Sunday, February 21, 2010

Side Notes on Spirituality

In his book Above Average, Amitabha Bagchi writes: “… I was made to realise that to write about people meant having to leave oneself behind and enter into them. It was also the earliest point in my life when I learned that to love someone also entailed roughly the same thing”. The point being made here is multi pronged. Bagchi comments on the skills that a good writer should possess – detachment from oneself and one’s ego. But then he links that observation with the most personal emotion – love. For anyone. Family. Friends. Partner. How does one detach oneself from one’s ego, that purest us, and yet retain one’s identity? One’s style? One’s character? How do we look through someone else’s eyes without losing our own insight? Perhaps it’s more about losing our own perspective and gaining another in the bargain. Yes, perhaps.

I think that this remark has been the guiding light for this attempt at writing. Needless to say, I am sure I have failed, though admirably, at bringing out the essence of his comment due to my limited understanding of it. However, I tried. And it is the fringe benefit of failure that having done so, I was reasonably satisfied.


Satya was in no immediate hurry to retrace his steps back home. Without much hue or cry, the dusk had surrendered to the smog that hung like an adoring cloud over the city and a thick fog had made itself comfortable in all its nooks and corners – side benefits of development. The last of the labourers slugging it out at the DMRC construction sites could be seen making their way back to their respective hutments in lesser known areas of the metropolis. They wore fluorescent orange and green jerseys over their soiled woollens and a few of them had even forgotten to take off their yellow hard hats. Some carried mutton and cheap desi liquor in black polythene packets – all arrangements made for a night of drunken revelry – and looked conspicuously smug. Too smug for their own comfort, actually.

Satya, himself, was dressed peculiarly and, let’s face it, inappropriately for the cold weather. A khadi kurta with jeans and a brown pullover. A dirty light brown shawl was draped around his shoulders and seemed to be the only credible defence against the inconsiderate chill. It gave him the look of a jhola krantikari and one would be hard pressed to say whether the man drove the image or the image drove the man. A cheap cigarette smouldered in his hands, dying a slow death. Curious onlookers gave him a second glance, and then a third. It would be difficult to state whether he was oblivious to them. However, what can be said for sure is that his gait did not give him away. He measured his steps, just like he was in the habit of doing all the time, and shivered occasionally.

On reaching the bus stop he pondered for some moments. Walking back was an option worth considering. But given the fact that home was still a far way off and that the wind had begun to get to him, he decided to wait for the next 520. It arrived earlier than expected and he hurriedly got onto the almost empty bus. Having paid his fare, he looked out of the window. The glass was murky and stained with betel juice – a lone streak of it cutting right across the middle of the window – probably a gift from the previous occupant of the seat in front of him. It hampered his view of the world outside – now sodden with mist – and so he shifted in his seat and busied himself with observing the few occupants of the 520.

A cool dude wannabe sat two rows ahead of him, earplugs glued securely to his ear. He wore patchwork jeans and a lot of gel in his hair. Satya strained his ears and was surprised to catch some tunes which seemed vaguely like Floyd’s “Money”. Having been stumped in his appraisal of the ‘cool dude’, he proceeded to dissect the personality of the girl sitting diagonally across him, in the ‘Ladise’ seat. She was dressed simply and stared straight ahead, right out the windscreen. Something about her posture and demeanour suggested that she was disturbed and Satya took a callous comfort in that realisation. She wore thick maroon and white bangles, sign enough that she had been married recently, with a green cardigan and a pair of hip hugging jeans to go along with them. Had it not been for that fact, Satya thought, he would have contemplated about her striking beauty. But now she was unavailable and any lecherous thoughts that belied his name were quickly done away with. “Hopelessly middle class”, he mumbled under his breath and tried to don a look of pure disdain. Besides, home was near.

He got off at an earlier stop, on a whim, and finally decided to walk the last kilometre. The road leading up to their colony had been freshly dug up to lay sewage pipes and the untimely deluge last night had ensured that he would have to hop-skip-jump his way back. Suddenly, the 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 police wallahs hanging around. One of them was taking out a golden retriever for a walk. Few loitered around, chatting, smoking, and mentally stripping any girl who happened to pass by. Everything was pretty much just the way Satya had left it. The only thing that seemed out of place was him. For a moment, he felt uncomfortable entering his own house. But then he filed away that thought for future reference, and rang the bell.

His mother apparated at the door almost immediately. She looked haggard and older than the last time he had seen her. He closed the door behind him and spoke with decision – something that added an ominous overtone to his voice.

