My father said he had walked the forests and had crossed the river at its monsoon prime and had lived in the hills so steep that he could see the sky in front of him, all before he was twenty. I was twenty-three. So, I decided it was time I started my own journey. Quite suddenly, one lovely evening.
The sun had only just gone down, and the moon was already over on the eastern sky with its crimson light. A gentle breeze was blowing and I thought it was as good a day as any to start walking. I told my mother that I was leaving and she looked at me for a moment and said she would have prepared something for the way had I told her earlier. My father seemed happy.
I was carrying a pair of water bottles, a couple of chapatis and cooked-vegetables, some fruits, a flimsy jacket in case it got colder, a knife because you never know, and a handkerchief.
I knew the road was going to be lonely but I had read enough of the adventure stories to be scared by the loneliness. Some part of me wanted the journey to be an adventure, full of evil kings to be defeated, beasts to be tamed, maidens to be rescued. The other part wanted it to be a rather boring journey. I walk the entire night, alone, talking to myself, and by the time dawn arrived, I reach the fair city. It would be safer that way. Not all of us are cut to be heroes.
The paddy fields spread as far as I could see, from the hills in the north to the horizon in the south. For a moment, I wished I had started a bit earlier, in the daylight, right in that beautiful dusk when the sun was in the west, tamed of its earlier ferocity and yet not defeated enough by the night, just when the western sky was red. I might have loved the view of the little golden panicles dancing with the wind.
The tree stood alone in the vast fields, imposing its grandeur to the insignificant little paddies. Its dark and daunting silhouette stood against the backdrop of the glowing sky. Its shadow was sprawling long and wide in the fields. Its leaves rustled gently by the wind.
A tree, in itself, wasn’t impressive but that tree did impress me, by its solitariness if nothing else. If it was a man, or a woman, doomed to stand alone in the vast empty field that seemed to exist all the way to the horizon, with no fellow human in sight, they would have gone mad. Maybe the tree had gone mad and I didn’t know. I didn’t speak their language. I respected it nonetheless and prayed that such fate never befalls me.
I was in a cheerful mood for I walked through those fields for hours without hearing crickets, or birds, and I was still happy. I was going to the fair city, after all, the city of carnival, the city of bright lights and laughing people and games and eternal happiness. And I was going to meet her in the fair city. I couldn’t help but smile at the mere thought of her.
For a long time, I kept thinking about her. I imagined her walking beside me and I talked to her a little. She didn’t reply much, just listened and smiled, and nodded once in a while. Once when we encountered a river, I looked down and saw it sparkling, the moon reflected by the thousand different contours of the flowing water. I showed her the river, thinking that she might like it. When I looked at her eyes, expecting the utter delight to shine in them, I couldn’t make out anything. They were eyes alright, the little pupils enclosed by the dark iris, and everything suspended in the teary white cornea. Only, I couldn’t make out the colour.
She was but a phantom after all, her features indistinguishable: hazy eyes, murky face, wisps of smoke for the body. She was the real her, I knew, but still it was a little disheartening to see her featureless. I was going to meet the real her soon and until then I had to do with her ghost, however incomplete her ghost was.
I walked for hours telling the ghost of her stories, stories my father had told me, and stories my mother had told me and the stories I made up. I did not have any real stories of my own to tell.
I had reached the pedestals of hills and the paddy fields seemed to be over. On the one side of the trail, the tall hills stood, and on the other side, a fine meadow, soft and grassy. The sensation under my feet, even with my shoes on, was tempting me to lie down, to rest my head on the tender grass and allow the exhaustion take over.
The river flowed with a deep and low rumble, like the large rivers do, echoing through the hills and back into the plains. It would have been a calming, reassuring, and safe background had I decided to rest.
I walked beside the river for a long time in the hopeful mood but it was a lonely night, no soul on sight, and her phantom seemed to have lost the charm she possessed before I saw her eyes. So, instead, I started to take pleasure talking to the river—with its deep sloshing the river sounded like a guardian angel—about her, and my father and my mother, but mostly about her.
When she dances, I said, or rather I imagined, she moves in the slow erratic rhythm, eyes closed, hair gliding in the air around her shoulders, feet light on the ground, hips swaying seductively. When she laughs, it is mellifluous, warm, infectious. When she laughs, I said to the river, you fall in love with her.
But she is not that hypothetical doll with all the perfection and no flaws. She is human. She isn’t very beautiful. Here I paused. Not beautiful? No, she is beautiful but her beauty is very subtle. Her face is not aggressively good-looking but so in a very timid way, in a way that it does not draw attention on itself. However, if someone’s attention is on them, they can’t deny she is pretty. I wish, I said to the river, if I can wish it, that only I would be able to see her beauty. The rest of the world, I wished wishfully, would glaze over her, nonchalantly.
It was wishful, I knew, a little vain also, but maybe not for the fair city, the city where no wish was unfulfilled, no desire out of reach.
Here is the part I like about her, I said to the river, yearningly, when she is angry, you can feel her seething as if the rage has spilled into the air and stiffened all the air-molecules in the surrounding. You can feel the sudden death of the rhythm, the absence of the natural dance of the molecules in the atmosphere.
When I talked about her dance, I danced; when I talked about her laughter, I laughed; when I talked about her anger, I smiled and thought about the way I was going to diffuse her anger should I ever be in the receiving end of it. I might sing, probably! I sang to the stream, the old songs of sadness, the old songs of loneliness. They would melt her heart, I thought.
The trail had started to rise through hills, winding and ascending, curving up the hills and down the hills. The river did not leave my side, although now it was down in the valley, and not beside me. Its low deep hum was echoing through the hills, now on both sides of it.
As I walked the hilly terrain, alongside the friendly river, singing and talking and dancing and laughing and thinking about her and imagining how she would be like, a certain realization washed over me. This must be what fair city would be like. It would be brighter and warmer, of course, the sun shining mildly, forever warm and never scorching; and it would be less lonely, more people in it, more laughter, and music, but not just the songs about sadness and loneliness like in the old world, but the songs of joy and happiness. But the feeling, joy, that sense of elation, that warmth on the your stomach, however differently that be achieved, must be the same; it must be there all the time.
Meanwhile, this place, the meadows, the river, the moonlight, must be as good as any to feel that joy for a short while. Maybe I should bring her back here someday. She would probably love it, for a change from the all the brightness and business of the fair city. Together, we would sing and dance and talk to the river, and river would hum with us.
My good mood suddenly, but only for a fleeting second, reached its apex when I saw what looked like a human settlement. For a second, I thought I had reached the fair city. For a fleeting second I thought, now I was going to meet her and see her beautiful face, her actual face. For a fleeting second her phantom that had been walking beside me started to take the corporeal form. For a fleeting, I saw her radiating joy and happiness. Only for a fleeting second.
Soon I realized, the town was too dark to be the fair city, too silent. There were no brightly lit houses, no carnivals of lights and colours; no the hum of satisfaction, no screams of delight. There was neither the commotion of joy nor the silence of peace.
They said that you could spot the fair city from over ten miles, so bright were its towers and so loud was the laughter.
Plus, there was no sun rising in the east, nor any hint of it rising any time soon: the purple glow in sky and the orange hue on the hilltops. In all the literature about the fair city there ever was in the old world, the first sight of the fair city was always described at dawn, when the first rays of the sun kissed the towers of the city, piercing the morning mist, white as snow, that had engulfed the city for a cool and peaceful night.
This human settlement, whatever it was, it was not the fair city.