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Finding Your Roots



Photo credit - Vishakha Jindal
When my mom called me up on the weekend to tell me that they had sold the house and would be moving to a new one, it did not immediately register in my head. I had been gone a long time from home. 8 years now since I had lived there regularly. These last 8 years were dotted with a few visits to the “home sweet home”. Visits that got increasingly shorter as the years went by. Indeed it had been over 6 months since I had last gone back, back to my hometown. Hence, the news about shifting fired a blank in my head.


Mom wanted me to come back the next weekend and help with the shifting. Not help really, my parents had got used to my absence - better than I had to theirs’ when I was a child. No, not help! She just wanted me to come and get my stuff from my room and throw away all the toys and games and clothes that I didn’t need. She said they would help someone else build a new life. Always so practical, they had brought me up with such values and it had gotten me a long way in life. I told her that I had a busy week in office with loads of deadlines to meet and would probably be working overtime every day. It was not untrue. We were in the midst of launching a huge product, a product which could very well change the way people lived in the future. It had been my brainchild and when I first proposed it 3 years ago fresh out of one of the bigger engineering colleges in India my bosses had been very impressed. They gave me my shot and three years later it was just about ready. Three years spent working day and night, meeting deadlines and coordinating things. Just like the week ahead. I explained to mom that it would be difficult for me to get away and that a lot was riding on me. I knew my mom would understand. Moms always understand. They understand better than we do more often than not. They just don’t want to hurt our “educated” and inflated egos by saying the truth. Anyways understand my mom did. She said she would put my things in boxes and that I could sort things out whenever, no if, I had the time to come home. I told her to just give away everything rather than carry the extra load. Always practical! The conversation ended soon after with a customary “hello”, “hi”, “how are you” with dad. It wasn’t really that long ago when I used to spend hours and hours talking to dad trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. Now the conversation ended in just under a minute almost always. Those days were behind me. In one week I was going to be the talk of the town, on the fast-track to stardom. Dad would like that. I went back to work.

That week was a blur of shapes, colors, sounds, tempers & emotions. The product was to be launched on Wednesday, as all auspicious things in India are. Tension and planning dominated Monday and Tuesday. This was the biggest launch for not just me but also my company. It was of a magnitude that if even the slightest thing went wrong, it would leave a 10 feet deep crater in place of the 30 storied building I worked in. My career would be dust not to mention. Wednesday was as frantic, as I spent my time in making arrangements for the guests in the press-conference, making sure that there was enough press-coverage and nervously checking all features of the product to check if everything was working fine. I had two shots of tequila to steady my nerves. It was the first time in over 10 years that I touched alcohol. I had it only once before, with my best friends when I was in school. I hadn’t thought about them in many months. As it was I need not have worried, the launch went off smoothly but that was only half the battle won. I slept that night in the office and so did most of the other staff. Everyone was up by 4 a.m. next morning. All nervously waiting for the paper to come out. And it made an entry worthy of a film star. A loud thud on the main gate which certainly shook up everyone! I remembered how I used to get up early in the morning and get the paper everyday back home when I was a child. Someone opened it, slowly as if opening Pandora ’s Box itself. But like I said I need not have worried. All reviews were good. One paper even went to the extent of saying that we had discovered fire and reinvented the wheel all over again. I don’t remember much of the celebrations that went on all through the morning. It was all chaotic. A few hugs, loads of handshakes, infinite pats on the back; I remember there being a cake and the office looking like a 10 year-olds birthday party venue. But more than that I remember feeling uneasy inside! I remember thinking about what I was going to do next and not feeling glad at that the thought. The rest of the day was spent in preparing reports and all on the launch and on the reviews. It was the last time I would have to do such menial tasks. I was destined for bigger things now. Friday was the official and formal party of success. It was like my debut in the cutthroat, ruthless world of corporate biggies. I was introduced to the high and mighty of society. Never a free moment as I was whisked my one boss or other to explain the technology to the rich and lazy idiots who couldn’t bother reading the newspapers. More than a few gave me advices on how to stay on top. Music, money and alcohol flowed alike as over-made up female colleagues of mine came onto me like I was a magnet. It was everything I had imagined and more when I first started working. Yet it didn’t feel right. I put on a big smile and a few bad jokes which passed well enough in the light atmosphere yet something was missing. My parents called to congratulate me. It was noisy in the hall, so the conversation was short. But I don’t remember them even asking if I was coming home. All they said was that they were proud of me. They were happy for me and the life I had made for myself here. But I wasn’t happy. Three years of working with a single minded determination for this had made me a workaholic. I knew then that I needed a break.

