I think the word bittersweet is most aptly used for birthdays. Life in the universe is rare and life on Earth must be celebrated for the chance event it is. But indeed, the only thing certain about life is that it ends. Birthdays are then a reminder of this dour fact. A tick-tock of the continual forward marching arrow of time if you may.
Sure, a birthday gives me a reason to confront my own mortality. Although this is an easy enough explanation to offer to people when they ask me why I am unexcited about this one specific day, I am not quite sure this is the reason for my indifference towards birthdays. It wasn’t always like this though. There used to be a time when I looked forward to my birthday.
This one time my father borrowed his friend’s car, loaded me and my friends into it and took us to a sea-facing clubhouse. There was a jungle gym, fake sand and plenty of Gujarati snacks. I remember the salt in the air from the Arabian sea. Then this other time, I invited some friends over. We watched Slumdog Millionaire before it was released in India, on a flatscreen TV. At the time we felt like we had pulled off a heist. My mom made a gorgeous strawberry souffle.
Someone once asked me if there is a memory from my childhood that has stayed with me. There is one that I can feel in my bones. There used to be a giant tree outside my house that I could see from my window. Its branches made their way up to the fourth floor where I grew up. Every evening after I was summoned home from football games in the rain, my mother would sit me down and vigorously run a dry cloth over my wet hair. I could hear the raindrops hit the leaves and fall to the ground. That pitter-patter I can summon at will. If I close my eyes, I can taste the overbearing sweetness of hot milk, feel the felt of the cloth and hear the plop of a raindrop as it splatters into nothingness.
There is tension on my birthday because I fear that there will come a time when I can no longer close my eyes and play this memory or hear this soundtrack from my childhood. Every birthday, I move further and further away from this place of unending calm and untethered joy. That is why I am not fond of birthdays. It reminds me not of my mortality, but of the fragility of memory. It makes me thinks of the things that aren’t.
But starting today, I want to reclaim my birthday. Someone I know once sent me a beautiful message in response to a newsletter of mine she read. She said that sometimes the light from the past can shroud the present in comparative darkness. She paraphrased from Tennyson’s poem ‘In Memorium’. “The sweetest of times in the past are worth having lived, even if we can’t touch them in the present”, she said.
Maybe I need to look backwards with more gratitude and less longing. And maybe, I can use my birthday as a placeholder, not for moving further away from the things that were but closer to things that will be.
There is so much to look forward to. Books that will take my breath away, and movies that will make me whole. Poems that will break my heart and music that will glue it back. There are slopes to climb up on, sweat on my brow, and also slopes I’ll ride down on, wind in my hair. There is life to be lived. So much of it.
Maybe this year, my father finally lets me make chai at home. And if the waft of lemongrass fragrance is as encompassing as his brew’s, I’d consider that I’ve finally come of age. I look forward to hanging out with my parents. I'll take them out to dinner and my father will love it because, like me, he is easy to please when it comes to food. My mother might not, in which case I'll run down and get her a sandwich from the stall around the corner. Just like she likes it. Untoasted. No beetroot. No capsicum. No frills.
I hope I get to meet my brother in Christchurch. He will play me his favourite Velvet Underground album on vinyl and I’ll play him my favourite by This Will Destroy You from my crappy phone speaker. We will sit at a cafe, him with black coffee, mine almost white, and discuss the many flashes of genius in Better Call Saul. And then, we will disagree on whether Cheteswar Pujara should be dropped from the Indian cricket team, almost fight and go to sleep.
I look forward to meeting A after half a decade. We will sit on the edge of a nondescript lake and talk about everything under the moon. I’ll tell him things I can tell only him. And he will tell me things, I’d only hear from him. I’ll tell him to quit smoking. He will tell me to like myself a little more. And we will promise to try.
I have this image in my mind, from a time when I’d have found some calm. The kind of calm that comes with a certain level of self-awareness and freedom. A very specific kind of freedom that I don’t have words to describe. Yet. On my birthday I look forward to living this image.
