This article was first featured in Unbound Issue #5 launched back in December 2018 by FWBA (For Writers By Authors) who were generous enough to accommodate the piece in their magazine despite its lengthy and verbose nature that was in a sense essential to convey the experience of listening to your personified 'self-doubt' talk, but is nonetheless a hard sell in todays times of shrinking attentions spans.
Theme of the issue was The Shape Of You and for those interested, the Kindle edition of the magazine is still available here for forty nine bucks- a bare minimum price that allows you to read several good entries (atleast five of which I can assure you will stand out as great).
|(C) Justin Allen Miller|
But no, says the over-thinker in you.
What if, he is quick to add, what if what you want to say about the subject isn’t straightforward—or worse, what if what you want to say about the subject won’t carry much weight if you put it in a straightforward way.
You nod at that, partly because you sense a logic to it, but mainly because the other choice you have is of not nodding, which in turn means giving the over-thinker more space to meander before he arrives at whatever it was he originally wanted to say.
And you don’t want that happening.
Because once this twitchy, middle-aged, heavily spectacled and perpetually balding version of you has had sufficient time to get under your skin, you know there is no easy way to get him out of there.
You know he will talk a lot, and then talk some more until you can feel him crawling all over you from the inside.
And there are places in there that you never really liked visiting. These are places so sensitive you have assumed your brain will have trained itself by now to just not show on whatever GPS network your memories are on.
Unfortunately, the overthinker does not require GPS to drag you to those places.
All he needs is time.
And so, exercising caution, you take to your seat in the audience, unburdened of the mike, spotlight no longer on your person, and- with one eye on the clock- motion at him to begin.
Which he does, in his usual roundabout manner that at times might feel lengthy but makes sense by the time he’s reached the end.
(Sometimes it doesn’t—also sometimes it does but the mental havoc he has wreaked on you by that time is just not worth it—but anyway.)
He tells you in a solemn tone—
I have always believed that stories are the best way to put forth your opinion on any subject.
An opinion, in its plain form can only be as important as the world considers the one who is holding the pen or the mike to be.
And while I might agree if you argue that storytelling works the same way—your contention being that the importance attached to the opinion of a character or the narrative voice of a story is directly proportional to the importance the audience attaches to said character or narrative voice—there is a fundamental difference between how the two mediums operate that makes the latter far more potent than the former, especially when done right.
You see—he pauses for dramatic effect—an opinion in real life, as I have stated before, has to come from a place of importance to be given importance.
A story, on the other hand, can come from anywhere.
Another pause as he looks around in the audience for approving nods, which he doesn’t get. He continues, mildly miffed—
‘Subtext’ and ‘flow’ are the key of course, and—when done right in fiction—these two are elements capable of making what one has to say seep into the readers’ subconsciousness, a feat that is near impossible to achieve for most in real life.
His eyes turn hazy, like he is playing back to himself whatever has been said till now.
You have seen this before, so you know what will follow is a qualification.
Which is not to discredit those who have achieved this in real life. For there are indeed those who, with accounts from their real lives, have left lasting impressions on the world and have had their opinions on varying subjects bring varying degrees of change to the world we live in.
I do not mean to discredit them—he gestures with his hand as if clearing the air of a cloud of uninvited smog.
No sir I do not…even though…
—with a smug smile—
Even though I am aware, as are you, that real-life based biographical accounts have their own prescribed dosage of fiction.
—adjusts his spectacles with two fingers—
You know how it is, don’t you? They want to keep it real. But they don’t want to lose out on those moments where the readers will go, “How can something that actually happened in real life come together so beautifully?”
He makes air quotes at ‘come together’ and ‘beautifully’.
You roll your eyes wondering where the fuck this is all leading to. Five minutes in and he is nowhere near to even broaching the theme you were supposed to write on.
Should you have risked not nodding?
No. I do not mean to do that at all.
His tone is solemn again.
I do not wish to discredit their way. In fact, in a way what I am saying is the complete opposite.
