Thursday, September 09, 2021

Thirty-Seven


Thirty-Seven

As a number, 37 is rather coarse and inelegant. Perhaps the only reputation a number like 37 may hold is that of being a prime number. The term ‘prime’ in there isn’t even coquettish — in the ‘in-one’s-prime’ sort of way — which could have made 37 at least mildly interesting. ‘Prime’ numbers are named so merely because all natural numbers are primarily their multiples — Mathematics, as most of us would appreciate, is not exactly a science with much literary flair or style (maybe because it was largely a dominion of men). When applied to the chronological age of a human, birthday number 37 remains, at best, a stodgy nondescript footnote in the bell-curve of life, a “use by” date on product packaging written in small font that usually gets ignored. It’s an odd number, like getting a Johnny Depp year while counting down life, when one would have preferred more of a George Clooney elegance. Scruffy, burly, inflexible, difficult-to-pronounce, and yet thoroughly quotidian, it’s the number where one has already dealt with all the midlife crisis life could possibly throw, stretched, yawned, and comfortably settled, possibly looking for chocolate and cheese after one’s next meal. There are no inspirational stories either that could possibly begin with “by the age of 37…”; any noteworthy mention of someone at this age would perhaps include a crime and subsequent arrest, or a premature death. If the cancel culture was more inclusive, I reckon it would have advocated for 37 being cancelled.

Two years ago, on my birthday number 35 as an exercise in vanity, I jotted down my learnings, considering the moment as a poignant half-life marker of my existence. My thoughts then fell short of prescribing what my tombstone should read or whether I would prefer a cremation, but they did have the distinguished benefit of digital permanence that would allow obituary writers a place to copy-paste stuff from, should I get the privilege of an obituary by the time I am done on the planet. In the intervening two years since expressing my ‘learnings’, I shared a pandemic-infested world screeched to a halt (the irony of just one mammal temporarily incapacitated by a pathogen declaring the world as ‘stopped’ didn’t escape me — as if the world were synonymous with humans), went through a divorce, emigrated from India, and shifted jobs from one where I was doing things to one where I had to tell others how to do things. The two years seem to have passed in a blip, much like the ‘Skip Intro’ button on Netflix, but they managed to substantially change my personal station in life.

A recent feedback at work encouraged me to be a direct communicator. In response, I think I would have really liked if the civilized world was more open to calling-out assholes, and I would have contributed wholeheartedly to any social media hashtag doing so. I would have been much less involved with movements encouraging expressions of gratitude in oral or written communications, since I already feel fatigued by the proliferation of insincere thank-yous at work. Digressions aside, in the spirit of more direct communication, perhaps there are two thoughts worth jotting down at my thirty-seventh milestone footnote for future reference.

One, it’s important to accept that the world is a messy enterprise. Cultures are good and bad at the same time, civilizations are sophisticated and perplexing, governance models have finesse and imperfections, states concurrently espouse both freedom and slavery, religions are both orthodox and emancipating, and the same person could be fantastic and a jerk at once. To enjoy this enterprise, I would probably do better by taking off the edges, being vulnerable, reducing the urge to classify people and things into admirable or worthless, and being capable of holding and critically evaluating opposing ideas and thoughts. Corollary: one can’t be the best version of oneself for everyone else in the world.

Two, life’s possibilities and optimism can be enjoyed in moderation. There are indeed things that are unlikely to happen in the rest of my life: playing guitar by the bonfire in a freshman party, winning a sports championship, restarting career from scratch, learning parkour, filing a patent in machine learning, or owning a yacht. But it’s also a phase where realization has set in about a precious few things that truly matter, and could be worth striving for — those aspirations and dreams that are sufficiently ambitious, but have nonetheless been tempered into pragmatism by an evolving mix of wisdom, skills, and an appreciation of real vs. perceived worth. And to accomplish and savor those would perhaps constitute the fullest life.

Time's sublimest target
Is a soul "forgot!"

