Each Sauntering Step : Chapter 3 – Part 1


Someday, I’m telling you
They’ll make a memory machine
To wax our hearts to a blinding sheen
To wash away the grief 

Memory Machine, The Dismemberment Plan

Ashwin stands at Singh’s doorstep, a bottle of whiskey in hand. Thank god the week is done. Thank god I quit. The door opens. “Hey hey. Ashwin. Oh god, you’re drunk already.” “Is everyone in?” “More or less. Yup. Where were you? How come you’re —” “Here’s the communal whiskey — for everyone — the standard fare.” If I’m crazy, I don’t mind. Everything around me is falling into place.

Thanks, man,” Singh says, “here. Pour yourself a drink.” “Thanks.” Ashwin pours himself a whiskey-soda mix with two cubes of ice, lights a cigarette and joins the others, who are sitting on the floor around the grey living room carpet. I’m almost not exhausted by the thought of having to spend another Friday night talking about American avant-garde,  European existentialist movements, Premier League football, and all that —

“Is that what Nietzsche said,” Arun asks. “Sunayna,” Singh says. “Is it what Nietzsche said,” he jokes. “Do we have to do this again,” she replies. “Conversation is usually quid-pro-quo”, Ashwin says, mixing his drink. “So you quo his quid, no?” “Hahaha, I’m not doing that. You know much better than I do what Zarathustra ‘sprach’.” Sunayna laughs too. “The only reason I ask,” Arun says, “is because what you said makes him sound almost optimistic.” “What I said?” “Yes, Sunayna, you. Who else?” Singh looks at Ashwin for approval.

Sunayna ignores him. “Arun, I actually think it is slightly redemptive, if you choose to see it that way. I honestly think it is. There are so many things that are out of your control almost to the point where you have to accept them as fated. But on the bright side, you can respond to them how you choose. There is no right and wrong. The only thing that matters is having complete mastery over yourself.”

“That’s what he said?”

“That’s what I got out of it. He may have said something else. That book is almost impossible to read.” 

I shouldn’t have come here. The thought of having to leave late at night, alone, drunk and weary, struggling to find my way out of Singh’s apartment and back to my bedroom, crashing at three in the morning… god… my sense of cheer is beginning to fade.

“Ashwin?” “Yeah.” “Nothing. I just wanted to ensure you were still alive,” Sunayna whispers to him as Singh blathers on in the background. “Oh yeah, I’m alive. Just catatonic.” “Hehe.” “Why are we listening to Bob Marley?” “Because of Singh’s questionable taste in music.” They share a covert low-five.

They are interrupted by Singh’s guffawing. “You have to admit though, you are a horny bastard,” he says to Arun.

“No I’m not, and you don’t get to talk about horniness, Sir Wanks-A-Lot.”

“Guys, language,” Arnav warns.

“Hey hey, let’s get Ashwin to settle this.” “Why the hell should I settle this? Also, one second, before we continue to torment Arun, Singh… I’ll have to leave my car here, won’t be able to drive tonight. I’ll get it tomorrow.” “That’s fine; why did you get your car if you knew you were going to drink.” “Bad decision-making.”

“You can leave it here. No worries. Anyway, let’s see, Arun did have the Trina incident Varun’s party. That was a boss move.”

“I didn’t do anything, guys.”

“Oh nothing?” — “I’m going to get some water. Fatima,” Arnav gestures to the kitchen, “would you like some?” “Sure.” — “I remember, he was all like oye balle balle and all. Classy behaviour, man.”

“I didn’t do that, dude.”

“You say horny, this guy was, phew, disgusting really. He was all over her.”

“This didn’t happen —”

“Plus, you’re like Varun’s chuddy buddy and shit, like that isn’t awkward enough as it is.”

“Oh yeah,” Ashwin interjects in an attempt to change the topic. “Varun and her had that fight-type thing.”

“Not a fight, dude — it was really ugly.”

Our whole lives are stored in a sort of collective memory. We all come with our own crowdsourced biography; each individual leaves a legacy behind. And online? This false record is permanent. But these bios are just a pile of conjecture that are always constructed with the same MO. First sow the seeds of myth with a story everybody wants to believe is true because it’s funny — Arun is a perv. Then retell it, exaggerate it, comment on it. The myth is born. 

