International Fiction

The Fifth Direction

by S. Sushant

 

My father was an introvert. After grandfather’s death, the responsibility of cultivation had fallen on his shoulders. But he was not happy with his present life. Often, I felt as if he wanted to do something else. Possibly, he had some other aim in life. My mother was more practical than my father. She and her brother took over the farming. So, things went on smoothly in the household.

 

I was fourteen years old at that time and studied in the village school. One day, father announced that he would make a ‘hot-air balloon’ and would go up in the sky in it. People were aghast when they heard this. Some said he had lost his balance of mind. Others wanted the village-shaman to treat him. Mother considered this an eccentricity and tried to stop him, but father refused to budge.

 

On the due day, father reached the village-ground along with his hot-air balloon. Half the village followed him to the ground. Mother was crying. Father took hold of her hands and said something softly to her. Then he turned towards me.

 

“Take care of your mother, dear.” He put his hands on my head and said lovingly to me, “I have left a letter for you under the pillow. You will understand everything once you read it.” Then he kissed me on the forehead.

 

A lump swelled up in my throat. Tears welled up in my eyes.

 

“Which way will you go, father?” I asked him in a voice choked with emotion. He could have said, “I'll let the wind take my balloon in the direction it blows.” But he said, “I’ll not go in either of the four directions — east, west, north or south. I’ll take my own decision regarding my direction.”

 

The wind must have been still that day as father’s hot-air balloon rose straight above the ground — in a fifth direction.

 

Soon, the balloon had risen far above in the deep blue sky. It hovered on the threshold of invisibility. I thought, soon it will be lost to sight. Surprisingly, it did not fade away but seemed to hang there forever.

 

Till evening, we all waited with palpitating hearts for the hot-air balloon carrying father to melt into oblivion. However, contrary to our apprehension, the balloon — now a distant presence — remained suspended in the azure sky. As night fell, we returned home.

 

I ran towards father’s room and picked up the letter written by him from under the pillow.

 

In that letter, father had written, “Son, anyone who wants to do something different is considered an eccentric in the beginning. But our own dreams can be realized only by us. Never allow the direction to decide your destination. Always take your own decision in this matter. Just because everyone else is going somewhere doesn’t mean it is the right direction for you too . . .”

 

I could not sleep that night. At the break of dawn, I ran towards the village-ground. It was still there — father’s hot-air balloon. Suspended mid-air in the deep blue sky at the threshold of invisibility. What a miracle it was. I was amazed. Indeed, father had not gone anywhere. He was still there in the large basket attached to the hot-air balloon. Looking benignly at us from high above.

 

Several days had passed. But father’s hot-air balloon hung there tenaciously. Suspended in mid-air. On the tenth day, our relatives and the village elders arranged a helicopter from the nearby town. I accompanied them in the helicopter as it flew towards father’s balloon.

 

We wanted to talk to father and convince him to come down. But it never happened. Surprisingly, even after a few hours of our flight, father’s balloon remained as distant as it was at the start of our journey. We were all perplexed. As the helicopter could soon run out of fuel, we decided to turn back.

 

After this strange incident, mother and other relatives organized a ‘yajna’ and special prayers at the village temple so that father could get rid of evil spirits and come back. However, father’s hot-air balloon remained fixed where it was.

 

A month had gone by. My concern for father was increasing day by day. He must have exhausted the food-stuffs, the fruits and water he had carried along with him. How was he sustaining himself?

 

Sometimes, I would quietly slip out of the house in the thick of night and go to the village ground. I had this vague hope that father might come down in the pitch darkness of night. Once or twice, I thought I saw a shadowy figure resembling father on the ground. Or was it an illusion? I could not be sure who it was in the dim light of the stars. Was it really father or was it just my wishful thinking playing tricks on my tired senses?

 

Time passed. Winter had set in. The veil of fog would lift only in the afternoon. Father’s hot-air balloon could then be seen still hanging determinedly in the distant sky. I intensely felt father’s absence during such times. There was no one now to narrate folk-tales to me. There was no one now to tell me new things about birds, fish, flora and fauna.

 

People in the village said all kinds of things about my father. Some said, “God might have appeared in his dreams. Maybe he wanted to go to heaven in flesh and blood.” Others said, “He was an escapist. He could not face the harsh reality of the world and decided to run away.” Others said, “He was an idler and a day-dreamer who lost his balance of mind.”

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I would often worry about father. How was he coping with the terrible loneliness high above? The elements of nature must have taken their toll on his health. If he fell ill, who would take care of him? Did he ever remember us?

