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 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.
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.
“Every decision made is a decision against something else.” The multiverse theory is simply mesmerizing. Whenever you are presented with a choice, you create an alternate universe with an option you do not pick. Do you catch the last train, or does your parallel version? The delicate guillotines of options, aren’t they? When does it start or end? Do you choose to collect silences or words? Do you make sure you touch the roses with or without the thorns? Do you move out of the town or stay back? Do you get out of your house and take a left, Or do you walk straight and bump into a stranger? A stranger who later becomes your best friend. You are but accumulations of all these moments, and yet you vividly mark as yours only a handful of them. You are now and then. A thread of forever and nothingness. A puzzle of summers and raw winters. You are holding time with both hands but forgetting it in soft memories. A thousand of ‘you’ are living your ‘what ifs’ at this very moment in the alternate universes. Maybe our dreams are our memories from the worlds we don’t live in.
The year is 2030. There is a new airport called ‘An Egress’. It’s the same place from where I had boarded a small spaceship into the galaxies to look for a new home. Writing this letter to you from a thousand light years away. You must’ve been worried that you did not hear from me for long. That’s because, Sometimes the mammoth space tosses the bottled love letters all the way up to the moons. I do have a good news though. Yesterday, I found what could be our new home. It’s near Titan, the moon orbiting the Saturn. Our new planet is strange. It has violet skies and frozen lakes. It is hauntingly beautiful. The trees grow wild here and the roads aren’t paved. The days are short and the nights are eerily silent – Like a flower with a hand grenade. I wish I could tell you stories of all the planets I fell in love with. Of all the homes they made inside me. Of all the languages I did not know I could speak. I remember you saying once that we often fall in love with unrequited things. Like me thinking the universe will love us back, but I know she has too many other galaxies burning in her hands. We are but tiny specs hoping for her to return our call. Earth was a beautiful dream, the one that we dreamt collectively & ruined with our hands. I hope once we all depart her, she’ll grow little trees in spaces we should have watered. Afterall, she’s someone who’s seen a thousand summers and loved us with all the rage of the sea. We may travel to every universe, but we’ll belong to her in all of them.
I have had a recurring dream. It starts with me waking up at the break of purple dawn, my favorite time of day. I have always loved this city, at this hour, when it is still sound asleep. I can look at it through my window for hours. I have. I can hear it breathe and think of myself as an actor in one of its countless dreams.
In my dream, I see myself getting up and leaving the house wearing my night pajamas and a camera slinging across my shoulder. I think I’m headed down to Powai lake. I’m not so sure.
I am walking down the building. It’s the same old place that I had called ‘home’ for years. As I come around the end of stairs, the child in me goes for a jump and skips the last two steps. I say Hello to the security person who looks like he’s just taken over the shift from the night guard. I walk outside and take a deep breathe in. It feels as real as a dream can get.
The society gate has just been opened to the new day. Delivery boys are rushing in with renewed hopes. Oreo, my favorite dog wags his tail and I pet him saying, “good boy!” I look at my favorite couple – a huge tree and a bench sitting beside her. I smile at the thought of all the memories I’ve trusted them with. I’d like to think that they smile back.
I stroll down the loveliest of all streets, one that changes view with my every footstep. It looks perfect for our chance encounters, for our surrealism to merge into our reality.
I see myself hopping onto a local train and share a greeting with a new stranger for the day. The familiar voice from the train announcement gives everyone enough comfort for the day. I stand near the train door and let the wind flirt with my hair.
Blink of an eye and I’m sitting at Prithvi café. I fold the sleeves of my shirt all the way up to my elbows and feel proud at being surrounded by art connoisseurs. I wonder how many of them will later remember the moment they’re sharing right now. Sun beam escapes through the crevices of tree branches above and my eyelids close in.
I open my eyes and find myself playing with the strap of my office shoulder bag. My colleague stares at me like she’s seen a ghost and wears the expression of ‘what the hell I’m waiting for’ on her face. I walk inside the place that’s going to be more than a workplace. Few known faces turn around to say Hi.
