“The music is not in the notes, but in the pauses between”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
As an enthusiastic literature student, I was familiar with P.B. Shelley’s famous words, “The sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thoughts”. Having had imaginary affairs with Byronic heroes, I was always attracted to those tales of loves that did not have happy endings. Whether it was Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights that I empathised with or a young Theodore Lawrence from Little Women, these men were all unsuccessful in uniting with their true loves. Not once did I think that someday, art might imitate life and my teenage enthusiasm for doomed love stories would mirror my reality.
Arjun and I had known each other for a while. As young precocious sixteen-year-olds, we had bonded over Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries, having found each other on an online writing community. Two years later, after exchanging several emails and chatting online, we decided that it was time for us to finally meet. I remember being quite nervous- what if the person that I had spoken to for so long turned out to be completely the opposite of what I had imagined?
My fears were unfounded. I recognised the tall lanky silhouette making its way towards me from across the IIT campus. I smiled shyly at him-this articulate, witty boy who was at once stranger and friend.
We stood there for a while, glancing at each other, tongue-tied. Arjun suggested we sit down in the shade and drink some iced tea. Over many cups of iced teas, we discussed our dreams, our ambitions and our shared love for travelling.
Over the next three years, we kept in touch, through letters and email, long-distance telephone conversations,through sporadic meetings across continents. We talked about our lives in France and The United States, we raged about troubles in Edinburgh and in Atlanta, we engaged in dissecting politics in Delhi as well as Calcutta and when I moved to London to pursue my Masters, we both realised that the geographical distance was only making us want to be closer to each other.
Out of the blue, in the middle of my Masters’ thesis, I was called to interview with a top notch Consulting firm in New York. I was thoroughly excited and called up Arjun, who surprisingly, did not sound the least bit excited. I put it down to him working long and excruciating hours at the laboratory and did not give it much thought.
My excitement knew no bounds. I would finally be meeting Arjun. I had known that he would be on summer break when I reached New York and it would take only a shuttle bus ride for him to come and see me.
“That’s great,” he said. “Just make sure you spend the weekend in New York. I can come and see you.” I booked my tickets accordingly and at night, I hugged myself to sleep in delight.
On the night before I left, I received an email from Arjun, “Sorry. I can’t come. I think it’s pretty useless to meet you for just a couple of days.”
When I arrived in New York, there was nobody to receive me at the airport. Nameless, faceless people were being greeted by their family. I found myself a big yellow cab and was driven to the hotel. To enliven my own spirits I walked all across town, soaking in the atmosphere and the wondrous city that is the Big Apple. Finally, I bought myself a burrito and sat down to eat it at Central Park.
When I came back to London in the fall, the quietness and solitude seemed refreshing. I realised that my quirky friend had given up on our childish dreams.
One of my roommates once stuck a note on the mirror. On the wall of her mirror, it simply said, “It’s always good in the end. If it’s not good, it’s not the end.” On a cloudy day in March when it was time to eat Chilli Con Carne from Sainsbury’s. I rushed out with my umbrella. I still have it. Its spokes stick out now and pokes anyone who bothers to use it. It has butterflies on it. Green and magenta and purple butterflies. I have always liked butterflies. To me, butterflies symbolise freedom. Butterflies have wings. They can go anywhere they want. But human beings clip their wings. Human beings are cruel. Not a surprise, given how certain things you do- active choices that you decide to make in your life will either turn you into a demigod or you will be demonised till you seek out a place to hide.
Animals are so much better. When I have a house of my own, that house will have a mushroom shrub in the corner. I love mushrooms. Crispy Chilly Mushrooms, Sauteed Mushrooms. Any kind of Mushroom really. Except the ones you can’t eat. There will be green grass all around, a beautiful tree house. The house itself will have large French windows and I will have a cat, a dog and a rabbit, all living under the same roof.
I wasn’t trying to be stuck-up today. You are mistaking my shyness for arrogance. Why do you think I write so much? I cannot express myself otherwise. You are tired of drilling and drumming things into my head, asking me questions which you think will help you get to know me better. And here I am again, short of words. Words fail me when I need them the most. You think I am bluffing. Unstructured settings make me uncomfortable.
Today I went out. It was snowing again. I hate the snow. Snow looks good on television and in Christmas films. Snow is good for building Snowmen. Talking of snow, it snowed so much that I could not catch a flight back home on time. As I sat outside the airport, two rather sprightly young people started building a snowman. Except the snowman was Homer Simpson. It made me laugh and cheered me up a bit.
How far and how long can you live vicariously through someone else’s experiences? The cold is gone and now it’s green. I met a beautiful girl called Aparna today. Follow your heart, she said to me. These days I insert you into situations. I conjure up situations and fit you in, just to feel like you exist. You affect me in a visceral way. A physical tangible way. A way in which I feel like if I reach out to touch you, I can. Except that I cannot. You aren’t anywhere close to where I am, or where I want to be.
As the first two months of my stay here in London is drawing to a close, I wanted to gather my thoughts of the place that has become my (albeit temporary- at least for now-home).
I remember writing an excited mail to you during my time in Edinburgh. That was the first time I had ever lived away from home for a continued stretch of time and although I had thought that I'd find it difficult, the freedom to take my own decisions and make my own decisions was liberating and even exhilarating, in its own way. Edinburgh, as a city is like the baby bear in Goldilocks and the three Bears- not too big, not too small, just right.
Slowly and gradually, as I began understanding the topography of London and absorbing the pulse of this city, I found myself drawn into to the life, the colours and the quirks that this city has to offer. I was also amazed at my new found skills- I had learnt to do laundry, fold sheets, learn directions without ever getting lost. Heck, I even managed to stop a National Express coach that took me to Cambridge!
