Fahrenheit 451: Does the White Clown Love You?

(CONTAINS SPOILERS)

“So it’s this fantastic book that’s set in a dystopia where books are banned. They’ve found a way to fireproof (verb) houses. So now, instead of putting fires out, the firemen actually set fire to books.”

When I went around giving people a gist of the fantastic book I was reading, they were baffled.

In addition to being extraordinarily entertaining, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 contains several ominous undertones about where we’re headed as a society. The book has a bizarre setting, but the plot is so well-controlled that it never approaches ludicrousness.

In terms of literary appreciation, the story itself is gripping, unpredictable, and masterfully written.

At the beginning of the book, Montag leaving the Fire station and taking the subway (which “slid soundlessly down its lubricated flue in the earth and let him out with a great puff of warm air”) is described with a sense of fluidity and gentle motion (“he let the escalator waft him into the still night air”). It sets a peaceful tone which is perfect for Montag’s first meeting with Clarise. Yet, the nagging sense of unease he feels forebodes that this is but the calm before the storm.

Something that really stuck out was that many scenes of violence were described with an almost perverse sense of beauty and attention to detail. The book opens with a poetic description of burning books (“It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.”)

The bombing at the end of the book is compared to “grain thrown over the heavens by a great sowing hand.” What is almost bewildering about this simile is that an apocalyptic scene of destruction (the bombing) was compared to sowing grains in a farm – something associated with growth and cultivation. Bradbury’s description of death, too, is extremely strong (“…yet the heart is suddenly shattered, the body falls in separate motions and the blood is astonished to be freed on the air; the brain squanders its few precious memories and, puzzled, dies.”)

The story has excellent pace. It never drags for a moment. There is a gradual buildup of tension, with the situation almost exploding at two main parts (Montag’s outburst in from of his wife’s friends, and right after he is caught and kills Beatty). There are also pockets of silence and reflection that allow for the story to “breathe” and the characters to consolidate (such as when he visits Faber for the last time and finds out that the Mechanical Hound is after him). Bradbury’s writing is vivid and almost like cinema at times. Reading the book was like watching the story take place before me.

Bradbury has inserted several thoughtful details that illustrate how drastically society has been desensitised. The extinction of front porches, two hundred foot long billboards, overpoweringly loud subway advertisements (DENHAM’S DENTRIFICE!), automated classrooms, races and Fun Parks, comparison of “putting up” with one’s children to doing laundry, and the “impersonal” “doctors” who “clean out” Mildred with pipes after her suicide attempt indicate how meaningless and mechanical life has become. The people have put “fun over happiness” and almost unanimously live in a complete stupor. An extremely shocking scene is when Montag narrowly escapes being run over by a car full of teenagers, because he fell to the floor and the driver did not want to risk the car capsizing. Had Montag not fallen down, he would have been killed for entertainment, in cold blood.

In their first meeting, Clarise asks Montag whether he is happy. This simple question is so powerful and relevant, even today. While it is ingrained in Montag to believe that he is happy, he lands up acknowledging that he is not. Rather, “He wore his happiness like a mask and the girl had run off across the lawn with the mask and there was no way of going to knock on her door and ask for it back.”

The story shows a horrific role taken on by the television and radio, or rather, the “parlour walls” and the Seashell Radio (initially described as “the little mosquito-delicate dancing hum in the air”).  Life does not revolve around these appliances. Rather, life has actually become the television and the radio. Mildred experiences almost instant withdrawal symptoms when Montag persuades her to momentarily ignore the “parlour walls” and listen to him.”

The news is essentially entertainment. The broadcasters are so desperate to provide an entertaining end to the chase of Montag, that they capture (and possibly kill) an innocent man. The characters on television are believed to family members. To add to the outrage, Jesus is believed to be a character on television, and even advertises products for sale!

While it is established that the people live in an incapacitated state of willful self-deception, it is equally plain that their ignorance is not a blissful one. Suicide attempts through pill-popping are routine (as mentioned by one of the “doctors” who attends to Mildred).

It seems that the people are slaves to the noise partly because of addiction by habit, and partly because they are terrified of what they will have to face if the cacophony dies down (the histrionic reaction of Mrs. Phelps when Montag forcefully reads to Mildred’s friends). 

