One of my pastimes, when I am engaged in otherwise mundane chores, is to think of the ontological explanations to my existence.
On quiet afternoons I end up reflecting on how I have ended up as who I am. Wishfully, over many such reflections, I try to understand myself better. It is a quaint and non-aggressive whiling away of time, slightly different from the wild hallucinatory trips I take to titillate or exhaust myself.
Mostly I try to connect and associate the various dots to see what patterns emerge. Relations I have been born into, acquaintances I have come into contact with, and, how they have all affected me. I reflect a bit on how my experiences have created and reshaped my memories. Places and sounds and smells also have a contributing factor in such reveries, and I become thankful and appreciative of hitherto overlooked incidents or phases in my life.
Looking back at my own self also allows me to come to terms with those memories that have remained untouched, and therefore seem of another’s in a sense, from a familiar but different self. They are rushed memories; memories marred by proximity to the event, unripe in their rawness of emotions, with the unnecessary impudence of convictions and fond intensities of ardors. Where I might hold a fearful or terrified memory of an event or time, with hindsight, distance, experience, and a forgiving self, I might now be able to wistfully smile at that memory; at how it has affected my life from then on.
How that fork in life put me on the path of various experiences that are a part of the whole that is me now.
Literary voyages have a critical place in this exercise. As someone who resides as much in well and oft-told stories with imaginary characters as much as real live people, I am quite fond of my travels through books and works of fiction; counting fictional and real characters I encounter as fellow travelers.
One of the first stories that I remember ever reading was about a young girl going on a picnic to a museum on skates. I think the title was “Rococo Skates”. For many years after that, I had not encountered a girl on roller skates in real life. But back then, as an eight or nine-year-old boy, for a long time, I did not doubt the truthfulness of the tale and it became a living reality within me.
Somewhere, somewhere, in the world outside my own little world, I was sure there existed a mischievous girl who was thrilled with her rococo skates. Somewhere there must be a land of museums where children were taken to picnics. Later, when for the first time I saw someone roller skate in school with the grating sound of metallic rubber on rough concrete and the ungainly balancing dance, I found myself wondering where it was that I had remembered a more elegant skater.
Somewhere. In a faraway place where children went to museums for picnics. A freckled kid with Rococo Skates.
Today, and I can offer no good explanation for this, I think the setting of the story must have been somewhere in the American Midwest. Whenever I fly from one end of the coast to the other and look down to see tiled farmlands, I think, “Rococo Skates”.
The magic of that imagined reality still lingers.
Another interesting trait that reading fiction has equipped me with is in the processing of grief, especially of bereavement. Over the years I have had the chance to read about some elegant deaths like that of Paul Kalanidhi’s (When Breath Becomes Air); valiant deaths like that of Hektor in The Illiad; inadvertent snatching away of lives like that of Lydia in Everything I Never Told You About or defiant deaths like Christopher Hitchens’ captured in his end-of-days memoir, “Mortality”.
Kalanidhi’s introspective demise was a revelation to me – a reaffirmation of how death is not always unannounced nor something to be morbidly afraid of or lamented inconsolably. Of how it can be embraced in its inevitability. How the longing for a living and a scientific study of one’s own disintegration into oblivion can be chronicled with self-compassion and poetry. In real life, we do not always get to encounter such personalities. Such a self-elegiac outlook towards one’s own death. Where it is the norm to hire professional mourners because tears are deficient, it is empowering to know that there are humans who view death with balance, even if visited unfairly.
Hector’s dutiful departure to his end in the Illiad, which also reminds me of the other mythical duty-bound prescient warrior headed for his last battle, peace-loving Khumbhakarnan in the Ramayanam, reminds me that there are higher ideals than mere existence.
How can those who fear death live life fully? Or does that fear of death add an additional streak of desperation in their time alive, making life more vivid?
Christopher Hitchens’ end was a battle that almost unfolded itself in real life in real time. Not everyone in my immediate circles has the mental fortitude, support system nor the economic wherewithal to have eased into (a phrase I use very cautiously) nonexistence like Hitchens.
Either way, their valiant last walks have always remained in my memories, reminding me that victors are not always victorious.
