Sunday, October 13, 2013

Why I Still Do What I Do

Exactly 20 months later, I am back at Changi Airport, SIngapore. And it brings back so many memories!! It seems like only yesterday that I was flying to Auckland, a city I had no idea how deeply I will get entwined with, a little nervous, a little apprehensive, and overwhelmingly curious about what lay ahead! What followed was, without the shadow of a doubt, the happiest 14 months of my life. In more than one way, New Zealand, and Auckland in particular, was to become that one great factor that would rip me out of the rut I had been in for almost seven years. As cheesy as it might sound, Auckland, in all its majesty and serenity literally brought me back from the brink. I had wandered to the very edge of sanity, and in more than a few ways blurred the line that divides lunacy and sanity. And looking back, I am more than certain that had I not come to Auckland, perhaps I would have crossed over to the dark side of the moon. I owe it all to a lovely city and its wonderful people. But most of all, I owe it to Parag, Martha, Maria, Denis, Cam, Jonathan, Ruth, and Jim for being the angels that they were to the emotionally immature and unstable post-adoloscent 26 year-old that I was. And then, of course, there was Jason Brown. In so many ways, all that I am, all that I will ever be, I will owe it all to Jason Brown. And then there was S.A., the most mesmerizing woman I will ever meet. I have no words to describe the impact she had on me, the countless ways she made me so much better than I could have ever been. Losing her was the most difficult thing I have ever had to cope with, and I am not sure I really have 'coped' with it, or that I really ever will. But she did teach me to bear burdens, smile at the face of adversity, and to keep moving, if nothing else. "I never cry", she used to say during our long walks down Grafton Village; "I am a little runaway. Daddy's girl gone bad", she would proclaim, puffing out her sixth or seventh continuous cigarette. Somehow, I can almost hear her say those words even now, with that ever so sublime hint of rebelliousness spiking up that enormous reservoir of patience and elegance that was so characteristic of her Irish-Scottish descent. And so she was, a little runaway- daddy's little girl who left home at 15, took her 12 year-old sister with her, and managed to provide for both of them from her early teens. When I first met her, smoking in a dark corner outside that UoA building, she was working two shifts and pursuing a research degree in one of the most obscure and abstract branches of the philosophy of mind, language and mathematics. We really didn't see much of each other during the daytimes, what with her either working or writing her thesis, and me working in the field. Moving in together did not change that much either. She was still gone most of the day, leaving me to feed her cat, clean the dishes, plan my PhD and stroll the streets. She would often return past midnight, fatigued beyond description. We would have some coffee, go for a walk for an hour or two. Then back at her place, she would get back to writing her thesis, while I spent a little time doing the ledger and updating the accounts, paying bills online, and then go to bed while she was still working. I rarely ever found her in bed in the morning. By the time I woke up, her side would be neatly cleaned, folded and tucked. She was gone again. That was our routine. There was very little in the way of actual physical company. We never talked about the future. I did not bring it up because I did not know what mine held. For her part, I suppose she did not have the luxury to 'dream' about the future. She was paying for her and her sister's education, which in NZ is not exactly cheap. She never complained, though. Never wanted assurances, commitments or explanations. She was too self-sufficient to need any. I had none to give, even if I wanted to. Towards the end of my time in Auckland, she grew a little quiet. We still went for our walks, still lived in the same house, ate on the same table, slept in the same bed. But she had become more passively curious about my time in Australia. She would often wonder why I, the consummate theoretician, was going to an experimental school? But she always ended those conversations with a smile, "You realize I would still kick your butt, theoretically". Those were about the only times I remember seeing her in a light mood. She would burst out in laughter as she explained why direct realist experimental evidence will never replace abstract theories. For my part, I loved to listen to her laugh. Academically, I agreed with her theoretical position, but also had a curiosity about the experimental side of it. She had none, albeit she understood more about experimenting than most empiricists I know. But she said she understood why I had to leave. She did not want me to take up a menial job in Auckland, she would say. But she wished we had more time left, and she had less work to do. Moving to Australia was just not possible for her then. "But hey, I can drop in anytime you are on vacation, because I don't need a visa to go to OZ", she would try to cheer me up. But next morning, she would be gone before I opened my eyes, again. A harsh reminder of the hard life she lived. Towards the end, she lost so much weight that her already slim body looked nearly skeletal. She was thinking of switching to part-time study and taking up another job. I did my part to try and dissuade her. So did her sister who promised she can take care of herself. And then, just like that I was gone. And a short four months later, so would she. Looking back, perhaps I was a little selfish. Once again, I had put my own ambitions ahead of other more pressing matters. Would things have been different had I stayed back and taken a job at Marlow's? The thought keeps me awake at nights. Her sister still calls every week. Ritually. Assures me that it was not my burden to bear in the first place. But that doesn't help. Especially given that I already bear too much burden. I bear so much of the burdens that I don't want to. Why didn't I choose to bear the burden that would have at least made me happy? Because that's the one thing I am not- happy. I suppose there are no definite answers to these issues. There is only some retrospective satisfaction to be gained from the sad logic that in order to have straddled with them, at one point we must have been a part of them. It's the only faint excuse of a logic that keeps the thread of sanity from snapping. But, even still, those last five months in Auckland are very dear to me. The memories keep me on my feet, even as they slowly break me, a little bit every day.

