Changes, Self-Indulgence, and The Four Year Cycle

Of late, this rough little slimy rope has been growing around my mind telling me I sound overly self indulgent, a la Elizabeth Gilbert from what I assume to be a pre-Eat Pray Love era. I have criticized the book in the past because I felt it was the work of a privileged person who had the means to indulge if she so wished. But I stand here corrected, because unless we’ve been on the edge of chaos and confusion, I don’t think we are in a position to judge. So humor me while I too find my footing like she did.

While I do not have the resources to take a year off work and go eating in Italy or cycling in Bali, I do know that I’m going to move out of my comfortable box. For two whole years now, I have been caught in this conflict between stagnancy and listlessness. This is partly because I’m used to things changing – change, as the saying goes, has been the only constant in my life.

Growing up, we changed cities every four years (give or take one year). Which meant every four years, I had to leave behind friends, houses, familiar settings. Which means, even now, while I am surprisingly loyal to my friends, I remain a tad detached out of fear of being eventually uprooted from their lives. This is my normal.

This paved the way for the identity issues I’ve spoken about before. This also paved the way for the what bothers me most: the lack of a place I can call home. I’m perpetually homesick for a place I do not even know for sure exists. (And I’ve written so many times about this subject, I sound repetitive even to myself).

This year, I will complete eight years in Bangalore. That’s double of what I’m used to. This February, I will have lived in my current residence for four years. Those who know me know that every part of me rejected this house since the day I moved in. The reasons why I have my name on the contract, the forceful ways I’m tied to it – all of it only caused me to reject it more. You cannot turn a house into a home if you’re so busy disconnecting from it. Did I give it a try? Yes, because as I mentioned above, it’s a house that’s been forced on me, so goddammit, I tried to make it work. But eventually you reach a breaking point. One where the dissonance around you shakes everything you know and you’re willing to let go of it all. Why now and not before? That’s a story for another day.

The next part of my grand 2017-figure life out plan/idea is that I’ve decided to move to a different city. Which city? I don’t know. Am I jinxing it by speaking too soon about it? Maybe. Is the world a hostile place right now (quite possibly on the brink of war)? I do believe it. But eight years ago also the world was a shaky place and I still quit a cozy job to move cities for my own reasons – a move which was unanimously labeled “hasty and stupid” by family and friends. I still like to think I made it, professionally at least. Only back then, I knew where to move and what I wanted to do. Elizabeth Gilbert knew where she wanted to go and what she wanted to do. Right now, I do not know either.

Who’s got advice for me?

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Decisions at a (Metaphorical) Gun Point

I had life all figured out as a six year old. There was nothing to it – you grew up, became an adult, and then everything would be at your fingertips. Quite simple.

It was as I grew older that I felt I was losing fragments of my grand plan, and that things weren’t as transparent as they seemed. This led to maturity giving way to immaturity. Like I’m Benjamin Button, but on the inside. Frankly, I was at the peak of my maturity and ambition at age six.

How did I get here?

There’s a reason why we are told to make decisions with a cool head. The reason being, the decisions we make at a metaphorical gun point are often terrible.

Depression does not allow you to have a cool head. It is a permanent gun pointed at you when you have it. Your actions seem mechanical and you feel you’re just going through the motions. At the same time, there’s an incessant restlessness in you, a tingling in your feet that tells you to run away, do something reckless just so that something happens and you feel something. Anything to forget what’s hurting you; anything to feel anything else.

In December, I made some poor choices out of the desperation that comes from being there – I got back in touch with a group of people I had broken ties with because I intensely dislike their hypocritical and negative outlook towards life [it drains your energy right out], just so I could have someone to talk to. I was so terrified of the fact that if someone did not tie me up, I might harm myself, and my future looked so blank and bleak (mostly blank) that I just wanted someone from the future to come and tell me everything was going to be OK. Reassurance. I wanted to take a trip, just to get away from everything. I wanted to relocate to a different city, because I felt claustrophobic over here all of a sudden.

I held myself back.  For once I let lessons learnt in the past rule me. While I did reconnect with the people I mentioned above, and also may have said/done some borderline imbecilic things, I did not let myself make any decisions that would in the long run have severe repercussions. I decided to give myself a month to “calm down” so to speak.

A month later, the immediate restlessness had subsided and I collected my follies from the previous month. Whatever hurt me then was still hurting, but not in a slice-your-heart-open way. I was definitely calmer, could sleep better, and while I still desperately wanted to see a therapist and get help, I was stopped by the doubts I have on the competencies of Indian therapists, given some less than satisfactory experiences I had had in the past [If anyone reading this has a recommendation, I would surely welcome it]. I considered a career change, and when nothing came to light, and I began to feel restless and directionless again. I did the only thing that I could think of then – call up my oldest friend in the middle of the night and cry (this is not alarming – she’s used to it by now, I think).