Ashwin takes a sip. Sunayna, through fits of violent gesturing, is talking about the reasons she believes it possible to die of a broken heart. Ashwin disagrees. “What exactly is the medical term for a broken heart,” he asks, “what would a doctor call a broken heart. What would the autopsy say?” “It isn’t about an autopsy, Ashwin. It’s about sorrow,” she replies. “So sorrow,” he replies, before pausing and collecting his thoughts. “Isn’t that usually a consequence of a psychological disorder, a damaged brain maybe, or maybe — this is going to sound silly — a damaged soul.”

Sunayna wags her finger. “But sorrow provokes so many physical responses,” she says, “adrenalin levels go up, serotonin levels drop…” Would psychological disorders have been different had we lived in a different kind of society? Some psychological disorders are innate, but some manifest themselves later in life, after one has been ‘socialised’.

“…and so many other things. It’s what we call heartbreak. Sorrow has physical reactions that…” Social anxiety disorder (SAD) — the disorder with the perfect acronym. If we lived in a different society, would those with SAD not be afflicted? Or would they have the condition, and exhibit different symptoms? “You could say sorrow is a physiological thing as much as it is a psychological thing.”

Ashwin nods. “Yes, of course. That’s one way of seeing it, of course. We still don’t understand how the brain works.” “Yeah, that’s true,” Arun interjects, “my friend just finished a course in psychology a few years ago — he’s getting his masters now. (A friend from school.) He always says there’s more we don’t know, you know? There’s more we don’t know than what we know.” “Yeah, yeah, like most things,” Ashwin says to Arun. “But the brain especially”, Arun replies. But Ashwin has turned to Sunayna and is saying, “I’ll go pour myself some more whiskey. You want something to drink?” “No, I’ve still got quite a bit to go through,” she replies, tapping the rim of her half-full glass noiselessly with the tip of her index finger as if to say, boy you sure drink a lot. “Oye Ashwin. Check this out,” Sunayna says, passing Ashwin her tablet. “What’s this?” “It’s my article. Just came out.” Ashwin takes the tablet from her, “a profile of Meet. Must be pretty high profile…?” “Yeah. ‘Youth perspective’ haha — anyway screw that, tell me what you think.”

Meeting Meet

Sunayna Varma | HTN

Mumbai: “Our continued worship of the white man is the only thing coming between this great nation and its destiny”, says Meet, when I ask him about the liberal use of Rajasthani roots music in his soundtrack to the movie Fight Maar. The movie’s raw music and incendiary lyrics, also penned by Meet, have prompted a mini revolution in the online world over the past week.

When I ask him what he thinks of the effect he’s had on India’s urban youth, he answers: “It’s good – India needs an independent music culture, an underground. There has never been a significant Indian counter-culture. There’s almost no underground music movement in this country. I don’t see children being encouraged to take up music as a profession, and I can see why.”

Born Harsh Mittal, Meet started his career at a prominent ad agency, but says he lost interest in “spending all of his creativity energy selling other people’s dreams” almost as soon as he started working. He says his only motivation to continue was to make ends meet, and that his singular aim was to become a top musician one day.

“I would spend every hour back home either at my synth making tunes, or at my computer, recording, mixing. Every weekend I would either be making my own music or jamming with others,” he says, “a day without my music, and I would get really cranky. Nobody could understand why I was so crazy about it; after all it wasn’t work, it was supposed to be a hobby. But most people don’t understand creativity. That’s why they say things like, ‘You’re a creative person; why don’t you get into advertising?’”

After two years of juggling time between the worlds of advertising and music, Meet got his big break in February last year, when his band – The Yes/Nos – got a chance to perform at Juggernaut Festival. It was life-changing for Meet – the show transformed him into one of Indian rock’s most recognisable faces. When I ask him about the experience, he says: “It was great, at first. But then you understand that ‘one of Indian rock’s most recognisable faces’ means nothing. It’s all a matter of perspective. I wanted more than that.”

