The closer you get…

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Fireflies

“Should we go outside?”

“But it’s snowing out there, hon. We’ll freeze!”

“Yeah, but it feels more Christmas-y outside.”

“What? How?”

“The fairy lights. They glow like fireflies, like a portal to another world. ”

“Sigh. Poets! Okay, but you better hope I don’t catch a cold in this alternate reality.”

Most lessons from school have been completely forgotten, but some tidbits persist. Some inexplicably random memories floating weightlessly in a crevice of the mind. Like a short story in Hindi class (or was it Gujarati?) that taught us to counter evil acts with kindness, repeatedly if necessary. Like a Sanskrit adage that translated to “Familiarity breeds contempt.” The latter rang true in my life every now and then, the first time perhaps when I became college roommates with my best friend from school. I’ve come to realize now that proximity, too, has the same effect.

Have you ever noticed how fairy lights look magical from a café’s window – almost as if the spirit of Christmas itself has manifested as a bunch of fireflies. But the moment you go outside, to have a seat under the dim lighting that promised to cast a gentle holiday glow on the soul, they lose their sheen. You start to notice little details – the one or two erratic bulbs that flicker, the flimsy wire that holds them together – invisible from across a window but now, up close, louder than the lights themselves, the potted roots of the miniature tree they entwine and its stunted fate. It’s almost as if the flaws magnify, like this café wasn’t even a good idea. Unless…

Ah! Look at those cheesecakes inside. They look soft as clouds, and the chocolate fountain sprouts ecstasy in reckless abandon! Besides, the old woman wearing the hat at the far end looks like a witch right out of Hogwarts…

“Can we go inside, love? Near the cakes? They look like they were delivered from heaven’s own little patisserie!”

“This is exactly why we don’t do date nights.”

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How I quit engineering and became a travel writer-photographer

Scuba diving in Andamans

Five years ago, I dared to dream.

In 2011, I was a computer engineer gulping cupfuls of machine-spewed instant coffee at an IT company while pondering a strange existentialist cloud that rained often on my cubicle. I was disillusioned by the tech bubble that encircled my life, the kind that makes managers worry about web servers instead of people when natural disasters strike. They were just doing their job I guess, but it was clear to me that that job wasn’t my calling. So, I quit. And I dared to dream of a career which would make me travel the world to tell stories through my favourite channels of expression – writing and photography. Now, before you denounce this reckless career leap as a millennial’s privilege, let me stop you right there and agree with you. Yes, I’m one of those Gen-Y yuppies who are constantly seeking their ‘special’ place in this world, unlike their parents whose idea of success was a secure, well-paying job.

Truth is, everybody dreams reckless dreams. But few give up everything to follow them. After all, the blue pill is so much easier to swallow (Matrix reference). You continue on the path you did not choose because you’re already on it, because “it’s too late to turn back”, because if you went after the dream you might “lose everything” and yet never find the fabled treasure, or worse.

I took the red pill.

As I gave up that life, I joined a journalism college and sat amidst History, English Hon. and Journalism grads, trying to comprehend what it meant to be a scribe in the new world. I was told I was a decent writer but had no sense of news. My introduction in every class followed the same pattern. After the customary name, domicile and interests trivia, and the mandatory ‘why quit engineering’ argument, I announced my intent: ‘To become a travel writer and photographer’. It met as much amusement as rebuke. So much so that at one point, I felt I was being unreasonable asking for such a surreal way of life. My ambitions were watered down to the nearest common denominator: city reporter. A city feature writer at most, if I was lucky.

No Signboards

Desperation took over. Whenever an ad announced ‘The Best Job in the World’ – more often that not related to travel – I threw my hat in the ring, akin to buying a lottery ticket. My resume held no qualification for the job, only ‘immense passion for travel, and unbridled creativity in storytelling’.  I was a daydreamer, chasing my phantasm with the single-mindedness of a sniper. I shot out query letters to professional travel writers asking for advice. When no tips returned, I inquired about their career trajectory. Perhaps I could try to emulate it. Vague responses only made the job look more like a myth. Travel cafes offered workshops on writing; blogs gave advice on shoe-string budgets and marketing; magazines asked for experience which wasn’t available without prior experience. They were all selling real estate on whimsical clouds. It is then that I decided that if I ever became a travel journalist, I’d write about it. If not concrete advice, at least my own story. So it would give hope to anyone who dreams the same dream.