— Emily Dickinson


Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Dichotomies

07:00

The boats have returned to the shores of the Arabian Sea and are pulled up far back on the beach, far enough to keep them dry even when the tide gets high. The teamwork on display is nearly perfect: five men and two women sorting through the nets, wringing out half-dead marine life stuck in them with nudges, jolts, and, when needed, knives. This harvest of fish, mollusks, and crustaceans falls on the blue tarpaulin spread below, bluer than the sky and ocean combined. For a hunt that started at four in the morning, the overbearing empty blue spaces on the tarpaulin imply that this catch isn’t a bounty, but as with most matters of life, it may be considered a reasonable, though unnecessary concession ceded to the impoverished. The harvest has been dwindling over the years ever since trawlers were invented to monopolize the seas, outsmarting the humble outboard marine engines of these tiny fishing boats by a gap – understandably – as wide as that between the rich and the poor of the world. A woman is sorting the catch in buckets, classifying the creatures in a vocabulary well understood by humans, while ignoring their zoological taxonomy; the latter doesn’t fetch money. The sun is shyly rising somewhere on the other side of the mountains, and the teeming buckets slowly make their way to local markets, carried on the heads of the womenfolk. The nets and the tarpaulin are hurriedly stowed back in the boats, their sorting postponed to the latter half of the day: the more pressing endeavor of using the sunshine to earn a living reasonably takes precedence.

A man in bright red running gear has descended from the steps of the resort’s beach-access gate. It’s a fine morning, and while the western coasts aren’t the perfect settings for a sunrise, they are admirable for a fine detox. The town’s quaint villages, away from the hustle-bustle of the loud beaches are a must-visit, he was told last evening, and a stroll in one of the local markets is very much on today’s agenda.


17:00

The sun, almost double its usual size and bright orange in color, is floating above the calm ocean. Silhouettes of those manmade vessels that rule the ocean during the day are visible with their twinkling lights just at the horizon: perhaps a perfect composition for an earnest photographer who might want to capture this in a frame and title it with a phrase that might have something to do with earth, water, fire, air, and space. And undoubtedly, with an accompanying hashtag about the elements. A man bathing alone in the waters is heard calling out to his friends, apparently a group that might have descended in this town to breathe-in some nature: “Tum log nakli zindagi jeete ho yaar!” (All of you lead false lives). It might be an overdose of enthusiasm, or of alcohol, presumably both – a combination which has generally been known to bring poignancy and philosophical musings to individual minds – that has elicited this war cry from the bathing man. The evening looks promising, though, with flickering lights of beachside restaurants that will showcase the day’s fresh catch, and serve the patrons in a cooking style selected by them, accompanied with a choice of cocktails fixed to perfection.

Near the fishing boats that were moored at the beach earlier in the morning, a woman and a girl begin their evening enterprise: untangling of the fishing nets that were hurriedly stowed in the morning after clearance of the harvest. The process is elaborate and requires patience. The nets are long with a tendency to get enmeshed, and only a pair of deft hands hardened by years of seafaring life can skillfully make them ready for the next day's hunt in the cold, early morning waters. The job will take at least a few hours, and by the time it is accomplished, it will be dark; dark enough to successfully hide the nondescript lives of these two women amidst the brightness and noise of the restaurants and clubs.


21:00

The sands are lit up with neon lights in all shapes and patterns as far as the eyes can see. Tables are set on the sand almost until the edge of the water for hosting guests who would dine and drink in this electric atmosphere. Music oozes out loudly from individual shacks, superimposing on each other and competing to create a frenzy that hooks every soul who is looking for a good time. The air has whiffs of pan-seared prawns, grilled fish, and fried crabs, and every other species that made its way to the plate. At places, it is thick with the smoke of the sheesha. Alcohol is visible in the glasses set on each table, as well as in the breaths of men and women gyrating on dance floors set on the sand.

A woman is walking around on the sand carrying numerous woven handbags, jewelry crafted from stones and shells, and other knick-knacks, stopping by at each table with the hope of striking a deal with anyone who might get swayed under influence and actually make a purchase. It’s a sigh of relief when the girl stops her at a table; just the initial conversation offers the woman an excuse to place her load on the empty chair, at least momentarily. A sale is made, but she tries to prolong the conversation that might allow a few more moments of relief before she will need to get on with her wandering in the sands. A story is narrated about when she got to the beach (perhaps around seven), when she will return home (somewhere around eleven, considering the commute that will require a hitch-hike), and the displeasing thought of her kids waiting on her instead of just eating their dinner on time which she cooked before leaving home. The girl on the table asks her a question: “If there was one thing you could change about your life, what would that be?” The woman considers it, and replies: “I wish the smell of fish could leave my hands. It just never goes away!”