My friend and I look alike; everyone tells us so. When my son was a year old, he met her and was confused as hell. It is because of this that when I look at her, I think of her as me in a parallel universe – a universe where I have not made the mistakes I’ve made. I always looked up to her for her independence and her levelheadedness. She never bowed down to parental pressure (yet another gun point of sorts) and has so far made a good path for herself. So imagine my shock when I was crying that night about how lost I was feeling and she replied with, “Dude, we’re all lost.” Of course, I insisted I was more lost, and that at least she had a plan. Turns out she also did not have a plan. No one has a plan.

In any case, having a plan negates everything I believe in. But I had assumed as a six year old that by now, I would be thirty and thriving. Instead I’m thirty and confused. Which is frightening, because a decade ago, I was twenty and confused. I have said it before that nearly every mistake I’ve made in the past twelve years can be traced back to one great mistake. So while I still do not have a plan, contrary to what I had hoped for at the end of my previous post, and may never have one, what I do have is an idea: to retrace my steps to that one great mistake, and start over.

Let’s see where this goes.

The Errors of the Super-Specific Vertical Goal-Oriented Way of Living

Right before my high school boards, my aunt took my cousins and me to a temple. After the overnight journey, we little ones, of course, just wanted some sleep. But my aunt was having none of it. She wanted us up and ready by an ungodly (pun unintended) hour because the belief went that if you prayed at a certain time, all your prayers would be heard by the great Gods above. So, after a dip in the freezing 4 am waters of the holy lake, we marched (barefoot) to the temple. And when my aunt ordered “Now!”, we prayed for that high score in board exams that would soar through rooftops and put our neighbors to shame (cos it’s always about one-upping the neighbors).

In most Indian families, children aren’t taught to aim very high. Or – let me rephrase – we are taught to aim high, but not far. Aim vertical, not horizontal. We are taught to “pray” for high marks, but aren’t allowed or encouraged to explore our options beyond that. It wasn’t until my first job interview, when the interviewer asked me, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” that I realized, damn, I never thought that far ahead. I’ve been, just, winging it all this while.

Needless to say, I didn’t get the specific score that I had prayed for (and mind you, it was specific – I didn’t want a multiple of 5 and I didn’t like odd numbers, so goddamn, it was specific). Here’s why – God, if he/she exists, is different from a genie. Fundamentally speaking, a genie says “Your wish is my command.” God, on the other hand, says, “Dude, IDGAF.” God isn’t obliged to give you anything you ask for, even if you take all the dips in the holy lake as you like and die of pneumonia. Not his/her problem.

I have struggled with spirituality and belief for a while now. I cannot blindly accept an all-omni-blah being, like most people of faith do. It conflicts with this other thing I have called rational thought. On the other hand, sometimes, it’s comforting to have a parent-like figure to think about. I don’t pray (or make wishes) anymore, even if I’m sometimes forced to go to temples by the family. And the whole charade of lighting lamps and offering flowers is to me just that – a charade, one I refuse to participate in. But there’s always someone telling you certain places of worship just “work” (see, that alone is in contrast to the all-powerful theory – why do some places “work” and others don’t?). On top of that, there are now certain places that work for certain things – like a government office and its departments.

So I rolled my eyes when our tour guide in Kodaikanal said he was taking us to a church where you could ask for anything you wanted, and all your desires would be fulfilled, etc., etc. Not this again. At least, it isn’t 4 am.

So, with half a belief system, I marched, armed with yet another super-specific vertical goal. It wasn’t even half a belief. On a scale of Miracles Happen to Haha Yeah Right, I was at Muffled Laughter, But Filled With Doubt.

I was almost at the altar when I changed my mind. I didn’t care about my super-specific vertical goal (SSVG) anymore. I realized having SSVG fulfilled would mean yet another halt in bigger and better plans that I may someday have. For the first time in almost a decade, I realized the true significance of “Where do you see yourself in five years?” And SSVG would get in the way of that. I was done waiting. I was done pushing aside one big thing for fifty smaller ones. So, as I stood there in front of the altar, SSVG lying discarded somewhere on a bench, I just said this, “Tell me what is the one big thing. It’s about time.”

And that’s the story of the “sort-of-revelation” I mentioned in my previous post. More on this later.