What I am saying is—
THIS existence (he’s pointing at you), yes, this one, front row, third seat from the left…this…life, if you decided to compare this with the lives of other…better people, say, the lives of successful and influential men, the prominent orators and the popular inspirational writers of our time, you’d realise…I’m sorry to say…you’d realise that this life has been utterly insignificant.
|His stage or yours!|
Which of course makes me (he points at himself) insignificant too, yes it does. I assure you, I know that. But that’s not the point.
—adjusts his spectacles again—
The point is, my belief in putting forward opinions through the mouths of characters and narrative voices in my stories instead of putting them forward as just that, as my opinions, stems from this…it stems from my knowledge of having led an insignificant life.
He is looking at you.
And to clarify, when I say insignificance, it is not about how little the reach of my opinions will be due to this insignificance that I’m thinking about.
When I say insignificance, I’m thinking more about how big a hypocrite I will feel like after, if I give opinions as myself knowing what I know about me.
You nod. The fucker does have a point.
And so, I write stories instead.
My characters, my narrative voices, who I can give either profound or endearing or…or at least relatable attributes speak for me in front of many…and maybe in doing so make me feel like a lesser hypocrite because those ‘many’ are listening to ‘them’, not ‘me’.
—gives a nervous shrug—
So that’s my thing. The thing I do.
He puts down the mike and looks at us, all of us.
That’s it? That’s all he wanted to say? Well that wasn’t so bad now, was it?
Alright then. You can still cover up for this detour. No time to waste though. So, let’s just…
But of course—he’s started again with your arse hovering two inches above the surface of your seat because you were about to get up—once in a while comes a subject that makes you question your belief.
Once in a while comes a theme that makes you wonder if what you want to say will make more sense coming from ‘you’ the person, instead of some character in a fictional narrative or the narrative voice of that fictional narrative.
He looks grim.
Maybe it’s because you have known this subject personally, and for long.
Maybe you acknowledge, it is one of those subjects you are qualified, perhaps too qualified, to speak on without worrying about feeling hypocritical, after.
It is, you accept, a straightforward subject.
Your arm has shot up instantaneously. Your arse has risen from your seat again.
This is it. This is a good opportunity to make him stop because this was how you had started the piece. You had started by saying something about the subject being straightforward.
Now if you can just…
And yet—he continues without noticing your movements—you decide to not go that way, for other reasons.
You decide against writing an opinion piece on how the shape of you has come to define who you are today. Or worse, an opinion piece on how you are whoever you are today because you did not let your shape define it for you.
You decide against the latter because you know that is bullshit. Of course, the shape of you has contributed in shaping you. Whether in a good way or bad, now that is a separate question. But the contribution cannot be refuted.
He has started to move around the stage. The spotlight hung from somewhere above moves with him. This is what you had been worried about but it is happening anyway.
The stage is not yours anymore.
You also decide against the former because when you read the theme back to yourself again, what comes to you is not a neatly done review of your entire life summarizing the many obstacles you had to face due to your physical proportions.
—waves a hand at the audience—
Unless you want me to be dishonest, this does not go that way.
There is nothing linear about this. Nothing straight. Nothing that will fit snugly into one line for you to plot and study.
He is pointing at you again.
There are layers here.
And, layers need peeling.
So…you read the title of the theme again.
He is staring at the stage floor as he speaks. His eyes have turned hazy as before.
And you are reminded of two things-
Murad Badshah is the first. But for sake of a discernible flow, I shall reserve him to be explained second.
The second is an odd little memory from when you were young. It is a memory, sketchy yet distinct, from your college days—eleventh grade; maybe twelfth—of a lecture on book-keeping where the professor decided at random to have a little fun at the expense of a back bencher, who he was seeing for the first time in his class despite it being second semester.
You are seated somewhere in the middle row, intentionally so, because this is a professor you don’t want registering your existence in class. He is someone you’ve pegged as one of those whose good books is as bad a place to be in as their bad books because
(a) you have seen him humiliate one classmate, a studious one, just for bringing in class a reference book by an author he did not approve of (for the rest of the year, every time he’d want to single out the kid, he’d just say, “Yes, you, Chaudhary & Chopde, what you want?”), and
(b) you have seen him slap another classmate for laughing a little longer than others at a joke cracked by him. (“Yes you, guy with specs, why you smiling?, come to front, come now, yes, remove specs, SLAP!!!, now go to seat, don’ forget specs.)
