Monday, November 05, 2012

The Wall

(and a somewhat coherent attempt at explaining the flimsy reasons for its untimely existence.)
I find it rather strange to note that most of the people I know or claim to ‘once’ have known have either spent some time abroad, are planning to, or are staying over there right now. You will realise how spooky (read uneasy) it can get for a person like me if you manage to reach the end of this personal rant. These are the people have had the chance to experience an alien culture and value and belief system that are so fundamentally distinct from ours that they are bound to arouse curiosity even in the most indifferent of people. They have been able to cross over to the other side and find out for themselves what the hoopla is all about. Do you think they have some interesting insights to share with us? Some myths to bust or reaffirm? Grass is always greener on the other side, right? What can we learn from them not by way of imitation but through comprehension and assimilation? Granted, some of these people are pretty much ignorant of the singular nature of their experience and have reduced their good fortune to planning on buying an Audi. (And this is when I am not even trying to sound condescending.) But I am pretty sure even their sub-conscious has registered the obvious and I am willing to bet that that natty bastard is smug in the secret knowledge of it.

We all grew up in a country that has been ‘trying’ to shirk off the burden of its colonial past. But since it has always been in the process of doing so, without quite managing to pull off the feat, I believe this colonial hangover has imbued us with a vague longing for western ideals and culture – those bastions of modern civilisation, forward thinking, secular progress, and (often unsustainable) development. Most people, realising the inherent complications that the fulfilment of this particular desire entails, have come to exact satisfaction not through a pound of flesh but by means of weekly ‘trips’ to the now ubiquitous malls and multiplexes, ordering their pizzas and tacos in English even when the cashier is perfectly well versed in the vernacular, and splurging obscene amounts of money on Levi’s jeans and P.T. shoes that the guys on the other side call sneakers. Others have assimilated into their lives some of the very pertinent (and not so relevant) lessons that such an exposure, vicarious or otherwise, should teach us. They talk of liberty, equality, and brotherhood. Fewer still are the people who have managed to translate this vague yearning into concrete reality. They swear to the fact that their experiences have opened up their minds and helped them grow into more mature individuals. This is all very good since it helps them sleep peacefully at the end of the day. Isn’t that what ultimately counts as important?

Afflicted by a chronic case of indecision and conflict in almost every aspect of my life, I have been, however, unable to determine which way my loyalties lie. For instance, I consume literature and all sorts of media in English, find it difficult to express the most intimate of my thoughts in Hindi, and know more about western demographics than the intricacies of the Hindu caste system. And yet, I look upon malls as ‘modern melas’, treating them with suspicion for being the torchbearers of capitalism, and insist that consumption is evil. On someone’s 25th birthday, I had enunciated the relevance of the various ‘ashrams’ in our lives, as if the well worn Hindu grooves of studentship, marriage, and late-life detachment make perfect sense to me. You are probably going to say that assimilation has always been the hallmark of our civilisation and that I am proceeding along the right track. I shouldn't have any problems as long as I try to analyse everything through the lens of reason (which, I must confess, is definitely a very western construct.) But this is where I must digress.

My dilemma is exacerbated by the realisation that I have had just about enough of every kind of vicarious experience. One is likely to agree, right? I masturbate to videos of strange women I have found on the internet, I claim to love someone who lives 10,000 miles away, and, hell, I am dictating my thoughts to the tantrums of a language that wouldn’t make sense to nearly 90 of the 100 people living in this country. Second hand goods make me feel like I am aping blindly. Is it even possible to comprehend what lasting impression something as complicated as an experience, a place, or a culture can have on you without knowing it first hand? No winder, this, that in the presence of such duplicity, I feel like I have donned the garb of an impostor. And the one thing that I have tried doing consciously all my adult life is to keep myself from being pretentious. Which brings me to what triggered this diatribe.

Every time I come across people I know regaling the converted with tales of places they have been to, people they have met, and insights they have come across as genuine, I feel the walls closing in on me very quickly. There is a strange sense of unease that originates without reason, pretends it has one in the vague longing I talked of earlier, and soon prevents me from listening to anything. It’s spontaneous, untamed, and very effective. I keep hearing; the words go in, and make sense. I even mumble all the right things at the right places. But I fail to relate to them. Things would have been manageable had this status quo been the norm. But the same discomfort assumes the guise of a guardian whose only duty is to protect me from the wiles of these second hand narratives. It whispers into my ears, “You can’t know them and there is no way you can ever be a part of them. You will always be an outsider looking in. Why let yourself be tortured by others because of this unfulfilled craving?” These real or imagined voices compel me to maintain my distance from agents of social evil, like awkward telephonic conversations, ‘trips’ planned by friends, facebook, and practically every other form of social interaction. I sequester myself from all kinds of contact and communication, deeming myself to be safe in the ignorance of my isolation, although I know better.

I concoct this fragile peace and seem to depend on it for my sustenance. It is, I guess, the easier way out, the way of an escapist. I wish I could categorise my feelings as envy or jealousy, but such emotions have a sharp sting instead of this dull ache that has found home in me. An ache that is aware of the price I have to pay for this delicate truce. Conscious of the things one loses in the fire. As another brick in the wall is quietly pushed into place and I feel one of my turns coming on, I wonder whose interests my self-appointed guardian is looking after. I don’t build the wall, no. but I keep myself from tearing it down and that, dear strangers, makes all the difference. When it comes to the tricks our mind plays on us, it is all smoke and mirrors.

[And here's a more roundabout way of saying exactly the same thing.]