Saturday, April 23, 2011

I have to be there...

He boarded the Metro at the Rajiv Chowk Metro Station. He was retuning home after seeing a friend. He felt not himself. A cloud of expectation hung above him. It was about her. With every passing day, he felt the absence of her presence from his moments more and more keenly. He saw a bunch of young boys board the train. They were very young, about 21 or so, and looked like any other Delhi youngster. Their hair rose in the middle in a symmetrical nod to anti-gravity that paid obeisance to some obscure god of fashion. Their hands were ringed by black beads that were dying to appear goth but were merely faux-religious. The boys had beads of perspiration lining their foreheads. They smelled of energy and looked restless in an appealing way. He found himself thinking of them as his children, their future, how lovely this age is, one discovering new ways of being. He wished she was by his side. He wanted to whisper in her ears the joys of raising a child who looks for you in a crowd, and then grows up to be an adolescent who runs away from you at all times. The joys of parenting. It was both wonderful and different to be thinking this. Just a few weeks ago, he would have eyed the same bunch and reminisced about his own adolescence. People and places took him back, until some time ago. Now he imagined them partaking in his life and settling into the home that he and she would build. Now it was all about the future.

He rested his head against the glass and closed his eyes. The train whizzed past the urban sprawl of Delhi with the sophisticated lady on auto-record asking you every five minutes to "mind the gap". Such politeness, he thought to himself. Men and women of all hues entered and left this space, and he would likely not see any of them again. It was strange. One passed moments of closeness for but a few minutes and then went ahead not just on his way but with his life. And all this was all right. It was how things were. The train halted at Mayur Vihar Extension and he saw a woman enter the compartment, jostling for space. "There is no space. My God! See," she said to her husband. She looked around for what he imagined was solace and when her eyes met his, he smiled at her broadly. She took a moment to register that he was not an acquaintance and then smiled back, in a way that was both unsure and grateful. He looked away for a bit, feeling the splendour of relief he imagined he had brought her. It was very subtle. The flyover outside rose and dropped in his gleaming eyes. He looked back at her. She was talking to her husband. I will not have this moment again with her, he told himself. Should I be grateful this instance for giving me this joy, or should I seek more, something similar with others? He was bounded by a rationality he sometimes found prohibiting, and wanted to touch some chord of human interaction that was both deep and flighty, so that it could form a casket of experience that would last him for some time. He waited.

The train reached Noida Sector 15 station. The compartment grew empty. People who had been standing found seats. Nearly everyone was listening to music. Some were resting with eyes closed. People all, he thought to himself. There was a watchman who carried a notebook that looked like it contained the entries of those who had visited the premises he guarded. There was a lady in a FabIndia dress who looked like she was waiting for a call that would define her tasks for the day. There was a salesman who wore a worried brow and sent frantic messages on his mobile. All strangers. Yet all vessels of moments that he could generate with them. He found himself strange. He was not like this earlier. He was not hungry. Now he was. He felt the need to define himself not in terms of one love, or one connection. He saw himself as a bunker where people's angst could be released. He was so hungry it showed in his eyes.

His thoughts returned to her. He did not want to possess her emotionally. He felt a gap in his love when he compared it with the received wisdom on love. He could be the perfect partner, for all purposes, he could be the perfect partner, yet he had a commitment to others. A baby on the opposite bench looked at him and chuckled. I have to be there for him, he told himself, and smiled. The baby looked elsewhere. I can love her, I can be with her, but I have to be around, he told himself. He was not sure who he wanted to be around for, but just at this moment, with the train reaching Noida City Centre, he knew he had to be around for the people in this compartment, on the station, in the lift, at the food counter below, those exiting the station, and the rest of them, the vast, unnumbered rest of them. I have to be there, he told himself, as he pointed to a woman whose dupatta was grazing the floor. She set it right but ignored him.

