Fear

People, closed spaces, crowds, helplessness, losing people, losing jobs, loving too much or too little, reptiles, insects and worms – these are some of the things I’m afraid of. I’m around thirty years old, give or take a couple of years, an editor by profession and out-and-out modern in my approach to life. I’m outdoorsy, love shopping, eating out, travelling, cooking, music, books, perfumes, watches, dresses, shoes and so much more. I’m a woman, normal in every respect, who takes life, work and relationships seriously; I’m a woman who cries when hurt and bleeds when cut. I’m a theist, a believer in good and therefore, I also believe in the presence of evil and in ghosts and demons and the rest as manifestations of that evil. I realize, every moment, that I’m human and that I, therefore, have human failings – fear is one of those failings. I face as much of it as the next person and I have my own ways of dealing with it, so that I can keep moving forward, past my fears, fighting them instead of giving in to them and coming to a standstill.

Once upon a time, not very long ago, fear used to rule my every action, every thought even, until I was so deep in my own darkness that I used to contemplate about killing myself and putting an end to the suffering. This lasted until I realized that nobody could help me unless I picked myself up and out of the darkness I was in. I also realized that the more you try to shun fear, to avoid it or deny its existence, the greater is its hold over you. So I learnt to acknowledge my fears to myself and others, in spite of the fact that people have laughed at my fears, loudly and often. I realized that bravery lies, not in being unafraid and therefore, foolish, but in acknowledging fear as being real and in being wary of the object of your fear. Once I realized this, the rest wasn’t easy; but I knew that I could scale this mountain, slowly but steadily. Overcoming fear is like climbing a never-ending staircase – one step at a time, placing one foot in front of the other and climbing upwards. And fear doesn’t hamper my day-to-day life anymore.

I’m not at all ashamed to admit that my greatest fear is of people – not reptiles or worms or insects or darkness, ghosts, height and so on, but people. I’ve been bullied, abused, ignored, duped, cheated, ill-treated, threatened – by people. Yet I still go out every day and socialize with people for three reasons – I need to face my fear instead of running away from it; I’ve realized that experience is a better weapon than ignorance, and that not all people are bad – if I’m alive and thriving today, it’s because I’ve been helped by a lot of good people. The scars from the past, however, are a constant reminder that not everybody can be trusted and therefore, I need to be wary at all times and never let my guard down. The most painful experiences have nearly always come from the closest quarters – people who I thought of as family or friends. And these experiences have led to  the realization that fear is closer home than we realize.

It is sometimes hard to get back to normal even after the trigger or object that causes fear is removed. The effect of fear might extend from a couple of hours to a couple of years, maybe even longer depending on how potent the fear is. Fear is often related to past incidents – the past, here, might refer to the recent past or a more distant past. Many of us find that we tend to forget various incidents with time. However, the memories of such incidents, especially the bad, fear-inducing ones are never entirely erased; they are hidden from sight by the gathering dust of time, but they are often awake in our sub-conscious. Therefore, we often find ourselves unreasonable fearful of certain things or even certain people. This is where the saying ‘A burnt child dreads the fire’ inevitably comes to mind.

So, the question is, how does one free oneself of the paralyzing effects of one’s fears and continue with one’s day to day life? I’ve realized from my personal experiences that we can only be truly and completely free of fear when we realize that we are trapped by our fears in a spot from where there is no going back and the only act left is to move forward, face our fears and keep moving past them. The image that can be associated with overcoming our fears would be that of a ship in a gale, the sailors trying their utmost to save the ship from being wrecked because there’s nothing else to do. Life is the ship that we try to steer in the stormy seas of time, and no matter how dark the sky, how high the waves or how strong the gale, all that we can do is to hang on and try to survive. This is fearlessness or bravery, in my opinion – the act of not giving up, no matter what; the act of realizing that if we don’t master our fears, they will master us and destroy us; and that the act of facing our fears and moving forward past them, putting one foot in front of the other and climbing from the darkness into the light is a monumental one. Once we realize these things, the rest is definitely not easy; but, the realization and acknowledgement of our fears is the first step that we need to take in order to conquer our fears and live life as it should be lived; besides, it also shows us the path out of a miserable existence. Some day we might even come to know that our constant battle against fear has helped somebody else face his or her demons. That would certainly be something to look forward to, wouldn’t it?