An hour later I found myself at the airport. The benefit of living in the age of jet speed technology is that you can make up your mind very quickly and change it sooner. I was going home, not to the miniscule apartment this crowded city had offered but to the place where I had grown up. As I waited for the flight I pondered on what made me decide to take a plane and go home all of a sudden. It had been a spontaneous and instinctive decision that much was sure. But why? I had trained myself to fight instincts and do the right thing all through college when it made me bunk classes, fall behind in studies and in general feel miserable. I had slowly and slowly trained myself to do the sensible thing and not give in to temptations. Then why all of a sudden had I decided to go home? The responsible thing would have been to go to office tomorrow matter-of-factly and show my bosses that I was still as work-oriented as ever. Now they would feel that success had got to my head. Nevertheless what was done was done. I thought about fighting my instinct again and cancelling the ticket but the thought was hardly a flicker. Something was pulling me back home and I didn’t have the heart to resist.

Photo credit - Sahil Mehta
The flight was a late night one. It would reach Jaipur, my hometown at about 1:30 a.m. I hadn’t told my parents that I was coming home. There had hardly been any time to tell them really, it had all happened so quick. Anyways I wanted to keep it a surprise. I did call up my oldest and closest friend. We went back a long time, right back to pre-school days. There was a comfort between us that I never had with anyone else. We had never had any argument over anything, not in living memory. He understood me well, as well as I understood him. I had kept in touch with him all through college but since joining office the calls had become less and less frequent. He was nowhere in my “recent calls” list. I called him up, told him I was coming back; don’t know how long I’ll stay and if he was free sometime maybe we could catch up. He said sure, asked me how the sudden plan and when I was reaching etc. etc.

The flight was 2 hours long. I had an economy class ticket, so was hardly comfortable. Sleep eluded me, and I fell into deep thoughts about how I was living today and tried to compare it with the past. I tried to think about what it meant to be selling the house. But it still didn’t really click. Everything was blank. Slowly I tried to draw out the memories that I had of that place. It was a slow flashback and it started backwards. The vacations from college when I spent my time hurrying meeting relatives, friends and catching up on movies and food; high school and those two years of hell that I went through while preparing for engineering; the years preceding that, which was when I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life; and still earlier playing cricket in the driveway with friends and going out for movies. I remembered my parents and the way I grew up. All the things that me and dad used to do; how we used to corner mom together on various issues; how I used to always ask mom first if I ever needed anything. I wondered how my room would be. Mom always wanted to clean it up and get rid of the posters. She had had her chance to do that in these last 6 months. Time passed quickly in the land of nostalgia.

The flight landed just 5 minutes late and I checked out the airport reasonably quickly. No baggage at all. I came out the terminal and was wondering whether to take a taxi or auto when I heard a familiar voice call out my name. My two best friends were waiting for me at the airport at 1:30 in the morning in 5 degree centigrade temperature. Just like the good old days. Nothing had changed them, both were still the same and soon I too was my old self. Gone was the formal tones and fancy vocabulary used in office. It was the same swear words and silly jokes that marked my adolescent years. We were three 25 year olds behaving like 15 year olds. There was so much catching up to do. We didn’t directly go home; we went on a long drive, picked up ice-creams in the middle and chatted like women do in kitty parties. I do not remember what we talked about, it was mostly nonsense as usual. But I remember how much I laughed. I laughed as I hadn’t in many a years. It felt good to be back. At about 5:30 in the morning though I finally succumbed to the call of my house. I asked my friends to drop me home. I promised to call them in the evening to set something up.

