Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Persistence of Change

The journey proved to be tedious, and certainly a lot more demanding than expected. Shlok was visiting his parents after three years. A lot of water had passed under the bridge during that time and he was apprehensive of what they would make of it. However, in spite of the concerns, he looked forward to losing himself in the familiarity of the place. That was reason enough to endure the revolting smell emanating from the compartment’s toilet and the bawling kids (to indifferent parents) on the lower berths. The couple had tried engaging him in an insipid conversation and he had very deftly manages to spurn all their advances, much to their disappointment.

He still travelled in sleeper class, though he could now afford the luxury of the AC compartments and their pretentious denizens. Somehow, the lack of refinement kept him on his toes. Reminded him of where he came from and what he had set out for. And as always, he kept to the upper berth for most part of the journey, sleeping through most of it. Sometimes, when they would catch his fancy, he would listen in to snippets of conversations happening all around. Other times he would try to read something or leaf through old letters and postcards. The lush rustic countryside and the regal Aravalli ranges on the way back had been wowed over several times. They failed to interest him now.

What seemed like an age back, Shlok had left home with no clear idea as to why he was doing so. College was over and had left behind several unanswered questions in its wake. Not to mention the insecurities and fears that they brought along as baggage. Plagued by an indecisive mind, he hoped to find the answers to at least some of them before it was too late. In this quest, he had given preference to action over planning and thought over action. Several wise people had shaken their heads and suggested some other approach. But a whimsical temperament had made sure that all advice fell on deaf ears. It was not that he did not give a damn. He tried not to.

His parents were a silent witness to everything that went on. But him being so far away, they thought it was all probably just hearsay and hoped that Shlok was more in control of his senses than it was appearing to be. Like they had decided to close their eyes, and were willing everyone else to do the same. Sometimes, they would make a big issue out of an arbitrary decision that he took. But sooner or later they would mellow down, afraid of distancing him in the process. All healing would come naturally is what they had thought. Or so they had planned.

So while other people of his standing became successful and their mothers gloated over their burgeoning salaries, Shlok took up odd day jobs that prevented his from doing so. And while his friends found their soul mates and made marriage plans, he indulged in every vice under the sun. Drugs, brothels, alcohol, the works. For no apparent reason than to try all avenues of hope. And hope is often a dangerous thing. It would have been perhaps better had he got addicted to one of them. That would have necessitated a drastic response and a fresh start. But he never did. So the questions lingered behind. And so did the ghost of the person he once was. A mind boggling potpourri.

The means changed and he took to travelling to remote locations, spending whatever he would save from his meagre earnings. Sometimes he would set out with nothing more than a towel in his backpack. A desire to suck the marrow out of life, as Thoreau might have said, and leave it devoid of any trivialities. He stayed at ramshackle hotels and often fell sick during the course of his escapades. The destinations changed but the travelling continued. He thought that if he visited places were no one knew about him, he would be able to put things in a different perspective. But all this had continued for so long that he had begun to doubt whether such a state was essential for survival anyway. Hence the trip back home. In order to touch base with himself once again.

As soon as he stepped onto the platform, he was swarmed by a flurry of coolies. One of them, bent double with age and wisdom, approached him with dignity and asked, “Beta, samaan pahucha doon bahar tak? Thak gaye hoge safar mein”. The sincerity of his voice, coupled with respect for his advanced years, warranted an equally decent response. “Nahin Kaka, abhi apna samaan nahin uthaenge toh aage kaise kaam chalega?” The old man laughed to this and lumbered away. The entire station had been freshly painted. In betel red and cream. Perhaps they chose these colours in order to hide the paan stains that soiled almost every corner. Perhaps they were just being innovative with their choices.

Soon it was the turn of auto wallas to try their luck with him. But Shlok was in no mood for the luxury of a comfortable ride. He managed to find a square inch of space in a shared tempo and initiated the last leg of the journey. The hoardings had changed. Some new political mafia had come into power and proclaimed the greatness of their leader. Some dubbed Hollywood movie fought for screen space with the latest Bollywood one. Fresh parks and statues had sprung up all over the city, an indulgence it found itself hard pressed to afford. But while the exteriors had become gaudier and flashier, the guts continued rotting in silence. The drains flowed over happily each time it rained a tad too long and the tempos swerved menacingly to avoid the bottomless potholes. Loafers still lounged in the Sun near the Gandhi statue opposite GPO. “People change a lot faster than places”, he thought.

On a whim, Shlok asked the driver to stop two stops before the scheduled one and decided to walk the last kilometre. The road had been freshly dug up to lay sewage pipes and the deluge last night had ensured that he would have to hop-skip-jump his way back. Suddenly, their house loomed large in front of him, almost as if in some B-grade Bollywood horror flick. The road in front of it was fresh and black. A high ranking government official, who had started living close by, ensured that there would always be policemen hanging around. One of them was taking out a golden retriever for a walk. Everything was pretty much just the way he had left it. The only thing that seemed out of place was him. For a moment, he felt uncomfortable entering his own house. Would it accept him the way he was now? Had he changed too much? Too much for the worse? Would they understand what he had been through? What did he go through anyway? His fight had not been any bigger than any of theirs after all.

