Dear Chester

Dear Chester,

You hanged yourself today, but the rigor mortis seems to have set in our collective limbs. It is you who died, but we are all numb.

It was the most confusing time of my life when I was first handed audio cassettes of Meteora and Hybrid Theory. I didn’t quite fit in at 17; I sought my place in a new world and didn’t find one. Then, you came on the music player and spat out Somewhere I Belong. That day, I found my first college friend, one who taught me that I owed zero fucks to the world.

Linkin Park was perhaps as big a Western music influence on my life as Michael Jackson had once been. But MJ couldn’t do what you did. Whenever I was hurting, whenever I was caught in the undertow and needed to scream my head off, you screamed for me. The college bully suddenly knew I wouldn’t be ignored; every time I took one step closer to the edge of sanity, you took one with me; and I realized it was okay to have a voice at the back of my head, a face underneath my skin. My quest for an identity, the urge to rebel, to chase my dreams – had all found an indomitable voice. A voice that thundered through the windows while I stayed shut inside the house. I wonder what, or whom, you turned to when the chaos got to you. You repeatedly rescued us with your songs. I’m sorry we couldn’t rescue you.

It’s a little baffling that only in your end do I get to know you so much better. You, Chester Bennington the man, and not the lead singer of Linkin Park the band. Your interviews now pop up on my timeline; your history of battling depression, childhood abuse, and addiction reveals itself. I check out your latest posts on Instagram and find them tainted with your death. Your words, photographs, videos… everything has been stained the color of suicide. Your lyrics have acquired a whole new meaning; your screams are now soaked in pain. Now, every time we listen to one of your songs, we lose you all over again.

There are a few who are calling you names, fans who think it was selfish of you to kill yourself. Not everyone understands despair, Chester. Not everyone is acquainted with the kind of sorrow that plagues the mind and renders every success and joy meaningless. Thousands of people, including I, wanted to be you all these years while you were shedding your own skin with each song. I don’t blame you for leaving, but I wish we could’ve given you at least one reason good enough to not reach for that rope. I hope you finally find yourself somewhere you belong.

All that you leave behind – your songs, your grunts, your gut-wrenching angst – all of it will continue to echo through thousands of lives and lead confused young minds to peace. Knowing that we aren’t alone in our despair is sometimes just enough to hold on. I wish you too could’ve had that solace. I wish you could witness the grief that clouds the world of rock today. And I hope you know that, in the end, it does matter. In the end, you matter.

Rest in peace, my friend.

Still screaming along,
The boy who doesn’t fit in

Dear Kingshuk Sir

“My goal in life is to be one of those people who are just light. You see them and you suddenly feel so warm you just want to hug them. They look at you and smile with the warmest light in their eyes… you want to be close to them and you hope that some of their light transfers onto you.” – Anonymous

Dear Kingshuk Sir,

We last met in February. You wore your radiant smile at work. I came with my wedding invite. We joked about your failing memory. Today I learnt, that was our final meeting.

I wanted you to come to my big day, but I knew you wouldn’t. I knew you’d instead be busy checking and rechecking every fact and every sentence in the news stories of that day, thinking up ways it could sound more objective (and perhaps clearer to “someone’s grandma working in the kitchen”).

Many writers I know love to weave purple prose – it reasserts their self-belief. But you were always one for brevity and precision. You tirelessly stood for pithy sentences that delivered facts in the most efficient and accurate manner. (Your spoken words, too, followed the same frugality.) And you ingrained the same principles in me. (Sorry for the long-winded transgressions I make today.) It’s little wonder that you came to personify the word ‘editor’ in my dictionary. For instance, I remember the day you introduced me to staccato intros. I’d written one accidentally, I believe. Today, I wrote one intentionally. I hope I did it right.

An editor, you were. But that’s not all you were. One day, after I had attended your editing class in journalism school, I searched for your TOI blog. I was sure one would exist and that it would talk about serious political and social issues in the most balanced tone possible. Your beaming face popped up next to this description:

Kingshuk Mukherji is first a parent who loves listening to and understanding all children have to say on everything — from their friends, to school, their peers and their teachers. He is also an associate editor with The Times of India.

