Today isn’t a particularly special day. It’s just a rather random Thursday that I’ve spent doodling in the memory of various people and the times I’ve lived with them, that I need no particular occasion to celebrate. So cheers to you, and us, and all that we’ve been through and the people we’ve become. I love you.
The lead vocalist asks us to raise our hands if we’re proud of who we are, as people and as artists.
And something suddenly unravels inside me, a tightness that’s been there for a while. And with a few other wavering hands, I raise mine up in the air and smile.
There’s a gentle drizzle. The accompanying breeze makes the yellow paper lanterns sway, as if in rhythm with the light strumming of the guitar and banjo down below. The drums weave a comfortable,solid presence as fifty-odd people, friends and strangers hum along. Music does this to people- it makes one body out of individuals, a body moving in seemingly eccentric patterns but with a wonderful coherence.
There is silence towards the end of the show as the performers play the opening bars to a song they have dedicated to survivors of depression. What amazes me is that it isn’t an awkward pause. In this audience, there are people who, in some odd way, understand, either first-hand or through their loved ones, what it is like to not want to get up at all, to not eat or bathe or write or paint for days, or to just do all of it in a frenzy until you’re not sure what you’re doing anymore. There are people for whom turning up to a live show like this is one of their greatest achievements this month- they might not have stepped out of home for weeks. There are also people who are lucky enough to be mostly non-depressed, even happy, and who take this moment to understand how that isn’t necessarily a “normal” every one is used to.
As I raise my hand, standing here in this city that I’ve been both non-depressed and depressed in before, it is because I am proud today- of myself, of being able to sing along, of showing up alone, of continuing to write even if it seems to be most ordinary on some days. It’s because I can now raise my hand without feeling weird about being happy about my own existence. And because I have done a lot of things in the past year, good, fun, somewhat crazy, mundane, only for myself, and have loved doing it. It’s because the rain, and the lights, and the songs have the ability to make the darkness beautiful and bearable. And so does my writing, and your art, and someone else’s strumming, or playing or mere existence.
There will be bad days. But try and hold on long enough, and there will be good ones.
Listen to these guys (When Chai Met Toast) here:
My grandfather was an eccentric man. On Sundays, when he had the day off from work, he would get up quietly after finishing his morning newspaper, surreptitiously slipping a nail clipper into his pocket, and declare, “I’ll be back in a while.” My grandmother, long weary after years of marriage, would say nothing, only watch from the balcony as he strode out towards the lane that would lead him to the main road.
He had a fixed route; much like the newspaper boy or the milkman does, covering four to five houses. Each of those houses was owned by a particularly close friend of his, some considerably younger in age. Despite being direct to the point of bluntness, my grandfather had endeared himself to all sorts of people- shopkeepers, the local meat-seller, the affluent neighbourhood doctor and all the little children. It was for this last category of people that he took his long-winded route every Sunday. Upon reaching their houses, he would demand that the children line up in front of him, and one by one, he would carefully clip off their uneven, dirt-stained nails that had strayed to many a prohibited place in course of the week; the muddy school field and the fertilized pumpkin patch in the backyard, were, by far, the most civilized of those places. He would gently chide the ones who’d been exceptionally careless- his favourite epithet for them, and indeed, for careless people in general, was “Holder!” Three decades after his death, the closest explanation I have managed to find for this seemingly random phrase, is that sloppy people reminded him of the flickering tube-lights in our house, rendered vulnerable by their faulty holders.
After completing this ritual, Grandfather would on occasion, stop for a cup of tea and a long chat, most often at the home of his favourite friend, the Doctor. He would hold forth on diverse issues- the rising vegetable prices, the latest policy of the government, the war, the heat in Delhi, the children. Then, suddenly, he would rise from his chair, and in one sweeping motion, rip off the calendar page still displaying the previous month’s dates on the wall and mutter under his breath again, “Holder!” Whether he was referring to the caretaker’s inattention or man’s futile attempt to calibrate time in general, no one knew.
