Tuesday, December 18, 2007
So i have finally managed to find a piece of paper ( an e-map’s print actually, with a clean hind-side) to pen what is bubbling inside me. Who am I? Just another engineer from India who works for an M.N.C; whose folks back home are probably at the moment telling their neighbors, who they last talked to a year back, how their daughter was among the “chosen few” to make it to the Indian tourist’s Mecca – Switzerland. If talking were done in text there would have been a tiny asterisk superscripted on that and an even tinier disclaimer beneath “ The selection criteria are a matter of company policy and do not reflect in any manner the work of the subject”.
I write perched on a rocking chair , located in something of an apartment, on the outskirts of a town called Baden. Not every MNC takes such careful interest in you to find such a cheerful locale for your stay in a country where any spot you put your finger on is a pleasure to live in. Such is the beauty of the place that it evokes the Thomas Hardy in an otherwise tongue-tied engineer like me. The window of my apartment overlooks the tall, magnificent giant structure that’s known as Kantonsspital amongst the locals. Have no doubts!! The latter half of the word suggestive of a familiar institution is indeed that – a hospital. As you take a walk around on a bright , sunny day and take a turn to the rear of the apartment you find yourself welcomed by what on first appearance seems to be a prim and pruned shrubbery of exotic flowers (if I were indeed Thomas Hardy I would have named them too but Alas! My Botany fails me) but soon enough one finds out, just before one is about to unpack his picnic box, that it is, in fact, a cemetery. Now a carper would have grumbled the unfortunate resemblance but the wise will know that the thorns are where the rose is. Switzerland is the land of mountains, and at your stay in Kantonnspital it is ensured that you get a first hand experience. So as you continue with the enlightening expedition , just as you make a beeline for the next destination you find yourself accelerating down towards cars that you had only dreamt of until now. So moonstruck are you by the splendid sight that unless you take notice of the hill slope that you pan now with increasing velocity you run a very high risk of running into your object of unrequited love. And you cannot help but wonder the cause-and-effect aspect of it all; that whether the hospital came into being as a result of such a landscape or did the management hire an architect to design a place as replete with opportunities as this. By now you have seen within a hundred meters of your stay everything that you had expected in this pristine, rustic town along German border. A gas station in the quadrant that remains is only a bonus. That is if you count out the distant chimney hinting a factory in the offing. But let us keep ourselves to the more pleasant details. A blot or two of unexpected chunks of machinery must not put us down . One can always shrug them off -like pretty much everything else- as concomitants of globalization.
A piece of trivia on this note: the map that bears my ramblings at the moment is the only piece of paper that I could manage to find amongst the paraphernalia a kind, but a trifle too patronizing colleague, the kinds who advice you to carry a nail clipper to a mountain hike lest your toenail should hurt you., had given me amongst other things- sine qua non. And I dare say that they are beginning to find their use, only not in the conventional sense- something that you must discount as one of the idiosyncrasies of a self-proclaimed writer. What set me into this paroxysm of writing on a supposedly fine Sunday morning was a result of many catalytic activities. It is dank and murky outside from the rains that decided to drop by just when I had shopping plans. I would still have ventured outside had I not been a cat and not so utterly lacking in jois-de-vivre. So like a good Indian I decided to do the next better thing- watch T.V. After a good fifteen minutes of trying to lip-read Jennifer Lopez in Anaconda which was dubbed in what I thought was Deutsche (or was that German), I finally reconciled myself to watching Sports Hour on CNN. As if it drove God himself to the edge of despair , the host who pirouetted over the golf course with the zeal that would put a professional ballerina to shame, took leave. And then something happened. They began an exclusive on the Spirit of Adventure. For the laid-back likes of me that was the closest one can get to adventure. The director deserves many a Congratulation, for what was supposed to be my Sunday morning dose of vicarious thrill turned out to be a rather unsettling experience. It was anchored by a journalist (a woman by the way) who was camping in the Arctic with another woman -an adventurer (I was equally surprised at discovering the existence of such a profession as an Adventurer as I was when I found out about dog-psychologists). She was learning the nuances of surviving in the extreme, right in the face of it. The kind of feeling you have when accosted by a mendicant in the middle of indulging yourself with chocolate pudding gripped me. The sheer contrast between her nearly-off-the-ground-with-arctic-winds tent and my armchair , between her neighbors (polar bears) and mine (the Deutsch) made me very uncomfortable. Somehow I lost track of the actual program and found myself asking questions as “To be continued” flashed in red across the screen. A month down the line I will be flying down to New Delhi. I will have clicked pictures of a buoyant me here at the Matterhorn and a contemplative me there by the river at Zurich(now what was it called) and will forward them to every acquaintance who should hint even a remote interest in my sojourn. And then again shall begin the usual right and left clicking of the mouse, post-it’s – yellow , green and orange – like bright confetti trying in vain to bring some cheerfulness amidst printer-sounds and the air -thick with the smell of new paper growing in piles, like moss, all around me. In no time I will be eighty or whatever is the age close to the average life expectancy in that era and I will have lived my quotidian life. One complete life of a human being. Will there be another? I know not. If I am to believe the believers I should continue to be in essence. But whether fortunate enough to attain a human form or that of whichever is the species of the highest order then and be born in such favorable circumstances , I have doubts about. Were I born in Afghanistan I would have said to make more of my life than expected by just being. But for some inscrutable reason I could manage to make it to farther in the east and with means and support enough to not bother about food-gathering it behooves me, by default, to do better than that.
