“Ma, do stars live forever?” That was the first question I had asked my mother, after I had heard that her grandmother had passed away. She had stayed away from me the entire day. Now that I think back on it, she probably did that to hide her grief.
“Of course, they do! Now hush and go to sleep.” Had been my mother’s reply.
I still remember how I thought Ma’s eyes looked different that day while she was putting me to bed. Even though I was but a child, I felt as if her eyes were desolate, empty; like looking at nothing, yet, looking for something. I did not have many memories with her grandmother. I have many with my own grandmothers, but barely any with Ma’s. The most vivid one, which has stayed with me, was a story she told me, not long before she passed away.
My room had a window. My bed had been placed right beside that window so that I could gaze at stars and the moon every night, and get a beautiful view of our backyard every day. My parents decided that, because they wanted me to be connected with nature. I had no special interests in that view, but I still loved looking out at the beautiful flowers that bloomed, that magnificent mango tree that would become a target of neighborhood kids every year, the full moon, the moonless sky.
Somewhere along the line, I think I did become attached to the view outside my window; though I couldn’t say the same about nature in general. I was a quiet child, an old soul who preferred reading to playing outside wildly, with children of my age. I didn’t have any friends, except at school; and none of them lived in my area.
And so, I spent my summer holidays either in my room, looking out the window while reading a children’s book, or at one of my grandparents’ place, doing the same in a room. One summer, Ma’s frail, old grandmother had come to our city to get treatment, and so, she was staying with us. Even though she was very weak at the time, she wanted to tell me one bedtime story every night. It is, sadly, an insult to her memory that I only remember one of the seven she had told me, one for every night of the week that she stayed in the house. However, the one I remember, I remember very well, in excruciating detail, because it was the one story that seemed related to me.
On the third night of her stay, Ma’s grandma came to my room, and asked me if I was ready for the story. She would always do the same. She would ask me then, without waiting for my response, quietly pull the chair near my bed, and start telling me a story. I loved that part of the day. My parents never told me any bedside stories. Only my mother’s mother, and my father’s father ever told me any stories, bedtime or otherwise. Even though I don’t remember all the stories, I do remember the feeling. I remember the feeling of anticipation of hearing a new story, meeting new characters, encountering new emotions. My grandparents even told me, that while I was listening to stories, I would be the most expressive, of all their grandkids. I take pride in the fact that I became their favorite grandchild because I took interest in what they told me. That might have been one of the reasons why Ma’s grandma wanted to tell me those stories. When she lived with us, she used to spend the entire day in a hospital. And when she came back, she couldn’t get anyone to listen to her, since everyone seemed busy. Maybe she told me those stories only because she wished for someone to listen to her talk, pay attention to her words, appreciate her stories. However, I did not, and do not, have any complaints about that.
As expected, her stories were generally about Kings and Queens, Princes
and Princesses. The third one was the same. It was about a beautiful princess who meets a prince outside her palace window, and falls in love. In the end, the prince takes her away to The Land of the Stars. If I was interested in stars before, this story had just made me live for them. I wanted to know if there were people living on stars, if they would ever come down, if they looked like us, talked like us, dressed like us. Nobody gave me any answers, brushing off my questions as childish curiosity. However, my childish, innocent curiosity did not go away; it gave birth to a new consciousness inside me- the skeptic.
The princess’ adventures baffled me. She had only ever had one dream – to explore the outside world. And she had been denied that, because it was dangerous. Then, entered the gallant prince to save her from the comfort of a beautiful palace. The first night that the prince came for her, he told her how he had been looking for the most beautiful woman in all the land. And since then, the prince and the princess would go wander off into the night, every night, till dawn. The prince was from The Land of the Stars, so, obviously, he could only survive in the darkness. As I grew older, The Skeptic told me that it was probably based on a story of a man and woman who fell in love, but their wanderings were found out and they were murdered for that. The Skeptic added, that, The Land of the Stars was probably a nicer term for the land of the dead. But what shocked me most about The Skeptic’s words was that I would never have the same kind of freedom the princess had. Even though I had a window, big enough for me to jump out of whenever I wanted. But I never could. I would never be allowed to. Even though the entire world was waiting for me, I would never be allowed to explore it, even if I did have a prince with me.
This world doesn’t work that way. Even though my parents raised me to be an independent woman, I wasn’t really independent. Without knowing it myself, I had been caged; caged inside a cage with an open door. When I wanted to go out with my friends, I was made time-bound inside a curfew. When I wanted to wear shorts, I was confined inside my friend-circle. When I wanted to learn dancing, I was enclosed within my gender. When I jumped out the window, I saw a lockless door to the outside world. I was caged, but expected to be strong. Like, expecting a domesticated dog to one-day start living in the woods, amongst wolves. And if he asked for help, he’d be branded “weak”, “dependent”, an enemy of all dogs, an enemy of equality. I thought the same for a long time. However, The Skeptic pointed out that you cannot survive fire if you’ve always lived in water. You cannot survive the wolves’ attack unless either you become a wolf, or get a wolf’s help. The princess got herself a nice, handsome wolf. She still had to flee to the stars for her Happily-Ever-After. The Skeptic kept reminding me, that I would never be able to run to the Stars. This world, as cruel as it is, was all I had.
I wanted The Skeptic to be wrong. I wanted the princess to have had her happily-ever-after with the prince; even if it was in the land of the living, and not Stars. However, I couldn’t ignore The Skeptic. The Skeptic had never been wrong. The Skeptic had burnt my castles, to build a disaster-safe cottage. Sadly, grudgingly, I accepted The Skeptic’s words. I turned Ma’s grandma’s story into a life lesson – of how life will not turn out. And when The Skeptic finally asked me, “So, will the domesticated dog become a wild dog, or an enemy of them all?”, I replied, “A wolf.”***