Anyone who’s studied under you will relate to that first line (and chuckle on the last one). It would be a gross understatement to say that you were the favourite journalism teacher of mine and everyone else I have known to struggle in those halls. No, you were more a parent to all of us. We never feared angering you with our assignments (or the lack of them); you seemed incapable of losing your temper. We feared disappointing you. You believed in each of us more than any of us believed in ourselves. To let you down was to let ourselves down.

That hasn’t changed since, for me. Only now, it’s about leading a fulfilling life and not about submitting a worthy assignment. If I come anywhere close to achieving what you always believed I could, I will have lived a fantastic life.

Right from the moment I awkwardly stood up in your first class and announced my reckless ambition of becoming a travel journalist, you supported me fully. (In fact, you said that you wished you had taken that path.) It was the first time my dream had not been diluted down to its nearest common denominator.

Later in TOI, there were days I was put in your team. It was the only time I was given full freedom to design a special edition page (or any page). It was so unusual for a sub-editor that I panicked at the responsibility and gave it back to you. That was the only time I saw you get angry. “You’re the best student I’ve had, Sumeet. Now tell me which story should go where. You know this. I know you know this!” you said, hurt by my low self-belief, and handed the page back to me. I was never sure if I deserved that title or that responsibility. But those work-days taught me more about journalism than an entire academic year did.

On days when I felt lost in life and suffered bouts of depression, there was one person in office I could look towards. And you never denied me a chat. Over cups of machine-spewed coffee, in a quiet corner cabin of a bustling newsroom, we confided travel fantasies to each other. I told you my plans of being a travel writer and exploring the world. You said that one day you would walk away from that chaotic newsroom and live in a quiet, remote place – like Ladakh.

Come back, and live that dream. I insist, Sir.

No eulogy perhaps can articulate what we, your students, feel today. And I realize that the callously-phrased rant I quoted at the beginning of this letter isn’t the best way to pay homage to a man of such measured words. But when that line appeared on my social media feed a few weeks ago, the first person I thought of, was you. I did not know that that light was to go out sooner than any of us could imagine. The world is much darker for it.

Rest in peace and quiet, Sir. You’ve earned it.

Photo courtesy: Devlin Roy

(You can read Kingshuk Mukherji’s personal blog here: https://kingshukmukherji.wordpress.com/
and his delightful parenting blog on TOI here: http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/author/kingshukmukherji/)

Thank you for the gesture, stranger

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Dear stranger with the kindest eyes,

I fear I’m already forgetting you, the little details that I cherish remembering about people – strangers encountered in brief moments of serendipity, composed on a cosmic instrument that plays out our lives like keys in perfect symphony on a grand, old piano.

Yesterday night was the first time I was ferried around on a wheelchair in a shopping mall. It was a terrifying lesson in losing control, publicly. I’m temporarily impaired by an injury that will heal in a week or two, not a permanent disability. But I got a taste of what the latter would feel like. What hurt a travel writer more than his inability to walk was the almost-ubiquitious pity he received from complete strangers. A wheelchair seems to mandate a series of reactions from people – first comes surprise; then, an exaggerated effort to move out of the way; followed by a look of pity and wonder; and lastly, an aversion of one’s eyes as if this grim fate is contagious. I wore camouflage trousers, and wished I were invisible.

When I joked and laughed out loud with the two friends who wheeled me around like it was any other day at the mall, spectators marvelled at the boy who could laugh on a wheelchair! I nearly jumped out of my quasi-coffin on crutches, to prove that I was still human. Capable of wit and sarcasm, and love and laughter. As if it needed to be proved.

And then, there was you. In a summer yellow top, I think. Or was it the orange of dusk skies? I forget. It was, after all, merely a glance. I looked away from your approaching silhouette, assuming you’d be one of the scores to gift me a look of unequivocal ‘sorry’ for the day. But you stopped in your tracks, bent down, and looked me in the eyes. For the first time that day, a stranger talked to me. Me, and not my bandages which seemed to be a screaming beacon of attention. “Get well soon,” you said, almost sang it as if in a musical, emphasizing the soon, like the world couldn’t wait to see me back on my feet. Your kind eyes spoke of concern and optimism, not a condescending form of sympathy. For the first time that day, I felt that I fit in. That I was a part of the species that populated the mall and indulged in reckless shopping, and selfies, and inappropriate humour. For the first time that day, I grinned from ear to ear and meant a “Thank you!”