It’s 2016. And I’m here. A writer-photographer for a travel magazine, one of the two publications I mentioned in a naive Facebook note I posted in 2011 while sketching out the goal. [For those who are quick to make Bollywood comparisons, this was two years before YJHD and Ranbir Kapoor made it cool to be a travel photographer.] I wish I could tell you if the dream lives up to its projection in my head. But I’ve just got here; I’m yet to savour it. Perhaps six months later, I’ll tell you whether the Loch Ness Monster really has gigantic flippers for feet.

Lucky Number: None

It wasn’t luck that got me here. It was an immense amount of stubbornness, courage to take silly risks, many sacrifices, and working insanely hard at whatever I took up along the way. (Also, a lingering sense of discontent that soiled every success I tasted along the way.)

I topped my journalism school. Not that medals are any indicator of talent, but that gold medallion gave me a lot of self-belief, an assurance that I was perhaps right about changing the course of my career. The industry was in such a dire state that there were no campus placements that year. So I interned at what is routinely called the biggest English-language daily in the world.

The internship was supposed to last four months. But after just two months of reporting in a city I loathed, I ran into a wall. A bad bout of hepatitis-induced jaundice made sure that I lay shackled to a bed for four months while my peers got published and scored jobs. When I went back to the newsroom, vitals nearing normalcy, reporting jobs had run out. I finished my internship in a different department, one that held promise of a job but involved work that I had never intended to do. I wanted to tell stories; instead I spent eight ill-timed hours editing others’ political stories and populating pages with them. A far cry from travel writing. But I kept at it for over two years. Back then, it felt like a means to an end. But in hindsight, it was a significant phase of growth.

Did I like it? No.

Did I learn from it? Yes, for a while.

Did I do it nevertheless? As well as I possibly could. A double-promotion later, I approached the nicest boss in office with mutiny (and guilt) on my mind. I wanted out. I wanted to write. Before my CV was cast in an editor’s mold. And a transfer within the company was the only way. Few firms would hire a rookie reporter, with no sources or portfolio, at the salary of a senior sub-editor.

Earning It

Internal transfers aren’t uncommon, but they do meet some resistance. Especially when you want to leave the desk for the field. (Because almost everyone wants to do that). I was fortunate to have bosses who acknowledged my calling. But the team I aspired for was the weekly national features team. If I got in, I would be the youngest in the room by at least 6-7 years. I was vying to fill the boots of someone who had 10-odd years of writing experience. I knew I had to earn my place. So, after two years of editing monotonous political stories, I put pen to paper, summoned my muse, and tried to write content-rich national features hinged on news.

Words had abandoned me. The metaphors that once laced my tongue bled like ulcers in the mouth. I wrote nevertheless; I crawled through language, groping for one word, then the next. I turned to my personal blog for momentum. [Yes, this one.] For the next five months, I balanced two jobs. While I continued to follow the eight-hour rut of politics and pages every day, I also contributed the occasional feature story to iron out any doubts about my abilities. In March 2015, I finally broke in. I was a feature writer with a nationwide audience.

Sunset at chidiya tapu

Life turned easier after the transition. For one, my day turned turtle. For the first time in 2.5 years, I was going to office in the first half of the day and coming back before midnight. I was eating three meals a day and watching the occasional sunset. My reluctant editing stint proved to be a strength on the new job – I wrote without the fluff which usually clouds rookie writing, because I’d spent two years cutting out that very fat from stories. Most importantly, I was telling stories under my own name. For me, nothing beats the thrill of receiving a phone call/sms/fan-mail about a story that resonates with someone.

