Age is Just a Number

Yes, age is just a number. A number that just measures one dimension. A rather predictable dimension. Life happens on other dimensions, orthogonal to it. Life, learning, wisdom, happiness, stoicism, compassion, empathy, creation, giving, humbly accepting, appreciation, solitude, courage, fortitude, humility, fairness, spiritualism.

We have the hours, minutes, and seconds. We do not know what do do with them. We get stuck into vortexes. Time doesn’t stop in vortexes. It doesn’t spin. It just drags on, watching our helpless struggles, with an impassioned bemusement. It’s these willing, torrid affairs with the vortexes that make it hard to trust age as anything beyond being just a number.

***

Wisdom is a mirage. Especially, a vision of one’s own wisdom. The wisdom that tells us the limits of our own wisdom is rare. Age just complicates that further. The conventional wisdom that wisdom comes with age is what makes us believe we’re wiser than we are — especially, the older we are. The young do not care about “wisdom” or the lack of it. They’re too confident in their ability to reign in life, to need the safety net of wisdom. It’s a liability for the youth. But as we approach the middle age, we sense a need for it. The trick is, not to feel entitled to it, just because one has seen the passing of the seasons. We are good at looking without seeing. We’re good at forgetting, of isolating ourselves from pain, longing, loneliness, sorrow, despondency. We want wisdom without its price.

***

Expectations of reciprocation, especially the “equal and opposite reciprocation”, is the biggest killer of relationships. Our preoccupation with reciprocation comes from our obsession with symmetry. We need to treat reciprocation as we treat taxation: it needs to be progressive. He (or she) who could do more, should do more, for the other. Then again, I don’t mean this prescriptively. Maybe, the golden rule here is, do the best you can, according to what the other means to you, and according to your means. Do not try to match the other’s kindness, generosity, help, care; deed to deed, emotion to emotion, time to time, money to money. And. more importantly, do not expect you to be matched, either.

Call those you want to talk to, don’t wait for the call.

Visit those you want to spend time with, don’t wait for them to visit you.

Write to those you want to share your deepest thoughts with, don’t wait for them to open up the conversation.

Let the “need for reciprocation” not stop you. If it’s not welcome, your effort to connect, by all means, stop. But to close down the communication lines because the other doesn’t quite live up to your idea of reciprocity is the biggest, and silent, killer of relationships.

Yes, age is just a number, but it can teach us this: if we want someone in our lives, we gotta be ready do our bit, unconditionally. Once, twice, maybe even thrice. We have hours, minutes, and seconds to invest if we just rescue them from the vortexes.

 

 

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As Time Goes By

Another year bids us goodbye. That is: another repetition of a random marker, one of many methods of demarcating time, but one that is now universal by its overall acceptance. In Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, the power of gods is decided by the number of people who believe in them. Sir Pratchett probably just wanted to make a point about the arbitrariness of belief — it’s been a while since I read it, so cannot say with certainty — but all myths, and all conventions, definitely need the numbers to survive. So while different calenders still survive, and different new years are still celebrated,  they are like the small gods, while this Gregorian Calendar is the big league.

Anyways, the point wasn’t that (it rarely is with me, as the regular — haha, it feels good to use the term — readers already know) at all. As the year comes to an end, I got thinking, how do I want to spend the rest of it? I mean, I hate parties, I hate to step out on the NYE, because, more or less, I hate crowds, and lines at restaurants, and overpriced food, and collective superficial euphoria, and most things that come on the television, and so on. So, over the years, I’ve welcomed the new year in my sleep — or more precisely by waking up to the sound of firecrackers, which, yes you guessed it, I hate.

So how is it going to be this year?

 

***

There is a weird pop-wisdom (popularized recenlty by Steve Jobs, no less) that runs something like this: live every day like it’s the last day of your life. For some reason, it’s considered self-explanatory wisdom, even an obvious one. But is it?

