Sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night and are confronted by the one person you’ve tried not to meet — or not to be. Well, I guess it’s the latte, for there is an element of consent involved there, even a knowledge of just exactly where you’re going. Yes, we’re all aware of the transition, even will it, subconsciously; and yet we also try hard to ignore it — the slow, unmistakable morphing.
To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time for every purpose, under heaven
We keep telling ourselves that we can turn anytime we want, and that it’s just a temporary phase, till that next milestone is reached, that next one, the one after that … Turn back we will, start off from where we left the real selves, we console ourselves. But we don’t, and one day we experience the nightmare, as we look inside us to find that we no longer identify the person who lives there.
Lekha showed me the mirror just as I was this close to proving to her that her life is basically a farce, a self-inflicted martyrdom, which, like any martyrdom, is useless, inglorious. I looked straight into her eyes, confident of my own superiority — of having chosen the right way to live — that comes from success. A confidence bordering on arrogance. “This whole philosophy that you’ve created to justify the loser in you, that’s the root cause, Lekha”, I had said, in a clinical tone, “throw it out of the window, and get in the ring”
Lekha, the one person…. but then I’m speaking too much too early. The time will come for that too. Not now. Now I have to complete what I started:
“This will take you nowhere, because all you’re doing is running away from yourself”
She looked at me with eyes that almost looked as if she was about to cry. Yet, I realized later, she was far from breaking down. A strange calmness adorned her face, and I know she wasn’t trying to get back at me, as she asked me:
“What about you, Neel? Don’t you ever run from yourself?”
I’ve lived my life in the fast lane, as they say. We, in fact — that’s me and Ruchi — the new age couple. Ruchi works as a senior executive in — I know, I know; do you really care? And frankly, I’ve forgotten myself, after her eighth job change and eleventh odd promotion. What I know is, I see her as much as I see our maid, even less maybe. And me? I manage my own company — a tech startup that got a great initial funding, and is now doing quite well, with VCs committed to another round recently, and some beta customers already lined up.
But then, this is not about that. Even you know that. You wouldn’t care if it were about that. So, anyways, Aarush, my son is where the story starts, in a way. Although he’s just a catalyst in the story. He’s a precocious child. No I don’t say this as a proud parent (I’m a proud father, no doubt). His precociousness is probably the reason why things happened the way they happened. I mean, I got a note from his school. Okay, we got a note, and Ruchi being out of town I happened to read it. They wanted to meet me, whoever they were — presumably the headmaster, I thought. To cut a long story short, I went, and the school head-master was this forty year old lady, who conveyed me the news that Aarush is a precocious child, and that this was causing problems in the class. Oh, yes I forgot, over-competitive, was the word she used, too.
“I thought kids are supposed to be over-competitive”, I said.
“Yes, Lekha, do come in”, said the headmistress, looking over my shoulders. Naturally I turned to look. There, standing at the door, was this ordinary looking young woman, in her late twenties I guessed, whom I would never have spotted in a crowd. You know, very plain looking, like most people you pass on the street without noticing — neither beautiful nor ugly enough to deserve a second look.
“This is Aarush’s father”, the headmistress continued, “And this is Ms. Lekha, Arush’s class-teacher”
“Hello”, she said. Her voice had everything that her looks lacked — well it’s futile to elaborate.
“Hi”, I said. I hate these formal introductions.
“We were discussing Aarush, of course. And Mr. Neel has expressed an opinion that kids are supposed to be over-competitive. Anyways, I have a meeting, why don’t you talk to Ms. Lekha, Mr. Neel”
“You can call me just Neel, thanks. And that goes for you too, Ms. Lekha”
The HM nodded as she left the room.
“Okay Neel. I won’t particularly mind if you call me Lekha either, but preferably not in front of the kids. You don’t want Aarush to call me Lekha, right?”
“Frankly I don’t care”, I wanted to say, but nodded anyways.
“So what exactly is the problem?” I asked.
“That exactly is the problem. He’s too competitive”
“So I’ll repeat, what’s wrong with that? Why is that a problem?”
“Because, Neel, there are other kids in the school. And they need a space to grow too. For instance, when I ask a question, Aarush will answer it without even waiting for me to signal him. Other kids, who’re shy, who never raise their hands, they also need to get a chance. But no, he just shouts the answer at times”
“Okay, that’s not exactly an ideal social behavior, but give me a break. He’s a child! And what about these other kids? Don’t you think the problem is with them? I mean they need to get on their toes pretty fast if they want to keep their nose above the water”
She looked at me with exasperation. I guess she would have preferred Ruchi here instead of me. Ruchi might be darn competitive herself, but she wouldn’t want her child signalled out for being over-competitive. I mean that’s a sign of your failure as a parent. These crackpot schools and their crackpot notions. Besides, that day I had a pretty important meeting and I couldn’t believe I was being summoned there for such an idiotic crib.
“There is a time for that. Right now, we need to give everyone space to grow. Making them compete at such a young age biases them towards a competitive behavior”
“I thought kids were competitive by nature, no?”
Another exasperated look.
“Some are. Some are shy by nature. And you’d be surprised how they flourish once they are given the right conditions”, her voice had an ernest quality. She really believed that crap!
“And Aarush is screwing up the right conditions, if you’ll forgive the phrase?”
“Crude, but you are bang on target”
“So what is the solution? To dumb him down to the class average? Or even better, the worst in the class?”