Even in Mildred’s last moments, she is seen “Leaning into the wall as if all of the hunger of looking would find the secret of her sleepless unease there. Mildred, leaning anxiously, nervously, as if to plunge, drop, fall into that swarming immensity of colour to drown in its bright happiness.”

One of the most important aspects of its book is its relevant to contemporary society. Bradubury himself spoke extensively on the subject. He once described it as a comment on “what would happen to a country if we let ourselves go too far in this direction.” (Reference: “Ticket to the Moon (tribute to SciFi)” (Ogg Vorbis). Biography in Sound. Narrated by Norman Rose. NBC Radio News. December 4, 1956. 27:10–27:57. Retrieved March 1, 2013.)

In the book, Clarise is ostracised in school for being different from her peers. She is considered crazy for asking questions instead of obeying instructions. Unfortunately, there is nothing unbelievable about her situation, (except for its blatancy, perhaps). Large pockets of the education system continue to enforce this kind of upbringing.

Right from the time of Galileo, who dared to question the Church, those who stray from the herd have been condemned or punished. This is not about being different in some new-agey hippe sense of the word. But, the forces of Government, religion, and society, either in collusion or by themselves, have historically succeeded in discouraging (if not oppressing) non-conformity of any kind. 

The people’s dependence on the parlour walls struck a slight resemblance to our smartphone/social media addiction. While smartphones and social media are wonderful and revolutionary, the fact is that we’ve got ourselves addicted to them. There are now hundreds of Mobile Applications one can use to distance them from their phone, and the concept of a “digital detox” is becoming increasingly popular – what have we got ourselves into?

When Montag desperately tries to persuade Mildred to listen to him and ignore the parlour walls, I was reminded of the frustration felt when I’ve been trying to talk to someone, and they refuse to look up from their cellphone. (Doubtlessly, I have also done this to others.) The anxiety Mildred experiences without the Television was remotely familiar to how lost I feel when my cell phone is taken away from me.

While the people in the book believed that real life was in the television, it often seems that an event, relationship, or belief  isn’t real nowadays unless it’s posted on social media.

Evidenced by the constant entertainment they crave and the incessant noises and colours that surround them, there’s an idea that the people just cannot slow down. (Quite literally, if one considers the terrifying speeds at which they are forced to drive.) Albeit on a reduced scale, isn’t this the state of urban society?

The idea of religion being corrupted to the extent that Jesus is now someone on television has a scary tone of familiarity. In the book, Christ was a mouthpiece for the ideas of the broadcasters/advertisers. In the history of religion, it has commonly been used as a tool for manipulation and brainwashing.

Throughout the story, I wondered what Captain Beatty represented. He could not plead ignorance for turning to darkness. He had immense knowledge from the books, but this knowledge led him to be even more fanatic about enforcing the book ban. I don’t know if he was genuinely convinced that what the firemen were doing was good, or whether he had other reasons for wanting to keep society in the dark. Perhaps he was fearful of what the people might do if they started waking up. His monologue (or imagined dialogue) at the Fire-Station was so sublime that it almost convinced Montag to give up his beliefs. However, it is interesting to note that his death was quite undignified and it is suggested that he actually wanted to die.

The relationship between Monatg and Mildred is an indicator of both – Montag’s excellent character, and the degradation of society (Mildred being a representative of the latter). They were in a loveless marriage and slept in separate beds. However, what is extremely interesting is that Montag seems to genuinely care for his wife. Even after she rats him out, he remains concerned about her safety. While the reader is able to gauge her hopelessness very quickly, Montag continues to have faith in her. He genuinely believes that she can be redeemed. We know that he isn’t in love with her, right from the dandelion scene at the beginning of the book. Yet, his commitment to their relationship is simply commendable. When the bombing occurs, his thoughts immediately rush to her. (“We met in Chicago.”)

I found Guy Montag to be a splendid protagonist. To begin with, the very act of stepping out of the stupor that he was born and bred in, to push the envelope and challenge the very foundations of his society shows tremendous courage. While Clarise’s and Faber’s roles were indispensable, they mainly served as catalysts to unearth a sensitivity that Monatg inherently possessed.

