Who Owns My Name? Who Owns My Identity?
I was 24, and he was 53. I wanted him to hug me and perhaps love me- a love that could be an emollient to an aching heart and a disgruntled soul. I was sick of being unloved for long.
A 6'x6' cubicle of a sales office on the 20th floor of the DLF building in Gurgaon is hardly a place for a 'relationship', and I was looking for someone, anyone, to stitch my heart. The wound I got at 16 had maggots growing on them, and heartbreak at 23 was the last straw on the camel's back. It broke me into innumerable pieces, and I didn’t care which piece fell where. It refused to heal. My world had become small, lonely, and apocalyptic.
It was just another cold, foggy morning in Delhi, and I was in a rush to get coffee from the vending machine- a ritual I followed every morning, stepping into the white LED-lit office with ash grey carpet that looked more crummy after a morning vacuum, and cobalt blue swivel chairs reeking of stale perfume.
Every day, every interaction, every metal drawer and filing cabinet, and every Excel sheet stored in the HR folder was a rude reminder that I did not belong here, yet I spent 60 hours a week playing office-office. Some days I would sit in the cafeteria long after dusk, long after my carpool left, and write haikus on the brown paper napkins made of recycled paper.
Usually, there would be three people in the office that early- the office boy, the janitor, and an account assistant. Today I saw him too, and he offered to make coffee for me. He looked crisp as a toast that morning in a pearl-white shirt and charcoal trousers, a tie, hair- a mottled mixture of black, grey, and white, and eyes that had a sparkle of a thousand splendid suns. I stood dazed; after a few minutes of weather and traffic talks, he walked away to the meeting room in quick short steps. Seeing him between the aisles, I calculated in my head that I was four inches taller than him, and I would like to meet him again. I was sure. My manager informed me about the arrival of the Customer Service Director from Chennai, and the admin team had to arrange for accommodation for him. I don’t know why, but my heart skipped a beat at the thought of seeing him again, and the next day, and the day after.
Two months later, we were furtively writing emails to each other- in the office. Emails about life, love, and loss. Emails about hope, fortitude, and perseverance. Emails about my words, my thoughts, free verses vs rhyming poems, and ME. I HAD NEVER FELT SO VISIBLE. I would stay back after office hours just to be with him and savor his presence; he made affection feel simple, and it felt nice to receive it. I appreciated his poised demeanor, his laxity, and his ease let me trust him. A tiny part of me shivered when we held hands, sipping cappuccino, smelling the spring evening of Delhi- the kinds of spring noticeable in small patches of petunia, antirrhinum, dianthus, and pansies against the golden green of the grass in the garden adorning the corporate buildings. Though his family wasn’t there, they weren’t entirely absent either. We ate tofu burgers at the food court of DLF square, sharing stories of our lives: me talking about my illustrious family and he narrating his wife’s love for English ivy and Philodendron and his sons fighting over Legos and slime. In those moments, I would feel a sting, as if bit by a fire ant; I needed more of him than anybody in the world, and I felt entitled to his love and care more than his family did. He was my guardian angel I didn’t want to share.
His emotional munificence overpowered my senses. Some evenings, I would refuse to leave him in fear of meeting Sasquatch if I returned to my apartment. On these days, I would sometimes wish to visit his apartment, curl up in his lap and cry myself to sleep. Despite the darkness of my world, he chose to stay, like a willow, with unflappable patience. The best- he did not put me under a moralistic scanner for my transgressions. I HAD NEVER FELT SO HEARD. I started to heal. I started to write.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.
He bought that book and scribbled something for me on the last page I was instructed to read once I reached home. Later, I hired a taxi for a ride back. Before I sat, he kissed me on the forehead, and I panicked. I tried to balance myself as the realization of something so visceral made me dizzy. Balancing myself, I bade him goodbye, feeling impeachably content. The world punishes you for your fallibility; here he was, embracing it with open arms- I HAD NEVER FELT SO ACCEPTED. That night I cobbled together an understanding- He was the father I never had.
