The sun had just set. I knew because I heard the call to the maghrib prayer. It was still a long time before it would become dark, though. He was walking me home. We passed by a local restaurant we used to frequent during college. I pointed towards it, and we laughed. We spoke about the friend who was a part of this trio we made – where he was, what he was doing – the usual conversation old friends have about life when they meet after a couple of years. ‘Do you still eat there?’ he asked me, and I shook my head. I haven’t eaten that fried chicken since, washed it down with copious amounts of Sprite. Not anymore. Not without them.
Much before I was eating mediocre fried chicken, in 12th standard, for some whacked out reasons that are now beyond me, I decided I wanted to be a doctor. I went for coaching classes where we learnt in painful detail almost everything about the human body. My favourite subject was the skeletal system. I knew names of all the bones, exactly where they were in the human body, and everything else there was to know about the skeletal system. We were also shown the bones in the coaching class. I was hugely fascinated. Thankfully, I didn’t end up becoming a doctor. However, I learnt one thing that was closer to where my actual interests lay hidden – I learnt that whenever there is a suffix -algia that meant it was a condition of pain. This is because algia comes from the Greek word algos which means pain. Arthralgia – joint pain. Mastalgia – breast pain. Neuralgia – nerve pain. So on and so forth. A few years after I had thankfully not become a doctor, I was doing word exercises in an absolutely fascinating book that explained word origins. So, when I came upon nostalgia, it was easy for me to decipher it as I knew one-half. The other half is nostos, which is a Greek word meaning homecoming and is associated with the return journey to a place we deem as home. In that instant, nostalgia became more than just a romantic word, it described to me what it meant. Nostalgia was now a pain felt at the yearning for home. Nostalgia was more than just a remembrance of things past. It became a pain that you could measure on a scale of 1 to 10 as doctors do (we were also taught this in class). Now that I knew exactly where the word came from, and how science measured pain, and I had stripped down the word to its bones, it was more than a word that I would use in a handwritten letter, in a dewy-eyed poem, and almost never in a casual conversation. This word had joined a class of dis-ease and from what I understood during all those hours of Biology coaching, having a disease wasn’t a good thing.
Turns out science thought so too – that nostalgia was a hindrance, a sign of depression, but they seem to have changed their mind. Now science says that it could be a cure for depression. Whatever be the case, the sanitisation of the past and its warm remembrance of it is not the prerogative of the diseased or the healthy; all of us indulge in it from time to time. Humans love saying “the good old days” constantly as if the times that have gone by were minted in gold, as if our lives were a silver screen movie, as if mythifying the past cushions the blows of the present. Every generation tells the story of the good old times with such fondness and sparkle in their eyes that it seems hard to believe that their struggles were non-existent. As an aside, I didn’t get why the older generation always kept talking about their good old times, but now I do. I know what they mean, and I know for a fact that I am going to say that to my child as well. My generation has already started saying so about the state of Cartoon Network and how the kids these days and entitled, spoilt, and need one tight slap. We’re all going to be pathetically predictable. Too.
I was looking up literature on nostalgia, and there is a bit of it in the world, not all that much, but a bit. From what I know, you can’t beat Proust at it, he wrote seven books to encapsulate the subject. There is no way I will read all of them. If nothing else, I am certain of some of my shortcomings, and I take all of them too seriously – reading epic volumes of books is one of them. One of the reasons why I can’t get past Chapter 2 of Ulysses. That, of course, is another story. While I was scouring the Internet, I came across a BrainPickings post that introduced me to the essayist Meghan Daum. I got her book My Misspent Youth and read one of her essays which described in great detail the mountain of debt she was under. This collection of essays was published in 2001, and I want to think by now she would have paid her debt. Even if she hasn’t, there’s nothing to it, because well, it’s America. A place where anything is possible. If you know what I mean. What struck me most about Meghan Daum’s collection is that she comes across as an egotistic asshole. I had to use the word asshole, my vocabulary fails me at the moment. However, I strongly recommend reading My Misspent Youth to anyone and everyone reading this. I love her. I know it’s contradictory, but I’ve come to a point where I think I can separate the artist from the person. As a person, I know for a fact, Daum would look down upon me and I wouldn’t want to interact with her. But as a writer, I will follow her. I will scour the Internet for the rest of the essays, I will follow her on LA Times, and I will try to learn the trick of how she does it. How does she write a 1000+ word essay complaining about carpets? How does she have the self-awareness that she’s an insufferable snob and still holds in contempt the subject she’s talking about? How does she talk about events with a detachment that borders on insensitiveness and still make for such interesting prose? Her subject matter is unconventional, her take on the content is unusual, and her writing is unlike anything I’ve ever read. With every paragraph of My Misspent Youth, I couldn’t stop being shocked at how she was swimming in debt, how the Americans are entitled fucks, and how I don’t know anyone else who has lived so recklessly. But that is exactly why I read the entire collection. It has been a while since something shocked me. And then some.
It was now completely dark. The time to pray magrib namaz had elapsed as soon as the last light in the sky disappeared. We were still walking home, and we had admitted that we think it was good, but really, it wasn’t. It was never about the fried chicken. Everything is better in memory. And then, one thing led to another, and out of nowhere I was sitting on the edge of a park and crying. Abundant tears. He put his arm around me and held me while I cried as much as I wanted. Then, he told me how he was going to laugh about this later. (He did laugh the very next day, I assure you.) He walked me to the park’s water cooler and I washed my face. Then, we spoke about things in the present day.
There is a pain in things of the past.
There is a reason being homeward bound is not as easy. Sometimes you have to sit down at near a park and cry.