DANGLING - Manigandan - 2018 Batch
As we sat with our legs dangling off the bridge, I looked at her and asked “Do you know how old this bridge is?” She turned, looked at me with surprise and said “I don’t know. Judging by the looks of it, it must have been built at least 30 years ago.”
The bridge wasn’t in the best state. The paint had worn out and the alternating black and white streaks of paint were now barely distinguishable over the gray stone. From what I had heard, even when newly built, the bridge wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing. It was built for convenience, to help the townspeople travel faster to the nearest city. It had no overhanging arches or precise metal frameworks, just built on stones and mortar. But it still had had its own charm. But now years later, it was a sore sight, much like a domino out of place.
Unlike the girl who sat on the side of the bridge. She sat facing the lush canopy of trees. She looked very normal. No, normal didn’t cut it. She looked ordinary. Everything about her seemed completely ordinary to me. She was the type who would fit in anywhere without being noticed. You could see her walking in the woods and you would think she just fit right into the scenery.
She was in deep thought before I came and sat next to her.
“This bridge is very insignificant isn’t it?” said the Ordinary girl.
“What makes you say that?” I replied.
“Well ever since they opened that other route, I don’t think a lot of cars come through here. I’ve been coming here every day for almost two weeks now and I rarely see any cars. Just the adventurous kids who want to try a different route while cycling and the occasional delivery truck. The bridge could collapse anytime, and it wouldn’t affect anyone.”
“You make a good argument, but I have to disagree with you. The thing is it’s easy to write off this bridge because of its current predicament but what you aren’t aware of is the significance of this bridge in the history of the town.”
“Oh, I’m almost at the end of my time here but I think I have enough time to listen to it if it’s interesting enough. Do tell me but only if you believe it would truly change my mind about the bridge.”
“I definitely think it would have at least a small impact on you. And to make it worth your while, I’ll recite it like a story; add in interesting twists and turns to keep you hooked.”
I lit a cigarette and offered her one. She declined.
“Do you have a problem with me smoking?”
She shook her head and impatiently asked me to begin narrating.
I started “Well our town prides itself on being one of the oldest places around these parts. It is situated atop a hill, and it is renowned for its step culture fields. Up until 60 years ago, the town was small with just enough people to be self-sustainable. But with kids becoming adults and getting married to outsiders, they eventually formed their own families and built their own homes and the number of people steadily grew to the point where the town was no longer self-sustainable and needed to interact with the neighbouring towns and the big city downhill.
“With me, so far?”
She nodded her head in apparent excitement, but her eyes betrayed a restlessness which gave away an incomplete interest in the story and the possibility of something more serious on her mind. Her constant glances at her watch didn’t help either. But she was interested enough to see herself through to the end of the story and signalled me to continue.
“So that brings us to our object of interest - The bridge. You see, before this bridge was built, it had taken close to 8 hours to travel by walking to the closest town through an old winding path through the fields. Initially, it had not been an issue of much concern, but with the increasing population, there was a need to establish a path that allowed easy travel on a daily basis. The bridge might seem purposeless now but if it weren’t for the bridge, there is a good chance the town might have even ceased to exist.”
These words of mine seemed to have had a genuine impact on her. There was something about her demeanour and her careful attention to my words that unsettled me. There was a thought forming in my head, but it still was very cloudy and not quite within my grasp yet. The same thought, driven by an unknown instinct which had made me come sit next to her.
“So what you mean to tell me is that, this bridge essentially kept the town alive and relevant?” She asked with a certain seriousness that bemused me.
“More or less.” I flicked the cigarette into the woods below and continued.
“But the funny thing is, most people wouldn’t even think twice about this bridge. It would just be a trivial part of their journey to and from the town. But to the rare few, this bridge is as important a place as the town itself. It’s a place with unforgettable memories, good and bad, and countless cherished moments.”
We stopped speaking and just sat still for a while. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a woodpecker pecking away busily at a tree. It was closer to us and clearly audible over the chirps and cries of other birds. The rhythmic droning of the woodpecker drumming away at the wood prevented what would have been an otherwise eerie silence from settling in.
“Relevance, that’s such a funny word.” She interjected the lingering silence.
“How so?” I asked.
Noticing my quizzical look, she said “Relevance or staying relevant is all about being accepted according to the general norms of society or to put it simply, just perfecting the art of “fitting into” the surrounding. We try so hard to stay relevant that we end up forgetting to be the person that we really are or who we really want to be. It’s like how pieces of a jigsaw puzzle are of varying designs when separate but when they are placed together to complete the puzzle, they lose their shape. They become a uniform square or a rectangle. Similarly, we end up losing the qualities that made us unique and become a shadow of the person we originally were. So even if we are “relevant” by social standards in the end, it is not because of who we are but for who we have become.”
I was surprised that it made sense to me. Not her words; those would have made sense to anyone, but it was the fact that I felt that it was appropriate of her to feel the way she did that surprised me. I don’t think she expected me to say anything in response, but I felt the need to continue.
