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At Five

Five years is a long time by any standard and it feels even longer to have spent that time much where, externally at least, nothing seems to have changed. Around 2009 I stumbled, unknowingly, into a process that would, in the years to come, dig up large parts of my past and present, and also ask some serious questions about my future and my place in the world. The years since threw light on much inconsistency, lack of alignment and a multitude of other issues.

I won’t lie and paint a pretty picture of the process. It has been tough as hell at times and also something that is deeply private and personal. But, I’m finally happy with how things are. The answers have not always been what I thought it would be. The questions were, at times, painful to even hear. And there has been also a significant amount of hurt, to myself and others, that was created in the process. I guess most of that was avoidable, but a lot of times it is just not possible to avoid that pain, if you are searching for the underlying truth.

Fittingly, the outcome is not all that different. The pieces on the board are more or less the same ones, but the way I see it now is vastly different from five years ago. It feels good to feel light. It feels good to have a blank page in front of you and know that you can paint any picture that you want on it, only, this time, I’ll look to draw exactly what I want to draw. No more running, no more hiding. And a lot of happier, healthier choices.

Notes On ‘Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh’

af_coverAncient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh, by Helena Norberg-Hodge, starts with a foreword from the Dalai Lama containing the following excerpt:

No matter how attractive a traditional rural society may seem, its people cannot be denied the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of modem development. However, as this book suggests, development and learning should not take place in one direction only.

Even though those lines attempt to provide balance to a book written in a manner that challenges a lot of what we consider good and desirable in the modern world, it instantly made me wary and got my defenses up about a potential hippie-like onslaught that was to follow in the pages to come.

Strangely, even as I finished reading the book, I discovered that no such onslaught materialized in its pages. I did find a strong opinionated voice in the book. It was a voice that came out of spending years with the people of the land in Ladakh, than that of an academic researcher or, as it is common these days, of a tourist who spends a week or two a year there.

The book itself was written about a time, starting 1975, that is almost a good forty-years ago. What Hodge describes in the book as a land already on the way to destroying itself in the 1980s is what I would consider still largely unspoilt, since I visited the place first in 2009. That should also provide a contrast as to how far down the road of development the land has come to where we are now.

In terms of timelines, the book is not very current. though the editions have been updated through the years since its fist publication. It does not have anything on the 2010 flash floods, which had a lot to do with same runaway development that Hodge describes in her book. Nor does it have anything on mobile phones or the internet — two things that have completely changed the modern world.

And yet, the book is every bit current as it attempts to approach the endgame of the relentless march of the modern world as an answer that was already known to the ancients, than as something we, the modern generation, are trying to decode. It challenges the fundamental concept of what development itself is in the modern world and looks at life through the prism of a way of living that is considered backward and inefficient by most of us.

For me, the book has been a phenomenal read, as it did at least shake me out of my touristy manner of thinking about a lot of the places described in the book; places I have come to visit multiple times and love. Yet, for all that love, after reading the book, I realize that I know little of those places and the people who live there. I know I have to change that now and that is largely thanks to the book.

It is fair to assess the book as one that’s written from the heart than as something that is driven purely by facts and numbers. The main thesis itself can sound as if it is an outright rejection of all things modern (Hodge does take a lot of pain to emphasize co-existence, but the anti-development tone is so strong that it is easy to miss) and it does not provide a well thought-out way forward on how to live with the same values and outlook in the modern world.

Some of those shortcomings are addressed in Hodge’s work since she wrote the book. A lot of it is centered around ‘The Economics of Happiness‘. I have not yet read the book but this TEDx talk provides a good idea as to how far forward Hodge has taken her ideas.

Thanks to a considerably pared down lifestyle in the past four-years, I have been forced to step outside what is commonly called the ‘rat race’ and re-evaluate what I am doing with my life and what is important for me. That, in all probability, is why the book resonates so well with me as it mulls over some of the questions that I have been asking myself of late.

If you are curious about what joy, happiness, peace or contentment mean for you and what are the things that represent those things for you, the book will probably resonate with you too. Or, if you want to read a passionately argued different point of view on sustainable development and local living, it will make a lot of sense.

The glory of the morning sun.

Self

It is quite a long journey when you travel from a place within you where everything is clear, definite and absolutely right, to descend into craziness of a kind where guilt and regret are your constant companions in a seemingly endless journey, to eventually reach a point where you start feeling somewhat OK with yourself and the world around you. That is my story. It is not exactly new, as I have written about the same recently, albeit coloured in the usual flowery language. I am writing this, kind of non-flowery version, as a promise I have made to myself that I’ll try my best to keep it simple the best I can.