One year had passed since that fateful day when father had gone up in the hot-air balloon. People in the household did not talk about him now. But I still remembered him fondly. Often, I would sob alone in the desolate emptiness of night. His absence had left a void in my life that was hard to fill.

 

One day, all of a sudden, leaflets started falling in the village ground. I rushed there and immediately recognized father’s handwriting on the leaflets. Many other curious villagers had also gathered there by now. We took the leaflets to the village headman. In the leaflets, father had cautioned us about the impending floods of river Teesta flowing by the village. He had advised all of us to leave the low-lying areas immediately and shift to higher ground.

 

In the meeting called by the village headman, many skeptics dubbed it another eccentricity of father. However, on the advice of the village elders, people decided to move to higher ground. As prophesied by father, the river Teesta was in spate the third day. Luckily, due to father’s timely forecast, no lives were lost.

 

After this incident, it became a practice. We used to find leaflets in father’s handwriting strewn across the village ground before any impending natural calamity. These timely forecasts saved us from disasters. Our village was located at the mouth of the river. Due to accurate fore-warnings given us by father, we were able to take precautionary measures a number of times when cyclones from the sea hit our area. Father also provided us advance information regarding the impending attack of locusts on our standing crops. His reassuring presence high above was God-like to us.

 

It was the year 1970. India had not yet launched the INSAT series weather satellites which could provide us with accurate weather forecasts. Television was not common in Indian homes at that time. The work of providing reliable information regarding weather was not an easy task during those years.

 

We were all amazed at the accuracy of father’s forecasts. How did he do that? I was still nursing a faint hope that father would return one day. But it did not happen. His distant presence was only a partial solace to us.

 

Time had grown wings. After completing my studies at the village school, I shifted to the nearby town to pursue higher education in the college. Then I moved on to the university. I was lucky to get the job of my liking thereafter. I took mother along with me. After some time, I got married to a homely woman. Later, I was blessed with a son. But all of us made it a point to visit our village at least once a year. Father’s hot-air balloon could still be seen suspended in the deep-blue sky at the threshold of invisibility.

 

Many villagers would come to us and claim that they had often seen a shadowy figure resembling father roaming the village streets in the dark nights. Was it father searching for fuel and foodstuffs in the dead of night, or was it just a figment of people’s imagination? This remained a mystery. But father continued to work for the welfare of the villagers. During all these years, I continued to pray for his well-being.

 

Time flew. My son had grown up and my mother had aged considerably. One night, father appeared in my dream. He looked very old, frail and ill.

 

I was deeply moved. I thought the time for action had come. He was my father. I always wanted to do something for him. I did not want to see him suspended in mid-air forever. I wanted to free him from such a destiny.

 

I built a hot-air balloon. I wrote a letter to father thanking him for his services. All the villagers signed or put their thumb-impressions on that letter. I tied the letter to the hot-air balloon and took it to the village ground. Years ago, father had gone up in his hot-air balloon from the same spot. I untied the rope holding the hot-air balloon and it rose above. The wind must have been still. My hot-air balloon also did not go in either of the four directions — east, west, north or south. It rose straight above the ground in the direction of father’s balloon — in the fifth direction.

 

In the letter addressed to father and tied to the balloon, I had written, “Father, you’ve ably shouldered this responsibility on your part for years. People of the village are grateful to you. It is my turn now. I have got a degree in meteorology. I have been appointed an officer in this department in our area. I’ll now take the help of images obtained from satellites to provide accurate weather forecasts. Father, you are free. Let me shoulder this responsibility now.”

 

I had a sound sleep that night. I dreamt of father again. He had a contented look on his face. He kissed me on the forehead.

 

Next morning, I went to the village ground. I had binoculars with me. I gazed far and wide at the sky in every direction. Father’s hot-air balloon was nowhere to be seen. The blue of the sky looked deeper that day. The sunlight felt warmer.

 

In the letter addressed to father, I had also written, “Father, your grandson has grown up now. He does not want to become a doctor or an engineer or a lawyer. He does not want to pursue an MBA degree and earn a fat pay-package of lakhs of rupees per month by working in a multi-national company. He does not want to go in either of these four directions. He has nursed a dream since his childhood. He wants to be a space-traveler. He is pursuing a degree in astrophysics at the university . . . to go in a fifth direction.”

 

No one ever saw father’s hot-air balloon after that day. I’m sure, wherever he may be, his soul is at peace now.

S. Sushant graduated from D.A.V. College, Amritsar, with honours and a MA in English. English translations of his poems and short stories have been published in several literary magazines and newspapers. He is also the author of the English poetry collection In Gandhi’s Country.

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