Little Rajeev was seated on a boulder, leaning over the tiny bug crawling along the boulder’s bumpy canyons, climbing its hills, falling into the abysses just to immediately resume its way up again. The bug was doing it with such an ease, and it made Rajeev wonder about how it would be like to hike the mountains.
He remembered the movies ha had watched with his father and two elder brothers, comfortably seated in the living room, cross-legged on the embroidered cushions – the TV screen was flashing the news, commercials, colorful theatre performances, and movies that spoke about things Rajeev often couldn’t understand. Rajeev was really trying to understand; he was concentrating so hard in fact, that his his father oftentimes had to slap him on the back of his head quite hard to awaken the boy from a hypnosis caused by the films.
Reintroduced to reality in a such a harsh manner, which in fact was quite traditional to his well respected family, Rajeev could see his two brothers pointing fingers at him, laughing wildly. Good thing was, Rajeev didn’t care.
Films aside, Rajeev’s ability to completely disappear into the things that fascinated him hadn’t gone unnoticed, and the first person to notice it, and took take care to inform others, was the primary school teacher Mr Darshan.
Mr Darshan taught history at the primary school in the small town in the county of Bihar, and had held his job in respect which it undoubtedly deserved.
Mr Darshan was used to awaking early, just before the sunrise, bath and pray. While he was praying, the dark navy blue suit hang ready on the doors of the wardrobe, carefully dusted and ironed by his wife Sita. Couple of hours later, the dark navy blue suit on, Mr Darshan stood in front of the main entrance , breathing in the fresh air of the morning. He took a moment to admire the school building, and enjoyed the last bits of an atmosphere of quiet before the storm. The air was still fresh and the dust of the pavement unstirred by the wheels of buses, cars and motorbikes. Darshan, as a rule, would be the first to arrive.
Rajeev, on the other hand, could never manage to make it on time, no matter how hard he tried. Not because he wanted to be late, or show any disrespect to the teachers , but because he simply was not able to go from one thing to another in a systematic way, as others would. The established manmade order of things was as alien to Rajeev as it was alien to the birds soaring high above the school roof and flying far into the mountains.
In fact, one thing you’d find Rajeev doing during the Mr. Darshan’s class was looking out of the window, and at the hilltops far away at the horizon. “You never know what this distracted boy will become as he grows up. An artist, perhaps? Give it a couple of years,” thought Mr. Darshan at first.
Things changed dramatically when Rajeev reached the age of 14. Puberty kicked in exploding young brains with uncontrollable rush of energy – some boys started spending every spare minute chasing the girls, some furiously kicking the ball in the school yard, some locked in the science lab, making plans for future, drawing, writing, sharing projects, prospects and visions. Things changed for everyone in the class, except for Rajeev. Even on the outside, while every other boy proudly demonstrated first signs of bodily hair, Rajeev kept his shirt buttoned neatly up to the collar, hiding his chest, as plain and smooth as before.
Rajeev didn’t show any interest or passion for anything. You could find him sitting there staring out of the window, and into the mountains.
On the day when everything finally did change, it was Rajeev himself who made the change happen. Everything started, quite fatefully, during Mr. Darshan’s class. It went like this:
‘Perhaps Rajeev could help us with the next question.’
‘Would you please tell us all when was it that Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India?’
‘I’m sorry, Sir.’
‘What makes you feel sorry, Rajeev?’
‘ The fact that we have to answer questions like this.’
‘Excuse me? ‘
‘Aren’t we all secretly sorry that questions like this even exist?’
The silence which stood in the class afterwards was such, that you could hear a tiny ant walking on the surface of the Mr. Darshan’s desk. Mr. Darshan carefully observed the ant for a couple of seconds, after which he transferred his gaze right onto Rajeev, who was still standing next to his desk. Mr. Darshan spoke in a calm steady voice, though a bit throat-like if you listened carefully:
‘What an interesting point of view. Perhaps you could explain it to us all in greater detail?’
‘No, because explaining things means only one thing – making lies about them…. Explanations only complicate things.’
‘Interesting,’ – said Mr. Darshan, after which he addressed the rest of the room. – ‘I think we should applaud to Rajeev for this answer.’
The ant continued along the edge of the table with the same persistence and steady calm, by now forgotten by Mr. Darshan and the rest.
‘There is no sign of applause I suggested, is there?’ – Mr. Darshan paused to scan the class from above the tops of his glasses. Everyone in the class remained silent. – ‘So I guess your answer to my question didn’t impress anyone. ‘
‘Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India in 1877,’ – Rajeev raised his forearm to his forehead to sweep off the drops of sweat running down his temples.
Mr. Darshan paused once again and was about to raise his forearm to his forehead to sweep off the drops of sweat running down his temples, but he stopped midway and lowered his hand into his pocket. Out emerged a neatly folded handkerchief, which he then used to sweep off the heavy droplets thickly covering his forehead.
‘The answer is correct, but the timing is wrong, Rajeev. Now get your stuff and get outside. Come back when you are ready to participate in the class the way you are meant to. Off you go. ‘
Rajeev took his bag, and off he went into the school yard and onto the bench where all boys were told to sit for punishment for whatever wrongdoings they had committed that day.
