Marketplace Of Dreams
Marketplace Of Dreams
They say an uneventful train journey is only that of a fool's. I am more than willing to accept that charge, for what seemed like an entire adolescence that I had been inside the train, it had been spectacularly tedious. It was a ratty, old locomotive- like something hauled up from the bowels of the '60's, with dingy interiors and worn out furnishings. And I was the sour occupant of the lower berth by the window, crammed against the wall - the coveted upgrade from the spacious, full compartment right across the aisle. It's privileges included, in addition to the sheer absence of anything remotely comfortable, the unwarranted opportunity to learn the ancient ways of the Spartan warriors. For unless you fetishized being kicked away by random feet that scuttled along the narrow aisle at any given point in time, you had better learned to fit your soul in a bed that was a quarter of the one back home. Oh, and the bed, yes. Held by rickety old chains clamped to the wall, I am fairly certain that it was actually slab of granite covered by a thin spread of faded blue faux leather.
It was under such trying circumstances, that I turned to company. I had heard that lunatics often turned to poets in company. Assured by such thoughts, I decided to try my luck. My closest neighbours, sitting a little over an arms length away in the compartment across the aisle was a pair of young ladies, presumably sisters. They had the entire compartment to themselves, but had chosen to occupy only the lower birth to my right. They appeared to be closer to my own age, but were rather plainly dressed for it. Now, I cannot claim any authority on sibling relationships, never having known the necessity to share every living moment with a shabbier approximation of myself, but all that I had heard of the friction inherent in that relation had been belied by the women. Never had I known or heard two siblings as engrossed in conversing with each other as those two. Their enthusiasm in their shared business persisted throughout the journey, and on more than one ocassion marred my desire to strike up a conversation.
The compartment behind them was occupied by a couple of boys, who had made it a routine to crane around to check on the dames every few minutes. This gimmick offered a sliver of amusement in the first hour, but that is all that could be said of it. The compartment ahead of the ladies' was occupied by a family of three. I could see the father - fleshy man with a livid face, taking the lower berth of the facing wall- and his son - a sickly looking young boy - sitting quietly next to him. The mother whose shrill voice erupted every now and then, sat facing them, but never appeared. Barring my neighbours, I took note of a few other faces that aimlessly shuffled along the narrow path.
But company had failed me pathetically. It is moments like those when your own species fail you, that you turn to the more ethereal elements. I decided to make use of the most sought after perk offered by my position. I followed custom and peered out of the window. I wish I could say I found romance, but the bleak landscapes offered none. Failing on all accounts, I turned away and closed my eyes. I should perhaps inform you that I have always been a very light sleeper, being in the habit of being woken by the faintest of activity. But I suppose, frustration from boredom did what comfort could not - I fell asleep.
When I woke next, the train had come to a halt. I gathered from the chatter that destination had arrived. Groggy and a little confused, I got up and prepared to alight. I stepped down onto the platform gingerly. The air that kissed me was fresh and cool, and the first light was just breaking through the grey veil. But I could enjoy nature for only moment, for when I turned my eyes around, the sourness returned to my face. The platform was teeming with people - just the kind of situation I desperately avoided, usually. But what had transpired in the previous day was entirely...unusual. I stood for a while, when I heard the station master. He was a portly fellow with a scraggly beard, and the chest underneath huffed visibly as he bellowed at the crowd gathered around him. I stood at the outermost rim. "As you step out of the station, " he roared, "you shall find yourselves in the market. Bargain your hearts out, but" he let a moment elapse for dramatic quotient, I believe " deal only by the mind!" he instructed. And just like that, he was gone.
I followed a smaller group to file out of the station. All it took was one single step. And there it was, just like the station master had said. Built into red brick buildings of uniform measure were shops that lined both sides of the road. The road for that matter, was conveniently large, but for the crowds that drove in like swarms of plague bearing locusts filling every inch of it. Needless to say, I stood rooted to the ground, too dazed to act. Some of the establishments had not opened yet, but what was to stop the people from queuing up in front of them. As I stood there, in my position of arrested movement, I frantically began scanning the crowd for anything to anchor my swivelling mind to, and then I saw it. I was surprised it hadn't caught my attention earlier.