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ANASTASIA

PROLOGUE

Many, many years ago, in a little known village in India, named Jhilpaar, there lived an old doll-maker, with his pretty, devoted daughter, Dulari. They lived some distance away from the village, at the very edge of a dense forest that surrounded it, in the ruins of an ancient, underground passage. While the old doll-maker was busy night and day, making pretty little dolls that stood around ten inches tall, it was his daughter who did all the work, besides taking care of every single need of her father. For the doll-maker’s fame as a master craftsman had spread so far across all the neighbouring villages and still farther, that even the king and his family, who lived in the old castle on the hill, miles and miles away from the village of Jhilpaar, had become his regular customers. So he had no time for anything or anybody other than his precious dolls.

Dulari, however, did all the household chores and the work outside without any complaint. She never even complained about her father’s indifference towards her. For years, her life had followed the same unwavering pattern and she couldn’t recollect a time when she had not acted as her father’s guardian angel. She had no memories of her mother either. She had heard from her father that she had lost her mother as an infant; and in answer to her other questions, he had given her a doll – a doll that he had crafted in the perfect image of her mother. So her only amusement, in the course of her busy days, was to look at the doll and wonder what their life might have been like, had her mother been alive. And whenever she touched the doll while cleaning it and washing its dress, she would look into its eyes – very sad, but alive – and miss her mother.

The old doll-maker and his daughter might have continued with their lives in the same fashion for many more years, had a complication not surfaced in the form of a young sipahi, one of the trusted royal guards. One afternoon, when Dulari was at the village well, fetching water, a soldier sporting the garb of a royal guard, rode into the village and up to the women fetching water at the village well and asked for directions to the doll-maker’s place. Now, royal guards coming in search of the doll-maker, was no spectacle in this village. The women immediately pointed to Dulari, who offered to show him the way to her house.

On the way home, Dulari and the young sipahi, who called himself Ramlal, fell talking and he told her a few stories of battles and ambushes that he had been in and the girl felt a growing curiosity about the world outside the village, a world she had never known and would, possibly, never ever get to know. On the other hand, Ramlal was as much intrigued by the girl’s beauty and manners as by her curiosity – he had never before come across such a sympathetic listener. Soon they were at the doll-maker’s, and after asking him to sit on a log of wood that served as a stool, and calling out to her father, she went inside to resume her day’s work. That evening, unlike on other occasions when the royal guards came back later to take back packages for the king, Ramlal didn’t leave; he had to stay till the next morning when the doll-maker would hand him a special package to take back to the king. So, late in the evening, Dulari, after having finished her chores, sat at the mouth of the passage, listening, while Ramlal, pacing to and fro, continued with his stories. It was already quite late in the night, when they both nearly jumped out of their skins, hearing the shout of the old man, who had stormed outside to see what the matter was, having finally missed his supper for once. As a guilt-ridden Dulari scampered away to fetch her father his long-awaited meal, chastising herself for this criminal negligence, the doll-maker glared at the soldier for a few moments – a glare so terrifying, that Ramlal’s blood flowed ice-cold in his veins for those few moments – before going back to his work.

The next morning, Ramlal left early, just as soon as the package had been delivered to him, without saying goodbye to his young friend. That day and in the days that followed, Dulari missed him in a strange way, and wondered whether he would ever come back, because she, somehow, could not shake off the feeling that his hasty departure had been the result of something that her father had said or done. For she had also lately become aware of a change in her father’s attitude towards her; whether it was a jealous possessiveness or simply suspicion, she didn’t quite know, but she had a feeling that something sinister lurked behind it, whatever it was, and so she had grown to fear him – a feeling she had never before associated with her father.

Almost a fortnight later, one afternoon, when Dulari was washing clothes at the well, Ramlal again came to see her. When she asked whether he was running an errand for the king again, he answered that it was his day off and that he had come there only to see her again. So, all the while that Dulari washed and cleaned, he sat beside her and they talked. And before he started back for home, late in the afternoon, he made her a promise to come see her again on a certain day. And so, it came to pass that these two young people started to meet more frequently, in secret, and eventually realized their love for each-other. Some months later, they married secretly and took the vows of undying love and their happiness knew no bounds.

