Musings

Leap of Faith: What I Learnt About Fear on a Water Slide

The Leap of Faith at Atlantis, The Palm, Dubai is a water slide located at the resort’s in-house water park, Aquaventure. It is at a height of about sixty feet, almost vertical in angle thus resulting in a free fall, and finds itself a spot in one of the world’s scariest water slides.

On an average, extreme and adventure sport is something that will elicit misgivings, yet be pursued with excitement. The entire logic of it lies on a bedrock of fear, danger and thrill. Watching somebody bungee jump in crystal, blue water excites feelings of thrill and a desire for adventure, for we believe that it is an escape from the mundane realities of life, somehow more liberating in nature than any other experience we might have. It is perhaps somewhat similar to breaking the law- it exhilarates, and makes you feel like you’re above the ordinary, the common people, the usual rules and the typical routine. It is revered and dreaded simultaneously, and understood only when its attraction complements its revulsion- it should be only something that only a few can achieve, and you would be in that minority.

The Leap of Faith water slide is situated in a structure which resembles a Mayan temple, immediately bringing to mind viewings of Takeshi’s Castle and the extremely popular Nickelodeon show, Legends of the Hidden Temple. After climbing three flights of stairs, we were greeted with a queue of people waiting to do the Leap of Faith- it will make you leave your stomach behind, I remembered my friend’s dire warning. The screams that accompanied the slide seemed to support his claim, and I was comforted by the long queue of people ahead, which gave me atleast a good twenty-five minutes to watch, observe and then decide if I wanted to go on.

The scene was not very comforting- at the entrance of the slide, we could see only the shady, white tube which would carry us forward, the gushing water that would initiate the slide, and a handlebar just where the slide began, allowing us to get into position without slipping off. Those in the queue watched every single person about to get on the slide- the routine was to get on the tube, lie down while holding the handlebar, cross your legs and arms and then give yourself the final push. It was nerve-wrecking, like waiting to be interviewed for something you really want, as my stomach knotted up and I jumped around in my swimsuit, hoping to let out the anxiousness.

In a queue of about twenty people, six or seven of them backed out as their turn came, laughing nervously and deciding to give up, concluding that it was not their game, stepping aside to let the mighty others take on this seemingly impossible task. One woman lost her balance in front of me: getting on the tube, she slipped on the rushing water and fell with a loud thud, but thankfully her grip on the handlebar was tight, or she would have hurtled down the vertical slide into God knows what.

I grew more and more nervous as I moved ahead, imagining all sorts of scenarios, where I could simply fail to align my body with the open slide, hit my elbow against something and get knocked afar, defy the law of gravity and get stuck at some point or directly crash into the pool below with such force that they would have to shut down the water park. When there were six people to go before me, I seriously contemplated getting out- standards of adventure should not be judged and I should be comfortable in my own skin. If I could not do something, I could not do it and I should just be okay with it, instead of fretting about it. I should know my mind and more importantly,accept my own limitations. But one look at my sixteen-year-old sister and I’d feel dwarfed; scared to her bone, she was still fixed on her resolve to do the slide.

WIth just a couple of people left in front of me, I shut my mind to all thoughts, positive or negative, and zoned myself out; putting my chin up, I refused to think about anything, even as the slide in front of me promised to gulp us all. With my mind almost blank, I stepped onto the tube and heard my instructor carefully- cross your legs, hold the handlebar tight, cross one arm, push yourself with the other, cross the other and make sure your elbows are tucked in. I followed them to the point and ignored the whirring in my mind, giving myself the kick and taking the plunge.

It was splendidly heady- perhaps the entire slide took less than even ten seconds as I almost flew in the air, rushing down at great speed as the water guzzled in my face. It was those two brief seconds when I felt like I was falling, two seconds which left me in control of nothing, and then I felt the slide at my back again,hurtling through the tube into a pool. I landed as smoothly as it was possible, shocked for a moment, expressing my exhilaration to the lifeguard who probably saw this more than a hundred times a day. Yet he smiled at my astonishment, asking if everything was good with a thumbs up. In the next few seconds, everything changed; the water slide seemed like the easiest thing in the world as all the fear was washed out with the water that had rushed through my back. I could do it a hundred times now, or not even bother to do it again; it seemed that easy. One of the toughest slides in the world was suddenly a cakewalk,but the truth was, it was never that difficult to begin with.

For if I came down to subtracting a few things, the situation would have been drastically different. If there was no anticipation, no waiting, no queue, nobody backing out, no intimidating Mayan temple structure and no it will make you leave your stomach behind warning by my friend, in short, no preconceptions and no buildup, perhaps it would have been just like any other slide. Which led me to a very reasonable conclusion.