After he “woke up”, Montag’s job sickened him, and his conviction was so sincere that he simply could not continue as a fireman. He continues to care about his horrid wife despite the fact that she betrayed him. He followed his heart and his sense of what was right. Montag did not have any exceptional inborn abilities and he made mistakes which made him feel real and relatable. It was his genuine intention of awakening Mildred and her friends that got him into trouble. In his interactions with people, he was authentic and seemed incapable of pretense. At every point, he was eager to learn and to help. There is a palpable sense of sincerity to his character, and he almost shines with purity at times.

The only part of the book I didn’t absolutely love was the end. I found it rather abrupt. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, but it wasn’t exceptionally strong either. I accept that the sun coming up at the end of the book represented a new dawn and blah, blah, blah, but it didn’t pack as much of a punch as the rest of the book did. The metaphor of the phoenix did have some relevance, but it just wasn’t as spellbinding as the rest of the book. No matter. It’s only that the entire book was so enthralling that the climax paled in comparison.   

There are a lot of reasons to recommend this book – the writing and plot are brilliant, but the way it compels the reader to think makes it a book I would recommend to absolutely everyone. In my opinion, it’s a timeless piece of work. 

“Two activities generate a level of contentment that is quite disproportionate to their inherent simplicity,” I mused, between sniffles,  as my friend Remus and I exited McDonald’s to walk back to Office. We had stepped out into the humid afternoon  because I was craving ice cream. Now, cone in hand,  I was experiencing the aforementioned contentment.

Shall I elaborate?

There is nothing like eating ice cream when one is suffering from a cold. I am extremely prone to colds and can be found sniffling away whenever the weather changes. It has led to creative Snapchats like this:

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My colds usually take a long time to end, and after weeks of being “good” and avoiding cold substances, it feels great to throw caution to the wind and stuff my face with ice cream, which is exactly what I’m doing now. I have always had great faith in the healing powers of ice cream. And now, I liberally treat myself to vanilla Softies when I have a cold. Moreover, ice cream is usually associated with one’s childhood. Combining the joy of ice cream with the autonomy of adulthood results in a gleeful sense of rebellion. (“Ain’t nobody gonna keep my from my ice cream now”)

The second underrated pleasure I will discuss today is that of drinking alcohol in the morning. Nothing says “vacation” like a glass of whiskey at 10:00 AM, (all the better if one has been drinking the night before). Drinking while the sun is up is usually frowned upon, but I find it to be an absolute delight. (Please note that it is delightful only because it is an indulgence that I allow myself rarely.)

 I recently had the opportunity of going on a short weekend excursion with my Office Colleagues (who are also really good friends). We drank and danced into the wee hours of the morning. After waking up, some of us sat down to listen to our mutual favourite songs. This, of course, was accompanied by a good amount of whiskey. At one point, I remember sitting on the porch of our accommodation. It was raining outside and there was only lush greenery in front of my eyes. I had my glass in hand, and my friend was playing some beautiful music. I truly felt content in that moment.

So, what’s so great about ice cream and the sniffles, or a glass of vodka along with breakfast? Of late, I’ve begun to realise that happiness can be found in most places and situations. Life is about appreciating what we have. Most of us are much more blessed than we realise. There is a lot to be thankful for, it brings to mind a quote by The Mother – “If you smile at life, life will smile at you.”

PS: In this piece, I discussed two of the many simple joys in life. Maulik’s  blog is titled after another. You can check it out for some really great writing (and a glimpse of another one of our Office Excursions).

Mass-Produced Love: The Perfect Gift

Chee, pathetic. How do you find it funny?” Suchita squeaked and went back to the sales register she was working on. Mahesh grinned sheepishly and restored the copy of “Pocketbook of Naughty SMS Jokes”  in its place next to the Funeral Condolence Cards Section. I yawned, there was still an hour before closing time.

Just then, the door-ring chimed and a youngish woman wearing an office shirt and skirt hurried in. She hastily inquired what time we shut.

“Eight PM, Ma’am. How may I assist you?”

“Thank goodness. I was worried that you would be shutting down by the time I got here.”

She explained that it was her Nani’s birthday party that night, so she “really needed something nice.”

I set Mahesh on the task of showing her through our jumbo and regular sized greeting cards, “I love my Grandma” wall-hangings, throw-pillows, photo-frames, and pen stands. After that, he showed her the “World’s Best Grandma” coffee mugs, alarm clocks, and mobile covers. She intently went through our entire collection with a look of sincere concentration on her face.