I miss her so much.

Sitting here, at the Singapore Airport, it chills my spine to think how things might have turned out had I not come to Auckland, had I gone  back to EFLU. It was just a little more than a year, the time I had in Auckland, and yet it seems almost impossible now that there is a very large part of my life when I knew nothing of Auckland. And it seems even more improbable that I would have ever not come to Auckland. Isn't it strange, how things turn out to be? Butterfly effect, they call it. You can't help but be amazed, when you really think about it, at how much impact a single turn of events can have, at what chain of developments might be set in motion through a single moment's whimsical action! It was a whimsical action, of course, when I applied to the University of Auckland almost three years back. I did not expect to hear from them. But hear I did. And now, here I sit, at Singapore, again, marvelling at all that has come to be. So much I have that I have gained, and so much that I have lost, and through it all how a single woman,through her life and death, has guided me out of the pit I had put myself in. Some people come in to your life to stay, but never really mean that much to you. Some just pass through, without noticing or being noticed. And then there are those who blow in like the cool west wind, ruffle the pages of your old diary, make a mess of your hair, blow a refreshing breath into your very being, and then, as suddenly as they had appeared, they disappear. Leaving you to wonder whether they only came to make that difference in your life, and having made the difference simply ceased to be? I am not a believer in fate, or fortune. But it does seem to me, that Carl Sagan's profound words of wisdom, "We are way for the Universe to realize itself", have so much more to it than you can ever imagine. I do believe that the most important people in your life come because you really truly needed them. Not because you wanted them. I suppose, then, that the coming is to be cherished, and not so much the loss mourned. For while the people may be gone, the impact they have on your life live on through you as testimony to the kind of people they were. Some have asked, given how close S.A. and I were, how and why I go about my usual academic pursuits so soon after such a loss? Well, I do it because I owe it to her. Not out of a misguided sense of gaining some academic achievement to cover up the gaping hole in my life. There are none that can, and I have given up 'hope' a very long time back, and I live my life one day at a time. I do it because I must. To not will be an insult to all she had helped me learn, so very patiently, over so many sleepless nights. Even now, when I get through my Confirmation of Candidature in less than two months when most take six, when I successfully handle three different projects simultaneously with two of the most famous academics in the world, quit smoking and give up alcohol all by myself, the most important lessons I learned remain the ones I learned from a slim, blonde, Scottish-Irish Kiwi woman, with a penchant for smoking and rebelling against authority. For what I learned from her, I was not taught.

I sit at the Singapore Airport rapt in thought, and in the background the lounge speakers of the Hard Rock Cafe start playing Grateful Dead's famous 1964 title: "What a long strange trip it's been"! How proper! How utterly, painfully proper! And what lies ahead? For once, I am not unwilling to go the distance to figure out.

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