The travel dream remained dormant but never died. Being the youngest in the team eventually proved to be an advantage. I could leave for an assignment at a moment’s notice. Any assignment. My job took me to Nepal twice, to China, and to Andamans for a scuba diving experience – all in a single year. Outsiders called me lucky; my insides winced. It’s an easy thing to attribute someone’s way of life to luck. No, I wasn’t lucky. I’d worked my guts out for this; I’d rebelled for this; I’d given up an IT career that promised money and the American dream, for this. While most of my engineering friends uploaded selfies with their new sedans, or pictures of a posh office in Silicon Valley, or a home they moved into with their better halves, I had been busy figuring out if I could pay the bills on time that month. Journalism isn’t an easy job, and the industry pay standards don’t make it any easier. My only reward: Every Sunday when my story came out, Ma would call from a faraway hamlet, once home, telling me she’d read me; school teachers and cousins and former best friends would message to say my stories had become a ritualistic accompaniment with their Sunday morning cup of tea. There is no greater reward for a writer than to be read.

The Treasure Trunk

The job was great. I enjoyed a big audience and the freedom to write on various subjects. But it still wasn’t what I had spelled out five years ago in that classroom. There was travel involved, but it was purely incidental. My feet itched to wander. So, after 1.5 years of writing features on topics ranging from alternative sexuality in comics to couple apps and suicide helplines (http://bit.ly/29xLc7r), I unlocked the trunk beneath my bed and dug out the dream, now covered in sheaths of dust. I applied to a travel magazine. By this time, I had built a portfolio of over 50 national features and composed a Flickr page that featured eclectic frames – from wildlife photographs and unexplored landscapes to underwater creatures and street portraits. The work laid out on the table, I wasn’t asked to give a test. Salary terms were negotiated, the offer handed out. It was mine. Just like that.

Andamans-sea

Sometimes life offers mirages in the middle of a scorching desert. Sometimes, we build them ourselves, making up a reason to keep walking through the harshest of terrains, plotting dreams with emboldened crosses, reaffirmed, on tattered maps, imagining treasures beyond belief for the taking – if only we walked. If only we survived this. But what happens when you suddenly have it, the dream, tossing and turning like a baby dragon of folklore in the palm of your hand?

Dare to dream. And don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done. But be prepared to give everything up to chase that fantasy beyond the rainbow’s arch. ‘Wishing on a falling star got me here,’ said no one ever.

As for me, my next dream is already keeping me up through nights.

Tamasha isn’t a Movie. This isn’t a Review.

Tamasha

I spent the first part of my day at a literature event. I did not get as much out of it as I did from the two-and-a-half-hour-long movie I watched the same evening. Tamasha isn’t a film, though. It’s a life story. As I watched it, I realized it was my life story. I snapped out of suffocating neckties and bid goodbye to an industry where I didn’t belong four years ago, to tell stories (except not in a theatrical fashion, but with words and frames and some perspective for garnishing).

First, I’m very happy someone made a movie on (quitting) the rat race. It was spelled out clearly in Ved’s (Ranbir) last story to his dad; subtlety doesn’t really work with Indian audiences, or so the directors here think. Hence, Taare Zameen Par and 3 Idiots involved speeches that summarized their ‘moral of the story’. But Tamasha does better. And it lends a hand to anyone (and I know there are many) who wants to stop chasing an illusion of a victory in a fixed race but can’t gather the courage to. I know it would’ve certainly helped the likes of me four years ago when I sat in an IT office pretending to care about hollow-sounding words like downtime, skill set, app pool, and major incident, while my hands itched to write my heart out.

Of course there were some flaws with the movie. Time hops are a major upgrade over a boringly linear narrative, but overdo them and the audience is left with a scattered memory of the story. I like to retain the flavour of a film for a few hours (days?) after I’ve seen it, roll it around in my mind and see if it means any different. But as much as I tried to, Tamasha came back to me in bits and pieces when I strolled the cold away on a Delhi evening. There were a few lasting scenes – when Ved and Tara (Deepika) meet – as Don and Mona- and when it ends with the Don’s return; there was Ved’s last story; there was the auto-rickshaw guy and the old storyteller, there were Ved’s mirror soliloquies…  I had trouble molding all of these pieces into a solid takeaway, a memory to preserve.

