By AA Patawaran
I met the genie some time in my early 20s.
The genie was a girl. She was the art director in the advertising agency I used to work for as a copywriter and we were a team. I have no idea if one way or another I released her from some kind of prison, but she gave me a gift that would release me from mine.
On my birthday, she enrolled me in a group called PSI, an acronym for the self-empowerment group People Synergistically Interconnected. I hated her when I found out it was some kind of a workshop for positive thinking. I wasn’t into that kind of thing yet. Moreover, I was a very shy and I didn’t like anything that resembled a classroom, anything with a bunch of people, particularly a bunch of do-gooders, learning something at the same time. But I went along.
It was a three-day workshop. On the first day, we were told to imagine a room in our mind. The facilitator would have us close our eyes, breathe in, breathe out, and as we relaxed, she would lead us through some kind of a door, maybe up a staircase, or into an elevator, anything we were comfortable with, maybe even a ladder. All this time, for maybe 10 minutes or more, we’d all have our eyes closed, but I would open mine every now and then to peer at the people around me, some of them so seriously and eagerly doing the exercise while I was always itching to get out of the room, if only so I could smoke.
There were many other activities, such as the one that freaked me out the most. It was to partner with a stranger, with whom to hold hands and stare into each other’s eyes, all the while resisting the urge to look down or away. Try it—and you’ll realize how uncomfortable that is, even with someone you are close with.
But the room exercise was always a part of the activities, and the room got better and better, at least for me. In spite of myself, I started to build a room with clear walls on all sides, a 360-degree view of the ocean, which meant that my room might have been something like a buoy, a glass tower in the middle of a vast sea. I was a beach lover at that time—and a sunworshipper. I’d sleep under the noonday sun. The seaside was paradise to me.
But back in my room, in this room I was building in my head, all was perfect. And the ocean beyond the walls was serene, shimmering under a glorious sun and barely moving in the gentle breeze.
On the last day of the workshop, the room activity was different. The breathing exercises were longer and the facilitator’s voice was quite grave, a little too serious, and we were led to our rooms as if on tiptoes. There was tension in the air.
Every time you write, you are confronted by voices, a variety of them—your mother’s, your father’s, the voice of friends, the voice of foes, the voice of reason, the voice of doubt, the voices of everything and everyone in your life. Your task is to make the best of these voices become a part of your own.
Before I knew it, prompted by the voice, I found myself in my room with a view of the ocean now no longer still. I caught sight of the froth on the top of the waves as they broke and slammed against the shore. But my attention was led elsewhere, on to a mirror, a big mirror that wasn’t there before. In the mirror was no reflection of mine. It was a different person, a little boy, a toddler who stared back at me with disinterest.
“Tell him to pay attention to you,” said the voice. “Scream at him if you have to.” The boy started to run around in the mirror. I told him to stop, raising my voice a little when he didn’t listen. But he kept running in circles. The facilitator soon intervened, screaming, “No! We said no!” The boy stopped and immediately, it was as though a thin layer of film clouded my view of the boy. It dawned on me, too, that the facilitator’s voice had changed. It was that of a mother, strict and severe and unyielding. Mad.
In the haze, I could see this saddened the boy. And the voice became tender, as it told me to explain to the boy that he was being stopped for his own good. With every encouraging word, the reflection in the mirror cleared up again. But then the voice gave out a babble of other words, some harsher than the others, and with every discouragement or disapproval, a layer of murky film enwrapped the mirror. The voice also turned into other voices, from mother to father, from brother to sisters, from aunts and uncles to cousins. There were teachers, too, and playmates, neighbors, schoolmates, priests, even random strangers in playgrounds and other public places. There were angry voices and mocking voices, saying anything that meant something to cloud up the mirror and shroud my view of the boy in a veil of smoke or otherwise wash some of the film away.
There were words of concern. There were reminders and warnings. There was sneering. There was laughter. There was crying. There was a lot of scolding and teaching and cajoling and teasing. All the voices ringing in my ear stirred up a hornet’s nest of emotions in the boy that soon I found he was gone, still there but out of view. The mirror was all fogged up.
Soon the facilitator’s voice was back, urging me to retrieve the boy, to save him from this blur of uncertainty. “Reach out to him,” said the voice. And so I talked to the boy, in my mind, in the room in my mind, in that great big magical mirror in the room in my mind.
The cloud got thinner as we talked, the boy and I. And the thinner the cloud got, the clearer the mirror got, the more the boy showed himself to me, the more emboldened I became, the more I urged him not to believe everything that everybody said about him, not to forget how special and beautiful he was.
And soon the boy was back. He remained oblivious to me, but he was back.
I realized that tears were falling from my eyes and the tears helped wash off the film that clouded the mirror. For the first time in my life—and the only time maybe—I wailed and howled and bawled and cried out loud in public.
It was my first time to see that boy in a long, long time, that boy who turned out to be me.
NOTE: I wrote this in response to a WordPress prompt for the writing community I belong to, the prompt being the words “Writing Room,” by which we were tasked to describe a room we could imagine to be perfect for our writing pursuits. What I wrote is non-fiction.