There is a cotton tree near my house, that in winter, flowers the most exquisite orange-red blossoms, so exquisite in fact, that I’ve nicknamed them “my cherry blossoms” although I am aware that they do not resemble the Japanese cherry blossoms from even the remotest perspective.
And although I’ve never been to Japan in person, I’ve seen enough pictures of cherry blossom-strewn roads to imagine myself walking in one, with petals in my hair and a song on my lips. And so when I look out of my window and see the cherry blossom-coloured cotton flowers scattered in the driveway I like to pretend it’s the same thing.
In fact, I’ve always pretended too much. Sometimes, as a private mode of entertainment. Sometimes to construct an alternate reality to escape to, when the rea world failed to meet my expectations. Sometimes, out of sheer habit. For an introvert, with an assortment of imaginary friends, it’s a relatively easy task.
But I’ve learnt it, the hard way, that you cannot pretend your life away. For instance, as a child, I’ve always, always wanted to go to Europe. Not for the sake of it, not for the aura of sophistication and glamour that people usually associate it with, not for the excuse of having too much money to burn. Neither for the esteem and awe that comes from taking pictures at the Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower or wherever to later Instagram about and invite envy from everyone else. Not for trivial reasons at all.
But then again, it is trivial. I do not want to visit Europe. I need to visit Europe-to fulfil a desperate yearning, a childhood longing, to finally see with my own two eyes that idyllic place fashioned by reading literature and staring at pictures. I need to be certain that the dream-like beauty I’ve painted in my imagination is indeed tangible and not a childhood illusion like Santa Claus. I need to scrutinize and compare every aspect of it to my own homeland and my borrowed fantasies and to finally justify my every reason for adoring it like an exquisite oil painting. Ultimately, I need to feel the magic I’ve only dreamed of.
When I tried to explain all this to the grown-ups, in more prosaic language, I was accused of expressing unpatriotic and ungrateful sentiments. I was subjected to an infinitely boring, needlessly-long lecture on the magnificence of Indian geography, flora, fauna, et al and my unworthiness at not appreciating my country’s cultural heritage and legacy, and was reminded for god-knows-how-many-times as though I suffered from short-term amnesia, that my motherland India was a subcontinent and the only one in the world, possessing all geographical features under the sun, and all this might have proved even slightly useful had I taken up Arts instead of Science.
About the subcontinent and India possessing everything part, I slyly pointed out that unlike Europe or America, India didn’t have an isthmus, which of course, didn’t go down very well with the elders.
After listening to them repeatedly emphasize on India’s potential to be the greatest tourist hotspot in the world, I replied, “I never said India is an ugly place or that I’m ashamed of it. I’m just saying that India isn’t Europe just like I’m not you and can never be you.”Just like pretending it’s real is not the same as experiencing the real thing, I wanted to add, but the Peter Pan of a child in me, didn’t really want to believe that.
Instead I added, “Besides it never snows in Calcutta.”That’s a worthy point, my elders said and promised to take me to a hill station where it snowed except when they did, it was either in summer or right after the snowfall was over.
So I’ve never experienced what it’s like to dance in the snow, with snowflakes in my hair, or build a snowman or a snow castle or a snow angel with friends who are not imaginary, or ski or ride a sledge drawn by reindeers or trace my name on the misty windowsill during a snowstorm,
No, the closest things that my city offered me were snow sprays, snow globes and the occasional hailstorm in April.
And despite everything, I was really grateful for the last one, except there was one tiny glitch in the arrangement: my mother had forbidden me to go out in a thunderstorm. So I had to be content to listen to the pitter-patter of rain, but though I tried my best to pretend, those tiny ice-pebbles on the driveway were not snow enough for me.
Nevertheless it was okay. It was okay pretending it was a snowstorm and not a thunderstorm. It was okay when my friends and I sprayed artificial snow at each other, even though it felt like, tasted like and was probably, foam. This is the whole dichotomy of pretending.
Pretending isn’t pretending when the sheer weight of the pretence hurts you, like stone walls closing in from either side. Pretending isn’t pretending when the pretence cuts you and bleeds you and engraves its invisible scars all over your body. Pretending isn’t pretending unless it can amputate your frustration and loneliness. Pretending is pretending when the pretence is so real that you do not care or are afraid of it being otherwise.
After all, pretending is the only way to make the dysfunctional seem functional. Any child whose read A Little Princess could come to the same conclusion.
And so, during the latest hailstorm that happened n early April, I did what every normal adolescent would do: disobey my parents. Yes, there was thunder, fulminating like a demented god. Yes, there was the lightning ripping apart the sky with mad hunger. But my mother was out at some other place, and I did not want to lose a glorious opportunity. I reasoned, we had lightning conductors and even if they didn’t work and I was struck by lightning, I might develop some really cool super powers. And well, even if I died, at least I’d die, happy and fulfilled, dreaming of snow.
Some half hour later, soaked head to toe in ice-cold rain and with ice in my mouth, and trying in vain, to obliterate all traces of my treason and sin, I noticed something beautiful: snow, a lone piece of snow, floating into my room and landing gracefully at my feet.
Of course I wasn’t dead and of course it wasn’t real snow. But it was snow nevertheless.
I looked out of my window. The rain had stopped but the sky was grey and grumbling. And there was snow floating all around, snow on the driveway, snow neatly snuggling itself in my hair. The snow of hill stations, the snow of Europe, the snow of my dreams.
I saw the cotton tree standing tall, its branches swaying gently in summer’s lullaby breeze, and balls of cotton or snow, all over its branches, where its cherry blossom flowers had once been, all around it, like the snow in a snow globe once it’s been shaken.
It didn’t matter it was cotton. It was snow. And for a moment, I was in bliss, frozen in ecstasy, like a ballerina trapped inside a snow globe. There was cotton in my hair and a song on my lips, and in that moment, I was so content and happy in my pretence, that I didn’t care or was afraid, that in the end, my pretence, like so many other things, wasn’t really real.
Please let me know your thoughts!
(formerly published in Voices, The Statesman)