Ranbir is the center of the film, and rightly so. A friend remarked that the love story wasn’t given its due screen time, but I disagree. This film wasn’t a love story, and that is where Imtiaz Ali surprises and wins hearts (and perhaps awards). Also, Deepika struggled to act, in my opinion. Especially when Ranbir is in his element in France, Deepika clearly struggles to keep up with the maverick quotient he possesses. But just when you think Ranbir is doing fairly well, he takes it to a whole new level as the corporate Yes Man who’s been trained to follow a mindless drill. He eventually questions his life story and dares to want one different from that of others around. (The film’s poster again spells it out for those with blinders on : ‘Why always the same story?’) This is a level a past me (and a lot of you) might relate to. But as another friend shrewdly pointed out in an FB status, those who have never questioned or attempted to quit the race will not identify with this movie (and perhaps even think the protagonist needs a shrink). Despair can’t be summarized to those who have never felt it.

Our life lesson textbooks in school were full of clichés. The most clichéd of those clichés was: ‘Honesty is the best policy’. I cringe as I type that, even after all these years. While our teachers tried to teach us to be honest with everyone – from our friends to parents to the annoying neighbour aunty, they forgot to teach us to be honest with ourselves. This film does exactly that. And it’s as important a life lesson as any.

Tamasha isn’t a movie. It’s the life story of a lot of people suffocating in air-conditioned cubicles who have been told to be content with their plastic luxuries since their forefathers weren’t so blessed. It’s perhaps your life story, too. Only, as the protagonist so aptly puts it, the ending depends on you.

A class in nostalgia

For starters, let me confess something. I enjoy the occasional drink of nostalgia. I indulge in the melancholy that memories bring. Perhaps that is why i sometimes seek out places that exhume moments long gone by. They may not even have been among the best times i’ve had, but if i remember them and the emotions associated strongly enough, revisiting them feels a bit like time travel.

So, to relish a slice of a long forgotten past that was bound to sting the tongue, I set out for my school, St. Xavier’s High, one of three i attended in my life. (However, this was the only one i had managed to get attached to.) It had been 12 years since i had been there, since i had walked out of Class 10 thinking i’d just passed my toughest exam. So I anticipated the bout of nostalgia, almost looked forward to it. But i hadn’t expected the stage of my childhood to have stayed almost entirely the same, thereby enshrining those days. Right from the colour of the walls where i once busted my knee while chasing a friend over a joke, to the basketball court which back then felt like the only happy spot in the school, to the notice board which once hosted my first (and atrociously lame) poem, and even the tree fences that we sat on during breaks, everything had retained its composition – as if saved for this very moment when i’d visit, my adult disguise betrayed by a pair of moist eyes.

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I often wonder why we miss it, the past. Is it because our present does not match up to it? Hardly. I’m lucky enough to say most of the things in my present are of my choosing, and hence make me very happy. Close friends who are insanely understanding, a mind that knows its thoughts from its emotions, freedom to live on my own terms – a lot has changed, for the better. So what exactly do i miss when i sit in my old classroom with a broken window that overlooks the basketball ground? Why do i miss the yearning, when, now, i am no longer bound by class rules and don’t have to wait for the tolling of the bell for a shot at the hoop?

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Maybe it’s not the yearning we miss. Maybe we don’t miss the place at all, but who we were while we inhabited it. The kid who sat gazing out of Class IX B didn’t exactly like being there; he was full of doubts and wishes, but was also full of life. He had no bad memories to recall, only an unshakable belief in a gleaming future; he had no money to call his own, but he also never worried about paychecks and bills; he never had the freedom to play at will, but when he was on the court in the ‘Games period’, he ran like the world depended on it; he had no qualms about his own existence and its purpose; he had no cynicism to rob him of his faith; he had no real nightmares, just ones of monsters that didn’t exist.

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Maybe I didn’t visit the school at all today, maybe i just visited me. The 10-year-old introvert who was equal parts excited and scared shifting to a “tough school” in Class 6 but eventually made the exams look easy, who spent every day looking forward to the basketball game at the end (and sulked on those that didn’t end in the sports period), who worried about his grades but only on the last day, who sneaked a glance at his crush in every ‘recess’ and believed love would find a way (and heartbreaks wouldn’t). Maybe for one day, i had the itch to bend the space-time continuum and inhabit that boy who believed, without a speck of doubt, that his life would be grand, and whose biggest worry was if he would grow tall enough. Maybe i wanted to find my way back to a peculiar version of happiness which was unadulterated by reality.