I have always been someone who has been curious about the inner workings of the self. But, as an adolescent (quite a troubled one at that), much of my curiosity was projected outward, with a great deal of interest in attempting to figure out how another person worked. Looking back, after so many years now, it probably should have been a big loud red warning sign. I guess the running had become a mainstay of who I was by then. Unfortunately, there support system did not manage to catch any of this and being a rebellious, troublesome child, any such aspect of my behaviour would have been eclipsed by the trouble I was creating otherwise.

Time and circumstances did give me a second chance that few people get in life. I moved to a new city, made new friends, got time to examine my problems and I was fairly convinced that I had dealt with them all and was quite sorted out by then. But even as early as that, there was an underlying theme of ill-defined boundaries to my close relationships. Vague boundaries set vague expectations that are not absolute. And since they are so ill-defined, it always allows for an escape hatch should you want to get really close, yet keep a distance.

It was a theme that would become the common thread that would sew together the fabric of all my close relationships for a long time to come. Through all of this I was very certain of my own self, as the loyal, ever-present, self-sacrificing close friend who would always be there for you. By then, life was a dance that moved only to a music that played in my own mind and yet there was an ever present aftertaste of being misunderstood, let down and disappointed by the same close ones all the time. And I would be the last one to say it was not exciting.

Everyone needs validation and appreciation. It will be strange for anyone to say they don’t need either or both of those. But when those two things are grabbed at, than given freely; when it is indirect or coaxed or cajoled out of someone, it becomes one of the unhealthiest kind of relationships that can ever exist. Over time, one way or the other, almost all of my close relationships became exactly just that. But, unknowingly, there was also a certain high that comes with living life that way, always on the edge.

A post-factum analysis could make the very zen-like case that since things are never defined so clearly you only have, for certain, what you share with that person at that time. But, I know better that there was little zen in my life at that point and the only realistic case was the most harmful form of self-protection, which is to wall everyone off from really touching you where you are really emotionally vulnerable. All that deception went on for close to ten-years and life was, through those years, a trail of broken relationships. None of which, of course, was my fault. Well, maybe a bit of it was, but I had my justifications ready, but most of it was not and it suited me well to think that way.

It was not to say that all of this was entirely of my own making. But the fact is that when you operate from such a point of view, you will seek out people who will play the other half well or people who will enable you to play your part well. The narrative that takes hold in your mind also takes hold of the relationships around you and manages to hide that fact from you. You always manage to find people who won’t show up when it matters, people who always let you down when it matters and somehow, even after the best of your intentions, everything becomes a mess in the end, all the while ignoring how it was you yourself who pushed matters to that end.

To not torture that point anymore, it is enough to say that things came to head in 2009. To be fair, there were other ‘to a head’ points before, but none of them had as profound an impact on me and people who were around me as the 2009 episode did. Looking back, it is easy to see it as a classic meltdown. I had left my regular job then and was trying to set up a business on my own. In terms of timing, it was perfect. As time away from the regular working environment means you get a lot of time to stew within yourself. The storm that was already precipitating was provided the catalyst it really didn’t need. The inevitable happened.

The meltdown was horrific. It was triggered by a single disappointment, but it carried within it an entire lifetime’s worth of disappointments I’d buried away and told myself that it did not exist anymore. The interesting part was that I had pushed circumstances to the point where the disappointment was going to be inevitable. It is never good to play both sides in any game and when it is your own life you’re talking about, it is a terrible thing to do. In the fury that ensued I set out to destroy every relationship that I held close and at least for a short period of time I did succeed.

There are numerous interpretations possible of what I did and why I did it all. Maybe all of them would explain what happened, maybe some would. The common thread, though, was that I was a terrible human being at that point in my life, harming, instead of caring, deeply for the same people that I claimed to have cared so much about. The bag of contradictions that I was carrying finally split at the seams and the picture of me that I saw in the mirror was someone I had never seen before in my life. The only certain thing was that it could not have been anyone else. It was me and it represented pretty much every single thing that I disliked in others.

Thankfully, I have always had this innate sense to survive, every time, even when it felt like there was nothing to survive for. When you hate the sight of yourself as much as I did at that time, you need find every ounce of willingness to keep going within you. I had only two options before me at that time. It was either to go deeper into this really unpleasant truth called me, or I could go deeper into the delusional narrative I had built up about myself.

Even then, I was not willing to give up my delusions easily. Initially, I told myself I’m going to look at the other self just to make a point that everyone else is terribly wrong and I will prove it. I was doing it as a favour to everyone, to even show how generous I am to accommodate their crazy theories. Strangely, the more I worked with it, the less sense what I said and what I actually did made. Eventually, the realization dawned that even as unpalatable as the truth looked, I had little desire to go willingly even further down the path of delusion. The only thing I was left with by then, my pride, would not allow that.

In a sense, I was saved by my own vanity. Whatever it was, I am grateful for that.

