Starry Night

The streets get quaint by the time the boy gets back to his home. It is a habit of his to take a walk, late into the night when all the noises from the city ‘s hustle-bustle have died down. It helps him justify the time spent in observing the thoughts churning in his mind, entangling among themselves like earphones in a jeans pocket.

As darkness engulfs the city, these thoughts shine with a dark slimy sheen that the boy cannot avert his attention from, no matter how much disgust it creates in him. It is as if you are trying to induce vomit that would finally bring an end to discomfort residing in his bile. But like the fall in the dreams that never end, his gaze does not find an end to the darkness. Nausea just deepens like an orgasm that builds up with a frenzy but never climaxes.

It is one thing to feel human in sadness but after a while, when this is all that remains, one’s heart feels numb like feet left hanging for too long. The walks usually help in giving action to the building anxiety. Today, alas, it is proving to be too stubborn. Too affixed on the inner monologues, the walk continues with a languished pace. A kick to the stone here, a stretch of the neck there as the boy walks with fidgety steps dragging to nowhere.

He looks up to the sky, in search of some respite. It was not Gods he was asking for help but a phenomenon far more magical — Stars.

It is a great old parable that man tries to find his place among the stars as he lays on his back under them at night. The stars showed Man the way to his destiny and they inspired him to reach where no one has gone before, to take leaps as a species into the modern world. But like the Gods, they too have forsaken us. Looking up, he just sees the reddish-violet hues in the black sky as if the city as a whole is burning and the rising ashes of the dreams that once were, have shrouded the bright spots that once showed us our way.

Nevertheless, as the walk halts and the craned neck does not find comeuppance in the heavens it was searching for, the boy decides to call it a day. He unlocks his apartment and walks into his room, switching on the light. The poetry of these sequence of events is lost in the routine of this whole affair.

As the dim old tube light switches on, and he removes his garments to change into nightclothes, he observes his naked form in the mirror. Thank god for clothes that cover the naked body like the smile that masks our naked face.

Changed, he stares at the painting hanging by his bedside. It is a joke, a bad digital print of The Starry Night. He bought it to remind him of the stars akin to the picture of the Gods other people have in their homes. The colours are faded due to dust collecting all over walls of the apartment.

As he scans nook and cranny of the image, he yearns to see how the painter saw the sky. He stood there, gaze affixed, as he demands an answer from the painting. As time slipped away, the imperfections of the print seemed to wash away. The stars started to shine brighter and the turbulent winds started gyrating around the stars, mixing their illuminating light in the darkness of the sky. Their light started filtering into his room and the darkness in his room was being pushed away.

To capture the feeling from this turn of events, he placed a hand on the print in an attempt to feel the swirling paint strokes. But he was unable to reach the stars as continued extending his hand deep inside the canvas. To get even closer, he climbs on his bed and leans into the painting on his toes. He feels like jumping to catch the swirling winds carrying light inches away from his fingertips.

While leaning on the frame of the canvas, he slips while making the jump and falls inside the painting. He tries to flail his arms in order to catch something, to get hold of something to keep him in his world but nothing he tries to catch has mass. Suddenly, the darkness engulfs him and he loses his sense of time and being as he falls into the abyss.

The boy woke up in a coughing fit with heaved breathing. He gets up and tries to catch his breath while in a prostrated posture, with his head on the bed. His dad, who has been stroking his chest to induce sleep, tries to comfort him by patting his back as the boy wheezes in order to catch each breath.

After some time, as the boy felt a bit better, his father started telling him about the stars. A good story always helped him deflect his focus from his asthma.

“Their light comes to us after travelling billions of years across so many galaxies and all of space, straight to us.”

“But Papa, How does it know where are we?” — the boy asks excitedly as he moves his stretched index finger pointing towards the sky closer to his chest in a quick sweeping motion.

“Aha, it has a way to know whom to reach. And think, if the light started so many years ago from the stars, the star might have died. But you still can see it.”- his dad smiled.

“Does it shine knowing someday someone will see its light?”

“Yes. Stars shine so that some boy can see its beauty and remember it.” — his dad said, with a sad smile.

Can we visit the stars?”

“Man is trying to reach the stars and maybe in your generation, he finally will.”

“Will we travel to the stars, Papa?” — the glimmer in boys eyes shone brighter than the stars dimmed by the upcoming dawn.