Ashwin pours himself another round and turns to where he had been sitting. Sunayna has, meanwhile, turned to talk to Arnav and Fatima. “Hey Sunayna,” Ashwin says, interrupting the conversation, “I liked it. I think it’s very good.” He returns her tab. “Hey,” Arnav says, turning to Ashwin. “How’re you doing,” Fatima adds. “Good, good, what about you guys?” “We’re good,” Arnav replies, turning back to Sunayna and continuing, “so as I was saying, with this whole takeover business…”

Arnav and Fatima. That’s a power couple right there. They’ve been together since they were seventeen-year-old students in Bangalore. They are always together, even when they aren’t. I can’t think of them as two different people. When she chose to come to Mumbai to study, he chose to stay back. They stuck with their relationship through the three years it took him to get his degree. He got placed in Mumbai a year before she graduated, and she began to divide her time between his apartment and her hostel room.

We grew accustomed to seeing less of her and, the fine human beings that we are, complained that she seemed out of sorts on the few occasions we met — never to her, of course. Sometimes we would ‘worry’ about her, other times we would speculate about her relationship, (was it falling apart, we would ask; was she happy with Arnav, would they last the year) but mostly we would sit around and call her names (is she also seeing that senior of ours; what a slut).

It was all jealousy. In the final year of college, when each of us was growing increasingly cognisant of each perceived shortcoming, each character flaw, each deficiency that stood between us and a top job, her scores remained high as ever. She had always been close to the top of our batch, and six months before she graduated, after her first job interview of the season, she was offered the highest paying job on campus. She took it.

Ashwin considers the space on the floor for a second before sitting down again. Laying the glass down on the floor next to him, he takes out a pack of Milds from his pocket, removes one, asks the others if they want any, deposits the pack back in his pocket when they all refuse, extracts a lighter from the same pocket, and lights the cigarette he had placed between his lips. “Pass me the lighter,” Arun says, revealing a pack of Marlboros as he gets up to pour himself a drink.

Look at us perfectly educated, perfectly pseudo-intellectual hypocrites. If Fatima were a guy, there would have been no jokes. If Arun had been Singh, he would have shut those guys up. Arun — a perv? Dude’s an angel.

“Man, I’m drinking too much,” Arun says, placing his empty glass on the table. “I agree. We all are. We need to return to clean and simple living,” Singh replies. “We will soon enter the post-technological age,” he says, “all the data we have accumulated over the last half-century has not served us as well as we thought it would. We are the children of excess, our parents did not have the habits and addictions we have, and their brains weren’t bombarded with this constant barrage of data. Our lives will be shorter and unhappier.” This time, Ashwin expressed his disagreement with no more than a head-shake and a shrug.

Every generation believes itself to be on the cusp of dramatic change. We are different in one way, though. This sort of romantic idealism is a privilege that fewer people had in the past. In that sense, yes, we have been afforded greater access than our parents were and have made this, such pathetic use of it.

Looks like Singh is the first to go down Drunk Street,” Sunayna says. “I’ll join you there, man. Allow me to pour myself another round,” Ashwin adds, as he flings his cigarette in a glass filled with brown-grey water. “Dude, I just visit Drunk Street once in a while. You live there.” “Hey, that’s not fair. I barely drink as much as I did in college.” “To be fair, Ashwin, nobody drinks as much as you did in college.” “Fair point,” Ashwin says, fair point. God help me. I’m a party animal.

“Guys,” Singh says, “let’s get high.”

Great. Now this.

“Near the window. The stench gets accumulated in this part of the room, let’s go there.” Ashwin gets up, fills his glass first with whiskey, then with ice, and finally with soda, and heads to the balcony to get some air.

Fatima joins him there, glass of vodka in hand. “Hey Ash”. “Hey, how’s it going?” “Good, good.” Ashwin thuds as he sits, placing his glass on the floor next to him. After a few seconds of silence, he takes a gulp of his drink as she continues to stare into the distance. “How’s work,” he finally asks, honouring the quid-pro-quo nature of conversation. “It’s keeping me busy.” More silence. One more gulp is had. Another deep breath is taken. “Is everything alright? You seem a little lost,” Ashwin says.

“It’s… it’s nothing really.”