He heaved a sigh of weightiness and left the compartment.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The possibility

There were parts of him that were so used to being by himself that this new feeling could be no less than unsettling. He was very happy around her, especially in the way he portrayed a particular prototype of the relationship that he had always hoped for himself. He called her “sweetie” and “hon”, and whenever he did so, he felt a frisson that was laced with love but had edgier contours. When they exchanged messages, he felt masculine and exhibited himself in a way that played to conventional notions of chivalry. He was happy.

But he was also vulnerable. With friends, he felt the loss of a spontaneity. He attributed this to a general awareness and carefulness with everything. He could no longer be cavalier, he had a stake in things. Earlier, he saw himself as a benevolent patriarch who could dish out advice to all and sundry. The fact that he had never walked these roads provided his views a clear-eyed objectivity. Now he watched his step. He came to the realisation that people grow special in the course of things. Equations change, and so must the dynamics.

They met often. They made plans to meet out for dinner but invariably she would leave office early and he would find her waiting for him when he returned from office. It was a strange encounter. When he saw her cooped up in the watchman's chair, his first reaction would be surprise, maybe even distaste. Hadn't they spent all afternoon texting each other the elaborate plans for the evening? Hadn't he imagined to death what perfume to wear and what look to, when he met her? But there she was, awaiting him, as he walked in all tired and wilted from the day.

He would take her to his apartment and replay the act. Again, he felt the sudden onset of a gravitas that made him a little selfish for life. He could not be as giving with his friends anymore, because he had to reserve a part of himself for her. There were limits to his personality and he had to make sure he allocated enough to take care of everyone. Especially her.

He held her at the waist as she rolled her arms around his neck. They kissed. Sex was not part of today's programme. But around her, sex lost the connotations it held when he was by himself, acquiring simpler, more innocent meanings. When he softly bit her ear, it followed in the natural order of things, not something that acquires a life of its own. Their lovemaking was interspersed with moments of real tenderness, and when he kissed her forehead, he looked at her with such love she was overcome with emotion. The tears stayed in her eyes since he cupped them with his hands and kissed them.

Afterwards, they went to McDonalds, and ordered combo meals. She ate from his plate with an abandon that made him feel wanted. When he was about to put a sliver of French Fries in his mouth, she made a small noise and when he looked up, he saw her mouth open and eyes closed in the expectation of feeding her. He laughed a tiny laugh. She thought he was laughing at her childishness, and smiled. He knew he was laughing at how this person was beginning to take him out of himself in a matter of days. There is God, he told himself. Things have a logic to them that is best described as random.

With every meeting, he was growing surer of himself. He was investing more and more of himself in her. He knew he intellectualised everything to make sense of things. But within him existed a template that welcomed hurrahs of joy at the slightest instance, a template that was gravid with immense love. She made him acknowledge these with a certainty that he had lacked so far. He could shut his mind around her and believe in the randomness of things. It was possible. It was possible to live like the others.

A life-altering experience

He had hoped it would be a life-altering experience. All this time, he had expected a love so wholesome it would sweep him off his feet. Every day, he eyed girls longingly and often imagined them imbued with characteristics greater than they actually possessed. He would see a woman enter the lift at office and her cool femininity would be an almost physical presence that held the stultified air inside the elevator together.

When they finally met, it had been after weeks of online interaction. He had located her on a site that offered "stable connections in an age of instant gratification". Her profile was called hafnium and she defined herself as "malleable and ductile, like the metal". He thought and hoped that she meant this in an intellectual way, and was relieved to realise, on chatting with her, that she did.

At first, she was cagey, not willing to reveal her real self and making up all manner of excuses to avoid speaking to him. She asked him for his mobile number but did not reveal hers. One time, she logged off abruptly at a point in the conversation that was serious and well-going, so that he seethed, and wrote her a scathing mail, calling her names and debunking her profile as fake.

But every time, she returned and was apologetic. And he, who had waited too long for a connection, and was no paragon of stability himself, understood her behaviour and attributed it to latent anxieties. Perhaps it was this lack of propriety, a sense that they were buddies who could give each other shit and live to give some more, that cemented their bond. Their conversations became more relaxed, and finally, they decided to meet.