It has been a slow long crawl back from that point. I wish the story from that point is one of spring, bright colours, sunshine and a perfect picture of joy. To put it very simply, it was a major struggle, often with no end in sight. It was not uncommon to believe that you’d made a tiny bit of progress, taking one step forward, to discover five other problems, which meant you took one forward and took five backward. The work required is not easy and it often demands you to explore areas of your own psyche and memories that are unpleasant.

The turnaround, though, came in the most unpredictable manner. 2013 was one of the hardest years of my life as I poured in everything I had into work and personal life. And yet, at the end of it all, I had nothing to show for either aspect and it was a disaster par compare. The turnaround happened in the little fact that I managed to survive a massive double whammy of disappointments and I did not disintegrate into bits as I was given to doing previously. It was a tough period, but I could, thankfully, look beyond the disappointments and take, a tiny step a time, forward.

Life did not become a picture of serene perfection after that. I can call it best a work in progress, but one where the artist is finally someone who has finally found a sense of happiness within him and his flawed self. Even now there are disappointments and moments of rage. But I don’t  feel overwhelmed by it all, nor do I feel that is all there is to my life. I guess, for most people who have managed to read all the way through the 1640 words to this point probably may feel a bit underwhelmed by that revelation, but that’s honestly all there is to it.

But the real reason why I am writing this here is for the odd visitor who may chance upon this and can identify themselves with what’s written here. Long ago, I used to write on another site, more like a coded message in a bottle, hoping that someone would pick up on what I was going on about. This time, there is no code. It is written as simply as I can afford to do without taking liberties with the lives of the people who have gone through all of this with me. For that lone stranger in despair who is reading this, what I’ll say is, do not give up and keep going. If someone, who has wronged pretty much every person who they care for, can make it out of that darkness, there is still a lot of hope left for everyone.

If you want it badly enough and are willing to keep going at it, one day, the tide will turn. The ocean will finally open its arms to you and let you in on your rickety little boat that you think will take you under any moment.

And then you will get to see the sea. The sea and the land.

And then the land from the sea.

It is a whole new beautiful world out there.

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Watching


You, as the years kept up their relentless march, I have seen err, stumble and struggle — to grow, love, survive and be loved. As the last of the undeserving, with everything gone, you left in search of nothing. And in nothing you found more than enough to get by. The pictures don’t say much, as they can only say as much as you want them to say. When I looked at you from then, again, I don’t see much, in you or on you. You never let it show, but in your own eyes you were always a nobody.

Following the years that followed, I saw you wander, quixotic and aimless with an imagined purpose. A quest, the only end to which was to hide in plain sight and you hid so splendidly well that you managed to hide even from yourself. The lies, the deception, the things you used to say. You left messages in bottles in front of strangers, you left breadcrumbs in a gathering; yet, you missed what that roll of paper actually said; you missed what the clues actually led to. Of all the people of you lied and deceived, you lied to and deceived yourself the most.

In the end  I saw you crumble under the weight of your own contradictions. It was painful to watch. It was not a pretty sight. The harder you tried to run, the more they hunted you down and peeled another layer off you. You managed to escape many times, but they always caught up with you in the end. Truth is an excellent hunting dog, once you let it have a whiff of you, it never stops hunting till it finds the flesh of you. Run as much as you want to. And did you not run?

In all of this, the biggest lie was that you never wanted to be caught.

And now I see you closely, almost every day. I challenge you, I confront you. I hate to see you try to dodge and wriggle as you are often given to do. I can understand, old habits die hard and this the oldest of them all. I know the path ahead looks daunting, it makes where we have come through look serene. But we have to keep moving forward.

Still, every now and then I lose sight of you. It is hard not to lose faith because when you do not want to be found, it is not possible for anyone to find you. But I have faith in you because I never looked for you and it was you who found me. Always. By now I am certain I may lose the sight of you now and then, but I will never lose you.

Because the truth is that I am you.

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Give

“People say sometimes, timidly: I know nothing about music but I know what I like. But the important questions are answered by not liking only but disliking and accepting equally what one likes and dislikes. Otherwise there is no access to the dark night of the soul.” — John Cage.

An interesting way of looking at life is that it offers only once choice within itself — to live. There are numerous ways of living, but none of them are real or even metaphorical deaths. Everyone simply lives differently, making a choices towards that life either consciously or subconsciously. Another interesting aspect is that nobody is forcing us to stay alive. Yes, there are numerous unfortunate ways in which my life can be taken away from me. Short of that, I am living, breathing and and writing this at this moment because that is exactly what I want to do.

