by Vani Ghai
Bharati Vidypaeeth Medical College, Pune, India
You come to a new city. You are gripping onto the handles of the puneri rickshaw and the skin that sticks out of your index finger is just a nibble away. The purple sunsets and evening skies are different. The air tastes of freedom and you let your senses run amok. You meet the smell of gunpowder with curiosity and mispronounce names of streets that are closer to the hostel on Google maps. It is “Katraj” not “Katraaj.” You let the words “missing” and “home” make your tongue heavy. You will unpack all of this in August. You watch the rain offer nourishment to the grass as you discover a new psychological tic that pops up in intangible moments of anxiety. You try to blend into the crowd but you are carrying a bright turquoise umbrella to college. You are trying to take it all in. It is unbearably gorgeous. All things that are new are. Then, you dissolve yourself in it, like a sticky sugar crystal melting in a hot pot, you allow it to float in your bloodstream, and then you let yourself forget about this new divide that you just created in your head between the old and the new.
You latch yourself onto unknown people and somehow find a middle ground. You bond over how familiar their school life sounds to yours, and swap stories about how you grew up. When did you know you wanted to be a doctor? In a whirlwind of questions, you find yourself transplanted together in this decadent landscape of opportunity and dismemberment; strangely enough, this phantom being that you are, that you didn’t even know existed, feels real.
The first time you go home after months you are a decorated hero. You have survived three rounds of dissection and around 120 soupy hostel dinners. You can throw around words like sternocleidomastoid and obturator foramen without stuttering. You can boast about holding human hearts in your fists.
This world is made up of Latin and hematoxylin.
Your small town is made up of 6 AM bhajans and pencil shavings.
Very soon, you become a comfortable person. Your presence is a tapestry in the room. Like an old artifact, hung on the wall, you too, realize what being lonely in a crowded room feels like. Nothing can be preserved without it being lost. So in moments like these, you lose yourself. You zone out while the words gloss over. Where is the boundary? You tap back into the scenery when you think you heard someone call out your name, but did you?
You then realize that being lonely is a choice. You start calling it being alone. You thumb your way through journals and swear that you will never let anyone make you feel like an island again, you watch the arrangements on your dressing take shape of this sparing space, you hang up photos of your family members and grow plants in the balcony, you make the mirror look a little more friendly than the swampy puddles on your way to class, you watch your room fill up with clutter, but you choose to let it fill like the lump in your throat.
Instead of saturating, somedays, you just push back the chair and grab the keys off the hook and walk out the door.
You realize that silence is a serenade. You build your fortress with quieter times and keener observations till the only voice you hear in your head is yours. They ask you how you are doing, but there are so many layers that you have already begun peeling, the truth for you and the truth you speak is hiding behind syntax and semantics and vowels and things you still cannot pronounce that well, so you say you will be fine and continue to look like a fool. You stare into the distance and make yourself feel at home with a numbness that cannot be met with any more tenderness than this.
You master the ability to touch these moments with not yourself, but an echo of who you were.
You spend every penny of your mind on everything. Insignificance is not a word in your dictionary. The idle mind is a devil’s house. You start to see yourself from your own depths. The view is horrifying. You decide to never let anyone wander even close to this shadow of yours.
You are sacred with realization. The parataxis. You are a person beside a person, but you know both of them are you.
It is October and after four years, unfamiliarity is now a friend. It has been more than three winters and you do not know how to measure warmth, so you start measuring temperature by the number of hours it takes before your lemongrass candle makes an appearance. There are light years and nano meters. You don’t know which unit to use. You don’t know what is close and what is far away.
You spend time trying to figure out the cracks in the four walls that you have created around you and prize them apart with tools – most of them are verbs.
Eating, sleeping, focusing, meditating, writing, running, jumping, yelling, sobbing, screaming, waking up at 3 AM, hiding under the blanket of stars, simply being, spacing out, trying, rubbing, wailing, grieving, feeling, feeling, feeling…
You sit next to window panes and observe stillness. You try to be still. You are dreaming of the light. You are imagining it. Visualization is the key to success. The light is hidden in your head, it tries to come out, but you cork it.
Your friend tells you about the entropy of the universe. Their fingers fan out as they talk about an explosion. About humans drifting away from humans. Increasing entropy in this ever-expanding world.
Recently you find yourself walking in circles with a friend, as the sky changes colors and talking about the imagery of an unknown past life. They talk about having a split in their head that they can’t seem to figure out. They say that they talk in two languages, recall two memories—sepia and futuristic, and live somewhere in the middle. The middle looks like both: an open grassland and a prison cell.
Another friend of yours is a window watcher, like you. They say that grids are the safest space because you can be anything you want to. There is always more room, nothing can go wrong and everything is possible.
They say grid and you picture a prison cell.
The lights shift out of focus and you are hitting the highway now. It is Diwali and the airport is swarming with homesickness. You let the dry October air run down your throat and you cool yourself off in the window seat, right beneath the ducts of the air conditioner. Three thousand different colors and all of them are rolling on two wheels. Your mind is still spinning in the city that you just left and your body is numb with the after-shock. You are back at home but you question what home really is.
So after family dinners, when the morsels are being rinsed off the plates, the doors start getting locked, and the lights switch off, you let go of all inhibitions. You are free to sleep wherever you want to, but you can’t sleep because food made from love sits in the stomach for longer.
You walk and you walk aimlessly.
You feel exposed.
You don’t know who you are now. Alone or lonely?
So, you whip out your phone and start scrolling in reverse.
You see your friends and their faces frozen in infectious laughter. Yellow lights against a blue evening. Linked arms. The bespectacled head of your friend against a full moon night. A mirror selfie. Outside the art gallery. Inside the canteen. Two coffee mugs and a dusty morning. An ugly screenshot. A silhouette against a purple sunset. Pink faded memories. Rows of faces inside the pathology lab. Korean ramen. Boiling water. Anger. Sadness. Ecstasy. Bitterness.
You think of what Teilhard once said, “Without human connection we become sick, fragile and hostile. Once you reclaim this sense of connection, for the second time, you will have discovered fire.”
Whether on your screen or an old picture stuck behind the door.
Loneliness is just lovelessness and lovelessness is just a matter of being caught in the gentle drift of this intimacy famine.