If I knew, when the day started, that it’s the last day of my life, how would I live it? Let’s see. It would be too late to run through the list of “important things to do” to make sure the family is somewhat set to deal with the eventuality. I mean yes, I’d possibly come up with a list of passwords and likes, that I need to handover to the spouse. Let her know the list of credit cards that need to be stopped (they need to be, right?). And such sundry things. That would take less than an hour, I’d recon. Then I’d probably call up a very small list of people and bid goodbye. Few more hours. Then I’d probably spend rest of the time with my loved ones. Cook something good for them. And as the hour approaches, put on the last of the Jazz pieces I’d like to listen to, once again. A bit of Mingus. A lot of Coltrane. Love Supreme as a finale.

Here is what I will NOT do: work, plan for future, read, watch movies, contemplate on philosophical issues, exercise, help others, sleep, learn anything new, try anything new actually, write …

You see why it’s useless?

I think the better wisdom would be: live every day as if you know when you’re going to die. So that you can come up with the perfect plan. And stick to it, because we know there will be no extension. Prioritize time because you know exactly how much you will have, no more. It’s the uncertainty, and more precisely the apparent abundance of time, that stops us from a lot of it. Not just the non-emergency of it. Because emergency is not the best way to schedule your life goals. Especially, when you don’t know when you’re going to die. Like the most of us.

***

So what has this got to do with the new year’s eve?

Nothing really. What it reminds me of, this new year thing is that it’s that time of the year again, to take a stock. Because it seems like the right time to do it. And it’s that time of year when you know very little time is left — of the year. How should one spend it? Like it were the last day to change anything about the year (it is!). And if there is anything I want to change about 2017, it’s the writing part. Or the non-writing part, to be precise.

So here I am. Trying to write. And to keep the flame burning, through to the next year. And hope, it will be better, the next year. But let’s face it, without a serious plan, it won’t be. But even acknowledging that is a good start, right? And the thing about “last days” is, it’s too late to change anything substantially. It’s too late to plan. It’s too late to do anything but relax, and reminisce, and remember, and maybe think about what wasn’t, and what was, and what could be.

***

In more ways than one, 2017 was the Annus horribilis. And I’m strictly speaking of writing. Yes, I wrote some verses, some non-fiction pieces, which were not cringe-worthy. But where it counts — fiction — it was the worst year since I started writing (if one could call it that — but I would, even if it’s basically writing for oneself). This was the year distractions got the better of me. This was the year I’ll write off, happily. I’m even happy it’s ending. Because however arbitrary, a new year seems like a new start. At least I know that over the last 365 days, I’ve failed in prioritizing something that gives me a sense of achievement. I’ve failed terribly. Completely. And what better way to spend the last night of the year than to admit that to oneself, and to the tiny part of the world that cares about it (like you, maybe, because you’re still reading this). Maybe this is the rock bottom that I needed to hit. And the last thing: of course I know 2017 is not to blame for any of it. It was only the messenger.

 

 

Infinity of Jest, Finitude of Grace

A major part of growing up is coming to terms with the fallibility of our heroes. Okay, make it “gradual erosion of faith in our heroes” or “being almost free from the belief in heroes”. The same heroes, or rather, the same faith in the existence of heroes, that was our ladder to adulthood, that sometimes we want to cling to, rather desperately. However, as we start seeing more and more shades of gray, the photographs of heroes in our attic start seeming gradually lackluster. And yet, curiously, even ironically, more real. As if, finally, we have access to the third dimension which, hundreds of two-dimensional projections were a poor substitute for.

Still, we’re never really free of belief in heroes, because, in a world ruled by chance and chaos, we need that straw to keep afloat. And so, when someone else tries to cut down our heroes to a size too small for a pedestal, we instinctively cringe; or — get angry, or combative, or even, dismissive.

David Foster Wallace (DFW), one of the best-known American novelists of our era, killed himself in the month of September, nine years back, a day after the date that no American will easily forget, two days after the World Suicide Prevention day, ironically. With DFW, one is never sure if the connections are tenuous or real. And I get a feeling, that’s exactly how he would have wanted it. Being sure would have defeated the purpose.

