Travel to me is road trips. Rocky roads and really long drives. A car trunk flooded with luggage, and some more in the rear seat. And by the feet. And on the lap. How it all fit into our little car, I’ll never know. I’ve been traveling for as far back as I can remember. The places I’ve been to are very few; I could count them on my fingers. But I’ve frequented some of them so often in all these years, I know them like the back of my hand. The known voices of familiar people, the recognisable bumps and cracks on the roads, the shopkeepers that know you by name… It is an extraordinary feeling to go somewhere and feel like you’re home. I constantly realise how people in faraway places lead separate lives but have a common existence.
Adventure to me is a forest. A familiar forest that I know the routes to. Yet ever so strange, unknown and enticing. Rugged jeeps navigating through craggy pathways as the dust gently powders your face and clouds your vision. A thudding heart, a camera held firmly in an unsteady hand and utter silence. The thrill of seeing nature through a lens in its wild, unmade, tousled form is unlike any other. With a still body and wide gaping eyes, I’ve learnt patience through a viewfinder. I’m not a great photographer, I must tell you. But growing up around my photographer dad, I’ve never been too far away from a camera.
I’ve always fancied putting on a khaki attire paired with brown boots and a dark green hat, as a way of being one with your surroundings. It’s a subtle part of maintaining the jungle decorum. And off we go in our jeeps, bumping away on weathered roads, the excitement building up. And a sudden halt – squint eyes searching in the dry, desolate expanse. The jungle in all its discreetness uncovers itself in the form of a ravishing beauty – a leopard. It stands there, half-hidden behind a tree trunk with a still, unblinking stare that makes the hair on your neck stand on end as it pierces through the silence. Thrill rides on the shoulders of suddenness. Eyelids flutter and the camera clicks away, taking shots that try to do justice to the breathtaking sight. It doesn’t know that the mind’s eye has already captured and ingrained this spectacle for the rest of time.
These memories have grown with me, from childhood to adulthood. Experiences need to be remembered, taken care of, and nurtured like a relationship; lest they be long forgotten. They have asked for unremitting love and attention, and I’ve obliged. Each trip has been a journey closer within, while the pleasure excursion proceeds on the outside. I wait to see where the next trip takes me, while I hold on to my true north.
My grandmother was a collector. She collected stamps, coins, postcards, letters, souvenirs, photographs, diaries and books. I was not allowed to touch any of that. At the most, she’d let me play with her jar of coins under supervision. But her books were never off limits. They were mine for the taking. She was an ardent reader. I treasure her massive collection of books. It mostly consists of classics, mystery, fantasy, romance, crime thrillers and philosophy. She stacked her books in a large hidden closet that had a full-sized mirror for a door. That mirror was the rabbit-hole I was so desperately ready to tumble down. She bought books from everywhere – from the airport, the bus stop, the railway station stalls, the posh bookstores… She’d even stop to buy a few from the used book-seller on a bicycle and from the roadside bookwallahs. She was a generous reader too; sharing her books with friends and strangers alike. She never left the house without a book in her bag. She was a gynaecologist and between a crazy day-and-night schedule full of patients and surgeries, she would find time to stand in a corner of the OT and open a random page of The Reader’s Digest to read snippets of this and that, shutting out the noise and hustle around her. I know of times when she managed to read a few pages standing in an overcrowded local train in Mumbai; one hand swinging on the rod above and the other, clutching on to her book tightly.
She brought magazines and comics into my life. Every other day, on her way back from the hospital, she would stop and buy some magazines for herself and comic books for me. Tinkle, Champak, Richie Rich, Amar Chitra Katha, Tin Tin, Panchtantra, Shaktimaan, MAD, Chacha Chaudhary, Spiderman, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Akbar and Birbal and Archie Comics filled my childhood with colour and cartoons. I devoured the books, flipping through pages with wild excitement, as I usually got to read them as an incentive for finishing schoolwork early. Characters like Suppandi, Tenali Raman and Jughead really cracked me up. I read of mythology, history, fables, fairy tales and superheroes. I approached different kinds of comedy with big, bright eyes and a crooked smile – satire, caricature, parody, farce, repartee, slapstick, irony. She’d riddle me often, “Who has a brain sharper than a needle…” I’d cut her off with a silly grin, “… and faster than a super-computer, of course it’s Chacha Chaudhary!”
