I met you at some kind of a party. I guess I was younger than I am now. But it kind of feels like I was timeless somehow, and it was all we never wanted, and it was all there ever was, and it was all there ever would be. You were wearing my shirt the next morning, and I was wearing your story. You had your fingers in my hair and I got fucked up on the way you talked about the sky. You said I was a good listener, but the truth is I couldn’t speak. All I wanted was to take mental pictures of how you made me feel.
Tonight, after all these years, I sit here gathering those memories. The memories that are a bit of thunder, some raindrops, a dead ship at the bottom of the ocean, and an abandoned little cabin with coffee cups all over its worn-out table.
I was going to ask Chat GPT to write the first few lines for me, but the AI didn’t wouldn’t your sighs and the whispers to breathe life into my draft. I’d rather have you at the end of my every sentence. Sitting there cross-legged and owning it; blowing out little rings of smoke to blur every other woman attempting to fall in love with these words.
You weren’t meant to have shattered dreams in the wind. You were meant to fly through the chaos and wade through the mosaic of redemptions. You were born to write the fuck out of your heart – about lost eras, time travelers and multiverses. You were meant to be limitless and bright. I wish I had loved you so much before, my soul. I wish we hadn’t lost so many centuries.
It’s been fifteen years since the modern world faced its deadliest pandemic. Covid-19, was it? I think probably more than fifteen years. I’m writing this vlog from my apartment in Mumbai.
Today is April 20th. It is ten degrees outside. It had been raining incessantly for the past three days in a row. The rain finally stopped today morning. Yes, it’s not weird to have showers in April anymore. I know that the seasons used to be a thing back then. Not anymore – thanks to the climate crisis.
I cannot wait to step outside and get some sunlight. But there’s still too much dust in the air. My glasses detect the air quality index as 397 AQI. It’s become slightly better because of the rain. I have been locked inside the apartment for more than two months because of the Pico virus pandemic. I couldn’t even open my bedroom window because the next building, which is at a one-hand distance, is coded red.
Anyway, I’m trying to pick my clothes for the day, but there’s too much to match. I think I’ll go with a simple white top and blue pants. I guess I’ll wear my denim jacket. Yes, you are right! It’s trending again. Besides, that jacket has an attached viro mask. It keeps me protected from at least 70 percent of viruses out there. I haven’t upgraded it yet, though. The premium version of the mask comes with better air quality, and you can skip three ads a day. I heard from my friend Ron that Google recently launched masks with in-built ear pods. How cool is that? But then the government has partnered with Google. So, you have to listen to the president’s speech at least once a week, or your ear pods’ subscription gets put on hold. Yes, the president! We don’t have a prime minister anymore – only one president and only one party! We don’t have voting rights to choose the president either. But then, we can vote for our cities. The city with the most votes gets to have the president visit them in person. The rest of the cities will still have the president’s holograms to interact with, which are at every 200 meters.
So, I am finally going out. Since my phone is doing all the writing, we can continue to be in the conversation. I am heading toward the central park. It’s the largest one in the city and my skin desperately needs sunlight. Doctors say it’s better than vitamin D shots.
Anyway, here I am at the park. I need to key in my citizen code at the entrance. The AI will detect my social appreciation score. Those with more than 10k followers can move to the green zone. It is less crowded and more frequently sanitized. I am still at 8k. If you’re watching or listening to this vlog, please give as many hearts as you can.
I’m sitting in the blue zone. It’s slightly better than the yellow zone. Fortunately, the park is less crowded today. I’m wearing a mask that covers my whole face. Please don’t feel bad for me. People can still see each other’s faces on their masks’ screens. We can interact virtually without directly talking to each other. We hardly do the latter anymore. Oh, I see someone in my vicinity just sent me hearts for my vlog. Thank you!
The last time I was sitting here, I found a match on the Purple app. It’s a dating app where you can meet people virtually. A few people even catch up in person. The app is integrated with my mask. I can put it on a search mode or hide myself to be unavailable. It’s interesting. People are a lot more honest on their profiles these days. There is a section to reveal if you are a carrier or under clinical depression. It helps your future match learn about you beforehand. A lot many people have also identified themselves as asexual these days. They say that they’d rather have a conversation with someone than sex. And that’s usually harder to find.
Okay! It looks like I’ve absorbed enough vitamin D for today. I think it’s time for me to go back home. I need to pack for my evening ride to Dharmshala. My parents stay there. They never moved to Mumbai because the air quality is slightly better over there. It would take me fifteen minutes or so to reach Dharmshala by the hyperloop train.
