It was kind of problematic for me to attend to my friend’s drivel about his most recent joust with his bandmate while appeasing an antagonized woman on the phone and hurrying to reach the Chinese food place on Main Street before it closed. Luckily, her diatribe reached its denouement and she huffed off, leaving me to conceive of appropriate responses to my friend’s obvious aggravation. Apparently, in senior year, the bassist accused him, the vocalist, of sullying his name with their circle, which my friend vociferously denied. The band broke up but the resentment remained. He handed me my ticket to the New England Metal Fest at Worcester. I was pleased. I had been planning to go for quite some time. My mind drifted to the events of yesterday, when we sat in the the dining hall in a small group exchanging inconsequential - and some clearly embellished - happenings from our previous avatars as high school kids: a life story constantly at peril of being rewritten.
Something about his tone right now made me discomfited, and it had little to do with the rancorous transpirations of former musicians. But it was useless trying to pin down the thought or the cause of my unease. This is something that has happened before - the feeling of grasping for an epiphany titillatingly close but not quite reachable, of almost arriving at the resolution of a dream before being rudely subjected to the shrieks of the alarm, the impression of catching a glimpse of something ugly in a lake before it sinks to the depths and you are left staring at your perplexed reflection disfigured by its ripples.
I picked up the food and started to head back. We talked about Libya for a while and I soon forgot about my earlier preoccupation. It was already quite late so we picked up our pace. Political correctness aside, I dreaded nighttime Middletown, although I had no corroborating experiences to prop my apprehensions. I entered the Gasman near the bookstore to get a pack of cigarettes. It was newly opened by a Pakistani from Lahore. He greeted me warmly and I noticed he had assumed an Americanized speech pattern and an accent that was entirely absent when I met him first about six weeks back - very quick by South Asian immigrant standards. I remembered when I first met him, a very genial, witty man with a golden tooth on the upper left side, who spoke to me in Hindi. Whenever another customer entered, he switched to broken English and he turned from a relatively confident man to a shifty-eyed, nervous sponge. Now he was merely a facade of mannerisms and intonations picked up and stitched together in an all-or-nothing patchwork. I searched disconsolately for a glimpse of the person I used to like, but he was gone, drowned in layer after artificial layer. He gave me the pack and bade me a good day. I stretched my lips and left without a word.
We were supposed to meet some of my friend’s buddies back in his dorm later, a collective of kids loosely bound by shared attributes: an affinity of certain genres of music and substances that go with it, a tendency for sharp - often immediately decided - political opinions, a professed ardor for the East, demonstrated in huge part by rooms painstakingly bedecked with oriental paraphernalia, carefully nit-picked and arranged to hit all senses as soon as you enter, and an almost universal scorn of non-vegetarian food.
The night passed in foreseeable fashion. A relentless procession of people overran the floor, dressed to impress, seduce or plain befuddle. Some were wholly unconcerned with the teeming mass around them, some were trying hard to appear nonchalant, bolted down in their places by invisible chains, a lot of them revelled in the scrutiny of strangers, imagined or not, almost all of them were magnetized to converse with anybody within arm’s reach because god-forbid they be seen alone. My friend glided around from person to person like a comb through greasy hair. The night eventually drew to a close and people started trickling off along their own trajectories.
As I said goodbye to everyone, I thought of the tale Mohanda recited to me back home about one of his father’s eccentricities, as he contentedly chewed on betel nuts and paan, spitting majestically out of the window, while I sat reverentially next to him in his room, the area hazy with beedi smoke (and other plant-based vapors). Mohanda was our fifty-five year old driver, badass player (in his youth, although I wouldn’t at all be surprised if he had a line of nubile, drooling women falling over his wrinkled, atrophied body), knowledgeable guru of a dozen occupations, god-fearing devotee, lifetime exponent of hedonism, charismatic philosopher and incisive examiner of the human condition. Mohan was his name; ‘Da’ was an honorific conferred upon him by me and my friends.
As his story goes, back in the days before he ditched school to intrepidly take life on by its horns, he was quite the rebel at home and the village he grew up in. His father would hit the roof everyday whenever Mohan came home declaring he had eaten outside with his friends. Then would follow a procedure beaten into efficiency by routine: he would strip his son, drag him by the ear to the well, pour cold water over him, strike him a number of times with a worn-out bamboo stick and send him to his room without food the entire day while he performed rites to ensure his wayward offspring wouldn’t besmirch the purity of the household. At night, his mother would quietly slip him cold rice under the door.
I was intrigued, less by the details of his recapitulation than by its implication. Upon further prodding I surmised his father distrusted people immensely and lived in a cocoon his entire life. He was not that way at first but he managed to alienate the village-folk because of reasons I did not inquire. He cared about only two things: his land and his sacred thread, two heirlooms, temporal and spiritual, and one state of mind that he passed down to his son.
I walked back to my room, humming ‘Godless’ by The Dandy Warhols, a song I had been listening to every other hour for three days. My mind was fixated upon the image of a thread and a golden tooth. These were excoriated of the meaning and value imposed upon them by their creators, beholders and treasurers. To me, now, they were representations of an idea I felt an intense aversion to. I was met with a feral resistance from inside when I tried to ratify it, like trying to pet a crazed rattlesnake. I recognized three forms this idea could take. The first is when you are unaware that you are subsumed by it, making you automatically dependent on externalities for security. The second is when you can faintly determine its function but follow its muted directions regardless because that is the only way you know how to live. The third - the thought of which filled me with repugnance - is when you know perfectly well, but consciously abscond wherever the waves of circumstance take you, living with the guilt, finding resonances with other people and being complicit in every action, knowing the motivation behind them but being too embroiled in the web to challenge them.
In my pocket, I felt the ticket my friend gave me. I thought of the unobtainable epiphany, the conclusion of my dream, the nature of the creature in the lake and I let my mind dwell on just how much I disliked him.