I particularly remember the details of a particular journey. It stands out in the multitude of other daily routes and frequent destinations that would checker the rest of my working life.
I used to take an AC bus to work each morning where I was spared of the usual Mumbai crowd. My favorite seat was the last one from the back, on the right side. Its window was not interrupted by a frame, the seat itself didn’t lend itself to additional bumpiness on account of being situated over a tyre and it was far enough from the initial seats which would get taken by the occasional non-regulars.
These were my early days of employment and all I had was a battered Walkman to keep me company. In fact on most days, I didn’t even carry a cassette, choosing to listen to the radio instead. Yes, I didn’t even have a phone with a radio on it.
Once I sat down and bought my ticket, I’d settle my handbag to a corner, arrange my Walkman on my lap, adjust the blinds just the way I wanted and close my eyes. The music and the motion lulled me into a gentle semi-slumber, of the sort that I, like most other Mumbai commuters would perfect over the next few years as a substitute to the regular sleep we missed. Exactly three stops (and 7 minutes) away from my destination, my eyes would fly open and I’d awaken fully refreshed. Just in time to switch off and pack away my Walkman, gulp down my entire waterbottle, tidy up my appearance and make my way to the door. The routine never varied.
On one particular day, I couldn’t sleep. Traffic jams and the ensuing horns blaring, even if they were much filtered by the capsule I was in, kept me awake and irritable. And then we passed one of the bus-stops on the way and my head jerked around, almost 360 degrees. At the bus-stop across the road, I caught a passing glimpse of a tall, slim girl with long hair in a ponytail, clad in a bright red top of some sort and jeans. I absorbed all of this without fully realizing why I had turned. It took me a few minutes to piece together with memory before coherence happened.
The ex- had spent much of our time together, playing mind-games and one of his early techniques was ‘My ex-girlfriend was hotter than you, thinner than you, smarter than you, better than you’. It was the most torturous routine I have ever been subjected to and its memory lingered on far beyond the death of that relationship. For every minute in that relationship and a long, painful time after that, I felt ugly, undesirable, unimportant, unintelligent and unlovable. Inadequate. I had never met her and she made me feel terrible about myself.
I struggled to make my peace with my past for a long time after. But I found I couldn’t stop obsessing over what I had heard about this girl. I even tried to get in touch with her, tried calling her just to be able to hear her voice. I wanted to hear a lisp in her speech, one mispronunciation or perhaps spot just one single mole on her face. Anything at all to let me know that she was not perfect. It haunted me for a long time.
All of these memories came flooding back. One time, when we drove past this bus-stop on his bike, he had whipped around and with a practiced solemnity declared that he thought he had seen the love of his life standing there. He refused to turn back or say anything more and after all this while, I suspect it was no more than a ploy to keep me troubled and under his control. Yet, I succumbed to every one of his ploys and tossed about in the black sea of self-loathing and worry.
The girl I had spotted fitted his description to some extent. What was she doing in Mumbai? Was she still living with her aunt as he had claimed? I sank back in my seat, the flood of unwelcome memories overwhelming me. And suddenly I just felt very tired. Very, very tired of hurting so much.
I closed my eyes in despair.
And that’s when I was suddenly conscious of the sound in my ears. The radio had been playing all along, only I had been too caught up in the moment to notice. And the words I heard as clearly as if someone was telling me gently, very gently,
When I finally opened my eyes, I realized that it could not have been the same girl. Or perhaps it was. Either way, it did not matter.
In the past two decades, I’ve had a troubled relationship with faith and God. There have been turbulent storms that have broken my belief. And then there have been islands of reprieve such as this one. I have no other name for them.
The hurting didn’t stop immediately. But at least I stopped continuing to hurt myself. I think I just needed someone – something – to let me know that it was okay to stop punishing myself. I made my peace with it at one level back then. But closure happens in stages, little by little every minute, some visible, some not so much.
Some time ago I thought of her again and made contact. She didn’t reply. And it occurred to me that if I had been in her place and received such a letter from a stranger, I would have responded out of empathy or at very least, pity. I know I would have because I already have, in another case. She didn’t and I think that makes me a better person than her. It may be very weak, it may just be rationalization but for what it’s worth it makes me feel better.
In a life starved of belief, when you’re being tossed about in confusion, you grab onto whatever you find and hold on for dear life. Sometimes even a stray line from a song will do.