Have you ever felt like there is so much inside of you that it can hardly wait to get out? That the voices in your head just wouldn’t stop talking? Constant travel, personal tragedy and changes in life have all been playing havoc on my writing. And when I have kept away from putting words on paper for so long, I feel bottled up. Like a stream boiling underneath a mountain ready to spring forth. Yet the stream has no clue how to be born. There are no how-to books for stream dummies. Should it be one angry swish from the weakest spot that would change the landscape forever? Or should it try different spots across the terrain, to possibly form a calmer landscape of intertwining little streams?
As my metaphor gets confusing, I abandon it for more practical ways to channel my writing. For quite literally, I don’t know where to start, there just seems to be so much buzzing around. I decide to pick up the first random book in my bookshelf for inspiration and follow its lead. Secretly I was hoping for Erich Segal’s Love Story which has been missing in action ever since we moved, which I had been dying to reread and also because I wanted to write about love (and I swear watching reruns of Sex and the City had nothing to do with it). As luck would have it, I picked up Shashi Tharoor’s Bookless in Baghdad.
How does a collection of random thoughts inspire one to write a coherent piece? Well, it can be interpreted as nothing but the license to write a collection of random thoughts, exactly what I was trying to prevent. Well, some days you just can’t seem to win. Or rather, no matter how hard you try to lose, you win.
How do you know you love someone? In the spirit of randomness, I will give you my answer without the explanation. The one that I recently figured out. If I had picked up Segal’s Love Story, I promise things would have been different.
If you can cross every mountain, swim every sea, just to see someone smile, that’s what they call love. If you can give up all that you held dear and fought hard for, just for a glimmer of hope that it might make someone else a little happier, then it must be love. But above all, if you can feel someone’s pain and someone’s joy as if it were your own, it has to be love. When a tiny tear tripping down his face pulls your heart apart and it wouldn’t stop hurting till his pain is your pain, his tears are your tears, you know. You just know. This must be love.
Where is that goddamn book? Have you ever wondered why people flock to fiction? Why writers write fiction and why readers read fiction? Why create a world of your own, not knowing whether anyone else would want to visit and if people were to visit, you are unable to dictate that they leave their baggage at the door? Why lovingly carve out characters when they may never meet a soul beyond yourself or your immediate friends, and even if your book were to be a best-seller, knowing that the characters you envisioned will never be met with the same love and care that you nurtured them with? Why spend hours scribbling word after word, sentence after sentence, and sometimes going back and editing so that the gaps your pen skipped because your mind glossed over, because it is too familiar or too painful, can be filled – not because your mind doesn’t want to skip it, but because you want someone else to understand it too. Precisely because of that. Precisely because you want someone else to comprehend it too, and feel what you feel, and connect at the most human, most basic level of all. And fiction gives us the façade to do it.
Which is why we read too. Reading is easier than writing, because someone has done the hard work for us. They have created the house, put the furniture in, and they are inviting us in. I need Segal’s Love Story because I want someone to tell me what I feel. I want to share without giving. I want to lose myself in an imaginary world, an alternate reality, as an affirmation of the reality I am living in. I want to take out just one aspect of my everyday life, and blow it up out of proportion so that that bit becomes the whole. Love becomes the world. Everything else fades into the background. And I am consumed by it. As is everything else.
I have a vague suspicion about what happened to Segal. While we were moving countries and houses as a consequence, for what seems to me the umpteenth time, Srijith had separated a pile of books. I come home one day to see three dismantled bookshelves, five hundred odd books strewn over the floor and a neat pile of about twenty kept away from the rest. They were to be sold!! What treason! He was destroying my home. Every nomad eventually comes to a definition of home. It is sort of ingrained in our human nature – the need to define a home, to identify a place, or sometimes a concept, or rarely just an abstraction where one belongs. I have a simple definition – home is where my books are. I guard them with an almost fanatic fervour. Imagine my consternation when I find that there are twenty books – twenty bricks from my home – about to be sold, handed over to another mortal for a few meagre euros. And imagine my disbelief, for I was unable to muster any other emotion, when I find among the doomed, Segal’s Love Story.