With my heart overwhelmed with a pleasant feeling, I find myself in a cab on the way back home. I get down near Powai and walk towards a café at the corner. ‘Aromas’ it says. I keep looking at the place and a man sitting at the table outside turns around. I see myself holding a cup of Americano and with dreams for lifetime in eyes. He shakes his head looking at me and retreats into the conversation.
I think I hear someone calling out my name. I turn around and I’m blinded by sunlight breaking through. With my half-shut eyes, I think I see you across the street. I reach out to you, but I can’t move. My pockets are full of stones. You stare at me from distance and the syllable of your laughter fills the sky. It is mixed with a deafening alarm tune of my clock.
I see myself spiraling skywards. You look up and wave me goodbye. I wave back to my favorite city.
What comes to your mind when someone says Aaji? (Daadi/Grandma) I immediately think of the MasterChef from our childhood. I remember the one who used to cook delicious sabudana khichdi and thalipeeth for me. The one who would tell my mother, “I know exactly what he will like. Let me cook it for him,” with a sense of love and pride beaming across her face.
The one who narrated stories of Mahabharata to me and my sister. And also the same person who would scold my mother not to fast because ‘Gods would never want their children to stay on an empty stomach’. I have far too many fond memories of her. Of course, I have seen her fight with my parents too. But the good parts outweigh those times far too easily.
I remember few funny incidences from my childhood. I had an aunt who lived downstairs – the one who never got married. As a kid, I have asked my aaji at least a thousand times ‘Why does she not have children like other people?’. Aaji would burst into a laughter every single time I said that and instead of answering me, let someone else know what I had just said. It was hilarious the way she’d try to control her laughter. Interestingly, she never told me anything else just to kill my curiosity. She’d rather say, “You’re a kid. When you grow up, you’ll know why.”
And I’d just add that to the list of things I was supposed to know automatically once I grow up. My next unanswered question in childhood was about sanitary napkins. As soon as the TV commercial would start, I’d demand everyone in the room to tell me what exactly it was. I had to wait all the way to my teen age to figure out why lady in the commercial was jumping around and throwing blue ink on what i thought were diapers.
I think my aaji along with others cared for my innocence, knowing well that that’s exactly the beauty of childhood years. I’m glad they did.
Recently, I went to meet my aging aaji. She has not been keeping well. She is bedridden and can barely stand on her own. It hurts to know that I would never see her cooking sabudana khichdi in the kitchen again like old times. I doubt she has accepted that though. I think she still thinks that she can do that one day.
When I sat next to her, she started asking me about what’s happening in my life. I told her everything was good, and asked her how she was doing.
“This lady is waiting for her daughter-in-law to cook some jalebis.”
“Who lady?” I was confused.
“This one. The one in green saari.” She pointed a finger at the television screen playing some series that she was so fond of.
She then went on to narrate the entire story plot that she remembered rather well.
In my mind, I thanked the makers of the series for keeping my aaji busy and entertained during her illness. Thankfully, they make content for everyone. Funny how I had never thought this way before.
While I was lost in my thoughts with my eyes staring at the TV set, she told me to stay alert.
“What for?” I asked her with amusement.
“See, now a butterfly will come. It only listens to the little girl. This girl…Her name is Nanda. Keep watching…,” she spoke without moving her eyes off the screen.
I looked at her and the TV in turns with a smile on my face.
She was right. In the TV series, the girl whose name was Nanda then called the butterfly and an animated butterfly fluttered its wings only to come and land right on Nanda’s shoulder.
“How do they do that no?”Aaji asked with her eyebrows raised and the chin resting on the palm of her hand.
I had not seen her that curious for a long time.
Of course, I could see and knew that it was simply a computer-generated image of a butterfly. But I wasn’t sure if I wanted to give that as an explanation to her.
“How they must be guiding the butterfly to fly when they want and to sit on her shoulder like that no?” Aaji smiled with joy as she asked me that. Her eyes were still glued onto the television set.
“You will know how. Once you watch the entire series, I think you will come to know,” I looked at her and grinned.
