“We have our own little tent”
As a kid, I always had a game that I would play alone. It would invariably be in the afternoons when dad was at work and mom was taking a quick nap. The house would be silent except for a slight indistinct hum of an unknown bug or the chirp of a sparrow. I would crawl out of my comfortable bed and collect a few basic things I would need – a pillow, a blanket, a torch, a toy cup, spoon and a book. Taking them all in my arms at the same time, along with a doll, I would crawl under a blanket terrified. I would crouch and sit there alert to save myself if someone attacked. That was the make belief. We were under attack and had run away from our home. We being the doll and me. I had quickly grabbed as many things as I could hold and run away to this tent under the blanket. It was dark here. But I had got a torch. I would light it and my tent would glow in a warm, smiling, yellow light. “You can breathe easy now. It’s all ok. We are safe here. See?”, I would urge the doll, who on some days would be my sister and on some others my daughter. Mostly, the latter. The blanket on top of us would surround us cosily. Its walls would be almost in our faces. We liked that. We felt secure in the little enclosure. I would make food for the doll in the toy cup and then lay her on my lap. I would also read her the book. My mind would never register what I was reading, but I wanted her to feel that things were normal. Like they used to be when we were in our house. She would slowly drift to sleep while I would worry about how we would survive the next day.
The game had variations. At times I would forget to bring the torch. So I would seat her in the tent and then duck and run outside, amidst gunshots, to fetch the torch and hurry back inside, panting as much out of scare as the exertion. But, no matter how many times I played it, I would never be able to come up with a practical way of saving ourselves inside the tent. I began to realise slowly that I would have to come out, earn and get food and materials to save the doll. The mere thought would make me cringe. It felt against my comfort to leave the secure tent. It was cold outside. It was too big an open space. So, I would skip that portion and pretend I had gotten food for her. I would wake her up, feed her and talk to her, holding her close to my chest. I would reassure her, soothen her. “Am there for you. We are together. No matter what happens, we will be together. How does it matter where we are. We will talk, play, sing, hug. We have our own little tent.” And she would smile. I would smile too and cuddle her.
It was a game. It had to end. Either when it got very suffocating inside the blanket or when mom got up. The objects would be returned to their respective places and I would be back tidily sitting on the sofa of a large living room with a high roof. Somewhere deep inside I would be relieved. The legs did hurt in that crouching position. But I would miss the cosy atmosphere. Several days would pass before I would get the urge to play that game again.
As I began growing older, I slowly started to avoid the game. The tension was becoming too much for me. The acids that churned in my stomach when I was in the survival mode took a long time to neutralise. There was too much sadness in the game. And I knew such dramatic events would come in life. “Why live them before they befall us,” I would think. Playing the game had prepared me for such times. So, that was a gain. Now that I had a rough idea of what to take with me, what all I would need in that little tent, it was time to let go of the game. But, for many years later, I kept wondering why I liked the game so much.
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Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Grave of the Fireflies is a movie written and directed by Isao Takahata under the Studio Ghibli production banner. The movie is set in Japan at the time of World War II and tells the story of a young boy Seita and his little sister Setsuko as they lose their home and their parents to the war. They initially live with their aunt who grudgingly accommodates them in her house. She however shows no inhibition in giving them a step motherly treatment and declaring them a burden on her. Seita soon leaves the house for a shelter which is nothing more than a roof in the wilderness by the river. Seita and Setsuko begin their life afresh at the shelter, filled with hope and joy. There’s freedom there. There’s love there. There’s freedom to love there. They play at the beach and sleep with the fireflies. They breathe life. But, soon the supplies begin to get depleted and they have to struggle for food and medicines. The movie beautifully takes us through their emotions while gently canvassing the entire war time scenario.
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“Why do fireflies have to die so soon?” – Setsuko
I have often wondered why I liked the game so much. It has never been a proud wondering but a disconcerted one, one where you anxiously wait for a troubling answer to your question. It seemed most plausible that I had with me, some sort of an insecurity, some fear of losing my home and loved ones. The way I would hold onto the doll, the way I would sit huddled inside the blanket, hinted at it. At an age where children play in the garden or want a big house and a big toy, why would I feel so content in the close walled tent with one cup and spoon? There’s a thin line between insecurity and fear, the latter not always leading to the former. Maybe it was just fear of facing catastrophes. Probably as I grew, through movies and books, I began to realise that life wasn’t a smooth walk. It had struggles, pain and loss. People were homeless, injured and dead. Maybe it was my way of preparing myself mentally for such situations. I still do that often when I become very comfortable in a zone. It keeps me away from becoming dependent on the comfort and saves me from the shock when I am thrown out of the zone. So maybe that’s how I grappled with growing up. Through the game, I came to terms with survival and death. Or maybe it was just a sadistic game that I would play. Imagine-you-are-homeless scenario. With the warmth of house-house and thrill of hide-and-seek. I had never really reached a satisfactory explanation for what I gained through that game.
As I watched Grave of the Fireflies, a knot began to form in my stomach. Sitting through the later part of the movie was one of the most mentally excruciating experiences for me. I was emotionally moved by what I was witnessing. The movie does that to you. But there was a guilt that was building inside me. A guilt of having made a mockery of a painfully humbling scenario. A guilt of having even attempted to visualise what it felt to be in a tent with nothing to eat. A guilt of having enjoyed a situation which makes people writhe and die.
But, there was no denying the fact that I had felt the survival instinct. I had felt their fear, their weakness, the urgency, the helplessness. And despite those feelings, I had felt secure in the tent. Even when faced with death, I did not feel like finding escape routes. I felt like caring for the doll, being loved by it. There was freedom beneath that dimly lit blanket. There was love in the air. It felt like home…
And that’s when it hit me! It wasn’t an insecurity of losing my home. There was no fear in sitting inside a cramped tent. It was nothing to do with my surroundings. It was a craving for the love I sensed inside the tent. A love that needed no objects to express itself, a love that lay unfazed on my lap even at the time of crisis. The love gave me strength, support and faith. I enjoyed giving it. I enjoyed receiving it. The make believe attack was just to highlight how pristine the love was. I always wanted to be around such love. I felt at home. No Nintendos or Barbie dolls or fancy sketch pens could have sated this appetite I had for love. It was a deep rooted craving that was surfacing, eager to make me identify it, nourish it, express it. I watched Setsuko and Seita lying in the shelter, dimly lit by the fireflies. Heart wrenching scenes these were. But, the writer did not portray them as pitiful souls. In fact, there was no gloom around. There was grief but there was faith. There was loneliness but there was peace. The sound of Setsuko giggling kept ringing in my ears as the visuals turned to something more familiar:
Years before, I lie huddled on the double bed with mom on the other side. The room is dimly lit from a distant streetlight seeping through the curtains. The door has been shut and locked, windows tightly latched. We both lie with hesitant breathing, afraid to make even a single noise lest someone hears us. There are people outside ready to attack us, or so we feel. We barely move and are reluctant to let our guard down. Slowly I ease myself into sleep, silently comforting mom that we are alone but safe. That we are together. Come what may. This is our own little world. We are happy here, secure here.