In acknowledging that much, it also becomes true that there is no such thing as a gift of life given to me. Life and living are choices I make, even if that life will only extend to the next five minutes, seconds, months or decades. It is a gift that only I can give myself. That gift is only a blank sheet on which I get to paint whatever I choose to paint. The painting could be a blank one, it could be of  a raging fire, it could be tranquil. In the end, nothing matters more than that I liked what I painted when the time finally comes to die.

Being given and getting are two sides of the same coin of receiving something. Our canvases are so full of what we need to get and what we did not get, both in our gains and losses. To imagine a state where desiring more does not exist would be silly, as even wanting less is a desire. But, to see what we get as what we are given is a side of the mirror that takes effort and discipline turn our gazes to. Even in this so-called materialistic and modern world there is so much that is given, freely and generously, that it is a pity that we can’t often see beyond what we want to get.

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Revisit

Another turns into another turn
The miles, like days, they burn
And nights that never end

A few bright days
Of sun, ‘fore a season of cold
Where life survives
And, sometimes, thrives

A patch of pure gold
By the wayside
Claimed for just a while

The morsels you stole
The space you took
The life you lived

All that is never yours
All that is always yours
Is life

A break from the routine after such a long time. Open spaces and mountains busy draping themselves in a cover of green, preparing for the hard white winter to come. We saw solid frost in a town of dust on day one. Life is hard there. There was one shop open, two men huddled by a fire, another washing clothes in ice-cold water. It was many small cups of tea before we were able to feel some warmth.

It looked like a dead town and it felt like one. Apples left unplucked from the season long gone. The odd truck bumped along, raising dust that settled on another layer left behind by another. You may not think it, but it was a town that was quite prosperous. For an outsider, it smelt of decay. The truth was anything but decay. So much so that decay was a choice they could indulge in, should they choose it.

And that’s the crazy nature of truth. It is always right in front of you, should you choose to see it. To ignore it, there are many ways and what is considered normal is one of them. Normal is so subjective that there is really no normal beyond the outside appearance of obvious choices. Choices that are merely the beginning than the outcome. Yet, we judge everyone by that same currency — of normal choices — than its outcome.

For all that has transpired, by choice or from a lack of it, the thing that stands out as the truth for me is to live the life that I feel comfortable living. No matter how wrong this looks, all that matters is that this feels right to me. And, even in the face of how so much of this negates how everything should be, it has never felt so right. Sink or swim, this is the real deal.

A life lived on your own terms has no useful benchmark to compare against, as, living by it, you will fail almost every benchmark, if your terms are not aligned with what is considered normal. That way, mine is a world that has no right or left, no north, south, east or west. Everything exists and it does not; all at the same time. How do you reconcile that with a world that is adamant that is north is north, east is east and right is not what is left?

Much of that sounds like a lie, much like an elegant delusion. A delusion, not unlike travel. A departure from the normal. An escape from the ordinary. Yet, we revisit this delusion, much like any other delusion. We claim temporary spaces as ours and live in them for a few days. We meet people that we grow fond of, and yet, we will almost never meet again. Yet, we travel.

In all this, beauty is not hard to find, should you seek it; so is joy. For, the same frost that covers the dust also provides an invitation to life that we seldom give thought to. Should you be able to smile, not out of mirth or sarcasm, in the midst of absolute starkness, at the fact that much exists and thrives, beyond our own endless fascination with ourselves, it is easy to see how everything can exist and not exist at the same time.

So, we revisit these places time and again. We rue the meanings that we used to earlier find in them that we can’t find anymore. We ignore the fact that in our growth in the interim the earlier meanings have ceased to exist, while new ones have cropped up in their place. Sometimes you take the changes — your own and the place’s — in your stride. Sometimes you don’t.

And that is life.

More Plains

Beyond

More PlainsThe photo is from 2009, clicked on the famous More Plains on the Manali-Leh highway. Since that time, I have been on that road twice, and even as the charm has worn considerably from the first time, every sight of it, even in photos, still takes a bit of my breath away.

There used to be a time, as recently as 2008 (if you can call 2008 ‘recent’, that is), when I first drove to Manali and heard about places like the Spiti Valley and Rohtang Pass. Manali town, by itself, is quite the picture of what a hill town should not be — crowded, dirty and a disaster-in-the-making thanks to tourism.

Yet, the town also has one of the most spectacular views of Himalayas you will get to see, without having trek or drive to remote places. During that first visit, mostly inspired by that view, I made plans to some day see what lay beyond Rohtang Pass, even though I had no clue how I would go about it.

In the years that followed, plans were made, and also abandoned, at the last minute thanks to the predictable freezing of the feet. Having no rugged vehicle to go to those places, I chickened out at the last minute and eventually set out to explore other areas of Himachal Pradesh instead.

As luck would have it, I did wind up crossing Rohtang on that trip and even went all the way to Leh in Ladakh and then started to make a habit of it. Somewhere along the way I set my mind on getting that rugged vehicle and picked one up that eventually cost me a fair bit of coin, at a time when spending like that was probably not the best idea.