Friends who do not miss a single chance to pull a fractured leg joked about how a wheelchair couldn’t dial down my charm. They’re the best, stranger. They would later take me window shopping, and to a birthday party, without ever letting me feel the weight of my helplessness. But through that entire evening of being towed around and stared at, I carried the gentle warmth of a kind gesture by a beautiful stranger who seemed to know just what I needed to hear and who did not heed to the walls we build between one another.

People think changing the world comes only from big policy decisions and seats of power and money. But change is also in the little things, stranger. Smiling at the overworked staffer behind the counter, an inflated tip for the waiter with the torn apron, a bag of holiday candies for the homeless, a random conversation struck with an immigrant alienated for her dreadlocks, the girl who wishes you on a wheelchair when everyone else averts their eyes… It’s the little things that matter, it’s the little things that stay with you.

Thank you for the gesture, stranger. It made my day. I hope you know that.

~ The boy in the brown jacket

The poetry of smudged kohl

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Dear stranger who can’t decide what to order,

Your face was evocative of an autumn, wild orange, unapologetic in its eloquence. It hosted your life story, in large, lucid letters. If only I could read the language, I’d have savored the poetry of raindrops in your smudged kohl, memorized the tombstones of kisses on your cheeks and listened to the childhood tales that constellations of freckles told. Instead, I just mumbled, “Their muffins are the best.”

When you looked in my unsure eyes with yours, the hue of coffee beans and dark chocolate, i knew the memory of that moment would keep me warm for many winters to come. You asked me nothing; the questions, formless and wordless, washed up on your shores, helpless against the tides of a thought long forgotten. I never offered any answers; you fetched them, effortlessly picking out the lies from the uncomfortable confessions of my silence.

We sat at the same table, never faking a courtesy. What did we talk about? I can’t quite recall. I was lost in the way your eyes lit up every few minutes, the way you held a smirk when you thought you had me figured, the way you trembled when you realized i had dug out more truths than you had dared reveal in years, the way your gaze swayed every time you knew i was reading you, the way it returned with a knowing smile. I could feel it on me while i stirred whirlpools in my coffee, and when my thoughts wandered out the cafe window to fetch memories from lost cities.

Our thoughts jammed like a college rock band, at first trying out covers, and then some original tunes magically fell in place. You believed in zodiacs; I said there couldn’t be just 12 kinds of people on earth. We agreed to disagree, and I reluctantly told you mine, half fearing I’d be a sign you don’t like. Who knew we’d have the same sun sign and I’d almost instantly regret the rant against astrology.

When we parted, there were no promises of another morning of caffeinated conversation, only a hope that you would reach out some day to the boy who steals your thoughts. I told you i’d look forward to it. I do.

– The boy who drops his change

You’re not alone, stranger

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Dear stranger who wonders why,

It was just another morning of bleary eyes peering into a can of coffee – dark-roasted and ground, and absent. I’d forgotten to get a new pack, again. The coffee machine stood waiting, mocking me like mom does, minus her tinge of affection, over my forgetfulness. At the mercy of habit, i dragged my reluctant feet to a cafe two blocks away. Fingers anxiously tapping the counter, i ordered my cup of morning addiction and waited. Whether it was the aroma of the beans, that purportedly began their journey on the hills of Chikmagalur and ended in hot water in a Delhi cafe, or the sight of you picking cuticles of finger skin while gazing out of the window, I couldn’t tell, but the golden morning suddenly seemed to seep in.

I could tell that you were hurting. Not from the skin-bruising, but from the questions that squabbled for space in your mind, and on your notebook’s last page. As the wind played peekaboo with the covert content of your moleskin journal, I could only make out crooked question marks at the end of each thought that seemed to run into another on its way to a possible closure. I could not see what they were, or what they demanded of you. But i watched their contours reflect on your pale forehead, creases which you ironed with a facade which smiled at the waiter, the girl on the counter and the old man on the next table. It’s only when you stared into the vacuum of life beyond the window stained by last night’s rain that the furrows sneaked out from behind your courtesy.

