“Mann kasturi re,
jag dasturi re,
baat hui na poori re.”
— Varun Grover, Masaan
is only a sequel, after all,
and the book of events
is always open halfway through.”
— Wislawa Szymborska, “Love at First Sight”
It’s always a moment too early or too late. Too early to die; too late to have lived. In between life and death we survive in fragments, as parts of ourselves, piecing ourselves together into new selves, recovering from past pains, shielding ourselves from hurt. And all the while, we’re asking ourselves one question: What if?
What if, five years ago, we had taken my grandmother to hospital an hour earlier than we did. Would she have recovered from her stroke? What if the attendant at the CT scan lab hadn’t made us wait for a seemingly interminable time? Do hours actually matter when minutes can change your life?
Sixteen years ago, would my father have escaped being hit side-on by two drunk motorists, if he had started crossing a dimly-lit street — just outside a Durga Puja pandal — only a minute later? But does a minute matter when an error in judgement — made in seconds by a doctor — almost takes someone’s life a few years later?
The year is 2000, and I remember oxygen cylinders; my mother’s pained breathing; the look of desperation in her dim eyes — all the result of a botched operation from a few years ago. A few months later, my grandfather passed away after suddenly slipping into dementia, upon seeing my mother gasping for her life in hospital.
Is there a mapping to these sequences — a faint, cold logic of destruction that must be wrought, will be wrought? Every personal history is littered with these tribulations — of moments missed, chances dropped. But the mirror has two sides. Every personal history is also lit with chance meetings that change lives; sudden epiphanies that resound for decades; a random good turn that restores lost faith.
Just as we shiver at the thought of love lost, we must also thrill at the thought of love — and friendship — gained. That friend whom you met sixteen years ago in one of the many schools you could have attended, in one of the many cities you could have been born into. That friend who is still there, a call or message away, to listen, to console. In his book, Two Lives, Vikram Seth writes:
Behind every door on every ordinary street, in every hut in every ordinary village in this middling planet of a trivial star, such riches are to be found. The strange journeys we undertake on our earthly pilgrimage, the joy and suffering we taste or confer, the chance events that leave us together or apart, what a complex trace they leave: so personal as to be almost incommunicable, so fugitive as to be almost irrecoverable.
What if, twelve years ago, my father had not read to me the poem that would change my life, and begin a love for reading (and writing poetry) that continues unabated? That poem, I now realise, is perhaps the antidote to ‘ye dukh kaahe khatam nahi hota be?’
All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right
And emptiness above —
Know that you aren’t alone
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all their years.
What if, five years ago, I hadn’t been refused an internship in an Investment Bank in Singapore on sketchy grounds? That rejection allowed me to seek an internship — and later get a job — at a company that allows me to work from anywhere I wish. That rejection was the only way I could have spent the final two months of my grandmother’s life with her. She is gone, but I now spend time at home with my parents that would have been a distant fantasy in a usual corporate job. I know she would have willed it thus.
Perhaps we are closing loops all the time.
Umar ki ginti haath na aai
Purkho ne ye baat batai
Ulta kar ke dekh sakey to
Umber bhi hai gehri chhai