The point to this apparent pointless meandering of words is that I don’t often think things through very clearly. There is often a lot of prior planning to doing something before it is actually done, but, more often than not, the doing itself comes unhinged from that planning and it takes a life of its own.

Going by how you are supposed to live an adult’s life, this is folly of the greatest order. And justifiably so. Should things go wrong, there is absolutely no margin for safety and you will crash rather spectacularly. That said, it is often the case in life that you can’t really plan for all eventualities in life and often even the best plans won’t stave off the worst disasters.

Once again, seen through the prism of a normal life, my life has been anything but normal. At most stages I have made choices that would be considered crazy by most people and yet those have always been choices that I have made for myself, for better or for worse.

The choices have not always been easy. Yet, as a result of those choices I am richer in what I have seen and experienced of people, places and realities beyond the cocoon that I used to live in, even while I can justifiably be called a pauper in terms of possessions and belongings.

That is not to say my relative tangible poverty does not bother me; it does. I wholeheartedly believe that there are problems in the world that money and money alone can solve and I have always disliked being indebted, one way or the other. I can’t imagine living without money, nor do I intend to live a life where there will always be a shortage of it to lead a comfortable life.

But, I also believe that there exists a life beyond things you can touch and feel. To reach beyond that you have to invest in yourself and in the world around you and for all that trouble you won’t get to show much for it that most can touch or feel. While I didn’t intend to go down that route, the past 5-years have wound up being a chaotic ride down that exact path.

So, why do I have to write down all of this? Well, for one, at times it is not easy keep the larger picture in your mind when the smaller one obscures everything else. This is one of those times and writing this down provides structure and perspective of what is not seen clearly.

Secondly, this is beginning of another phase, where I’m attempting to loop back around to merge both what is tangible and what is not-so-tangible into the same life. So far, it has been a struggle and it feels like a force fit, but I know for a fact that the mountain looms, insurmountable and large, in front of me right now, but what I truly desire lies beyond.

And I do fully intend to get there, one way or the other.

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Interim

A life well lived often hides behind it many years of hard work. A significant downside of an outcome-driven world is that there is scant attention given towards the interim. This year, for me, is an interim that has already lasted eight months of hard work. What is daunting is that the probability of many more such months to come is a very real. Yet, in trying to do what needs to be done, what shines through bright and clear is that what matters most, more than the thoughts and feelings, is the doing.

If you know a million ways to hide and hide using those million ways, it is not just you who hides from life then; life hides from you too. That hiding continues to be a real challenge for me as nothing gets done when you hide. Thus, it has been a constant peeling and cleansing of sorts in everything this year — work, life, relationships — there was to be no stone left unturned. The idea was to do the best that can be done, and to keep the deflections and digressions to a minimum.

It has been a heady ride so far. It is amazing when it works well, but it can also be devastating when all of it does not come together very well, as it is often prone to do. If I were to say it is all constant, light and peaceful, I’d be lying. Much like an ocean, it can be serene and calm a lot of times and during others it can be a case of violent turmoil where the fears and doubts lash at you like waves that desire nothing else but to pull you under one last time.

In all of this one thing  that keeps coming back at me is that only awareness that matters is that you have a choice, always, be it even in death. The awareness of that choice has always existed within me, but mostly a facet of my life when it was easy to live by it. Trying to be aware of that choice at all points in life and to live owning up to your actions as your own and none else’s has been an entirely different kettle of fish. When it is hard, the temptation to run and hide is so overpowering.

Yet, the awareness remains that this interim is the passage to the outcome that is desired and in that outcome there is nothing else but more of the same awareness, but one that has no struggle in it. In effect, there is nothing that you gain from all of this other than to be granted a view of the world and yourself that is shorn of the million tints that you give it. There are people. The people hold various kinds of energies in them. The world is an outcome of what all those people do with their energies.

And the first step towards desiring a better world is to desire and live a better me. What I tell myself is that if I genuinely desire and feel for it, then there should be no excuses and there should only be thoughts as to how to take those steps to living as a better person. And that is exactly what the interim has been and why that interim will go on for a lot longer before this stage ends.

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Celebration Of Rain

And it rained in Delhi, much after it should have rained. Picked up the camera to practice after a week’s hard work. Got four somewhat-decent shots out of a cache of around 120. That’s how it works out at times.

On a lens that does f 5.6 at 200 MM, this was a hard one to capture.

On a lens that does f 5.6 at 200 MM, this was a hard one to capture.

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Bird on a wire, in the rain.

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The last splash.