Seeing her sitting on the floor reading a book, with legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles and her back resting in the cozy curve of the couch in the living room was the most familiar and common sight in my house. As her eyes got weary with age and her patience to read the thick novels that she once enjoyed faded, she slowly made a shift to lighter, comic or inspirational literature – short stories, anecdotes, novellas, magazines, poetry. But she never stopped reading.
I don’t remember the instance when my love for books first developed or when my urge to tell a story took form on a paper but as far back as I can recall, I’ve been the happiest when reading or writing. In early school years, the only times I felt genuinely proud, with a sense of accomplishment was when I got an A grade on an English essay or when my poem was published in the school newsletter or when I won a medal for recitation. The only tests I was always gladly prepared for were reading comprehensions, spelling bees, dictation and essay writing. My favourite spot in the entire school was the corner table by the window in the library where I would sneak to, every chance I got. I always carried a book under my arm and often read during classes too. Especially math classes. A teacher once wrote a remark in my annual evaluation report card that said that I had potential and I could do wonders, if only I’d show as much interest in reading textbooks as I did in novels and other books I read for pleasure. I took that as a compliment and went around showing everyone what a wonderful note I got that year.
The only person who was as happy about that remark as I was was my grandmother. When my parents weren’t around, she would have to sign school notes as my guardian. I saw the pride in her smile as she signed that particular report. She gave me a new book that day.
Little did I know then that I’ll read and write for a living. I’ve often wondered if this is what I was really meant to do in life. If this was my calling. Stressful deadlines and lack of inspiration often push my buttons. There were times when other things caught my fancy and I was tempted to take up more lucrative opportunities instead of the low-paying writing jobs that came my way. I did find creative satisfaction in most of the work that I did, but sometimes, that wasn’t enough to go on. Then I’d look at my decked up bookshelf and find immense pleasure in the mere sight of books. The pattern of how everything I ever did through these years led me to books and writing has left a clear trace that makes all the sense in the world. It is a part of me that is intact, solid and unwavering. That is who I am, and this is what I know. Perhaps, this is all I know. And that, it seems, will be enough.
Sometimes, all you need is that proud signature on your report card to keep you going. All you need is a guardian.
Friendship is a strange strange thing. People associate it with values like happiness, and love, and closeness and success. To have friends is a big social positive and to be friendless is to be an outsider, a misfit.
Like everything in the world, friendship is hierarchical. Best friends are seated at the top of the pyramid. The rest shift spaces in the levels below according to circumstances in life, as priorities change. There are close friends and old friends. New friends and groupies. School friends and colleagues. Then there are friends of friends and acquaintances. Pen friends and confidants. Facebook friends and LinkedIn friends.
The mentor and the roommate. The bus ride friend. The “special” friend. The clever friend, the goofy friend, the artistic friend, the funny friend. The talker, the listener. The whiner, the consoler.
So many titles. So many types. So little meaning.
Ever since we’re kids, we fill out slam books, or whatever they’re called today, and one of the first few questions is, “Who is your best friend forever?” I get asked so often, “How many friends do you really have?” Well, I have no best friend. And it’s way too naive to talk about ‘forever’ so loosely. And I don’t count. Putting a number on it reduces the beauty of an abstraction like friendship to a mere digit. The number doesn’t matter.
I have a few close friends. And others that are friends with a purpose. They may be neighbours, or they went to the same school or college as me, or we share the same interests. But they all are just that. Friends. People. This makes the world a lot more inclusive and open to show understanding, empathy and compassion towards others. Without categories and ranks and labels.
Labels inherently come with cognitive effects. The effects could be good or bad, strong or weak, but they’re immensely limiting. We are complex beings and to typify and label someone as one or the other is just plain wrong. Words have the power to define what we see in others. They potentially block the mind to see the other person as something else, something more or something the complete opposite of what we ignorantly make them to be. The labels become our lens of perceiving a thing or person.
Once, a friend of mine told me about someone she knew, who was going through a tough time at his office. It was a simple matter that could be sorted with some help. I urged her to help him out if she could. Maybe just listen to the problem and serve as a vent. And while she was sympathetic about the matter, she eventually said, “it’s not like we’re best friends or anything” with a wave of her hand, implying that she might’ve helped her best friend in a similar situation, but she didn’t care enough for this particular person, who is just a “colleague”, to go through the trouble. This is the kind of labelling that deprives us of seeing a person as a person. And not a best friend, or neighbour, or colleague or stranger. Or husband, or wife, or mother, or son. Or white or black or brown or straight or gay or rich or poor. Or man or woman.