“Even though we change in our need to stay relevant, I believe we still don’t completely let go of the qualities that define us. If that was the case, society would remain unchanged. As time passes, the general norms of society changes with it too. Like the circumstances surrounding this very bridge - from the scenario where the town lived without the need of this bridge to the situations leading up to the construction of this bridge to survive and finally to the reality where the town has progressed past the need of this bridge. So we’re not completely lost even if it seems like it.”
I don’t know why I said that. It was atypical, and frankly an unnecessary thing to add at the end of my statement. But I was almost positive that my utterance of that sentence had something to do with the thought in my head. Slowly but surely, it was coming to me. I just needed some more time, time I wasn’t sure I had.
“Do you think anyone would care if one day, out of the blue, the bridge just collapses?” she asked quietly brusquely, without looking at me. Her eyes were turned towards the sun setting over distant mountains to the west. At dusk, the woods below were a sight to behold. The changing tones of the sky brought this mysterious effect to the woods that gave it a certain aura. It looked alive.
“Most people probably wouldn’t care about it. They would read about it in the papers or hear about it from someone and maybe reminisce about the times they had used the bridge. But it would merely be a passing thought, in the mind for a minute or so before something else took over their concern. But to some people, who’ve lived around here, it would be devastating. Something that had been a part of their lives for years and years now turned to nothing but rubble. They would be reminded of the bridge and what it stood for every day. Even if a new bridge with sky high contraptions and a beautiful framework is built, it still wouldn’t be the same to them. They might continue on normally with their lives, but there would always be that niggling afterthought that reminded them that their lives aren’t the same anymore.”
What was I going on about? I was saying things that sounded completely insane. Those words didn’t even make sense to me. No one was ever going to care so much about a bridge. The bridge might have been significant but in the end, it was just a bridge. No one was going to weep over a 30-year-old run-down bridge.
Before I could figure out what was happening in my mind, she blurted "If the people around care so much for this bridge, why don’t they take care of it? With my naked eye, I can see multiple places where there are cracks and vegetation growing through the stone. If they cared so much, why haven’t they at least tried to fix it?”
“What look like glaring errors to your eyes often aren’t seen by others. They’ve looked at the same bridge over the years and to them, these errors aren’t so obvious. To them, these errors are an inherent part of the bridge itself. Even if a few try to fix these defects, in the end, those fixes are only temporary. But the most important thing is the fact that the bridge is still sturdy irrespective of these cracks and fissures.”
Again. Why did I continue to say things that I did not intend to? What was wrong with me?
While I was trying to figure out why I said what I said, I realised it had become completely silent. I couldn’t hear the woodpecker anymore. Night-time was approaching and being the diurnal creature that it was, it must have gone to sleep. I looked at her, expecting her to stare at me like I was a fool but she wasn’t looking at me. She was staring at her palms which seemed to be shivering from the cold. There seemed to be a tranquillity about her now.
It was that confusing thought. That crazy thought, which brought me to this situation. It was forcing these deranged and wacky words out of my mouth. The thought which forced itself into existence from some dark abyss in my head that I wasn’t aware of. The thought was in my mind, but its meaning eluded me. It was like the thought was locked with a combination and I had forgotten the code. I could twist and turn it trying multiple codes, and it would seem to be getting closer and closer to unlocking but still remain locked.
I was still grappling with the thought when she began speaking “I came here expecting the night to turn out completely differently but I’m glad that it has gone the way that it did.”
I wanted to reply but I couldn’t because I was close to deciphering the thought. I needed to find the code.
She didn’t seem to mind and continued talking “When you came and sat next to me, I thought you were just looking for company to smoke with and that we’d have a minor conversation and then you would be on your way...”
1... the first number in the code. One week ago. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen her on the bridge. A week ago, I had seen her standing on the bridge leaning against her parked car. Two more numbers.
“But you decided to stay and talk about the bloody bridge. You defended it and talked about it like it was your obligation... “
4... the second number. Four days ago. She was sitting cross-legged, on the side of the bridge towering over the deep ravine.
“And I don’t know if you know it, but it helped. Talking about the bridge weirdly got to me...”
2... the final number. Her two feet were dangling on the side of the bridge today over the canopy of trees. Dangling. Her feet were dangling. She wasn’t planning on getting back up today. She was going to jump. She was going to kill herself.
“You see, I didn’t plan on going back home today. When I said I was almost at the end of my time, I didn’t mean here on this bridge. I meant here for good. I was ready to give up my life. But then we talked and it’s not that our conversation was so powerful that I decided not to but it was the fact that it happened. You could have just walked past me like every other person. You didn’t have to sit next to me. I was looking for a sign to continue, and this was it. This entire exchange was a miracle and it was exemplified by the fact that you personified the bridge and talked about the impact it would have even after it collapses. That was the sign I needed. Thank you.”
I couldn’t react. I was still in a state of shock. I helped someone today. It was very confusing but I was still glad that I did what I did.
We sat for a while and then she had to go. I helped her up, dropped her off at the bus stop and went home. Although I never saw her again, every time I walked past the bridge, her face resurfaced and I knew she was doing just fine.