Photo credit - Sahil Mehta
I entered my house just as the first light of the sun was breaking through. Everything seemed so familiar. I had struggled to picture it my mind on the flight but now everything came back in a flood of memories. I had come back this late (or early) once before also. That had been the day of my farewell in school. What had been forgotten for so long now seemed so fresh as if it was yesterday. I bounded up the steps with the same energy as I had when I returned for the first time from college. I rang the bell. It was the same sound I had heard countless no. of times before. The ding-dong melody. It reminded me of the days when I used to stand next to the TV while watching cartoons in the evening. And how I would switch it off and run away whenever the bell rang in anticipation of my dad coming. He hadn’t scolded me for a long time now. My mom opened the door. Her face was a mixture of surprise and joy. It was the same expression which I used to have when I saw mom coming back from work in the evening. She was so surprised that the first thing she asked me was if everything was alright. I touched my mother’s feet. I never used to do it earlier, at least not too much, but today it just seemed right. I joined my parents for tea in the verandah. A tradition that had lasted over 2 decades. It was one the longest morning tea sessions in my life. I talked and talked. I enquired about their health, told them about the product, about my role in it, about my future prospects in the company. They had seen the product launch on TV, but listened anyway. My dad gave me a few suggestions to make it better too. Just like the old days. No matter how hard I tried, I was always a step behind dad. It was better that way anyways. This was all so familiar. The tea winded up at about 11. I went to my room to freshen. All over the house, I could see things being packed. It seemed odd to find things missing in so many places. I entered my room, dreading to find everything gone. It was just as I had left it.

Photo credit - Sahil Mehta
The same rickety bed on which I had spent countless hours studying, watching movies on my laptop, sharing jokes with my friends and just daydreaming. The poster of Sourav Ganguly, who I idolized and worshipped as a god right from his debut to his retirement and below it my first cricket bat, covered with dust and looking forlorn. I had outgrown it many years back but I had preserved it. I shared an attachment with it that went back to my first memories. I had played with it for a long time. It introduced me to my first love and I could never let go of it. You know, every child has dreams. We let go of most of them for more achievable things and call it growing up. But sometimes that one dream remains which you just can’t let go off. This was mine. I had wanted to be a cricketer ever since I could remember. I had loved playing so much. I would forget everything, time, hunger, weather, everything. It was pure bliss for so long. Then I started growing up. I still remember the day when I made the choice to pursue my academics over cricket. It had all gone as I planned, I was successful today, but I could just never let go off that desire. My mom had tried many times, always unsuccessfully, to get rid of that bat. There was no way that I was going to give away that bat. I don’t know if there is a higher power above us or not, but I was suddenly sure that if there was one, he brought me back to save my precious bat.

I fell down on the bed and relaxed. Relaxed until the practical me took over and told me get on with it. I started slowly taking out my old stuff, one item at a time. I sorted things into two groups, the ones which I would keep and the ones to throw away. The first few items found their way into the “DISPOSE” group but it was much harder to let go than I had imagined. The past soon caught up with me and the rational me ran off scared. My first fancy dress costume, my pre-school uniform, the tie from farewell with messages from my friends, the photo albums with all my friends and family, my stamp collection, the scrapbook with photos of my favorite cricket stars, the books I had grown up reading, my first computer which was incidentally my second love,  everything thing lay in that room. It was all my life scattered on the floor in front of me and I had to choose which parts of my life I would take with me in the future and which I would throw away. How do you do that? How do you prioritize between two memories each as sweet as the other bitter?