In last two decades, as I’ve struggled to make progress on my personal, non-professional, ambition of being a writer (or wanting to be a writer, to be precise), there are a few writers (and I’m really talking about fiction writers) I have looked up to. Umberto Eco, for instance, or Amitav Ghosh, Arthur Koestler, Orhan Pamuk, Hermann Hesse, Zadie Smith, Kamila Shamsie. The list is long, and not exhaustive. But if there is one writer who I’d have liked to be, one writer I’d have liked to write like (not exactly same, obviously, but you know what I mean), it’s got to be DFW.

I say this based, not just on his masterpiece Infinite Jest, but also his debut book, Broom of the System, or his unfinished symphony, Pale King, tied up into some semblance of a novel by his longtime editor and friend Michael Pietsch, and his Interviews with Hideous Men, and other short-story collections; I’ve read every word of Wallace with adulation. And especially with Pale King, I’ve cried thinking of DFW writing that, while feeling inadequate as a writer, and a human being, and killing himself, denying us all a lot more he could have produced, with his abundant talents, but above all, denying himself all those years of unlived life.

And so, when I read his longtime friend and competitor Jonathan Franzen’s piece “Farther Away” (from his eponymous collection of essays), dealing with, among many things, the death of David Foster Wallace, my reaction was almost visceral. In a sense, because, on some level, Franzen was right (if not on many levels, after all, he knew Wallace, I just read him). Especially when he says:

The people who knew David least well are most likely to speak of him in saintly terms.

And I got to know about that more when I recently read DFW’s biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. It talked of a Wallace that one would have a hard time imagining just reading his fiction — because that kind of understanding, that level of pathos, that kind of empathy, as exemplified by his writings seems incongruous with some of the aspects of his personality, especially the (lack of ?) personality ethic. Then again, it’s always a possibility. Growing up has taught us as much, if nothing more.

Still, Franzen’s writing about his self-confessed friend seems devoid of grace.

A bit of context is due for those who do not know the background. Jonathan Franzen and DFW shared a borderline healthy (or unhealthy, as you see fit) rivalry as writers. With Infinite Jest, DFW seemed to have pulled ahead into a territory that’s reserved for a few. Much of what Franzen writes about DFW seems to be weighed down by that enormity — and it’s almost like Franzen is angry with DFW because he basically cheated Franzen of a chance to prove he could beat DFW to it and more.

*

Franzen makes no efforts to hide his anger at DFW for killing himself in a hideous way:

At the time, I’d made a decision not to deal with the hideous suicide of someone I’d loved so much but instead to take refuge in anger and work. Now that the work was done, though, it was harder to ignore the circumstance that, arguably, in one interpretation of his suicide, David had died of boredom and in despair about his future novels. The desperate edge to my own recent boredom: might this be related to my having broken a promise to myself? The promise that, after I’d finished my book project, I would allow myself to feel more than fleeting grief and enduring anger at David’s death?

Strangely, though, this seems to be the only way in which Franzen seems to relate to DFW’s suicide — this being the only sympathetic interpretation in the article. Thus, subconsciously, elevating himself to DFW’s level — a boredom of the Titans.

That just sets a tone for a piece, that for every other distraction in it, is basically about DFW — and Franzen’s getaway to reflect on the relationship, in its glorious contradictions. But what is shocking, for a close friend of someone who’s grappled with depression all his adult life, and a very perceptive writer, to have almost completely ignored the elephant in the room.

In the summer before he died, sitting with him on his patio while he smoked cigarettes, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the hummingbirds around his house and was saddened that he could, and while he was taking his heavily medicated afternoon naps I was studying the birds of Ecuador for an upcoming trip, and I understood the difference between his unmanageable misery and my manageable discontents to be that I could escape myself in the joy of birds and he could not. (emphasis mine).

The joy of birds? Really? And this, while he starts the paragraph with “he loved his dogs more purely than he loved anything or anyone else”. How can a friend miss the forest for the trees?

This is where it starts making sense, though:

The depressed person then killed himself, in a way calculated to inflict maximum pain on those he loved most, and we who loved him were left feeling angry and betrayed. Betrayed not merely by the failure of our investment of love but by the way in which his suicide took the person away from us and made him into a very public legend.

