Tragedy is a straight line, Gajabuji never is

This essay won the Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize for the Personal Essay 2018.
 
The theme was Friending/Unfriending.
 
The judge, writer/translator Srinath Perur, had this to say about the essay:
 
 
“Amulya B’s entry is insightful in its mapping of externalities to the self. It has as its refrain the idea of disarray – ambient as well as within the mind – and it engagingly explores ways in which this disarray limits friendships.”
 

‘Gajabuji’: a dirty room; a drawing with crooked lines; a handwritten note you cannot decipher; my anxious mind; when saaru mixes with paayasa on a plantain leaf; a knot I cannot solve; a stitch I cannot unravel.

When I first saw S, she was walking into our new house that was not a home yet and her curls were locked in a ponytail. “So much gajabuji here” she said pointing at the clothes, steel utensils, bamboo furniture taking up our new living space. The objects were tired after a rather brief commute, struggling to breathe, suffocating amid large piles of books accompanying years of dust. My asthmatic father too had joined in this synchronized laboured breathing, while my mother was finding ways to accommodate their combined bibliographic treasure with my weeks-old baby brother in her arms.

The curious 4-year-old who had walked into our new 30-40 basement dwelling happened to be a friendly neighbour, and incidentally, my classmate. Retrospectively, I don’t remember whether I recognized her as the same girl from my class. Maybe not; I think I would have remembered the curls.

Until I met S, I had barely tip-toed around the state of being gajabuji. I believe I repeatedly encountered it at home, but always from a distance or in the dreams I had dreamed in my home. But I cannot be sure: like the existence of milk in the refrigerator, when your mother asks about it.

But S, she knew exactly what gajabuji was: something you need to get away from, something undesirable, something to be locked in a ponytail.

*
I do not invite my friends home. I live in a non-fancy part of the city and there’s nothing I can offer, that a good café cannot. There’s also an added advantage of not being subjected to unwanted scrutiny of people trying to decipher the puzzle of person-hood. As if I’m nothing more than a Sunday crossword, which can be solved if you put a little bit effort. Hey, there have been at least two boys who described me as ‘mystery’ in my high-school slam book. So, maybe I am.

I am a Sunday crossword – ripe with wrong guesses, crossed-out words and undecipherable gibberish.

I am gajabuji.

*

Over the years, both S and my family moved a lot, though we tried to stay in the same locality we had come to love. Indeed, I had found a refuge in S’s home, which was as minimalist as they come, before minimalism became a hipster trend: a Nilkamal plastic table on wheels, a bamboo-made 3-seater and a TV on a stand. On the wall above the TV stand, was one single framed picture of S, aged 2 or 3, in a purple frock with a locket-chain around her neck and her curly hair locked in half-ponytail.

Whenever I had a fight with my Amma, which was quite often, I would run to her house. Her mother would treat me with culinary extravaganza, remarkable for the quintessential Andhra spiciness, irrespective of what time of the day it was. On some days, I would leave home, heading toward the main road hoping to find myself under the wheels of a lorry, only to make a last-minute change to the itinerary and visit S instead. When Auntie served food, even Thanatos had to hold his horses.

S used to visit my home quite often too, but the frequency wasn’t as high as mine. I often hinted to her that I would rather visit her, than she taking the trouble to visit me; after all, I had a bicycle, and eventually, a two-wheeler.

At an age when you wanted to fit in and blend in with your cohort, an unconventional living condition was something to hide. I didn’t want anyone to know that we lived among books and papers and lived to debate the news and ideas outlined in them.

So for a long time, she was the only person who visited our home regularly. (Till date, she is the only one who has seen my room). Amma who unsuccessfully tries to get everything in order when someone’s going to visit us, never moved an inch if S was the said visitor. The broadsheet newspapers would remain open, the paper with scribbled notes would stay on the floor, the glass tumblers without coasters would stand resolute on the teapoy, the disheveled sofa cover would stay disheveled, as if that was their natural state of being. In front of S, however, there was no need for any pretension. She made our home seem like it was normal, at least for some time.

But, when wherever you look there are words and letters sprinkled around like feed for pecking chickens, Gajabuji becomes your identity. No matter how much you try. And gajabuji always turns living spaces into lonely homes. I should know, since I have been carrying gajabuji inside my head for a long time now.

Haunted houses are nothing but those living spaces where ideas outnumber people. And ideas? They never stay still. Ideas move, mate, migrate, and frighten people.