It is strange, but mostly we fear something because it is supposed to be feared. Fear is a cultural hand-me-down, an unwanted inheritance- our aversion to darkness, our made-up ghosts, and the demons under our beds. It can be seen in the way we treat adventure sports, where the risk is the most important element. It is not the thing which needs to be conquered; what needs to be conquered is our fear of it. It is our fear which makes everything more complicated.

And we must always, always strive to get over our fear- of anything. Of relationships, of commitments, of sport, of speaking while a hundred people listen to you, of embarrassing ourselves, of asking a stupid question, of appearing unseasoned and unfamiliar. But most importantly, we must get over our fear of failure, for it is fear, and only fear, which can ever result in failure.

 

Image source: http://www.attraction-tickets-direct.co.uk/aquatica/latest-news/eight-scariest-water-rides-planet

 

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What does it mean to be traveling in India?

A single or a couple of women taking a trip in India comes with its own volley of problems, as every step of the way throws up a new challenge. First of all, you cannot do the most travel-esque thing: hitchhike. A method tried and tested for travel experiences that remain unforgotten, in a country where the news is full of horror stories about crimes against women, it is a privilege only accessible to well-built, thrifty men, as we give up dreams of our very own Motorcycle Diaries. Or so common sense will tell you.

Worries begin as night falls- while big cities are notorious for their crime rates, small cities have that eerie sense of abandonment post nine pm, of perhaps police being not so readily available, of people misconstruing your purpose, of stumbling across barren land and little connectivity. As women, we choose to spend the extra cash, but not compromise on safety- we try to stay in downtown areas, tend to peek in buses to check the male-female ratio before hopping on, and generally beware of accepting any unsolicited help. We take extra care about where we stay, about the homestays we pick, about the hotels we decide on, as often enough one hears horror stories about hotel staff mixing with local goons to harass you.

And then of course, for the cherry on top, there are always judgy uncles and aunties who are only too happy to show you your place. In our train back to Delhi, a middle aged couple was surprised to find that the two of us girls were out by ourselves, asking us whether we were too fond of adventure, their eyebrows raised so high up that they threatened to get lost in the hair on their head. Of course, there are many, many of us who do go out on our own, who do hitchhike, who do take trips while staying on a tight budget- but a general middle-class consensus remains, that for a woman to travel alone in India, without an external support system, is just not safe. I do not suggest that these problems for women are exclusive to India- but perhaps I may suggest that they exist more so in India?

A night in Jodhpur and all of us sat together, conversations taking us to places unexplored. A French girl traveling to other states of India after a three-month long stint in Leh, a German out to experience the whole of south and south-east Asia, another German with similar travel plans, an Indian guy bagpacking across the entire subcontinent with a goal to know every corner of all our twenty-nine states over a period of one-and-half years- and of course, us two girls, our travel plans seeming increasingly tiny in front of their ambitious ones.

Suddenly though, the equation changes- there are foreigners amidst us who have their own set of problems. They don’t know the language, they stand out for their differently coloured skin, and are obviously not so aware of the culture of a place- additionally, in a country like India, where culture can vary so greatly every few hundred kilometres, it can get all the more confusing.

They begin to relate their experiences, one of which happened right in front of us- some of the locals extremely keen to take pictures with these whiter skinned people, simply walk up  to these foreigners and stand next to them, asking their friend to click a picture. It is bizarre; the French girl exclaims that it does not make them feel like celebrities, that it makes them feel like zoo animals. That is the gap- it wouldn’t be the locals’ intention to make them feel like zoo animals; perhaps they just act out of curiosity, and do not find any other way to express themselves since they cannot speak a language common with them.

Then there are some instances which are not so funny, some which are just plain awful. Foreigners raped on the beaches of Goa, raped while they are on drugs, robbed as they try to ask around their way, fooled into things much more sinister. It is not just limited to foreigners; as the two of us girls walked around in Pushkar, a bunch of local guys begin to follow us, asking us which country, which country. When we do not answer, they try and push each other on us, so they may accidently brush against us and every time that happened, the whole group would cheer.

There are smaller problems as well- imagine leaving a valuable bag at some place you visited, some table you sat at, in the excitement of the day, imagine accidently leaving it behind at a shop, a restaurant or in a taxi. I make this statement without referring to any stats, because there can be no reliable stats for such a thing- you’re just less likely to retrieve something you left behind or lost in India as opposed to in other touristy countries. It is easier to find something you left behind, or dropped on the way, in a country like Singapore, or Germany or Switzerland.

