Melancholy is a strange visitor. It walks in uninvited, without the courtesy of a simple tap on the door, and leaves as it pleases, in the dead of night or amidst the din of daylight.
China was supposed to be a solitary exploration trip, even though I was part of an official delegation of 200 people, who had been “selected” by the government to represent the youth of the country and have cultural exchanges with those in China (more on this in another post). Travel is almost as essential to my being as love, and i get the most out of a trip when i’m left alone in my own mind to observe and tap into the soul of a place. So this trip, my first outside India (apart from a journalistic adventure to Nepal), meant the world. It was my first taste of a completely new culture and its people. I expected myself to space out and explore China, while my soliloquies and camera kept me company in a country which didn’t speak any tongue I was familiar with.
While the first half a day or so went exactly as planned, it wasn’t long before I stumbled upon a few crazies. And before I knew it, we were together everywhere. Be it scaling the great wall of China, haggling to the extremes at flea markets, making ready-to-eat vegetarian food and masala chai on the 28th floor of a five-star hotel that overlooked the magnificent Guangzhou, making fun of other unruly youth delegates, singing English songs (with a blend of desi rap) to a clueless yet thrilled Chinese audience in a karaoke bar, biking on the Xi’an wall, or making sure everyone was up in the morning in time for the bus, we did it all together. From different parts of the country, the eight of us revelled in one another’s eccentricities. Theplas were passed around in tour buses, Marathi slangs learned, Kolkata praised and scoffed at in equal measure, Sindhis disowned and adored at the same time, college-like gossip spread; the beauty of a country that makes you stick out – it makes you stick together. Having said that, it wouldn’t have happened with anyone; it took a very special blend of wonderfully weird people to form a family out there.
The saddest thing about goodbyes, I read somewhere, is not knowing whether they’ll miss you or forget you. I’ve always been awful with separation; so I escape it, with a joke or two while gasping for breath inside. But turns out I’m not alone in being over-sentimental about goodbyes. This peculiar set of people, who had met one another only a week ago at a nondescript (and sweltering hot) orientation session, cried their eyes out at being separated. For the first time, I know I’m missed, as much as I miss you all.
Defying my plans, the trip turned out to be about the people, more than the place. I’ll remember China well, and what’s even better, I’ll remember every incredible place we visited with some weird shit we did together attached to the memory. For a boy addicted to a perennial sense of sadness, this has been a welcome break. Jesse laments in ‘Before Sunrise’ about never having been to a place where he himself wasn’t there. While at first that might not make any sense, I relate to that feeling quite often. I’m almost tired of being with myself, of having every experience under the sun in the company of my own cynicism. There is no place I have visited, nothing I have done, where I wasn’t there to ruin it for myself. Until China, that is. I didn’t quite understand it then, but in retrospect, when I look back at all the memories we made, I thankfully do not find me in the frame. Instead, there’s this 16-year-old version who loved every moment he lived, and did not quite ponder over the pointlessness of it all. I had lost touch with him over the years.
As I return to my writer’s desk, I feel like I’ve suddenly been pulled back from a magical world of dragons and terracotta warriors and intimidatingly high walls to my boring old closet, filled with woollens that suffocate. But for what it’s worth, that alternate universe lingers on in our collective memory. And the people in it continue to defy the goodbye we didn’t say.
Who says only love stories must end in forevers?