Sometimes the tiniest, briefest, minutest of incidents change your life. For me, it was the moment I saw the hummingbird flutter in the breeze outside my window.
It hung there, gently bobbing up and down, its wings hard at work. I was captivated by the beauty of the moment. I watched in awe, too scared to move lest it should fly away.
That was when my brother came bursting into the room. My brother was seven years old and three years younger than me. Those days he was going through a phase when he believed he was an aeroplane.
He ran around the house, roaring like the engine of an old propellor plane. We had seen one of those antique pieces at the aircraft show.
As I turned to hush him, he was already halfway inside the room. Arms spread wide, head bent at an awkward angle. He was creating a horrible racket.
When I turned back, it was too late. I ran towards the window and opened the glass panes wide. I looked in all directions, but the bird was nowhere in sight. I went to the only place where I could drown all my worries and troubles.
The library was a short distance from home. The old librarian was a friend. He saw me walk in and sensed all was not well. A few minutes later, after he had heard my tale of woe, he said, “Hmm, maybe I have just the book that will make you happy.”
He returned with a copy of ‘The book of Indian Birds by Dr Salim Ali’.
“Find out more about that hummingbird of yours, ” he said.
The librarian had judged correctly. Not only did I learn all about hummingbirds, but I also discovered birds that I had never seen.
“Uncle, can you tell me about that bird ?” the question and the tug on my shirt sleeve brought me back to earth. I put my binoculars aside and looked at the young girl standing and staring at me from behind soda-bottle glasses.
I smiled, “That one?” I said, pointing at a dark blue kingfisher perched on the top of a tree in the park. The girl nodded eagerly.
“Are you interested in knowing more about birds?”
“She has always been fascinated by birds,” a young woman holding her hand replied.
“That is a kingfisher. Take my binoculars and check out its plumage,” I said as I cleaned the lens and handed it to the child.
Instead, she had some questions for me.
She said, “Why do you watch birds?”
“I am an ornithologist.”
“You study birds?”
I did not expect a young child to know what an ornithologist was.
Now it was my turn to be impressed.
She reached for the binoculars and said, “I am reading a book, ‘The book of Indian Birds. I also want to be an ornithologist when I grow up.”
I smiled. High up in the branches, I could see a hummingbird hovering in the breeze.
By the time I reached the village, it was dark. The bus dropped me at a dilapidated bus stop and speeded away. I was not expecting a warm welcome, but a familiar face would have been reassuring. Maybe, that was too much to expect. After all, I was but a humble postman.
I looked around but could not find any street signs or landmarks. Thick clouds covered the sky. I knew I had to hurry and find some shelter before the heavens opened. The village was famous for its heavy downpours. No one came there voluntarily. The previous postman, the man I was replacing, had disappeared. One fine morning, he stopped returning calls from the head office. They waited for a month and then sent me.
‘Do not go near the old graveyard,’ said my friend, ‘It has stories around it – bad stories.’
He told me tales about the village, which I had laughed away. The stories had passed hands the day my ex-colleague gave me a send-off. All that seemed a lifetime away.
In the distance, I saw a dim light and started walking towards it. The ground was slushy. I assumed it was from the previous day’s rains. Luckily I always travelled light. A suitcase and a holdall. One change of clothes and a lot of books. My entire life, packed in those two pieces of luggage!
As I neared the light source, I saw it came from inside a hut made of bamboo and mud. Rusted corrugated sheets pretended to be the roof on top. Big drops of rain started hitting me. I jumped inside the hut without waiting for an invitation. It seemed a wise move at the time as the sound of the raindrops drumming on the iron sheets on the roof began to increase. The light came from a hurricane lamp sitting precariously on a rotting wooden table. The glass on the lamp was covered in soot and was desperately in need of some cleaning.
“Sorry, it is a mess, but you have all the time in the world to clean it up.” The voice from behind made me jump. I dropped my things and turned around. It was a silver-haired man sitting cross-legged in a corner. I estimated him to be about seventy, but he could have been older. I had not seen him while entering.
“Is… is… this your house?” I said.
The man laughed. The laugh echoed around the room and seemed to come back from all corners. I thought that strange. An echo in such a small room? I did not have the time to follow up on my thoughts as my eye caught something written on the walls.
A sign on the wall spelt out “Post Office” in faded red and white.
“You must be joking! Is this the post office?”
Getting no response from the man, I turned around. There was no one in the corner. I looked around the room and found that I was alone. A nameless fear gripped me. I grabbed my bags and rushed towards the exit. Suddenly a gust of wind blew the door shut. I dropped my bags, grabbed the door handle and pulled with all my strength. The handle came clean out of the wooden frame. Another gust of wind blew the lamp out. The last thing I remember as I stood there in the pitch darkness was the sound of the man’s laughter echoing in the room.
The rocking at first was gentle. It only sent me deeper and deeper into sleep. Then the motion grew aggressive. Finally, I opened my eyes. The wall sought out the point of focus of my eyes and formed the image of a clock there. It was a clock with numbers. I never learnt how to read clock hands. No one expected me to. The world around us changed to our level of perception. Everyone grew up as the birthing tubes made them.
The clock said ten. Reading my mind, the player put out some music. It was soothing. The walls knew what I wanted. The walls always knew my tastes. It was all in the system, desires, thoughts, actions – all appended, calibrated and fine-tuned. It was a super-efficient system that thought for you. Instructions on what I had to do would play in my mind. There was no need to think, no wasting of time. The system thought for me. Life in the thirty-first century was easy.