The foster father. No, I wasn't fatherless. It just so happened that my biological father raised me mathematically, and my soul belonged to the world of abstract and unknown, to philosophy and impressionism, to words and stories that make life. He considered it a sign of failure and often questioned the black sheep I had become. I was raised believing I belonged to the Indian Administrative Services or the Tata’s. Nothing more, nothing less. Poetry is for the weak because the strong know the algorithms of their life. What happens when our parent’s definition of happiness makes our happiness impossible? Perhaps he wanted to protect me from failure, even penury- the world is full of austere writers who can mint words but not money.
I let 'ME’ bury myself to achieve the scores my father expected from me. RR dug the grave and got the ghost out. He helped her dream again and steered her back to herself. RR believed in me and my words. Isn't it something we all want- to be seen by people around us? The biggest gift I got from RR was that he could see who I was, he believed in me, and I felt alive again. It's a life phase, a town you are passing through and not a destination; he would tell me each time I talked about noises in my head.
That night- I read the words on the last page- You are the writer that people will fall in love with. Bookers prize Geneva ...2017. The email notification that followed showed a diary entry, and I knew I had become important to someone.
LOVE IS SHORT, FORGETTING IS SO LONG
He remembered how she stood in the bookstore, beautiful, a bit shaken by some recent incidents in her life, and not too sure of herself. In contrast, perhaps because of the years that separated them, he was surer of what he wanted to do. He had bought a book of the collected poems of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. The words in the book were a gushing stream of raw emotions. She read the line-love is so short, forgetting is so long. He had silently watched the faint beginnings of tears sparkle in her wide eyes. The words had touched hidden pain. He wanted to hold her, comfort her, but he had moved on, sliding his fingers along the spine of the other books written by other writers. Words soaked in the dew of transient love.
He loved her, and she loved him a little. They read another line together…’ and today I can write the saddest lines because she is gone.’
She stood on the stone steps. He looked up at her, into her eyes. The same beautiful eyes. He held her hand like he had held them in the taxi, smiled, kissed her forehead, turned around, and walked to the waiting car. And they would meet again. But there was no need to say it. The silence had said it all... Love is so short, forgetting is so long.
(May, 21st, 2007, 9:58 pm RR)
2021-I wonder what existed between us, but then, who understands 'love' anyway. He believed I could shake mountains when I was scared of a molehill. He believed I was talented and unique at a time I made paper airplanes of my talents and sent them down from the 20th floor DLF building in Gurgaon. He believed I WAS when I believed I WAS NOT. Two months later, he suffered a cardiac arrest on the podium while receiving an award during the annual kick-off meet. Hours later, he passed away, leaving me benumbed and paralyzed. The funeral brought me face to face with his family: his wife and his sons. I felt their pain for I had been orphaned too. The willow branch I was holding onto had sunk, and I started gasping for breath again only to realize that I now knew how to swim. A few months later, I resigned and started walking on the path he had chosen for me (or he believed I wanted to choose for myself).
Today I believe I CAN, I AM, I WILL. Years later, he peeks at me from the photograph kept on my study table and believes in the same. We are in love. His blessings never left me, and I never parted from his memories.
In the books- he was The Gita
In beverages, he was the Gangajal
In food, he was the Prasad
In physical form, he was a part of Vasudev himself.
- I haven't won Booker's prize, yet.
- I haven't visited Geneva yet.
- I haven’t completed Pablo Neruda’s book.
- Hitherto, my father has not read anything written by me; rather, he is a bit disillusioned that I abandoned a high-flying corporate life. Notwithstanding, I love him.
- At 16, I was bullied by a gang of boys at school because I refused a boy’s proposal. He was the leader of the gang, and they ensured they put me in my place.
- Is the world in love with me, as RR prophesied? Yes, I guess. I am the world, and I love the discipline and passion with which I craft my stories and my life.
कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन।
मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि॥
- It’s a durable bit of Hollywood conventional wisdom: Behind every good man is a dead woman. In my case- behind this woman stands a dead man.
Once upon a time, there lived RR. He came into my life and my life changed forever.