But why? Is it because people are more dishonest here, more deceitful? No, maybe not; maybe the problem is that we don’t have the kind of systems in place that will facilitate the search of a lost item. We don’t have effective Lost-and-Found management at tourist places, we have police who are overburdened and have better things to do than find your lost wallet and they have no problem even telling you so- it is perhaps because the system doesn’t support us that individual acts of such assistance are more rare. Of course, experiences are always subjective- you could have lost your bag in Singapore, never to be found again, and found a lost one in Punjab. But on an average, I would not pick up a wallet lying on the road and make an effort to report it to the police if I know that it’s going to take away too much time from my day and earn me additional jeers from the authorities themselves.

These are among the many factors that make traveling in India not just dangerous, but consistently difficult, and that is a terrible shame, because India, with its endless history and multicultural demographic has monumental potential. Every state has so much to teach you, with effects of an increasingly globalizing world palpable on the local population, that traveling in India can be one of the many great experiences of your life.

But as the night went on and the Jodhpur air cooled down, we began talking about the other side of India, the side beyond the gruelling heat and inconvenient transport, the side beyond the dilapidated histories and the forgotten lives. The side which sheds light on the warmth, the brilliance and the beauty of cultures which believe in communities, in helping each other out, in looking out for more than just yourself.

They relate experiences and instances where the generosity of the people has exceeded anything that they have ever witnessed- the simple gestures by which the locals welcome travellers in their homes, the way they ask them to sit and have a meal with them, to share their food and understand where they come from. I hear that and I can’t help but agree- seeing a baraat passing by the main road from our balcony, all of us rushed down to witness it as the groom and his family pulled us in with them, made us dance, and asked us to come along, to be a part of their festivities, to share their happiness. They asked us, as we stood in our dishevelled hair and random pyjamas, they asked us to come along.

When our German friend caught an auto in the middle of the night to buy cigarettes and upon reaching the shop, realized that he had no money on him, the auto guy generously offered to purchase them for him. When in the train, the judgy uncle-aunty who disapproved of our trip, also made an extra effort to visit us and check whether our unconfirmed seats got confirmed. A couple of years back, while on the train from Goa to Delhi, we befriended an old, sardaar uncle who never fails to call and wish me on any festival, who never fails to wish me on my birthday, more than two years after we met him that one time.

There is something about this country that makes traveling here an absolutely maddening and an absolutely heart-warming experience. The range of people you will find here, there is little chance that you will find it anywhere else. Perhaps its still not too clichéd to say that here you will find that something else too, maybe a method in madness, a beauty in disarray, but it is something that works.

 

 

The Way of the World

Yesterday, I saw a car run over a homeless man’s foot. I don’t know for sure if he was homeless; he sat next to a food stall, on the road, his hands and legs twisted in manner that would be deemed strange. I could not understand what he was wearing- I could say they were rags,but then, what are rags? They were patches of cloth over a dilapidated body. His eyes were only slightly open, and his white beard was dirty- he was mumbling. He seemed homeless at the time

I saw him on the night we went out to eat Biryani, because it was Eid, so we went out to eat Biryani. On our way out on the street, we paused seeing more meat on a grill. “Let’s try the kakori kebabs”, we decided and stood there, next to the stall. He was on the ground, minding his business, when the pair of us came and stood next to him, waiting for food. He mumbled something, and I could not respond; he asked me for money, I managed a polite smile. In a bright, shiny plate, we got the four, soft, pieces of kakori kebabs, and he went on mumbling to himself.

Before I could look up from the plate to raise my eyebrows in approval, a car passed us, so quickly that I wouldn’t even have noticed it, if I had not heard a shout, a curse. “Maa ki choot!” The man on the ground yelled, a metre away from us, as the rolled-up glass windows bounced even the abuse off. I saw as the car sped off, and looked back at the man. His nails had come off, and blood, bright red on his dark skin, bright red on the grub of his feet, began cascading down. It made its way down to the ground in beautiful lines, shining on layers of dirt. It travelled all the way down to the grimy road, brightening up the spot where it collected and formed a pool.

Everybody around him, all the stall owners and the kebab makers, they all knew him, they all saw it, looked up when he yelled at the indifferent car whizzing by. And they chuckled- a laugh on the lips, a shake of the head, as their hands went about stirring, stirring and cooking and frying, too used to all this, too used to the world to stop. “Humne bola tha na, side mein baithna”, they said- now bear it. And they went about stirring and cooking and frying, reminding him that he should have heeded them.

