In my aunt’s home in Delhi hangs a picture of my mother when she was four years of age. Her eyes are wide open, fixed in this paralysing grin — the sort that would terrify any parent who would forecast that face into the future. My grandmother, at 91, admits that she spent many hours on many days worrying over what her daughter would end up doing in life. That this mutinous, mischievous, tomboyish toddler is today as grand as a grape makes Paati sigh in thankful relief.
I turn to the photograph next to hers and I see a childhood snap of myself — bald, ball-ish and benign. What have I in common with the photograph of this three year old kid? Nothing, except that I happen to be the same person.
When you come to a place like Delhi from far away — the South of India, in my case — you have the immediate sense of breathing a new air. Scores of small things conspire to make you feel this way. The beer is warmer (if you cant afford better), the grass is greener, the air is smoggier, language and melody are clearly apart, the culture is rich, diverse, and its enthusiasts are largely privileged — all the peculiarities of life on earth coalesce in each person as they stretch out to form the clamouring chorus that is ‘Dilli’. The vastness of it all swallows you up and one loses the feeling that this whole score of people — the nation, the community, the family — possesses a single identifiable character.
But chat with a foreigner, read a few books on India, on the community you’re identified with, lace through the newspapers, and you’ll find that there is something recognisable and distinctive in this nation, this society, this culture that circles about you.
When one thinks very deeply about this, one will see that today, right here, is an aggregation of the ages. All that human beings have thought, felt, done, achieved and lost are held together to give us the experience of the moment — our culture and art, chauvinism and discrimination, cuisine and monuments, lust and envy, spirituality and literature, rusticism and simplicity, tyranny and pride.
As all this parades before ones watch, one comes upon one’s self. The outward moment is discernible by its past. The story within oneself isn’t very different. I discern, identify, think and judge in the light of my context. My mind, my memory, is my context — the experiences, the knowledge I’ve gained, they decide what makes me angry, happy, sad; they inform my sense of right and wrong, fun and foolishness, sorrow and love. And diving into this vast archive of the self, one sees that all of this is really the archive of all mankind. The same impulses, urges and structures that have resulted in my peculiarities are the same clay with which you’ve moulded yours; it’s the same stuff that has unleashed every man and woman that have walked this earth. We are, each one of us, the book of humanity. This is a stunning thing to look at.
Now, I look around and listen to all these stories of success, failures, rape, romance, chauvinism, chivalry, achievement, poverty, power, politics, comedy, genius, foolishness, ego, injustice, compassion, love and poetry — what have I to do with all this? The picture of my three year old self smiles into my eyes and the insight slowly dawns: I’ve got everything to do with everything. I am the crowning summit and despicable depths of being, I am all that’s wrong and all that’s right, the beauty and ugliness of it all.
I suddenly feel alive.