The Heavier Expectations

A few weeks ago, I was discussing Past life regression with an acquaintance. While I was always interested in the study of the mind, and the subconscious, and Freud’s theories, past life regression is a wholly new area for me. I had, of course, heard of it, but it was not something I gave much thought to. To me, until then, reincarnation, or past life, or the manifestations of accumulated karma were a largely religious concept, and therefore something to be dismissed as hokum. They were also, to some extent, a Bollywoodesque idea, that had run its course somewhere in the 90s.

No matter, because the idea was still intriguing, and I have to say, all of a sudden, I wanted to know if I had lived lives before. Wait. I’d be lying if I said the idea took root when the discussion happened. The fact is, I had been curious about past lives ever since I read Ashwin Sanghi’s The Rozabal Line, back in 2009. It has come and gone like a whiff every now and then since then. If such a thing exists, then I’d like to know something about it. Anything. It is difficult not to romanticize about it once the idea has planted itself.

But this particular discussion dug its toes deeper into my head. Suddenly, I was googling past life regression in the middle of the night, in the midst of a splitting headache, and reading all I could find on the subject. I dreamed up all kinds of scenarios, where I sat with a practitioner and discovered who I was, and dramatically discovered my relationships with those who are in my present life. Most prominently though, I secretly harbored this fantasy that I would discover I was Sylvia Plath or Anais Nin in a past life. A girl can dream, eh?

One of the articles I read said that the only people who are advised to perform past life regression are those who feel there is something lacking in their present life, or those who are trying to find the root cause of a problem or emotion. I have always felt this strange sense of “not belonging”. Not to this world, not to this period in time. Always a little lost, always searching for “home.” Always trying to figure something out. I have written several posts about this as well. This explains the Sylvia Plath fantasy!

The reason why I am a writer today is partly because I have been trying to explore these questions. On the other hand, I believe writers must keep an open mind – to all hypotheses, to all ideas, to all experiences. I also believe writers must give in to instincts and emotions. Writers grow through excesses. The excesses they fit into their short attention spans. The whys. The hows. The alrights. The welcomes. The loves. The lusts. The harmonys. The cordialitys. The honestys. The opennesses. The acceptances. The understandings.

The being.

My error was, however, I bracketed all writers into these open-minded souls. I forgot, at the end of the day, we are humans. Humans with our pettiness and our general smallness of mind. I went out into the world expecting the same openness from everyone around me, placing the burden of my heavy expectations on their broad but weak shoulders.

Where I went looking for open-mindedness, I found the same kind of world I sought to abandon – closed, small souls, calling themselves creators but being nothing more than lice trying to trample each other on one head of hair. Angry souls. Dishonest souls. Backstabbing souls. Lonely and afraid souls. Friendless souls. Judgmental souls. Mocking souls.

Not souls. They were mere humans.

I went looking for people, who, perhaps felt as lost as I. I believed I would find the honesty and humility I was looking for in a crooked world. That maybe, in being among my own kind, or who I thought were my own kind, I would find myself. That together, we would better ourselves. Instead, all I found was a subset of the same people who already thought they were higher than the rest simply because they could string sentences one after the other. Who I found were those looking for instant fame. Writers on the outside, nosey, obnoxious neighbours on the inside.

Not writers. They were mere marketers.

Often, even in friendships, my expectations of others have been too great a weight for them to bear. Perhaps, this is an extension of it, and perhaps, this feeds my somewhat dormant misanthropy. It cushions the disappointments that come my way.

I wonder if I were to actually do the regression (since that is, after all, what we were discussing), what would I find about myself that would explain my boredom? What would I find that would stop me from placing so many expectations on simple-minded folk who do not deserve it.

 

What Went Wrong…

Oh, hello! Don’t mind me, I am just sitting here with my hypothetical pipe in my mouth, musing about things. Again. Trying to make sense of a few things.

Again.

You know, I wrote a short story when I was 12 – it was a murder mystery, and the main theme was jealousy. About two years later, I wrote a story about how mankind was the worst thing to have happened to the universe since the big bang – told from the POV of a cockroach that survived a nuclear holocaust. There were a bunch of stories in between with a lot of blood and gore; mostly fluff pieces written to shock the reader. My English teacher enjoyed the stories tremendously – the cockroach one was a favourite of hers, I remember. The point of this little narrative is that – I was always enticed by the darker side of human emotion. Happy endings never appealed to me, joy never appealed to me – someone was always dead in my stories.

Why then have I stopped exploring it now?

