Each Sauntering Step : Chapter 5
Ashwin wakes up in Arun’s two bedroom apartment with a bad case of Saturday morning dry-mouth. The sharp rays of the eight-o-clock sun smell of cheap whiskey. He picks up his phone, struggles to his feet, walks to the bathroom. There’s a note on the screen. It’s from Arun.
I’m outside, will be back by noon.
Ashwin looks in the mirror over the basin and sees puffy eyelids, a visible paunch, saggy jowls; as he rinses his mouth, he can feel sweat collect on his forehead. He spits out a viscous mixture of phlegm and water into the basin, and soon feels his mouth fill up with more. Ashwin spits into the basin again and walks back into the room – a sea-facing bedroom with a tall single bed, spare cupboards, and a table with a terracotta lamp and clay figurines. Ashwin’s only contribution, a coffee cup with ten cigarette butts in it. In his mind, Ashwin sees an image of his bedroom – a large white room with a cabinet and a stack of clothes in one corner, a pile of books, a guitar, an amplifier, and an effects pedal in another, a Smiths poster against the wall opposite the windows, no bed, no table, just a folded chair next to a mattress on the floor, an open packet of potato chips next to the mattress, a few chips on the ground by its gaping mouth, an ashtray with cigarette butts in it, ash both in and around it.
I can’t remember a thing from last night. It’s going to take a day to get this out of my system.
Ashwin wakes up with a start. It’s nine-thirty. He struggles to his feet for the second time in two hours, carefully avoiding any sudden jerks of the head. He walks out of the room into Arun’s living room, still no sign of him, of course not, he’ll be back by twelve, walks to his fridge, his eyes opening wider with each sauntering step and extracts a bottle of Gatorade.
Yet another hangover, reach for the eggs. Not the cigarettes, the eggs. Yes, the eggs, reach for the eggs. Make an omelette, put the eggs in the Insta. Don’t forget the onions, don’t forget the tomatoes, don’t forget the green chilies. Reach for the water, don’t drink too much. Luckily, it’s a Saturday and you don’t have to work. You need to make that call by eleven.
Back in the room, half-reclined on the bed, he stares at the monitor, which stares vacantly back at him from the wall, blue. He reaches for the keypad on the bed, and turns it on. Hi Ashwin, a female voice says. Black letters appear on a white background:
What would you like to have
At the south-eastern corner of the monitor, the pink silhouette of a woman, presumably Sienna, poses seductively for an invisible camera.
Ashwin clicks Back frantically, as if ashamed of what he might answer.
With the video screen closed, other tiles begin to appear on the screen: 10 Secrets to Happiness, Ernest Hemingway and the Art of Bravery, and omega oblivion – highrise. Ashwin plays the omega oblivion album.
He clicks on the Hemingway thumb and scrolls down. After a few seconds of somewhat aimless scrolling, something on the screen catches his eye and he stops: Recently Read: Raymond’s Reservations by Sunayna Varma [6 times in the last 24 hours].
He clicks on the article. After about half a minute of reading, he shakes his head and scrolls to the end of the article to a link recommending Up and Down: The Rebirth of Post-Modernism?
Of course I keep reading about post-modernism. I’d read about post-anything. I’d rather see my actions as a response to my circumstances than take ownership for the things I do. That’s just the sort of loser I am.
Arun says, a thumb blinks orange on the top corner.
Of course I’d rather disappear into the worlds I create in my mind. That’s the one thing I prefer to pinning everything on post-modernism, politics, the depressing news cycle. In my imagination, I’m as much in control as I will ever be. In my imagination, I can be everything I want to be. I imagine people quoting me, singing my songs, flocking to me. I’ve already done it all today. I have experienced my own imagined rise and fall. I have changed the world and been forgotten.
And of course my dreams are blunt objects thrown randomly in the dark. They can’t have a purpose. If they do, I’ll have to do something about them. I am just one among millions who can’t bear to listen to their favourite song without imagining themselves on stage. And who can blame them for fantasising? Who can blame them for wanting to have a voice that is heard? Who can blame them for wanting to dream without fear of failure?
What am I doing with my life? My entire future lay ahead of me when I was sixteen. It all seemed possible. When did it go from possibility to imagination? I guess that’s what happens when you grow older. You see all those futures evaporate, and you’re left with this one future of the past. You’ve already become something — tagged, categorised. Society has labelled you; worse, you have labelled yourself.
It started when I became a student in college, and by the time I got a job, my tag had been cemented. There were no longer an infinite number of paths in front of me. All the paths I saw converged to a single path – the path I had already unknowingly taken. Before I knew it, I was one of the future Ashwins of ten years ago; and it wasn’t the future Ashwin I wanted to be.