The man was now slinking away, putting his weight on his hands and elbows against the rough concrete, he dragged himself across the road, slowly and excruciatingly, running his lower body against the road like a snake, but without the agility, without the venom, he slithered ahead. Behind him, he left a train of urine, dark against the road, wiping his blood away, and the stall owner said, “Yaha mat kar!” He ignored them and he slithered on, leaving his trail behind.

I went and bought a cold bottle of water, hoping he would wash his foot with it, take a little gulp, forget the pain, for a second at least, a second of thirst quenched. But he refused- refused to accept the bottled water, slithering on where he wanted, refusing the bottle of water, which probably to him, was a token of all that ever trod on him. The people around chuckled and shook their heads, smiled an all too familiar smile, went about stirring and cooking and frying: this is the way of the world, they seemed to say.

This is

The Way of the World.

Why, art

[Image source: http://blog.artandwriting.org/2013/05/10/why-are-art-and-writing-important-to-you/]

Our desire to keep on existing

is what makes the timeless valuable.

Timeless, something that defies Time,

the Great Eroder,

if not the Destructor,

whose passing no man can withstand,

for one day we will all be

fine powder and dust,

lost in the grains of sand.

Is this not why

we all wish to leave behind

a legacy,

a proof of our existence,

a tiny, solitary ink mark,

which no matter how minuscule

may seem in the cosmic infinity of space and time,

still raises a voice,

however feeble,

here once walked you and I.

Sonnets of earlier centuries,

little love poems written by courtiers

for mistresses who were unattainable,

emphasized a lovely point

the best thing in the world would be

to have your love accepted,

and reciprocated.

But since the object of desire

is unattainable,

the next best thing would be

to immortalize your unfulfilled love.

Isn’t that exactly what we do,

when we strive to create art

which will never be forgotten,

as our own physical being

finds it impossible to overcome

its own mortality,

so we find the next best thing that can-

the Idea, and its Creation.

Life is like that Chilli Crab

[Image source: http://www.loverofcreatingflavours.co.uk/2015/02/like-hot-birds-eye-chilli-singapore-chilli-crab/]

After the travels of a long day which had now turned into the night as the city buzzed with clinks of wine glasses, bursts of laughter and the clatter of knives and forks, the sounds of dinner, we were starving. Starving and tired, so we could have collapsed anywhere, after a busy and exciting day, on our first trip outside the country as adults, we really could have collapsed anywhere.

Seeing a little diner, not crowded, not loud, we went inside and slumped on the chairs, with bags on the table and sighs of relief, oh how we slumped. Starving stomachs look for one thing, and one thing only: the menu. We picked it up and scanned, up and down, left to right, judging, deciding, for each meal on a holiday is precious, an empty stomach is precious. It enables you to taste and explore, to literally take in the country, to smell and touch and feel what the place is made up of, how do they live, what do they eat; a meal can tell you so much. So each selection in a meal needed to be carefully curated: is it the local flavour? Can we get something like that back in India? Will we get to try something new?

We discussed and debated despite our rumbling stomachs, and finally decided our order, the highlight of which was the Singaporean Chilli Crab. After the day that we had and the hunger that had struck, we could want nothing more than the gorgeousness of the Chilli Crab. Smiling a satisfied, deranged smile, we called to be served. “Yes, we will have three steamed buns, two cokes, chicken..” I began and ended proudly with the Singaporean Chilli Crab. There. Done. Dusted. I almost sat back and turned away but the server made a pained expression. “What happened?” I asked her tentatively. “No have,” she said, as we looked around in confusion. “Chilli crab, no have”, she repeated.

Our grief-stricken looks said it all. But collecting ourselves and moving on from the disappointment, we searched the menu again for a replacement. Nothing appealed to us as much as the beautiful chilli crab. Okay we tell you after some time, we said. She nodded and left. We frisked through the menu once again, up and down, left to right.  We talked some more, appreciating, praising, getting impressed- aah, what a skyline, what roads, what transport. How immaculate it is, everything in order, everything on time, what variety, what food, oh it is dynamic, very dynamic, very fast, changes every six months, has to change, lives on tourism, Clark quay, what a place, dazzling lights, delightful bars, stunning riverside…

And so came the coke. How cold and refreshing it was, with the little bubbles, so we’d go to Universal tomorrow, yeah the Universal Studios, yeah its one of the four in the world, Hershey’s store, the giant roller coasters, the Hollywood walk of fame, and came the chicken and the buns, and don’t forget the mini New York, we have to go there too. We ate a little, talked a bit, but waited and then waited some more, for the star dish, what we saved up for, oh and also the safari, yeah we must, Bugi’s street, Orchard road, they have slow service, very slow, hope it will be worth it..