All this while, the old doll-maker had been watching his daughter closely, without her knowledge, and detecting the tiniest changes in his daughter’s behaviour. She suddenly seemed more alive, spent more time outdoors, burnt the chappattis while being lost in thought – in short, she had changed visibly over the last few months. And the old man’s face began to ominously darken each passing day, as he started to divine the reason for this change in his daughter.

One night, Dulari had a strange nightmare. She dreamed that as she slept, something small crept towards her through the darkness, up her bed of straws and finally started pacing across her chest. As it paced, it grew in size until it turned into a hazy image of her mother. As it grew in size, Dulari started having difficulty in breathing. It seemed to her as if her mother’s image was trying to warn her about something. It kept pointing towards the door, as if it wanted Dulari to wake up and go out into the full-moon night. Just as it seemed that Dulari was about to lose her senses, the weight on her chest suddenly lifted and she woke up from her nightmare, glad to be able to breathe freely again. She started to get up for a drink, and while pulling off the tattered old blanket off herself, she heard a tiny clunk, as if something tiny had fallen. She lost no time in lighting the little earthen lamp and as she looked around in its light, she was very unpleasantly surprised to find her doll lying on the floor, next to her bed. She couldn’t understand how the doll could have moved itself down the shelf, where she always placed it, and across the dark room and up her bed. Yet one look at the blanket showed her the tiny dirty footprints of the doll on it. For one moment, she thought of throwing away the doll or burning it and then she decided that that could wait; she first needed to go outside into the night and find out what was going on. So she extinguished the little lamp and went to see whether her father was still asleep. That was when she got the second shock that night. Her father was nowhere to be seen; his bed hadn’t been slept in. She couldn’t imagine where her father could have gone at that hour. So, with a terribly unpleasant feeling, that she was about to witness something horrible, washing over her, she made her way outside, where the first thing that caught her eye was a light in the forest. Having decided that the forest was her destination, she slowly and carefully picked her way through the forest, creeping past hedges and going around the thorn bushes, until she finally came upon the source of the light. It was a clearing in the forest; on one side, a small fire had been lit using twigs and dry branches, and beside the fire, nearly facing her, was her father, dressed in black, seated squarely under the light of the full moon, on what looked like a blackened human corpse. In front of him and a little to the side, a small group of people were kneeling, one of whom, a man, was bound tightly with ropes, with the others holding him. At a sign from the doll-maker, a woman cut the ropes and freed the man, who jumped up and made as if to fly at her father’s throat. Just then, without a blink, her father threw some powder at the man, while uttering something incoherent. Imagine the girl’s horror when she saw the man, who was in mid-air, fall upon the ground and start to shrink, amidst his own screams of horror and pain and the raucous, cruel laughter of the others, until at last, all that was left of him was a ten-inch doll. It took all her courage to keep from screaming out at this horrifying spectacle, a feat which she accomplished by neatly ramming her fist into her mouth and biting down on it. She lay like this in the dark undergrowth for a few moments, before she decided that she now knew enough about her father, the doll-maker -or should she call him the tantrik? – to understand that her immediate safety lay in running back home, as fast as her legs could carry her, before someone here discovered her presence. For she could well imagine what might happen to her, if she was discovered. So Dulari flew back home and got under her blanket once again, feigning sleep, while in her mind, she went through the horrors of the night, over and over again. When her father came back home at the crack of dawn, after completing his nightly rituals, and stealthily came up to the door of her room to check whether she was asleep, she stiffened under her covers.

The next morning, Dulari, shaken but determined, went about her daily chores as usual, making every effort to conceal her terrible knowledge from her monster of a father, the dabbler in the black arts. For in the course of the night, she had decided upon a course of action. In a fortnight’s time, her Ramlal would again come to meet her and she had decided that this time she would leave this place with him for good. So she went about doing the household work with her usual air of calm, while she kept her brain busy with planning her escape.

