Monday, March 12, 2012

The Wheel in the Sky

It's funny when life starts coming full circle, or sometimes circle upon circle upon circle. I wonder if it means something when that happens. I wonder if that means that you're zeroing in on something, like the way a predator swoops around its prey in swiftly shrinking circles, like the way a man can't help but linger in ever-closing circles around the woman who has bewitched his senses before he dares to reach out and touch her. Like you've just completed one huge revolution around your own personal sun. We all have our own suns that we orbit around our whole lives, suns that keep us anchored, that power us, that provide us our point of reference in a very dark and unmapped universe. Sometimes other objects get in the way and cast shadows on us, and we lose sight of our sun, the source of our warmth, the memory of what we once knew to be true when we first set out on our journey. Sometimes our orbits take us far, far away from our suns, and we start to feel cold and frightened, off course, lost. We begin to feel the presence of our sun less and less as where we are on our invisible orbit makes us feel colder and darker. We forget what we believed in in the beginning and why we do anything that we do. But whether we know it or not, we are still on our orbit. Our sun - even if we can't see it anymore - still holds us in its gravitational pull, and if we just hold on, we will inevitably swing back towards our sun and behold it again at the same point where we first started our journey from. We will be in two places and at two points in time at once. What is place and time in a universe where there is no up or down or sunrise or sunset? But we will have returned to something, except we will have changed, we will have seen things, we will have been places, and we will be able to acknowledge our journey and renew our belief in the sun that drives us before we set off on yet another revolution.

It was almost a year ago, at the same time this year, that I felt like I'd been there before, except not. Not really deja vu, but like I was there and somewhere else at the same time. Two places, two times at once. How do you plot that on a space versus time graph? 'There' was NDTV in New Delhi in 2011. I was interning in the first of a series of departments, and that particular month, I was at the internet news desk, which was basically 3 PCs on one side of a long cubicle. On the other side was a very excited internet sports desk. It was a special time for them - the cricket World Cup was on. It only came around once every 4 years, and this time, it may as well have been the Olympics because an IndoPak semi-final was on the cards. At the Mohali stadium in Punjab, right across the border from Pakistan. Patriotism was rising a little bit everyday around the country, much like the mercury in everyone's thermometers. The air even began to smell a little bit more greenwhiteandsaffron. Stick your tongue out and you could taste those colours in the gray Delhi breeze. People around the country were planning to take an off from work, officially or unofficially, on the day of the match, and everybody knew that their bosses would understand. No real work that could be avoided would happen that day anyway. It's just the way. Indians are funny like that. They snap and snarl at and often steal from each other every single day of their lives, but a national level cricket match whips up the long-muffed-out symbolism of their freedom fighters. The ghosts of the khhaadi heroes and heroines start wandering India's streets. It's like the whole country becomes a television rerun of 'Gandhi'. A defiant salt march, anyone? This age that I live in, the age that I am of, is an age where most young people have no cause to offer their youth to, where they mindlessly swing between desk jobs and fast food and bad postures. To such a generation, the promise of an impending IndoPak match, with the possibility of their mostly crumbly country winning its first World Cup final in twenty years, flicks on a light on their usually expressionless faces. With every passing day that brought the semi-final closer, that light grew brighter. It reminded me of the general mood in the United States around the 2008 presidential election. I was living in a Republican state where you didn't dare show too much support for the Democratic candidate, but the day after Obama became the first black president and brought the Conservative hold on the White House and the world to an end, one couldn't walk down the street without meeting the knowing glance of someone wearing a half-smile as if you shared some underground secret, like you weren't alone, like you won, like you had contributed just by being alive. Like it meant something.

So there I was quite firmly, almost 30 years old and at NDTV, but I was also somewhere else. That other place was 12 years ago. I was 15 kilos lighter and in Lucknow with my mother in our old crumbly home in our mouldy moholla. I had finished 12th grade and was in the country for my university entrance exams. It was that period in every modern student's life where when you think of the future you don't really see anything at all, just a vague blackness extending into forever. Que sera sera, what will I be? A doctor, an engineer? In architecture, biotechnology, genetics, hotel management? Papa kehte hain bara naam karega...

It was 1999, but it was the Lucknawi summer from every year before. Life had slowed down, and the desert 'loo' winds from Rajasthan were swirling about like bodyless jinns in our ancient alleys. The mangoes in Barabanki were ripening. The Kargil war was on in Kashmir. Ajmal Jami's footage from the border made it to our rented-for-the-summer TV. He was making Barkha Dutt famous. I'd follow the story on NDTV everyday. I remember how the body of one army boy from Lucknow made it back to town and how the roads were blocked off for the mourners that showed up for the boy from their city who'd died for his country. They wouldn't let his family grieve alone. The World Cup was also on that summer. I remember an IndoPak match that I'd got excited about. I'd watched it on TV with my mother even. I don't care for sports at all, but I always enjoy an IndoPak cricket match. India had ended up winning that match, and I had leapt up in all my 18-year-old glory as someone set off celebatory firecrackers on Victoria 'Tooria' Street outside. My cousins who lived a couple of houses down from us had announced a few days earlier that they would offer extra prayer rakaats to Allah so that India would win the match. Maybe Allah had listened to them. Our generation was different. We were Muslims but we had been born and raised as Indians. We felt no affinity for the Pakistani cricket team. It felt good to know for sure which side you were on, even when some identities threatened to make things confusing, even if just for others. Like it did for me and other Muslims in another hemisphere in the years that were to follow.

But here I was back again, 12 years later at NDTV in New Delhi. Ajmal Jami was now on my Facebook friends list. I had even spoken to him a few times about that Kargil footage I had seen in 1999. Back then, Dilli really had been far, a monster city that swallowed the mild Lucknawis who dared. In another few months, I would fly to America and make a life there for almost 10 years. Back then, I could not have known that, many countries and so much living later, not only would I dare to return to India, but that this time I would be sitting inside the NDTV office, talking to the man whose footage I had seen in that warm room in a moholla that time and even I have forgotten. I even saw Barkha Dutt at the NDTV office a few times. She's a lot taller in person. Amazonian even. I was in two places, two times at once. In 2011, an IndoPak World Cup match was around the corner. India won that match. India went on to win the final against Sri Lanka and brought home the trophy for the first time since 1983. Somewhere 12 years ago, I leapt as firecrackers went off on Tooria Street.

Magar yeh toh koi na jaane ke meri manzil hai kahaan...

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