By the time my niece was two and a half years old, we had bonded quite well. So, I decided to take her out on a walk one day. My niece – an adorable tiny creature walking alongside me and clutching onto my two fingers. As we walked, she looked at the world with her beaming face. Probably there was even a tinier person sitting inside her brain and recording all that she was seeing. On the other hand, I thought of how much this place had changed since my childhood. I had not been to this part of the town lately, the not-so-wide streets and the old house where I grew up.
With the town overflowing with population and creating chaos with its blaring vehicles & busy stalls, where do you take the two-year old? The only place that I could think of was a temple of Hanuman nearby. It was the place that I used to visit when I was around her age. The temple was not really a popular one despite being very old. Probably that was the reason why I enjoyed visiting it back in the days. It was located in one of the side-lanes, little far from the main street. One had to walk down the kachha road to reach there. So I walked, marched, and matched my footsteps with those little feet. On our way over there, I showed her things that she might find amusing – a puppy, a kitten, a tall tree and a man with a long beard. When we finally entered the temple through its black-coloured gates, I imagined how my family back home would react to this, knowing only too well my relationship (?) with God.
I almost felt awkward. The way you feel when you stumble upon your ex at an event or a ceremony and immediately resort to an explanation. “I’m just here for the event, you know. What’s up, God! How have you been?” But today was not the time to introduce atheism to my niece. As we moved inside the temple, I could see that she was already well versed with the dos and don’t s of the religious place. Where to take off your footwear, how to fold hands in front of the deity, etc. As we sat down in front of the deity, she looked up and asked me, “Why don’t you fold your hands?” It had to be replied with a smile and me asking her, “I don’t know how to. You show me.” “Like this. See. Like this,” she gestured.
Afterwards, I showed her around the temple. I suddenly remembered that one of my schoolmates used to stay inside the temple premises as he happened to be the son of a priest working there. I looked up with a false hope as if he would still be around. His house was shut and wore a deserted look. Meanwhile, my niece was running around a tree in circles and pausing intermittently as if to check if I’m noticing her new achievement or not. It was reminiscent of the time when I use to run around this place with my sister. I loved chasing kittens and yes, also looking at this giant tree standing right in the center. My sister and I would try to guess its age. We could never reach consensus on the number but we did agree that it must have been older than any of our grandparents. I stood next to the tree and touched its bark. It was still standing strong. The wrinkles on its branches did give away its age but rather gracefully, like strands of grey hair shining on an old man’s beard. It was still holding a promise to touch the sky with its leaves on top. As a child, I always related it with a popular story of a young man who climbs the tree to enter the world of dreams.
I touched the tree with my palm and wondered if it still remembers me. I had learned in school that trees are living beings just like us and I had always wondered since then whether they too have memory. I wondered if the tree silently acknowledged its old friend. I would like to think that it did. Maybe that’s the kind of solace every believer seeks. Hoping for a positive outcome and negating the doubts in their head about whether God really did hear the prayer. Maybe, it is all about hope in the end. Maybe that’s why we don’t tell children that magic isn’t real, that Santa is simply their mom or dad tucking gifts under their pillow or that some things just cannot be afforded. Maybe God is another name for hope, and adults are his children who need to sleep well at night. They need not always know everything in its naked reality.
Let’s pick a black hole to plunge into,
Let’s tumble down into the black velvet sky.
Let’s spin around the planets as tiny specks,
Until we transcend the dimensions of space and time.
Inject sunsets into my arm,
Let me feel your rush.
Let me love you violently in the privacy of my heart.
Your rib cage holds an ocean,
It’s the night we drain this sea
And plant flowers on its floor.
I think you’ve become a planet yourself,
Which is why I keep orbiting you like a dead satellite.
Turn the stars back on,
Let the moonlight slice the years gone by.
A taste of the universe sits on your tongue,
Show me how many galaxies you hold in your mouth.
Pour me a thunderstorm or two on the rocks,
Let us riot against the time.
Let’s tumble down, down, and down into the black velvet sky.
It’s the night we become one with the cosmic sublime.