A cursory google search will give you some interesting figures (link):

  • In 2015 (latest available data), there were 44,193 reported suicide deaths.
  • Currently, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
  • A person dies by suicide about every 11.9 minutes in the United States.
  • Every day, approximately 121 Americans take their own life.
  • Ninety percent of all people who die by suicide have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death.

David Foster Wallace may have been a genius. But he was a part of those statistics. Just one in many. What’s more, there is a strong link between creativity and mental disorders, as discussed by Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene.

“We of the craft are all crazy,” Lord Byron, the high priest of crazies, wrote. “Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.” Versions of this story have been told, over and over, with bipolar disorder, with some variants of schizophrenia, and with rare cases of autism; all are “more or less touched.” It is tempting to romanticize psychotic illness, so let me emphasize that the men and women with these mental disorders experience paralyzing cognitive, social, and psychological disturbances that send gashes of devastation through their lives. [SNIP]

In Touched with Fire, an authoritative study of the link between madness and creativity, the psychologist-writer Kay Redfield Jamison compiled a list of those “more or less touched” that reads like the Who’s Who of cultural and artistic achievers: Byron (of course), van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, Jack Kerouac—and on and on. That list can be extended to include scientists (Isaac Newton, John Nash), musicians (Mozart, Beethoven), and an entertainer who built an entire genre out of mania before succumbing to depression and suicide (Robin Williams). Hans Asperger, one of the psychologists who first described children with autism, called them “little professors” for good reason. Withdrawn, socially awkward, or even language-impaired children, barely functional in one “normal” world, might produce the most ethereal version of Satie’s Gymnopédies on the piano or calculate the factorial of eighteen in seven seconds.

In the years that I’ve read more and more about DFW, I’ve asked myself this: “would I be willing to host his demons, if that were the precondition of being the kind of artist that he was?” The answer is a rather quick and an emphatic NO. We lesser mortals, the statistically normal humans, are blessed with a missing bone. We wouldn’t know what to do with the demons. It’s not a kind of price one chooses to pay. It’s what one pays because there is no choice.

Later in the piece, Franzen tries to be more charitable:

That he was blocked with his work when he decided to quit Nardil—was bored with his old tricks and unable to muster enough excitement about his new novel to find a way forward with it—is not inconsequential.

Fiction was his way off the island, and as long as it was working for him—as long as he’d been able to pour his love and passion into preparing his lonely dispatches, and as long as these dispatches were coming as urgent and fresh and honest news to the mainland—he’d achieved a measure of happiness and hope for himself. When his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death. If boredom is the soil in which the seeds of addiction sprout, and if the phenomenology and the teleology of suicidality are the same as those of addiction, it seems fair to say that David died of boredom.

But here again, even at his charitable best, Franzen cannot accept DFW as just one in those thousands, who kill themselves, unable to cope with chronic depression. Occam’s razor asks us to pick the simplest explanation. Franzen, on the other hand, comes up with a twisted logic of “phenomenology and teleology of suicidality (sic) being same …” He wants to be fair, to his friend and competitor. But what is fair about dissecting a dead person who cannot question anything, even the reason (or unreason) he chose to be dead over being alive. Franzen, one suspects, would have taken the deal, demons and angels together, if it were on table, but is angry that it’s not on the table.

It’s this tone deafness of the article, even when he has access to the big picture from a close distance, that has kept me from reading Franzen’s fiction all these days since I read this piece for the first time. I know that’s not a right response. And that I’m doing a Franzen here, trying to read a betrayal in a survival strategy. Maybe, I lack the grace too.

It’s probably unfair to expect authors to be better than us in empathizing with others — yes, even those authors whose writing seems to overflow with empathy. Because, writing, above all, is a self-serving exercise. But, it does seem rather strange, that someone who understands motives and motifs, can open themselves to a charge like that, by being so transparent (if they were actually — daft otherwise). And yet, it takes a kind of courage to open one’s heart, with all its pain and anguish, even at the risk of sounding insensitive. Franzen has displayed that in abundance.

