The night was pleasantly cool, but even the gentle sea breeze wafting in through my window could not assuage my anxiety. It had just been a few months since I had last been home, but it felt like forever. The housing complex I had lived in for over a decade of my life, the land upon which I had been born and raised, was a far cry from the vaguely familiar place I now found myself. We had lived through its metamorphosis from a chawl into a dual-wing apartment complex, holding out against the proto-mafia gang that took over and razed our chawl to the ground in return for cramped quarters in a makeshift building. We had to fight them tooth and nail for a larger flat in accordance with the property we owned, but I had been blissfully unaware of all this.
My troubles growing up were much more mundane; I was the shortest kid in the class, with no physical talent to speak of, and a mysterious handicap when it came to communication. I lived in a bubble not because my family was rich or well off, but because I was shielded from the world by my own anxiety, doubts, and misunderstandings. All the events that were transpiring around me were blocked out by a hyperactive, overthinking mind that could never quite figure out what was going on.
In the eighth grade, I had left my school of nine years for a boarding school in the foothills of the Sahyadris. I do not know what about that change severed me from the place I grew up in, but whenever I would return for vacations, I felt a growing gulf between myself and the spirit that I had thought of as home. The familiar faces would morph or disappear, customs were born or broken in my absence, and I felt the full force of the shifting social dynamics. It felt as if I was fated to leave this place forever, like I never really belonged.
That night, a man was beaten half to death in the street below our apartment.
The day began like any other, but something felt off. I was longing for the hills, the lush greenery and the chirping of birds, but I was greeted instead with the din that is Mumbai traffic. That’s not quite true. You don’t really hear much honking where we live due to the elevation and location, and right outside our house is a lovely Gulmohar upon which birds chirp, perch, and even nest. What hit me was the atmosphere of the city, an atmosphere that forces the cacophony of traffic upon you even when there is none.
The spirit of the city is nothing but what you perceive it to be. It’s the weighted average of your experiences. For me, the city represented a confluence of conservative cultures, all harmoniously aligned to keep the exuberance of the youth in check. There’s a lovely little dance that the two generations weave around each other, and the choreography is only apparent from a distance. Which is where I fit into this dance - I am the invisible audience. My parents were not conventionally strict, so I could neither conform nor revolt. Which is not to say they weren’t strict, only that since their reactions would be so unpredictable, I was permanently anxious about everything I did. I could never partake of the non-conformist camaraderie that characterises teenage life without a tinge of guilt.
I could hear every crack of stick on bone as he was mercilessly thrashed by his fellow drunks.
Perhaps it wasn’t the neighbourhood I was really alienated from, but life itself. The bridge, or lack thereof, between my inner and outer experiences was a void I would carry with me wherever I went. Some places were bright enough to give the illusion of cohesion, and others did not produce any expectation of such cohesion at all. Perhaps here at home, where I felt obliged to be at ease in a sense of belonging, the ever-present void merely became apparent.
He felt the pain of every blow, but stubbornly refused to cry out.
The peculiarities of human experiences are too varied, making individual existence a profoundly lonely and frustrating exercise. Yet we soldier on.
The police arrived to collect their bribes, and someone helped the poor drunk up and took him home, to drink another day.