There are certain books which when you put them down keep you absolutely still for a while. Apart from making you acutely aware of an alternate reality, they never fail to produce a flash of insight, a spark of intuition that would not occur to you otherwise.
In life there is no way you can escape roller-coaster rides. Such rides will often catch you unawares, and you can do nothing to avoid them. But a good book can help you learn how to get to grips with whatever pitfalls life throws at you by revealing in a subtle way the secrets of developing a come-what-may attitude hidden in the folds of nature.
The Narrow Road to Deep North, a Booker-Prize winning novel by Richard Flanagan is one such book. It brings out the brutality and terror, the atrocity and horror perpetrated by the Japanese army on Allied prisoners who were brutalized into building a train line through the jungles of Burma and Thailand during World War II. The main character of the novel is Australian Dorrigo Evans, a colonel and a surgeon, whose unit surrenders to the Japanese army. At the end of the novel there is an epiphanic moment when Evans, in the dead of night, quite by chance, sights a shining and smiling little flower growing near the prison camp despite the cruelty and mayhem all around. “Unable to sleep he stood up and went to the edge of the shelter beyond which the rain teemed. The moon was lost. He relit the kerosene lantern and made his way … on the far side of the camp … and on his return noticed growing on the side of the muddy trail, in the midst of the overwhelming darkness, a crimson flower. He bent down and shone his lantern on the small miracle. He stood, bowed in the cascading rain, for a long time. Then he straightened back up and continued on his way.”
These lines, when I finished reading the book, brought to mind immediately an image that came my way some time ago. I was on my way to a consulate in Kolkata. I wanted to meet the Press Officer there, not being aware that the office had by then been shifted to New Delhi. It was mid-day. The sun beating down on me, I came across on the roadside a tattered wall on which grew wild a creeper festooned with bunches of white flowers that dazzled in the fierce sun. It was great beauty in an otherwise indifferent location. It taught me one thing: No matter what, if one has the will to grow, one can grow anywhere!
The other day, I was waiting at a hitherto unknown place for my daughter to finish her lessons. As I waited at a tea stall, I saw a clump of moss growing out of the crack of an ageing wall. Close by on a pavement adjacent to the shop it spread a velvety net utterly at the mercy of stamping feet of people unmindful of its existence. Remembering the book by Flanagan, I wondered how brave it was of the moss to have grown at a place where death lurked.
Although the bewitching butterfly has a life span of one or two weeks, or a wondrous flower usually wilts within a day, yet each of them unfailingly spreads silently the message of cheer unlike humans, quite oblivious of the chances of their survival even for the all-too-brief period allotted to them. And you cannot but wonder why they are fated to vanish into air almost in a flash. Nobel Prize winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska concludes her poem “Birthday”, a poem on the mystery of nature and the fragility of existence, with these lines:”What a loss when you think how much effort was spent / perfecting this petal, this pistil, this scent / for the one-time appearance, which is all they’re allowed, / so aloofly precise and so fragilely proud.”
Looking at the delicate moss, it struck me that one is not supposed to unduly spare any thoughts on survival since one’s tenure on earth is sentenced to end anyway, but to grow wherever planted, seeking silently the purpose of one’s existence.
After reading Flanagan’s book, I look at the world around me with a different eye.