So, you remember where you’re seated in his class.
You remember the professor asking the back bencher to stand and introduce himself to everyone, which he did.
You remember the intermittent silence and the look in the professor’s eyes during that silence, as if to say, ‘Mil gaya aaj ka bakra’ (I’ve got one for the day).
You don’t recollect the classmate’s name but you do recollect the exchange that had followed between them:
Prof: You are new zoinee?
Backbencher (BB): No sir. I’ve been here since start of the year.
Prof: Here? Here where?
BB: In this college sir.
Prof: But aye never seen you bephore? You not attended any my lecture bephore?
BB: Sorry sir. I was not able to.
Prof: Why? You like canteen food that much you sit there only?
BB: No sir. I have sports practice.
BB: Sports practice.
Prof: What sports practice?
Prof: Cricket? You play cricket?
BB: Yes sir.
Prof: What you play cricket as? Umpire?”
You remember the laughter. It’s like a wave, commencing from the first benches, gaining strength as it rolls on till it reaches you in the middle, and keeps going till it hits the wall at the back, ricocheting off it.
You remember it because you had joined in too. Maybe it was so you wouldn’t stand out. But you did. You contributed to the wave.
Prof: Umpire will suit you (Eyeing the backbencher from top to bottom). You look like umpire.
More laughter, nervous, brash, and ugly.
BB: I’m a leg spinner. College doesn’t have training program for umpires. (And before the professor can say anything further…)
BB: Body type doesn’t make any difference. Talent hona chahiye. That’s all you need. Look at Inzaman. Top quality batsman. Can tear into any opposition with ease.
And you remember the wave vanishing almost immediately.
|Leg Sweep: Leisurely but effective|
The look on the professor’s face; you remember thinking then that it was a mixture of the general embarrassment of being answered back to and the specific realization of having crossed a line that a person in his position should ideally not be crossing, because, after a pause, you remember him asking the kid to sit down and resume dictating whatever problem on book-keeping he had been dictating to the class before.
Now, when you replay the scene though, you are convinced that wasn’t it. It was just the look of a man telling himself, ‘Aaj galat bakra mila. Kal dekhte hain’ (Picked the wrong guy today. Let me try tomorrow).
But, he’s not why you are recollecting this memory.
After all, there have been other, bigger assholes who taught you or didn’t teach you but you still knew of who were in a position that granted them power to mock those under their tutelage.
You are recollecting this because you remember turning and looking at the backbencher as he was talking about talent and body size and Inzamam-ul-Haq and Inzy’s capacity to tear into bowling oppositions with ease instead of looking down at his bench, his shoulders drooped, waiting for the ordeal to end on its own like most others, including you, would have done in a situation like that.
Sixteen, face showing signs of what might grow into a full beard in another five years, head showing signs of what might grow into a bald patch in another twenty-five, plus-sized t-shirt concealing a heavyset chest, stomach bulging both front-ways and side-ways, and—most importantly—all of it ensconced in supreme confidence.
You remember nodding as you got back to taking down the problem being dictated.
You remember nodding then just as you will nod years later when you pick up Mohsin Hamid’s literary debut and are introduced in Chapter six to the big man, Murad Badshah, M.A., rickshaw fleet captain and land pirate.
Murad, as you are conveyed through Hamid’s beautiful writing, considers huge (and also massive, enormous, and gigantic) as terms that might describe him well.
But rarely is he called fat.
Fat, as he goes on to explain, implies a certain ungainliness, an inefficiency, a sense of immobility, a lack of industry, an unpleasant, un-aesthetic quality; and so on and so forth. ‘Fat’ is not a term that makes one think of attributes one would consider as ‘good’, which might not be true for all things large in size, say, for instance, the awesomely powerful rhinoceros, the supremely efficient and magnificent sperm whale, the deadly grizzly of North America.
And so, he says, the word can hardly be considered to apply to him since he claims to be able to carry his mass wonderfully and has time and again demonstrated attributes such as industry, drive, dexterity, cunning; attributes that can hardly make one imagine somebody demonstrating them as being ‘fat’.
