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A collaboration over too much coffee.
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07 October, 2004

The land beyond the mountains

In the land beyond the old mountains, where the sea makes deep inroads, there was a little village of salt makers. Simple people making there living from the salt of the sea. Drying seawater and selling the salt in the cities. They were far from rich. But they were self-sustained and happy.

But my story is not of these thirty odd houses in the village. It is about that one house - situated at a little distance from the village, where the land finally runs up to embrace the boundless freedom of the sea, and the waves in joyous mirth raise their arms, as if to welcome it. There, just under the abandoned lighthouse, surrounded by thorny shrubs and large deposits of salt, is a ramshackle little hut.

Two sweet children live here - eula and gnu - with their mother and father. If ever you can call a family beautiful then it is this family. And I cannot at this moment think of any better word to describe them. The mother and father were honest, hard working people. They did their best to make life in that arid salty land easy for their dear little children. And the children were like to flowers in the wilderness.

Eula, the elder one, was a young girl of 15. She had inherited the simple beauty of her mother - the beauty that is only found in places yet untouched by the falsities of modern civilization. It was strange to see how the ruggedness of the land and weather had worked wonders, instead of eroding her beauty. She was her mother's darling and her father's pride. Gnu was a lad of 13. But he was already a man from all angles. The hands of necessity and environment had molded his clay into a frame much tougher and mature than his equals in less hostile places. He was his father's right hand even at that age.
You would think that such a family would be completely happy - as happy as one could be in that place. For the recipe of happiness only needs two ingredients - love and satisfaction. And they had plenty of both. But life has her own mysterious ways - incomprehensible to us mortals. She is forever playing a huge game of chess, and humans are mere pawns on it. Her strategies and her actions are her own.

There was everything in the air of that household except happiness. It was as if the inhabitants had been stricken with some mysterious ailment, which prevented their smiles. As if a curse lay on the house that made smiling and laughing fatal. And a curse it was - in an indirect manner. That beautiful girl of 15 - that flower of wilderness - had from a very early age lost the use of both her legs. All day she sat at one place - below the lighthouse - watching the men work in the salt quarries and the ships pass in the distant sea. People passed by her - and smiled - as you smile when you see a beautiful flower on your way. She smiled in return, staring with clear guileless eyes that were as deep as the ocean.
Then there was gnu. At 13 he was tall and strong and looked 18. But he had a strange affliction. He could not work for long hours now. It happened last year when he and his father were out in the ocean. He had fainted suddenly while rowing against the waves. This happened again the next week. Then three times in a day. The doctors in the city examined him for long hours and told his father that gnu had a hole in his heart. And that he must be operated soon - or he would die. It was just a matter of time.
Everything needs money in this land - even the right to life. And therefore gnu was denied the right to life. But the poor are strong in their own way. Once they have understood a situation, they learn to live with it and make the best of it. And so gnu lived his life and made the best use of his numbered days.
In this way, sadly, yet slowly, the four of them lived their lives. Till one day, life moved her next pawn. The land in that area had been sleeping for centuries now. But now, something deep within the earth caused it to awake - and like an angry giant, whose slumber has been unnecessarily broken, it moved restlessly. It was a bright sunny morning. The entire village was in the salt quarries or out in the sea. Only sweet eula was sitting under the lighthouse.

The first one to hear the land's movement was the sea - and in its own silent way it tried to warn the little girl. Giant waves rushed into the land - towards the girl and tugged at her. It was as if the sea itself was trying to pull the girl away to safety. Asking it to run away from the lighthouse. The girl did not understand. But had she understood, what good would it have come to. She could not even stand on her own. And there was no one there to help her.

The lighthouse did not fall on her like a tree. Instead it went down into the ground - sinking like the ships sink in the sea - as if it had learnt that art through watching them. And with it sank poor eula. The land suddenly opened itself to embrace her into its fold and free her from her earthly burdens. In a matter of few minutes that wild flower had disappeared forever.
By the time the villagers realized what was happening, the huts had all been reduced to rubble. And the monster within had gone back to sleep. The destruction had been swift and complete. Huge chasms had appeared in the earth and eaten up there homes. A dozen lives had been lost - the sick and the old - and our little eula.

The government earthmover dug continuously for two days. And finally reached the foot of the lighthouse - where eula was sleeping in her natural grave. For those two days the grief stricken family stood and watched the mechanical movements of the earthmover. And just as they had never known happiness, it was difficult for them to get acquainted with the grief that visited at their doorstep now. So they just stood there and waited. When the digging was over and the body was visible, the earthmover moved away. The whole land had been laid waste and the machine was urgently needed elsewhere. So the father and the brother went down in the pit to bring up their beloved girl to the surface - for the last time. But as they picked her up, to their astonishment, they saw a huge chest - a very old and rust eaten one.

Long ago, when the sea was the main mode of trade and transport; the high seas were full of pirates. For there are always some men whose greed is insatiable. They are never satisfied by what they get - always clamoring for more and causing death and destruction in there wake. But they forget, that while they are at it, life from her high seat is laughing at them. For though they think they are the masters, life knows that they are nothing more than small chessmen in her big game.

Some such small chessman had perhaps, in a forgotten age, left his treasure buried under the earth on that forbidden tract of land. Little did he know that he would never return to claim his blood tainted treasure. Little did he know, that centuries later, a boy of 13 would get a new lease of life from the money he had hoarded. Little did he know that a large part of his treasure would go to the rebuilding of a village of salt makers.

In that village, situated at a little distance from the houses, where the land finally runs up to embrace the boundless freedom of the sea, and the waves in joyous mirth raise their arms in welcome, where there once stood an abandoned lighthouse and a ramshackle hut, there now stands a beautiful little garden. And at the center of it sits a beautiful girl - carved in pure white marble - smiling and staring at the ocean with clear guileless eyes.
Did that chessman know all this? I do not think so. How could he? These were never his plans - they were a part of the big game which life herself plays. One last thing. Gnu grew up to be a fine young man. The family prospered and moved to a big city. But till today they do not know whether to be happy or sad. Or whether there is any difference between such things as happiness and sadness, joy and sorrow, birth and death? To them all these things are like two sides of the same coin. One leads to the other.

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