“Hello Ma. How was the day? I hope Dad hasn’t gone to sleep already. I need to talk to you both.”

“Oh, no no. He is awake. He’s reading something. I will tell him you want to talk. Will you eat something?”

“Yeah, I will. What have you made?”

“Dal and aloo gobhi.”

“Great! Let me just wash my face. I will eat in the kitchen. Don’t bother with setting the table.”

We must digress here and dwell a bit upon why such a conversation had been necessitated in the first place. It had been 5 months since Satya had left his job. “My heart is in it no more” – was supposedly the reason why such a drastic measure had been undertaken. Brows furrowed, moustache tingling with excitement, his father had pointed out that even after six years of wandering around aimlessly, he still had no inkling about what he wished to make of his life. In a burst of rage and righteous anger, he had pointed out how Satya, 31, almost broke, unmarried, and unemployed, did not consider it a shame to be a liability for his parents rather than becoming an asset. Infuriated by such a clinical dissection of his financial sensibilities, he had walked out in a fit and had returned only late at night, using his key to smuggle himself in. Had he his own house or had Gandhi not been married, he might have contemplated once or twice before swallowing his pride. But fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony; Satya had thereon bided his days by leaving the house early in the morning and coming back only when he was certain his father must have retired for the day. So tonight, when he returned earlier than usual, and thereafter expressed a desire to talk to Sharmaji, his mother raised her wispy eye brows, blinked twice in close succession in order to appraise the substantiality of the statement and then relayed the needful to the concerned before proceeding towards the kitchen.

“Your mother tells me you wanted to talk. What’s it about now?” his father enquired gruffly when he had finished eating. Satya took his time wiping his hands on the grimy towel his father used before settling himself in the chair, shifting a bit in order to make himself comfortable, and then speaking his thoughts with such ease it seemed as if he had been practising them all this time. His tone, however, was laced with sarcasm, something his parents, fortunately, were impervious to. All they could decipher in it was arrogance mixed with irresponsibility.

“Your remarks that night have led me to this decision. I am sure you are not going to approve of it, as has been your habit. But please let me finish before you voice your concerns. I understand that I should not be jobless. Not when I am 31 and a liability for my aging parents. Therefore, I have applied for a position close by. It’s not a menial clerkship but neither is it something which Ma’s friends at the kitty party can wow their wow’s over. They’re paying me decent money and I am okay with that. I shall move out of here and take up lodgings at a room Gandhi has recommended. It’s not lavish but has all the basic amenities in place. I will be just 10 minutes away, in case you need me. That is as far as my current situation is concerned. I understand that Ma has been fretting over my ever increasing age and the continued dearth of marriage proposals that such a development instigates. You, Papa, have yourself been losing weight over this issue. The indecision, of course, needs to be done away with. Therefore, I have decided, once and for all, to not marry at all. But I might think about adopting a child when the time is right. And when I feel I am ready. Not now though. That’s all I had to say.”

Sharmaji looked as if he was unsure whether it was his own son he sat talking to while his wife seemed as if she had been slapped for breathing too loudly. Satya had anticipated such a response and sought to quickly get out of the predicament in which he had put himself and his parents in. He added hastily, “Please take some time to think about this. I know it is not easy. But for me, it seems the only way to proceed forth.”

“Has Gandhi put you up to this?” Sharmaji enquired, hoping against hope that such a line of thought was not original.

“No, Papa. It’s just me. I have been thinking about this for some time now. For a year at least. This last job was the final straw. You would do me a big favour by not playing the blame game. By attributing the rationale and the consequences of this choice to just me. Not Ma. Not Gandhi. Not the upbringing or anything else. ”

“What will you do? How will you manage? We can’t die without seeing our grandchildren, can we? And what about you? You can’t live alone, no matter what you feel. You need a family to be happy,” his mother added, hoping to add some weight to her husband’s retort, but only earning an ill deserved scorn in response.

“It’s all your doing. I had warned you of letting him take stupid decisions from the very start of this self-realisation. He had to end up being the wreck he is now. Of course, there’s no going back for him.”

“That’s the middle class mentality I have been trying to shrug off all these years,” Satya seethed. “There is life beyond the nuclear unit and the family. Everywhere I look around, people seemed so afraid of realising their hopes that they tie themselves down and surround themselves with the only certainty they possess – family. The impossibility of action is so supreme that we have coined a new term for it – tolerance. Is this why you worked so hard towards educating us? So that we could become drones and make more than you ever made?”