Bang in the middle of the road stood a gigantic, bronze artefact of familiar purpose but entirely pointless. It was a weighing scale, of about twelve feet in height, with the right scale drooping with significance. It was the kind one could find in the courts of law, held by the blinded Lady of Justice. It seemed ironic that it stood there. It should have been a suitable anchor, but it did not help much. But just then, I heard something right behind me. A wheezing, and then slithering out of the crowd, came out this man in a handsomely tailored jacket. He was an odd, serpentine looking fellow, with a bony visage, a perceptibly thinning hairline and a small goatee. But his most remarkable characteristic were his eyes - they were a beady pair, hiding behind thickly framed expensive spectacles, and betrayed a spectacular degree of insincerity. A coy smirk played upon his lips, perhaps unconsciously, stealing any remaining credibility from his personality.
This creature almost coiled around me, as he nearly whispered -"You seem troubled, sir. May I help you?" I stood there without a suitable response for a long moment, before I could manage a simple -"Yes, please."
"Where am I?" I had asked, genuinely.
He looked at me for a while, first with a simple look of acknowledging a joke, and then when my own look of honest curiosity persisted, his changed into a more serious one.
"This can't be your first visit here, surely?" he asked, his brows furrowed.
"But it is." I responded promptly. He scanned for another minute or two as if to confirm the truth in my position. When satisfied, I saw a twinkle return to his eyes. He said -" Well, sir, you are in the right place."
"What do you mean? What kind of a market is this?" I asked, still confused.
"Oh, you are very smart and perceptive, sir, " he smirked " this is indeed a market. It is the right kind. You see, usually high school kids are brought here for the first time by their parents, sometimes younger. Then you have the hordes of college students who come on their own accord. But every now and then, we do come across people of your own... well, peer group. Delayed, but matured visitors." he added, but his look of insincerity did not help the compliment he tried to offer. "This sir... is the right kind of market."
That was a very unsatisfactory answer. Seeing my quizzical look persist, he continued. "You see, people have this uncanny ability to dream all sorts of things. It's almost like a steppe horse, wild and untamed. We simply help put a saddle and reins on it." He winked.
"I don't understand, what do you do exactly? I don't see anything being sold by these shops."
"Oh yes, we don't sell any material here sir. No. We sell something much more precious. We sell ideas."
" What kind of ideas?" I asked, even more puzzled.
"The kind that is right. Dreams, sir. This is the Marketplace of Dreams!" He lifted his arms dramatically as if cueing for a thunder.
Noticing that it did not help, he continued. "You see, sir, dreams can be messy, they can be troubling and burdensome. We simply point towards the right direction, give people the nudge towards the right." His words pushed me down, and I fell as if I was slipping down a narrow, slick tunnel. Suddenly, vague memories simmered through, of sleepless night, endless smoke and liquor induced drowsiness...and a failed book sale.
But a soft touch on the shoulder brought me back. I realized we had walked a bit from where I remember being frozen. We stood now under the large bronze scales. Gathering myself, I asked- "And how do you know the right direction?"
"Oh we don't, sir. No no. It's the market that determines the right direction, the right dream. We merely do it's bidding."
"But how does the market do it? How does it know whether my dream is right or not?"
He smile. This time it wasn't insincere. "Well, sir, it is one of the miraculous powers of the market. Does the earth not decide where you live and what you eat? Does the air not decide your breath?"
"So, now sir." He asked after a moment had lapsed " would you like to step into one of these shops and find out what is right for you?"
"I... I...am not very sure." I looked around, looking for words. My mind was heavy, but a certainty against what this man was proposing was building up. "I don't think I am comfortable with the market deciding if my dream is right or not."
That seemed to have rubbed him the wrong way, for I saw the insincere smirk disappear completely. A staleness spread across his bony face and the beady balls burned. He inched up to me, barely a few inches from my mouth and whispered -" Sure sir. But do you know how many rebellious dreams have turned to brittle dust right in this place? Neither do I. But I know for certain, that now they fill the cracks between the cobblestone under your feet." He stood back, but the sinister stab had been lodged in me as I shuddered from within.
