There’s this anecdote I read in one of Elif Shafak’s most forgettable books — The Architect’s Apprentice — that has stayed with me. It’s the time of war in the era when people travelled on animals and covered great distances over many weeks. A king is travelling with his army and, what would have been in those times, an entourage. The entire party comes to a point where they have to cross a wide water body to get to the other side. It is a river, I think, but I forget. The king asks his architect how soon can he design and build a bridge to cross over. The architect responds with an estimate which suits the war plans and the men get to work. They toil and brave and work to build a bridge that can carry the weight of the entourage, arms, animals, and people across the water body. After everyone is safely on the other side, the king asks his men to destroy the bridge, to raze it such that no trace of it is left. The men are obviously horrified, they’ve worked so hard on building it. But the architect simply agrees without any attachment to what they had built together and gets everyone to break it down.
I discarded a 360-word draft of this blog post because I was being a jackass and trying to be sarcastic by opening with saying that the biggest disappointment I have faced in the past six weeks is the purchase of a highly reviewed goat-milk shampoo. I didn’t complete the post, for various reasons, and instead, I picked up my Bible ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ in which She tells us not to be strategic or coy because “strategic and coy are for jackasses”. So I’m not going to be a jackass.
An old friend always says to me how I have become someone else and I don’t “stay in touch”. What he means by that is that I don’t text him, tell him about my life, share it with him as it were. I find that that has happened with me a lot. Over a period of years, I have staved off some very valuable friendships that I had because my friends moved away. This friend in question moved across the world.
There was a point in my life when I conducted my relationships over text messages. I was addicted to my phone as I am still but now I don’t engage much. I’ve become a terrible texter. It’s not that I don’t value the people who have moved away. They are some of my most trusted, honest, and encouraging friends. They have contributed to my life immensely. They are also fabulous people. It’s just that I found myself wanting a life in which I was able to see and witness more than just put into words or pictures the kind of experiences I had. I remember that period when I came to finally believe that if I didn’t see something, it didn’t exist. I confess I have sinned. I have let go of friends who I don’t see often, who I would want back in my life in a heartbeat, who I still love like I used to.
For how can I not? That’s who I am. That’s who I have always been. All I have as a family are my parents, my sister, and my friends. I don’t have the conventional family — no child or husband or pet, nothing. There has never been a phase in my life when I haven’t loved my friends limitlessly. I didn’t know any other way.
This year when I went to the US a couple of months after my dad had his life-altering surgery, my entire perspective on moving away from home had changed. This was just as well because though my family had been through hell and back, but it is also because in the past few years I have been genuinely happy with the kind of life we had built. After many years, I had a functional, fun relationship with my parents, I had friends who stood by me through joy and grief, my workplace was great, and even the neighbourhood I live in was a dream come true. In short, I had everything, I could have died and it would be okay.
When it was time for me to return home from the US, someone asked me if I was looking forward to going back to India as my visa didn’t let me stay any longer. Another person who stood there said, “of course, she’s going to see her family and friends, she must be excited.” The truth is, I was excited. I know the conversation may have had undertones of “well, go home soon” and I was like “what the hell, of course, I’m going home. It’s exactly where I want to be.”
For many years I struggled with belonging. This was especially at the time when all my friends were getting married and it was starting to become commonplace to be Islamophobic openly. Those two are mutually exclusive things. It was just the time when things were changing too fast for everyone except that they didn’t change for me. It had come to a point when I almost believed that I would end up lonely if I didn’t have a conventional family of my own. I could see little or no way that that was going to happen. It also came at a time when I reevaluated my relationship with my religion because all its problematic things were being magnified and I was being cast in that light. I remember having vitriolic exchanges with our very friends on Facebook that involved mudslinging and cursing and having religious debates and me throwing up my hands up in the air and shooing people off my timeline. It was all quite disturbing.
But then, time passed, married friends moved away but I didn’t end up lonely and dysfunctional, I educated myself the hell out of my religion and other Abrahamic ones, and now I was here at the aforementioned happy phase in my life where I was satisfied enough to die.
During the month that my dad was in the hospital, only two relatives and my workplace friends were there for me and my mom. No other family member offered help or was there in any other way except that my phone never stopped ringing. I think that’s a good thing actually. I have a lesser debt to repay. I stood in the cabins of various doctors holding my dad’s reports and listening to the scariest things the doctors said to me as if I were the head of the family. I didn’t take my mom to these situations, I went with my uncle. It was the hardest thing I’ve had to do so far. To listen to doctors and make big decisions for the father who had always help me make mine. My friends held me through it. During that time I wondered exactly three times, what if I had a husband? Would it help? I didn’t sleep or eat. One day I called tfb and almost cried, “I am not supposed to be making these decisions.” But oh, I had to and I didn’t cry through it or for many months after. I shut all the feelings out.
When I was in the US after the surgery, every single day I was there, sleeping alone in my hotel room, I kept replaying the whole month in the hospital. It came back to me more vividly, sharper than ever before. I surmised it was because I was now far removed from the actual situation and I had time to process it. I was able to feel the pain deeply, it sat with me every day I was alone in that room. I sat with it too and paid attention to what it had to say to me. I was going to be there for a while. So, I bought a small jar of lavender flowers for the room, vanilla votive candles that smelled like a dream, a beautiful diary in which I made notes to write about later. I took the diary everywhere I went. Denver. San Francisco. Seattle. I placed the city stamps under the notes. The weather was gorgeous. The country was perfect. But the haunt of that month never went away. One morning, I woke up early, as I always did when in the US, the sky was just filling up with light. I climbed down from my large Queen size bed, sat facing the large floor to ceiling windows, looking up at the sky, and I cried.
I have come to gather certain belief systems about life. One of them is that nothing has to be perfect for it to be good. Happiness is easily found and you are responsible for your own. It only takes up a little opening up of the heart, unclenching it and letting go. And that you have to fill up the open spaces in your life with things that help you grow and bring you joy otherwise they will fester and reek. Above all, living takes courage because it is hard and unkind and unfair.
I’m not always courageous but I figure that when I am not, other people are. That, to me, is the essence of the universe and what other people call God. There’s this Sufi story that I believe in, which says that Muslims pray in a circle because they are essentially praying to each other and that is God. I believe this world is built on the courage of people. Of the things they do for their loved ones and strangers, of the way one excellent doctor heals hundreds of people, the way one honest officer who delivers good public service, that teacher who makes us love literature, the gardener who plants flowers, and that despite our worst selves, some of us pick others even when we can’t pick ourselves up. To me, that is the point of living, that is life. Like She says in Tiny Beautiful Things “It was always only us.”
Therefore, when I returned to India, I was excited to weave back into this life I thought I had built for myself. However, things didn’t fall back into place like I thought they would. Earlier I had one parent who went through surgery, now I have two. Earlier, I had friends I could count on, now I have none. These days, I spend most of my time alone but I work very hard to keep my chin up. I still live in my fantastic neighbourhood thanking my parents for bringing us here after we had no place to go because the extended family threw us out on the street. So no, my biggest disappointment in the last six weeks is not a highly reviewed goat-milk shampoo. It is that the life I was hoping to come back to does not exist and I am going to have to build it up again.
I think of that architect and his men from time to time. I think it’s a powerful story. To have the courage to make and to take apart. These days, I remind myself that in order to live, I have to have the courage to build the bridge and then, to break it. To build the bridge and then break it.