There are days when sorrow is like a physical ache. Under your skin, it is a soiled washcloth the surgeon left inside before sewing you up. In your bloodstream, it’s a murky grey fluid, an effluent without an outlet. Inside your ribcage, it is the deadweight of despair. Even neon seems dim, music grates. People are talking to you, but all you want is for them to go. Their concerns are trite, banal, pointless, compared to the grief that you cannot share with anyone. There are such griefs, and they are the most terrible.
At this precise point of time, happiness seems a myth, a chimera, a bedtime story for children, a poor urban legend. When were you happy last? Yesterday? The day before? Yes, you can remember those times, those moments, but you can’t believe it was you. It was another person, yes. It was another world. Here, now, this you can never again be happy.
You make a list. You start small: mundane happinesses, commonplace joys, random unplanned delights in a world where happiness was allowed? Lying about in a meadow in the winter sun. The caress of riverbreeze on your face. Getting wet in the rain after seven years. Cuddling up with someone you love under the quilt.
But the memories of happiness can hurt too. Can you ever go back to those moments and experience them again, now, with the knowledge of what comes after? Will the sky ever be as azure as it was on that winter day 10 years ago? The quilt may be the same, but you could be alone.
Happiness happens. But the patterns of its arrival are random, and its departures are staggeringly unexpected. It knows no reason and follows no apparent logic. Causality can be established, but you know that introspection and analysis often spoil it. It can be a warm light, it can be cool blue. Anticipation can be it, so can afterglow. Bliss is doing nothing at all, but it can also be working at feverish pace. But most of all, right now, for you, happiness appears elementally cursed, like a stillborn.
A sleeping child, a warm puppy, a mother’s lap. Two rainbows in the same sky and animals hiding in clouds. The first snowfall, the last love of your life. Ducklings waddling down to the pond, the sighting of dolphins.
People find happiness. All the time. You know that. As they sight their brother pushing his luggage trolley out of the arrival terminal. As they cheer India’s victory at the Eden Gardens and in front of TV screens in shop windows. You have even met people who have been happy for sustained periods—for months, for years. People full of life, happy with their jobs, happy with their relationships, their existence silver clouds with no dark linings. These are people who have fitted perfectly into the lives they have been handed by destiny, circumstance, environment. People who have built their own lives with a clear idea of their selves, consciously and systematically reduced the variables in their existence, shrugged away doubt and found their places in the world. Those places could be an existential Taj Mahal, or a sleeping bag for the mind. Size does not matter. You have known people who have struck gold financially and been happy. And people who have given away what they had and attained happiness. Acquisition has been joy, so also renunciation.
You know people who have been given a happy life, at least for some time, by a Dale Carnegie book, by a Chicken Soup book, by any of the thousands of books that spew out of the presses every year, promising the Big H in six smooth steps. You haven’t read any of them, nor will you ever, but if even a small number of people have felt that a book has delivered on its promise, you are OK with that. If people find cheer in staying up all night in a crowd listening to devotional songs, you have no problem with that. Religion has never held any lure for you, but you recognise the right of others to worship in their search for truth and meaning, solace and peace. Maybe when you are older, you will understand and you will join the flock. Maybe you will then come to believe that life is more than an accidental combination of disparate chemical compounds catalysed by volcanism and impact-cratering on a planet coincidentally just the right distance away from a star. That humans aren’t just the current state of just one thread of life triggered by the autocatalytic systems that appeared on earth 3.5 billion years ago, capable of passing information from one generation to the next, through DNA, a chemical thread which rose from the primordial oceans and built all the lineages of organisms whose descendants populate our modern biosphere. Maybe it’ll be easier to be happy then and accept your grief with humility, not anger.
P.G. Wodehouse and The Pickwick Papers. M.S. Subbulakshmi singing Suprabhatam in the morning. Vintage Kishore Kumar in the car stereo at 100 kmph on the highway. Amelie from France, The Lion King from Hollywood, and Munnabhai MBBS from Mumbai.
But why do you need to be happy? Why do you crave for it, if the only thing you know for sure about happiness is the inevitability of betrayal? Happiness won’t last, it will leave, without even the courtesy of a wave of goodbye. Did not one of your professors once tell you that creativity is directly proportional to the amount of tragedy you hold in your heart? What sort of pictures could a Vincent van Gogh with his soul at peace have painted? Could Gregor Samsa have woken up one morning from uneasy dreams to find himself metamorphosed into a gigantic insect, if Franz Kafka was a happily married bureaucrat? What is the big deal about happiness? From your limited knowledge of the world’s major religions, you have a sense that most messiahs have spoken about peace of mind, rather than happiness. You could be wrong, but that’s the notion you have.
