It was about eight in the evening, and I was gazing idly at the framed calendar portrait of Lord Shiva in his tiger skin. I was mildly miserable, contending with that familiar sense of emptiness within, an aching void that was hard to articulate. Suddenly the front door buzzer sounded. Somewhat irritated, I roused myself from my contemplations. The magic eye had lost some of its magic over the years, and it now revealed a bulbous, distorted image of Shekhar with his long hair close-cropped to a crew cut. I opened the door. Shekhar grinned, somewhat apologetically for his unannounced visit. I knew why. We were acquaintances, but not really friends. We met often at the homes of common friends, but had never sought each other out. “Come on in,” I told him. The surprise must have been written large over my face, because he read my thoughts and said, “You must be wondering why I’m here.” I just smiled in reply, at a loss about what to say to a first-time visitor. “Do you have any books on philosophy?” he asked abruptly. “I know you must have several, but I would like to read something that’s not too complicated.” “I have a few,” I said. “Maybe you can browse through them and select one that seems good.” I showed him my books on philosophy—they were all introductory books by Will Durant, Bertrand Russell, A.J. Ayer, Gilbert Ryle, S. Radhakrishnan, M. Hiriyanna, and lesser-known authors who had written college textbooks for philosophy students. He picked up some books, leafed through them, looking at a page here, stopping at another page. Meanwhile, my mind was struggling to make sense of all this. Shekhar was the last guy I would have imagined browsing through philosophy books. Whenever I had met him, he was always excitedly discussing the music from the latest movie with his friends. Popular music was a passion with them; it prompted endless discussions interspersed with outbreaks of actual singing. They led interesting lives too, I thought, because they always had funny anecdotes about things that happened to them, which would have them all loudly laughing their heads off. This was in contrast to me, who obviously had nothing very interesting happening in his life. “Why are you looking for philosophy books?” I asked him bluntly. I could not restrain my curiosity anymore. So he told me his story. * * * * A year ago, he said, he could not shake off a persistent cough, and got his lungs checked out. The doctor diagnosed pleurisy and recommended complete bed rest—no work, no friends, just bed rest. It seemed like a prison sentence. But the doctor’s reading was correct—in a few days a recurrent pattern of fever began and his energy level sank. He knew he really needed the rest. Then he found that even breathing normally was painful. He could control the pain only by lying perfectly still on his back. To move was a torture, so he struggled to minimize movement. O, the suffering of enforced stillness! O, the craving for talk, the stories, the tales from the silver screen, and the magic of music. Shekhar said that the craving to talk and the addictive stimulation of being with friends was almost a physical craving. For months, his mind buzzed with recent conversations, and he was driven to tears by a sense of non-completion, isolation, and separation from his friends. But, gradually, he said, some relief began to creep in. The torture of tantalizing memories began to weaken, and his mind focused more often on the present moment and his situation. He began to sense a certain rhythm in the sounds of everyday life. The day began with the sound of bicycle tires in the narrow passageway leading to the door and the thump of plastic containers—the milk delivery for the day. This was followed by the sounds of his mother starting the day. He heard the kitchen lights being switched on, and the hum of the gas flames bursting into being, the clatter of the pot against the gas grid, then the bubbling of boiling water. She sang bhajans these days, simple four-line bhajans, repeating each line twice. A bhajan group that met next door every Sunday evening used this format too. Previously, he used to find his mother’s bhajans irritating. They were such a contrast to the music that he played with his friends, and had none of that pulsating, frenetic beat—just slow, simple melodies. But now, in the fresh silence of the pre-dawn hours, it acquired a beauty of its own, and blended in naturally with the early morning sounds of neighbors waking and yelling at their servants to bring them their morning tea, and mothers shouting out the last few words of advice for the day as their uniformed children walked to the pickup point for the school bus. Then came the sounds of the city buses—the wheezing, gurgling, gasping double-deckers, the 8Bs that went down Lansdowne Road all the way to Howrah. He could visualize people packed inside like sardines, the conductor gallantly pulling the bell and shouting to the driver, “Aastey, mohilaa naabchey! (Slow down, a lady is getting off the bus!)” These poor conductors, he thought. They were always thin and emaciated, and wore tattered khaki uniforms that had seen too many summers. Breakfast was a hurried meal and both his mother and sister disappeared quickly after eating—his mother to her job as a receptionist for Hindustan Thompson Associates, and his sister to her classes at Loreto College. Then silence slowly began to settle upon the neighborhood, an agonizing, unbearable silence. Shekhar would wait for the occasional housewife yelling out instructions to the servant, or the sporadic clatter of pots and pans being cleaned, sounds that were a delightful interruption of the deathly silence … He would then drift off to sleep, blissful sleep. It took a long, long time for Shekhar to adjust to the slowing pace of his life. It was like the eyes getting used to the darkness of a room. He began to sense a dimension to living that simply did not exist before, just the way a person who had lost his sight would sense a lot more about his surroundings through his hearing. He heard the rhythm of daily life and its familiar pattern. And questions began to surface in his mind. He began to wonder why he was alive, and what death would mean. When he died, his body would be still and unmoving, just like it was now, except that he would not be there to know that he had died. When would he die? His grandfather had died in his late nineties, and both his maternal grandparents were in their eighties, and showed no signs of quitting. So he came from a long-lived family, and if he was cured of pleurisy, he could expect to live into his nineties. He was barely twenty-two now, which meant another seventy years … of what? Life stretched out before him like the Barrackpur Trunk Road, but where was it going? The sense of having led an unthinking life began to grow in Shekhar’s mind. It was like having been a piece of wood, floating on the green-brown waters of the Hooghly, buffeted by chance events, being washed up wherever the current took it. It is one thing if this sense emerges weakly on some odd occasion, because then it can easily be wiped away by the force of chance events. But it is another thing if there are no obstacles to break the strengthening of this sense. In that situation, the iron eats into the soul, and permanently and forever changes a person. This is what radically changed Shekhar, this incredibly deep resolve, brought about by months of solitude and enforced stillness, to bring a meaning and direction to his life, and to cease the mind-numbing sensation-seeking that had characterized it until then. He vowed to think deeply about the purpose of life, and to set goals based on his answers. But this was new and unexplored territory, so where would he start? Perhaps he could talk to Mohan. The guy looked like he was a thinker; he was always withdrawn and somewhat aloof. Govind had once commented that Mohan read a lot of philosophy. So that’s the place to start, Shekhar decided. * * * * Shekhar and I became good friends. He finished Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy and went on to S. Radhakrishnan’s A Hindu View of Life. He browsed through the shelves of the local library and spent hours reading and just thinking, looking out over the waters of the Dhakuria Lakes. He decided to pursue a graduate degree in accounting and become a cost accountant. He also decided to visit Tiruvanmalai, in the deep South, where his parents were from and where his grandparents still lived. He told me that he had returned from the trip with an irrepressible urge to live in the South, even though he was born and had grown up in Kolkata like a Bengali-speaking native. That was when I met him last, because soon after his move to Tiruvanmalai, I emigrated to the United States, and we lost touch with each other. I wonder where Shekhar is now, and what he is doing. I wonder what happened to that mad passion for music that had eclipsed everything before his great change in direction. But wherever he is, the chances are that he is happy. A piece of floating wood, even if it was a passionate, guitar-playing, singing piece of wood, had broken free of the currents and had swum ashore. Jaidev Chandavarkar ([email protected]) audits hospitals for the Medicare program.
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