Thursday, March 02, 2006

Figure o' Eight

A Story that I'll call "The Figure of Eight".

Once there was a boy who lived near the sea. Everyday he would run up to the sea and watch the ships as they docked and undocked from the port. He would do it regularly without fail, rising at daybreakwith the foghorn, rushing up to the dyke and observe the giant vessels coming in and going by. And he used to think of the places they had been to, and then he wished that one day he would be going exploring the world on one of these ships.

The boy's name was Sumer, and his father was a great seafarer of his time, and as any good father, he wanted his son to follow his footsteps in becoming a sailor. He had stocked a good amount of money for the boy's future, but he hadn't told the boy this, because he wanted the boy to try it out in the world on his own. The boy had been enrolled in the best school of the city that had produced the best of the sailors, ship captains, navy admirals even! "This boy is going to make it big someday" the father reflected to himself whenever he saw the boy looking eagerly at the blue blue sea and the mighty ships.

Sumer had always wanted to explore the world on his own. He did not like the things they taught him at school. "All they teach me are stupid things, like reading maps and making knots. Who'll need a map when one is going into uncharted territory?" he would think, "and why do I need to learn how to tie knots?" He knew his father wanted him to be a sailor, but he had always wanted to be an explorer instead. He'd heard about the new continent that had just been discovered just beyond the southern end of the sea. He had heard from people in taverns about the large desert there, and the ferocious animals around, and he was fascinated by these stories, he wished that someday he would sit around in an old inn with dozens of people crowding around him as he told stories of his daring.

He wanted to see new places, but a sailor's life is not what he wanted. It was a thin line that separated what his father wanted him to do and what he wanted himself, sailors and explorers are not THAT far apart as professions you see, but then to him it meant his life, and so he sometimes worried about it, hoping to tell his father someday. Yes, someday he'll tell his old man that he's just going to go out on one of these ships, and not as a sailor, but as an explorer bravely edging his way across the new continent.

The knots were what bothered him, he was never good at knots. His father said, "Son, knots are life savers, a sailor must know how to tie knots." And he could not knot. He was very bad at it. Whenever he saw someone tying a knot, he would feel sorry for himself, then think, maybe they are good at this, but they cannot read the directions from the stars as well as I do. Maybe they won't survive in the desert because they don't know about the harsh life and the scarce water. Yes, he knew what he wanted to do, yes he knew all about it, he knew he had to go on someday exploring the new continent, and he was preparing himself for it.

But he just could not tie knots.

Not that he could not because he lacked the ability to, but he did lack the motivation. He thought it useless for an explorer to tie knots the way they taught him at school. He knew to tie the "Double Stopper" which was a good strong knot and very very versatile knot as well. He thought it was eough for an explorer to know one knot, just in case, and he knew that one knot well.

He knew that one knot, the "Double Stopper" well.

That day at school, they had the knot test, and all his friends had memorised all the 50 odd knots that were there in their course. The teacher arrived and gave each one of them a pair of ropes. Now Sumer had spent the day before reading up a traveller's account of the Desert, so by the time he'd finished with the diary, it was already dark. He did not want to stay up late, so he went to his room, practised his one good knot and said his prayers before snuggling into bed.

The teacher came upto him, "Figure o' Eight" he said, and Sumer didn't know what that meant. He just looked at the teacher. An old, wrinkly man. Had been a very strict teacher. Sumer stood there with the rope in hand, and meekly said, "Sir, I know only the Double Stopper, and I can make that well." The teacher did not seem to like the idea. He repeated, "are you showing me the Figure o' Eight or not?" Sumer wasn't one of those who would just try and guess, so he said, "Sorry Sir, I don't know the Figure o' Eight. I guess I should fail the test and learn it sometime." The teacher was understanding this time. He said, "Okay Sumer, I'll meet you tomorrow by which time you should be able to learn the Figure o' Eight. Now go."

And Sumer returned that day, thinking about the "Figure o' Eight"

That was the longest night of his life. He kept thinking, kept admonishing himself, kept wondering what the Figure o' Eight would be. He was ashamed to ask anybody, to him this Figure o' Eight had suddenly become a self evaluation test. He wanted to see if he could really make himself perform that feat. He wanted to show to the teacher that he was a good student, a good learner. A simple knot had suddenly rose to becoming a means to tell himself that he would do good in life, whatever he would do, and it was not necessarily becoming a sailor or an explorer, but doing things well. But it all depended on the Figure o' Eight.

Alas! Where should he find out what the knot means. To him all the knots looked same. It was a Double Stopper that he had tied on his practice rope right now and he was fiddling with it, when it suddenly dawned on him. He looked carefully at the knot now, slightly loosened up so that the contours of the knot were clearly visible. He could make out a distinct shape, a distinct figure.

It was a Figure of the number 8!!!

Sumer couldn't believe his eyes. It was the Figure o' Eight knot. He had had it all along with him, thinking that it was something else, he had just not realised that the "Double Stopper" could also have another name, another stupid silly name like the "Figure o' Eight". He realised he was smiling to himself now, no actually laughing. How in a minute all his self doubts had melted away. How a few moments ago, this stupid silly knot was an all-out bechmark for his success or failure in life, and how in a second, it had ben reduced to a mere "Double Stopper"!

But he had learnt something.

He had seen that the Figure o' Eight was not a prize. It was him who had made it as one. It was just a stupid silly knot. And it was something that he already had with him, he already knew how to reach that "Figure o' Eight". Only he had not realised that he knew. Just knowing that he knew made all the difference. Given a situation, he would have tied the very same knot as a Double Stopper, and the teacher would have judged it as the Figure o' Eight.

He realised, that sometimes you have to give the world what it wants in its own terms, not yours.

He realised that it is important to know, but it is also important to know that you know, and to know that you know it well.

He realised that if you don't know something, its maybe something that you have not discovered yet, but that is no reason you should muse about it and raise it to the importance a performance marker.

Sumer had realised this, smiled to himself and made a "Double Stopper" again. "This is my Figure o' Eight," he said, and slowly fell into a quiet peaceful slumber, thinking of the teacher and the test the next day.

In the misty ocean, the foghorn sounded, and a ship had found its way home.


  1. nice funda re, knowing that u know :)
    good start too
    bas thoda end ki taraf jo "thoughts" kholi hain, try to make them Sumer's thoughts. I mean, let em come thru him. Rite now they seem to be coming from the author.

  2. The "thoughts" : Actually I intended that to be so.

    The theme : Hmmm...nice to see you were interested in the theme.

    Inside Scoop -> I was thinking about an Atthee (my max possible passing out CPI) which gave way to this story.

    If you see closely, figure of eight was THAT, to begin with.