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March 9, 2009 / zanzi

All That You Can’t Leave Behind

‘One of those evenings,

Ain’t a breeze blowin’ but you know there’s trouble

A-comin’ on the wind’

The words came easy to the boy wandering along a dusty street as the city lights came on. The fancy new bulbs first, starting from the chauraha, till within seconds they glowed as far as eyes could see, stretching along the length of the roads, away to the horizons in three directions. Then up ahead, where the fluorescent glow of the lamps faded into insignificance in the glare of shop-front lights emanating from the high-rises. Lastly, gigantic neon hoardings lit up, flashing larger-than-life images of celebrities and product lines.

‘The world so deceiving,

Before you step outta the rubble

You’re back in it again’

Soon he was standing over by the entrance to a plush-looking non-smoking joint. Barely a minute later, joined by a companion with greying hair, he entered the diner. Politely shown to a table for two, they ordered beer and were immediately lost in conversation as intently as others around them.

‘I was thinking’, said the lad, ‘about the kind of life people have, in and around the city. So many I crossed on the way here were jostling past each other, hurrying to get back home.’

‘Sure’, came the swift response, ‘it’s been a long day for everyone. You and I came here to unwind; others have a bit of a journey to make before they can sink comfortably into a chair. But that’s not what you meant.’

‘Yeah, I’m making a deeper point. Not just about one day, but living like that, day in and day out. Not having a chair to sink into on getting back home, or even a home for that matter.’

‘That’s your use of the word, isn’t it? Having a home meaning being in touch, digging to the roots and finding out how true one is being to oneself. Not getting lost in humdrum routine, becoming dull and habituated.’

‘Exactly. Feeling bugged, bored, all of that begins when you’ve stopped living, really, when you’re just surviving. Almost everyone looks it, moulded to fit some job or the other, aspiring for a step-up.’

‘Not open to life, just discontented with how things are, or worse, okay with some of it and shutting out the rest.’

‘The essence of pretence. You said it.’

The drink downed, the mid-thirties man signalled to the waiter for the bill.

‘Come, there’s something you might as well see now.’

As they stepped out onto the pavement, a kid holding an infant with one arm hung out the other at them, open palm dirty and scratched. ‘Bauji, kucch rupaiyeh khane ko

‘Why didn’t you give them anything? You tipped the waiter’: accusingly.

‘You’ll understand. Let’s get to the local train station.’

‘Why there of all places’, the younger wondered, but did not voice.

***

They stepped out onto an unused arm of the over bridge that hung out over the last platform, giving an unrestricted view of miles of the city until it opened out onto the sea beyond, on which all that stretched, seemingly to eternity, were ripples shining in the moonlight amidst endless patterns of dark waves.

‘That is the reason we’re here’, said the man, directing the boy’s gaze with his words and a jacketed arm. ‘You see the skyline there, which makes the city famous, where much of the big money is made. The jut-out in the coastline is home to cine-stars and hotshots, that’s where most of it rests. Then there are the residential areas, until finally you see, separated just by those lanes, the slums. This is where the hardest workers live, also the worst paid. The city works because they get on their feet early morning; some go out while others stay in the pitiable excuse for a shelter that has been left for them; nonetheless, they are remarkably resourceful.’

The boy looked, absorbed. He’d heard all this several times, but to see it! The glamour zones shining with signs of nightlife, the markets simmering down from being the hub of activity to a bunch of shuttered shops, a bevy of cars headed homewards lining the roads and the sparse municipal lighting falling dully on the dingy canvas of the slums.

He breathed in deeply, then quietly said ‘I understand why.’

***

They headed their respective ways, one to his home, family and a warm bed and the other wherever his footsteps led him. It was a strange night already, even before the pier could relapse into a few hours of silence. As he wandered, the moorings of his day shed themselves and the salt air beckoned him onward to a rock pile where the water lashed at boulders smoothened long ago.

Sitting there, feet slowly getting soaked in the spray, it was as if the whole world lay open to him. Each single bit was tantalizing, yet to grab hold of any of it would be to preclude so many other possibilities. That, he mused, was what people were busy doing, narrowing down options, which is where the trouble began. Once you’d bought too far into the game of life, you became so involved in trying to win that you forgot to play.