Remember Mike, and we laughed, yes Mike, the Mike who drove us, he said you girls are crazy, as we waited, we laughed over Mike, what Mike said, how we laughed, we laughed on how we laughed, and we waited a little bit more, and I’ll have a nice dessert after this, me too, oh me too, and then again we waited some more, as the tissues lay unruffled, too white, too clean, waiting with us, hoping they would hurry, and the chicken got over, and the buns were rejected, and the coke lost its fizzle and then we finally decided to call out once again, call out for the highlight of the night, call out for what was taking so much time, too much time, we had been waiting so long for the exquisite chilli crab, and I opened my mouth to say excuse me…

And with a jolt of understanding, a dawn of realization, a surge of comprehension, we looked at each other: in stupidity, in foolishness, in inadvertent neglect, in distractedness. Our head in the clouds, all throughout the meal, as we waited to be served as we talked about our grand plans and this day and that person, we had been waiting for the chilli crab that would never come, because it never existed. Too much talking and excessive excitement made us forget that we had to order a replacement and like idiots, we sat and waited for the chilli crab, after being told that they don’t have it, imagining it getting washed and grilled and spiced, when that never happened: the chilli crab simply did not exist.

Many times, we make up things. We see something, read somewhere, hear someone, and we take it all together and make it all up in our head. We create our own idea of it, which materialises soon into a solid, tangible, living, walking, talking person in our head who tells us that this is how it is. It makes our should be into is, and seeks to impose our fantasies on the world outside of us. Life is one of those things. We wait for what never was or will be.

We build expectations around something that probably never existed, and then irrationally, we wait for it, wait for it to turn up, without cause, without reason. We build up ideas that say, this is how you should be when you are 21, and this is what you should wear at 40, and this is what elegant is like, and this is the money you should have by 35, and this is the number of countries you should have seen by now, and this is how college is, full of nights that don’t end and days that give way to nights..we always wait for a life that will be one day.

Life isn’t something out there that you will do one day; life is here and life is now. Life will never reach that ideal that you always made for yourself; at every age, and every day, you will wish you had gotten up a little early, or done more for your health, or not have eaten that extra dessert, or said yes to that offer, you will always wish for some kind of do-over. You will never arrive at a stage in life when everything will be perfect from then on. The chilli crab that you ordered will never come, no matter how much you wait for it, because that chilli crab you made up for yourself never existed and you were too busy thinking of other things, waiting for the non-existent chilli crab.

And so I say, life is like that chilli crab we never got to eat. It is nowhere else, but with you, all along, and it really isn’t that chilli crab you thought it would be.

A Patch of Green

On a hot morning in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, I met a Chinese acquaintance who could surprisingly speak very good English, facilitating our conversation, as we headed towards a cultural park which I wanted to visit. A long metro ride ahead of us, we went on talking about one thing then the other, this habit and that tradition, India and China, life and the Universe.

Very soon, as had to happen, with a person like me, very soon, we landed on the subject of movies. Who didn’t like movies? At the mention, he felt compelled to give me his very honest opinion- his face went glum, his voice lowered , a shadow of disappointment fell over his person. “I will not tell you to watch any Chinese movies. Here, we do not like a lot of Chinese movies; they are very stupid. They have no story at all, just a bunch of stupid fighting scenes, some stupid love story, everybody always beating each other up. All of them are the same”

I looked at him, amazed, making no effort to hide my expression. How many times in ourselves, in our friends, in our families had we said the same thing about Indian movies? How many times have we scoffed and dismissed Bollywood commercial films, dismissed them for their exaggerated nuisance, spurned their stupidity, their absurdity, their distance from real life, their nonsensical nature? “That’s what we also think of our movies, sometimes”, I told him, giggling.

“What?” he asked me, flabbergasted. “Why?! Here, we LOVE your movies. I haven’t seen a lot of them but the ones that I have, I loved. Especially I have seen 3 Idiots and PK, and they are amazing! In my college, all my friends love these two movies. They are so full of life and so funny. How can you not like them?”  “What, and I love your movies! Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee- come on!” We both burst out laughing.

With a shake of the head, a hint of a smile and a dawn of realization, I understood the secret to the universe. What is yours will always suffer your criticizm, your rebukes, and your disappointments. It will take your praise and present its flaws, it will lay bare in front of you, in its stark honesty and nakedness. What is not yours, however, will escape the glaring eye; we will never know their problems and their dreams, we will never know what it is like to be them. We can always guess, but we might never know. So what we belittle here could be celebrated there; what they deride there could be extolled here.