I can’t wait to see them. The recent lockdowns prevented me from visiting them for months together. They have a beautiful indoor garden and you can sit there without a mask. Moreover, they have two cats and a dog. I miss them. My dad is a writer. You wouldn’t believe it, but they both still write with their hands. Ron didn’t buy it the first time I told him. So, I took him there to visit them. It was quite embarrassing. My mom couldn’t stop but show off her collection of screenshots. She has an array of screenshots of writings by her and my dad. Some of their blogs date back to the pre-pandemic era. Dad says that he would often go to coffee shops when he was young and write his blogs. Imagine sitting among people at an open café and without masks! Sometimes, I get a strong feeling that I should have been born in the 2000s. I think I belong to that time. My mom laughed when I told her this. I was like, “why is that funny?” She said, “it’s not. It’s just that your father and I would often say the same thing. We always thought that we belonged to a different time than the one we were living in. We always wished to go back to the 80s!”
It was sometime in May, and the summer was at its peak in Mumbai. I was sitting on the sofa with my flatmate in the living room of our rented apartment in Andheri. It was a regular Sunday afternoon when we all had just eaten sumptuous chicken masala and roti prepared by our cook Asha. My flatmate Ravi was swiping right on Tinder and I was doing the same on LinkedIn jobs.
“Any luck?” we both looked at each other and laughed.
“Let’s keep trying!” we said to ourselves and continued with our attempts, fueled by our belief that the probability will continue to go up in this manner.
It did work.
He had found a match, which led to the rest of our flatmates gathering around Ravi to discuss who the girl was and how soon they could meet each other.
“Asshole, you are lucky,” said one.
“Yes, and highly photogenic,” said the other.
I retreated to my failed trials at finding a match between my future employer and me.
It was Day 28. 28 days since I had lost my job and could not find the next one. But I was hopeful that I would land one soon – maybe in the next week or two.
I looked at the multiple tabs open on my browser and decided that I had done enough for the day.
So, I said what most young lads would to survive such harsh times.
“Hey, guys! Let’s get some beer?”
“Of course!” my roommate Pavas jumped up in response.
“Oh no! But I have to meet Neha later in the evening. She won’t find out if I have just one, right?” He continued.
We waited for him to answer his own question.
“Yeah, I can have one. I’ll tell her about it. Big deal! Plus, Ravi has found his match. We’ve got to celebrate that. Hahaha!”
We all laughed in response, and Ravi reminded Pavas that Neha was friends with him as well. He could easily text her about his drinking plans.
The Sunday was well spent. We didn’t post it to Instagram, but I promise it was fun.
It was the Monday that I was afraid of. No, not because of Monday blues. I didn’t have an office to go to. But all of my flatmates did. Mondays now meant that I would be sitting alone in the apartment throughout the next five days. What made it worse was the fact that I had had a serious breakup with my then-girlfriend around the same time when I lost my job.
Anyway, the Monday arrived, and I woke up to my roommate Pavas saying goodbye to me and shutting the door from behind. The others left for their offices too. It was around 11 am, and I decided to wait a little longer to eat something. It was my newly-found hack. If I eat around noon, it would be brunch! This would basically mean that I wouldn’t have to cook twice and could also save some money if I were to order from outside. It was my learning over the past few weeks.
It was almost three years that I had been staying in Mumbai, and I had slowly started to realize how lavishly I had spent my money over my lifestyle. It was time to curb that habit and to think of saving for the rainy days.
I made some black coffee for myself and grabbed a packet of Parle G biscuits. I looked around the house and couldn’t help but feel lonely. In the past one month, I had started to realize how big the house really was with no one around. At times, I could feel the walls closing down onto me as if they were trying to eat me alive. I felt the sudden need to go out and grab some fresh air. At the same time, it felt as if my pockets were full of stones and I simply couldn’t move. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.
I gulped down the coffee and grabbed my phone. It was 11.40 am. I thought of texting one of my close friends, who knew about my job situation. I wondered if I could meet her over lunch. In my head, I calculated how much I would spend over traveling and whether I should pour all my negativity onto her. I decided it would be best not to ruin her day with my mood and kept the phone down. I switched on my laptop and put on some music.
I logged into my inbox to see if the content writing vendor had responded to any of my emails for the payment. I had been freelance writing with the hope that it would pump some cash into my bank account.
‘Mom calling,’ said my phone screen. I picked up the call with the intention of keeping it short.
“All fine, Neel?” asked the motherly instinct.
You wonder how they do that!
So, I did what most children would. I lied to her about being busy with some office work. But the phone call once again reminded me of my choice – to either resume the job search while saving money to survive the next how-many-ever days of unemployment or leave Mumbai and go back to my hometown. My gut instinct was to continue with the harder option of staying in Mumbai and not giving up hope.