‘The dividing line between when you’re still a boy and when you’ve grown into a man’, he thought, followed by ‘friends would say I’ve had too much to drink, to sound this way’.

The waves had washed him clean of all that he’d held on to so tightly for so long – identities in social circles, the security of steady relationships, an in-vogue career plan. ‘It shouldn’t be too difficult for a man to return to boyhood either, then, all it would take is a casting aside of the mirage and looking honestly into one’s own mirror, unafraid to face who one is, non-judgmentally’, he reflected.

Having followed his feet thus far, in listening to his heart speak, he felt the night more alive than ever before – the waves tingling on his skin, the harbour lights aglow in the distance and the moonlight filtering through billowing clouds weaving a silvery surreal blanket. This was no different from having gone home; surely this was all the home anyone in the world could ever have. The home one realized the whole world to be when one uncovered one’s home within.

***

The city slept its usual course of uneasy hours. Weekend hangover effects merging with upcoming Monday blues can be a rather unappetizing combo. From the first-class business executive all the way down the social ladder to the roadside shop-man, weekends serve not as welcome relief but as an uncomfortable question-raiser in the familiar routine of the weekdays. Why carry on with the grind? Is this what one set out to do? Only, however, until one is so habit-bound as to be desensitized to even this most basic of reminders.

***

The morning brought with it many groans, its regular quota of joggers, a lovely sunrise and a cry of alarm. The body of a young man in his twenties, with a boyish face, had been found lying swept up on a beach by some fisherwomen. All the identification the police could find was a bill for some beer, which was traced back to the posh diner, where the fellow was confirmed as having been the night before, ‘regular customer, Inspector Sa’ab’. His family, when informed, dissolved collectively in tears. He had been such a promising chap, well liked and talented.

His death was dismissed officially as being due to asphyxiation resulting from carelessness under intoxication, this being more convenient than filing a case of suicide, if not less distressing. At any rate, it was inexplicable why he would have wished not to live, with everything going for him. After all, they had been kind to him, family and friends – he had had a loving home.

Still, there was nothing else that could be done, so they gave him a respectable funeral in the traditional way. More tears fell, until all that remained to be shed were memories. His absence would be present among them all for a long time.

***

There was someone who wasn’t present at the funeral, who neither cried over him nor wished for his return to be possible. She too had memories, intimate ones, moments she could never forget. Of all his ‘friends’, she, perhaps, had come closest to understanding him. She had seen him devoid of pretence, revealed herself to him without the screen of make-up. They had both taken the leap together, plunged into foaming waters beneath a surface deceptively calm, trusting that neither would let go of the other’s hand.

Together they had shared their deepest, darkest secrets, explored their shadows, constantly helping, attentive about where a blind spot lay, looking at each other and themselves as only true friends can, speaking their truths, unafraid and receptive. Gradually, she had discovered the real person behind his mask, almost to the extent that he had. It wasn’t the same as his image, not the macho, cool guy always on top of things. But it was authentic. The boy she found hidden behind his manly crust was warm, open, human.

And now he was gone. Vanished from her life, the presence she had grown to be so familiar with. Yet it did not hurt. Not in the way when one is blocking it out for later, but so that she knew it never would. And she laughed when she thought of how obvious this was.

Why should it hurt? Their relationship had worked on trust, on mutual growth, not on dependence. Attachment does tend to creep in, but that is precisely the sort of thing they had been working towards understanding and putting an end to.

***

She couldn’t expect others to understand this approach to the situation, though. The very thought! In a city full of people who clung to their positions and status, which one lived in either as a have or have-not, where one made or destroyed friendships based on whether they were profitable and acceptable – authenticity was an alien concept. ‘Things don’t work that way’, she might have been told gently, had she tried voicing what she knew was true.

There was, in any case, no need for her to voice things. Her truth, and his, resided firmly close to her breast, self-affirming.

This won second prize in an Asia-wide college level competition organized by Katha in 2006, called ‘Writing the City’. I was in Twelfth grade at Rishi Valley then, and wrote this on a whim the night before the deadline. They invited me for a week-long workshop with 100 authors from around the world, but this was January and the ISC exams were around the corner, and I was advised not to go.

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