Murad also claims it is no secret that he dances well and most willingly.
“If A has fundamental characteristics the very absence of which characterize B, it cannot be said with any degree of accuracy (or may I add, sophistication) that A is B” is his conclusion on the subject before he moves on to narrating what he saw on the night he considers pivotal to the downfall of Daru or Darashikoh, the novel’s protagonist.
|Murad bhai prepping for a dance number?|
But you remember not wanting to move to the next page the first time you read the novel. You remember going back to the beginning of chapter six and rereading the two pages Murad (Mohsin) dedicates to the subject of physical proportions, much slowly this time, perhaps to analyse, to segregate and then strip those two pages of any literary merit just so you could see if there were any flaws in the logic being used as a defence for not being called fat by a character who admits to being huge and enormous and massive and gigantic.
You remember wanting to do so because by the age of twenty-four, you have been through many such inspiring moments before, only to realise within a few days that what you thought was irrefutable logic at first was just the writer flexing his or her writing muscles that could irrefutably conceal all the flaws his or her logic might have been riddled with.
Also, you remember wanting to do it because at the age of twenty-four, you are still unclear where you stand in terms of your physicality.
So, you read it again and are filled with admiration.
Even after you have separated Mohsin’s voice from Murad’s and are now left with just the subtext and no flow to beautify it, the distinction drawn between fat and not-fat strikes you as most singular.
It is a usable distinction. A practical one, unlike other sources of information that have only managed to confuse you more about your own physicality and the complicated manner in which it changes with the passage of each year.
Let me, for better understanding of the audience, elaborate on this physical complication so they may, if wiling, be able to admire Mohsin’s (Murad’s) logic as much as you did the first time you came across those particular pages.
—takes off his specs and rubs the corner of his right eye with the back of the hand holding the specs—
You were born a healthy baby. You know what a healthy baby is, don’t you? A newborn with cheeks and buttocks the same size.
So far so good.
At the age of six, you were cute and chubby but still looked like you were a six-year old. Same goes for when you were twelve, although you are not too sure how cute you looked then.
At fifteen you started to look like you were a twenty-year old boy on the cusp of becoming a man. You were fine with it, except the grey hair or two you would find above your temple from time to time, which were, frankly speaking, alarming experiences.
At eighteen, you still looked twenty, still on the cusp of manhood, and began to believe your physique and your age were simply playing catch-up, perhaps making up for a rift between them that got created due to some anomaly.
It’ll be fine in a couple of years, you would tell yourself.
Then, at twenty you remember starting to look like a thirty-year old man.
At twenty-two, you remember being asked by one of your clients how many kids you had and on telling the client that you were yet to get married, you remember being looked at the way an alpha male looks at a thirty-eight-year-old virgin.
At twenty-four, you remember being mistaken for someone from senior management on the first day of your first ‘proper’ job and being made to shake hands and mingle with people much older than you, people most of whom would later on refuse to even acknowledge your existence on the office floor once they realised you were just a ‘Manager’, and a level one manager at that, not even level two.
—puts his specs back on—
So, like I said, at twenty-four, you are forced to acknowledge that your physicality is complicated.
You are, as you will continue to call yourself over the next five years after having crossed twenty-four, a fucked-up version of Benjamin Button.
And so, you find it admirable when you come across Murad through Mohsin and read about his (their) take on what is fat and what is merely weighty, because you are aware of your disproportionate height and weight gain over the years being the main reason behind the fucked-up manner in which your age seems to increase, much like a five-year plan rolled out with an estimated completion date that is falling after six months.
You also admire Murad’s confidence in himself, for you know you need a lot of that to be able to dissect your attributes in front of an audience, something you have never been able to do yourself and—as a consequence—in lieu of which you have to resort to self-deprecation whenever a conversation veers too deep into the reasons for and consequences of your weight/height/looks.
Of course, you admit that self-deprecation works. Cracking a joke at your own expense just so everyone can laugh and get back to minding their own fucking business is an easy way to get out of many situations that have the potential to leave mental scars if handled the wrong way.