I recognize the abyss when I see it, stranger; I remember the fall all too clearly. The open page, which you reaffirmed against the breeze every now and then, waited for its second word, the first being a large, conspicuous WHY followed by a serpentine symbol that passed for a punctuation mark. A bookmark gathered dust at the edges, pressed between pages of a novel overdue. The half-full cup of coffee had long given up its attempts at seizing your attention and the stranger across the cafe could not concentrate on his. You were a reflection for him, of months gone by without a single straight thought. You were him, on grey rainy days and those marred by too bright a sun. You were his image, on hazy mirrors that clung to cobweb-riddled walls much like you clutched your questions. They won’t run away; they never do, stranger. They need you as much as you, them.

To question your existence, its purpose, and everything around it, is the greatest question ever asked, to me at least. And sadly one that comes with no promise of an answer. I have spent far too many days gritting my teeth over the anxiety of not knowing Why, stranger. I have turned far too many whimsical, intuitive corners in search of that one answer which lies just round the next one. And always round the next one. I have missed far too many beautiful sights on the way; lost touch with far too many places i called home. I have let go of many i could have walked with, albeit slower, and have sped past many others i could have loved. I continue to run on the same rugged path, believing my choice at that fork long gone did not just conform to an inspiring poem but will also lead me to a purpose served. But I’ve slowed down, stranger. Perhaps the answer isn’t waiting for you and me somewhere beyond the horizon; perhaps it lies in the very steps we take. Maybe, just maybe, it lies in the trail of dents we leave behind.

I hope you got the fresh cup of hot coffee, peppered with chocolate sprinkles, and the note I left with it. I hope you always remember… You’re a beautiful person in a magical world. And that you’re not alone when you drown in the despair of your existence. The only answer to it, i feel, is to love madly: not just the next boy you fall for, but everything from the cup of coffee on your table, the musings of another existentialist which outlived him and made it to your desk, the stray dog who rubs his snout against your palm, and the first sun rays that perch on your eyelids at dawn to that magnificent reflection in the mirror, replete with all its unique scars. All perfection is alike, stranger, but art comes from aberrations.

Until another magical morning,
The boy in the grey hoodie

My first heartbreak

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Dada,

As i say the word, a peculiar unfamiliarity washes over my insides. The kind that seeps in gradually over the years, as moments turn into memories and memories dissolve into oblivion. Like the edges of a photograph slowly betray the promise of permanence, like the rusty hinges of a childhood bicycle screech under weary adult legs, like the yellowing pages of a book surrender to tenacious silverfish. This strange unfamiliarity with a word, that once slipped out thoughtlessly in excited childhood shrieks and injured whimpers alike, hurts. It reminds me that i have forgotten. How could i forget?

April 28, 2015. It’s a good day at work. I get a lead for a story, and a hotline to the source in a remote disaster-stricken area against all odds of a scratchy network. The story finds its way from the precarious place between his life and my words to the newspaper. Another story of a man shrugging off his missing limb to scale summits will also find space today. An unexpected privilege announces itself, too. Amidst almost habitual discontent, today has been spectacular! I shall sleep well, for once.

The next morning comes with the knowledge that my stories are being read across a country. There’s nothing more a writer needs. Except coffee, maybe. The smell of a fresh brew is as good as smells get. Ma talks about reading my articles as we speak over a phone line that stretches over 1,062 kilometres. She is my most loyal reader, and my favourite too. And probably the proudest mother in the whole world right now. We discuss how hot the weather is, whether i’ve had breakfast yet, and when we’ll meet next; in other words, the usual. Meanwhile, Facebook tells me i got my first ever article published on the same day three years ago.

“How uncanny! Yesterday was lucky for me, i guess.”

She asks me what date it was.

“Uh.. April 28. Why?”

“That’s Dada’s day, remember?” she says.

How could i forget?