These are all characters in whose lives and ideals I had shared; whose dogma I had despised; whose motives I understood and sometimes agreed with and therefore was emotionally invested in. Like real life friends and families, they had, in their own ways, shared their collective experiences and inner conscience with me.
Sometimes, I am Bertie and I am Jeeves. Wodehousian in absurdity and suspended in a timeless and an idyllic gallantry that has never been and therefore that will always remain; my life’s inversions mere follies that I can jaunt out of, with a British tune and a click of the heels and a dusting of the pants near the knees and a twirl of my umbrella. Dreary days are whiled away picking at imaginary clues to even more imagined heinous crimes, playing Holmes to unsuspecting Watsons and playing Watsons to many astute Holmes.
These hedging of emotions, these correlative realities are interwoven into how I approach life and its inhabitants. Who is to say I am not Robinson Crusoe in Manhattan? There have definitely been times when I feel marooned on this tiny island. By that same token, I could also be Pnin who is impossibly confounded but tragically cheerful in his endeavors. When I walk past shadow boxers in the gym, I am reminded of Philip Remnick’s Mohammad Ali. Their choreographed miming a throwback to the Louisville Lip.
Till I read Tanizaki, I would have not imagined formidable literature also includes under its hubris themes of sex, deviance, and the taboo. It awed me into coming to terms with the fact that the same mind that can conjure up the ephemeral Makioka Sisters could also fetishize the sexual liaisons of an aging professor with his insatiable young wife in The Key or pen the all-consuming perfection of the Tattoo Artist.
How to process the fact that a brilliant and tortured Ryonosuke Akutagawa lived a shorter life than I have lived up to?
If Gabo has taken me to whorehouses and to visit lonely patriarchs, he has also built cities of mirrors and ancient almond trees and neverending rains and love in his Macondo. With Mario Vergas Llosa I traveled the Dominican Republic through the Trujillian era. I stood watch as the tyrant picked underage girls for one night brides. I read it seething and sad. Where else would I have stood to test my feelings on such atrocities? In real life? Do I have to partake of someone else’s pain? Does reading and grieving reduce that terror? Dilute it? I like to think so. The louder the voice of truth, the louder the warning siren. From 1960s Dominican Republic to current India. Knowledge empowers and ideals outside of our immediate concern elevate us from mere survival to a higher pursuit.
How about the times the Russians, Bulgakov and Dostoevsky and Lermontov, beguiled me? What influence have they had on me? If I hadn’t read Russian literature and only looked at Russians as presented by the present-day news, would I understand Russians better? Isn’t it true that the Underground Man and Raskolnikov have provided in me an understanding that manic self-delusion is not confined to Indians?
How many times have I gone back to Marguerite Duras’ Lover to understand that women too substitute love for lust? That sex can be a state of mind as much as sadness. That imperialism can be aggrandizing to the colonizing nation and at the same time an alienating feature for some of its subjects. Did it take an Arundhati Roy to show me passion? A word that is vehemently euphemized and hidden in every Indian I encounter, whose sexuality is closed behind rage, fear, apathy, and ignorance, unlocked only through marriages and class fidelities; fierce female sexualities that exist only on ink, in secret codes and turreted out of reach of those privileged below it by birth and urbanity.
In each immutable line of others’ stories, I am given another interpretation of life. Their ontology is unchanged as long as it rests within my shelves, but their collective import, the cumulative meaning derived from their reading by everyone who has ever read them swells to make them bigger than their pages. No two people read the same book. Therefore, there are as many books as there has been the number of readers of that book.
These flights of fancies, these ruminations, and their literary reference points serve as a proxy loci for where I am situated at any given time in life. It provides a bearing and an illusion of control, if not an adventure, to navigate life’s experiences multitudinously, not very much unlike Theseus’s roll of thread inside the Cretan maze.
There may be no Minotaur; there may be nobody waiting by the Aegean cliffs; but it comforts me that even of my own story, I will know only a minuscule portion of it – and somewhere in those vast Jormungandr-ian tentacles, my stories interlock with other stories, of others’ lives, always partially glimpsed by any one person.
There lie answers. To everything.
And this tiny sliver of knowledge reminds me there is always closure – even if it lies forever beyond my reaches.
I do not want to know the truth.
I just want to know the truth exists.