Manasa lived in a closed neighbourhood. These were three storey buildings with four wings, each housing 24 flats. The housing complex had a six feet tall boundary wall that kept strangers away.
In her neighbourhood lived Anita. One day Manasa saw that Anita had brought a small bucket of white synthetic emulsion on the ground. Dipping a sleek brush into the bucket, she dabbed her bicycle with thick layers of white colour. The bicycle used to be pink and inky blue with black pedals and a few rods of steel and black plastic. As Anita’s colouring progressed, each of the different shades of the bicycle disappeared under a white sheet. Unable to resist, Manasa went over to her and asked,
“What happened to you Anita? Why are you smothering your bicycle with this uniform whiteness?”
Anita looked up from her work and said with scorn, “Can’t you see, Didi? This is white, the greatest of colours: the colour of light, the colour of clouds, the colour of chalk, the colour of snow, the colour of enlightenment, the colour of everything pure and peaceful.”
Manasa felt the note of scorn in her voice and decided not to argue with her. Moreover, she was in a hurry to go to the market. But on her way she sat thinking how dull it was to ride a bicycle that was completely white; the innocent pink and the bold blue had completely disappeared. But it seemed that the steel rods did not accept the novelty; the chain and chain cover were streaked with an oddity imposed on them; the pedals got jammed; the rubber tyre was patchy white and would soon become dirty.
Manasa was struck by the impracticality of the whole mission. She looked forward to the outcome. She imagined Anita riding on her new vehicle, the emissary of ‘everything pure and peaceful’. The sixteen year old girl would go round and round in her whitewashed horse and people would exclaim ‘look at that’. Maybe Anita would also wear a white dress.
It was nearly so. Whenever Manasa came downstairs, her eyes would invariably scan the grounds to spy on Anita. There she would be, gaily showing around her bright steed.
As days passed, many-a-times Anita would sit with a brush in hand retouching a portion of her bicycle with white. In about a year, the whiteness disappeared under most of the original colours of the bicycle: the rubber, the steel, the plastic, the grease, the dirt, the pink and the blue. Only a few traces of her effort at whitening and purifying remained.
At home, Manasa recollected the sight of a splotchy bicycle with a smile. The normalcy of the thing satisfied her.
One morning as Manasa headed for the exit gate, she was startled by the sight of a girl sitting on a green stool in front of her red and white bicycle and trying to colour it green. There stood the paint bucket and there she sat holding a brush in her right hand and a large handkerchief in her left hand. She had wrapped her head and shoulders in a scarf. Her bare feet were left unprotected from the splash of colour. She was completely engrossed in her mission.
Manasa took note of the girl’s features and decided to find out afterwards where she lived. On her way back in the evening, instead of going to her flat, she turned towards the place where she had seen the girl in the morning. She could see the stains of green all over the ground. It was a cemented ground and the colour could not be washed away immediately. It would stay there waiting for its natural wear and tear.
After locating the green bicycle and the flat of its owner, Manasa came home. She felt terribly exhausted. She fetched an apple from the kitchen and reclined on her bed. For her, the whole world had gone insane. The satisfaction of observing the genuine disappearance of Anita’s fanaticism gave way to anxiety.
Do we never learn from others? Manasa thought aloud.
A few days later she met Anita. She was riding a new two-wheeler. She smiled at Manasa and stopped to chat. Manasa said, “Wow, a black and blue scooter!”
“Yes, Didi. After the bicycle broke down, I asked Papa to buy me a scooter. I am grown up now.
There were many lovely colours in the showroom. I could have taken all of them. Diversity is beautiful. This, I bought, by way of contrast to my previous choice. Pink and then white and now black; these are shades under the same sky; we just have different views of the same thing.”
Manasa smiled and said, “And we don’t have to paint everything according to one point of view. Just look at that girl. She has followed your example and decided to paint her vehicle green all over. How long will it last? And how long will she struggle to maintain it? Like you, she will also discard the artificiality of it and allow the natural colours to reappear.”
Manasa hesitated and then with some determination continued, “Anita, do you know that girl?” Anita shook her head. It was evident that Anita was alarmed to know that there were others who had taken her cue and set out to colour their vehicles according to their singular fancy. Although it would actually bring about many colourful bicycles in the compound, the prospect of girls frantically waving a blue or a green or an orange paintbrush frightened her. So she quickly rejoined,
“Didi, I can find out who she is. Maybe I can even talk to her. I can show her my old bicycle and the ugly look it has got due to my folly. Then she can show others also the outcome of this kind of craze. We can gather the children together in the evening and hold a conference. We can stop everyone from being foolish.”
Manasa started shaking her head. She decided she was wrong. The whole idea was wrong. Expecting one crazy girl to teach another crazy girl something was like retracing the same old steps of zeal again. She did not want to make it one girl’s mission to dissuade another girl from doing wrong. She did not want a quarrel.
She raised her palm to Anita’s lips. Anita stopped speaking. She observed that Manasa was pained. So she started her two-wheeler, waved and left. Manasa too, went out of the gate and to her college.
The next morning the same girl sat on the same green stool with her green bicycle standing nearby. Manasa went over to the girl and asked, “Why have you painted your bicycle green?”
The girl replied with a note of sadness, “Didi, it had had an accident and after repairs it looked ugly. This is the only paint I could find in Mummy’s store. But, see, the paint on the steel and rubber is coming off. I am going to redo some of these today but the whole effort of painting has left me exhausted.”
Manasa quickly said, “Of course, the forcefully applied colour would never last. I am sure you could do with a completely new vehicle.”
*First published in School Shiksha, 2018,
won Poiesis Award for Excellence in Literature given away by Poiesisonline, Xpresspublications, 2018.