But more importantly, I learned that you could be sitting in the most beautiful and lush sprout-wielding, cherry-popping flowerage, but the grass? The grass will always, always be greener on the other side.

MUSIC TO MY EARS

It became an unspoken rule that every vacation I’d take, I had to have a trip song- that one song which would transport me back to the place, flashing memories and moments alongside the beats of the track, making me wonder how perfectly the song fit the mood of the trip, as if the singer had cut out and moulded it just to fit my days, as if it had no other purpose but to make me reminiscence. So in Goa I’d see colourful clothes and gold beaches pass by on Kid Cudi’s ‘Pursuit of Happiness’, thinking of how amazing life was, how wonderful its fruits, how young and wild and free we felt at this moment, singing and dancing and hurtling forward without a care in the world even if it be that one night. And in Mcleodganj I’d match my pace to John Mayer’s ‘Slow Dancing in a Burning Room’, skipping along this tiny little hill, curiously talking to the locals, understanding how time literally slows down at a tiny place like this.

On my vacation to Kasol, staying in a cute, little homestay after returning from a daunting trek to Kheerganga, the weather was gloomy, the sun had set, and our corridor was abuzz with our excitements, the smell of smoke, and the rumbles of the stomach, when suddenly played Chet Faker’s ‘Gold’. The first time it played though, I was busy running around and never paid attention- the next time however, I couldn’t help but adjust it according to the place we were in, the mood of the moment. Because the song played at the time that made me pay attention to it, in a homestay on a dark evening in Kasol, it will forever remind me of the night, those people, that furniture.

Music, then, has a funny way of attaching itself to moments of your life. A simple, random collection of sounds bring to your brain a host of emotions: if some remind you of the car ride with that one boy, some remind you of the person who always went mad dancing on those songs. Songs, then, become right on occasion, in the sense that the moment makes the song, instead of the other way round. A song is never right or wrong for you essentially- you just make it so. So my kind of music and your kind of music is just a testament to what surrounded you and I, for there really is the fact how a lot of us went about loving typical Bollywood numbers in our childhood to Avril Lavigne-like teen obsessions, and then finding even those embarrassing, moving on to our rock and alternative and EDM.

Different sorts of music has different sorts of ambience, which also includes what we refer to as a particular style of a musician or a band; whatever you listen to also starts defining your ambience, and so, it is your own moments and memories that determine the ambience of the music and your memory of the music. Some years ago, I used to go for swimming early morning and would always keep a loud song for the alarm- now that song always reminds me of the smell of chlorine! The song is never right or wrong, the music is never good or bad- its just you and what is around you that makes anything, if at all.

A Story of Two Buses

[Image courtesy: https://www.gapyear.com/countries/india/getting-around]

I quickly sought to repress the waves of horror that threatened to rise in my chest as I caught my first glance of the bus- peeling paint, sketchy windows, strange people, and rickety seats. I gulped down my panic, and took deep long breaths; nothing is impossible, and if nothing is impossible, I would survive fourteen hours in this bus. Before I even realize, I told myself, the journey would be over and we would have reached our charming little destination. After all, I told myself some more, it wasn’t the vehicle, but the company which matters, and my company was my best friends. What more could one need, I tried to convince myself. Getting on the bus, I realized with a shudder that it was worse than it looked from outside. The seats barely had any cushioning, the floor seemed dirty, there wasn’t any leg space, and what bugged me was that it was going to be a long, long journey. The bus even had the funny red and blue lights and I realized it would be a close shave; I prayed for survival.

For the way back, I made sure that we return in the best bus there could be, and got everyone to agree upon it. A ticket for this bus was more than double the price of the first one, but it was our 5-star bus. It had more leg space than we ever thought possible, cosy blankets, puking bags, levers which would make our seats ever so comfortable, and huge windows for the perfect view. “This is one thing you did right, Srishti,” a friend told me, as I curled up in my huge, velvety seat with the AC on full blast. There was a lazy, dim lull in the air, the smoothness of brand new plastic, the relentless air conditioning, moveable armrests, thigh rests and polished flooring. Life was good, we thought, before the bus started. After a crazy four days of trekking and camping, life was good and clean and comfortable.

With a jolt, I realized that our journey forward in that HPTC bus, our comfort-less journey, our patchy bus characters, our tottering bus trumped our journey back in our 5-star Volvo- it was funny and uncanny.