None of Grandfather’s friends and acquaintances minded this periodic imposition on their homes and families. Indeed, they had begun to look forward to the routine, and sometimes, when the sweetshop owner Kalika Babu’s wife forcibly chased her child down on a Friday to trim his nails, her husband would stop her and say, “Oho. Leave the child alone till Sunday. It’s the tradition after all.”
When he retired from his government job at the age of sixty, Grandfather made a few changes to his schedule, and his friends learnt to expect him on both Wednesdays and Sundays. He didn’t linger long on the weekday, but he always made sure to speak to every member of every family. He would listen with great attention even to the youngest child, all of two, who proudly showed off her latest attempt at learning a Bengali nursery rhyme. The lady of the house would say, with an exasperated sigh, “Dada, you must not spoil the children by bringing them something every week.” He would nod seriously, and then sneakily slip a few sweets into the children’s pockets once she’d turned her back. Children loved him as the adult who never ignored them in favour of seemingly important “adult business”.
On what was to be the last Wednesday of his life, Grandfather got up as usual at 5.30 a.m., ignoring the niggling feeling of a heavy stone tied to his chest. He put on his shoes slowly, taking a little more time to tie his laces. “I’m going”, he called out to my grandmother. He’d already stepped out by the time she noticed that he’d not said, “I’ll be back in a while.” He never came back. I think his last thought would have been a gentle regret as he touched the nail clippers in his pocket. For all the little fingers with dirty little nails as they rested on the gates- waiting.
The world is full of real problems. I am reminded of this every morning when I step out to go to work and I see a stray dog flinch just because a human walked too close. I sit in a taxi with the windows rolled up and earphones plugged in, trying not to look at the naked child on the opposite footpath who is eyeing the apple in my hand. There will always be more naked children than there will be apples.
I sit in a cubicle every day compiling columns of statistics on disease and hunger, reading about how a large fraction of the country’s population does not have food to eat. I tell myself that what I am doing will make a difference to that fraction one day. I ignore the fact that the fraction is made up of a multitude of wholes. For now, I ignore it in favour of staring up at the fraction of the moon as I head home. This time the naked children eye my parcel of over-priced junk food. Sometimes I buy them some too. It makes me feel good about myself.
After I eat, I sometimes have a lot of work to do. But some times I think about problems. Other kinds of problems, unreal ones, you could say. Like the kind of sadness that comes out of a neutral blankness, and reconciling the roles of living for yourself and living with other people. Like trying to figure out what certain words mean to you, and what they mean to others. Like the concept of having your heart broken, and how it is a very inane phrase because the heart is a muscle not a bone.
But then inane things hurt more than sensible ones. They always have. There is clarity when it comes to ‘real’ problems. You either have food or you do not. You either have money or you do not. You are either dead or you are not. (Unless you’re the cat)
You’re either happy or you’re not. But what is happiness?
You’re either in love. Or you are not. But what is love?
You frustrate me. You take me to breathtaking cliffs of joy and then leave me there- you know I don’t know how to climb down; you know I’ll have to jump. I keep trying to hold on to the best in myself, to rise above pettiness- you drag me down to the infernal depths of jealousy and anger and possessiveness. I used to be just fine before I met you- beautiful, in fact, in my emptiness. My void was my sense of purpose- it drove me. You weigh me down like a rich dessert, so delectable to taste, yet a plateful of gluttony, no less.
They say so many things of love, the way it uplifts and shows you the heavens- they say nothing of how it strips you bare, and lashes your skin with the air of indifference, and clings to you like a shadow, reminding you that you’re not alone. You’re never alone any more, you see? Do you see what that means? Cast your romanticism aside. It is the most frightening thing you will ever face. The inability to see yourself on your own. Run from love, my friends, as fast as you can. It snatches the solace of your solitude for all of eternity.