It is not unusual that I be dogged by such thoughts. But what is unusual is that they knock at my door, like unsolicited guests, on a lazy Sunday afternoon instead of their usual hour of rendezvous- the afterhours of a dull, mundane day at office when you try to explain away the cerebral-swinishness of your superiors by attempting to “log out” of the “system”. CNN must put up statutary warnings before airing such programs like they do for children and heart patients at the start of “potentially disturbing” programs. Were I American I would have already been looking up Law books to sue them for ruining what would otherwise have been a comfortably uneventful Sunday afternoon.
But instead I choose to rant about it in the dismal hope that this finds a sympathetic reader , even if it means a relic-hunter hundred years down the line , and I pray to the Lord that he not be Swiss (or German) lest he be averse to my language of communication. Usually such musings of mine come to an end when I realize the impasse. Inevitably, it all boils down to a simple “what?”. What is it that I would or should want to do as a privileged human being? I imagine myself as a singer thronged by millions at her fund-raising concert for flood victims, as a business tycoon at some swanky business award place winning acclaims for her philanthropist ventures, as a nobody in the middle of nowhere helping other nobodies through the nothingness of their lives. And the bubble almost always bursts with something as anticlimactic as the door bell or the “At the Zoo” ringtone on my mobile phone. This time my undoing was relatively more justifiable. It has been two hours since the thinker in me was roused. That was when the hedonist in me was fed with sumptuous breakfast. It was the absence of a tolerant listener , courtesy my language handicap and unaffordable ISD luxuries that compelled me to resort to a task as arduous and taxing as writing, hoping that this would act, in lieu of the usual friend caught unawares back home, as a siphon to all my discomfiting and unproductive thoughts so that I could focus my resources on the more important daily chores. The sun was now shining from between the clouds through the curtains- akin to the dawning of truth upon me -at this moment. That it was almost lunch time and lunch needed to be cooked. I realized that I had better get started lest the malls should close down. Someone(yet again I struggle for a name) has rightly said- thinking is the vocation of the idle and the fed.
It had been a long but fruitful day. Long -because as any other day I sat in my office, like a sundial, watching the shadows getting longer; fruitful- because towards the end of it my boss called me in his cabin to tell me that he finally had a job of some consequence for me that could also take me overseas. Elated, I walked out of his cabin; proud, for the first time, of being an engineer. I never forget to thank God on such occasions. And having done that, afraid that I might offend my Good Luck, I promptly closed the chat-window on my computer screen, where only a few minutes ago, I was making some not-so-wise cracks at my joblessness. Raring to go, I would have begun the job then and there, but to contain the excitement was becoming more and more difficult by the minute and I had to share the news with my family and friends. So I decided to call it a day on the pretext of beginning new work on a new day, punched my card, and walked out into the dry, four degree centigrade January Delhi, feeling it, for the first time, go down to my lungs instead of my bones.
As I stood there waiting for the cab, notwithstanding Himmesh Reshamiya singing (and on that particular day not ‘whining’) at the Panwalah’s, I decided to relinquish for the moment my daily calorie-count and treat myself to a little five-rupee snack. New diet plans, new day onwards. At a distance I saw the white cab coming and inadvertently found myself in a get-set-go position. I got into the cab, smiling at my impatience to get home and break the news, the cloyingly salty snack crackling on the median of my tongue, reproving myself banteringly for cribbing about my work, or rather the lack of it, and for cursing the system. Sometime in between, not noticing when, I drowned myself in a happy reverie, conjuring images of a “busy and important” me, of the snow-laden mountains of Europe where they just might send me on work, of the many congratulations I would receive when I’d accomplish some feats here and there, when suddenly I was intercepted by something that seemed like a cold, steely rap on my brain. I realized that the cab had stopped at one of the countless traffic signals and the “rap” was actually a knock on the glass window to my right. There stood a tall, dark, bearded man, with a bandana rather determinedly tied around his head; his shawl – only an accessory – not an equipment to shield him from the cold, for apparently, he didn’t feel the cold. And even if he did, his stone-cold eyes belied it. At my very first glimpse I knew he wasn’t a beggar. The somber expression he bore and his posture- upright as a bamboo stick- suggested that he was here on serious business. Ironically, he held, clenched in his right fist, half a dozen of red, heart-shaped balloons. His gaze met mine but for a moment, asking, half matter-of-factly, half resignedly, if I cared to buy them. And before my brain, numbed by the usualness of the sight, could respond, for some reason he moved on. The cab jerked ahead and for a moment I was thrown aback. They call it Inertia of Rest. When the cab moves on and you can’t. My cab moved on too. And as it took a right turn from under the flyover I saw three children, naked as my soul, their only garment- entwined balloon tubes that they held around their necks, following the Balloon Man.
I was now in a quieter lane. I could see on the opposite lane a few cars, moving in towards me very slowly, their headlights baring my face. I found myself gazing again at another pair of eyes - not “stone-cold” as the Balloon Man’s, but sponge-like that absorbed and squeezed stuff out back to where it belonged-in the rear-view mirror, asking me a barrage of questions. Would the snow-clad mountains of Europe make the little balloon-clad people too shiver with excitement ?? Did they too have new plans for a new day?? Why did I stay put, paralyzed?? Was I too much of a believer to take responsibilities?? Or too much of a cynic to trust my pittance?? And why now was I feeling connected to the Balloon Man?? Did we have something in common?? Perhaps we did. His hope and my humanity - both stillborn.
“No, Thank You”, I replied to the painted face which was serving us Cold-Platter. In the background I could hear fulminations in Punjabi insisting that the meal be reheated, which, to the respite of many other painted faces, were suspended by one announcement of our landing in Zurich. In thirty-five minutes three weeks of hard work will have paid off. The airplane dived and soared, like a dolphin, into and away from the clouds; not hostage to any laments-my viscera- mimicking the same. I had not the need of any balloons. For I had one already. A red, heart-shaped balloon. Anchored to the ground by threads one moment; winged, floating yonder, the next…