You see, stories of that genre come naturally to me. My rationale is simple – every writer glorifies their protagonists – flawless and irreproachable heroes and heroines. Would any writer, through the characters, or otherwise, admit to their own faults? After all, most heroes and heroines are a superior alter ego of their creators. Through my characters, am I pushing my own flaws on to paper? Not exactly – jealousy isn’t an emotion I feel, nor have I ever murdered anyone. But I can tell you about a flaw that I do have – I am easily influenced. I have my own opinions (of course) but you tell me something quite a few times, I will start thinking like you. And that’s a horrible, horrible trait in a human being.

In retrospect, I have come to realize when and how I stopped writing fiction, where the darkness has gone. I don’t want this to be a name-and-blame sort of post, mainly because whoever it was who said whatever it was that they said to me, ultimately, the fault is my own – my head is bloody easy to get into!

I have made excuses for it – I thought I had writer’s block (I don’t), I thought I was distracted (not really), I thought I was reading too many books and that was killing my imagination (I partially do still believe  this, but there’s more to it). How did I realize that I have killed my own darkness? In the past, the stories I have written deal with some kinda deep rooted fear we all have within us – or so I’d like to think. It is not just about the ghosts – I have written about a man who derives joy from seeing a child die, I have written about depression and suicide caused by the world’s opinion of you, I have written about a criminally insane father – the darkest corners. I don’t claim to be Palahniuk or someone like that, but my exploratory path has been on those lines. Then why is it that, when a few months ago, I was about to write a story about a handicapped man’s death, I was horrified by my own thoughts? I could not believe that my mind could conceive such a ruthless, tragic thing, and I reprimanded myself for being a bad human being. But why? Isn’t that what I had always been writing about?

Because I had been led to believe that my stories would be my destruction.

A sensible writer would hear something as dramatic as this and wave a smug “tah-tah” and send those words upon the breeze, never to be bothered by them again. I, however, am not as sensible as I wanna be – it is way too easy “perform inception” on my mind. Suddenly, I grew afraid. The thought had been sown – the darker my stories, the unhappier my life would be. However much I wanted to believe it hadn’t, it had. And little by little, it was corroding my brain, eating up my imagination, forcing me to not ever write a piece of fiction where there was any kind of darkness whatsoever.

Holy fuck.

Fear is the one enemy of the writer. And I am terribly afraid. I have my own self to blame for having such a pliable, thought-plantable, stupid head. Sure, I wrote two stories even after the incident, but both are not as “dark” as my stories usually are. Not half as disturbing. Not “me”.

All I’ve done until now is not let myself admit to this. But I have to. If I want to go back to who I was, I need to admit that this is a problem.

Now to find the solution – uproot that thought and throw it off.

 

Of The Empaths – Final Part

Part 1 here

Part 2 here

I push through the crowd inside the tent and search for Q. I had dropped my Rod at the entrance – it has not yet been burned. I find her in conversation with V in a corner. She is laughing. This angers me even more. I march towards her. V has noticed me approaching and rises to greet me. Q beams as she sees me, but does not rise.

“My dear, you’re back! What took you so long?” she says pleasantly

“Why! Why did you do it?” I scream without preamble.

“What are you talking about,” she asks, a frown forming on her forehead.

“You know what I’m -”

“No, she doesn’t,” V cut in.

For a moment, I am confused. But the smug expression on V’s face turns my anger into a boiling rage.

“‘Why?’ Of course you want to know why. With your little journal and the tiny scribbles,” he says with a high pitched mocking voice, gesturing with his hands.

I feel close to tears, the rage mounting each second. I say nothing.

“You’re wasting away your talents!” V bellows, “Pining over an ordinary human. Do you not know who you are!”

“V, quiet. We don’t want the family to be upset.” Q whispers to him under her breath.

“They’re drunk out of their skulls!” V dismisses them with a wave. “This one! This one was supposed to be the best. But look at her. Crying! Crying over ‘love’! There is no place for love here, my dear. Only family. And duty. And murder of the ones that didn’t die when they were supposed to.” V spits the words at me.

*

Spv senses my dilemma.

“Oh. I see.” he says quietly. Distraught, I turn my eyes at him, just as he stands up and begins to walk.

“No!” I call out. He does not turn. His gait is steady, and I see he has already been caught in their line of sight – the rabid, sickly green eyes turn towards him, sensing him rather than seeing him. They pounce, their many fangs tearing into him. Blood gushes out, as one tears his calf off, while other bites a chunk out of his shoulder.

Time seems to be moving slowly, as I rise to my feet and cry out as my Rod hits the first one right between its left hind leg and abdomen. The Rod goes through, like passing through air, and air is what is left where a moment below a killer lurked. With a swift motion, I get the other two.

I stand exhausted, paralyzed almost from that sudden rush of adrenaline. It seems far away and unreal – Spv’s strangled cry. He’s still alive. I’ve lost him once, I can’t lose him again. This thought brings me back to reality and I finally look at him.