I was recently reading an interview with the poet laureate, Kay Ryan. A celebrated poet, she seems in every way so different from me that I could not find even a shred in that personality that I could identify with. Yet I like her poems.
“A bitter pill / doesn’t need / to be swallowed / to work. Just
reading your name / on the bottle / does the trick./ As though there
were some anti-/placebo effect. / As though the / self were eager / to be wrecked.”
I can’t even put my finger on the sense of rhythm that I feel when I read it aloud. Yet it resounds again and again, as if a lullaby sung to make you think while you sleep. May be that’s why I like her – poetry is the song that connects. The equivalent of fiction where the author requires the reader to do a lot more of the work. Deceiving in the simplicity of words, disguised in the rhythm of a musical note, it makes us believe that we have heard it all before, but there is more. There is always more.
In any case, the point of bringing up the Kay Ryan interview was a specific discussion on how she does her work. She said her mind is a blank, an empty slate, most of the time. And it was so incomprehensible to me. My mind is always full. Overflowing is how I usually feel. And for a long time, I thought that’s how everyone feels.
It’s difficult to accept people who are different from you. Yet that is love. Ability to accept the difference. Not just accept, but embrace it. And never let it go. Never wanting to let it go. Flourish and let flourish. And not insist that the flowers that bloom need to be this way or that way, it will most probably bloom in an altogether different way.
I do not love Kay Ryan, well not in the socially accepted conventional sort of way that one reserves for the dearest in their lives; certainly not even the most touching of poetry moves me that much. The emptiness of mind discussion made me think of how difficult it was for me to accept that concept. How difficult it was for me to comprehend something that I had never experienced. They say that once your mind is stretched by an experience, it never regains its original shape. You cannot “unexperience” something, or “unthink” a thought. Yet there are concepts, which may be everyday realities to some, but are abstractions to me, because I can never experience them, and will always remain abstractions for me, because I will never be able to.
Yet one day I got over it. I woke up one morning, and I believed it is possible. My mind will always be overflowing, but perhaps it is a possibility, however rare and improbable, it is a distinct possibility that some people have blank slates for their mental states. Blessed are they, who can then choose, what to scribble on their fresh consciousness. Believing without experiencing, trusting without knowing, embracing without questioning, that must be love.
Srijith tells me he took out Segal’s Love Story from the pile before he sold the rest. I believe him.
Perhaps it has a lot to do with growing up. Does everyone go through all stages of life – childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, adulthood, old-age-in-denial and eventually old age? We all have pre-conceived, often romantic notions about each of them, no doubt augmented by fiction whichever media it chooses to be told in, yet I wonder whether we all experience them. Of course, none of us can stop the march of time, and physically we will all do the inevitable journey through our life cycle, yet how long each stage is depends on each of our lives – and it comes under constant pressure, with ever increasing life spans and changes in expectations across generations. The stage our parents experienced in their young adulthood (which is what I choose to call my current phase) is not what we experience. The stage our parents find themselves in now is not what our grandparents lived through. We have no precedents really. So do these stages of life hold any meaning, if there are no definitions to go along with them?
Till recently, I used to say, “When I grow up, I will become…“. Someone approaching the big thirty would have been considered quite grown up in almost all places, across all times, yet I think in my generation I am not such a misfit. To not have your life figured out by the thirties is not a disaster. But I have stopped saying, “When I grow up…“. Very recently. I wonder whether it is a reflection of my growing cynicism or just me taking responsibility for my life. Growing up is probably about realising there are many answers to a question and that one is not necessarily more correct than another. Growing up is knowing that you have to choose a path, in fact you actually have chosen a path, and there is no turning back. Growing up is feeling happy and contented in the landscape you see around in the path you have chosen, and in case it strikes you as not what you signed up for, may be doing something to change it.
I picked up Tharoor’s Bookless in Baghdad from my bookshelf for inspiration, yet I think this essay is as much about Segal’s Love Story, if not more. Guess it just goes to show that life may be a box of chocolates, but whether you decide to eat ice cream instead is entirely dependent on you.