Laila was, according to her closest relatives, “a tiny girl with huge dreams”. The fact that she was a girl as little as a drop of dew sliding off the petals of a rose in a winter morning, with dreams as large as Mount Everest itself, could not be denied.
When she turned five, she got a Disney Princess-themed colouring book on her birthday. Sitting all day on her table and colouring, she had caught her parents’ attention, who had peeked over her shoulder to see what it was that she was so absorbed in. What they saw had amazed them so much, that they had declared her to be undeniably talented among her relatives. Why, she was capable of becoming a world – famous artist in the future! On her next birthday, the little beauty got a mini karaoke set, which was enough to hold her attention for the larger part of the days. Her sweet, innocent voice emanating from her room never failed to captivate her neighbours, who had remarked to her mother, “Your daughter is quite a singer!” Laila was thus on her path to becoming a singer the whole world would be mesmerized by.
When she turned seven, her favourite Uncle Sam gifted her a small telescope, with which she would run up to the terrace every night, with excitement bubbling within her at the prospect of looking at the moon and stars as if they were just two streets away. One evening, while running upstairs she slipped, breaking her knee and her telescope. She had cried, not due to the sadness of losing her telescope, but with a flair of determination inside of her that once she grows older, she would be closer to the stars and moon than she could ever have been while looking through a telescope. She would become an astronaut.
The next year she got a sports kit as her gift, which ignited a newfound passion within her to become a sportsperson when she grows older. The year after that, she got an old edition of Dicken’s masterpiece, Oliver Twist, and a dream of becoming a best-selling writer in the future. Years passed, bringing her newer gifts and newer possibilities for her future. When she turned eleven and was taken to the school laboratory for the first time, she knew what she ought to pursue as her career. Her smile was the old one that her parents had grown used to seeing every year, but her passion was new. She saw herself in the stainless white lab coat that her seniors were wearing, shuffling from one test-tube to another, pouring the contents of one test-tube into another, and the brilliant fumes that would surface! She squealed in excitement with the other kids. She was going to pursue Science as her career in the future. And that dream was not going to change the next year.
And then she turned thirteen. And that, apparently, changed everything. For one, she now knew that Santa Claus did not exist, neither were her Christmas gifts manufactured in Heaven’s factory by Santa’s elves and packed into Santa’s gift sack, and they definitely did not travel all the way from the North Pole, in the sky, on reindeer-drawn air-borne sleigh. No, they were bought by her parents from the city mall just the day before Christmas, every year. And well, her grandmother was not a part of the sky, she was not a star in the constellation Orion gazing at her with a smile. She might not have even gone into Heaven, which is, after all, just a human belief --- a figment of our imagination, which does not have a place in books of Science. She was probably still in her grave in the Churchyard on St. Stephen’s Street, withering to bones.
The end of childhood wasn’t the only thing that changed everything. The beginning of the Teenage Years had a part to play in it, too. The T.Y. that every parent dreads. And little Laila was no exception to this phase of life. She had shifted from her elementary to high school, and the whole new atmosphere had gotten to her. Her first day of high school, she was laughed at by her seniors for the pink hair ribbon her mother had lovingly tied around her lustrous, black hair in the morning. The next day, her mother found the ribbon in the trash can, among her old, childish karaoke set and her broken telescope, covered with transparent tape. The next day, Laila found herself demanding of her mother new glasses, the one they had spotted in the newspaper advertisements, with the black rim and the round frames. That her eyesight was perfectly fine was no excuse for her not to buy them, the store would definitely have one of zero power. They were really stylish, and had looked extremely pretty on Eva’s face. The next week, she demanded thigh-high skirts. The week after that, she asked her mother for her make-up kit— all the girls at school put make-up on! And on her fifteenth birthday, she would have nothing but an I-phone. Within a few days, she had become a familiar face at her high school. Why? Because she looked like every other girl.
The biggest change of course, however, that her life took was after her graduation from high school, when her father’s company went bankrupt. Like a migratory bird leaves its abode with the change of seasons, they became accustomed to packing their suitcases every few months. Laila’s bedroom wall no longer held posters of writers, singers, astronauts and scientists; all the walls cracked from the pressure of a new family slowly edging towards poverty, their unfulfilled dreams weighing down the already leaking ceiling, threatening to split their home into half. Despite her father’s repeated pleas, she piled away her certificates and letters of recommendation into the depths of her cupboard, because what use were they for a job as a barista? Each day’s meagre salary and tips kept the family together, but they did not serve to improve Laila’s father’s mental health, and he fell down the pit of sadness, over-weighed by his guilt and unhappiness at the fall of his tiny daughter’s huge dreams.
Laila got a job in a call-centre. She would work the whole day and come back home, physically and emotionally exhausted, but with more money in her stitched bag than she could get as a barista. The father fell deep into depression. The mother was always a bundle of nerves. The younger son was always out, doing God-knows-what, in the company of God-knows-who. Slowly, Laila’s intricate mask, which had begun to spread its first layer on her face in her teenage years, completely covered her prematurely-wrinkled face; A beautiful mask, one efficiently-made with so much skill that it had begun to be mistaken for her real face.
Circumstances. They change our lives to such an extent that our life before that Circumstance fades away from our memory. What we wanted to become, the house we wanted to live in, the way we wanted our lives to flow and the tremendous oceans we wanted to dive in, everything that we had planned for our future seems to have melted and re-moulded itself into a mask in the midst of that Circumstance. And that Circumstance does not have to be only one unexpected turn in life, and it doesn’t strike only one person in particular. Laila’s story is not unique. The Circumstance finds a way to seep into everyone’s lives, no matter how well-built the walls are. And depending upon the intensity of the Circumstance, the melted life of the past re-moulds itself into a mask to protect us from further twists and turns. The Mask, though different for each person, is equally beautiful, and equally efficient at hiding our true selves and posing itself as one’s true identity, even succeeding to fool us into believing it to be our true identity. Each and every person in the world who has passed their stage of innocence is moving around with their masks on, successfully deceiving us with their plastic smiles and laughter muffled in the sadness of the past. So much so, that whenever a person’s mask cracks under the extreme pressure of happiness or sadness, they often become the object of social interest, become viral on the social media which is another one of the many institutions that force us to keep our masks on. These people with cracked masks become the object of our fascination, or sympathy.
A question that might arise in your minds at this point, my fellow masked readers, is, “How then do children manage to fend away these so-called Masks of Evil? Why aren’t they wearing their own little masks like us?” Well, it’s simple. They have The Fire inside them. Five-year-old Laila had that strong, wood-fed fire inside of her, the fire to become a world-famous artist. You see, the Fire that we can see in these happy, mask-less kids has some special properties. The Fire exudes such a heat of happiness and genuineness that The Mask, forget melting, cannot even spread its first layer on their faces. Perhaps if we get this Fire, we can melt our own masks.
Perhaps if Laila is able to ignite this fire within herself, she can become a scientist someday.