I’ll be sitting down on a beach facing an open sea. Boundless. I’ll have a bottle of cold beer in my hand. Nothing will occupy my attention except the sea breeze and the sound of waves in birth and death. Today, there is too much World. But that day, there will be just enough.
Reads (long or not)
It Ends With A Kiss by Riddhi Dastidar is a gorgeous short story that makes you fill in many blanks but is immensely satisfying. That, for me, is the hallmark of brilliant fiction.
I have been hearing a lot of praise for Kathryn Schulz’s memoir, Lost and Found and if this essay excerpt in the New Yorker is anything to go by then it is probably going to be a truly special read.
There is so much to learn and admire in this essay, The Pedagogy of Kindness by Sumana Roy. In it, Roy wonders why kindness is absent from much of our learning and examines what rooting pedagogy in kindness can be like. Its a wonderful essay and her prose is so so beautiful.
I had loaned my copy of Em and The Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto to a friend and I got it back peppered with stick notes. I can’t wait to re-read it and now see the book partially via my gaze and a little bit via hers. If you haven’t already read it, I urge you to. It’s something else. Also, Annie Zaidi’s new book, city of incident is out. I loved her previous work, Prelude to a Riot and can’t wait to check the new book out.
I finally watched the visual spectacle that is Phantom Thread by Paul Thomas Anderson. The movie’s core features some shifting power dynamics that is so meticulously staged and acted that it really blew me away. I’m a big fan of Anderson’s oldish film, Boogie Nights. This video essay by Thomas Flight captures the changing style of PTA’s work really well.
My roommate is a big fan of Contact, the film based on Carl Sagan’s novel. He finally convinced me to sit down and watch it and boy was I not disappointed. Robert Zemeckis directed the hell out of the movie. It’s not as conceptually complex as some of its other sci-fi brethren but it has so much soul. I absolutely loved it.
I managed to watch C’mon C’mon directed by Mike Mills a while back. It has a Joaquin Phoenix showing off his insane acting range. How can an actor do a Joker and then come back and play a regular human with regular insecurities and frailties so convincingly? Anyways, the movie is beautiful in a way such down to earth movies tend to be. I highly recommend it if you want a warm hug and hot chocolate with marshmallow kind of feels.
I’m going through a serious post-rock phase right now and I have listened to This Will Destroy You’s eponymous album and The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place by Explosions In The Sky many many times in the last few months.
Johnny Greenwood basically dropped the ball with the Phantom Thread OST. It is a sublime companion to the film’s visuals but great to listen to by itself as well.
Meri Jaan, Amma Appa, Faasle and Mera Safar are really nice songs by the Anand Bhaskar Collective
This by Raymond Carver reminded me of a beautiful line of dialogue from WandaVision that lost much of its power because the scene it appeared in was memed to death. In it, Vision tells Wanda - “What is grief if not love persevering?”
by Raymond Carver
Woke up early this morning and from my bed looked far across the Strait to see a small boat moving through the choppy water, a single running light on. Remembered my friend who used to shout his dead wife’s name from the hilltops around Perugia. Who set a plate for her at his simple table long after she was gone. And opened the windows so she could have fresh air. Such display I found embarrassing. So did his other friends. I couldn’t see it. Not until this morning.
This photo by Amar Kristjansson captures the terrifying power, vastness and sparse beauty of the ocean so well.
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Random access memory is a great name for this blog, and I like your theme of the fragility of memories
I have no idea how you manage to write these newsletters with such candor. I am almost jealous. You almost make being in touch with one's own thoughts seem easy and I hate you for that! Also, isn't memory such a neat thing? It shrinks down life into neat little bite-sized pieces that you can hold in your hands, chew on it or store away. My mum says it is like "amloki" or dried Amla chunks hahaha. The more you suck on it the sweeter it becomes!