Many of the houses I grew up in never felt like home to me. No matter how sturdy their foundations were. How well-cemented the bricks. All the fine craftsmanship that had gone behind them. They lacked the comfort and warmth I wanted under a roof. Or they belonged to an ecosystem that seemed alien to me. Their walls were sturdy but they held grudges. The ceiling fan was too loud. Beyond the front door, privacy was in absentia. And the view outside the window often a peek into the lives of my neighbors; how unhappy they can be when they don’t realize that somebody is watching them.
But in the winter of 1988, I found myself in a four-storied residential building in Chennai called Joy Apartments. My parents had rented a flat on the third floor. No matter the weather, its ambiance was stuck halfway between a siesta on a rainy day and a funeral procession of woodland creatures. It was tranquilizing and charming. On Sunday afternoons, one could hear the rustling of leaves, in the streets, under a broom. Or the sing-song squawking of the fish vendor as he crooned his way into our bellies.
Today, I saw a Black Kite skirting past the opaque moon against a teal-blue evening sky. It was a refreshing change of scenery. Considering I had been bed-ridden since February. About two weeks ago, my spinal chord was operated upon. The disc bulge in my lower vertebrae had become worse. There was a growing risk of suffering permanent nerve damage on my left leg.
So, I had decided to opt for surgery. Now, I have a giant scar to show for it. If things don’t go according to plan, I may have a T-Shirt idea. Buy one for yourself and get two for your friends. But, strictly no refunds. I have a mouth, below my nostrils, to feed.
I think Con Air, a movie about a plane hijacking, has some of the worst dialogues ever. But I have seen it over 30 times. I can’t help myself. It’s like stopping by a highway accident to assess the carnage. A cat-and-mouse game we play with our minds. We may grimace at the sight of blood. Yet we stick around to look for brain matter on the road.
I am not fond of routines. Inelegantly, they wrap themselves around me, like dirty parasites. And I am left – nonplussed and numb. It’s why I cling on to weekends. I get to break my routines by watching birds go through theirs.
Some people talk about wanting to live the way the wild creatures do. Carefree, and unhinged. Driven by pure instincts. It’s a strange inference to make, though. Because birds, mammals, reptiles, fishes, and insects follow routines like we do.
What sets them apart, besides the nakedness, is that they don’t emotionally invest in actualities. They don’t pursue happiness and tumble down from the sky in the process.
About two summers ago, I was in Gudalur during a trip to the Nilgiri Hills – with a few friends. Barely five minutes after reaching the spot, we spotted a pair of Indian Eagle Owls. It was my first sighting. They flew past us, and into a section of the forest. And it all happened so quickly.
I couldn’t giggle over my good fortune. There wasn’t any time to react, much less – to celebrate. We kept our eyes glued on the couple, as they shifted their positions. But the light was fading fast. We couldn’t tell if we were looking at owls or a cluster of shadows. The evening sun blushed in sleepy orange and turned them into ghosts.
There are still a few months left for birding season to begin. And I can’t wait for the rains to go away. So that migratory birds will visit me from all over the world. Because they will make me happy. I may even tap the shoulders of strangers to tell them about it. If they ignore me, I may grab one by the collar and repeat myself in a creepier voice.
While being dragged into a police van, charged for public nuisance, I will clasp the hands of officers and proclaim, “But sir, I am happy”. They won’t understand, though. There is a good chance that I will be beaten up first, and prosecuted later. But that’s fine. Happiness works in mysterious ways. One moment I feel good, and the next – I am a bloody mess.
I develop a gag reflex for certain things I am passionate about. Whether a new style of writing I want to try out, the type of people I socialize with or the kind of music I listen to. After shifting the paradigm, I just throw my hands in the air and walk away. A simple explanation is that I am easily distracted. I may be suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder. Another may be that “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member”.
It doesn’t really matter why. Popeye taught me that a long time ago.
Somehow, my love for birds survived the onslaught. Four years later, I am as lovestruck. Every time I see a bird of prey – my heart doesn’t just skip a beat, it leapfrogs over a bunch of them stacked on top of each other. Like the flap of some Malabar Trogon’s wing – it takes to the sky.
Stress isn’t a loud-mouthed villain. Very often you can’t hear its war cry. You just don’t see it coming. Stress can be a cold and calculated sociopath. It won’t catch you in a bear hug and squeeze the life out of you. It waits for you to go to sleep. It climbs into the bed and snuggles up next to you. Then, it whispers sad haiku in your ears to micromanage your dreams. By the time you wake up, it will be gone, along with a part of you that believes that everything is fine
It will even laugh, moan and rejoice with us. And then one fine day, you will wake up, crumbling like a cornered oatmeal cookie. You will find yourself falling into a downward spiral over minor annoyances. The silliest of things will make you snap, crackle and pop.
When I was much younger I was bitter about the success stories that was I felt critical towards. Like most of us dealing with angst, I had a loose grasp on how the world should work. I sat on a high horse and complained about how Titanic was the crappiest movie ever. That bubblegum pop was a medical hazard to music lovers. The worst offenders, to me, were those similar to me, but who just had it much easier in life.
It never seemed to matter how ungrateful or undeserving they were.