And I found it lying untouched, in a class cupboard that still smells of moss and childhood secrets.

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Not a Goodbye

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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?

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50 shades of Red

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At 17, I held an incorrigible belief that there was only one kind of true (romantic) love, and that I’d stumble into it around some unsuspecting corner. That it’d possibly start with the mellow yellow of friendship, evolve into the maturing tinge of a kusum, and eventually bloom into the red hue of a love unquestionably true. That it’d stay until my last day, and probably stain my gravestone the maroon of grieving roses.

Call it a side-effect of growing up, but I’ve learned, the hard way, that isn’t quite the case. The world of romance isn’t black (read red) and white. There are infinite shades in between two extremes of oblivion, each marking a singular story of two individuals bewitched by a concoction of fate and choice. Some of these have stained the seasons in my sky, and some others i’ve watched float by.

There’s the naive pink of first love. Oh, first love! It may or may not ripen into something more permanent, but for the time it lasts, it dances on the horizon like newborn rays of dawn. If love is an act of falling, this is, in the truest sense, a free-fall in vacuum. For there exists no one and nothing that can stand in its way. It feels like finding a secret doorway at the back of the closet that leads you to a magical world of majestic lions and kind beavers. Sooner or later though, an eternal winter conquers the kingdom. Once back to reality, you grope at nostalgia in your closet from time to time, for an innocence that once was.

There’s the intimidating blood red of a love you never thought could be yours. But then it suddenly is. It symbolizes danger, and yet the promise of adventure lures you in. And for better or probably worse, it laps you up like a tornado born right in the middle of a meadow. It takes you to rough seas you never thought you would dare to explore, tossing you over with every reckless wave until you’re drained of any will to fight it. You let it carry you to which-so-ever shore it pleases, and it chooses the most desolate one to abandon you at. It fades out into the horizon, as quickly as it began, leaving you in a sea of endless blue.

There’s the intriguing new-age mauve. No one knows where it came from, who defined it and gave it space on the palette amid all the other acceptable shades. It’s neither here nor there, constantly vacillating between hues of friendship & love, cynicism & belief, attraction & repulsion, lust & sentiment. It isn’t love, and yet it feels like it, or maybe not. It’s an almost, painfully so.

Then of course, there is the shade of pain. The darkest one on the spectrum, it’s one that almost everyone I’ve met has lived. It appeared like the perfect hue, making you ecstatic to the point of delirium. It felt like you had finally arrived at your destination, having made your tasking journey and overcome impossible obstacles on the way. And for the while it lived, all the colours of the past faded in comparison and the world was draped in unadulterated red. Now it is all but a clotted memory on a dead sentiment that you hope comes off some day. Closure or not, it is sure to leave a scar where it once thrived. And you’ll wear it like a medal of honour, for it’d have defined you in so many ways.

Trying to enlist the kinds of love today (rather, emotions tagged ‘love’) would be like attempting to contain all the stars in a pickle jar. There is an infinite number of tones, each like no other. But in my humble opinion, a love that lasts isn’t the bright flash of a lightning strike that blinds you with its sudden white on an inky black sky, or a bud that blooms overnight for you to admire in the morning and press between pages of a curator diary two days later. It’s the painstakingly long fermenting of grapes that acquire the dark mahogany of wine over years of tending to, and it only grows richer with time – like forgiveness, and a few other things that last forever.

(Feel free to paint for me the colours of your sky in the comments below)

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.

The Maze Runners

The Maze

 

Existentialism is a maze. No one has found a way out of it yet. At least not that we, the living, know of. Life, or existence, doesn’t really seem to have a point to it. It doesn’t even seem to have a clear beginning or end point either: Nobody’s sure when a soul enters a bunch of living cells; nobody knows what comes after the heart stops. And while we’re here, why exactly are we here?