I took a sip of my masala tea and surveyed the scene. It was all the same. Lakhs and lakhs of the exact same trinket manufactured in some Chinese factory, packaged and shipped to stores all over the country. Identical pieces of the same “I’m Sorry” teddy bear placed on shelves, ready to be bought as quick fixes for loved ones.

I was employed in an estimated 30 billion dollar industry that ran on the premise that one’s affection was optimally expressed through material tokens, where the amount spent acted as a measure of feeling. 

“Ma’am?”

I turned around. My rumination was interrupted by Suchita who wanted to clarify the billing on one of our online partners. Nowadays, buyers could simply use the internet to have beautiful gift packages delivered to their loved ones. They could customise the gift and message or simply choose the pre-set ones. Online payment ensured that they didn’t even have to leave their homes. It was easy-peasy. I remember the panicked frenzy my bosses were in when Online Gifting first emerged. Luckily, they were quick to secure partnerships with some of the leading E-Commerce brands in India. Soon enough, they were praising this new avenue and I found myself drafting one promotional email the another. I had tried to convince couples that their love wasn’t real without an elaborate Valentine’s Day bouquet, and I had guilt-tripped busy professionals into buying expensive presents for the parents they never spent time with.

The present customer was making her way to the payment counter. She was struggling with all the things she was holding and her phone was jammed between her ear and shoulder.

“Listen, Jai, I can only give it to you by tomorrow. No, ya, my flight got in this morning and I’ve been in meetings all day. I have to look at those figures once more, ya.”

She reached and plonked her purchases onto the counter. Getting a closer look at her face, I realised she had dark circles under her eyes.

“Yeah, me too,” she continued on the phone. “Nah, I still have to collect the cake. My husband was supposed to do it, but he’s stuck in crazy traffic right now.”

I was in no mood to continue hearing her self-absorbed prattle with what sounded like an equally self-absorbed colleague. I processed her payment. Since her purchases exceeded a certain amount, I was required to throw in a complementary “inspiring” bookmark. I fished one out from a drawer. It bore the following message – “Try not to judge people. We’re all just trying to do the best we can with what we have.”  How unremarkable.

She collected her purchases and staggered out.

I finished my tea. This young generation was always in a hurry.

Yet, I could not deny that she looked exhausted. Maybe there was something nice in the way she insisted on Mahesh searching for a green-lined photo frame since it was her Nani’s favourite colour. She reminded me of other customers I had seen, scrambling in, desperate not to disappoint a brother on his birthday, or to surprise a colleague on their promotion. Although I held that people nowadays had moved towards automated lives, there was something genuine in the way they searched for the perfect card or the right-sized mobile cover.

Society changes, I supposed. But love does not.

Surely the point of this industry had not dawned on me, but I allowed myself to admit: The young woman was probably in a hurry because she had to collect a cake; the message on her Nani’s card might be superficial, but the feelings it conveyed were genuine.

Bar Cabinet Chronicles

I like metaphors… and I like my drink. So here goes.

It’s like I’m married to wine. We’ve had each other around for ages, it’s the first kind of alcohol I started drinking. There is so much familiarity with it – I know what to expect. I’ve never been roaring drunk with wine (can’t say the same for vodka, but we’ll come to that tantalising devil later). Instead, I enter a  contented, smiley place – I call it my “wine buzz”. Wine suits my system. We’re very happy together and it’s good for my heart (no, but actually – wine has been proven to cut the risk of heart attacks substantially).

Yes… wine and I are an old, happy couple. There’s no hungover-ish nonsense, no madness, no wild times, nothing new, nothing fun…

I should come clean, I suppose… Reader, there’s someone else in my bar cabinet. Meet my secret love, vodka. You’re probably judging me strongly right now, but it’s more than just a meaningless fling. Vodka makes me feel a way wine could never make me. It’s not wine’s fault… wine is perfectly nice. And safe. And boring. I’m sorry, but vodka is everything wine isn’t. I mean, no one downs a ton of Pinot Noir and proceeds to tear up the dance floor to Abhi Toh Party Shuru Hui Hai. And I really like tearing up the dance floor to cheesy Bollywood songs. Vodka has something so strong and self-assured about it. It’s monotone, but in a nice way. There’s nothing to analyse – no complexities or tones that one needs to “sniff out” (quite literally!). I love my relationship with wine, but it requires so much patience sometimes. With vodka, I never have to wonder if I’m opening a bottle at the correct time. Any time is the right time!

