The child was exuberant.
He was free. Free. Unshackled from his disapproving parents. Released from that relationship built on gain and pride. Through this, he was also liberated from his step siblings, and so henceforth need not again bother with their bickering or competition. The child was finally his own man, sort of, standing proudly on his own spindly young legs. The road ahead was shadowed by uncertainty and doubt. But glittering hope also lined each step of the way. Hope as promising as the shine of a new crescent moon. Hope as beckoning as the glow of the evening night sky.
The child got to work. To survive, to thrive, so much needed to be attended to. Where to stay, how to stay, whom to do work for and when and where. In order to prevent the mistakes of his disassociated parents, mistakes birthed from ego and disregard, the child took exceeding efforts to never avoid the worst and to always confront the most harrowing head-on. Not once did he shy from a stand-off. Not once did he shrink from a fight too; conversely, he found the euphoria of a skirmish invigorating. This hardiness, this unfaltering resilience, did not immediately pay off. But reward in the long run it ultimately did. The child earned respect from those he fought his way to stand amongst. He earned the nods and praises of compatriots and seniors alike. He was now truly his own fellow. His own champion. His own best defender too.
The child grew up. He became a proud teenager, strong both physically and mentally. With the onset of adolescence came a new set of challenges. Foremost now was not the question of how to survive, but which was the best way to survive and to live. Friends, from near and far, started gathering at the teen’s nifty habitat with suggestions. Some came with gifts. Other came with demands for gifts. Quite a few also came with gifts that demanded better gifts in return. Not unfamiliar with the workings of the world, he was after all from a dysfunctional family, the teen was always cordial and careful with whoever he spoke with. “Yes, I love to be friends,” was his usual opening declaration. “But only as friends who are equals. I am no longer anybody’s kid brother.” “Of course not!” Those friends cried. “We have always admired you. Your accomplishments humble us! If only, if only! We grew up as shrewd as you!”
To which the teen would smile and offer his handshake. He offered many such handshakes over the new few years, and from the friendships acquired, soon built his new home, his greater fame and his larger success. While this happened, he segued into adulthood, becoming the man he always dreamt of growing into, one who was strong, respected and dignified. Proudly, he faced the future, confident of overcoming whatever challenges the future might bring. He took one broad step, found the ground firm and welcoming, and made another powerful stride. And then he stumbled. He didn’t fall flat on his face. But he did twist his ankle quite painfully.
He tripped because of a sharp ache in his knee. This was the remnant of an old injury. One that wasn’t too seriously when it happened, and so was something that he never paid too much attention to. Mortified, the man made another stride and this time he did fall flat on his face. After he hobbled his way to the doctor, he was told that he needed to rest and take things slow for a while. Otherwise, he had no chance of proper recovery.
“You never allowed the old injury to heal,” the doctor informed. “That’s why it worsen into a chronic weakness. This will stay with you forever, unless you allow it to heal properly.”
“Nonsense,” the man said. “I remembered what happened then. It was just a small bump. Give me some painkillers and be done with it.”
“Painkillers would remove the ache. But they wouldn’t heal you.”
“I’m not injured in any way! My knees are just … weak, because I did a marathon last weekend! Now give me those painkillers, or I’m switching to a better doctor.”
The painkillers were dispensed, and as the doctor warned, were no more than a temporary relief. Too prideful to return to the same doctor, or to go to any other, the man switched to consulting his friends. He heard that some of them had suffered similar maladies.
“You brought this upon yourself,” one of them said. “It happened that time when you insisted on dashing ahead. All of us told you to wait. But you refused to heed our advice.”
“Hey, I’m young. You don’t expect me to wait around all the time like you guys.”
“That’s the problem with you,” another said pointedly. “Your success has gone to your head. You think you are unique and superior. You forget that all of us were once young like you. You forget that we too have gone through all that you had faced.”
“How could I be like you? How many of you have accomplished what I did? How many of you survived with so little? You’re gloating now, that’s what it is. You’re happy to see me fall, because this helps you feel better about yourselves.”
His friends smiled, said nothing and left. Infuriated, the man turned to his house servants for suggestions. He had many by then, almost a hundred. He employed that many to maintain the vast estate he had built for himself.
“You are right, master. Your friends are jealous of your accomplishments,” the servants droned in unison. “They seek only to run you down. They seek only to humiliate you. Throw a party! Build a monument! Show and remind them you are still their superior!”
“That doesn’t make sense. And it doesn’t get rid of this pain in my ankle, and back,” the man grumbled.
“Throw a party, master! Have a celebration! You will be too overjoyed to remember the pain!”
And so the man, approaching middle age by now, threw a party. And because one needs to at least sweep the floors, and paint the walls, before hosting such an event, all seemed fine for a while. But with the ebbing of the jubilation, the cracking of the speedily applied paint, the old problems soon returned. The cysts swelled up again. The aches spread and deepened. Worse, many began to speak of the man in less than flattering terms. Rumour was, even some of his devoted servants were looking at him in a different light.
“What must I do?” He held another conference with his servants. “What must I do to preserve my reputation? To preserve my accomplishments?”
“We will remove those who speak ill of you, my lord,” the servants replied. “We will not allow any man or woman, or animal, to continue sullying your great name.”
“When did you …” The man was puzzled. “When did you start addressing me as your lord?”
“Why, we have been doing so for years!” The servants exclaimed. “Do you not deserve this glorious title? Do you not rule us mightily from this great citadel of yours, cognisant of everything that happens before your feet?”
The accolades confused the man. What was happening? What has happened? While he struggled to comprehend, an elderly servant, a wizened, ugly one, stepped forth from the horde assembled and bowed respectfully. At the sight of this crinkled face, the man cringed in distaste. Vaguely, he remembered assigning this ugly one to scrubbing the toilets in the lowest basement. It was something about keeping him out of sight. Something about not upsetting the whole household.
“Who … are you?” The man couldn’t remember the unsightly one’s name, and he was unsure he wanted to. “What … are you?”
“Why, I’m you of course, my lord,” the terrible looking one answered cheerfully. “Do you not recognise me? I am your will and your conscience. I am also your father and your son. Rejoice, for all is not lost, my lord. Your problems can be resolved, simply by facing and acknowledging me.”
“What rubbish are you talking about?” The man snapped. “How could you be me? You’re the one I banished to the basement! To keep you out of sight! I have not stepped into the basement for years.”
“But it’s still your basement, is it not?” the servant reminded, still cheerful. “Are you not the lord of this citadel?”
The man could withstand no more. Screaming hysterically, he demanded for the horrible one to be removed and that was swiftly done. The enigmatic words, however, already affected him, and so later that evening, the man found himself quite unable to sleep. Wandering to his mirror, he gazed in bewilderment as a child looked back at him. A whimsical looking child. So pensive, yet also so haughty in the way he stood with folded arms. Fascinated, the man reached for this mirage. The child retreated a step and clucked his tongue.
“I need to be you again,” the man, now very old, whispered.
“I don’t want to be you,” the child grimaced.
“I do not want to end up like him. I do not want to scrub toilets in the basement. Tell me. Tell me please. How could I be great again? How do I return to being a child? How do I return to being you?”
The child did not answer. Because, how could a reflection possibly have any answer for anything? And so the man, and the image he pined for, stared at each other for many hours. From that night onwards, the man found it impossible to rest or sleep again. This insomnia persisted no matter what he tried. None of his servants or remaining friends could do anything about it.