AN old man, a beggar man, bent double, with a flowing white beard and piercing gray eyes, stopped on the road on the other side of the garden wall and looked up at me, where I sat on the branch of a litchi tree. I was 10, and it was my first week in my stepfather's home. "What's your dream?" he asked.
It was a startling question coming from that raggedy old man on the street; even more startling that it was made in English. English-speaking beggars were a rarity in the India of those days.
"What's your dream?" he repeated.
"I don't remember," I said. "I don't think I had a dream last night."
"That's not what I mean. You know it isn't what I mean. I can see you're a dreamer. It's not the litchi season, but you sit in that tree all afternoon, dreaming."
"I just like sitting here," I said. I refused to admit that I was a dreamer. Other boys didn't dream, they had catapults.
"A dream, my boy, is what you want most in life. Isn't there something that you want more than anything else?"
"Yes," I said. "A room of my own."
"Ah! A room of your own, a tree of your own, it's the same thing. Not many people can have their own rooms, you know. Not in a land as crowded as ours."
"Just a small room."
"And what kind of room do you live in at present?"
"It's a big room, but I have to share it with my brothers and sisters and even my aunt when she visits!"
"I see. What you really want is freedom. Your own tree, your own small place in the sun."
"Yes, that's all."
"That's all? That's everything! When you have all that, you'll have found your dream."
"Tell me how to find it!"
"There's no magic formula, my friend. If I was a god-man, would I be wasting my time here with you? You must work for your dream, and move toward it all the time, and discard all those things that come in the way of your finding it. And then, if you don't expect too much too quickly, you'll find your freedom, a room of your own. The difficult time comes afterward."
"Yes, because It's so easy to lose it all, to let someone take it away from you. Or you become greedy, or careless, and start taking everything for granted, then poof! - suddenly the dream has gone, vanished!"
"How do you know all this?" I asked.
"Because I had my dream and lost it."
"Did you lose everything?"
"Yes, just look at me now, my friend. Do I look like a king or a god-man? I had everything I wanted, but then I wanted more and more.... You get your room, and then you want a building, and when you have your building, you want your own territory, and when you have your own territory, you want your own kingdom, or someone else's - and all the time it's getting harder to keep everything. And when you lose it - in the end, all kingdoms are lost - you don't even have your room any more."
"Did you have a kingdom?"
"Something like that.... Follow your own dream, boy, but don't take other people's dreams, don't stand in anyone's way, don't take from another man his room or his faith or his song." And he turned and shuffled away, intoning the following verse, which I haven't heard elsewhere, so it must have been his own.
Live long, my friend, be wise and strong,
But do not take from any man his song.
I remained in the litchi tree, pondering his wisdom and wondering how a man so wise could be so poor. Perhaps he became wise afterward! Anyway, he was free, and I was free, and I went back to the house and demanded (and got) a room of my own. Freedom, I was beginning to realize, is something you have to insist upon.