Yet, I can’t help but concede that when I’m alone, I don’t want the rowdiness of vodka or what it puts my liver through. I want peace, pyjamas, Tchaikovsky, and… a nice glass(es) of Shiraz. When the noise dies down, I realise that I don’t want an exciting bad boy in my life. My one true love is all I need. I would call wine my “sweetheart,” but that wouldn’t make sense because I religiously stick to dry wines.

You can probably tell by now that I have a lot of drama in my bar cabinet and I’m lucky to have a friend who has stuck by me through it all (even though this friend lives in the fridge). Enter: beer – my best friend and probably the most chilled out person I know. It’s always there for me, and never really asks for anything other than a space in my heart (and on my waistline!). Beer burps are such a happy feeling and beer is honestly such a low-maintenance friend. I really need that in my life sometimes.

Someone once asked me about where tequila fits into this terribly deranged metaphor. Interpret this however you’d like, but tequila is an Abercrombie and Fitch stripper… or 1970s Al Pacino… Shhh. Bye-bye, now.

I could not possibly post this piece without posting a very serious disclaimer. Please drink in moderation. Alcohol poisoning and alcoholism are both extremely fatal. This piece in no way encourages drinking or experimentation with alcohol. Different forms of alcohol have been personified as various character’s as part of the protagonist’s life for entertainment purposes only. Remember that alcohol is not your friend and nor it is your one true love. It is a very small part of gastronomical life. A dependence or addiction to alcohol is strictly discouraged. Drinking does not solve any problems. Please consume alcohol safely and in moderation.

Heart of Darkness: Scattered Observations and Commentary

Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness has been the subject of huge analysis and controversy. I read it over a long period of time and consider it to be one of the most powerful books I’ve come across. It has the capacity to truly shake-up a reader.

The story is narrated from the point of view of Marlow who is journeying deep into Africa, furthering the exploits of imperialism. As the book starts out, Marlow and the reader are sucked into adjusting to life in Africa. A great theme of the story is the seductive power of the endless, overpowering, and intoxicating wilderness. The narrator feels deadened from the industrialisation, bleakness, and predictability of the west. Africa is a living, inscrutable, demanding continent (“… to swoop every little man of us out of his little existence.”). Marlow feels like he could understand and master life in Europe, but Africa is something that enthrals and conquers him. There is the thrill of the unknown and the refreshing vitality of living in such a basic manner, away from the luxuries of Europe.This part of the book also establishes a return to the adage “survival of the fittest.” (“You stand the climate – you outlast them all.”)

The reader gets a striking sense of duality in Marlow’s initial days of repairing the steamboat. On one hand, he feels suffocated and trapped in an alien land, in living conditions intolerable to him. He does not get along with his colleagues (the “pilgrims”) and cannot bear the inertia. Yet, we often catch him marvelling at the beauty and strangeness of this new continent. One of my favourite lines from the book – “the silence of the land went home to one’s very heart – its mystery, its greatness, the amazing reality of its concealed life.” The strangeness and excitement of a vast new continent gave them a gleeful sense of freedom. There is a point at which he and the foreman dance madly on the deck of the steamer. (“We shall have rivets!”) The excitement and beauty of a new land takes dark turns later on in the book, swallowing up the sanity and discretion of the pilgrims, who crack under the stark realities of nature. It may also be one of the biggest factors contributing to Kurtz’s downfall and disintegration. Ultimately, it is Africa and the power of nature that take him up as a sacrifice: “the wilderness had found him out early and taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion.”

The epicentre of the novella is Mr. Kurtz. The greater part of the novella is spent building an irresistible enigma around him, while the rest shows us how depressingly complicated and skewed this enigma turns out to be. Most often, the thought of Kurtz is what keeps Marlow going. On one hand, there is the subtle pull of his aura of defiance and surety, as he readily embraces the darkness within him. On the other hand, there is the pull of the practical things Kurtz has achieved – his ruthless manipulations, the reputation and fear he has succeeded in instilling in all people – the natives and the pilgrims alike, and his varied skill-set (he is, apparently, a painter, a musician, and a writer). For Marlow, he is like a mystery box at the end of a long journey. Ultimately, when the reader and Marlow finally encounter Kurtz for real, there is a dual sense of disappointment and some form of revulsion laced with intrigue. We realise that he was far less enigmatic and more cruel than we thought him to be. The romance and riddle of Kurtz has deadened and although he is still surrounded by mystery, I, personally would rather not know more of it. As put by Marlow, he was “hollow at the core.”

