Siddhartha

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WE ARE waking up.

To the clatter of rusty alarm clocks and the beepbeeps of short-lived China-made digital timepieces, we are being roused from our shallow sleep. It’s impossible to be too restful before a journey. Many of us have been edgy all night, or for days or weeks, and some have been starved of unconsciousness for most of our lives

Our awakening has upset the ones we live with.

As we dart about our flats this morning preparing to leave, the departure times for our various modes of transport marking each moment with panic, how our obstinacy must sting our cohabitors!

They ignore our requests for assistance in finding our socks or ironing our sari blouses. Their resentful glances make us spill our caffeinated beverages. We bathe and dress to the background score of sick-sick-sick, or, I-can’t-believe-this.

As we are about to walk out our doors with our backpacks or handbags or medium-sized suitcases, the ones we live with tell us to go to hell. They ask what we mean by taking off like this, on what grounds, with what understanding. Seriously, who do we think we are!

(Over the past months and years, we’ve gone missing from the daily grind for hours on end, often for whole afternoons or weekends. But this time, with this trip, we will be gone too far and too long.)

We glance down, at the watches of various sizes and brands adorning our respective wrists. There isn’t time enough. And so we exhale and put forward our reasons for the ten zillion thousandth time.

We tell the ones we live with that we have a right to, or that we feel a burning need to, or that we have no idea why we want to…

We are not allowed to finish. Our incomplete sentences are yanked from us, and by now, after countless such exchanges, we have ceased to be enraged by the unintended meanings wrought upon our unuttered words.

We have a right to… be escapists? We feel a burning need to… jump town like circus-clowns, with no sense of responsibility for jobs [or studies or spouses or parents or children… ]?

We check for the time again, this time surreptitiously, in the clocks on the walls past the shoulders of those we live with. If we don’t leave in two minutes, we’ll never make it. Or maybe we’ll reach in time to watch our trains or buses or long-distance taxi-cabs pulling away like satellites having other gravitational obligations.

Why aren’t you listening! We are startled by the volume and ready ourselves to be struck. Instead, more verbal punches ensue: Why are you being so heartless!

Within their soundproof cages of flesh and bone, our affronted cardiomuscles thump in protest.

We say we don’t like being screamed at. We say our minds are made — which is not entirely true, since the distress of those trying to hold us back makes us yearn for the days when it had never occurred to us to go.

Now we are pressing the elevator buttons. Those of us who live close to the ground are running down the stairs or are already on the streets outside our apartment buildings. Some of our names are being yelled from windows and doors or building lobbies. We are being called bastards and bitches and sissies and pathetic fools even as we are ducking into cabs or auto-rickshaws.

We tell ourselves that goodbyes like these are privileges. We imagine we are lucky to be loved so frantically.

The expressions of those driving us to our points of departure indicate otherwise.

IT IS a crushingly hot October morning. Among the garrulous multitudes jostling about us at railways stations, at bus depots or at out-station taxi-stands, we hope there are at least a few others headed where we are. Our need to be accompanied is incurable. We expect arms to be stretched out for us endlessly as we dangle over life’s ravines and forests.

Arms which we must later hack off when they won’t pull back or let go, like earlier this morning.

We take our seats. Our journeys are about to commence. Around some of our necks are chains with alphabetical pendants or lockets that enclose photographs of sweethearts or deities. Our bags contain music players, laptops, diaries, magazines, packaged food items, toiletries of staggering inconsequentiality… Except for our clothes, we will require almost none of these things where we are going.

Fellow-passengers look rapt in thoughts about the people and plans awaiting them at the end of their trips. We scrutinise them in an attempt to glean their destinations. Are any of them free-falling like us? Is anyone going where we are?

Our co-passengers notice us observing them. We trade nods and smiles; and then we ask one another, in numerous languages and in a variety of ways, a similar sort of question:

Aap kahaan jaa rahey ho?

Tamey kyan jao chho?

Where are you headed?

Answers can wait. Cellphones are ringing.

Our fellow-passengers and we exchange helpless glances as inventions of our own over-productive species hijack our attention.

There are no surprises flashing on our Caller IDs. ‘Home’ is already calling. Those people — strangers still months or years ago — whose belief in our lovableness endures despite all signs to the contrary, those dear and doomed beloveds are calling.