You remember, for instance, that time when sitting in a group of four (drunk men) you were suddenly asked how you were even able to travel in a normal sized bus given how tall and broad you are.
Two or three straight responses in, the line of questioning had continued, as if they wanted in on some age-old secret you were holding back from them, by which you were able to travel around in public transport not meant for abnormal people.
You remember sighing, then you remember telling them about that one time you accidentally boarded a double decker bus and had to stand for the whole duration of the journey with your head tilted sideways so it wouldn’t hit the ceiling. You also told them about the woman seated next to where you stood, and how she kept pointing you out to her kid like you were some freak wearing clown make-up and walking around on stilts in an amusement park.
You remember the group laughing and high-fiving you at this.
“But what about trains. You can’t avoid trains, can you? Must feel like you are travelling in a suitcase, no? How many seats do you need, two? No, must be three, no?”
You had sighed again and then narrated to this particularly thick bloke, a nightmare you had had a couple of weeks back.
“I’m travelling in a train that is fully packed and there is a bomb blast in one of the compartments and the train derails, but thankfully I’m still alive, and as I’m getting up from the floor of my bogie I realise there are two men stuck under me, so I turn around and I know both men are dead but their teeth are still gritting and their eyes are fuming. Its like they’re saying, “Yes, we’re fucking dead, but it wasn’t no fucking bomb blast that killed us. IT WAS YOU! IT WAS FUCKING YOU!”
More laughter and high-fiving. Then they had moved on.
|"IT WAS YOU!"|
But there are only so many jokes you can crack at your own expense, as you remember learning in other instances.
And you remember imagining Mohsin’s Murad walking out of all those other instances unscathed, intact.
So, you admire him even more.
You see, Murad, unlike you, has the courage to sufficiently shut his audience up about his weight issues in a matter of two pages before he moves on to doing the thing he does best, narrating a story, even if it is merely a chapter in a novel that he has been assigned to narrate.
You remember envying that. Because you know that is how it should be.
Your physical attributes are but a part of you and not the whole. They are two pages of a chapter containing twelve with the remaining ten blank and ready to be filled in by instances that will more or less revolve around that thing you do best, that thing you want to define your life with.
Like writing stories…
—adjusts his specs again—
Like making up fictional narratives and characters to voice out your opinions as theirs so you can feel like a lesser hypocrite.
Worry, if you must, about that. Worry about the thing you do.
Not the shape of you.
The spotlight from above has stopped moving. The overthinker stands still, centre-stage.
He looks exhausted, sweat gleaming on his forehead, the moisture in his underarms visible on his shirt. You see him wet his lips with the tip of his tongue as his eyes stare down at the stage floor.
He is done(?)
Do you wait till he comes off the stage on his own? Or maybe you should just get up there and lead him to the backstage exit. How about a handshake while you’re at it, a hug even? After all he’s covered most of what you wanted to say.
Nothing left for you to do once he’s done but to deliver the closing line.
A memory within a memory.
You sit startled by what you have heard.
You look around to see if anyone else in the audience has reacted to it the same way. Nobody has moved.
You look at him trying to meet his eye. But he is still staring at the floor.
You want to raise your arm again and wave ferociously at him, signalling that you’ve had enough of this shit.
You want to get up and storm the stage and drag him from up there to the darkness that lies beyond those flowery curtains at the back, and maybe punch him right in the nose until there’s blood leaking from it.
But you find yourself still seated, arms by your sides as they were before.
You wonder instead how long until your bum starts to itch from the plastic surface of the chair. Or how long till your legs and your feet go numb from all this sitting without movement.
You wonder when you’ll get to go home.
Unless you want me to be dishonest, this is not all that I wanted to say.
—wets his lips again—
It is as I had stated before-
There are layers at work here. And layers need peeling.
He finally looks up at you. Your eyes meet, and you realise there is no pleasure in this for him either. He is as uncomfortable as you are to do what he is about to do next.
And you know he will do it anyway.
You are on a plane.
He begins, his eyes still on you.
You are seated three rows ahead from the rest of your family.
You look outside the window as the flight takes off, the lights on the ground below turning into blurry spots before disappearing altogether.