The next few days were the longest of Dulari’s life; on one hand, she battled to control her terror every time she came in close proximity of her father, while on the other, she couldn’t wait for the days to pass so she could escape with her husband and leave all this horror behind. She had decided that she didn’t want to take away anything but a container of water and her mother’s doll. For she now had reason to believe that the doll was only trying to save her. Also she couldn’t imagine leaving the last vestige of her mother behind.

After a long wait, the day finally came when Ramlal came to meet Dulari. It was the day of the amavasyaa, the day of the new moon. As soon as Ramlal arrived, Dulari gave him a short account of what had happened in his absence while Ramlal himself told her of the frightening stories that he had but recently heard about the doll-maker. So they together planned the final details of their escape, before Dulari, for the time being, went back to the doll-maker’s.

That evening, when the doll-maker was at his busiest, trying to complete all his work before the night commenced – for he had to perform a sacrificial ritual on this auspicious night, before a certain hour – Dulari stealthily peeked into his work-place before hurrying away to get ready for her journey. Then, hiding the bundle behind the voluminous folds of her dress, she told her father from the door that she was going out to gather firewood. The old doll-maker only grunted in reply. Soon after, the girl was tearing down the village road towards the other end of the village, where Ramlal was waiting with his horse. As soon as she arrived, Ramlal scooped her up onto his horse and the two tore away into the deepening darkness of the new-moon night, at a breakneck pace, as if the very devil was behind them.

Here, at the doll-maker’s, the night was already advanced when the old man realized, for the second time in his life, that his daughter hadn’t brought him his meal. So he hollered out her name a few times, before, getting up to see what the matter was, when his daughter didn’t answer his call. He first went to her room; no sign of her there. Then he went through the rest of the inhabited part of the old passage; still no sign of her. So he went outside and called out her name. No answering cry came back to him. Finally he started looking frantically for her, up every tree, behind every bush, combing through every inch of the dense forest, until, upon reaching the clearing in the forest, an evil spirit, one of his many minions, whispered into his ears the details of his daughter’s escape. The roar of rage that the doll-maker emitted, resounded across the forest and the entire village, waking up all the evil spirits who gathered around him to do his bidding.

The unhappy couple had long left the village behind and were tearing across a vast stretch of open ground, on the other side of which lay the fortified royal city, the darker outline of which could be dimly made out against the dark sky, when all of a sudden, the tantrik doll-maker appeared before them out of nowhere. The horse, letting out a neigh of abject terror, reared up on its hind legs, throwing the terrified riders off its back, before bounding away into the darkness. The old magician thundered, ” I am Birjapadd tantrik, disciple of the witch-prime Biraja and master of the black arts, who has control over the elements and spirits alike, and you two imbeciles thought that you could outrun me? Your naivety makes me want to laugh.” Their insides cringing with fear, Ramlal and Dulari helped each-other up with an outward show of courage, knowing their fate only too well. As the evil spirits, acting on their master’s orders, came towards them to bind them apart, Ramlal, in a vain effort to try and save themselves, unsheathed his sword from his kamarband and attacked the doll-maker. Without flinching an inch, without so much as batting an eyelid, the doll-maker, curving his bloodless lips in a cold, cruel smile, raised his hands and sprayed something on the advancing figure of Ramlal, while reciting something incohorent. Suddenly there was a blast and a green smoke obscured everything for a few moments, through which, however, Dulari could well hear Ramlal’s screams of agony. She dived blindly into the smoke, tears pouring down her face, looking for her husband, until she tripped on something small. In another moment, the smoke had cleared and she found herself looking in horror at the earthen doll that had been her husband. Her terror and sorrow were so deep that she forgot to scream; instead, she slowly turned to face her father. The doll-maker threatened her to come back to him, and it was then that she screamed at him, losing her reserve. “So is this what you had done to my mother, you monster? And all this time, you had been lying to me about how she had disappeared when she went to bathe in the river. What had she done to deserve such a fate? How long have you been doing this to helpless, harmless people like that man in the forest, the other night?” The doll-maker and his minions cackled like maniacs for some moments, before he proceeded to answer her question. “Oh! So you knew about me already and yet was foolish enough to think that you could run away from me and live to see the end of it? How very unfortunate! How very like your mother, who thought that she could save you by running away from me! She, like you, never imagined that I had the knowledge and speed of the elements and spirits under my command. You see, you are absolutely powerless against my knowledge of the dark arts. Submit and I might yet pardon you.” Furious on hearing this, Dulari rushed madly at her father, with the intent of finishing him off, only to be shoved away by something huge that came between them. What, then, was her surprise when she saw that it was nothing but a bloated, distorted image of her doll, which was trying hard to protect her from her father’s wrath. For a few fleeting moments, even the cruel face of the old doll-maker wore an expression of utter incredulity. Then, with one wave of his hand, he seemed to wipe away the expression of incredulity off his face, and with it the bloated image of the doll. “You were weak when alive, and you are weaker still in your present state. You know that you can’t save our daughter and yet you dare confront me! She is mine to do with as I wish,”  he thundered, looking at the doll that once again lay at Dulari’s feet. Then, without a moment’s hesitation, he performed the same black magic on his daughter, turning her into yet another ten-inch-long earthen doll. Thereafter, he turned to his minions and ordered them away, before coming back for the three dolls that lay there helplessly, covered in soil. He gathered them up in his arms and went away into the night, never to be seen or heard of again.