“I think I am too old for that. But I hope one day you will”

The boy always looked up to his father. That must be the reason why he missed the glazed eyes with which his dad stared at the stars. All he had were dimming memories of a few stars that just shone for him.

The boy said nothing while looking at the sky. When the boy grew up, he wanted to say to his dad — “the boy will always remember”. But at that time, he just smiled imagining what would it mean to be among the stars, while laying in his dad’s lap.

Soon, the boy’s dad snapped out of his thoughtful gaze, the end marked with a slow sigh and then moved his head closer to the boy’s chest.

“Are you feeling better? I think the wheezing has stopped. Do you want to go inside and sleep?” — the dad asks sweetly as he picks up the boy who is half asleep already. Talking about the stars always helps.

The boy and his father walked inside as the stars were switching off one by one in the light of slowly approaching dawn.

As the boy was walking in the approaching twilight, he noticed that he is lagging behind. They are walking inside a canopy of trees, as he follows a trail in the darkness behind a group of trekkers. He liked going on treks for excursions, as a nice break to the routine of daily life.

The boy is always nervous whenever he comes to a new place. He really felt he did not fit inside the zeitgeist of his times — clubs, booze and chaos. It came off as a surprise when he found out that people were excited about going on a trek. No matter how much you convince yourself that you don’t need people to be happy, the inner anxiety of how to behave when with others betrays that emotion.

He was secretly looking to find people, to get someone to share his thoughts with. Sometimes he observed them from a distance, eavesdropping in their ‘bilateral’ conversation — just to get a sense who they are. It is an art perfected while standing still and quiet in corners of rooms inhabited by people unaware of the wallflower that blooms outside of their view.

Hence by walking behind the crowd, he can be the silent observer — and usually, he found himself envious of all the fun he observed. But something is different this time. As the trek proceeds, he noticed that distance between him and crowd decreases and he becomes part of the trekking formation.

Being close to a group, he observed its members without any prejudice. There are surely people who fit a mould — the jolly guy who talks with everyone, the knowledgable guy sharing wisdom, the passionate girls who wax poetic lines about oneness with nature. It might be that they are unreal idealistic representations of the boy’s romantic brain. But the conservations they share are real and the boy felt wanted to join their group.

They reach the top, helping each other at the top of the big rock that sits at the peak and sat there huddled together. Everyone is quiet and try to take in all the sounds and lights of the view. The boy, while laying on his back, looked at the stars and was mesmerised by their luminous glow as if the white light piercing was coming from the heavens. This is totally different from the cities where you no longer see the stars and seeing them again in their glory made him feel sentimental.

But, he is unsure if he should risk this newfound rapport by being weirdly sentimental about stars. Before he could say anything the girl speaks out — “Don’t the stars make everything alright.” He smiles as he looks towards her and adds, “Yupp. How can be anyone petty knowing we are tiny specks floating in the infinite expanse”. And then someone else adds — “We can thank the infinite glowing stars to remind us of our insignificance.”

The boy realises that he is not alone in his worship of stars. He feels a connection to these people, realising that the world is full of people who he can connect with, who will be his redemption from the lonely world he has constructed around him. There are people who share his destiny and he decides he would never let go of them, whatever they may ever do. The stars they do shine for everyone and he will be there with them to look at them together.

“Hey look at the stars. They are like big circles”

“Yeah, with their light diffused through the turbulent air. It is strange but beautiful.”

“You guys know this painting right?” — the boy said as he invited them into his bedroom. As they are walking into his room, continuing the conversation from the hall discussing the digital print of Starry Night.

Whenever his friends decided to hang around in his room, the conversations always took a turn for the philosophical. It usually starts with girls they cannot woo or work they decided to put off. But it inadvertently always comes back to life and philosophy. Any other person listening to these conversations would think them to be phoney people sucking up to each other, trying to impress each other with the names and self-important terms.

But the boy knows these people from long. And it is by knowing people, through the years you realise the real reason something is said. All pretence melts in the face of complete familiarity. Today the group has reconvened albeit after too long. But the old discussions are picked up as if they just happened yesterday.

“Hey, when did you buy this painting print?”

“Recently. Yeah, wanted to decorate my room a bit. Why not add a bit of pretentious prop in your room to impress the next girl that walks into this room.”