I spent the day refreshing the career websites to see the same job openings pop up and later, watching random videos on YouTube. It was a challenge to pass the time. Social media was of no help either. At times, I would just stand near the window and look at the life outside. I often thought of using the free time to work on my novel writing, but the thought of job search sat in my head like a giant writer’s block.
The most depressing time was after the sunset. As soon as it would become dark outside, I would desperately wait for my flatmates to return home. It didn’t matter if it was someone that I was close friends with. I simply didn’t want to be alone in that house. I understand that it probably was none of my business when they came home from their office, and I obviously never shared it with anyone.
I looked at the wall clock. It was almost 7 pm.
“Pavas is usually home by now. I wonder if he has gone to meet Neha,” I thought to myself.
The doorbell rang and I opened the door. It was Pavas and Neha.
“Hi!” I said while trying not to look too happy that I finally had some company.
“Hey, Neel! How are you?” Neha greeted me and sat down as Pavas went inside to freshen up.
“Pavas told me. Did you have any luck with the job thing?” she tried saying it in a tone that would not hurt me.
“Not yet, but I’ll keep trying.”
“I know. You will get it. Don’t worry. Ganapati bappa will make everything alright!”
“Neel, I spoke to my marketing team colleague. But they don’t have any openings right now. Do still send me your resume. I will check with my other friends also.” Pavas came out and joined the conversation.
“Yeah, no problem,” I replied.
We were soon joined by our cook Asha who started with her everyday questions about how many rotis to make for dinner and whether or not any of the flatmates were planning to eat out.
Few more days passed and the routine of seeking the right job and not getting any decent leads continued. One of these days, I woke up super hungry. I told myself that it was time to stop eating junk and do away with things like noodles and pasta for brunch.
“Maybe, it’s time for me to learn how to cook meals!”
I played a YouTube video and followed the recipe for daal rice. It turned out to be rather easy. In fact, I believe that I did a brilliant job as a first-timer. However, my friend Yugmala who came over to visit me later that evening, told me that I had overcooked cumins.
“Apart from that, the daal is great,” she said, nodding her head.
I suspected if she was simply saying that to make her unemployed friend happy. I decided that she was not that nice and was rather honest about my excellent culinary skills.
I went out for a walk with her and she tried to cheer me up. She asked me whether I was open to Sales jobs or would only want to pursue Marketing Communication opportunities. I looked at her in response and unlike the last so many weeks, I suddenly felt confident in answering that question.
“I think only Marketing.”
“Okay. I was simply checking with you since there would typically be more sales openings, and you still don’t have as much experience in Marketing. Don’t mind, I’m just being honest.”
“Yeah, I know. No worries. It’s just that somehow I am more sure in my head now. That’s what I want. I want to pursue Marketing Communication.”
“Well, that’s good. I’m happy that you have some clarity now.”
“Me too!” I wore my first genuine smile in months as I said that.
I got back home and went to my study desk. It was a little corner in the room next to the window. It was where I had spent numerous nights reading my favorite books and writing stories for the blog. Sitting at that window, I had watched Mumbai bathe in monsoon every year and the huge oak tree outside shedding its leaves in the summer. I pulled out a few sticky notes and started scribbling my plan for the job search. The green sticky note had a list of people who could refer me to their companies. The yellow one was used for the job applications, which I was hopeful about. I drafted a schedule to track a few specific jobs meticulously and follow up with respective people who were my point of contact. The sticky notes joined the Mickey Mouse stickers on the wall posted by the landlord’s kids, who must have used the room at some time in the past.
Then came a day when I received a call from a company I had never heard about before. They had apparently liked my profile and offered to interview me. It was a Marketing Communications profile – just what I was looking for. I wasn’t sure about the organization, though – how good they were as a workplace and whether I could have a good career path there. But I followed my instincts and decided to go for the interview. The company was located in the suburbs of Mumbai. It was a cool, little office with not more than fifty people in there. The team had a friendly vibe and I immediately liked the place.
I soon got selected for the role. However, they couldn’t offer to pay me any more than what I was earning at my previous job. I asked for two days to make up my mind.
Somehow it was not a difficult choice to make. The last few months of struggle had cleared the storm of confusion in my head and helped me understand what I really wanted in life. It was as if the storm had calmed down and the dust had finally settled to reveal the path – what I wanted to become and more importantly, what I did not want to pursue anymore. I took up the job. Eventually, it turned out to be one of the best workplaces of my career.
