"If there's paradise on Earth, it is this, it is this."
Kashmir. The closest thing to heaven on Earth. A valley sparkling in serene beauty-- snow capped mountains, moss-covered lakes, trees adorned in brilliant green, boathouses, and a little boy named Arif.
This is the story of a boat-"man". Of Arif. A nine-year old child who has the wondrous eyes to look at his world; who, at this tender age, knows what is duty and what is whim, what is right and what is wrong. This is the story of Arif. And of a reason why I still want to live.
The sole earning member of a family of six, Arif gets up every morning and goes out with his boat for a day's work. He has to work every day; for if he doesn't, the whole family will have to go without food. With such a firm responsibility placed on his tender shoulders, Arif has accepted his fate with cheerful happiness. That is why the cold winter days cannot subdue his spirit-- he still manages to push his boat through the frozen Dal lake with firm determination. His thin arms have already developed the strength to push the oar through such a difficult terrain, which is no different from Arif's own life. And Arif knows that his arms have to push the oar forward so that he can reach the other bank-- for that is where his dreams lie.
Arif lives in a small shack built on the edge of the water with his mother and four other siblings:
two little brothers, an elder sister and a little one too! His father is a terrorist, who does not take care of the family but wastes his time swaying between gun and dope. Hence, Arif has been left with no other choice. On a good day, he gets about 50 rupees from ferrying passengers to and fro. And he hands all of the money to his mother, who is slowly saving up so that one day they can buy some land of their own and build a house.
When asked about his father, Arif says that he does not care for him. Arif knows that what his father is doing is not right, and he does not mince his words when expressing so. Even at the early age of nine, Arif has already learnt one of the greatest, and yet undeniably important lessons in life-- killing people is unpardonable and wrong. He could easily have chosen the gun to eradicate his misery. He picked up the oar at the age of seven instead. Rightly has Dumbledore said that it is choices that ultimately decide who we are.
The little boy has witnessed the burning face of terror himself-- once when he was in Srinagar, the tourist department was blown up by terrorists before Arif's own eyes. That was the day before the now (in)famous Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus started as a conciliatory gesture between India and Pakistan. The boy expresses how suddenly fear struck him that day-- fear not for his safety-- fear from apprehension and a terrible gut-feeling: what if one of the terrorists involved is his own father!
Arif's shack has got new holes in the tiled roof. So he sets off for the big city once more with his younger brother to buy a new sheet of plastic to stretch on the roof of hishouse. This time, he takes a different route than the previous time. What if terrorists attack again? Well, terrorists may attack anywhere, but then Arif will have to find another route then! At least, that is what the innocent child thinks.
The house is mended. But the Dal Lake belongs to none, and most certainly not Arif and his family. The authorities have notified Arif's mother that if they do not evacuate within a time bracket, the shack will be torn down. Arif has no answer this time. He does not know where he will go if his house is demolished. But he knows one thing-- that there is only one gateway to a bright future: education. And hence, Arif takes himself and his siblings school by himself on his dear old boat (which has gone through a repair already so that it does not fall apart from being worn down by water and weather). The image of a nine-year old child in school uniform rowing four other children in his own boat is heartening-- the boy is already performing a duty that elders do. A young boy shouldering the responsibility of grown-ups is something that is rare in our 'normal' world. Perhaps, only desperate times and situations rear mature men! Oh, how happy would I have been to see people my age become only half as mature and responsible as Arif!
And yet for all his maturity, Arif is a child. A child at heart, not one merely by age. It's raining hard, and Arif has a huge lotus leaf perched on his head to protect him from the downpour. And suddenly he notices a small pup playfully balancing itself in a small "island" of floating debris in the lake. A boy who has no friends because he has suddenly grown up so much has a new companion now. He takes the pup home with him, lovingly caressing it's fur in between bursts of rowing. The children rejoice in the arrival of a new friend back at home. But happiness abandons the family again. The little dog is run over by a car. And it is absolutely heartbreaking to see tears rolling down the cheeks of all the small children as they give their lamp of shortlived mirth a proper Muslim farewell.
It's good bye time for us too. Who knows what happens to Arif? No one. And yet, as a viewer, I am optimistic. Perhaps he is still ferrying passengers. Perhaps his family have finally succeeded in affording a plot of land of their own. But we do know one thing. We know that there is something to learn from this story. A few things from that little child. The school-shooting champions (if you know what I mean!) could learn a bit of right and wrong. The spoilt and pampered brat could learn a bit of responsibility. And, maybe, everyone of us could learn a whole lot of unaffected innocence.
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