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Dance Me to the End Of Love

 

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True Sands

As an increasingly uncomfortable summer rolls along, the tally for the year is an interesting mix. Many have died, and with an entire generation getting into the twilight of their lives, we will only wind up saying more goodbyes to people we know. It should not, ideally, be the case that we appreciate people more in their death than when they were alive; but that is what happens, more often than not. Ideally, we all will know all the answers and do all the right things and be good to everyone around us, all at the same time. But, life is hardly ideal. Neither is it consistent, nor is it always fair or predictable.

On the surface, the true true may look like a deal I made with the devil. But the detail, after a while of living, shows up no devil in it. Nor did I find any god shaped being, in the living, non-living or the dead. What I did find was an infinitely malleable gift of belief that can take any shape I knowingly or unknowingly bestowed it. If I wanted to see good, there was a lot of good. If I wanted to see bad, there was a lot of bad. If I wanted to see nothing, there was a lot of that too. Every belief was as true or as false as every other belief. How can I vouch for the falseness of your belief when I can’t vouch for the trueness of mine?

Everyone gets the choice to stop running at some stage in life. Some stop willingly, others are forced. The violence of this abrupt stoppage is directly proportional to the degree with which you resist change. Most of us give up at this stage, pick a delusion to hide behind; some of us even die literal and metaphorical deaths. At this torrid juncture, only a handful of crazies choose to question their own faces, names and come to understanding that the feeling of the sand that slips between the fingers is as much an expectation as it is an experience. What is this sand?

What if, this is not sand?

 

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You And Me

This is an experiment. Actually, it is an experiment from more than 10-years-ago. I had written some shorts at that time and found them again recently.

They’ve been cleaned up a bit to spare you some of the cringeworthy bits. 

This is fiction.

ONE

It is total darkness, there is a spot of light and the silhouette of two men in the distance, barely audible voices.

He walks closer to find out more.

It is two men arguing in the distance.

It is a very heated argument and he walks on closer yet to see if he can do anything.

The face of the man on the left startles him, it is only himself.

Younger, but it is indeed him, wearing his favourite old check shirt and it was the room that he used to live in way, way back.

As he measures the time that has progressed from then, by feeling the lines on his face, the receding hairline and the wrinkles on his skin, he is jolted out his bubble by a renewed attack by his younger self.

“Why can’t you appreciate what I stand for? Why can’t you appreciate that I value my freedom a lot above everything else?”

The other man, who is much older, retorts: “I can’t appreciate it, I can’t appreciate it because you are hiding from everything and once you take that away, you are nothing but one of us, you cannot disown your own blood. Freedom is an illusion that death alone redeems.”

The words echo with an eerie familiarity that prompts him to grasp the nearby table to steady himself.

After recovering his composure a bit, he looks again at his younger self.

And he sees the his own expression mirrored on that face, be it a bit less mauled by age.

A feeling of overwhelming frustration overcomes him and he screams out “No, no, no, I do not want to go through this again and I am definitely not one of you!”.

But the words have only the shape on his mouth, they have no sound.

The words do ring out though, but it is not coming from him. Looking around, he realises it is coming from his younger self.

Everything spins around into a dizzying vortex of faces, voices, echoes, arguments.

He screams: “NO.. NO.. NO.. NO.. please, please, make it stop!”

It is once again total darkness.

The surrounding silence is deprived of its totality by his troubled breathing and the old ceiling fan which groans out the truth about its overworked bearings with every half turn.

He wakes up and sits upright on the bed.

There are streams of sweat running all over his face, its saltiness brings him slowly back to reality.

Angels covered in gaudy make up sing the song “baby come back” to him.

In their background appears the familiar figure of the old man.

He stops at the verge of screaming out again just when he realises that what stands in the distance is only his own coat hanging from the wall.

What a nightmare!

He checks the time in the timepiece.

A dozen post-its (do taxes, book tickets for the much-needed vacation and so on) stare at him from every corner of the table, it’s been a struggle, of late, to keep up.

The timepiece tells him it is half past three in the morning.

It is day fourteen, he reminds himself.

TWO

From the terrace, the city sprawls from one corner of his eye to the other. In the distance there are the hills that he has never been to, a mass of indistinguishable concrete buildings just in front of that that, and closer by there are other terraces.

Numerous sounds fill the air, jostling with each other to be louder. Car horns, music from the building across the street, police siren and the aircraft making its landing approach all mix and match in an urban symphony.

Why do men have a fascination for heights? He asks himself.

Freedom, escape, perfect family, perfect love life, perfect everything that you never have in life is associated with that one vain gesture of flight.

Or at least the superficial attempts to attain it.

He even manages to laugh, imagining himself flying off the terrace.

He wonders if there anything original left in life? Even life is not original, nor is death, it has been played out so many times before.

The question regarding heights is a pertinent one, especially considering the fact that he is standing on the parapet’s edge.

