By Akash Gupta

A voice screeching at a distance. Growing louder with each second. Maybe a soulless machine whirring somewhere at a rotting factory. Just ignore it. Ignoring things make them go away, eventually. This shall pass on too. It did not go away. It became unbearable. Ever heard someone scraping fingernails on a chalkboard? Or a car horn blaring incessantly in the middle of an empty road? It felt somewhat like that. Never-ending, invisible, internal. The sound was coming from a machine. THE Machine.

“Seeing the present conditions, this lock-down will be for 21 days. This is to save India, save each citizen and save your family. Do not step outside your house.”

An exhausted and automated soul was the victim. A soul, whimpering in a corner. The soul, which decided to fulfill every single expectation of this cold, emotionless, impassive society, from the very first day of its birth. Silently, willingly, calmly.

“For 21 days, forget what is stepping outside. There is a Lakshaman Rekha on your doorstep. Stepping outside the house will bring the corona virus inside your house.”

The news of lock-down stung like acid to the bare skin. It felt like I would not be able to do the same things, follow the age-old systematic schedule anymore. Switching ON at seven in the morning, refueling at eight, reaching factory by nine, following senseless orders till six in the evening, homecoming by seven, and shutting down by eleven at night. Now I will have to CHANGE. The word itself evokes fear. We often say change is necessary, yet no one actually wants to change. Ehhh, typical humans. And I was part of the flock too, at least, in my actions.

My family and friends had always labeled me as “Outstanding” (that’s their slang for a near-perfect functioning robot). Topped school straight through 1st till 10th grade. Engineering, then MBA. Perfect combo for a perfect life, I was told. Stable job in a supposedly reputed firm for the last three years. That’s what most Indian dreams are made of, right? I was living the perfect life. But if it were a perfect life, then why it didn’t feel good? Why did it feel like draining the purpose of my life through the drain? Why did I have to wear multiple masks, even in front of the people I felt like knowing from centuries? Why did it feel like a gust of freezing wind in the middle of a shiny summer afternoon? Why it didn’t feel right? Interesting thing is, however, that I was never completely oblivious of the fact that I was doing something wrong. Something for which I was not destined for. I just couldn’t point out that ‘something’. That ‘something’ slowly took the shape of endless thoughts, powered by mighty neurons spewing chemicals all night and all day long. And it took me the entire world coming to a complete halt, to decipher the simplest puzzle.

One thing that this lock-down offered in plenty, TIME. Time was a glowing silver-lining in the gloom. For me, the silver-lining proved to be a rainbow, consisting of every color you can imagine. It made me aware that what I used to call dreams, were actually made out of peer pressure, societal expectations and self-sacrifices. Time was what I needed the most to cold start the engine. It gave me an opportunity to peek inside and pull out the dusty remains of my suffocating creativity, buried deep down. I started scratching the exterior of it, well knowing that there is solid steel hidden beneath all that rust. Creativity knows no boundaries, as they say. So, I started exploring few different things and tried not to limit myself.

Colors had always fascinated me. Weren’t you amazed at how the glistening blue acrylic intertwines with the ochre yellow pigment to evolve into a green-looking monster? Or when the Pangong Tso slowly transforms itself from the shades of blue to pale green, with the traces of red colored patches in between. Or how Schaller made it possible to depict multitude of emotions with just black and white? I started sketching with whatever I had at that time. A broken HB pencil and an old eraser, I found lying somewhere behind the dresser. I started with simple things and moved on to draw more complex creatures. The grey matter was slowly warming up.

And then, it finally dawned upon me. I have always loved visiting less traveled places, following mysterious trails and exploring glorifying terrains. Slushy roads of Mustaang, ice-clogged trails at Tawang, sub-zero temperatures at Sela, wide-open stretches of More plains, snow covered peaks of Kailash, red and yellow flags fluttering on thin wires at Sagnam. I have always felt like leaving the hustle and bustle of the city one day, becoming a wanderer and live my life amongst the monks at Key Gompa – tranquil air, starlit sky, and me holding a cup of warm tea. That would be my idea of life and freedom. To traverse the thin line between chaos and order. To discover the true meaning of life. The ultimate salvation.

But how would all that be possible without a bucket loads of legally certified green sheets of paper? Wait! Let me have a quick look at this elaborate map, where the location of a hidden treasure chest, located inside a secret tunnel, is marked with a bright red cross. All I have to do is to enter into the tunnel, quietly, every fortnight. After around fifteen minutes, a vague figure would emerge with a huge bag of gold coins on his shoulder. Sadly, this is not one of Rick and Morty episodes. And I’m still a fragile being from Dimension C-137.

So I picked up pen and paper and started doodling. Only this time, the illustrations consisted of understandable alphabets and numeric characters. After a few phone calls, several uneasy nights, hours of google search, life-time worth of explanatory videos, a preliminary blueprint for the next five years was coming to a shape. My Exit Strategy. Let me break the fourth wall here. Neither would I be able to pen the strategy within the permissible word limit, nor do I desire for the same. Maybe some other time, some other place, some other platform, some other mind-space, with a different vibe.