By the end of the day the incident slowly faded away and was never mentioned again.
After all of the students were gone home, and the working hours were over , Mr. Darshan stood up from his desk, inhaled full chest and took his arms up to stretch his back, tired and stiff from sitting for the most of the day. He exhaled in a long sigh. Something slightly unnervingly tickled in his lower back, not extremely painfully, but just enough to make Mr. Darshan pause for a second. The very next second though, his mind free from worries, he made his way down the stairs, listening to the echo of his lonely steps in the staircase.
Outside the building, Mr. Darshan waved good-bye to the night guard setting up a place for the shift. As he walked thought the school yard, he noticed a figure curled on the bench next to the football field. The very same bench where the boys were sent to sit for their worngdoings. As he approached the bench, Mr. Darshan recognized Rajeev. The boy sat there motionlessly, his head tilted and gaze up in the skies.
‘Rajeev, did you not notice, everybody has gone home?’ – asked Mr. Darshan, but the boy didn’t reply.
‘Go ahead, Rajeev, go!’
Mr. Darshan was about to turn around and leave, this was his off-work hours after all, but he suddenly felt that unnerving tweak in his lower back again, a bit stronger than before. And then he felt it again, and this time he had to take a seat.
And so, thanks to this little accident, you had Rajeev and Mr. Darshan sitting on the same bench side by side. For not having anything better to say, Mr. Darshan repeated his previous question:
‘Haven’t you noticed that everyone has gone home?’
This time the boy lowered his head, tilted it couple of times from side to side, as if his neck had gone stiff, then looked straight at Mr. Darshan and said:
‘I am watching the birds. ‘
‘The birds? ‘
It was now Mr. Darshan who tilted his head up and gazed skywards. The birds were actually there, but he couldn’t notice anything special about them. His neck started to feel sore, and he looked down again, this time noticing his hands, neatly folded on his knees. They were hands of an old man.
‘What is it that you like about birds?’ – he asked.
‘They can get from here to the mountains really fast.’
‘Is that right?’
‘Well, they are birds, aren’t they?’
‘Me too. I can get from here to the mountains really fast.’
‘Because I’m one of them.’
‘One of whom?’
Mr. Darshan wasn’t sure what to say. He gazed at his hands again.
When Mr. Darshan raised his head to look at the boy again, he saw something he could barely believe was happening. He saw Rajeev slowly stretching into a bird-like shape. The body of a boy was still size of a human, but it was shape –shifting. His torso was becoming full and swell forward, the head had grown small and moved swiftly. Feathers started appearing on the surface of a boy’s skin: first his forehead, then shoulders, then chest, hands, torso, legs, until all of the body was covered in a net of beautiful black, grey, and white feathers. He saw the a strong graceful beak appearing in the middle of the boy’s face, and his legs became long and skinny like those of a crane. Next thing he saw was Rajeev in a form of a bird taking off the bench and soaring high into the skies. Rajeev the bird drew a circle around the school roof, gave Mr. Darshan a prolonged squeak that sounded free and happy, and took off to the mountains.
To everyone’s surprise, about a year ago, just around the time when that peculiar event took place, Mr. Darshan had given up his teacher’s career. He retired early offering no particular explanation to anyone. After all, at his age, he didn’t need one. Once retired, Mr. Darshan spent a lot of time in his room alone, writing, and taking long hikes into the mountains. At the beginning, people were generally curious, but even his wife Sita only shrunk her shoulders each time a neighbor would enquire about this sudden change in Mr. Darshan’s life. The good thing was , Mr. Darshan didn’t care.
‘It’s good for my back,’ – he once said to his wife.
That was all he ever said about the matter. Oftentimes, people saw him slowly moving down the mountain paths, seated to the rock, gazing up, carefully watching the birds, or leaning over little notebook while writing something down meticulously.
In his walks into the mountains, Mr. Darshan wasn’t always alone. Now and again, a boy from the neighborhood, who, unluckily for his well respected family , had been diagnosed with an unspecified autoimmune disorder that was affecting some of his cognitive ablilties as well as bringing about episodes of deeply apathetic behaviour, would accompany Mr. Darshan, and the two soon became inseparate. No one ever objected to these two sharing the company. It was somehow a very natural duo. They hardly ever spoke, and when they did it was more with looks or gestures, pointing out anything that caught their interest.
At times, the boy’s mother would rise her head from her daily duties and notice the absence of her son. Worried, she’d stick her head out and shout:
‘Where is Rajeev? ‘
‘Outside! Watching the birds! ‘ – the workers would shout back to her from the fieldworks.
Another year went by after Mr. Darshan completed and published a controversial study on autism and behavior of birds. Other than for a few interesting observations, academy never took the study seriously. Moreover, archivists would have to really scratch their head in order to figure what category the study should be catalogued under. Due to disagreement on the subject, the study became difficult to come across , and ended up being buried between the shelves of scripts that rarely ever saw any daylight. Meanwhile, outside, Mr. Darshan and Rajeev continued watching the birds, and it was the world full of lightness and light, and it was a whole different kind of world; the world that didn’t ask for explanations, the world that didn’t ask for anything other than just being who you are, lovingly.