on the paper had ever heard of. The story had been watered down AND the names of all the big fish had been removed.
Once her imaginary movie had finished, she remained still- waiting. She seemed to have fallen into a trance. She was breathing deeply and slowly. After almost twenty minutes she heard The Voice. It was a deep voice, quiet and serene. Mitali didn’t know where it came from or whether it was a male voice or female. It had never mattered. All that mattered was that the voice spoke, resolving her issues, giving her solutions.
“The world enshrines mediocrity”, the voice said. “Exceptional people like you are misfits in the world and you make others uncomfortable. The world’s eyes are accustomed only to the dull sheen of the average. Your brilliance shines too brightly and hurts their eyes. Your self- confidence is like a slap in the face to them. You walk unchartered paths, but others feel safe on paths well-trodden. You know what you want, while others have never dared to hold an opinion not shared by their mates. You are a brilliant original painting, while others are mirrors- reflecting the blankness of each other.
“You are a threat and reproach to them. Simply by existing, you remind them of what they could have been. They feel cheated because to them you seem specially privileged, as if you have a hidden pull. This makes them very angry and they look around for someone to accuse. Loath to blame themselves, they conclude that it is YOUR fault… somehow.
“You are impelled by the desire to move towards a positive value because your central impulse is love. They are impelled by the desire to get away from a negative value because their central impulse is fear. Of the two, you will always be stronger. The course of your life will ever be unwavering and steady- albeit slow, whereas theirs will be a saga of detours and sporadic, jerking movements.
“By virtue of sheer multitude they will succeed in slowing you down. You will feel as if you are wading through wads upon wads of cotton. This cotton is not solid and it seems silly to accord it the dignity of a serious antagonist. That is your mistake. This loose, harmless looking cotton clings to your legs and floats around your nose and clogs your lungs. It sticks to you eyelashes and gets into your eyes. You always feel as if there is a mist around you. This cotton is present everywhere, you must learn to deal with it.
“Cotton cannot survive against fire. A day will come when you brilliance will shine like the fire it is and will wipe out all the cloying, clinging cotton around you. Until that happens you must use preventive tactics. The first thing you have to do is to accept its presence and become aware of the extent of the damage it can do. This mental preparation is essential. Then you must wear a mask over your nose and cover your limbs with clothing which doesn’t encourage the cotton to cling. Lastly, don’t give power to the cotton by conceding defeat and giving up. Don’t envy it as if it holds some secret of the universe. Recognize its true nature, which is inertia and impotence.”
Mitali sat up with a start, refreshed. She resolved she will not be defeated by cotton– no matter how venerated.