Most have resigned to the futility of the exercise: Of finding an answer to this question. Because it’s far easier to sit back and watch sitcoms, or worry about saving enough for that new dress (or car, or house, or island) than find a purpose in this brief (?) excursion of the soul on an intriguing chunk of matter revolving around another in an infinite universe. They have swallowed the blue pill – resigned to the belief that there is no way out of this chaos. (Except death maybe – that is when you’re willingly or unwillingly airlifted out of the puzzle. Whether you get out or are dropped right back in will be debated till the proverbial hell freezes over.) To blindfold themselves to the most uncomfortable question of all, they have constructed illusions of control over a self-determined universe. They have made homes in little corners of these confusing pathways. In these alternate realities, there are man-made entities- money, fame, countries, religions, race,.. –  of utmost importance to their existence. These illusions keep them going in what would otherwise be a maddening chase of one’s own tail. The survival strategy works, like swimming. When you stop fighting, you float. They are the happy ones. For they choose to float in the still waters of willful ignorance.

But some have seen through the walls. Some see through their own smoke screens and there is no unseeing the veil behind which a non-understood reality exists. They are the crazy ones – making music, playing with light and colors and media, wielding words, suggesting unprecedented ideas – trying to decipher and convey an illegible code.

They are the mad ones. Running around the maze like frenzied rats, hungry for answers. But they also anchor the rest of the delusional world to reality, to all that is important, to life and the beauty of it all. They suffer from a looping question every day and that is what drives their seemingly whimsical lives. They feel little even in the light of accomplishments, for they see the baffling scale of universe the others choose to avoid. They are the ones capable of changing the world, for they are the ones questioning it. They are the seekers and the sufferers. And at times, they seek comfort – to subdue the pain, to muffle the voices within momentarily – in love, art, addictions…

To these mad ones, I say: Keep running. Whoever you are, however crazy or vain this quest seems, don’t seek an easy way out. You might not know all the answers yet, but you’re asking all the important questions. Yes, it’s maddening- this pursuit. Would you have it any other way?

– An equally baffled Mazerunner

Dear Women, All Men Aren’t Assholes

Disclaimer: This post addresses a certain section of women, and talks about a certain category of men. It does not generalize about sexes. In fact, it seeks to counter certain generalized notions about them which need to be thrown out of the window.

Of late, I have witnessed (and experienced) more heartbreaks than I ever thought I would. All a part of growing up and coming to terms with reality, they tell me. But what has been most surprising is the depth of emotion I have seen the males in these relationships display and the cold, calculative manner in which the ‘better halves’ have gone about the breaking-up business. I grew up being fed the generalization that women tend to be the more emotional ones, and men the jerks, capable of emotion only when it came to sport. The truth could not be farther.

For those girls out there who keep whining about there not being ‘any good men’, I have news for you: We exist. And we’re better than your limited understanding of men lets you imagine. And we take offence every time you post a sweeping generalization that starts with “All men…”. You are looking for him with the wrong criteria in your head, or maybe he’s right where you left him: In the friendzone, possibly still waiting for you to get your priorities straight. While you went about getting attracted to a charming smile or a cool hairdo or leather jackets on bikes or an aloof attitude, he was right there – sitting next to you in class, sharing his lunch, texting you all day, lending you his favourite books, actually listening to you, wiping your tears on every heartbreak, or just staring from across the hall without the courage to come up and talk.

Of late, I have come across some of the most disturbing dating advice and even worse definitions of all-things-love from some female friends. “Why get so involved and mushy in relationships? You’re young, go out there, use your devices, and have fun! Girls love to date a guy who treats them at a fancy place, buys them drinks!” chirped a female friend concerned over my latest relationship being torn apart by the other half. As much as I’d like to use my ‘devices’, contrary to popular perception, sex is not the only reason we’d get into a relationship. It’s not the topmost reason either. When a groom-hunting friend was asked, out of curiosity, what she was looking for, the first criterion thrown at me was an outrageous annual salary. For the women who fall in these categories, yes, we don’t exist. Not for you. Thankyouverymuch!

To define our critically-endangered species, and to burst the bubble of those who choose to believe we went extinct with your dads’ generation, here’s how we work:

We are hopeless romantics at heart but we may never say it in as many words. We love a happily-ever-after and want it as much as you do. Some of us, despite numerous reality-checks, have also managed to hold on to the belief of a ‘soulmate’ but we’re on the brink. Push us too far and we’ll lose it.