We talk about people and things in an either-this-or-that manner, ignorant about the fact that they can be both. And much more. When we say, “he’s a rich white guy,” a stereotypical image takes form in our head. We see through the lens of race, colour, social status, political and economic standing, and gender notions. When a friend of mine said, “she’s too man-ish for a girl,” we ended up having a long, heated discussion on her judgement of a stranger whom she knew nothing about. That girl could’ve been extremely feminine in reality; or she could’ve worked really hard on her muscle strength to play her favourite sport. And who is to say what is right and what isn’t? But we refuse to lift that blanket of tags to see what is underneath.
I recently watched 2 really impressive talks by Ash Beckham at TEDx Boulder, one on having hard conversations, coming out of the closet (and not just the LGBTQ closet) and having the courage to open up, and the other on gender roles, duality and identity. (I recommend everyone to watch them. It’ll certainly make your life better. They’re worth several listens!) So, at one point in the talk, she says, “the opposite of polarity is duality.” It is not one extreme or the other. It can be both, in simultaneous, peaceful existence.
Language is so powerful in shaping someone’s identity. Labels aren’t always problematic. They help describe people and things and place them in a socio-cultural setting. We know who we are (Self) because we know that we’re not someone else (Other). But to stretch it too far, to chain our thinking and cage our behaviour is unfair and dangerous. Give people a chance. To amaze you. And to grow.
We could all do with a little more openness. I’m trying to rip off the tags that I and the society I live in have stuck to people’s heads. It’s possible and it constantly amazes me to be able to see the goodness around me. I’m slowly letting my guard down and opening up my world to you and everything you are.
Be my friend?
If only, by the mere accident of birth, you’d not brand me as your citizen, the way you brand your cattle. I will soon disperse from the herd you’ve raised, fed and exploited, and head to someplace better. We’re slightly different from cattle, you see? Not much, but slightly. I survive for that slightness. I hope you do too. But these days, you can’t rely much on hope. Your flock snickers, you know? Looking around desperately from the corner of the eye, for an instance to run you over. I thought you should know. I wish you well. And wait.
At the end of
Each hagridden day,
I came to you
Seeking a quest,
To look forward to.
You, I opened,
To that page
Which held me last.
Being released into
A yet other world
That never failed me.
In the hope
To never return,
I read on.
Growing up, I left behind certain traits that I had as a kid. I outgrew some clothes as well as some actions and started being adult-like, very consciously. To carefully sit, to steadily walk, to be compulsively polite, to ‘act’ rather than to ‘be’ – these are the things adulthood gave me. Recently, I realized how I, like everyone, am carrying this baggage of being a grownup and it is stressful. I didn’t realize when this transition took place. Having the responsibility of my actions and of being who I am made me cautious, extremely careful and finicky, and not in a good way.
Today, I felt a strong urge to throw. Just to make a propulsive movement out of joy. Like I did and could, heedlessly, as a kid. Maybe, knowledge stopped me. The knowledge of who I am, what I am and where I am. I rather wish to not know.
Throwing my bag on the street to run and hug someone – I know that if I could do this, everything else would fall into place. It would make my day. It would give a nudge to the child in me. It would lighten the baggage. It would do me justice.
Every once in a while, I’m going to throw. A person needs to throw sometimes.
Every time that bus vroomed, it was her sign of time fleeting. She did not want to go. Ever. Just the sight of that bus made her furrow her brow and grimace. Even when she wasn’t supposed to be on it, yet. She did not like the destination or the journey. That sound she heard was her source of nostalgia. Every other month, she would leave home and board that bus to go 220 kilometres away. And every single time, she hated it. Not the idea of leaving home, that – she could handle. But the place she was going back to – not. Three years is what that place took from her. Three years of an environment of dullness, discouragement, and zero lifelikeness on strange faces that never got familiar.
She was back home that day, driving gaily on the roads she knew so well, humming to the tunes of her favourite songs after a good day when she saw that bus a second after she heard that sound. It was about to leave. Passengers were waving goodbye till the bus left and they were no longer visible. She thought of the feeling she would unmistakably have when it would be her time to go, again. She frowned.