I often look back on those months for inspiration. It’s ironic how I romanticize the time associated with my struggle. Possibly, because that struggle helped me become the man I am today. It worked as therapy for any future difficulties I would face later in my life.
Isn’t it amazing that there comes a special time when you’re out on a trip to the mountains or somewhere outside the city, and you’re standing outside your little cottage and facing a mammoth night sky – Your hands reach out to your pockets to capture that breathtaking view in your phone. But in that faintly moonlit place, no camera can do justice to what your eyes are witnessing. So you instead hold that magnificent view in your eyesight and save it in your heart. You know that you’ll eventually forget how gorgeous the sky looked tonight. You are aware that over the years, this moment will blur into a memory of something you had once seen but can’t vividly remember. And that evanescent characteristic of the moment is what makes it even more rewarding. You can’t save or share it, but you’ve got to savor its magic all by yourself.
I grew up in a fairly small-sized house. As a kid, at times, I thought of it as a challenge and wished that my father should have gotten us a bigger place to stay. After completing graduation, I moved out of my hometown. I got a nice job or two and moved to cities like Delhi and Mumbai. There, I stayed in much fancier and bigger apartments. I tried to make up for the size of my childhood home by spending more money on rent and more time between those walls. Over the years, I earned enough to have more distance between the walls when I shifted from one place to the next. As a writer, one thing that remained constant throughout these years was my love for reading. During the four years in Mumbai, I’d often pick up books from Crossword or the tiny bookstalls on the streets of Andheri. I’d be talking to my father over the phone later that day and telling him about the Jeffery Archer novel in my hand. He’d respond by saying – “Why did you have to buy that one? We already had it at home.” He’d even share the spoilers for fun. Nevertheless, that phone call always transported me back to my childhood home and, specifically, to the one-third of that house that my father had filled with books. There were multiple closets lined with fiction novels by authors such as O. Henry, P. G. Woodhouse, Hemmingway, Jeffery Archer, John Grisham, Frederick Forsyth, and many more. I particularly remember this green cabinet built inside one of the walls that did not take space inside the house yet had ample room to host a hundred classic authors. It’s funny how I struggled to find space for books in my new apartment, but he had managed to have a mini library for us. An established writer himself, that was one gift he had quietly bestowed upon his kids. He instilled the habit of reading in us quite early. That gift stayed with me through the years of growing up. When I was on a flight to Delhi for my first job, it was with me. It gave me company during the nights in Lucknow. It kept me entertained during my daily local train rides in Mumbai, and more importantly, it made me who I am today. I could never complain to him about not buying a bigger house, but I will make sure that one-third of whichever home I stay in will be reserved for books. I once wrote about preferring paper books to Kindle ones. A few of the readers mocked me by calling me anti-technology. I do not blame them. Maybe, they never got to smell the musty old books and be transported into another time. Perhaps they are unaware that one could ‘favorite’ special corners in their life with a bookmark so that their future selves can revisit that space.
The year is 2030. You live in a macro-rental housing society inhabited by a thousand more people living in matchbox-shaped houses. Google owns it, and they call it a Smart box. You are in your late thirties. Almost everyone you know works at Amazon or Reliance. Today is Friday. You decide to use the accumulated points on your card. The employers have given you one day’s leave for a month. The office shares a social media update on your behalf – it is an animation of you thanking them for being a great workplace. They brand it as a wellness time for employees. You decide to go out for some beer. At the café, you meet someone and have a little chat. They dislike your opinions and give you a low rating with two stars. You hop onto an Uber bus. The facial recognition app greets you by your Citizen code. The driverless bus runs over a bunch of people. Thankfully, they are all homeless, and the system ignores it as an error. The Spotify chip in your ear begins to play a track by Imagine dragons, but it is interrupted by an advertisement asking you to upgrade to a pro-premium account. On your way back, you decide to stop at the local Kindle store. You dimly remember it used to be a Crossword book shop at one point. They are all Kindle stores now. You sit down and join a few others who are watching elections. You really hope that the Tesla guy beats Adani to become the new global president. He has promised to run a contest for free tickets to Mars every year.
Remember the smell of winter lurking in your childhood house? Like your ancestors’ thoughts pinned on the brick walls? November has brought it back enveloped in its smog. It gives you a sweet ache for a place you could never move on from. You know you’d seen the monsoon crawl out of the front door. Then why do memories of June still chase you like a ferocious dog? You think of the rain-soaked streets in August. You miss the flickering street lamps that wept throughout July. Maybe, we are wired to love the bygones. We’re bound to search them again in a kaleidoscope of time. Standing at your bedroom window, You hear the Palm leaves whisper something to 3 am streets. “Hold onto the November, love. While you can.”