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Road Map

Life is a journey that must be traveled no matter how bad the roads and accommodations – Oliver Goldsmith.
Road Map by Annapurna Sharma
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Life is a journey that must be traveled no matter how bad the roads and accommodations – Oliver Goldsmith.

I stood on my toes near the window, my legs stretched upwards, my hands held the iron railings, straight and immobile, like the lines in my school notebook and my face almost jutting out of the gap between the rails. You would be surprised to know that this exercise was crucial for I wanted one chance to look at the large black vehicle on the road that zoomed ahead with such speed that the scrunching of the wheels on the tar echoed in my ears even after the vehicle had left long ago. The sound was more like a roaring lion. It gave me a deep and innate sense of accomplishment. I stood like a lofty pine glued to the window with an air of self-determination. Perhaps my aspirations took seed on that very road in a railway township called Kharagpur.

What began as an unintended venture soon turned into a sort of routine after school, standing near the window… A futile exercise one might say for in all probability the road lay so far away from my house that only a part of it, a very inconsequential little part, could be seen from within the gaps in between the houses. But that road was significant for it was black, as black as the night on a no-moon day. It was broad, like the length and breadth of my History textbook. We learned Modern History in school – about the Grand Trunk Road, built by Sher Shah Suri. I often wondered if it was the same road. There was a certain jubilation while traveling on that road to school, bazaar or anywhere else. The journeys on the cycle were exhilarating, especially when I was old enough to ride one to school.

My journey began in a corner of the town, a place called New Settlement. Isn’t it an interesting name? I rode along the mud path, turned left, left and then right near the Printing Press. Yes, that was where I met the wide road, as wide as that of a mother’s heart. The printing press was a place shrouded in secrecy, its enormous walls almost touching the firmament made me feel so. At the same time, the press induced a feeling of go-getter. Not that I understood these things then but when I look back now I am amazed at how certain places shaped my attitude in life. My eyes did not miss the kaka hotel with its steaming cups of chai and samosa, at how people stopped midway to fuel or re-fuel before they reached their destination. And I focused on the road, its glossy black tar attractive and inviting.

Along the way, there was this steep up as though one was climbing a mountain and an equally sharp down as if the task ordained was achieved and it was time to come down to the ground level. Cycling up the road was arduous as well as necessary because there was no other way to go, thus making the physical exercise compulsory. Coming down the steep was a lot of fun, sometimes the hands left the handlebar and let the cycle ramble on its own. There were more than one such ups and downs on the way to school. These climbs near the police quarters and Town Thana challenged my strengths and instilled confidence.

Sometimes I glanced at the wee lanes that ran right and left, the mud paths created by humans that cut across large stretches of open land called maidans. The bushes in clusters became the hibernating grounds for man and beast alike. Be it morn/ noon/ twilight, summer/ winter/ rain the bushes moved randomly from side to side – raucous shouts of gain or loss were heard, you know those typical gambling addas where the joker had a significant role to play. At times a queen emerged out of the bushes. She was either very happy and shy and ran almost as if someone was chasing her or she was very angry and pushed away the hand that tried to pull her back into the bushes. It was much later that I discovered that Jokers and Queens traveled too, to destinations unknown. There was life beyond these significant maidans – in the end, all these lesser-known trails led to the main road – the road I loved the most.

I pedaled and pedaled. My school was somewhere in between and I stopped there. And the road went ahead with little or no hint of its probable destination. I thought – that there must be an end. Little did I know that an end meant an end, an inevitable end to oneself. Thankfully, I didn’t pursue my eccentricity for lack of several things known and unknown, like age, money, guidance and so on.

My view of the road shifted from the window at home to the low-roofed, thatched, makeshift (my little self had by then transformed into a teenager who had too many adjectives in her pocket ready for use) roadside eatery near my school. When the interval bell rang, I accompanied a friend who did not bring her tiffin box to the eatery. As she gobbled on bread and aloo curry (the watery, spicy, yellowish potato flowing on the plate like a stream of morning rays) I sucked the syrupy Rasgulla and stared at the same road which went past my school via the railway station and further up to places I was not aware of. I heard the whistle of trains on one of the longest platforms in India and the busiest railway junction – Kharagpur. 

At times when I bought the colorful ice creams (white was milk, brown was chocolate, yellow was mango, green, red, pink) near the school and while licking them I contemplated the road and its destination… those ice creams were unique not just in their colors, flavors and tastes but in the rustic memories of sweet and cold they writ on my tongue with the hot afternoon sun playing witness to my actions and thoughts. The Kharagpur of my childhood was a quiet place, no less than a metropolis.

It never occurred to me that the road wasn’t as plain as I assumed it to be. As I journeyed along, I reached the city, Vizag, with its roads like open arms. The smell of the sea was mesmerizing and I presumed life to be a smooth journey of love, victory, joy and so on. Little did I know about the bumps ahead – yeah those manmade breakers that decelerate our speed. I learned much later that the rendezvous of the King and Queen in the bushes was adjourned sine die, their nuptial delayed and finally canceled. The Joker and the Queen were found to make a new association just like the mango tree in my garden. It began to flower incessantly but the unpredicted thunderstorm blew the flowers away. Yellowish white flowers strewn hither and thither mingled with the mud, fallen leaves, barks and twigs. I realized with consternation that I couldn’t pick them up and stick them to the tree. They were gone but the roads lay ahead inviting me for journeys. In the end, we had only one basket of yellow-orange ripe Himsagar mangoes. And we had to share them with friends and neighbours just as we did our happiness and sorrows.

One fine day I found myself at a juncture, where I saw two forks in the road – one right and one left. Reminiscing Robert Frost I recited his lines –

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;  

Gawd! That choice was a difficult one but I did take a turn, right or left I rather not remember because whichever way I turned, I would always feel as though I could have done much better than I did. Though the bumps slowed me down or made me feel that the other way was a better choice…Nay, this one’s good… I am determined to move ahead with the same loftiness as my little self, scribbling in my spiral notebook, the happenings of the day and night and road… the little gal from Kharagpur has evolved – roads are those pathways that move beyond permutations and combinations…

Annapurna Sharma is the author of three books – Melodic Melange, 2018, When Jaya met Jaggu and Other Stories, 2022 and Silver Peacock Feather, 2023. She is a research scholar, short story writer, poet, editor, nutritionist, academic and reviewer. Her maiden book of poems Melodic Melange – Tales in Verse was awarded for excellence, 2019 (Pulitzer Books). Her short story Waiting… was published in an anthology on Domestic Violence by IHRAF (International Human Rights Art Festival), in 2021. An Assistant Professor (Food Science & Technology), she is currently on the board of editors of Muse India, a literary e-journal (www.museindia.com/MuseIndia/Team), and Advisor, Science Shore e-magazine. She is a recipient of Savitribai Phule National Women Achiever Award-2018, awarded by the Phule Trust, Nellore. Her poem about the rivers of the world, Divine Confluence was read by Dr. Varsha Das, an eminent writer at a conference collaborated by South Asian University and Dhaka University on Hydro Diplomacy. Her works are available in www.annapurnasharma.co.in , and she can be reached at aannapurnasharma@gmail.com

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