It took her a moment to realise that that time, that day, was never going to come. This time, she was back, for good. That phase of disdain, that journey, that motion sickness, the dullness on the faces of those people she had to see, was not a part of her worries any longer. It was finally over. She grinned at the word ‘over’. After a long time, that bus – no matter what sounds it made – did not give her wrinkled brows and a feeling of nostalgia. She drove away and nothing could bother her – not even the uncontrollable traffic that usually made her swear at it, a lot. In that moment, she gulped down the realisation of a change of path for a better, newer journey; to a destination she knew was great, and unknown.
That leaf was the most beautiful thing she had seen in years. On turning the yellow pages of an old, dusty book she had long-forgotten, there it lay, amongst kind. Paper is made of wood after all, she thought. It was in a safe place. Arid, dry, drained of all that was liquid, it spoke to her. Just to her. It had a colour that matched its transparency. She saw its veins intertwined, yet so clear; each leading somewhere, following a pattern. She put out her hand to find similarity in the lines they said narrate her destiny.
It was considered to be a sacred fig; the tree was supposedly wisdom-giving. Peepal, yes, she recalled. She peered at the leaf closely. She did not see that in it. She felt its dryness with the tip of her finger. Somewhat like dry skin, she thought. She admired its beauty turning it up and down when she realised how its lifelessness was what gave it that charm. Beauty comes at a price after all, she thought as she placed the dry leaf back amidst the pages of her old, dusty book, where it belonged.
Something stirred her awake. Maybe it was the neighbor’s cat again. The wooden table wasn’t a comfortable headrest. It took her brain a few minutes to go from blankness to sight. Every muscle of her body screamed ache. With half-opened eyes, she stares at the screen. A blank page. White. It makes her eyes hurt. The cursor blinks. And blinks. And blinks. The clock reads 3:23am.
She strains her head to reach out to somewhere. Somewhere that inspires her to do that, which keeps her alive. To create. She waits for that click. Nothing.
Coffee. That’s what she needs. Dragging herself out of the lazy chair, she pulls her legs to where her coffee-maker lies. Black. Beautiful. Coffee has never failed her, she thinks. Black. Strong. Brew it right and things start falling into place. She takes a sip. It burns her tongue numb. With a gasp, she takes her mug and places it next to the screen with the blank page. She thinks of the previous night. And the night before. And the one before. She shrugs. She is right on her routine. She has a loyal memory, which is dangerous sometimes. She remembers every work that she produced in all its glory, as it hits her in the face. Every word, every line that she wrote spoke to her once. It doesn’t anymore. There’s a block somewhere, that can’t be undone. Gulp.
The coffee is gone. Yet, the cursor blinks away. It drives her crazy. It has been months, and still there is no thought that makes her brain effortlessly weave out beautiful stories out of her words. Her imagination, once needed to be tied up, so that it wouldn’t outrun this world and its reality. Now, it lazes around, hitting an idea or two, and collapses to the ground again, in chains. Writing came so naturally to her, she never thought of the process. She does now, but can’t figure it out. There was nothing that escaped her wit and sensibility. She penned down everything she thought was worth conscious anamnesis. Reading and writing constituted the center of her life. 4:34am.
Staring out of the window, impaired, she realizes, with wide open eyes, her worst nightmare. The day she could no longer write. The block, so insistently heavy, it makes her gray matter spew out all sense. Her creativity dies in an experience so foreign to her, she finds it worse than physical death. Something snaps, like a twig. In that knowledge, she finishes knowing.
Dark, malicious beauty
Unnerving, just the sight
Vulnerable and invincible all the same
The anarchic jungle.
Of a faceless crowd
The bereaved life
A gap between
Of the unknown down under.
The circular movement
Spreads its arms
All rush in
Not knowing where to,
Just the where from.
Who the savage
Who the other
Not one can say
Not one can know.
Often, the darkness
Screams like its kin
Silence and she,
Long-lost but united.
Unwelcome as kids,
The freedom finally,
When it doesn’t mean a thing.
They say the light
Appears when you focus
The head too heavy
For the neck alone,
Palms of hands
Don’t read anymore.
Two legs or four,
A tail or no.
We’re all one
In the anarchic jungle.
What light, what dawn
Just a round to
Move in till done.