I was born before I was born. All owls are.
True to the species, my fate was chiseled on ancient rocks by comets hurled from alien space. No one could change it after that, not even God. Certainly not father.
And every day before the sun rose in the eastern sky, my father’s pet clock with iridescent eyes and a dial blacker than night, shrieked the arrival of the hours to be dedicated to books. My sisters hated Switzerland with a rare zeal, the nation that begat Favre-Leuba, the watch makers who spun the little contraption – my father’s pride possession – that rained miseries on them in the wee hours, day after day, dawn after dawn.
Not knowing what it meant at the age of two, I joined my sisters in their heavy-lidded communion, of my own volition though I must admit. And this turned out to be the first milestone of a life full of blunders, devastating and chilling like the Arctic thunders. If only I knew what I had let loose!
Father’s happiness knew no bounds when he found his precocious little morning star sparkling brightly. Believing me to be a blessing of Shiva, he soon slipped me into a river of Sanskrit shlokas. Not many years were needed before I could lisp complicated mantras, fluent like streams of mountain slopes.
“Nrityavasaane Natraajraajau Nanaadadhakkaam Navapanchvaram …!”
(Rapt in his cosmic dance the Lord of the Notorious Platoons
Twirled the damroo fourteen times to emit the primal tunes.)
As a child, my father was fond of Sanskrit tomes. His father, suspecting a priestly syndrome, starved him of the cherished dream. The deprivation grew into djinns that could be exorcised only through a male offspring. The girls of the household were quietly ruled out of the endeavour. Stacks of Vedas, Upnishads, Mahakavyas and Kaumudis, acquired in his later life, bid their time quietly, waiting for the day to lodge themselves between my ears. And how can my poor heart forget the vicious book of arithmetic, containing tables of numbers, some as weird as 0.75, 1.5, and 2.5?
And then there was this volume of Julius Caesar, its pages brownish yellow, renounced by its earlier master, a certain ‘Peter Pandey’, or this was what could be deduced from the inscription in pencil on the top right corner of the cover. Giddy from the choppy sea of Sanskrit Grammar, I’d turn to the Roman Tragedy, a placid lake to my parched soul. My imagination tingled with the business of the emperors and the senators, not to speak of the apparition.
Enter the Ghost of Caesar!
I was transfixed. And I was in love too! With apologies to Mr Peter Pandey, I quietly erased his Christian name one day replacing it with my utterly Hindu ‘Uma Shankar’ in a matching script. That indeed doesn’t tell you how bitterly I loathed being ‘Uma Shankar’, but then that is another stretched out story. Given a chance, I would have got myself renamed Mark Antony. I was in absolute awe of this General, this friend of the murdered Caesar:
‘O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.’
Now who could speak like that in Sanskrit?
Life is not a bed of roses for anyone, more so for owls! For if I was a precious gem to my father, I had turned into a briar of thorn to the kids of the neighbourhood. I was presented as a touchstone against which they all had to be tested by their parents. Not that they were a bunch of dim-witted trolls, they hated to mug up things the way I would. Worse, my sisters started hating me for the royalty I was made out to be.
Many acts of the drama were played out at my early schools. If the teachers were awed by me, other children hated me for precisely the same reason. There was a secret mission to stealthily nudge me or even kick me on the sly. Yes, I was having both a bad time and a great time but I was never prepared for what would happen to me one day. Like the proverbial sacrificial goat, I was summoned to the Principal’s office where my father was already seated, beaming. After due deliberations, it was decided I was good enough to take the final examination of Grade II. I was made to jump two grades and they told me it was freedom from slugging out for two years. They ante-dated the incident of my birth suitably in the ledgers to cover up the scam –didn’t I tell you, I was born before I was born!
Earning two phantom years to my life was not a bad deal in itself except when it put me in the company of older and more hostile peers, including my elder sister who became my classmate in one swift stroke. Her world crashed as it brought terrible disgrace to her which would stay with her for the following three years till we went our separate ways; she went to an all-girls school and I was admitted to a full-fledged Sanskrit Pathshala.
I am not sure how much I hated father for forcing unrelenting tutors of Sanskrit down my scrawny throat. After all, it was a benign school that never raised an eyebrow when I bunked classes to watch Enter the Dragon. I worshiped Bruce Lee more than the Monkey God my father was fond of in a muted drawn-out revenge! But what hurt most was the fact that my friends went to proper Convent Schools, the naked truth that they tirelessly rubbed into my open wounds. Crestfallen, I would seek feeble refuge in the story of the Roman Emperor, written in lyrical passages I was not forced to cram. And I could recite the funeral speech of Mark Antony much better than the Barn Owl in a famous work by an infamous author, much later. Father was touched, as any father would be and he returned one evening with a brown parcel containing five Shakespearean plays. He was a gracious man, after all!
However, it was father’s weird hatred for the games children played in those days devoid of television, computer games and Facebook that floored us all the hardest. His eyes burned at the sight of a pack of cards or a chessboard or its modern manifestations in Ludos and carom boards. Weren’t they all the avatars of the age-old Shatranj which had brought bottomless doom upon the families of Pandavas and Kauravas?
But rebellion, like clouds, would find a shape in the strangest of lands and winds. We had sprouted a parallel world in the fringes of the idolized childhood screened from the so-called vices. I was quietly included in the club of players adept in playing in shadows. Come dusk and a Ludo would appear out of the nothingness, as would a lopped set of playing cards, and the unfrequented backyards and terraces shrouded in darkness became hotbeds of insurgency. The games proceeded with missionary zeal in the general lack of light. Those were moments though when we all wished we were owls having night vision. And over time, it was grudgingly acknowledged that I was the best owl of them all till it was discovered that I had an acute case of myopia! Soon, the optometrist with a benevolent nodding head found a perfect set of spectacles with a rounded frame for my ‘round face’. And it was many, many years before J. K. Rowling dreamt of Harry Potter. What was more readily acknowledged back then was how uncannily like an owl I looked, round glasses and all!
The glasses did earn me better visions and I developed renewed interest in the ‘English’ movies and skipping Sanskrit classes. The ticket sellers and the ushers of the two cinema halls running those shows would get concerned for my health if I didn’t show up often enough. But the glasses earned me a deprecating moniker too. I had become ‘Chashmuddeen’ overnight – an excrement of glasses!
Fortunately for me, when the local optometrist upgraded himself to a contact lens specialist, he gave me a pair too, much to the dismay of the rascals who didn’t have a clue to what had happened. So they switched back to calling me an ‘Owl’ because of the wide-eyed look I had.
Today, as life continues to bedraggle me with recurring hailstorms, I yearn to look straight and deep through the viewfinders of my beloved cameras. And as Time continues to take its toll on the rods and cones of my eyes, how I wish I were indeed an owl who could match the low light capabilities of the new age DSLRs.