Another aircraft making its final approach snaps him out of his thoughts.

It is the 11: 25 AM monster cargo aircraft.

In five minutes the fat lady in the building across the street will be out to hanging her day’s washing to dry.

Ms. Clockwork is the name he had given her.

It always used to make Mala laugh; not because she thought it was smart, but because she thought it was silly.

The door creaks open and Ms. Clockwork makes her appearance.

He gets down quickly before she catches him teetering on the edge.

What would it feel like to have one’s life dominated by the act of washing clothes? He wonders.

Taking the thread of speculation further, he wonders, who would wash the clothes once she is dead?

Would they all wear black at her funeral?

He tries to picture her apartment after her death.

A lot of sad looking mourners. A smiling picture of her’s when she was younger, probably happier too and a solitary diya to keep her company.

He adds the washing tub into this imaginary scene, right next to her picture, in all its shiny virgin plastic glory.

He asks himself, would he go there then?

No, he certainly not.

Humour is easy, dealing with the dead and the soon-to-be dead is a tough business.

Not for him and no time either.

He makes his way to the door and the staircase.

The gentle warmth of the winter sun disappears from the back of his neck as he runs into the embrace of the damp coldness of the staircase.

————————–

THREE

The staircase is dimly lit and the railings are of wooden that has seen too many years of neglect since its life as a tree came to an end. Faded and damp wallpaper adorn the walls.

Three flights down, a door opens and a boy, all of 16, runs out.

A middle-aged woman hurriedly follows him out, stops herself at the door and screams, “listen you little twerp, you have done nothing in the day and now you go running off again”.

Her dirty apron and the flour-gloved hands bear testimony to the rigours of an average housewife’s tough life.

“But all the other kids are playing in the street, mother. I want to be with them,” the kid responds.

“Hah! they have done their work and wants only your ruin and if you go out right now, you can be sure of a sound caning and no dinner when you get back, make up your mind,” she growls at him.

“Then so be it” is the boy’s reply as he runs out of the building.

She walks back in, slamming the door shut and the dull silence returns, broken only by his heavy footsteps as he walks past the now-empty staircase.

He looks closely at the wooden railings and every other minute detail about the place.

How different even familiar things look when you look up close, he thinks to himself as he walks into the street, with the evening sun’s rays blinding his eyes.

————————–

FOUR

Outside the door, kids are playing in the street, like in any other middle-class neighbourhood. Handful of few vendors line the street with their carts.

The first man to catch his attention is the peanut vendor.

Yes, the same favourite peanut vendor of theirs who looks back at him in anticipation of news that would cheer him up.

Truth be told, Mala liked the peanuts more than he did and it brings a smile to his lips.

“No, I should not think about it.”

The vendor’s held-back enthusiasm flags and tries to say a sorry with a nod.

He cannot quite avoid the bitterness that threatens to overcome him.

He wonders if it is his misfortune or the loss of a regular client that made the vendor sad.

I’ll never know abut that one, he tells himself.

Leaving the vendor behind, he turns around the corner to find the regular group of guys from the street. As always, they noisy and rowdy.

Among them he spots a familiar face and  he smiles again recognising his own adolescent self.

As he walks past them he overhears their conversation.

They are talking about girls, ambition and not much else in between.

It is only our lad who does not have a definite opinion.

His face is not pristine as it was before, he bears many a scar now – of love, of flights and fights and of universal ridicule.

His answers are only marked with “I do not know” and vague descriptions that leave everyone else with an idea of ‘elsewhere’ that is as vague as anything can ever be.

But even with the liberty that his rebellious nature grants him, freedom is one scar he does not sport.

Freedom from the ‘not here, but elsewhere’ feeling.

Can anyone be free when they feel like that? He thinks about those days as he turns around the corner.

Midway on that stretch is his favourite bookshop.

He peeks in to see one of his rare saviours lovingly dusting off his collection of books, that very few people ever bother to buy.

This is the toothless old man who gave the world of letters back to him.

He walks in and wishes the oldie; his toothless smile is as warm as ever.

As he breathes in the musty smell, it takes him back to the countless hours they used to spend together, talking about books, over many mugs of coffee.

A similar musty smell that he again found in one of the offices he used to work.

How did it get there? Maybe it is the only strange connection between two odd saviours, when all else failed.

The common link being the very rare instances of his looking forward to anything, with a touch of desperate anticipation, at different stages in life.

After their usual conversation he prepares to take his leave.

“Won’t he pick any new books,” asks the old man asks.

He tells the oldie that it won’t be necessary.

As he departs he gives the frail old man a hug and murmurs, “thank you for everything”.

The old man is perplexed, even taken aback as he walks out of the door.

————————–

FIVE

Dusk finds the final rays of the sun playing hide and seek through the grille of the the park’s gate.