*

Ironically, the grace I was looking for, in this context, came from a this piece:

I wish he had spoken to me, or I to him: I could have offered him some fatherly  advice on the futility of competing with your younger self: every review of every novel I’ve written since Gravity’s Rainbow contains the phrase, either explicitly or implicitly, “not as good as.” It is clear that taking the Big Dirt Nap was already very much on his mind when he delivered the 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College:  “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms nearly always shoot themselves in…[sic] the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.” After the antidepressants and electroshock therapy had failed, I guess he assumed he had nowhere else to go, and succumbed to Entropy.

I say ironic, because, this wasn’t written by the author of Gravity’s Rainbow, and an early influence (that DFW went to lengths to deny) on DFW, Thomas Pynchon, that reclusive writer who’s avoided the eye of the media religiously, and successfully. This was a parody piece published in Salon, as a spoof Pynchon piece, now unavailable (I had to dig up this passage, which I remembered vaguely, from the Internet Archives WayBack Machine snapshot).  Many fell for it. Including me. Because it seemed like something that had to be written, about DFW. And what better person to write it, but Pynchon, a father figure that DFW consciously, and consistently, disowned. For death makes all amends impossible from the one who has died, leaving those who are left behind, to forgive, and forget, magnanimously. Because they’ve still got that one thing the deceased doesn’t have: a chance to make things right, even if unilaterally, and marginally. It’s what grace demands.

Maybe, there is no Infinity of grace. Maybe, the celebrated authors, who we assume, have been given a special x-ray vision into people’s souls, are as blind with petty human emotions like anger, and pain, as the rest of us. Maybe grace is finite. And one has to find it in a fictionalized parody alone. Maybe, in reality, grace is a price too steep for even the Titans to pay.

*

“Dhoondh ujade hue logo me wafa ke moti. Yeh khazane tumhe mumkin hai kharabo.n me mile”

(Search the pearls of loyalty in those who have lost everything else, for maybe there, in the broken men, you may find those treasures)

That’s a loose translation of a couplet from Ahmad Faraz’s ghazal. But that’s incidentally what Infinite Jest is all about, among other things. Maybe the Titans are too upright to expect grace from. Maybe, we’re cursed to find it only in those we shy away from. And definitely not within.

Meditations on Love, and Love Stories

Yes, love can die. it’s more fragile than hate which can survive a lot more. Unlike hate, which has got allies, love has to survive on its own. Especially love in real life, involving real people. The reel love is, at best, a harmless prank.

Unlike those love stories where we’ve to trust a stranger telling us that they lived happily ever after — always they, always ever after — as if, that moment, when the evil villain was defeated, and the prince charming and his beautiful princes took their vows, will last forever, no questions asked; unlike those love stories, that stop inexplicably when cohabitation begins, between two madly in love. Stop being told, that is, not being. In real life, love doesn’t come with an autopilot mode.

Or unlike those truly timeless love stories where, love becomes immortal by the virtue of being unrequited, because the evil villain wins, or because it’s cut short by untimely actions of time, real life love doesn’t have a ghost mode.

The fact of the matter is that very few love stories delve into love, fulfilled over days, months, years, even a lifetime, surviving everyday the banal, the routine, the grotesque, the frustrating: the bad hair days, the mad days, the sad days, the days when words don’t come easily, the days when words won’t stop, when they should. Hurting words, only partly unintended. The sick days; the hectic days when sacrifices are tiny, too tiny to stroke your ego, too frequent for the ego miss, too insignificant to birth a martyrdom, too “on the line” to identify a martyr; days that fly by in a cluster; days when nothing seems to go your way, when no answers are forthcoming. No relief. No real escape.

Love, real life love, has to survive in the interstices between these mundane and crazy moments. It has to find a way to reinvent itself, creating an illusion of a timeless continuum. It has to find a way to grow, to strengthen its roots, to aspire for skies, to liberate, yet to be latched, by choice.

No wonder many love stories only survive when love is interrupted, or never has to face the test of life almost ordinary on average. Almost ordinary, but for the magical moments, like those fleeting sightings of the fireflies, on a dark night. But isn’t that dream — that impossible and yet entirely plausible dream — that makes love special? Maybe waking life is an illusion. Maybe we’re meant to be the dream.