Yes, we might be instinctively and briefly attracted towards great bodies and beautiful faces owing to our anatomical wiring, but what really holds our attention and draws us in are great conversations, witty retorts, self-confidence, kindness, a certain amount of intellect, a unique opinion, an eccentric soul who is not afraid to be herself.

When we’re in a relationship, we don’t cheat on our girls. It’s difficult to think of another while you’re so deeply in love with a person. To set the record straight once and for all, we don’t think of you as fat unless you keep pointing at yourself and saying it over and over again. In fact, it hardly matters to us if you gained two or lost a few. We wouldn’t notice; we’re too busy looking at the way you’ve made your hair today, or the fact that your eyes keep going to a certain pair of shoes at a store and making a mental note of surprising you with it on the next big day (and probably about saving up for them.)

We might make fun of you when you cry in a movie, it’s simple diversion- our way of hiding the fact that it affects us too; you should see us watching it alone or reading a tragic love story- we’re busy blinking back some of our own.

We love to get you flowers, or balloons, or the random accessory you mentioned on a phone call – anything that makes your face light up. We love to try our hand at art. Even if we might end up making something really sloppy, we want it to convey something to you. Read the thought behind it, we’ll get better at the technique. Needless to say, we can be charming as hell, but we reserve that side for the ones who love us despite us, or better, for being us. Ask our best friends.

If you just look past the first few pages of inappropriate doodles and careless ink blotches in our notebooks, you’ll see a romantic poem reveal itself, and quotes from books you wouldn’t have heard of. If you just get past the top shelf of our DVDs, underneath the Avengers and the Transformers and the A-team, you will discover a RomCom collection that will beat yours. Before you question the placement, ask yourself: Why would a guy, in a world with such a skewed perception of masculinity, admit his favourite movie of all time is ‘Before Sunrise’? How will he not fake-scoff at a Nicholas Sparks mention, when the whole world, including the woman who he seeks to woo, believes that that genre of books/movies is not for the testosterony? This does not mean we do not actually enjoy indulging in crass humour or computer-graphics-enabled nihilism as is the perception. We do. (We don’t judge you for spending half your salary on a handbag or gossiping about each others’ love-lives either). We love those typically-boyish indulgences. But believe me- as much as we like to defeat the evil forces of the Universe on a computer screen, we also like kicking back with a John Green novel every now and then.

You think you have it tough living up to a societal perception of feminineness? Try being a man, experiencing loss and holding back your tears. Try getting dumped by the love of your life for “no fault of yours” and being asked by friends to move on to the ‘other fish in the sea’ while your whole world crumbles inside you. More often than not, we have it equally bad, if not worse.

And before you assume all of these guys I just described must be taken: Ironically, most us are single. Why, you ask? I have lost count of how many times I have seen a female friend reject the nice guy, choose the jerk, and then whine about “All Men” being “Assholes”.

“He doesn’t get me flowers!”, “He doesn’t care when I’m angry”, “He doesn’t listen to me”. Well, you kicked out the one who would have done it all. It’s time you cut out the hypocrisy or deal with the consequences of your choice. And whatever you do, stop generalizing.

  • To the girl who dumped someone for being ‘too nice’ (I know a poor chap who got that) or for ‘loving you too much’ (I actually got that one), you deserve the person you chose for yourself. Good luck!
  • To the one who thinks you haven’t come across one of us, look closer. We’re all around. This article and the comments beneath are evidence. Also, notice the authors of some of your favourite romantic novels. Guess what? Men!
  • To the girl who fell for the nice guy, hold on to him and he’ll give you the world. You deserve every thing you get – stop feeling you don’t give back enough (I keep hearing that). He loves you for being you, and there’s no other way he would have it.
  • To those of you who are looking for Ian Somerhalder’s grin, or Enrique’s exotic accent, or Channing Tatum’s abs, or the Hemsworth brothers’ faces, or worse – a fictional character like Mr Darcy – in guys, I hope you get men who possess all those things. (Hey, the superficial ones need to spawn their next generation too!) The concept of true love will, sadly, remain a mystery to you. [Before you vent spite, consider what you think of men who drool over Internet pictures of Megan Fox and bodyshame you for not looking ‘perfectly shaped’. Why wouldn’t a guy feel the same way when compared to a model and shamed? Yes, bodyshaming and objectification happen both ways and hurt both genders. Sorry to burst that bubble.]
  • Lastly, to the fellow gentlemen who belong to this league I proudly take the liberty of representing in this post: It’s a ridiculous time to be alive and in love. But, hang in there! (Also, did you check out the latest Call of Duty? It’s awesome!)