It is by habit that you have taken out your earphones, plugged them in your ears and pressed play on your phone as the flight was taking off.
And now as the lights on the ground turn into blurry spots before disappearing altogether from your vision, you find yourself surrounded by a wall of music that you used to love.
Music that you know you are forever going to associate with loss and suffering hereon.
But in that moment, you are alone.
You are no longer thinking about the girl at the check-in counter who could not understand why you had presented her with five plane tickets when she could only see four passengers travelling. You are not thinking about the other staff who took her aside perhaps to explain to her what the words Human Remains stamped on one of the tickets meant, after which she issued you boarding passes and you were allowed to continue to the security check point.
You are alone in that room with walls of music that you had always loved to hear till that moment but you know you are going to dread hearing it again for the rest of your life because it will always take you back to this moment, to this plane, to this seat three rows ahead of your family, where you are alone and can finally mourn your loss without worrying about how your mother will react to it.
You remember breaking down like you never have before in your life. It has been a rough day and you’ve always had problems in expressing yourself openly in front of people. And you are alone now, with the music surrounding you, drowning out the instructions from the airhostess and the feeble enquiries from the man sitting next to you if everything is alright.
You remember crying your heart out for your loss and you mother’s loss, you remember crying for the future that you had planned but is never going to play out the way you did.
You remember crying for him to come back so this nightmare can end and you can see your mother smile once more.
You remember crying not knowing why it happened.
It is uncommon. He had just crossed sixty. There was so much life left in him.
Then how…and why…why now…
And you are responded to with a flash from another memory even as the wall of music around you continues to play, with just the track playing in your ears changed from one to another.
—wipes his face with the back of his hand—
|A view to remember, a night to forget|
It is your brother’s wedding that your mind takes you to.
Right after the main rituals have been completed and lunch has been served and eaten.
A distant relative has walked up to you and is chatting with you about your own prospects of marriage when your dad happens to pass by.
“Ranga, come here.”
“Look at him.” You remember him telling you as your dad walks slowly towards you, his face jubilant, his arms open towards both of you.
“How old is he? Sixty?”
“So how old should I be then?” you remember him making your dad stand next to him so their shoulders are matching and his right shoe is aligned to your dad’s left shoe.
“I’m eighty-five!” he doesn’t wait for you to answer.
“Eighty-five and even I look younger than him, can’t you see?”
You remember smiling.
You remember your father smiling as well.
“You can’t take these things lightly you know. Look at what shape he is in!”
And you are back on the flight again.
Except now you are not crying anymore because all you can think of is what you could have done differently from the day of your brother’s wedding till yesterday and if you had, whether it would have really helped in prolonging his life.
So many fucking days.
He coughs lightly. You wonder if it is the spotlight hanging from above but he is looking older than what he was a minute ago.
You find yourself coughing with him.
A painful memory.
He is still looking at you.
But a necessary reminder, maybe?
Your arms are still at your sides but you feel your hands shivering as the mike slips from his hands and drops on the stage floor with a loud thud. He bends down carefully to pick it up again, this time with both hands.
You see, you remember Mohsin…then you remember Murad…and you remember how physicality is bundled up in two pages out of twelve by an author in a novel you loved…
He has started walking towards you and you find yourself getting up from your seat, your movements matching the pace of his.
And it is beautiful to know.
Beautiful to believe that your life will ultimately be defined by the thing you love to do and not merely by what shape and size you physically occupy in this world.
One word for every second step he is getting down from, as you wait at the landing, your arms wide open, your mind ready to take him back in where he will rest once again, until you are faced with another subject that you feel is straightforward but he wants to prove you wrong.
Remember…what shape you are in might not matter, but what shape you keep yourself in definitely does. After all, life doesn’t come in two hundred and fifty paged, bound paperbacks that end on the second last page, with the last page intentionally left blank.
It is a game of chance. And all we can do is to try and better our odds.
For all we know…
He reaches you as you reach for the mike, not taking it from him, but taking it with him.
And he becomes you, and you become him, and into the mike your voices combine into one statement that you acknowledge would’ve definitely featured in whatever it was you originally wanted to write:
You’d be waiting for the plot to unfold and life could end on page number two.