Friend, disconnected …

The past comes back to stake its claims on you. It doesn’t matter if you’ve moved on. You cannot move where past cannot reach you. Because past is within you. Any effort to part with the past is counter-productive.

Social networking has made it easier to connect with ghosts from past. But those ghosts don’t necessarily make good companions. It’s hard to relate to them, especially if you aren’t the same you. Which you rarely are.

I have — just like you or most of us — nominally connected with hundreds of such ghosts on Facebook. I have debated whether to accept the friend requests with many I don’t particularly know anymore. “But that is the idea, to know them again!”, some will say. Some, who are optimistic. Some who are kind, generous. Unlike me. I’m highly pessimistic, and indeed snobbish, when it comes to people. Or myself. I’m certain if they don’t get on my nerves, I will on theirs. And so I’m careful about who I call a friend. And I only, really, stay in touch with friends.

Till, one not so fine day, I hear about the death of one, who I used to be friends with. He was the Dill (To Kill a Mocking Bird) for us; me and my sister. He used to come visit his grandfather who was our neighbour, on Diwali or summer vacations. Typically, both. He was (and I almost wrote is, which would have been true till a day before) the most innocent guy I knew, then. And not many I have met later in life can compete with that, forget about bettering it.

Sachin, my childhood friend, passed away yesterday. I last saw him maybe fifteen years back. Or even more. I last talked to him about five years back, after a gap of ten odd years. That was the only contact outside facebook I had with him over all these years (and on facebook, also minimal, mostly he liking or commenting on a post or comment). There wasn’t much to talk, beyond asking what some common acquaintance was doing, where we are working, and the like. We made vague plans to meet up. I knew I wasn’t serious. The years had put a gap between us that I didn’t quite believe we  — or rather, I — could overcome.

I learned of the news from a common friend today. The first thing that came to my mind is, maybe I should have believed that we could fill the gap, and insisted on meeting him. I wished I knew how to borrow a belief.

I’m terrible with deaths. I don’t believe in the rituals post death. Death is a wrong time to be rebellious, to be aloof, to be yourself. People who love you, depend on you to not be stubborn. They want to see you going through the motions. I’ve disappointed people close to me because I don’t know how to go through the motions. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean it disrespectfully — going through the motions, not in this context! They must have their use. Closure needs an algorithm. If we can’t write one, we catch on to whatever is known to have worked for someone, anyone. I have a, even if short, list of apologies I could never offer. I could never gather the courage, once the moment had passed. And when you haven’t found closure, that moment flies by you as you mourn torturously, alone, having abandoned the healing that mourning with a group may offer.

I remember so many stories. I know when I will next meet some of my cousins who know him, or our common friends, we’ll share some of those stories. And Sachin will bring a smile on our faces, again, after all these years. And in those stories, in that borderline laughter, I’ll find the only partial closure that’s possible for someone like me who is closure challenged.

RIP Sachin. You’ll always be remembered fondly. And while I will try to avoid tears, and fake a sense of normalcy by going through another set of motions, as a weak substitute, a part of me will always mourn for you. I didn’t exactly have you in my life in all of my adult life. But do pass on the shared innocence, in the hope that I find a way to reconnect with some ghosts from the past before they actually become just that.

Friends, Forever

Forever is long time.

Actually I kind of lifted it off from an old Roxette song that never quite fades from my head (“Never is a long time”). But that’s not the point. Nothing about this post is original. Even that is not the point.

I just returned from a trip to Mumbai, meeting a few people after a gap of years. One has been my closest friend for last twenty odd years. I have met him perhaps five times in last fifteen years (although we never stayed more than a few hours of journey away from each other in that time, except for an year). We met for just a few hours every time. I have probably talked to him about twice an year on average for this time. He is not active on FB, or any social media, or chats. We have almost never written a mail to the other. Less said the better about letters. But there was one year, a sort of gap year both of us had for different reason, when we practically met every single day, and let the competitive/busy/purposeful world pass by us, as we sat next to a railroad track for hours, our degrees and our dreams temporarily shelved, as we pondered the nothing, or almost nothing; and shared everything, or almost everything.

