I've been lucky to have a great memory my whole life. Now, that doesn't mean I was great in studies. Everyone in India is expected to blossom in academics. When I was young, I used to wonder how come every kid related to me claimed to be first in their class? How many firsts are there in a class after all?
My understanding of studies was way different. We were told the 10th grade is supposed to be the turning point of a student's life. How you perform in your 10th board exam will decide your career, and thereby, your life. Someone needed to explain better. I wasn't motivated by that message.
When I was writing the Mathematics paper for the 10th board exam, Veena teacher was the examination officer. She was famous for being the mother of a film actress called Navya Nair.
'Why are you sitting idly?,' she asked me. I was a bit taken aback. Nobody wanted to converse with the examination officer amidst the exams. Plus, the mother of a celebrity is a celebrity. Everyone was ogling at us.
'Well, I guess I'm out of answers. '
'No, you're not. I have been watching you solve the problems. Then I saw you calculating your marks. I know your type. You think you've done enough to pass. So you're not attempting the rest of it. Well, I say you ace it. I'm not leaving until you answer all.'
Wow, she was good. This was the first time she lay eyes on me. Its like she saw my soul. She stood till as I answered almost all. I pretended I didn't know one of them. That's always been how I was. For some reasons, I always pretend to not know what's going around.
The result of that examination indeed changed my life. My father thought I was really good in Mathematics and there is no way he's leaving me without seeing me as an engineer. I just had a good memory. O well, whatever.
By 2009, nothing had changed. For some subjects of my final Mechanical Engineering semester I scored as much as 92% and for some other paper I scored 3%. My professors would often scratch their head. Four years into this they couldn't still figure out whether I was made for this or not.
Meanwhile, my best friend who took architecture was having a semester break. There was a museum near her home. I loved history. She agreed to take me there on a Sunday. So I decided to get on a train without any reservations or even a ticket.
Yes, I was caught. So I pretended to be an Indian who lives abroad, currently here to do my college degree. I convinced the railway police how pathetic life is as I don't understand a word of the local language. I told him I never travelled in a train before. I'm just the average nerd. Usually it's the bus that I take, and in the bus the ticket was given inside the commute. Now the policeman is saying that I was supposed to take the ticket from a counter in the station that I embarked from. I said it was all too pressurising.
It was a pathetic argument. It was outlandish. But it worked. He let me go. For the next 5 hours I travelled on a seat reserved only for the officials. We shared the seat.
As I arrived Sunday morning my friend said I was earlier than expected. She had to go to the beauty parlour. Men were not allowed inside. There was no way I was waiting at her house. Her mother was not really a morning person. I knew that from experience. So I decided to go with her, but wait on the outside. She concurred on that decision.
Sunday being a holiday all the shops were closed. My friend got inside the parlour and I sat on the steps of a closed shopping complex nearby. I could see the varanda was occupied by an homeless old man who was reeking with the smell of booze. Being a teetotaler I hated that. But I respected his age. He got up seeing me sit next to him. I waved and smiled.
The man spoke to me in English. I was taken aback. Wasn't expecting an educated hobo. He stretched his leg forward and I saw that it was like Forrest Gump on braces, only worse. There were some screws to his sheen. I haven't seen anything like that. That leg looked like a job from a prison doctor. Looking at it made me want a pain killer.
Women and beauty parlours have a long history. On the quest of looking prettier and younger, some of them spend one-fourth of their lifetime there. So I knew my friend was gonna take time.
My hobo friend said he used to work in the telecommunications at his younger days. My father used to work in telecommunications in Dubai. Then we discussed books. Then we shared experiences. This was better than the iPod. I crave to learn from people with life experiences.
'My children threw me out of my own house. I guess I'll have to die on the streets, ' he said. I was a bit saddened. See how he psychologically reminded me of my father?
'Would you mind if I gave you some money?'
'Would I mind? That's a first!' he laughed. I gave him everything on my purse. There wasn't much though.
'I have one more request, ' I said. He kept smiling. 'Can I take you to an old age home?' He disagreed. I compelled him. The food, fresh clothes, and dignity was not something that he was keen on. He just wanted freedom, even if that means dying on the streets. He would be thrilled to get some books though. He missed reading.
I saw my friend coming out of the parlour with a smile so wide that we could see the pearls from half a football yard away. I introduced her as she stood down the stairs beside us. Then I walked towards her.
'Listen, I wish to give this man some money. I'll return it to you later, ok?' She agreed. Then she looked over my shoulders and then screamed. I turned back and saw no one. The man disappeared.
I ran towards where he was sitting. I ran around the varanda. All the entrances were closed from outside. I even jumped the wall on the surrounding premises. There was no way to go. The man disappeared. He just vanished. We were shocked.
'He was here. You saw him, right?' I asked in a frenzy.
'Where did he go?' She asked with teary eyes. This was too much for her. I was equally worried for her. I decided to take her home. So we took a rickshaw. In the rickshaw, I asked to myself was this real?
'But both of us saw it,' she said.
'How did you? I didn't even ask that loud. You just answered something that was going in my mind. '
'Don't even start now, Firdouz. I've had enough "voodoo" for the day!'
'Ok, ok.' After a few minutes I dropped her home. Then I decided to go to my home, which was only an hour away. I didn't go to the college the next day. On the way back home it was raining. I took the train, but this time there was no money to buy tickets even if I wanted to.
My mother was surprised to see me. I had dinner with her and went to bed. My friend didn't text me that day. I tried to reverberate everything the old man said to me. I have a great memory, remember? He told me:
'The mother bird goes to the highest cliff and pushes every little ones of hers. Some may die. She knows that, but does it anyway. Have you noticed? You should read about everything in life. The little ones who survive learn to fly. Flying is important to survive. You should read about survival. The ones who learns to spread their wings flies away from the mother bird. They don't always come back. Most of them stay together, though. None of them ever hate their mother. Read, and you will have a better understanding. '
It took me years to understand what he meant. After all, he was a drunkard. Then I remembered his breath didn't smell anything like he was drunk. My despise for alcohol was so much that I could always tell when any of my friends had a little drink. I could tell from afar. Only his clothes smelled. But the moment I smiled at him, there was only fragrance. I remember that. Then I started wondering if he was really human. For years, I wondered what he was. In Islam, we talk about jinns. Growing up I was taught about an immortal prophet called Khidr. They say he can pretend to be anyone. Some say he is not a prophet, but someone the Almighty adores and has favoured upon. So was he a jinn or prophet Khidr?
Few months after that I and my friend ended our friendship. That is why I'm not taking her name here. There was no particular reason for us to distance ourselves. It just happened. Now, I'm not someone who makes friends easy. So this took a toll on me for a long time.
With time, I became religious. I became an avid learner of the religion of Islam. I changed as a person the more I learned. I never used to blindly follow people. Even if it was concerned with studies. I needed a deeper understanding of each and everything. So the more I learned about the religion, the more I understood of the purpose of life.
When angel Gabriel met Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in a cave, he was told thrice to read even though he was an illiterate. The old man also told me to read three times.
With age, life became more difficult. The more you became closer to God, the trials and tribulations grew with it. Every now and then I remember the conversation I had with that man who disappeared. He said the bird never hates his mother for pushing him from the cliff. Sometimes people fly away when they are pushed off their limits. Sometimes people stay in the flock. No one really hates the mother though. No one really hates the creator, do they? It took me thousands of hours of reading to understand what he meant. The feeling can't be explained.
Eventually, all that mattered was the message. I stopped thinking whether will I meet him again or not. I stopped thinking whether he is human or not.