Knowing very well that he had no need to, Shlok rang the bell. He decided to pretend the part of a guest until it was decided otherwise. The familiarity of people is more easily lost than the familiarity of places. People change faster than places after all. Akanksha had taken the day off to greet her son. She came out to see him. Ritwick had long ago retired from active duty at the power station where he had worked like a drone for 35 years. He was sitting in the veranda, reading the morning daily. Seeing both of them after such a long gap, Shlok felt a sudden surge of emotion. His mother seemed to have aged 5 years in the past three. He could not be so sure about his father. He touched their feet, more to regain his bearings than to seek his blessings. They seemed satisfied. For now at least.

The days at home were just as he had expected – painfully lazy and blissfully lethargic. In weaker moments, he confessed he could get used to that. Other times, he just tried to indulge himself, preferably without any remorse for doing so. He did not try to meet any of his friends. No one knew he was visiting anyway. Not that many of them cared now. Conversations were few and had a habit of dwelling upon touchy subjects. For the first few days, all three of them reached an agreement and refrained from discussing the obvious. But Shlok knew that it had to happen sooner or later. So a week later, over dinner, he touched upon the issue.

“I have decided to explore my options for a couple of years more.”

“Don’t you think you have explored enough? What are you looking for anyway? It’s high time you settled down. Only today, Mrs Sinha was asking about you. I did not know what answer to give her”, Akanksha said between mouthfuls of egg curry she had prepared for Shlok.

“Ma, I can’t be worried about your inability to provide answers to Mrs Sinha. I have my own problems to sort out. I can’t be the way you would like me to be. Like it or lump it.”

Ritwick had hardly spoken a word to Shlok since the time he had come back. Apart from dinner and lunch, they had not spent a minute together. Both of them had accepted this as a necessity to avoid any arguments. However, today, he too decided to speak out his mind.

“There are only as many problems that you think about. What’s the matter with you anyway? You took to drugs, we paid for the rehab. You take up jobs beneath your education and yet we remain quiet. Woh sab to chhodo, you have been visiting brothels. Kuch to sharam karo! Sometimes I get the feeling that my only son has been ruined beyond redemption or reproach.”

“You have changed so much Shanu. I can hardly recognise you anymore”, Akanksha muttered between sobs. Shlok just looked in some other direction, seething with indignation.

“Will they never understand? Or am I trying too hard? Have I been looking through the wrong looking glass? Won’t it all come to pass someday and won’t they all get to laugh about it? Somebody tell me that all this effort has not been for nothing.”

“I don’t know Ma. If you think I would be the same even after all these years, I am sorry to have disappointed you. When parents give their children the right to a proper education, they must be ready to respect their ability to think independently. I am sorry, but I am not the same Shanu anymore. It would be better if you accepted that fact and respected its existence. That way we would all be better off.”

Ritwick almost exploded on hearing his son justifying his actions as something routine and expected.

“Change can be accepted. But not if it comes at the cost of integrity and stability. You have wandered far enough. And enough exploring, as you put it, has been done. Bahut ho gaya ye sab. You should now think about what a decent person your age should be doing. Hum tumhare lakshan aur nahin sahenge ab.

“Papa, I had never asked you to do so. As I have said before, I will find it hard pressed to lead a life the way you have imagined it for me. All this time I have been trying to find my bearing. And until I have done so, I will do all the exploring I need to.”

With nothing to add to this brazen disrepute of his authority, Ritwick prohibited Akanksha from dissuading their son. They finished the dinner in silence and Shlok retreated to the privacy of his room having done that. The next morning he announced his decision to leave for Nagpur by the week’s end. Aknkasha tried to persuade him from doing so but her attempts were thwarted by her husband’s will and her son’s pig-headedness. Shlok could not comprehend why she spent the rest of the week complaining about her back ache and the absence of discipline at the school. The night he was supposed to leave, Shlok forbid both of them from accompanying him to the station. “It would be too much trouble”, he reasoned with them.

Between tears, Akanksha managed a line which cut through the painful conversations that they had. Or those that had been meant to be had.

“Shanu, humare liye toh tum log hi sab kuch ho. Jo bhi karo, apna khayal rakhna.”

In another world and some other time, Shlok might have laughed it off as melodrama, hugged her, and taken his leave. That night, he just nodded and left for the station. Just before boarding his compartment he smiled. A betel stain now decorated a previously clean corner on the platform. “Maybe places change too. And with them, the way people think about those places.” Thinking thus Shlok shook his head, boarded S13, flung his bag on the upper berth, and proceeded to do so himself.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Passage of Time

With the end of a designated time period at any place comes an overwhelming desire to dissect the time spent. An urge, if you may, to analyse the developments that took place and find out the reasons why mistakes were committed in a fashion they were. A craving to thank those who were integral in the process of growth and a willingness to forgive all those who stood in its way. Today, I stand on a threshold (a precipice would be more appropriate term though), fearing what lies beyond and wondering at how I landed myself in such a precarious position. As I prepare myself for a new phase in my life, with new people and new ambitions, I can not help but look back at the last 4 years and think about what went the right way and what went wrong. This is an effort to bridge the gap between thought and understanding. An effort to comprehend rather than to just state facts. An effort that is more personal than anything that I have written in quite a while. An effort to learn from the past rather than just ignore it. An effort than needs your patience rather than appreciation. I hope you can bear with me for a while.