No HIs and no HELLOS. (The morning’s exit wounds are still fresh.) The ones who’ve called just want to know where we are. As if there’s a chance we may have aborted our trips and headed back to our workplaces or colleges or any of the myriad obligations that would occupy us on what is, after all, a working Wednesday.

But we are where we planned to be: by ourselves in our respective masstransit seats, on our way to a place that will swallow us up for days before spitting us back out into this world that we hope will remain unchanged in our absences — no familial deaths, new taxes, or impromptu wars, please!

Our mobiles crackle with moans and sighs. Having commenced our journeys, we’ve left the ones who’ve called no scope for hope in any sudden changes of our hearts.

They bid us farewell in the politest possible manners, as if extending courtesy to strangers; and then there is silence. Our LCD screens indicate ‘Call Ended’. The ones who’d phoned us are now the-ones-who-can-no-longerbe- bothered.

As we pull our gizmo-holdinghands away from our ears, the stabs of loneliness make us breathless. We, the abandoners, have become the newly abandoned.

Our mass-transit vehicles pick up speed.

For the remainder of our journeys, we strive to extract pleasure from all the mundane rituals of travel. From this evening onwards, for days to come, even the simplest joys will be out of our reach — a touch, a song, a taste of our favourite treat…

And so we daydream, eat, read, watch videos, play music, and gaze out the windows of our mass-transit vehicles with the absorption of toddlers.

Where we are going, there will be such austerity, such deprivation. We each have our reasons for going; at least it’s our decision, it’s what we chose. Decades from now what may (or may not) be a fiery post-petroleum planet, such austerity, we have been assured, might no longer be optional.

Hong Kong sex workers drug and rob tourists. Mumbai mayor’s plea to drive out hawkers falls on deaf ears. US plans Gitmo closure, new rights for detainees. Indian in race for Citi’s top slot. Will high crude prices spoil Dalal Street party? Kashmiri youth rediscover religion. GodTube.com a hit with the religious. Nalbandian is the Master of Paris. Drowsy drivers a road hazard in US. More than 3,500 Chinese babies named ‘Olympics’. Blanchett confirms pregnancy. Christina is pregnant. Foreigner nabbed with smack. Diwali crackers kill one. Comet dazzles stargazers…

Vacating our seats at the ends of our journeys, we leave our newspapers behind. When yet another torrent of trivia piles up outside homes throughout the nation tomorrow morning, we will, mercifully, be spared the daily societal guilt — of being over-informed, yet remaining so utterly unmoved.

UPON OUR arrival at our destination at various times through the day, each of us is given an envelope in which to deposit our mass-produced and commonly-owned possessions.

Many of us require two envelopes, and some ask for three. They are sealed before our eyes and locked away in cupboards.

This place we’ve come to is on a hill. It is full of tree-lined gravel walkways that wind past the dining areas, our residential quarters, and two vast halls in which we will spend upto fourteen hours a day braving nullity.

Had we been less distressed by our separation from our things, we would’ve noticed how spectacular this place is; we would’ve been grateful for the chilly mountain air and the gorgeous landscape views that play peekaboo through the thick foliage.

But without our cellphones, MP3 players, laptops, cameras, cigarettes, paan masala packets, jewellery, cash… denied of these essentials, which the people who run this place have deemed too valuable or dangerous or unnecessary for us to possess in here, we feel weakened, like walls with missing bricks.

It comes as some relief to finally be among others like us; actually, scores of others like us, who’ve left behind their homes, responsibilities, debts and deadlines to experience the utter denial of the world that is engineered in this place.

The families, couples, and groups of friends who’ve come here together are holding their last conversations.

Wasn’t that an STD booth we spotted outside the gate on our way in?

Now, with barely an hour left before our tongues are stilled by vows of silence, the unaccompanied ones among us rush out to make their final phone calls.

The line at the phone booth is long.

The woman presiding over it is wise, ensuring every call ends in under two minutes.

We all get to speak. We get to hear the voices of those whose shouts and invectives had seen us off this morning. There is no more rage or bitterness now. There is just concern — theirs for us, ours for them. Some of us hear weeping at the other ends of the lines. It makes us want to die. Oh come on, we say with mock nonchalance, it’s no big deal, it’s just ten days!

Ten days, 240 hours, 0.04 percent of 70 year lifespans. We have seen lives changing in two seconds and we will be gone for 864,000 of them.

Time’s up.