Even though (unlike the novella) Kurtz isn’t the centre of this piece, I do feel the relation shared between him and Marlow warrants a mention. To an extent, I found that it bore a semblance to the relation between Nick and Gatsby from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Marlow and Kurtz shared a rare intimacy. A skilfully inserted moment in the book is when on catching Kurtz, who has escaped to the Natives’ Camp at night, Marlow is about to threaten to “smash his head with…” on seeing nothing suitable nearby, he alters his threat to a throttling. This line sets a tone of an effortless and somewhat detached intimacy. It cements the beginning of a bond, that, although contrary, is real at the very least. Ultimately, Marlow will stay “loyal to the nightmare of his choice.”

I found the language of this book absolutely exquisite – some of the best I’ve read. It is mouth-wateringly rich and detailed, but never over the top. Conrad has amazing command over the prose and direction of language. There is beautiful, strong imagery, but at no point does it feel overdone or like he is trying too hard. The language has a great deal of vitality and power. It feels alive. I could gush on about how beautiful his descriptions, alliterations, and expositions are, or I could quote half the book right here. Yet, it is possible to read this book just for the language and still take away quite a bit.

Some very central themes to the book are the underlying darkness of every being, of every heart. Marlow is made to confront extreme danger both within and without. The extreme isolation forces one to “fall back upon your own innate strength.” Marlow also discusses the burden of having a conscience, mentioning that one may even be too dull to know that they are being “assaulted by the powers of darkness.” How blissful and easy it would have been for him to simply be swallowed in by the darkness of his own character and the corresponding darkness around him. Marlow dreads the arduous task of putting up a fight against the dark forces one which he will probably lose in any case.

The reader is later brought back to similar concepts at the end of the book, after Marlow’s return to Europe. He is disgusted by how ordinary people live their lives. He has seen. And now, he cannot un-see. He is filled with contempt and perhaps jealousy of those who live in puerile ignorance. Africa has changed him drastically, and it has changed him forever.

Kurtz’s ‘Intended’ at the very end of the book is a prominent representation of his power and enigma. She plays a similar role to that of the Russian traveller who stayed with Kurtz in Africa. Both these characters live floppy lives and are absolutely taken and enthralled by Kurtz’s supposed majesty. The picture of Kurtz’s Intended is a far more prominent one, though. When Marlow initially meets her, he is struck by the innocence and depth of her grief. (“For her, he had only died yesterday.} However, as their meeting progresses, the poignancy of her grief turns into something unfortunate and pitiful. It turns out that she too, lives in a drastic and miserable illusion. Marlow is despaired. Someone that he thought was so beautiful and faithful has turned out to be a very deluded and unstable person. He cannot grieve for Kurtz together with her because the image she holds of Kurtz is a completely distorted one. The sanctity and credibility of her grief has been dissolved. However, what is heartbreaking is that although her beliefs are unsound to Marlow and the reader, they are completely true for her. In the story, we look upon Marlow as a figure of rationality. However, Kurtz, with his last words, has left an irremovable mark on him as well.

Among many things, the story is a criticism on imperialism. To sum up this criticism. Conrad portrays that the European Imperialists were so messed-up themselves, that the idea of them “civilising” people of other nations seems to be something of a joke. Heart of Darkness is set over a century ago and it has largely lost most of its context. However, it remains an eye-opening read.

Down Memory Lane

In my first year of college, I did not have too many friends during the initial 6-8 months. I had never had trouble making friends and had been surrounded by fun people throughout my life, so it was quite a drastic change. For whatever reason, I also found myself drifting away from my old friends (who I was very close to).

Welcome to my first-world-problems, but I was pretty sad during those days. For the first time in my life, I would go straight home on the day exams got over and spend the rest of the evening by myself, I often sat alone during lectures and ate in the canteen by myself. (I was new to college back then, so canteen food was still quite an adventure.) I had always needed a good amount of ‘me time,’ but that year, I felt like I was getting more than I had asked for.

The point of this piece is not a sap-story about my pensive first year in college. When I look back upon FYJC, I truly think of it as one of my favourite years. It taught me, made me grow, and gave me more than I could have asked for. I was miserable back then, but FYJC played a huge role in moulding me and making me the person I am today.