She lived in a posh locality in the city's south. He worked in the suburb. They decided to meet after office hours at a CCD in Westside Park, a hip place frequented by youngsters. When he reached the place, she was already there, dressed in a red halter neck that she had indicated would be her identification mark. He looked at her. The first thing that crossed his mind was how different she looked from the photograph she had sent him. That girl was skinny with a look that betrayed not a care in the world. This one looked like she had spent a few years running after an irate boss.

They ordered coffee. Every time they did anything that involved interaction with someone beyond the two of them, he felt different, more ponderous. With her, he felt a lightness that smacked of a lack of responsibility for anything. She was sweet, talking to him with childlike enthusiasm. It seemed to him that she trusted him and that he could trust her too. It was about nothing more than how forward she was in her ability to make him feel comfortable around her.

He knew her, he felt he had known her a long time and this was merely a formality that they had decided to follow through with. He asked her to come to his house, an apartment in the city's suburb, close to his office. She agreed and in the auto, held his arm with a firmness that made him feel special and protective towards her. When they reached his house, she kissed him with a sweetness that was more tender than sexual. This made him bold and he kissed her back, and they lay in each other's arms in silence for some time on the sofa in the drawing room, with the tubelight illuminating everything in a soft white hue.

He nudged himself within the folds of her neck and she sat on his chest. They giggled in a way he had not giggled in a long time and he was surprised to rediscover this side of himself. She unbuttoned him and kissed him softly. He smiled, and his smile was a mix of pleasure and tenderness -- a sensation he could not quite place, and which was slightly unsettling. She took him in her mouth and he could not decide if this was great or some sort of a climb down from a lofty ideal in his head. He had come to love her, he suddenly realised, in the course of the evening, and was not sure if this act was cementing or diluting that. He felt he ought to be true to himself and tell her to stop but that prospect opened the gulf of some unknowable fears within himself and he decided to let her go ahead with it.

Afterwards, she was as sweet as before but he felt the collapse of something fragile. He was the same with her, but the glorious white of the room had taken on menacing undertones. He was not sure why. He had read too may stories that played to this stereotype of the male reverting to himself after sex, thus proving the worst apprehensions of women. But what he felt was not that. What had transpired was love at first and something animal-like later, and he could not quite place the two together. He was happy and relieved and spent, yet his heart felt light in a way that he was not used to with her. He felt the burden of sexual encounter clouding their subsequent meetings and an unwritten contract calling for a certain ...what was it? seriosuness? joylessness? answerability? between them because of what had happened. He questioned that. He was no chauvinist. He just preferred how things were up to now, even if that was not sustainable.

The thing was running according to script, but all along he had expected the numinosity of his expectation to meet with reality. Perhaps it was all just in his mind. But he had such notions of things that it was difficult to transact reality. He was such a romantic. He had hoped it would be a life-altering experience.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The joy and the terror