April 28, 2003. It started out like any other day. But by the time the sun was halfway around the sky, you lay on the floor, cotton swabs uncomfortably plugging your nostrils. I felt a pressing urge to remove them. ‘How will Dada breathe?’ I’d think every now and then. I stared at you for a long while, waiting, hoping, almost believing in miracles. Gradually, rigor mortis set in, making your lifeless form pale, and alien to me. That wasn’t you. That’s not how i’d remember you; i looked away. While everyone cried and grieved (even Sammy dragged his feet that day), i stood by, numb and comfortably oblivious. They often came looking for tears rolling down my cheeks, and found none. No, i didn’t cry, not that day. Not for the next few in fact. And i saw eyes watching me, probably judging me for it. Slowly, guilt set in. How could i not be sad? You’d loved me the most. What would you think if you were in the room watching everyone mourn but your own grandson?

Back then, my teenage mind hadn’t been introduced to denial. It did not know why it made fun of the pujari who recited all sorts of incomprehensible verses, why it bolted out of the house to play pool at a cafe, why it pondered over the colour of the mat on the floor instead of the body on it. Until one day, when the rituals were long over and the house restored to its stillness, i saw grandma looking at a picture of you on the wall. Behind her was the empty spot you always occupied on the bed. Maybe i expected you to be sitting there reclined on your custom-sized pillow complaining of some ache instead of smiling lifelessly in a frame, or maybe it was the emptiness that filled her eyes – that day I cried. You know i cried.

Twelve years ago when i lost you and my brain finally got around to accepting it, i wore the date as an indelible scar on my heart. It was the first time my heart had broken, the first time i looked to the stars to find someone i missed. In the years since, I have written about all my heartbreaks. Each time a separation shattered me, i collected the pieces and used them to bleed words. How then could i forget my first heartbreak? I’ve shed too many parts of me in the name of growing up. This one, i refuse to shed.

Do you know i’m a journalist now? I’m sure you wouldn’t have approved of the erratic lifestyle, but would be proud enough to stack up all my stories in your old cupboard, alongside the life-size picture of an infant me that you treasured all those years. We found it after a certain April 28.

I know you look out for me, and not just on a certain day each year. Know that I still look for you in the stars; I find you in some of the first and dearest memories I preserve. I hope there’s piping hot tea in heaven at 4 every evening. Along with biscuits that you share with Sammy.

– Nonu

P.S. I haven’t played carrom for ages. You’d have to play really, really badly now to let me win.

Here & Now

Today

The one who loves more each day,

You know how we marvel at how we met and fell in love and that it all feels like an ingenious stroke of destiny?

I bleed for all the Mes and Yous in all those parallel universes out there where we did not walk into each other. I wonder how i’m putting myself to sleep and whom you’re telling all your little secrets to. I wonder whom we’re coming back home to right now. I wonder if i made it through today without screaming at a wall and if you remembered to wear your smile to work. I wonder if i ate today, without your repeated reminders; if something made you laugh so hard that your eyes teared up; if someone told you a million times in the day that you were beautiful, and loved very much; if someone told me they were proud of me…

Then i notice your big worrying eyes reading my face from across the room. And just like that, nothing matters. Nothing but today, here and now.

– Your daydreamer

Your other Today

Today

Dear stranger-turned-lover-turned-stranger,

This day, last year, you said you didn’t love me any more. That it did not feel the same way. I stood by you like i had always promised i would; you walked away. You don’t know what happened next, do you?

I knocked on your door on a sunny spring morning. The tulips in your front yard shied away from the scorching sky. I came with roses and scrunched up notes in my pocket- each one a different draft of what I would say. I didn’t have to open them of course, for I had felt the words lodged in my throat for four days. Four days: That’s 12 cups of unstirred coffee, 6 half-cooked meals and 2 cold pizzas, 3 cans of ice cream, 4 bars of chocolate (okay, 7!), 4 long sunsets, and a sum of 3,45,600 moments without you in my life. The moment you opened the door, my eyes blurted it all out.

We exchanged our eccentric vows at a placid beach on a stormy day, a few monsoons down the way. The photoshoot was washed away, but the clouds giggled as we kissed in their rain. Our first dance was barefoot, on sand birthed by the sea, lit by a crescent moon the size of a paper lantern. The ocean swayed with us that night, before the darkness fell asleep in your gentle embrace.