The staleness dissipated, but the smirk that returned was more insincere than ever before. He moved away a few more steps, as if allowing a passage for me to leave. I took it and began walking away. A few paces ahead, I heard his voice from behind. "You may leave anytime you want. But it would be a pity if you imagined you could escape."
I dashed then.
I shoved through the crowd, desperately putting as much distance between the serpentine agent of the market and myself. But as I rushed through the fast coagulating crowd, fighting against my own mind, I tripped on something and fell. Brushing my knees, I quickly helped myself up fearing kicks from the crowd. I turned around to check the obstruction and had found a rather curious sight awaiting me. There upon the hard, cobblestone floor, sat a man leaning against the wall between two shops. He wore a dirty hoodie over a pair of tattered, old jeans that might have been blue at some point. This impoverished character sat starkly at odds amongst the relatively affluent crowd. But I decided I couldn't waste time wondering about the lumpen, and decided to move ahead to find a way out.
Just as I was about to move away, I heard a voice, thin but firm. "You can't leave that way."
I turned around to find the odd character jump up with an energy I did not presume it to possess.
"What?" I asked in confirmation.
"I said, you cannot leave that way. You can only leave the way you came. The other way."
"But I can't...there is a...well, I must find another way."
"Well, there isn't. And if you are worried about that agent troubling you, rest assured. He won't. Rather, he can't." His voice had turned crispier all of a sudden.
"How did you know I was keeping away from an agent?" I asked.
"They are the troublemakers around here. Let's just say, I assumed." He responded, with a hint of snark. "Come, I'll walk you back. Don't worry." He added.
A strange comfort triumphed over any reasonable suspicion I ought to have had about an absolute stranger, and I joined him on our way back.
His hoodie remained pulled over his face, covering his identity. Despite the assurance, I couldn't help but scan the crowd for the agent. But returning to my companion soon after, I asked-"Can I actually leave this place now?"
"Absolutely. Do you think all these people are never going back home? They are here for a few hours at best...scavenging."
"But it is the market that never sleeps, never even rests. Their footprints will be replaced by another crowd and another and another... " he added, with a certain heaviness. "It does not need to force you to remain. It has other methods. Force can only chain you. But the market...it has its charms. It can persuade you to remain. It can make you will it."
"But then why do I feel trapped? " I admitted.
"You do, already?" He had turned to face me sharply, and I could see under his hoodie for the first time. His face was covered in bandages like you would expect a mummy to be, save the eyes. They were sunken in the sockets, dark, but with a few, feeble embers still remaining. "Well, perhaps if you leave soon..." he turned his face away quickly and whispered under his breath.
A few moments passed in silence, before I asked.
"How does the market do it? Decide what's right?"
He stopped and turned towards the scales, shrunken behind us at a considerable distance. "It creates an itch in you, I suppose. An insatiable itch for something you might need, or want, or perhaps not at all. But before you know it, you are under it's spell. You would want what it tells you to want. And then it turns towards the dreams; determined to turn them into shadowy, soulless servants of the itch. The better their service to it, the more precious the dream and more right it becomes." I did not see them, but imagined that his eyes must have been burning then.
"But why does it do it?"
He simply shrugged at that. We moved ahead. The gate of the railway station appeared a little away.
"What happens to the other dreams? The ones it deems unimportant?" I asked, drearily.
" Dust, my friend. " He responded sadly. "But what it doesn't want you to know that dust can be of gold too." A wry smile took over his eyes.
"Go on, now. Catch your train back." He waved.
I took a few steps into the station and turned around to catch the last glimpse of my strange companion or to at least thank him. But there wasn't anyone to be seen. I walked back to where he had stood last, a single step away from the station. And there instead of my friend was a small heap of sand- strangely shiny sand.
The journey back was a blur. I remember catching the time in good time. I did not bother with my neighbours this time, nor about the discomfort of the journey. They say, an uneventful train journey is only that of a fool's, and I am still willing to accept that charge. But then, who isn't a fool here anymore?