It was all a matter of space; as a word, it is much overused and little understood, it is essential and it is dangerous, it is the point of familiarity and the point of contempt. In that shaky bus, we were stuck together, behind the fast wind that ran through the open windows and beneath the ultra-cool Chandni Bar lights, we were stuck together. Due to the lack of space, we sat a lot closer to each other, making pillows out of each other, adjusting our sleep according to the person next to us- we gave up our shoulders and our sides, took the necks and the backs, and made a concoction, a funny little concoction, of adjustment and love. Ties strengthened not just amongst ourselves, but conversations came up with our peculiar bus members, the most surreal of whom was the smackey, who considered it perfectly alright do smack in the bus and ask the other passengers to shut their windows so he could get a better hit.

The Volvo which took us back gave us ample space, which in the end became a hindrance to conversations- the lazy seats gave us all the comfort, but took away the fun, when it was so easy to sleep off, for the journey lost its charm.  With distance comes your own space, and with that, certain limitations. A very smart mother that I know of made both her daughters share a room despite the fact that their gigantic house had so many other rooms- more often than not, spacing determines bonds.

This isn’t a romanticization- if I have to make such a journey again, I’d definitely be more inclined to take the comfortable bus. This is merely a set of observations about two buses, and how different arrangements can create differences, so that one can realize, that sometimes, it is okay, to travel in other ways, to look for stories beyond comfort and luxury, and to try and understand the range of the spectrum, about this weird little thing called life.

It’s all about the money, But

[Image source: http://www.tv.com/news/breaking-bad-how-much-cash-was-in-that-storage-unit-29497/]

A lack of money is often seen to be compensated by possession of spiritual wealth- they don’t have a lot of money, but they are good people, which is what matters. Often, it is implied that limited monetary resources help inculcate good value and morality systems in people. Then the converse must also be true- an overhaul of wealth would signify a debauchery of the mind. In the same way, the city and the village binary is also used- people in villages may not have as many facilities as city life provides, but atleast they have peace of mind.

Power corrupts, and in most parts of the world, money is power. But then we can ask- is this discourse appropriated only to comfort ourselves in our shortage of money? When we maintain that we do not have money, we also maintain that we have something that money can’t buy- spiritual contentment, tranquillity, a clear conscience, honor, dignity, and blamelessness. We validate our ways of living, and put ourselves on a higher pedestal- so what if we don’t have money, we have some things that money can’t buy.

MasterCard banged all the right doors when it said, “There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s MasterCard.” Money might not be able to buy abstractions, but it sure can buy everything tangible, which makes you think, who said there isn’t happiness in money? In a consumerist world, it can buy you the best of apparel, and the best of household possessions- thereby, it can buy you admiration, praise, style, and envy. Money can buy you travel, and by implication, it can buy you not just good times, but also practical experience. Money can buy you the best of medical services, and the most prestigious of education systems. It can buy you nutritious food and personal safety. More often than not, it can buy you time.

And yet I would assert, after everything seen and done, money is not the answer, and it is never the answer. Money, when you look back and realize, whether now or at the end of life, is the least enjoyable thing.

A scene in Breaking Bad intrigued me. Walter White, a man dying from cancer afraid of leaving his family penniless and debt-ridden after his death, turns to making methamphetamine, and quickly makes unthinkable amounts of money. But the drug business was never so clean and simple. In the process, he is forced to commit several crimes, not the worst of which was murder, and turns into a hardened criminal, breaking bad, losing the trust, love and respect of his family, and especially his wife, Skyler.

“Take a drive with me”, Skyler asks of Walt and leads him to the compound where they have been storing their money. They enter a room full of money, so much money that even ten generations of their family could not exhaust it, living in luxury. There was so much money that it was impossible to count it anymore- “How much is this?” Walt asks her, to which she says she has no earthly idea.

As they stand in front of a future full of luxury cars and yachts, condos and summer houses, glitzy parties and unshakable glam, their whole lives stretched out in front of them where they wouldn’t have to work a day in their life and yet live like royalty, Skyler looks at the pile once again and says to him, “I just stack it up, keep it dry and spray it for silverfish.” Millions and millions of dollars, a dry stack free of silverfish.

“Walt,” she tells him, “I want my kids back. I want my life back. Please tell me- how much is enough. How big does this pile have to be?” as they both stare at that meaningless pile, bereft, empty, speechless.