It’s too bad the dream always ends there: In a perfect world, painted the deep blue of a dawn nigh and an ocean full, marked by the caress of hair that held the perfume of daisies and filled with the harmony of your bloodsong on my skin. It’s a universe where I knew what to say that day, and you were home to open that door. Out here, right now, pizza and unstirred coffee await tired hands, nostalgic of a day we never had, as another letter recklessly crawls beneath your locked door.

Once yours,
Just another whim

Love is in the details, stranger

Dear stranger who spills her coffee,

I saw you at the station today, as I waited for the train to start another clumsy day. A day which was to be filled with mundane tasks at an easy job, banal conversations, and gulping down cupfuls of machine coffee. But then, there was you, cupping your morning cappuccino with both hands, like a kid his candy bar, and floating in the waters of one of my favourite books. The roaring light at the end of the subway tunnel failed to wake me from the nostalgic stupor your silhouette evoked. I was, for a moment, 18 again.

“She was beautiful,” I would later tell my friend. Not because you looked pretty in that unpretentious grey cardigan, or because your hair flowed effortlessly, like a river down your shoulders, before your collar bone split them into streams. Not because you had the perfect amount of kohl in your eyes. Not because you had the grace of a dancer in the way you tackled the bumpy train ride, which made many a commuter lose his morning feet.

You were beautiful because you stood and watched as an old man took the ‘ladies seat’ in front of you. It made him smile the most soulful toothless smile i had seen.

Because you made funny faces at the baby across the aisle until her laughter, like the jingle of a wind chime caressed, filled the heavy air.

Because when the coffee fogged your glasses at the station, you slid them into your hair with a dimpled smile and continued reading. The embarrassed innocence that found its way to your lips, and the knowing melancholy that stayed in your eyes made me want to cry. For it took me back to a time when you, and i, and so many beautiful people we know, smiled without crying within.

Because you skipped a few trains at the station to finish a chapter, and your coffee. I skipped them to read you.

Because when you spilled your coffee with the careless wave of a hand while Murakami occupied your mind, you gasped for your copy of Norwegian Wood, not caring for the stain it left on your sleeve. My copy stayed firmly tucked in my bag. You were so much more than an author could conjure.

If I said I fell in love at first sight, it’d make a poetic line, and perhaps a popular post; maybe even inspire a song or two, but it wouldn’t be true. For Love is in the details, stranger: the good, the bad, and the nasty. The ones that you flaunt, the ones that you hide, the ones that make you you: I’d want to know them all.

I want to know which birds sing outside your window at dawn. Do your groggy eyes smile at their melodies? Or do you steal a minute more of sleep at every snooze of a persistent alarm? Is your hair neatly tied up, or do you let them entangle your dreams? How do you take your morning tea, or coffee? What terrifies you? What excites you? Which is your favourite love song, stranger?

I’d want to listen to your idea of happiness, while you stared into nothingness and pictured it.  I’d lie beneath the stars with you, listening to your stories – the colours of your childhood, the elder brother or the younger sister or the imaginary friend; your first crush; the first time you dared to love, the times your heart broke; your hopes and dreams: the ones that stayed, others that you buried; the books that made you cry the most, the movies that made you laugh the hardest; moments of triumph, and those of defeat, and those that you hide between pages of a journal.

After all, Love is in the details, stranger. It’s only when you have seen the other jump with joy and curl up on the floor broken, laugh uninhibitedly and cry helplessly, love madly and hate fiercely, survive their mondays and live their fridays; when you’ve heard all their anecdotes, over and over again; when you’ve held their manicured hand at a party, and kissed their morning face in bed; when you’ve marvelled at their perfections and adored their flaws; when you’ve stormed out the door only to realize you miss them too much; when the spark has all but disappeared and yet you can’t imagine a day without them – only then are you truly in Love, a place where a whim does not decide your fate. You do.

What do you think, stranger?

 

Until tomorrow’s train ride,

The boy who can’t keep his shoelaces tied.