… make sure you shut the gas properly, tell him I’ll send the cheque soon as I’m back, take your medication regularly, cross the road carefully, don’t let her get to you, don’t take that route, don’t sleep with anyone new, I love you, I’ll miss you, I’ll see you soo…

TIME’S UP!

Our strolls back — from the phone booth to the entrance of the centre — turn out to be the most mournful sixty feet any of us has ever traversed.

What we spoke into the phone — maudlin terms of affection and anxiety — will be the last utterances to escape our lips for days to come.

We return to our rooms. We close the doors. We push our bags under our beds and sit down on the meagre mattresses and wait, like prisoners, for the gong that will announce the start of our severance from life, as we know it.

For the second time today, our hearts are beating so fast they could flee this place if they had the legs.

We’ve amassed outside the two halls assigned to our respective sexes, waiting to be called in. Through the halls’ mosquito-netted windows, we catch glimpses of endless rows of blue 3X3 mattresses that have been arranged like cavalry. In there is a spot assigned to each one of us.

We can hear the distant rumble of highway traffic and the bugles of passing trains. The sun has just set.

How did we not notice… There are not just scores, but hundreds of others like us here. They — or rather we — are old and young and rich and poor and rural and urban. So many of us are from foreign lands. For the next ten days, while eating, walking, sitting and living together in absolute silence, we will play guessing games with ourselves about our fellow-attendees’ lives, their origins.

With hundreds of tongues on hold, the only sounds are of crows and bulbuls and the sharp chirps of unseen creatures.

YESTERDAY, RIGHT about now, many of us were at home, dining with our families in front of television sets. Some of us were out shopping for knickknacks — torches, mosquito repellents, warm clothing. Several of us were still at work, struggling to complete assignments before we took leave. Until yesterday, despite our preparations, our going away was as yet tinged with uncertainty. Even on the eve of our departure, we didn’t think we were the kind who could turn away from the world, even if for just ten days, even though our needlessness in this world had been revealed to us over time in sharp excruciating installments. ‘Mother’, ‘father, ‘banker’, ‘doctor’, ‘teacher’, ‘brother’, ‘student’, ‘boss’… All these ephemeral labels and their demands on our lives that we have put on hold to be here.

People claim their lives are suffused with meaning after spending ten days here. They say the scars of their pasts are erased by this drill. Upon returning to their daily routines, they find themselves centred and unshakeable, no less.

And yet we’ve come here, despite such alarming testimonies, lured by something more prosaic than the promise of some dubious peace.

We are beneficiaries of a rare variety of charity at this centre. Each of us is being fed and housed by the direct contributions of those who were here before us. When we leave, we will be expected to do likewise for those who come after us. How much we part with in the end — anonymously and voluntarily — will depend on how deeply we desire to perpetuate this centre and its teachings. Our scepticism is non-negotiable; we might end up shelling out nothing. But by providing free shelter and sustenance, even to those who could afford to pay five times over, this centre has bestowed us all with something extraordinary — an opportunity to spend a few days on this planet untainted by the twin stains of profit and loss. For many of us, this was reason enough.

Girish Khanna!… Kasim Pilani!… Nick Fischer!… Rahul Adhikari!…

And, on the ladies’ side:

Rajni Chani!… Mila Rutso!… Avantika Joshi!… Minaz Khwaja!…

We break away from the crowds upon hearing our respective names and venture into the halls one by one.

By the time the last woman and man has been called in, it is night.

The lights outside the halls are switched off. Where hundreds of us were standing half an hour ago, there is now empty darkness.

A breeze blows in carrying wood and neem smoke from the nearby village.

A garden snake darts across the clear grounds and scrambles into the undergrowth bordering the centre.

Amidst thousands of carcasses of insects crushed under our feet, the thousands of insects that survived resume their hectic journeys.

A plane bound for Tokyo traverses the starry sky, too high to be heard.

None of us is around to notice any of this.

 

Altaf Tyrewala (born 1977) lived in Mumbai and earned a BBA from Baruch College in New York. His critically acclaimed debut novel No God In Sight was published by Penguin India in 2005. It has been translated into Marathi, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Dutch, and published in the US and Canada. Tyrewala’s short stories have been included in several Indian and international anthologies. He will be editing Mumbai Noir, a forthcoming title from Akashic Books, Brooklyn. He lives in Mumbai with his wife, and is currently working on his second book.