Seconds turned to minutes and minutes to hours as I pored through all my material possessions, reliving the memories and experiences associated with each of them. I did not even bother trying to sort them into the two groups. My mom came to ask me for lunch, but when she saw me sitting cross-legged on the floor poring over old photo albums with the entire room in disarray, she left wordlessly. She returned with a plateful of food and kept it on the table. She left me again to my solace. When she returned 3 hours later to check on me, the food tray was still untouched. I spent hours going through the photo albums. They were full of my extended family, full of cousins and uncles and aunts and cousins of uncles and aunts. They had all doted on me when I was young. Now I recognized the faces but struggled to recall the names. Where they were now, how they were now? I had no clue. So many of my cousins would have been married by now. I hadn’t attended more than a couple of marriages in the last 3 years. I was probably an uncle to so many kids now, but unlike my uncles I hardly had time to visit them. All the faces in those albums had taught me something. I had remembered the teachings but forgot the teachers. This was what my life had become. I was an ungrateful and selfish man who did things only for his own good. I knew then I had to change things. I knew then what was missing. I figured out why I felt uneasy. It wasn’t that I was a workaholic. I just didn’t belong there. I belonged in here, in these photo albums. I belonged with my friends, my relatives and mostly my parents. They had all made me the way I was. I may have achieved a lot of success but these were the people who gave me the recipe for success in so many small insignificant ways. And it wasn’t just my family and friends, so many others were there. my driver who drove me to tuition, the domestic help who gave me something delicious to eat whenever I was hungry, the postman who got me the stamps everyday for my stamp collection, my cricket coach, my teachers, the postman who brought my results, the computer repair guy from whom I learnt how to fix my computer, our family doctor who made sure I got better on time, the restaurant waiter who got me my coffee before other people’s orders. And this city, it had given me so many opportunities. 

In aiming for the stars I had forgotten where I came from and who I was. But this trip back home helped me rediscover my roots. That abyss about my feeling for my house suddenly disappeared. My house was the foundation upon which my life existed. I had built a lot of memories and stored them in the sub-conscious but all those memories led back to physical things which were housed in this building. Leaving this house would be leaving behind my past. It would be as if most, if not all, of my previous existence would be wiped out. I was in a very pensive mood at dinner that night. My dad could sense it. It was as if he was feeling the same way. He asked me what was troubling me. I kept quiet for a few seconds and then blurted out “Can’t we keep the house?”. It was a childish plea and I could sense the desperation in my voice. No one answered. No one needed to. I knew the answer even before I posed the question. I felt embarrassed at having lost control. But it was my last ditch effort to find redemption after years of neglecting my home, my friends and my family. It was my way of apologizing to my parents for not being there, over these last few years. That one moment will be one that changed my life the most. In one moment all was forgiven. My mom and dad cheered me up with stories from my past. We would have gone well past midnight had it not been for the fact that the movers were coming in tomorrow. This was our last night in this house. It would be the last of many peaceful sleeps that I had in my bed.

I got up the next morning, Sunday, all set for a new beginning. I knew today what things I wanted to keep and what to dispose off. I picked up all the photos, all the cards, and a few gifts from the people whom I treasured. The rest was all to be given away. The material things didn’t matter. The memories they made were there in my head & the lessons that they had taught firmly in my conscious. All I needed was to make sure that the people associated with those memories were there in the future. I resolved to do that. The movers came and took away the furniture. I went with dad and gave away all the stuff that we wouldn’t need to charity. It felt good to give. Soon the walls were bare, the rooms empty. Soon it would be time to say goodbye. I met the people moving in. A young working couple and their four year old son. They were both graduates from top B-schools working at top positions in big MNCs. They had recently moved to the city. Their pay allowed them to afford a bungalow and other comforts at such a relatively young age. It all seemed picture perfect until you saw the sadness and loneliness in the eyes of their son. It told the very familiar story of what is our “professional and work oriented” generation. I said my goodbyes to my house and as they walked in I felt as if my past walked out but my future was walking in. A lost man, who did not realize that life had more to offer than just material comforts. That future had to change. With a last symbolic gesture, I took down the nameplate from the main door. The house now bore no signs of us ever having lived there. It was completely empty except for that cricket bat which I had left behind. My past had taught me a most important lesson in life. It was time to let go of it. It was time someone else made new memories with that bat.

Photo credit - Sahil Mehta

 

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