As a child, I had a thing for inanimate things. A sling, a pond, a pebble, a mica chip; they would catch my attention and hold it hostage. I would play for hours together with these silent, placid beings, drawing great solace from their harmless, non-fluctuating colour, and intention. Occasionally, a friend or two would drop in and ask in mock incredulity, ‘Don’t you ever get tired playing with them? They neither move nor speak.’ I wouldn’t answer. Only under my breath, after their departure, would pass a smile of assurance and utter, ‘They do.’
In the moments that saw me reading the last few pages of this book, that old vision made its presence felt; much like a feather that comes flying from nowhere and perches on the evening window sill. The transient nature of the vision notwithstanding, it niftily metamorphosed into something beautiful, and imperfect.
’You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you’d fight the world. You’d let it chew you up and spit you out, and you’d lie there wondering what was wrong. Because you’d always expect the world to be something it wasn’t, something it had no wish to be. The weevil in the cotton, the worm in the beanstalk, the borer in the corn. You couldn’t face them, and you couldn’t fight them; because you’re too weak, and you’re too strong. And you have no place to go in the world.’
So says one of Stoner’s best friends about him; early in the book. And I know he was right. Even when I hovered at the page enlisting the timid yet enthusiastic advance of a teen Stoner into his graduate class, I knew his friend was right. And as I followed Stoner’s journey from a farmer to a student to a professor, I held on to that opinion. Even as he fell in love and remained devoid of absorbing its vibrant colours, I nodded in affirmation. And as he discovered love, in its pristine bounty and lost it, and found it again, I smiled at the accurate assessment of his friend. But Stoner remained blissfully oblivious to the chequered opinions more out of a natural propensity than a measured effort.
Stoner was not a hero. No, he was not. From whichever significant angle I viewed him, he fell short – as a son, as a husband, as a father, as a teacher, as a lover and regretfully, even as a friend, he stumbled upon the table of traits that he should have stood firmly upon. As a result, I never saw him.
But it was his shadows that I followed. The inanimate yet exploring shadow. The inanimate yet expressing shadow. In his insignificant existence, lied his great sacrifices. In his ephemeral dreams, lied his indelible marks. In his fractured words, lied his myriad kindness. In his worldly failures, lied his biggest strengths.
When many thin-skinned shadows come together, they fuse to emerge a unique sheet of latent power; an intimidating solitary force, as much capable of usurping a dazzling life as protecting a blemished one. That Stoner chose to channelize his many shadows to do the latter, over a life spanning sixty-five years, with implausible consistency that defied age, is what makes him a hero. And such heroes earn an honorary mention in the book of life under the page that highlights the bravehearts who led their lives like the humble, fecund soil over which the saplings of others’ lives found their robust roots.
You know a Stoner. But his undeserved obscurity is huddled under numerous shadows. Strip them if you can. There will be resistance. But in the angst of those shadows, lies the petals of life; someday you should pause and feel its textures. The fragrance is bound to stick to your fingers, long after you have forged ahead on your chosen path.
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