He walked inside the office with trepidation. It was the first day of his internship. Though he had worked as a journalist earlier, the last year had dulled his working senses since all he had to do was wake up in the morning and dress up for the classes which were conducted a half mile from where he slept. It was one extended event, from sleep to study to lunch to back to room and there was no scope for gravitas, the kind that could easily envelop a situation such as this. He watched his movement. There was a gleaming edge to everything. Even the washroom was all five-star with self-working taps and elaborate flower arrangements. He seemed to have walked right into some Hollywood production. There was a studied silence to the place with people propped on their chairs, very serious-looking, and going about their work with what looked like calm precision but could as well be confused firefighting. He was smiling throughout. He wanted to charm but did not want to do so with his typical glibness. Better to let it spring from some deep certainty than smooth, on-the-spot delivery, he told himself. It was important to settle down. The tendency to rush -- in which he hoped that he would learn and absorb in spite of himself, not because -- would not work over the long term. Two months was sufficiently long term to try new mindsets and yet not long enough to drown in the misery of expectation. He was asked to deal with a young woman in HR and she guided him though the steps. Most of the day would pass in getting things to speed, a login id, an access card, the nick-nacks of modern office life. There was nothing special about anything yet the very sentiment that nestled at the heart of this edifice drove one to overtly practical, but also at some level meaningful, purpose. Books lined every desk since this was a publishing house. He picked up one as he walked around, waiting to be hand-held to the next step. It was “Engineering Mathematics-II” and contained lovable examples of differential equations. Those examples seemed to emanate from a more complete frame of life. When his eyes ran over the formulas of integration, they emerged from the book and settled into a sediment in his brain where the template for them was set in some joyous love for their existence. It was a joy no smaller than any he recognized. And it was there, inside him, rekindled at the sight of dy over dx. Books always made him happy, but this latest feeling was not one he had experienced in some time. Too much love for the arty, or artsy, as he liked to see it. Even this moment might get trapped in sentimentality if he was not careful. He focused on what Hardy meant when he defined his love for pure maths as something that may not be “useful”. An end in itself, it speaks, it does speak to one. But even as this was happening, he was contemplating wrapping this experience with the gift of foreknowledge that comes both before and after an event has brought its fruits. Expectation is an awesome emotion. He could sense the moment in its entirety, in its thoughtful intermingling of his desires for the day. As if to say, this stays and returns from time to time. But its return is written in its last act and each such moment, as will happen and has happened, will bring its own memory along. He turned the book’s pages. Example 1.8 prompted him to open his notebook and solve it. There was a dreamlike quality to the way his hand moved and he arrived at the answer as if by magic. There was no will or force. It was guided by what, he wondered. There was a curious coming together of the past, one’s love for it, respect, the notion that things are purer in hindsight and the rest of it. Sedimentation of knowledge, and the school building. Mrs Sood (she didn’t even teach him math) and her smiling face, the saree, and the trees, the water cooler, the staircase. Everything came together and settled on the curvy integral sign. He looked up and the room, bathed in yellow light from the lamps in the ceiling, was empty as it waited for its occupants to return from lunch. Suddenly he felt a rush of terror, a streak of white hot joy at how everything stays. Today and tomorrow. Now and for all time. Across space and time. He wanted to stop. He did not want to stop.

Friday, April 08, 2011

He and she

They had been married seven years. The promise of their lives had been a mutual interest developed in business school. The love for entrepreneurship, she called it. They had both specialized in strategy in their second years and decided to launch their own startup in the IT space. For her the seven years since their marriage had been a blissful time whose memory was now an essential part of her. For him it had been a time of newness, of new challenges as one went about setting up the business and making a life for oneself. She defined herself in terms of their life together. For him, she made up one part--a very important part--but one part of their life together. She was his wife. He was her world.

And then he stopped working. He grew tired of all the running around and the hassles. He thought it better to go back to working at a regular IT company. She supported him. It made no difference to her. She saw their life as a beauteous extension of those heady initial days and nothing in their marriage had prompted her to question that. Oh, the seven years! She took more interest in the arts than he did. She read the papers with more vigour than he did. Her literary self grew in leaps and bounds and acquired a muscle she cherished knowingly. She was riding the back of a very powerful animal and the leash of that animal was in her husband’s hands.

For her life was all peaches. She was very generous. For him life could be compartmentalized. It was important to do so, he felt. It was in his nature but it was not in hers. They each had their own selves which they believed to be complementary to the other, but were really not.

So he stopped working at being an entrepreneur. She saw the reasons. They made perfect sense. He had been at it for seven years. But she felt a void suddenly. She felt the animal unleashed. She was dependent on him, his emphasis on work, his running around, to give meaning to her own varied interests. They were now orphaned. He had accepted an alternate view of the world, a world where the promise of things (entrepreneurship really, but she liked to think of it as wider and broader) could be frittered away and yet life carried on. She felt the loss of an anchor.