– An unapologetic romantic

The Major Incident

(In 2011, i was a Computer Engineer who walked out on a secure, well-paying, conventionally ‘successful’ career in an IT company to be a journalist. I get asked the obvious question very often. So i thought i’ll post some of my thoughts from that time: a forgotten page out of a diary [It’s in its original form, so please bear with the verbosity and naivety of a past me]. It’s not the only reason i chose journalism of course, but it does sum up why i felt so out-of-place in what now feels like a past life. For the record, I respect all those engineers working their butts off out there to enable every little function in our lives; it’s a job to be proud of. I just felt i was not a piece of that puzzle; that i belonged out here, doing what i loved)

March 14, 2011

My 23rd birthday was knocking on the door. Needless to say, the constant rant in my head was getting louder every passing day. I was working at a place which hardly made any sense to me. As if I wasn’t convinced enough of being a misfit, the Universe was rubbing its hands in smug anticipation of what it had in store for me that day.

Japan had been struck by a devastating earthquake, followed by an enormous tsunami two days ago. What had followed were horrifying stories of whole towns and cities getting wiped out.  If this wasn’t enough to shatter man’s illusion of having tamed nature for his own exploits, the tsunami had pushed one of Japan’s nuclear plants on the verge of a catastrophe. I spent the first hour in office reading about the disaster, the relief work being carried out and the nuclear threat looming over the country. I couldn’t get my mind to think of anything other than the imaginative sketches it drew of the people trapped in a disaster of that scale. The pictures of a prosperous country torn to shreds within minutes and the number of casualties predicted gave me goosebumps, the bad kind.

While I was busy trying to swallow the magnitude of destruction, and thinking about how it would change the world; my manager suddenly got all frantic and started screaming orders like a General on a battlefield. “Major Incident!” she yelled. I had seen this before. A tired sigh later, I braced myself for yet another hour of meaningless exaggeration. But this time, the ironical juxtaposition of the real world and the ‘IT Bubble’ hit me like a speeding truck.

There it was, on my computer screen, a country torn apart by nature’s unrelenting force. People all over the world prayed, donated, spread the word, and did everything they could, to help. The world had come to a standstill helplessly spectating the sheer scale of disaster nature could conceive. All that people at my job saw was a server which had misbehaved. That was the Major Incident to them. Nothing had changed at this godforsaken isle of cold, calculating humans. They chose to brush aside reality every day and look at their own little patch of sky from the bottom of the well. It’s a very convenient thing to do.

But the day was far from over. A while later, when the ‘Major Incident’ had been dealt with, my manager came up to us with a tensed expression, and talked about Japan. No, she wasn’t talking about the disaster, the victims, or the gloom the whole world found itself in. She explained how we, in India, had to be extra vigilant at work since the servers in Japan were down. ‘Major Incidents’ like misbehaving servers had to be expected and we could not afford to let our money-making corporate sites down. That is all it meant to her. An event that had changed the face of the earth, literally. That is all it meant to the people who existed in that IT bubble. I walked out in utter disgust and disbelief.

Maybe they needed that pigeonhole perspective of the world to be able to do their jobs – jobs which revolved around maintaining web servers, which hosted websites, which made money. But I could not ignore the obvious reality and live in a make-believe world. I could not let the IT bubble consume me. I could not work on a server while the world groped in darkness. I had to do my bit. I needed a more meaningful job; a career with a purpose.

It was time for coffee, and some introspection.

Four months after this post was written, i found myself sitting in a class, pursuing a post-graduate diploma in Journalism.