In another scene, Jesse Pinkman, Walt’s partner in meth-making, got his cut of the deal in the business, but having a more troubling conscience than Walt, he is unable to spend that blood money. In a deranged state in the middle of the night, Jesse drives across the town, throwing stacks of dollars, in front of every home, finally collapsing at a deserted park.

It may be all about money- life may be all about money. Money for treatment and money for college, money for survival and money for luxuries, money to win and money to lose. Money to get you out of jail and money to protect you from bad neighbourhoods, and yet

Money is the least enjoyable thing. Possessions are useless unless they can be shared with someone, and travel, dry, unless the stories can’t be laughed over dinner, unless souvenirs can’t be brought back, unless it can, again, the experience can be shared with someone. Money can’t buy you the practical experience that travel brings along with itself without immanent curiosity, without an eagerness to explore. What fun is excellent food if had alone, or worse, with sycophants and sullen faces? What good is time, if there is nobody to return to? Money can buy you a living, it cannot buy you a life- it is always that something other which comes along with the money that makes life meaningful.

Aesthetic Appeal of the Times

A few years ago, one harmless, idle morning, my friend came to school wearing a pair of what appeared-hideous-at-that-moment spectacle frames. “What is THAT?” I remember asking her pointedly, while she tried to convince me that they were very, very in. And funnily enough, she was right- in one mad moment of civilization, wayfarers became the rage, the strange symbol of (I can’t believe I have to say this) ultimate coolness. At a time when being bespectacled in school was a social stigma and sobriety in glass frames was universally accepted, wayfarers came in and flashed in your face like God-knows-what, projecting rectangles around your eyes as somehow desirable.

But slowly, something strange started to happen- every bespectacled person I knew started investing in a pair of fat, ugly, black wayfarers -if they weren’t visually challenged, they’d get zero power frames. Wayfarers had to be there. However, as days passed with people flaunting around the latest pair of this alien trend, whether bought from Ray-ban or from the side at Connaught Place bargained for eighty rupees, they didn’t seem that ugly anymore. When a star I hated sported those, my disdain towards them was reinforced. But when somebody whose taste I related with was seen with one on, my confidence shook; I suddenly doubted my own judgment. The eyes that gagged at the sight of such atrocities started accepting and even admiring them.

And the same thing happened with a bunch of other stuff. Peplum- what were those weird extensions jutting out, which looked so sexy after a few months. What was that strange combination of orange and pink, which at first irritated my eyes, but later seemed to merge perfectly well. What were those funny, ill-fitting palazzos that would never be given the time of my day, but was now held in privilege. There was something to be said about fashion; does it simply grow on you, or is there a larger politics at work?

Everybody’s seen those pictures and videos about the changing beauty ideals and standards for women across time and space. Full hips, flat stomach, small breasts, big breasts, rounded body, zero sizes, curvy figures, all came and went in vogue from time to time, and will come and go again. Even at one particular instance in time, standards of beauty vary across the geographical space despite pervasive media and globalisation. The Golden Mean, however, seems to suggest otherwise- it suggests that anything which prescribes to the Golden Ratio, any creation of nature, a human face, a natural being, would automatically look more symmetrical and hence appear more beautiful. It suggests that beauty is an inherent quality, something beyond human control, something present in the essence of that thing. And isn’t that how we look at it?

Socially, some people are undisputedly considered good looking, while some things are just ‘good taste’. Being beautiful is something that you are just born with- make up can only do so much. Whereas on the other hand, having ‘good taste’ is something that is considered culturally cultivated, so that the place one was born and the education he receives (or doesn’t receive) are the primary factors in its formation. However, what is believed to be ‘good taste’ is also created by the society, or more specifically, those who are in power in the society. This comes from the French sociologist Pierre Bordieu, who states that the legitimate taste in any society is the taste of the ruling class. That completely debunks the notion of anything being inherently beautiful, or even inherently anything.

No music is ‘good’ music- any music deemed good pertains to the ruling aesthetic of the time. Good cinema in the academic and scholarly domain is mostly dissimilar to cinema which appeals to a mass base.

All our ideas of something turning out good or bad is in sync with the aesthetic appeal of our times, and that aesthetic appeal is shaped by old sources of power, the ones believed to hold cultural capital. What you like and subsequently your opinion about it is also shaped by the aesthetic appeal of the times- if certain certain times project bearded men sexy, you’re mostly likely to find them sexy at that time, as opposed to them looking the exact same way just two years back, when the aesthetic appeal of the times are different. Douglas Adams, author of the famous The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is known to claim that if his book came out even a few years before or after the time that it actually did, it would never have been able to attain the kind of success that it went on to do. The right things come together to make the timing right for you.