*End of Prologue*

ON HYPOCRISY

HYPOCRISY DESTROYS
HYPOCRISY DESTROYS

In a very recent issue of a popular magazine, I came across an article describing a rare but hilarious incident. A bride-to-be had refused to marry the would-be groom after he failed a basic maths test. It’s apparently a funny incident, but it couldn’t very well have felt like fun to the bride herself. She absolutely refused to have to do anything at all with somebody who couldn’t solve a sum that was easy enough for a child studying in Standard I.

This is not an uncommon problem in the country. While a majority of the women are well-qualified, a large portion of the male population has already started falling short of an equal level of qualification. As a result, a prospective bride’s dream of getting a perfect match for herself, has already suffered a huge set-back. In fact, a recent survey has stated that the present scenario is expected to worsen by 2025, resulting in at least a third of the women population having to compromise on the very important aspect of marriage – equality. As far as I can see, the situation is already bleak enough.

Why is the educational qualification of a prospective groom so important to women? Is it not enough that he has a job, can provide for the needs of his family and provide shelter? These are questions that need answering. The answer is no. It is not enough that a man has a job and can provide for his family. Just as every man dreams of certain qualities like beauty, good cooking skills, a well-paid job and so on in his wife, so does a woman. A woman’s dreams are no less important than those of a man. Dreams and the hope of realizing them are what keep us going; therefore, it is of the utmost importance that we strive to provide an environment that’s conducive to chasing dreams. The least a woman can expect from her husband is understanding and a stimulating conversation; how can her expectations be fulfilled if a man is only just qualified enough to retain a job? Education is the only thing that can improve a person’s ability to understand and relate to other people and keep jealousy, depression, inferiority complex as well as a sense of unfulfillment out of a life-long relationship. A marriage needs much more than just financial security; why else do so many of them end in divorce? The sense of being equals is what makes a bond strong, not the compromising on essentials. When a relationship starts with a compromise, it doesn’t promise much stability in any case. One compromise leads to another and before long, one partner starts feeling cheated. No wonder that person would want out of such an unfair situation.

Coming back to the incident of the groom who flunked in Maths, isn’t it surprising that the bride and her family had been kept in the dark regarding the educational qualification, rather the lack of it, of the groom? And this is just one of the many incidents of this kind. How can these people have such a mentality and how can they hope to get away with such fraudulent practices? Isn’t this proof enough of the hypocrisy that is practised by our society? That, while the groom and his family gets to choose a bride from the creme de la creme in any given situation, rejecting and indeed insulting, prospective brides and their families on such flimsy grounds as beauty, figure, colour of skin, size of dowry, superstition and so on, when in fact these women are well-qualified and often hold positions of responsibility, the same choice of being choosy while selecting a partner is not available to most women?