The other person is my M-Tech guide, whom I’ve met next to never in the last fifteen years. We never shared anything with each other. No long discussions over long walks (I think he positively hates them), or coffee (he doesn’t drink it), or beer (ditto). No heart to hearts. I had talked to him maybe thrice since I left the institute.

The test of friendship is not longevity. Longevity can be accidental. It can be the result of sustained deception — white deception, if there is such a thing. Call me opinionated, but I think most of the time what we think of as true friendships are successful mutual deceptions.

IMG_3020

The real test of friendship, or real test of friendship, is how it survives the empty spaces. They say that a friend is someone with whom you can be comfortably alone, or together alone. I’d not contest that. Sometimes life affords us the luxury of being around our friends — so much that silence is an option. But a lot of times, it’s how we manage the absence of a friend that underlines a friendship. Of course it has to be mutual. Like mutual deception, only a lot more positive, maybe. Or maybe it’s just mutual laziness, assured that if we make that phone call tomorrow it would be fine, we don’t have to do it today. Day after day.

Maybe it is all that combined. But when I walked into those two homes that day, last week, it was as if those “days after days” really didn’t register on the timeline of those relationships. The empty spaces, if anything, were just redundant punctuation. The semantics of friendship doesn’t heed them. They just are. Waiting for the meaning to be found again, and again.

Ides of November

In a sense, this post is a #I_better_start_writing_again post. Actually that’s all it is, whom am I kidding, anyway. It started with a FB post about (not) judging women over their choices regarding career vs parenting. A friend, who only knew of my KandaBatata blog said it deserved a blog of its own, a non-KBNN blog. I don’t quite agree there, but that reminded me of this (sort of) abandoned blog. This year, I’ve written on average a post every two months — poetry, prose, reviews included.

Some years are gap years (in one respect or another, but sometimes in more respects than you care to be reminded of). Not in the well understood sense of the word, where you choose them to be such. They just happen to be such. They come and go. And as you look at them, like you look at the train you took a tad too long to get onto, and now have to watch the last few coaches whizzing past you at a speed too much to hop onto one. And too slow to feel the urgency of loss to register right then and there.

You look at such years, only in those slipping moments, when they’re almost a past, but not quite, trying to take stock of the unrealized plans. And sometimes, years like these pass, even without plans, without bucket lists, forty-three things, resolutions. Not because you’re too busy (which you probably aren’t) to make plans, or create those lists. Not because you’re too lazy (which you probably are, but not because you are). Not even because you were depressed, unhappy, stagnated, frustrated, or a million other variations of it. But just because it never occurred to you to make those plans, create those lists, make those promises to yourself.

Sure you had wishes. Sure you had hazy ideas about the year, and what you would like it to be, and no premonition that it would be anything but that — just a gap year, a lost year, a year that passed, adding a count to your age, and a few questions, and a few regrets. No not regrets. That would be too melodramatic. Regret presupposes a “I wish I would have done it differently” feeling. That’s not it at all. You know you couldn’t have done it differently, because you know that the gap year may not have been planned that way, but you signed up for it alright, and kept at it. You even ought to have lived it like that to really appreciate what could have been if you had seriously wanted it that way. If you had seriously thought it, willed it. You didn’t, because maybe you didn’t want it that way, really. Not deep within. Not at the price you may have had to pay.

And so in the fag end of the year you start looking back. And looking ahead, trying to amend in few days what never seriously occurred to you in all those preceding months. And back again to find the sliver linings. And ahead in desperation, knowing full well the futility of trying to change it. Trying to come to terms with the reality. Or the reasonability, probability, practicality.

Back to front. Front to back.

The silver linings light up the possibilities. The dark clouds hover around, with a pretense of omnipotence, in all reality hard to contest.

We try to fill in the gaps with things, and thoughts, and achievements. Things animate and inanimate. Victories. Joys. We let the luster of the silver linings illuminate those, making them look brighter, happier.

And then, reasonably, we start looking ahead, beyond the coaches, into the distance, for the signs of the next train. Promising oneself, I will not miss this one.

All while the last coaches are still moving past you, not too fast, not too slow.