If there is one life lesson that I have learnt from anthropology this semester, it would be never to disavow dominant modes of thinking, but also to consider marginal points of view. Basically, that there is never a right or a wrong and that every viewpoint counts.
And if there's the one thing that I have learnt from London, it would be this- never underestimate your own or any other human being's potential. You will be surprised with what you can achieve. Achievement will not necessarily be reflected in huge ways validated by the entire world, but it's the little achievements of everyday that will make you want to say, "yes! I did it!" secretly, to yourself, while nobody is listening.
So, I arrived here in Edinburgh only yesterday, but it seems like I could stay here forever. The place is absolutely gorgeous and when landing, all I could see was green everywhere. That, and huge castles and fortresses. I'm staying at the Pollock Halls of Residence, in Baird House. Breakfast and Dinner are served within the Pollock Halls and I will eat lunch at the Library Cafe in St George Square.
I'm usually not a cat person at all, but this cat is moody, temperamental and really fascinating. It actually comes up to you and asks to be pet!
The other students from the Creative Writing course haven't arrived as yet, so it's just me and this girl called Annie. Annie has been attending the Scottish Literature programme as well and like me, has majored in English Literature. She's actually double majored- in English Literature and Music. Her senior thesis was comparing northern ragas to jazz! So you can see how she and I would get along just fine.
I was driven to the Pollock Halls of Residence by a gregarious Scotsman who told me how busy August gets here in Edinburgh. He started off by referring to me as pal, but had graduated to calling me darling and sweetheart.
My room has a pink bedspread, a washbasin, a mirror and a rather large cupboard. It looks a lot like my butterfly room back home, except that it's much bigger. Every evening, men in kilts (and women in skirts) gather together to play the bagpipes.
Today, I get to potter around and explore the place a bit before a reception, which will involve meeting my classmates and tutor.
I don't know how much time I'll get once the course begins, but I'll try to keep you updated as and when possible.
My mother always tells me not to fight with shadows. I suppose there is sound logic in that. If you fight, you fight to win. How do you fight with an intangible thing. How does a thing of flesh and blood become an abstract concept? It has taken me a while to get my head around it.
Today, I will tell you about a new city. A different city. Your city. You'd be delighted to find out that I passed by your house yesterday. The very same house with that strange looking canary yellow auto. The neem tree. The peacocks. The heat and the dust. Organised chaos, you had said to me. In characteristic fashion, I had scoffed at you.
I understand it now. Your city and its glamour. Your city, which will never acknowledge me as one of its own. I could tell you stories too.
Sher Singh, with his majestic moustache who feeds the five neighbourhood dogs a bucket of milk every day. Dayaram whose toothy smile lights up my day and the little children whose hearts skip a beat every time they see an orange stick. It still costs five rupees.
How can a city reverberating with colour be so dark, soul-less and unforgiving. You will ask me to step back, to examine it from a third person's perspective. I will relent for a while- be convinced by your passion and your arguments for the truth and beauty of the place you have known as home. I could think of several cliches - ' Home is where the heart is'. ' Home sweet home'. So cloying and saccharine-like in its sweetness.
You have been known to reject familiarity and embrace the unfamiliar.
The Banyan Tree, tired with the weight of the world, droops down slowly. Maybe it hosts Brahmadaityas still. On a moonlit night, an owl scarpers by. An ordinary barn owl with wondrous eyes and midnight dreams.
In the quietness, you can hear the wind chimes as they swing to and fro. The sordid air brushes past you as if in a hurry. Don't stop breathing.
“Because maybe, in a way, we didn't leave it behind nearly as much as we might once have thought. Because somewhere underneath, a part of us stayed like that: fearful of the world around us, and no matter how much we despised ourselves for it--unable quite to let each other go.” ― Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
Ishiguro has always been one of my favourite writers. He chooses his words carefully. The sparseness and the lyricism is appealing to me. Restrained and yet so forceful.
You asked me to keep an open mind. Let me tell you about today. I was on my way to work as usual. The cheery fruit seller was convincing a neighbourhood aunty to buy two kilos of mango instead of her usual quota. And then before I knew it, two autos rammed against each other. A heated exchange followed with the choicest hindi gaalis. Were it not for the lack of time, I am quite sure there would have been blood on the streets.
Intimidation works to scare people. Something I have always abhorred. There has got to be another way of communicating, isn't there? Explaining something calmly to someone also allows for them to express their point of view.
You will ask me to calm down and think things through. And I will remember that fateful auto ride on that fateful summer day.
Yet another day. A Sunday after which I actually have to work. I get paid. I draw a salary. I take the metro and commute to work. I am a grown up now. Not the fifteen-year-old you laughed with and fell in love with.
How easily I assumed that you would be an intangible. A definite part of my life regardless of consequence.
Here I am breathing life into you. Keeping you alive through my words. You live somewhere else. Breathe in someone else's perfume.
Very soon, you will be a haze. And I will remember that crinkly smile. And those big, brown eyes.
(Jonaki is the pseudonym of Reeti Roy. She has a first degree in English Literature from Jadavpur University and has a Masters degree in Social Anthropology from the London School of Economics and political science. Her writing and other intellectual endeavours have been generously supported by the Charles Wallace India Trust Scholarship, The Choice Fellowship from the Seagull Foundation for the arts, The LAMP fellowship from PRS Legislative Research, The Matador Network Travel Writing Scholarship, the Goethe-Institut/ Zubaan Books fellowship, the Vonda N. Mcintyre Sentient Squid Scholarship four times and the Ann Mclaughlin Scholarship. Twitter: https://twitter.com/reeti)