In fact, aren’t you supposed to rise above happiness and sorrow, and attain a state of overwhelming calm, what the Japanese call Shibumi? Understanding, rather than knowledge. A spiritual tranquility that’s not passive; being without the angst of becoming. Authority without domination; power which is also a kind of submission. But why even try, you think. Every philosophical concept seems but an aesthetically constructed roster of words when sorrow claws its way through your innards. These ideas are a thing of beauty, you can recognise that, but like all great art, they are pointless. They seem to be about storytelling, with no story to tell. The sound of one hand clapping, you know, will always be too faint for you to hear.
To be with people you love. A night out with long-lost friends. To know that you can trust her and that she can trust you. To be alone and comfortable.
To be alone and comfortable. Finally, isn’t that what you are looking for? Once you asked a book-lover friend, what do people do who don’t read? You still remember his answer. Reading is a solitary activity, he had told you, and very few people enjoy solitude, are content in seclusion. Reading is silence, and very few people enjoy being in silence. That’s why so many millions search for themselves, looking for a core that could define them. But what if it’s all a cosmic joke? What if there is no core, what if it’s all about just two mirrors facing each other, with the reflections stretching to infinity?
You want to be happy. What if you attained your heart’s innermost desire? Would you be happy then? There’s this Russian film you saw, where people are constantly trying to sneak into The Zone, a strange, forbidden area, to reach The Room where your deepest craving would be fulfilled. You can reach The Room not by travelling towards it, but only through totally random changes in direction. But as the guide, Stalker, takes a writer and a scientist through The Zone, the two hopefuls begin to realise they themselves may not know what their more ardent wish is.But The Room will know. A man had gone to The Room wanting his brother to be saved from an incurable disease, but when he came back, he found himself enormously wealthy. The Room knew what he truly ached for and gave it to him. Faced with the simple naked map of his soul, the man committed suicide.
Stalker, Writer and Scientist arrive at the antechamber to The Room, but the travellers are fearful of proceeding. The floor is strewn with coins, hypodermic needles, weapons, religious icons: the various ways the mind looks to escape misery. They don’t know if they have the courage to know their souls.
The pointless radiance of abstract mathematics. Midnight mass on Christmas Eve. The Taj by moonlight, the moonscape of Ladakh. The first cigarette after a sumptuous dinner.
If the universe is indeed an absurd place, existing with no particular objective, its workings ruled only by a roll of the dice, maybe it’s only the small unexpected happinesses that make sense. They make sense because they’re arbitrary and as absurd as the universe. Strategising happiness would then be a joke. You once played roulette with a friend. You knew how to win in roulette, you knew the strategy. Bet Rs X on any odd number coming up, a 50:50 probability. The ball stops on an even number. So the probability of an odd number coming up next is higher. You bet Rs 2X on odd. The ball chooses an even number again. So this time round, it’s highly likely that an odd number would come. Bet Rs 4X on odd. If an odd number comes, you would have bet a total of Rs 7X and won Rs 8X. In essence you keep doubling your bet to Rs nX in this manner and you can’t lose money in roulette. But you lost all your money anyway. Because your wallet didn’t have the n to take your mathematically perfect gameplan to its conclusion. While your friend bet utterly randomly and walked out with half a fortune. In life’s casino, it’s stupid to assume you have the n required to get the ball to halt in joy’s slot.
But if the universe is indeed an absurd place, does grief make sense either?
Some years ago, you had gone to an electric crematorium in Calcutta with the body of someone you loved very much. The crematorium was particularly busy that night. Every 45 minutes, two bodies would be sent in simultaneously into the two furnaces, and all the other corpses would be shifted up the queue, two by two. This went on for six hours. The partner of your loved one in this slow progress to incineration was a man called Kelo, a mere glance at whose corpse told you that he had lived a life of debauchery. Kelo’s pall-bearers were four of his friends, and a young boy. Periodically, the friends would go out and have a drink to relieve the tedium. During one such break, the crematorium’s priest came around, did the last rites for Kelo’s group of bodies in the queue and left. Kelo remained unlast-rited. When his friends returned, the priest refused to perform the rites unless he was paid an extra sum, since his schedule had been violated. So the Kelo contingent decided to take matters into their own hands.
"Go round the body three times with that vessel in your hand," they told the young boy. After all, they had been watching the last rites for many people being performed in the last five hours, and had a fair idea what needed to be done. They didn’t know the mantras, so, while the boy did his rounds, they said a few lines in Bengali, which essentially meant Kelo was one of the coolest men to have inhabited earth. "Now light the tip of that reed and touch it to Kelo’s mouth," they instructed. And as the boy did so, they yelled lustily: "Jai Brahma! Jai Vishnu! Jai Shiva!" Kelo had now been purified to meet his Maker.
Half an hour later, as Kelo slid into the furnace on a low metal trolley, he went with fanfare and jubilation. "Kelo’s going to heaven!" they exulted. "God, Kelo’s coming to you! Hail Kelo the Great! Kelo zindabad!"
It was the best funeral you had seen. And when you think about it, you think there was something there about the fundamental nature of happiness. Something you can’t put your finger on really, but it’ll come to you some day.
A tub of warm water to put your aching feet in. The cool touch of the pillow’s other side.