“I don’t want to sound hostile, Neel, but here in our school, we’ve a few ideas on how to bring up children. If you’re not comfortable with those ideas, there are a hundred schools out there which might be more in tune with your ideas. I can handle Aarush, you know, but there are more teachers in the school, and the complaints have already reached higher up. I think it’s better to discuss how we deal with them a little more dispassionately, shall we?”
So we decided to discuss it dispassionately. Anyways, that’s how I met Lekha. And fought. And fought more. The parent-teacher meetings shifted to coffee shops, where she would have the cheapest item on the menu, and over time they ceased to be parent-teacher meetings. The action plan for Aarush that we devised with mutual compromises seemed to be working well at least for the school, so we sort of shelved the whole disagreement for future references. Lekha became my only friend, to the extent that Ruchi started kidding me about her.
“I thought if ever you had a fling, it would be with someone who’s in your intelletual realm”, she said to me one day, on one of those dinners we actually ate together (and without Aarush — who was at her mother’s place).
I gave her a quizzical look.
“Come on! What happened to your sense-of-humor?”
Ruchi can do this tightrope walk all the time. You cannot really accuse her of crossing the line, ever, because she really won’t. She’ll poke and prod. So in a way I’ll never know if she was suspicious of my relationship with Lekha.
“I didn’t know my friends were a laughing matter”, I snapped.
She laughed. It’s that disarming laughter that takes her a long way. Like I said, I’ll never know if she was actually trying to taste the waters.
“But seriously, tell me Neel, what is it about her that strikes you so much? I haven’t seen you spend so much time with anyone. No I’m not complaining. I trust you completely. I’m just amazed. To me she seems like a very ordinary person”
Seriously, what was it that made Lekha so special to me? I wondered that day myself.
“I guess she reminds me of someone I knew a long back”, I said earnestly.
“One of your ex-flames, eh?”
The conversation was interrupted by my mother-in-law’s call. Aarush wanted to talk to his mom.
“Do you really love Ruchi?”, Lekha asked me one day.
What kind of question is that, I thought to myself. After so many years spent together… Our’s was a love marriage, after years of courtship. We trusted each other completely, told each other almost everything. We tried to spend time with each other through busy schedules. That’s love, right?
“You’re supposed to say, of course I do, a long back”, Lekha said, her voice filled with kindness. I mean what is this? Even before I can say a thing, she’s decided the answer and is now consoling me, already?
“When you’re my age, you’ll realize that such questions are meaningless”, I said.
“Neel, you’re just five years older than me”
“Oh, I was talking about mental age”
I laughed. Then I wondered why I never laugh these days. I’m always angry, irritated, frustrated, cynical. I don’t laugh that relaxed, amused laugh anymore. Not seldom, for sure. I guess I was right about the mental age.
“Anyways, you don’t have to answer that if you don’t want to. I won’t assume any answers”
“Thanks a lot. That’s very kind of you. The thing is, I don’t know. I stopped asking myself these questions long back. I stopped caring about those answers too. We’ve built a life together. We’re used to each other — used to being around each other, and used to not being around each other. Used to the silences, used to the banter. But tell me, why do you ask?”
“I don’t know. When I see you guys together, I think something is missing. I hope I’m wrong”
“Stop psycholo-gazing everything madam. After a while life settles down to basically going through the motions. That’s true with everything, love cannot escape that fate either”
I looked at her. Her face could not hide a strong disagreement.
“You don’t agree?”
“That’s okay, like I said, you’re young”
She looked hurt. I mean what’s wrong with being young, I wanted to ask her, but she didn’t give me time.
“Stop giving me that line will you? At one level I’m living my life exactly the way you’re describing — going through motions. But I can take that — that part of my life I can live like that. But not my relationships. No, that would be the end”
That hurts, being reminded again and again of that distant you.
“You know”, she added almost compassionately, “what your problem is? You’ve created this whole rationalized framework that protects your life that you’ve stopped living. You’ve stunted your life, like a bonsai”
I wasn’t ready for this role-reversal. No one passes judgements on my life. No one…
“What do you know about living, Lekha? You know what, you’re afraid to live, that’s why you’re where you are — in some idealistic school, teaching some six year olds, when deep within you don’t even enjoy it. You’ve never run a rat-race, because you’re afraid of losing. So you picked up a safe, nice path. And you are saying my life is stunted? Have you even given yourself a chance to grow?”
I was seething by the time I finished. She was looking at me, not trying to hide her disappointment or hurt. But she smiled.
“You know what I like about you most? For all your claims to be old you’re just a child”
“We’ll talk about me some other time. Let’s talk about you today”
“No, let’s talk about you, now that we’ve started”
“Okay then, let’s talk about me”, she said patronizingly.
“This whole philosophy that you’ve created to justify the loser in you, that’s the root cause, Lekha”, I had said, in a clinical tone, “throw it out of the window, and get in the ring. This will take you nowhere, because all you’re doing is running away from yourself”
“What about you, Neel? Don’t you ever run from yourself?”
I looked at her, and smiled. For the first time in years I smiled like I used to. To go back, one must know where one is. That night, after years, I confronted myself. Rest is not worth narrating. There are things bigger than stories can tell. There are moments that are too fleeting to measure, but their impressions hang around. Impressions that do not make good stories, but that do make good lives, if we listen that is.