I had so much time and space for myself during that year and took up many activities that have stayed with me till today. It was the year I started running – one of my greatest passions today. FYJC was the point when running a kilometre seemed like the world; and now, it’s barely a warm-up. I read fantastic books – Anna Karenina, Wuthering Heights, The Fountainhead (only parts of it were fantastic while much of the rest was infuriating, but that’s another story). I joint a Krav Maga Class which I thoroughly enjoyed. In fact, there was a point at which I felt like I belonged more in that class than in college. I met fantastic people there, too. I attended a few college seminars by myself and became acquainted with people from all walks of life. One of the greatest compliments to a good meal is the company one eats it in, but I learnt that eating alone is also a very enjoyable experience. I went for long walks by myself and binge-watched Cougar Town (even I don’t know why). I made it to the Merit List for every exam and attended way too many lectures.

One of my greatest achievements during FYJC was Tetris! I spent a few months hopelessly addicted to the game and had built up a terrific score, battling strangers from all over the world. My Tetris addiction had gotten so out of hand, that I ultimately forced myself to delete it, because it was draining so much of my valuable time. And yes! I had realised that my time was valuable. If I wanted company during a lecture, I learnt to walk up to anyone and introduce myself. I would sit next to ‘random people’ during classes and learn that they weren’t so random after all. Because I did not have a fixed group of friends, I gained a much broader view of people. Looking back, I almost miss the sense of adventure and the freedom of doing as I pleased. I became skilled at small talk and shed my shyness and self-consciousness. My hugely underdeveloped people skills took a great leap forward.

In that period of emptiness, I actually found myself becoming more confident and self-dependent. Today, I am not at all intimidated at the thought of meeting new people. In fact, I rather enjoy it.

Everyone talks about crazy JC (Junior College) stories and how JC is supposed to be the most fun time of your life. I don’t have any crazy JC stories, but I do have some of the most precious teachings of my youth. I learnt the distinction between being lonely and being alone. I learnt to enjoy spending time with myself more than I ever had. I found myself reasoning that people would come and go, but ‘I’ would be here forever. I learned to look deeper within. I wanted to be my own best friend. Today, I’m so thankful to God that I was forced to spend all that time alone that year. I didn’t know it, but I was unconsciously investing in myself, and I have learnt that that is the best investment one can make.

Don’t get me wrong. I value people tremendously. I did eventually make wonderful new friends and reconnect with the old ones. And, one of things I am most thankful to my college for is the fantastic people I found there. I really do love them very much. But what’s really cool is that I’ve learnt to love people more freely, with less stress and more space. I learnt to love people better. I learnt acceptance – that I was in a particular space, and instead of trying to make my life how I thought it should be, I should just enjoy it as it was. I learnt that life doesn’t go according to plan, but that’s no reason to be unhappy. Even though I was always quite independent, I learnt the beautiful joys of solitude.

In his speech “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish,” Steve Jobs talks about connecting the dots – about how they may never connect when one is looking into the future, but they do connect when one is looking back. Sometimes, the greatest course of action is to relax and have faith. I learnt that the dots do connect, and that the river always carries us home.

Modern Midas: of Greek Gods, Butter Chicken, and Superman Pyjamas

Look, I’m sitting on a robust portfolio today, and I kind of owe it all to my broker. While you won’t find me sporting an “I ❤ my broker” t-shirt, I’m totally down for a fridge magnet or bumper sticker of the sort. That’s because my broker is a finance whiz who is also my wife. I was one of Lata’s first clients back in the day, and somewhere along riding the bull and navigating bear markets, we found ourselves riding a bunch of other things too. Long story short, we’ve been together for almost a decade now, and I had a rare morning off from work.

Strangely, she seemed really unfocused that day. The market had been climbing steeply for a while now. I sold what I needed to, but mostly hung on, because she strongly felt that much of my stock was still bullish. More than anything, we both agreed that all arrows were pointing to the yellow metal. We were sensing it, and it seemed like one couldn’t get enough of it. The time to buy was right. Now, I was all set to load my metaphorical wagon with as much gold as I could lay my hands on.

All of a sudden, she started speaking in an extremely unintelligible manner. It was very unlike her.

