The world is etched in black as the night rides in, the once vibrant hues no more than a vivid dream. Twisted, warped shapes twirl and dance along the darkness in various patterns that make an ever-changing, ever-present puzzle, question and answer united. The street is like an old-fashioned photograph, everything a shade of grey. Imagination supplies many beasts with fantastical jaws lurking beyond the range of vision. From the end of the street comes a light, a torch perhaps. Upon wary approach, the darkness thaws to reveal the outlines of a house. Lasers of light filter out through the gaps in curtains, and diffuse to conjure a warm, orange glow. In the drabness of the somnolent neighbourhood, it makes the house stand-out like a luminescent hub.
The night wind stubbornly breaks in through the curtains, but it dissipates before it can caress the individual sitting in the far corner of the room. A pity, because beads of perspiration shine on the girl’s forehead like a circlet of pearls. She appears unfazed though, diligently buried as she is under tomes of books. Her wiry fingers trace the words on the vellum pages with utmost reverence. Her concentration hits a momentary lull, as she sneaks a glance at the pillows stacked on her bed. A wistful look crosses her face-before she deftly hides it under a beautiful veneer of insouciance. Sometime after three, her mother stumbles into the room, all grogginess and outrage as she takes in the scene before her in bleary-eyed indignation. However, her voice sounds more resigned than clipped when she spits out the two words, “Sleep. Now.” and hastens away. It’s with an exasperated sign that the girl deigns to concur.
With the weariness of the day weighing down heavily upon her, her statuesque pose from moments before gives away to a near-foetal position in her bed. She goes out like light. However, her fitful slumber is a far-cry from the blissful oblivion that it’s supposed to be. The reason is simple-her dreams. Dreams that won’t grant her a moment’s peace.
As soon as she shuts her eyes on the physical world, poignant vignettes detailing her past invade her subconscious. In her dreams, she is twelve again, and her eyes are riveted on the TV screen as she watches the launch event of the ISRO’s(Indian Space Research Organization) latest brainchild, the Mangalyaan. As the spacecraft takes off, she gives a whoop of joy, fistpumps, and then reaches out towards the TV screen to trace the spacecraft’s parabolic path with delicate fingers.
Fourteen, and she decides to become an aerospace engineer when she grows up and join the ISRO. At home, her decision is met with equanimity. She now has a dream, she realizes. A dream so full of grace and happiness that it makes her mind buzz with brightly-coloured rainbow blotches.
Sixteen, and her preparations are well underway. She and her father brave all the way to a distant city on weekends to attend the forum classes. Tuition is steep, travel is gruelling after a hectic week at school, and the journey proves to be almost too much for her fifty-something father, but they persevere. The fact that she is doing well in her classes goes a long way towards fortifying her resolve.
Eighteen, and she is standing in front of the TV again, teetering with excitement as the countdown for the landing of ISRO’s Chandrayaan-II Vikram Lander begins. The scientists sit stock-still at their stations, consternation etched on their features as they wallow in will-it-won’t-it limbo. And then the unthinkable happens. They lose connection with the Lander. Her mind is reeling with shock, the control room is in an uproar. After several agonizing minutes, it becomes clear that the Lander has crashed. Trying valiantly to suppress her sobs, she crash-bangs into her room and slams the door shut. After all, her beloved country had been well on the way to scripting history before things went haywire. As the melancholy subsides, her eyes take on a feverish glint. Unbeknownst to her, her hands have balled themselves into fists. She swears to God that there wouldn’t be a repeat performance of today. Because next time, she won’t sit at home twiddling her thumb. She WILL be working shoulder to shoulder with those venerable men, doing everything within her abilities and beyond to make her country mighty proud. Marginally pacified by the thought, she reaches out to grab a textbook with a new sense of purpose coursing through her.
The image blurs and reforms around another hauntingly familiar day-the day her results arrive. With terrifying clarity, she realizes that she doesn’t have the required grade to pursue aerospace engineering. The blue feeling washes in like an unwanted wave, knocking her sandcastles flat. A part of her is falling, falling through the earth and leaving her forever.
It is at this (in)opportune moment that the spell breaks and she sits bolt upright in her bed. She gulps down some water in an attempt to quell the growing disquiet in her veins. The curtains are blowing full-tilt in the night breeze, she observes. As she makes her way towards the window, the cool air ruffles her hair and her writhing insides settle down into a semblance of calm. She gazes outside, her eyes unseeing as ghosts of her past parade in front of her and within her. She remembers how, following that fateful day, she was called everything in the book of wrong. She remembers how, being engulfed in nothingness, she had almost resigned herself to fate. To a life that would have scrubbed away every trace of her former self and left behind an alien being, a broken shell. But her dreams had intervened.
Her dreams would reach out to her in the darkest hours of her life, tearing down her walls and throwing her off kilter. They would bombard her with giddily intoxicating images of a seemingly never-to-be-there future, and leave her deeply perturbed. Their frenzied fervour would seep through her skin, to the very crux of her being, and scorch her rationale. Her dreams would nag her, goad her, rile her up until she was ready to leave behind the cavern of brimming darkness and step into the light. Until she was ready to brave the very challenge that had obliterated her, to look life right in the eye and fight.
Her sombre pledge of fighting back is what brings her to this day. Gone is that broken, defeated person. Now she goes about her life with an airy aplomb, exuberance in every step. She is doing her retakes next summer, immune to the disparaging comments thrown her way. All she can think about is happy and only happy, now that she lives to fulfil her dreams once more.
A smattering of loud hoots from a nearby tree jolts her out of her reverie, and she becomes cognizant of her surroundings once more. The night is beautiful, she decides. The friendly blackness around is her cocoon, a place where her dreams may flow freely. The serenade of the night steals every thought from her mind, the usual carousel of worries simply forgotten. Taking that moment under the bright constellations, she makes a vow to the cosmos, “The Lander will soft land on the Moon someday. India will secure her footprint in space. And I will have a role in it, no matter how infinitesimal.”
A moment passes-then two-and then-a gust of wind shoots up from the recesses of the earth, perhaps in silent acknowledgement of the words that still linger in the air.