He makes way for an old lady, who smiles a “thank you” at him.

Since it is winter, there are not many takers for the park benches.

The ones who are there are sitting in benches far apart.

The life around the park is a distant, hurried contrast to the ghosts of the living and the dead which inhibit the park now, for whom time has come to a stand-still.

There is nowhere to reach in a hurry for them.

He moves on to their favourite bench.

He is reminded of why they were so fond of that bench.

They could pop pebbles into the murky lake with ease from that bench and yet be far enough to not see how terribly murky the lake actually was.

He checks the date again.

Fourteen days ago, this is where they spent the last of their time together.

It was an uncharacteristic silence

The only conversation that had happened was when he finally asked her if it was time they left.

To which she agreed: “Yes, let’s go”.

Outside the gate, they only thing they said was “goodbye”.

Which was a stark contrast to the animated exchange of words that normally mark their meetings.

For a second he almost felt her hair brush his face and her voice faint and echoing in the distance.

He ridicules his never-ending capacity for nostalgia.

Still, he takes a look around to make sure if she was not actually there.

There should not be any regrets in life and everyone deserves their fair chance to make their case, he tells himself.

His eyes settle on the same bench, on which was now seated a man, dressed rather well for the crowd that frequents this place.

He seems to be busy scribbling something in a diary.

He takes a few steps forward to take a glimpse at what he is writing.

From behind the man’s shoulder he could just about see the words “Of all days..”

Suddenly, the man looks at his watch and stops writing.

And as suddenly as he stopped writing, closes his diary, gets up and walks off.

In the distance, the sun sets and darkness falls.

————————–

SIX

It is the bedroom again, the reading lamp is on and the timepiece tells us that the time is five past nine in the night.

The stillness, disturbed only by the clock, receives an unwelcome jolt when the phone starts ringing.

It rings for a while and then the answering machine kicks into life.

His voice says “I am not here, leave a message if you feel like it, can’t promise I will call you back”.

“Hey, it is Mala, I know you are there, so please pick up the phone, we need to talk,” she says right after the loud beep.

“I saw you in the park today and called out to you, but you got up and left by the time I got there”, a tinge of desperation seeps into her voice before she hangs up.

She tries a few more times, but can’t get past the answering machine.

“I miss you, please call me”, she says almost in tears, before she puts the phone down for the last time.

From the edge of the bed his blood-stained hand hangs lifelessly.

On the floor below, in a pool of blood, is his knife that had been through his wrist.

Next to it, partially drenched in blood, was his diary, open and with the last page that had a sentence, which was clearly finished in two parts.

It read, “Of all days… she will call me today”.

 

Filter coffee and the accidental pointing of fingers.

Control

Filter coffee and the accidental pointing of fingers.

Filter coffee and the accidental pointing of fingers.

It struck me today that the house I have lived now for well over a decade has no personal photos on display anywhere. In fact, the house is almost entirely focussed on being functional, so much so that it lacks any personal touch and it feels emotionally sterile. When I moved into that place it was meant to be a temporary stop, a quick interlude before I’d leave both the home and the city, though I had no clue exactly where I would head to.

Sometimes, when you close your eyes for a second, on a road you’ve been on thousands of times before and take a different look at it, everything looks so different. There are little details that your either missed or ignored perviously — some of those things painfully obvious, yet hidden away from your mind’s eye. And what you could not deal with or you did not  like, was dealt with a blind eye. Our coping mechanisms are fascinating things. We often don’t realize how powerful they can be.

In my younger years, as an incredibly angry and frustrated person, I wanted to slot everything into neat boxes. Everything was black or white. Everything had to be judged. When I grew up a bit more I figured I could not slot everything so neatly and it frustrated even more that I could not see things in black and white anymore. I took it really personally. In the past year I have started to like the fact that I can’t slot everything or understand everything that goes on and it has made me a considerably happier person.

It is not a case of ignorance is bliss. It is not a case of trying to relinquish control or abdicate responsibility. It about  accepting the idea that you can control a lot of things is  a myth. Aided by the mind, it is easy to imagine that you control a lot of what goes on around you, while you don’t and you can’t. You can control your own actions and thoughts to a great extent, but you can’t control the entire spectrum of outcomes of that thought or that action. You can control your driving to be the safest driver ever to have lived, but you cannot control the driver in the car next to you to be as safe a driver as you can be.

Life happens in spite of the best of our understanding or the lack of it. In fact, I think life doesn’t care what we think or believe in. Life, I feel, is a maze of randomness that can yield a pattern, or any pattern, if we look hard enough at it. When outcomes and meanings are no longer joined at the hip, life yields a certain lightness that was otherwise missing from it.

Letting go, done right, feels so liberating.