How can I do anything but spend most of my day in my head? In my mind I am a twenty-three-year-old musician, a twenty-six-year-old writer, a thirty-year-old entrepreneur, a forty-five year old recluse. In my mind I’m everything: I am a ladies’ man, a thinker, a footballer, a smart talker, a social butterfly.
There must be others who feel this way.
And I know that tomorrow, when I am no longer hungover, when I am not tired of all the boozing and vacuous conversation of yesterday, when I step in to work —there’s no work to step in to — when I walk the streets of this city, when I go about my day, these thoughts will become white noise, something to avoid. They will nag me, but there will be nothing for me to do to change them.
I hate this helplessness.
Ashwin hears the ping of the Insta followed by the light plop of soft eggs hitting a plate. He ambles to the kitchen, grabs the omelette, picks up a spoon and ambles back to the bedroom. As he sits there, slicing the uniformly thick omelette, his thoughts drift to Sunayna.
I remember the first time we met. It was at some mutual friend’s birthday party. I was thirteen, she was a year older. Her parents had just split up, and she was in Mumbai for the summer to stay with her father who had moved there from Delhi after the divorce. She spent the next five summers in Mumbai and the rest of each year with her mum in Delhi. We spent five summers at bright cafes as we spoke about school, friends, the movies we had seen, the music we were listening to, the books we were reading, everything. I saw her as a teacher of sorts, my own Miyagi, training me for the school year to come. For her part, she played the role of mentor with ease.
There was no situation for which she didn’t have an aphorism handy. Be it textbooks, women, or the intricacies of life, she always had the answer. Girls like men, not boys, she once told me, for instance, before making it fully clear that she would never date me. I wasn’t like Vij, she said. By the next summer, Vij had been replaced by another guy who I wasn’t like. It was alright beyond a point. Who would date a fairy godmother?
She always had so much to tell me about the year I was going to have in school, and I felt more prepared for it after talking to her over the summer. After the board exams, she told me: darling, you don’t understand, class ten is very different from class nine, you see, it’s a clear milestone for everyone, it’s, like, a psychological type of thing, people think I’ll do this by the time I’m done with class ten, I’ll do that by the time I’m done with class ten, one year makes a lot of difference, make the most of this year, do whatever you want to do, no fear.
Over the next couple of years though, one year started to make very little difference. Hanging out with her was no longer like attending life school. She was no longer this goddess I had seen her as at age thirteen. We were friends.
Ashwin clicks on the tile.
Where are ou
Ashwin switches back to the album.
Today, with most of an individual’s memories being stored in one large collective human database of photos, searches and events, some memories still belong to the individual alone. I will never forget the last time I met her – she smelt of beer, burnt nicotine and apricots. Technology didn’t shorten distances; holoing was still inferior to chatting face-to-face, over a cup of coffee; the cold, static glow of a screen never matched up to the warmth of those afternoons. As we hugged, I thought of all that we would go through over the year we’d spend apart. She would miss my eighteenth birthday. I would miss her nineteenth. She wouldn’t be at the café when I got back after my first semester at college. I would miss her second year in “wanted-to-be-a-writer school”. I thought of how great it would be to meet her again a year later, and how much fun we’d have talking about all that happened in the year gone by. We promised to keep in touch, but ended up busy with college. I remember walking the streets hoping to see someone who looked like her – at the supermarket, at the café, at clubs, at run-down tea shops where everyday addicts heaved burdened sighs of relief.
I’ll be back in an hour or so
We’re thinking of heading to freakshow tonight
Not freakshow man
How many times
Dude its been a while
PLus Randy isn’t doing too well apparently
Oh what happened
He was in the hospital for a couple of days Singh said
He’s back though
Just a scare apparently but we should all go and say hi anyway
Cool order some pizza
Freakshow always brings back such weird memories. I danced on the tables more than once. I remember once we’d had too much to drink, all of us. I asked Randy to play the same song I always asked him to play. I waited a while, but he didn’t play it. So I got busy doing something drunk. I don’t remember what. It did come on though. It was a house favourite, of course it did. But when it did, I couldn’t believe my ears; I was ecstatic.
That’s the last I remember of that night. When I talk to any of the non-Mumbai guys now, I end up remembering how it was in the beginning, where we met, when we met, my first impressions. The path of our joint histories inevitably pass through Freakshow. I don’t remember when I last spoke to any of them, must have been months ago. We were all so young then. Those were different times.
Closing the chat thumb, Ashwin returns to the article on the return of post-modernism.
He scrolls aimlessly for a few minutes. Even Junkies Need Love Songs comes to a close. Ashwin changes the album to The Juju Loop – Princez, walks up to the fridge and extracts another blue bottle of Gatorade to the sound of a steady bass line.