“Money wasted then. A prop without any future use.” — sighed his friends mockingly.

“True. But a man can dream.” — a half-serious reply from the boy in all this banter.

“But why exactly this painting? Anything special? Would you place this had you not known Van Gogh painted it” — asked his other friend, trying to be a contrarian.

“Well, this painting is the only Van Gogh I have seen in person. And before seeing this in person, the first time I saw this digitally, it filled me a sense of hope. A sense there is light in the darkness of night. ” — said the boy with a glazed look.

“Well, you must not have gotten this feeling at the first look. We all know the tragic history of Van Gogh. That may be making you romanticise this more I suppose”

“Actually, the story of Van Gogh makes it even more inspiring. A happy man with everything, can easily see the magic of the night’s sky. But it takes a special kind of grit and resolve, to see the hope in the night sky, when everything is dark in your own life”

“But we don’t know what was going on in the artist’s mind. Maybe in his crazy mind, he saw the stars to be pulsating and skies to be turbulent and then he just drew it. What if you are getting too much out of it, even what that was not intended?” — his friend smirked at this response. They just want to poke the boy to see his response when they question his favourite things.

“That is the whole point actually. Maybe people with a sane mind like ours, need to see the sky from crazy eyes once in a while.” — the boy said, not exactly getting out how he really feels about the painting.

“Well, it is beautiful for sure. I am talking about the original painting, not this dusty print, of course. Please, if you have decided to decorate, keep it clean too” — one of his friends reprimanded him in jest.

“I did not know my mom was visiting too. And no dust can cover the magnificent ideas this painting portrays” — the boy replied in jest.

“Philosophising laziness, that’s a first.” — everyone laughed.

“But still, all this philosophising aside, one question remains in mind…”

“What’s that?”

“How must the stars actually look to Van Gogh?”

The voices are back and they don’t seem to quiet down. He sits in the dark corner of the room and holds his arms over his knees. He can still feel the pain in his right ear.

He wants to fight these monsters himself. That is why he came here. He tries to sleep but as the eyelids close and darkness descends, the voices become louder, echoing infinitely in that darkness. He is afraid and lights a candle to try to reduce the darkness in his room at least.

As he sat there alone, in the shimmering light of the dying candle, his hands on his heads and body crouched as if supplicating to despair. He feels like being split into two — someone who wants to destroy and someone who wants to preserve.

The destroyer asks, “What’s left?” and he is left in silence. All his loved ones are gone. His friends have dropped him here with a resigned hopelessness and a strange respite of not handling him. Maybe it is better to destroy himself. But the self-preserving instinct wants him to ask the world this question one last time.

He can’t control the two beings in his mind but he can control his body. At least for now. So he stands up and walks up to the window of his enclosed room, trying to see if he can find the answer one last time.

He can see the town lit by the moonlight with stars around. As he stands there, he can see the stars shimmering, making the sky brighter than the candlelit room he is standing in. The preserver smiles and asks, “Do you have an answer? Isn’t all this beauty worth fighting for?”

The destroyer retorts — “It’s a pathetic attempt. The sky is still dark and that darkness envelopes not just you but a whole town. And towns beyond this one. Towns that he has never visited. Towns that will exist when he will not. The darkness shall eventually vanquish them too.”

He stands there quietly and thinks. It is he who thinks and it is he who replies to his divided self… “There is darkness trying to eat everything. But still, the stars shine and their illuminance mixes with the turbulent air to mix up the white light in the pitch-black dark. The constant flux between light and dark tells me that the nocturnal world is alive. The towns that exist beyond the hills are afraid of the darkness but the stars are there to show them the way.”

“Very well then.” — Tears roll down his cheeks as the beings seem to finally disappear. They retract to the depths they came from, at least for today.

He knows what he must do next. He picks up a paintbrush and as he dips his brush in a thick mixture of paint, he knows the purpose of his strokes. They should know once upon a starry night, how a man felt despair and hope at the same time.

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Aalia Mehreen Ahmed

26. MBA graduate. Self-proclaimed bibliophile. Cricket, chai, and superheroes get me excited. When I was in the eighth grade, my English teacher told me ''You write beautifully but you write too much!''. That was the day I met my arch-nemesis: word limit. I eventually lost a couple of marks because of it. That was also the day I decided I wanted to write (not quite sure about what though!) for as long as I lived...

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