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.


  1. A very honest post. That's the best part. Unlike some of your earlier posts, this one seemed just right without much conversation.

    Now, some problems:

    1) Aren't Akanksha and Shlok very recent urban names? I don't think many of our parents' generation would have been named thus. What say?

    2) Even if that is the case, "Ritwick had hardly spoken a word to Shlok " sounds weird. Shouldn't it be "Ritwick had hardly spoken a word to his father?"

  2. Correction: "Ritwick had hardly spoken a word to his son." What I mean is that they can't be talked about at the same level, can they? Their relationship is what's significant.

  3. Honest? Ha ha, if you say so. But yes, I felt content after writing this one. Usually there are highs and lows. This one was a constant throughout.

    The problems? Yes, yes. I see your point. I have made the changes too.


  4. Honest. Yes. Writing style? Average I'd say. You have written better. But you know that. It got me thinking on several fronts, some of which I'll try to tackle through other means of electronic conversation (gaah).

    You're definitely right about the people changing bit. They do so without knowing it. Places show symptoms of change. People change quietly. Which becomes all the more difficult to gauge.

  5. you find the writing style average perhaps because it's very different from what i have written recently. the post hardly pays any attention to details. well, it does so but only in moderation. there are no lengthy descriptions of smoke rings waltzing their way around a room. and i used conversations for the first time since ages.

    style. different? definitely. average? well, so be it.

    about starting a thought process on several fronts? that is always my intention. it just doesn't work most of the time though.