Sunday, January 29, 2012

The winter on the edge of forever

My second Terry Pratchett - "Thief of Time," if you care to know - much like the first, gave me this irresistible urge to write something. Maybe it's all those behind-the-scenes peeks at mythology and the way he uses them to hold an affectionate mirror up to our idiosyncrasies. Did you know, for instance, that there were originally Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Pestilence, War, Famine, Death... and Ronnie. But he left before the group became famous. The same sad old story of trashed hotel rooms and creative differences, apparently. Anyway, on to our thought for the day:-

"... the smallest possible unit of time must exist, mustn't it? Consider the present. It must have a length, because one end of it is connected to the past and the other is connected to the future, and if it didn't have a length then the present couldn't exist at all. There would be no time for it to be present in."

It stands to reason, then, that there are the in-betweens, the links between the present and the later, the cracks between the now and the then, the bridges between the forward defensive and the yawn. Of course, we must be designed to be oblivious, mostly, to these - if motion judder from 24 fps sources can annoy us so, what would it be like to feel the Tick of the Universe? But then, there are seven billion of us, and countless gazillion ticks every day, and probability theory eventually weighs in. And those are the tales of forever.

When I moved to Delhi, I was going to a place where I did not know a soul. And since stuff like finding common ground, or taking a few steps in the other's shoes, or even the willingness to acknowledge that the thing standing in front of me is genetically 99.99% similar to me, are not exactly my strong points, my "friends" count managed to get only a marginal leg up all through my stay there. There was simply no one I needed to be in time with.

Which brings me to work - deadlines and office hours and peak traffic hours and what not. And people whose society was a clock's second hand with a needle tied to its tip, scraping away at my spine. Deadlines, no matter how unrealistic, had to be met, or there were tedious arguments to be had. Office hours, I pretty much ignored, but peak traffic hours are not to be dismissed lightly. And you very well can't ask your manager to sod off just because, in your opinion, the only thing the two of you have in common is an org chart and "so wouldn't it make sense if we cut down on this face-time business, and just stick to email?" In short, a life of that "discipline" thing that seems to be the most visible attribute of one who is a subject of the Kingdom of Time and proud of it.

Naturally, I snapped. I had just enjoyed an ethereal vacation in Arunachal, Assam and Shillong, and a heady cocktail of movies and old friends in Pune, and was just back in the office, bang in the middle of the most awful bout of contrast-induced gloom, when a couple of management folks picked absolutely the wrong time to pick a fight (in fairness, there was no way they could have known), and I quit.

Now, I've said it before and I say it again: Delhi is a city of many wonders, and it will be to my eternal regret that I didn't explore more of it when I was there. So, what did I do with all the free time at my disposal? Cram every minute of it with backpacks and peopling and metro rides and trips to parts of town unknown and long walks historical? All of those were in my plans as I walked out the office, texting "I'm out! I'm out!" but somehow...

You see, for the first time in my life, I didn't know what lay next. I mean, yeah, I knew I'd have to find another job when the money started to run down, but I had enough for a few months, and besides, there were arrangements I could make to stretch that to a couple of years of no work at all. So, unlike school when I knew with paralysing certainty when the next term would begin; unlike college when, even before I had collected my marks cards, I knew the precise date and time my employed life would begin; unlike every vacation since, when an out-of-office message would inform the desperate (and who else would hope to get work done out of me?) when I'd be back at my desk and would you please contact so-and-so for anything urgent in the meanwhile, there was no "later" to dread. All there was was the now and so much of it.

So, did I cut loose? Did I paint the town red and wake up with my head propped up against a dune, a dozen empty bottles at my feet, my car up against a cactus tree, a handy oasis to my left? Well, it turns out, I was never really straining at the leash - that awful feeling of suffocation was just the world trying to get me to hurry up.

What I learnt, though, is that if you ever want to spend some time being gloriously lonely - the sort of loneliness that is sweet and life-affirming; the sort that lets you whinge that there are none with whom you can just be; when you're all alone and you lament that there are none to turn to, none to be accountable to, none to be responsible for, none to feel guilty over: not the bad sort of loneliness where you're surrounded by friends and acquaintances, all of whom have a legitimate claim to your time, the kind of loneliness that ends with either your brains on the ceiling, or worse, a wedding... - where was I? Oh yeah, if you ever want to feel that most worthy of all human feelings, you must do so in winter, in a city.

The country isn't a place to be lonely - you go there when you want to do things: exercise, commune with nature, plant cabbages, etc. A city, on the other hand, is the proper place for it - where you're in the midst of millions, where at any point in time there's a dozen people an arm's length away and you choose to have nothing to do with them, where you build walls all around, with the enemy hordes inches away. When you played "forts" as a kid, was it any fun building them in the midst of nowhere, without a soul in sight? No, that was just plain boring; you needed the enemy near you, you needed to feel snug in the few inches of safety your walls bought you, cocooned from the danger all around.

Those were the days I'd wake up around noon, have a leisurely breakfast at the coffee shop down the road, and watch Time disintegrate around me. This was a world without before or after or causality. The nearest cinema was a short walk away; and the countless movies in there, the World Cup, the several hours in the bookstore next door, the walks in the winter evenings, all booted and trench-coated up - the only hint of regret being that I wished I knew how to wear a hat properly, and that if the one I'd bought wasn't a couple of sizes too small, then I could've at least had a go at getting it right... There is no order I can place to any of them when I try and remember them now. I would enjoy a meandering conversation over breakfast, while curled up in a blanket on my cavernous sofa, a Raymond Chandler holding me rapt, while wandering around in the night air, hands deep in my coat, studying the patterns I made in the mist.

Summer wouldn't have been the same. There's something oppressive about the heat that makes winter, despite all the miseries it can inflict, a better companion - with the temperature a couple of degrees above zero, my little fort with its warm, yellow light and my books and my movies attractively lit by the side of the sofa...

But this isn't really a story of forever, more of a detour around the edge of it. For, a day had to come when I'd snap out of it. I don't know what made me do it, though. Most likely it was my bank balance rapidly approaching the red line... And right there's the tragedy of flesh and blood - so few of us are Bertie Woosters and even of those virtually none can be alone.

P.S. - The title is only inspired by Star Trek, not stolen from it. Completely different things. One contemptible, the other an affectionate tribute.