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Monday, March 4, 2013

Vignettes



Troubled Times
It’s a sad moment that you view lucid: the moment you stop loving your country. It hits you between the eyes. You sit there in that expensive coffee shop, looking at all the happy people around you and wish you could trade your laptop for a conversation with an human being. This is my country. I should have friends here. I should be able to be myself and make the jokes I used to and laugh like I used to. But it’s all lost on me. The beauty of my country, the warmth within its people and the hope in the air is lost on me.

My friends who knew me at school and university and who remember a happy, laughing fun-loving guy who’d joke without inhibition, may be surprised if they met me know or when they see me again, if ever they do. The last few months in India – particularly the last 6 in Mumbai – have changed me profoundly. My optimism is tempered by my recent experiences. I love my job and the time I spend at work are my happiest but sadly it cannot fill all the hours in my day and when I get home at night, I wish to sleep before I have a chance to take account of my feelings.

A month ago I was in an autorickshaw and the rickety three-wheeler toppled over on the highway doing a high-speed turn. The sight of the black tarmac hurtling towards me stays seared in my memory. I held on to the flimsy metal skeleton of the 2-stroke insect and clung on while the vehicle skid down-hill sideways before it finally came to a stop. I got up, dusted myself off and was dropped home by a kind Samaritan. The Shravan of Aston University would have thought the good deed of the caring passerby, the driver of a school bus who plonked me in the front passenger seat and dropped me to my destination, balanced out the unfortunate accident. But as I sit here today, anger dripping from my mouth like bitter molasses, I cannot see the bright side of it. It was a lucky escape, but the memory of our car crash in France when I was a child came flooding back, serving only to reinforce my fear of driving and of roads.

Two weeks ago I was mugged on my way home. I was drunk and three guys jumped me, hit me and took everything. It was a day that changed my life. Perhaps for the better, since I’ve stopped drinking for the foreseeable future and changed my lifestyle drastically, but perhaps not. Where I used to look at every poor, scrawny UP-boy and ask myself “does he shit on the train tracks at Mahim in the morning?” I now also ask “would he and his friends steal my stuff if he could?” It is not a day I wish to dwell on. If I hadn’t been drunk, I don’t think I’d have been such an easy target but it happened and I had to sit, shamed, at the police station and watch the rotund cop fill out the FIR.

What’s next? Am I going to get fired from my job? Knifed by another gang? Fall seriously ill? I find myself waiting for bad things to happen, letting all the opportunities for good slip through my clenched fists. I have become so indiscriminately hateful of everything and everyone I see around me. Every couple I see here in Gloria Jean’s Coffee Shop in Bandra are rubbing my nose in my loneliness. Every group of carefree young guys with the audacity to seek a fun night on the town, I view as pathetic ruffians. Every pretty girl I see is one I’ll never talk to.

I talk less now. I channeled my new found time – the time afforded to me through a booze-free life – into photography and physical exercise. But those are stop-gap pass times because every time I see a beautiful set of windows in South Bombay the old Shravan wishes to turn to a companion and discuss them. Every football game I pick up with strangers turns into an overly brutish confrontation, a competition that I have to win at all costs – a far cry from the infinitely joyous afternoons I spent on the astroturf with my housemates in Birmingham. My roommates unfairly faces the brunt of my dissatisfaction when I snap at him for the smallest things, a reflection of how much I miss my closest friend in the world who I roomed with during the second year of college. The few friends I have, I dismiss as ‘not good enough’ and retreat to the safety my TV/laptop. I’ve become scared of being vulnerable.

Being Single
I meet girls in bars who, I’m sure, are interesting, funny, delightful people but I pay my bill and run home, haunted by the lips of the last girl I cared for. I don’t even give them a chance. I have no one to blame but myself. When sizing up what to do for lunch, I prefer to find a nice restaurant and eat alone. Is there anything sadder than seeing a guy eating alone on a Saturday afternoon? Such a snob am I that even the sweet PR girls that give me enticing glances, I dismiss. I live in this fallacy that there isn’t a girl I like that I have a chance with. Experience proves otherwise. I’ve dated a few girls but never had a girlfriend and for some reason, people find that hard to believe. I try not to think about it because I have absolutely no idea why not.

I mean, I should, right? I’m 22. It should have clicked with someone by now, right? I think I’m a nice enough guy – a guy that girls have been unfortunate enough to fall for in the past. But the truth remains that I live in wait for a ‘strangers in the night, exchanging glances’ moment. A couple of weeks ago I saw a confident guy my age walk up to a girl at this very coffee shop and chat her up masterfully. He threw her a shallow question about whether this café had Wifi and they got to talking. And she was beautiful. It has been far too long since I had the courage to lay it on the line like that. Months of being a single cynic have turned me into an angry person.

Last night I watched my beloved Arsenal lose again and the friend of a friend who was with us, made a joke about how bad we were. I was ready to glass him. I was ready to hit a perfectly nice, friendly guy over a bit of football banter. Where did this anger come from? Is it just months of bottled up feelings being callously vented?

Identity Crisis
I suppose that’s why I find it so easy to write to you, the internet. I lay my heart out in the hopes that somewhere, someone will read what I write and have their loneliness embraced for a fleeting second by a stranger. I have no idea what I really want and it’s easier to feel sorry for oneself then stand up and seek happiness. In my mind, I see my ‘ideal’ life – being a travel writer in Berlin or Prague or Hong Kong, waking up next to a girl I used to hang out with when I was in Germany and enjoying my 20s. But that is a holiday, that’s not real life. That’s an imagined reality that you only see in movies.