“What are you saying, Lata? We’ve sold XYZ Ltd, now pick up gold,” I said, with my cellphone jammed between my ear and shoulder, as I shuffled through the papers I was holding.

“Yeah… Raj? Let’s look at what ETFs you’d prefer, or if you want to put money in funds also. Yeah, na? Yeah. Haanh?  Listen, just speak to Dio about it, na.”

Who on earth was Dio? From the sound of his name, he sounded like some wannabe intern and I really didn’t have time for this.

Surprisingly, the voice on the other end sounded extremely regal and self-assured.

“Do you really want so much gold, young man? Do you need it?”

Was this fellow out of his mind?

I put the papers down and took a deep breath.

“Yes, sir. I’m quite sure I do. Will you please hand the phone to Ms. Lata? I need to speak with her about the kind of staff she is hiring and -“

Suddenly, the connection went dead and my cellphone felt ten times heavier.

I yanked it from my ear and I couldn’t believe what I was holding.

When they launched the 5S, I specifically did not buy the gold one because gosh, it looks so tacky.

Yet, right there in my hand, my beloved black iPhone had turned into solid gold.

I held on to the desk, trying to wrap my mind around what had happened. The textured wood suddenly became cold and lifeless. My desk had transformed into gold too!

I probably should have thought of it, and it’s really quite stupid of me, but when I reached out to the landline telephone to try and contact my wife, it turned into gold as well.

There was nothing to do except to wait for her to come home. I sat, cross legged on the floor, the clothes on my back and my chappals remained as they were. Whatever I touched through indirect contact, (such as the floor-tiles, graced by the bottom of my Superman pyjamas) remained as it was. I had to report to work in a few hours, but I didn’t want to risk turning my office shirts into gold while getting ready (talk about Gujju), and I probably wouldn’t be able to get out of the house and into the car either.

I was starving and my throat was parched. What if food and water also turned into gold as soon as I consumed them? As in sat in confusion, I racked my brains for a plausible explanation as to what was going on. I detected traces of an ancient tale from Greek mythology. Some blockhead King of Phrygia had asked for everything he touched to turn into gold. What a chump. And now, there was a financial analysis formula, a banking system, and a health care organisation named after him. There was some God involved too. Who was it? Wait…

Oh, crap. Dio… Dionysus.

Was I really it – the Modern Midas?

Finally, I heard her key turn.

“Oh my God. He wasn’t kidding,” said Lata, as she walked in and saw our new golden appliances. She had been trying to contact me on my cellphone and the landline for hours. Tough luck, there.

She sat down beside me and explained.

Apparently, the Greek God of wine had simply walked in to check on her firm because he, too, wanted to take advantage of the upturn in the stock market. For whatever reason, Dionysus took a special interest in my demat account. My wonderful wife was all too happy to let a God mess with her husband’s investments, and the rest is history. Not only had her office spent the entire afternoon chatting with him about wine and whatnot, but, to top if off, she had invited him over for dinner! I was supremely annoyed.

Lata insisted that Dionysus was an “absolute sweetheart” and that his vile trickery with me was just a harmless prank. He had  promised to reverse the curse (blessing, whatever) when he came over. Lata even had the gall to tell me about how she had googled some fancy Greek recipes, but luckily, poor Dio hadn’t eaten a good Butter Chicken since he had been in Bombay.

“So, Butter Chicken it is,” she said triumphantly, as she removed the meat from the fridge.

I simply glowered. She seemed really amused by my expression.

“Cheer up, sweetie! At least you don’t have to help me with the cooking today.”

She was about to put her hand on my chest and kiss me, but she decided against it last minute. Good thing, too. According to legend, Midas had inadvertently transformed his daughter into gold. (And we both were way past our ‘who’s your daddy’ days).

I sank back into the floor. My wife was cooking the Butter Chicken of her life and I was preparing to entertain a pile-on Greek God invitee in my Superman pyjamas.

He came, he saw, he picked the wine (of course). He entranced my wife with his watermelon-shaped biceps, curly black hair, and “musical” chatter.

As for me? I just kept my head low, stuffed my face, and guzzled my wine. Lata and Dio prattled on, while she gave him her Butter Chicken recipe and some stock tips. Frankly, I was too tired and relieved to say anything in defence of the two prized treasures of our house. I quietly took another sip of the wine. He really had picked it out well.

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