It is time that we started questioning whether some of these age-old superstitions and practices shouldn’t be changed. They do not belong in a modern society afterall. We are so proud of all the progress we have made over the years; is it not wrong then that our mindset hasn’t undergone much progress, so much so that we never think twice before acting like the hypocrites that we are? We expect others to be honest when we ourselves are still not ready for the truth. Are colour of skin, caste, physical beauty or the lack of it, size of dowry offered or whether it is offered at all and superstitious beliefs so much more important than a woman’s education or her inner beauty, that she has to face rejection time and again just because she falls short of the former? We harp on and on about self- respect and treating others with respect; what, then, happens to that sense of respect when we hanker after somebody else’s money? Where goes this respect when we treat perfectly capable women and their families with such disrespect? And do we still dare to wonder why our society and its values are deteriorating when the answer is just an introspection away?

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OF FEAR

What is fear? What causes fear? How does it affect a person? How are nightmares related to fear? M y personal feelings about a topic that is common to all. Read on to find out more.

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Fear is, probably, the most real of all human emotions and has the most long-lasting effects on the human mind. The myriad emotions that we feel everyday, for the most part, might be interpreted in terms of the element of fear. Happiness and  peace, for example, is a state of ‘no fear’. Courage and thrill, if we come to think of it, is a state of ‘little fear’. Tension, stress, suspicion are all variations of a state of more than usual fear, while unhappiness is the fallout of fear. And then there is FEAR in its purest form.

The thing about fear is that it’s very difficult to understand. More often than not, a fear is real only to the person who experiences it. Other people, even those who are nearest to him or her, find it difficult to understand a fear that seems quite baseless or even, harmless. It is, perhaps, this lack of understanding that drives people to the edge and forces them to hurt themselves in unimaginable and often, irrevocable ways. Yet, considering the fact that all of us suffer from some kind of fear or the other, is it not strange that we still find it so difficult to understand the realness of another person’s fear?

Nightmares are a semi-visual rendition of the fears that lurk inside us; semi-visual, because we see them, with our mind’s eye, while we sleep, when the mind is at its most vulnerable, the consciously-erected mental guards being down. Nightmares, like dreams, are very vivid in their details – they make us feel as if we are in our very own horror movie, one half of ourselves acting our part, while the other half unwittingly watches. This is, perhaps, the most fearful aspect of fear – it paralyses us from within, so that we end up gagging on our own dry tongues, have trouble breathing and finally wake up, after breaking out in a cold sweat, in the most painfully torturous positions imaginable, with a general feeling of being very dead.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been very prone to having nightmares. They, literally, plague me. The earliest ones, if I remember correctly, were the ones that dealt with loss; more particularly, the loss of a parent. I remember whimpering in my sleep, followed by a frantic search for my mother, upon waking up from the nightmare. They came in black and white, mostly black, like in the movies of old. Next came the most violent ones, around puberty, in the hues of the darkest black and red, and quite action-packed. I just hope that nobody else ever has the misfortune of having such nightmares. Next in line, were the ‘snaky’ ones – where a huge serpent, with the head of a human that I most loathed, used to sneak up on me, in a variety of situations, but always with the same insidious intent of crushing me to death. The serpent, in most cases, was either green or red. I’m not sure whether my general fear of serpents was the only thing that was responsible for these ‘snaky’ nightmares.

After I had left the university for good, I started having a very different sort of nightmare. I started waking up at night after dreaming that I was appearing for an exam, absolutely without any preparation, so that I knew none of the answers. As a result, I started losing my sleep over a preposterous fear, which, nevertheless, felt very real. I still have this nightmare sometimes and, in my sleep, experience the agony of uncertainty and doom that I’ve never had to experience as a student.

The other nightmares that I encounter these days are the falling-through-the air and the elevator ones. In fact, I might never have realised my fear of elevators had it not been for these recurring nightmares. Wherever I go, I’ve always preferred taking the stairs, to using the elevator. The number of times I’ve used an elevator is certainly less than half-a-dozen; that, too, when I was accompanied by somebody I trusted. Ever since I started having them, I’ve become even more wary of elevators, anywhere and everywhere.

The nightmares I experience, have changed over time; they’ll possibly undergo further changes. What hasn’t changed, though, is my reaction to nightmares. When I wake up in the morning, after a nightmare-ridden night, looking like a ghost of myself, I never forget to thank nature for this gift of light that drives away fears.

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