 

 

 

First Is Just the Name of the Street

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As a child, I remember being encouraged to stay in the academic race by my mom, mostly. The rest of the family was kind of unconcerned about it. My father, who would have been hard-pressed to know which standard I’m in, rarely bothered with my progress, or progress card. I had to bother him, rather, when the progress card had to be returned to the school signed by a parent — which, an unwritten law seemed to imply, meant father. The irony of my father  — who never had any scholastic ambitions himself, or from both his kids — having to sign the card that meant hardly anything to him was lost on me then. But then, at least that unwritten law meant my father had to glance at the report card every once in a while, and nod “good” or “nice” or “well done”. The thing is my sister and I rarely gave him any cause of concern, being there in the top whatever percentage of class that used to be considered adequate. 

But for my mother, who had been a good student in her time, and had missed opportunities by a narrow margin, adequate wasn’t a word that meant much. And for years, she would tutor me and my sister. And in return, she expected that we were up there, on the podium, so to speak. The top position, that only one in the class can have. My sister used to oblige more often than not. I stuck to number two, till my mother persisted with the “studies” — which would probably have been forever, if not for my sudden realization that I didn’t really need anyone to “prepare” me for exams, and my new-found belligerence to say that out loud and clear. The confidence was of course misplaced, as I realized soon after pretty much shutting her out of my studies. For my rank kept falling down and down, although still well within the adequate range. But I didn’t care. I felt free, and in control of my own life. That was before I knew about existentialism, of course.

Today, with a 5 year old kid, the questions that I could answer for myself when the time came seem so much more difficult to answer as a parent. Although it’s still early days, but when I look at the landscape, it scares the shit out of me. I see people whom I knew as basically sane beings go pretty much insane with the kids education thingy. I see schools going crazy, in turn driving parents crazy, who are in turn accused of forcing schools to go crazy in the first place. It’s like sanity has just flushed its identity papers down some plane toilet and taken a refuge info some godforsaken country with no name. Because it’s hard to find her anymore in day to day dealings where kids are involved. 

When I try to look at the data from my past, that podium which my mom coveted so much for her kids, seems such an absolutely useless predictor of success, even the ordinary, practical, professional success — the criteria that most middle class parents had in mind when they pushed their children that little harder. I’d be very curious to know if that pattern holds up in larger data sets, but I suspect it would, for scholastic success demanded so little imagination, out-of-box thinking, even reasoning or logical abilities, that it would be a miracle if it were to have a strong relation to success later in the life (and I’m not even talking of countless other criteria to measure success). There may be a possible benefit of the so called scholar kids having a better belief in themselves due to early successes, but even that is debatable, as that can be a two edged sword. And the immense stress some of them have to go through to basically just follow patterns set by somebody, has its own cost.

And yet the frenzy all around is unnerving. Plus it will, in all probability, only get worse. To bet one’s child’s future over an alternative worldview requires a lot more guts than to bet one’s own future.  What if First, Second, and Third are more than street names, after all? Will my child forgive me for giving him a stratagem that’s at best escapist? Will I? 

 

 

Ethics of Drinking

There are some people who’ll say that ‘ethics of drinking’ is an oxymoron of sorts, while others will say, screw ethics, drink, have fun. But over the years, I’ve burned some grey matter over this.

When I was too young to drink, I had taken on a, for that age typical, position that drinking is a bad thing, and I will NEVER drink. The NEVER lasted for a couple of years, by when I was not too young to drink anymore. I let go my former diktat to myself. I started with the stronger brew: the iconic Old Monk rum. Then, for a while, scoffing at beers, and insisting that wines are a snobbish waste of money, I stuck to rum, despite inability of my system to really cope with it. Over the years I had puked in the roadside gutter, I had a new year’s first day completely wiped off the calender due to extreme bouts of vomiting, and so on. Finally, I embraced beer, another U-Turn, gradually started loving it. Continue reading

The Goodbyes

When my son has stuffy nose (which is the case almost always given the weather and new set of infections that he has to brave, in this foreign land), I tend to give him the “steam” treatment — let the bathroom fill with steam, and then stand there with him. Given the way 20 month old kids are, it’s almost impossible to to something like that without engaging them in something else. Continue reading