What I dream of most is not taking life so seriously. At a bar one day, a friend joked about me to one of her friends at the table, “Oh Shravan? He ends up only talking to the white people!”

It was a comment so true, so profoundly correct that it I didn’t sleep that night. I found my answer soon enough though. Why indeed does Shravan end up seeking out the foreigners at swanky Mumbai lounges? It is because he feels as much an outsider as they do? Is it because, through his stories and ideas, he finds more common ground with the Germans and Italians than he does with other Indians? Is it because his world view is shaped by his closest friends: liberal, mildly socialist Europeans? Is it because one of his coworkers discouraged him from trying out a bar because the crowd was “quite shady, full of niggers”?

Living alone in Bombay isn’t easy. There are days when it seems everything is against you. When the water doesn’t work, when the taxi driver won’t go where you ask him, when the rigid bureaucracy won’t let you get a replacement SIM card unless you have a signed letter from your office… I find myself whining like a spoilt brat.

Mr and Mrs Davre
There are only a couple of things that bring a smile to my face these days. Once in a while I leave home late on a weekday and pass a pre-school near my house called Toddlers Academy. I see the twenty odd children and their little chairs and their little books and the unbridled joy in their singing lifts my spirit. They have a beautiful curiosity and innocence that bursts through the glass windows of the little building every morning. “Yes Mrs Frazier” they chime as one, sweet, squeaky voice. Across the road from them sit Mr and Mrs Davre.

Bandra has the ability to surprise you. The district has the unique quality of housing large Hindu, Muslim and Christian populations side by side and you can never judge a book by its cover. The old couple run a little stall where they sell cheap, delicious Catholic food and they’ve taken me in. I discovered why they make such good lasagna – they lived in Rome for 30 years. Yes! This sweet, dark skinned couple ran a guest house in Italy. They reminded me that me and my travels are nothing special. Especially not in Bandra. I stood on the steps of their stall and nibbled on prawn cutlet as a large white BMW pulled up. Somewhat poetically, I could only see the shoulder of the man in the passenger seat. He was a regular customer just like me.

I love the fat, rich, fair-skinned men of Bombay. Men who have all the money in the world and break from the rigid confines of their social status only for that elusive great bite. I know so many like him. Men who own large businesses, who breathe cricket, who are members of Bombay Gymkhana and whose plump outstretched arms are all that dusty India sees. This one had come to the stall for the same Rs. 20 prawn cutlet that I had and it felt very validating. He was chauffeured off in minutes. Without ever having met, we both shared a common passion: good food, no matter where it comes from or how little it costs.

I have so many excuses. I love my excuses. There is nothing wrong with India per se; I just need to get over myself.  

4 comments:

Nilima Bhat said...

You have hit so many key notes on this blog Shravan...and I am delighted you are so in touch with your vulnerability. It will keep you real and oh-so-intensely-alive.

And I expect just blogging about these would have 'emptied your cup of sorrows' a bit. So you can start building more resilience for the quest for that elusive elixir.

Young man, you are only 22! So the journey has just begun. There are still many stages you have to pass through, each with its own richness.

If you haven't read about 'The Hero's journey' or 'Man's search for meaning', then perhaps the time has come.

Beautifully written blog. Enjoyed its bitter-sweetness. Vintage tragic-comic Shravan. Love you and rooting for you all the way!


Vijay Bhat said...

Superb, superb, superb. You have this (truly rare) innate ability to provide an 'outside-in' perspective and an 'inside-out' perspective in the same sentence. Thanks for letting your readers 'into' your world. You've enrolled in the 'school of hard knocks' for a real education and in years to come, you will look back at your first year in Mumbai with nostalgia and pride. Love, Dad

Shravan Vasishth said...

Hi Shravan, I stumbled on your blog some time ago, and have been following it for a while. I enjoy your writing; as a 49 year old who's been around the block a few times, it's interesting to read about your trajectory.

I just wanted to alert you to something that you will only realize when you're far into your life. It seems to me that people who can think (so few of them out there!) have a peculiar need to have a certain amount of misery in their life.

If one has a serious illness to deal with (this is my situation currently---I'm living on hemodialysis after a long period---27 years---of living on a transplanted kidney I got from my father), one enjoys even smaller things that would leave a healthy person very dissatisfied. I am almost delirious with happiness if I can get through a day after dialysis without a headache.

When one's cup of misery is empty, however, there is a strange need to fill it. I've done that too, in the past. Once you see through this mysterious "misery effect", you can step outside yourself, and as a result your response to your environment is going to change.

Shravan Vasishth said...

Hi Shravan, I stumbled on your blog some time ago, and have been following it for a while. I enjoy your writing; as a 49 year old who's been around the block a few times, it's interesting to read about your trajectory.

I just wanted to alert you to something that you will only realize when you're far into your life. It seems to me that people who can think (so few of them out there!) have a peculiar need to have a certain amount of misery in their life.

If one has a serious illness to deal with (this is my situation currently---I'm living on hemodialysis after a long period---27 years---of living on a transplanted kidney I got from my father), one enjoys even smaller things that would leave a healthy person very dissatisfied. I am almost delirious with happiness if I can get through a day after dialysis without a headache.

When one's cup of misery is empty, however, there is a strange need to fill it. I've done that too, in the past. Once you see through this mysterious "misery effect", you can step outside yourself, and as a result your response to your environment is going to change.