Suddenly she began living from day to day. She started finding reasons to be happy and acquired a glossary of words that she could throw around to sound intelligent in any conversation. She started developing her life around a mental standard that she was working on on the go. It was not as charming as earlier, not as spontaneous, but she was more stable, she felt safer. Only, she looked back with fondness for a more innocent time.

Their love grew different. It made little difference to him but for her it acquired a measuredness that she both admired and resented. She was now responsible for their happiness, she feared. She feared the complete loss of spontaneity. She wondered if she would be happier with another man, someone with whom she could go back to being her old self. But she loved him, and she also loved her new self.

Years later, she asked herself, would I revert to that original feeling? It mattered a great deal to her. She asked herself if she was selfish. But it was not that. She wanted her old life back, is all. Maybe all she wanted was the old feeling back. She was not sure, and she kept slipping between periods of painful certainty and an anodyne silence that didn’t last long because she was, she felt, in some state of shock.

She started to think of herself as separate from him but it did not work because they lived together. She thought she would be calmer if she stayed away but an experiment to do so at her mother’s filled her with life-sapping dullness and dread. She was in love with him, yet she was not. She could be perfectly happy if she rejigged her brain but it was beyond her. They still lived as a couple, doing things for one another, but she was not herself anymore. She was not herself in the way that she had come to define herself. If only she could find a way to live with the new her that she was discovering on the go, day to day.

She had her flaws. She felt she should do something constructive but always wanted spontaneity and a “love for things” to guide her decisions. That was erratic. And now she felt responsible. She resented that. She was selfish, she felt at times. But I only want “us” back, she said, and passed the blame. She liked her original self, but she also liked her new self, and wanted that the transition should have come at an opportune time and with smoothness. She cherished smoothness in all things. She wanted life to go swimmingly.

It was really about her, she thought. Her husband was only a conduit for her own persona, and he shouldn’t have to bear the burden. But she could not wrap her head around the new state of affairs. She also felt the rush to provide for them, if it came to that (she felt the need to reciprocate his efforts at running the house), would further dilute that old time, her former pristine self. She was fucked up, she told herself. But it had been wonderful.