Sharmaji was in no mood for a discourse on the subject of the great Indian middle class. “This is what comes of reading too much crap with no sense of direction. You get too many ideas and before you know, they have clouded your mind to such an extent that it’s impossible for you to take a stand. Stop living in this dream world of yours. How many of those hopes have you realised anyway? And if it were not for this very certainty, you would be out there, on the streets”, he blurted out.

“Maybe so. And hence my decision to move out. But at least I am not refusing to see what is staring at me in the face. I am not living in a cocoon.”

“You are beyond reason. I’ll let you realise what the real life is like. Of course, you have been at the receiving end of it for quite some time now. You seem to have taken a sadistic liking to your indecision. It can only end in disaster. But I am not wasting any more time on this conversation. You will come to your senses, more sooner than later. I will wait for you to tell me about how much of your self you have realised and how many dreams or hopes were murdered along the way,” Sharmaji thus concluded his end of the conversation and left in a humph.

“Satt, how long will this continue? If you don’t know what you want, at least listen to us. It might help, if nothing else,” Satya’s mom pleaded with his unruly son.

“I am going to sleep Ma. I will move out my stuff by the week’s end. Despite all I said, you know I care for you. It could be no other way. Even if I don’t make a public display out it,” he said, almost on the brink of his tears. Realising his helplessness, he got up and went to his room, making sure to latch it behind him. He then plumped down on his bed and cried his heart out. Outside, his mother could hear him stifle his sobs, between her own, and wondered what could have gone so wrong so as to render him thus.

Things hadn’t been the same always, no matter what Sharmaji would like to believe. Satya had not scraped through school (though his mother always thought he could have done better) and had gone on to pursue a vocational degree from a decent institution. Everything was set for a life of ‘certainty’ and tradition – another middle class dream on the verge of realisation. Somewhere along the way, though, he had begun to detest his middle class identity and the fetters with which it bound him.

More an idealist than a man of reason, he had come to see his adulthood as a phase of no nonsense, devoid of innocence, pleasure, pure joy, and most importantly, blind consumption or consumerism. He realised, however, his incompleteness as a person to attain his objectives, and strove to overcome it. One of the means through which he did that was reading. As he did so, the Hindu ideal of renunciation began to make more and more sense. But, unfortunately, his interpretation of the scriptures was a bit awry. (Someone would say that it was to be expected from a non-Brahmin). So, his flight was more a withdrawal, in conflict with the peaceful renunciation that Hinduism proscribes, wherein the breadwinner, his duties done, prepares the ground for his descendants and retreats to a life of meditation. That, in its truest sense, actually ensures order and continuity in the world. However, Satya’s philosophy of withdrawal served the purpose of diminishing him intellectually and rendering him incompetent to respond to challenges, thereby stifling growth. Additionally, it also freed him of responsibility, something which gradually became an addiction. He failed to understand that his inaction depended upon the action of others.

A breath of fresh air did come around though. But it did more harm than good. Incorrectly interpreting his understanding of love and refusing to rest his faith in any other, Satya even distanced himself from the one thing that had challenged his abandonment – Avantika. What had started off as an infatuation in school, had blossomed into a passionate love affair during his formative years – time spent in college. However, he was the first person in his family to attempt a relationship of this sort, and nothing in his social or cultural education had offered him any clues as to how to behave when in love. He sought to refute all set norms and assumed that the freshness would cause things to fall in place – often not the best approach to emotions.

Little did Satya realise that his fight against his inheritance would end up defining his character more than anything else. Had he known, he would have stayed away from the trappings of love. The sudden transition from the security of caste equations, traditions, and rituals, to the independence and casteless world that he came to inhabit in college lulled him into believing that his mind could be an extension of the same. So while he read about feminism and felt inspired by the teachings of Vinobha Bhave, the feudal world that he had grown up in reared its ugly head every now and then. While he harped on the importance of empathy and intellectual growth, his philosophy of renunciation and self-cherishing fed his ego. While he championed modernity and rational thought, he couldn’t help taking refuge in conservative views and ancient wisdom whenever they were challenged by his own instincts. And while he went on about detachment and self realisation, he shuddered every time Avantika echoed his thoughts.

But gradually the cracks had begun to show. Satya’s passage from his middle class values to the ‘revolutionary’ ideals was wrought with conflict. With himself. The nerve required to carry on regardless of it wasn’t obvious to everyone. Only those who knew about the tremendous strain required to absorb divergent notions could appreciate his tenacity. For as long as he had endured, his actions had been the result of this perpetual struggle. A weaker person would have broken down under the stress and taken comfort from the security that familiar ground – family, clan, caste – offered. Satya had merely retreated unto himself, refusing to accept defeat, but wary of his own perpetual rudderlessness.