My stay at Gandhinagar bore the burnt of cynicism from the very start. The feeling that I was meant to be part of something bigger than what came my way had soon found its way to the bottom of my gut. What turned out to be even more injurious is the fact that I inculcated a sadistic attachment to it. No matter how hard I tried to root it out, I always failed to muster enough motivation and courage. This parasite fed on almost all my talents. Or so I believed at such a time. The place became a part of me rather than me becoming a part of her. In desperation, I began to think that the war had been lost before the battle had been fought.

There was an almost desperate urge for recognition, its definition being highly conventional and orthodox. Having tasted success in a dilute form earlier on in life, I had come to expect it, almost with a certain degree of arrogance. Again, success here has highly conventional connotations. Having being denied that, I sort of went into a state of denial. I rejected myself as nobody, hardly capable of achieving anything that I dreamt of. However, the arrogant Me always thought that I was chucking it away, even when I was capable of otherwise. This irony must be understood properly. I tried for nothing, expecting myself not to be capable of it. At the same time I believed I COULD have changed things. I tried to find poetry in tragedy and the consequences of this sad effort were both endearing and disastrous. Perhaps we can discuss them one at a time. Yes? I can see you nodding in agreement.

On the personal front, I became more confident of myself. I began to discover things in me that had previously been either unknown or subdued. I developed myself in a fashion that was alien to the previous me. At least in some ways. I read more, saw more, wrote more, and listened more. I became more attuned to what went on around us and how I could do something about it. Some people have the habit of calling this change unnatural and forced. But I see this as a gradual development of my mental faculties which is only as forced its physical counterpart. In short, I can only say that I matured and became a better person (not to mention that my confidence gained a tremendous boost in several spheres). I just hope hope hope that is true. I am too afraid to accept the other story. My friends probably bear testimony to this belief. I have been lucky enough to not be deserted by any one of them when I needed them. That, I guess, speaks a lot about what kind of a person one is. In case these personal developments were predestined to occur at such a time and place, then so be it. I have nothing more to add.

But there were some unwanted penalties in the process. My professional, or more precisely academic, life suffered a heavy blow. I succumbed to an image that belied what I really was. Grades suffered and I could find older reports jeering at me like unwanted skeletons in one’s closet. Time and again, I lamented over the losses but surprisingly did little to improve the situation. Thought gained precedence over action and planning over confidence. The worst thing I did was trying to find excuses for my sorry state of affairs. So while after much tribulation and suffering, even though I did manage to understand that they key to salvation is taking responsibility for all the errors in one’s life, I never managed to muster the courage to do so. And for once, I accept my shortcoming. My flaw. Would I be willing to go back in time and script a new page in my history book? I am not too sure about that. Time has a way of getting back to the same point in the present, no matter how hard you try to change the past. It’s just what lies beyond that holds any hope.

Those who know me would agree to the fact that the past few months have been difficult. I found myself in the same position all over again, albeit after a gap of 4 years. I broke in places I did not know existed after all these years. More often than not, I thought about giving up. Again. I owe it to my people for helping me weather this episode. And just their faith and trust warrants that I fight it out this time. That I stop playing the part of a tragic hero and get on with life. Most importantly, that I give my best shot at whatever I do and then wait for things to fall in place and my ducks to line up in a row. There is no other way that a life can be lived and enjoyed. One can not have everything one desires. Moreover, looking too far ahead into the future only makes you squint a lot more often, an expression that is so much like distaste.

While returning back, all I have to show for the most formative years of my life are bits and pieces of paper. Everything else has been discarded for fear of throwing up an unwanted episode, some undesired memory, or a painful decision. The entire period seems to have shrunk to the space between a notebook, some receipts, extravagantly coloured Post-It notes, playlists to suit all of my moods, a handful of postcards, an assortment of passport size photographs, some deliciously inane scraps of paper, and some insanely huge letters. Memories are a wonderful thing if you don’t have to deal with the past. Because if you have to, they have the tendency of turning into a baggage. The “residual desire”, as one of my friends puts it, becomes too enticing to conveniently move forward. Its time I realized that events, people, and incidents are all like milestones in our lives. If we keep harping on them, there is no way to move beyond. I hope the enlightenment lasts long enough.

As I script an end to this monologue, I hope the journey has not been just bad. I hope that there are some people out there who are not only happy for me but proud of me. I hope that their belief in my wasted self gives me the strength and motivation to fight this new war and emerge triumphant at the end of it. I hope that it proves to be the guiding light in my life and prevents me from losing my way again. More importantly, I hope I have given them more reasons to be happy about then I have given them for disappointment. I think I am a selfish person. But I feign concern so that the few people I value think otherwise. This is the only way in which I fool them. This is the only way I deceive them. I hope they don’t mind. I am indeed sorry for any cause of grievance I gave you in the short time I did know you. And thus, I rest my case.