Friday, April 01, 2011

The coffee shop

He went to the Nescafe at the corner every day at six. This was the time when there was a lull in the office, with the edits yet to arrive and the other parts of the edit page formatted and subbed and more or less done. Sometimes he was accompanied by Anil, who was a friend. But some days, Anil was too busy to accompany him and he went alone.
It was a small cosy place, with a few tables and light air-conditioning. Blown-up posters saying "Relaxation sold here" with white men and women laughing their hearts out dotted the walls so that one got the feeling that there were more people in the room than there really were.
He liked to go there by himself and order a muffin and a classic, short form for a basic, no-frills coffee. The guy at the serving counter went about serving quietly, taking orders and taking out coffees and teas and making burgers with calm precision. He really liked the serving guy, and wished they were friends.
It was on one such day, a non-descript, ordinary day really, when he went by himself, that he spotted her. She was there with a bunch of her friends, all of them whispering conspiratorially and laughing uproariously, huddled together. He always found this charming -- when girls did their girlie things and boys stood at the side watching them. It just seemed like how things ought to be.
He sat down at a table with a classic and opened the day's Indian Express. He always brought along the newspaper with him because he was wary of sitting by himself, doing nothing but observing the others. He felt he was being watched and maybe even pitied, and he hated that. He did not want people to think he was friendless, which he wasn't -- not really -- and read the paper to be occupied and also to be seen to be so.
He looked up and noticed that she was looking at him. He realised he was looking at her with that mix of curiosity and disinterest that one harbours when looking at oneself in the mirror. There was nothing penetrating in his stare, just surprise and wonder at watching someone who could be so different yet so similar to oneself. He stared at her eyes, her lips, her cheeks. Almost on cue, he tilted his head and ran his fingers on his face to remember the sensation of being himself. He imagined he was two people, both himself and herself, and seeing her comforted him. He imagined that he could live with himself, that the warmth of this new feeling would keep him in good stead. This girl, this someone who was really another him, would be his friend and help him in a crisis. These images, for no real reason he could fathom, brought him calm. She was standing there throughout, chatting up her friends and basically doing little.
It was not just this girl. People’s faces brought him to the verge of extreme emotion. He fell in irreversible expectation of how they would react when they got to know him. Would they like him? Would they love him? He wanted everybody to love him. He wondered if he didn’t have enough self-respect. But no, it was not that. If anything, he thought he possessed a very strong ego. He was also extremely sensitive and wanted lots and lots of unbridled love. A curious combination, he thought. His eyes found her again. She was leaving the coffee shop.
I can love anyone, he thought, as he saw her go away in the glass window. She was very regal, walking with a hint of a smile that carried the memory of some glorious moment. But, he wondered, as he eyed her almost-liquid frame, will my love for her, for anyone, ever match up to my love for mother? He was too attached to her -- it seemed he would not be able to survive another day if she wasn't around. She was there. Right now, she was a presence. Even though she was in another city, she was always a presence. She lived on the leaves that he touched before leaving the gates of his society in the morning. She existed in the draft of air that made its way through the grime and heat of a packed DTC bus. She sat upon the knobs that rested on the doors of the office’s washroom, and it was she who made the opening of the door an act of supreme dignity, so that at such a moment, he felt he was staring life in the face with a resolve that welcomed anything, nearly expected it. With her around, he felt the strength to live life from one moment to the next, and this knowledge imparted a bearable benevolence to the whole enterprise. The colours were brighter and the entire edifice of place and time was constructed for his exquisite pleasure. That was the knowledge that he sought in love, that was the knowledge that ma’s presence provided him.
He knew of a person who was so traumatized by his mother’s death that he had sought a medium to get in touch with her. But it had come to nothing. His thoughts turned to death. Where would Ma go when she died? He wondered if he would be reborn as her son in another life and know this love again. But he couldn't say for sure. Nobody really knew. And it scared him and also hurt him. He wished he could do something about how cruel things could be, but he did not know anyone who had outsmarted death. Perhaps he would have another mama in another life but what was the guarantee that that mama and he would share a love as powerful as this mama and he do? There was no such guarantee, and one could not but wait for one to learn. But wait for what? He had read as a child that when people died, they were reborn and when they died again, they were reborn again, and the cycle continued until one's actions had all been accounted for -- one's good deeds and sins -- and then one became a star, hanging for all time in the sky. When he had read this, he had hoped that his star should hang next to Ma’s. But all these were mere hopes and there was no way to know how things happened after one really died. He thought all this and wondered why must we be given this love, such strength of emotion, and then know it will go away. He could not imagine surviving the passing of that love, that bond.
Life is too much, he thought, as he saw a bunch of youngsters stream inside the coffee shop. He thought he ought to capture all this in a story. It was time. He had been expecting a push towards writing. When he read that people started writing at, say, 30, he felt a change must have come into their lives, a break from the past---a passing into full adulthood with not just the realisation of, but full experimentation with pain, fragility, longing… He had been waiting for some such experience himself, but in his mind it had eluded him. He expected too much from the scheme of things. It was pockets of experience he sought. But he had been denied them, he felt. He felt if he had to write, he might as well start, however haltingly, and not wait to be pushed into it by some personal earth-shattering event. Such an event may not come by.
But he feared he ought not to write. To play with characters' lives took upon a reality he was uncomfortable with. He was anyway too given to modifying his own actions to suit what he thought was appropriate. He feared that if he let go and played with his characters freely he would not be able to rein in his tendency to closely monitor his own conduct.
It was getting dark outside and it was time to return to his desk at the office and work on the letters that would be published in next day’s edition. He folded the Indian Express, crushed his coffee cup, nodded at the serving guy and broke out into the world. A world where simply the action of stepping on the pavement was an act of will that he found pleasingly definite against the now burdensome, now fleeting weight of life.