Avantika, tired of this relentless onslaught, had eventually decided to move on. She could have accepted him as an ordinary individual, seeped in either tradition or modernity, but not as someone who was unsure of his footing, endlessly involved in a clash of values. They seem to be going nowhere, endlessly engaged in an elaborate game of hide and seek. “You surprise me, but you surprise me too much,” Avantika had said softly, trying not to cry. “Yes, I guess it must be hard,” was all Satya could muster in response.

It took her some time but she adapted to her new life. Within a year of leaving Satya, she married Ritwick, a mutual acquaintance, who was less prone to bouts of denial and self deprecation. Despite all appearances to the contrary, she was a normal girl who needed to be cared for. Satya’s idea of romance had seemed too idealistic, fraught with disappointments and misunderstandings, to be something she could depend on.

She made it a point to invite Satya to the wedding in order to emphasise how essential it was for them to take it all in their stride. How essential it was for him to let go. He had smiled while his photograph was clicked with the couple, but inwardly the shutters had already come crashing down. Correspondence dwindled to a minimum and now, 3 years later, he could not remember the last time he had spoken to her. While Avantika refused to dwell on the past and enforced ignorance upon her in order to make the most of her marriage, Satya scrutinised the demise of their love with alarming regularity. Yet he never spoke about the same, lest it confirm his own fears – that he had lost the battle against his own self.

Things had not gone from bad to worse. But they had definitely stopped getting better. Satya switched jobs sooner than he asked his mother to change the menu, always coming up with some lame excuse for doing so. He lived frugally, though sometimes he wondered, whether he had the choice. His denial of all responsibility and commitment helped him whenever he was in doubt. He read voraciously and, often, without discrimination. Sometimes the words he paid homage to would come alive and start swimming in front of his eyes. Such moments were rare but they brought more clarity of thought than what he ever achieved through contemplation. He deliberately lived with the kind of contradictions which would not let him have peace of mind. Life passed him by while he was looking for it in other places. There were no regrets, however, just painful compromises. That is until he had the altercation with his father.

That weekend Gandhi came to help Satya move his stuff to the one room apartment both of them had finalised. As he finished packing his things for one last time, he had an urge to go up to his old room on the terrace. It was almost dark and Gandhi grumbled a bit about someone coming over for dinner at his house. “It’ll just take me a minute. I’ll be back soon. You wait here,” Satya said as he disappeared up the stairs.

The terrace was devoid of any human presence but bustling with life because of the hundreds of plants her mother cared for like her own children. He remembered Bruzo lolling in the Sun while he studied for his Bio exam several winters ago. When a lot more gullible and naïve, he had spent umpteen nights on the terrace, walking, listening to cheesy songs being played out on the late night radio show or his cranky walkman, and cursing the tractors for causing a racket each time they trundled over the speed breaker near his house. With a disarming chuckle, he even recalled hiding paper clippings of scantily dressed models under his bed, and putting them to good use. Then there was this instance when Gandhi had admonished him for being too uptight, for being too conventional in his approach. How much he would like to walk down that corridor once again and peep at himself through the keyhole! Had he been successful in shrugging off the fetters now?

When he had enough of such images in his mind, he slowly closed his eyes and spread his arms. Ever so slowly, he turned around in a circle. In that minute of abandon, he could imagine everyone he had ever known smile at him, cheering him on, wishing him their own share of luck, and letting him know that they loved him. In that moment of happiness, he embraced it all. He embraced them all.


End Note – I must confess that several parts of this story owe their inspiration to excerpts from the following books. And they, I guess unfortunately, are the only things original about it.

Above Average by Amitabha Bagchi, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana by Pankaj Mishra, INDIA: A Wounded Civilisation by V. S. Naipaul, The Scent of India by Pier Paolo Pasolini

Also, the phrase – Hopelessly Middle Class – is not mine. The author would recognise this assertion.


  1. The piece seemed to have lost its way somewhere in the middle, only to be rescued in the end. Leaves a nice taste. Needless to say, I know what's being talked about.

    I do have problems with the long paragraphs and the lack of conversation as usual. Why do the other characters in your writings always remain part of the background?

  2. Where would that middle be waise?

    And you do realise conversations can do justice to stories whose span is quite short. Not for stories which span over half a lifetime. Still, as you can see, I tried.

  3. "We cannot walk alone.

    And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

    We cannot turn back."

    -- speech "I Have A Dream" by Martin Luther King