Saturday, March 21, 2009

Year end blues

The Pioneer| 28, 2008 | Coffee Break

Intimations of mortality
Kanchan Gupta

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep...

For the past few nights, it has been foggy in Delhi and driving home has been particularly difficult. In The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, TS Eliot wrote about the fog of a “soft October night”, here in Delhi the fog begins to roll in around mid-December when there’s nothing soft about the night, especially past midnight — it’s biting cold, the wind sweeps down howling like a banshee, the landscape is barren, and the city and its suburbs wear a deserted look. Along the road to my home the half-finished concrete pillars of Metro Rail and the monster cranes heaving huge beams loom large in the headlights like phantoms of the night. As I cross the bridge over Yamuna, once again reduced to a trickle of brackish, stinking water, the fog begins to roll in, swathes of cotton clouds, first spookily translucent and then dense and opaque, reducing visibility to near zero. Everybody, not that there are many, switches on the hazard lights and swerves to the crumbling kerb, and then the crawl begins. You don’t want to die out there on the road on a foggy December night; probably nobody would notice you till the fog lifts the next morning.

But kerb-crawling is not without danger on the road from Delhi to Noida. There are patches where there’s no kerb to follow and then there are patches where the kerb is not painted in black-and-white stripes, as it is supposed to be. We can rest assure that tenders have been issued and contracts given, bills submitted and huge sums of money paid, on repairing and painting kerbs. We also know where the money has gone. But there’s nothing we can do — or are willing to do — about it. So why crib? On Friday night as I crawled along the now there, now gone kerb, the hazard lights of my car flashing, with another car tailing me, I suddenly saw a water tanker ahead of me, without lights, emerging from the fog a short distance away. I pressed on the horn, slowed to a halt and waited for the tanker to move. It wouldn’t. The tractor pulling it had broken down and the driver had disappeared, leaving the tanker over there. The night before, I had narrowly missed a head-on collision with a truck roaring down a flyover on the wrong side. It had come to dump construction material for Metro Rail, taken a U-turn on the same lane, and was on its way back to wherever. Whom does one complain to? Life’s cheap in this country, and you should not expect the police to patrol the roads, leave alone highways, on dark, cold, foggy December nights. Such luxuries are meant for VIPs with escort cars.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

The fog leaves dirty streaks of soot and dirt on the window-panes of my apartment. What looked ethereal, albumin white on the road appears faintly yellow from inside the apartment as I switch on the lamp. Is it the light that the lamp casts or is the fog really smog? The food is cold and needs to be microwaved; it comes out dry and slightly bitter. Truly the remains of the day. What do we toil so hard for? For fame? Money? To create a legacy that will be inherited by others? We love to think that we are indispensable — to our families, our professions, our country, the world at large. We forget that the graveyard of history is littered with the tombstones of those who thought they were indispensable, that life would not carry on without them. High on the adrenaline of success, fame and fortune, we forget that we are mere mortals, transiting through this world on an endless journey, from nothingness to being to nothingness. Being alive on Friday night is no guarantee that I shall be around on Saturday night to switch the lamp on and watch the fog rubbing its muzzle on the window-panes, rubbing its back on the window-panes, and make a mental note to clean the streaked glass on Sunday.

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Each morning I discover a few more strands of hair missing from my head, gone forever, there won’t be any regeneration. I can feel the slow wasting of the body, the sagging of once taut skin; the creeping sense of middle age is overwhelming, as are the intimations of mortality. Friends I last met many years ago look different, those with whom I went to school and college are coping with spreading waistlines and worrying over cholesterol levels. Some have already left for the other world, early departures to the deep, dark beyond, the final destination across the Baitarani to which we are all headed. Youth makes us forget the eternal truth — that which is born must die — middle age reminds us of it; each passing day, each passing year takes us closer to the inevitable.

These are not happy thoughts as 2008 draws to a close, but I wonder if there really is any reason to feel happy and cheerful that a new year is upon us. The joy that we pretend is a clever ploy to distract ourselves from the unavoidable visit by the grim reaper, the moment when we shall be compelled to shut our eyes no matter how hard we try to fight against the dying of the light. This alone is real, everything else is maya.

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