I fall to my knees – his shoulder looks terrible, what is left of it is mashed to a pulp. His leg looks worse, with the calf torn off. I rush back to our earlier hiding spot where I had left my bag. There are some bandages in it.

When I return, Spv’s eyes are closed. I slap his face a few times and call out his name. I lift him and cradle his head in my lap.

“Wake up, they’re gone. The spirits are gone,” I cry, “Wake up, Spv! They can’t hurt you anymore. Wake up, wake up, wake up…”

He does not.

*

V’s sneer is the last thing I see before turning my heel and walking away. Celebrations are on in full swing in the tent. Which means weapons have been stowed away. I reach the entrance, pick up my Rod and enter the tent again.

I release the undead dogs on to my family.

 

 

Of The Empaths – Part 2

Read Part 1 here

I have never had to train a recruit before. I have been with the group for close to a year. But training someone was never one of my duties. It dawned on me suddenly that I did not have any duties. I was being trained for – I am not sure any more. I am skilled, of this I am sure. I have taken on spirits single-handedly. But apart from this assigned role, I know nothing else. All I know is, I am being trained. For something. In all of this, it is impossible that they would expect me to train Spv.

This was neither the time nor the place to teach him how to use weapons. I can only hope that his instincts will take over – he is an Empath after all. There was only one thing I could tell him, “No matter what, don’t fall into their line of vision. I’ll handle the rest.” I hear a conviction in my voice that I don’t quite feel. But I can’t let him see that. I start forming a strategy, I am on my own now.

“OK. So, it’s possible that we can see them without them seeing us?” he asks.

“Yes.” I don’t have the time to explain it is not exactly that.

“I have one more question.”

I wait.

“What are they? Do you know? Will they take a shape or something?”

“Yes, Spv. The house we’re heading to now, I know exactly what’s waiting for us there.” I am aghast that Spv has not even been informed of this. My voice is surprisingly composed.

“What?”

“Undead dogs, Spv. And they’re not a friendly breed.”

We continue walking as before, stepping over broken branches and dead leaves. We finally reach a clearing. I peep out – in front of me is a large house that seemed to be falling to shambles even as I stood watching. Dilapidated pillars, that would once have been majestic, flank its entrance. The roof near the entrance has fallen in.

To the left are three large dogs.

Large, unkempt, and black as night. Their wide jaws seem to drip with blood – there is a village nearby that they had been attacking and feeding off for a while; surely there was no shortage of blood. It is a cloudy afternoon and they look more sinister in the lighting.

One of them lifts its nose. “Hide!” I hiss. They can smell us. I know they can smell us. My heart beats loudly, like blood falling in waves in my ears. One of them turns. I see its eyes – a strange, sick shade of green. Like illness. Like plague. Like death. No, I correct myself, not eyes. I don’t know how to stop the beating of my heart, but I know as long as we crouch low, we are safe. Safe being an overstatement.

I mark a trail with my eyes. If I manage to get into the house and out the back door (which I can see through the wreckage of the roof) I will be at a safe spot to capture them with my Empath Rod – a harpoon-like weapon that sucked in the spirit like a syringe. Once far away from where the spirit resided, the rod is burnt. The spirit is tortured; the rod remains intact. In this case, I know I can insert the rod into only one at a time, while risking being attacked by the other two. Besides, I don’t know if there are others waiting inside. I can only hope not.

There is one thing I can do.

I am startled as I realize what it is. I realize why Spv has been sent here with me, without warning, without explanation, without training. I look at him, even as he stares hard in the direction of the spirits, a frown on his face. The face of the man I’d loved for so long, the freckles I had kissed on so many lazy summer afternoons. I could feel my heart fall with a crestfallen thud. I look down at my hands, blistered by the stick I used to walk through the forest.

“Spv,” I began, hoping to keep the tremor out of my voice,”are you really an Empath?”

He let out a breath. “I don’t know. I could never see anything, or talk to a… a… spirit. But I kept hearing thoughts in my head that weren’t mine. It got so noisy. Requests, demands, asking to be connected to others. I couldn’t figure any of it out.”

Q. It had to be. Queen Empaths can project their thoughts and make others – normal human beings – hear thoughts that are not there. I looked at Spv, wondering why Q had done it to him, why she had brought him here. He was no Empath – they had not even bothered to tattoo his assigned name on him before sending him with me.

I sighed deeply. The dogs rested, with their wide, torn jaws and sharp fangs dripping blood, like drool. Could I do it? Could I throw Spv to them like a piece of meat?

End of Part 2