*

Amma thinks I do not have friends. I tell her you don’t have any too. She says she does and takes a moment and utters 2-3 names. I don’t know them, they have never visited us. No one visits us, at all. (Unless someone wants my father to do something for them). Is it because I don’t invite them? Or is it because I know they won’t come and that’s why I don’t invite them?

Should this make me sad? It doesn’t. Maybe once upon a time it used to.  

My mother is not a single mother, but she very well could be called one being married to a person who makes his presence known through his absences. Indeed, when you grow up in a village which becomes an island during the monsoon, self-reliance is a lesson you learn quickly.

A man might not be an island, but women are – more often than you’d think.

Mother says, hey we are better than my father who really doesn’t have any friends. We laugh. Father yells from the bathroom – I heard that. As I laugh, I realise I’m my father’s friend and I am my mother’s friend. My parents are my friends. We exchange clothes when we can and my mother and I exchange earrings from our collections. We make each other laugh, we make each other angry. Isn’t that what friendship’s all about?

S’s parents called, they want us to attend the Grihapravesha of their new home. 

Weekday? I have work, you know that Amma.

I’m going nevertheless. Are you still not talking to S?

I don’t know. I really don’t.

Amma wants me to be friends with everyone who was friends with me when since I was 3. She brings up random names from my school days, ones she can remember:

What’s Y doing? And R? You were so fond of him while growing up! Why don’t you visit Subbanna Garden and meet everyone at once? Even S!

I want to tell her, Amma, I can see her whenever I want to – on Facebook. Her curls are gone –flat-ironed, she recently attended a friend’s wedding. Her father visits my LinkedIn profile often, to see whether my path has finally converged with my father’s, so he can mourn over my non-existent career.

I want to tell her, Amma, my friendships suffer and eventually succumb under the weight of my inheritance from you: that fierce streak of independence. How does a friendship work, when not being vulnerable is the most ‘you’ of all the attributes of you? 

We strive so much to overcome and escape our familial, familiar gajabuji, only to be sucked into the whirlpool of the gajabuji, becoming part of the gajabuji.

*

Is gajabuji a Kannada word or a Telugu one? Or is it a made-up word like a make-believe friend that every child is believed to have? (Not that I had one). Or is it nothing more than a shared secret or memory between us? Whatever be the nature of gajabuji—semantically or functionally—by introducing me to this 4-syllable word, S gave me a gift. She equipped me with the ability to recognize a pattern that I was encountering around me repeatedly, but had no name to call it by.

When S referred to my new home in disarray as gajabuji, it only meant that for me. Over the years however it has metamorphized into my own personal, subjective category, like a washing machine with infinite load capacity, where I dump my proverbial laundry I gleaned from living. 

Now, gajabuji is part of my language-world too.

*

A friend who wanted to be more than a friend, recently asked me, why am I obsessed with defining a relationship accurately, using appropriate terms. He was specifically referring to my habit of using precise words when it comes to defining my relationship with other people: acquaintance, colleague, partner, neighbour etc. Why can’t I just refer to people generally as friends, especially when we are outside in a large group?

I don’t know whether my habit embarrasses him or annoys others. Maybe it does both.

I have always used the word ‘friend’ sparingly and it has caused considerable strain on, and prematurely ended, many of my potential as well as cherished relationships. The word friend conveys an intimacy to me, as I have always had only one or two friends at a time and my mental and emotional resources are distributed among them. Hence, I don’t call someone ‘friend’ when they can be defined by a better term, for my mental well-being.

My friendship set is a finite set. It can hold only pre-defined number of elements.

*

N is the first friend of mine who started tagging me on memes on Facebook. Thanks to the time-bound lives we lead, meme-tagging seems to be a genuine way to maintain friendships, when you don’t get to see each other often. After all, memes are nothing but a nod to a shared joke that only the concerned have the context. Paradoxically, most of the world thinks so too. That is why it’s a meme.

The perils of a 9-to-5 job, the tragicomedy condition of late-capitalism living and mental illness— all kinds of memes occupied my timeline. They had a palliative effect easing the shared dread N and I felt about our lives and futures, if any.

When I showed her the mess that I was living with inside me, dancing to a tune that I could neither hear nor understand, but built my life around, she did not return the look of bewilderment that I had come to expect. After all, I have had instances where friends have looked at me like I was dying and when I was indeed feeling like that, I was told to ‘Snap out of it’, quoting the Arctic Monkeys.

Instead, she showed me her own gajabuji.

We were atop a pendulum each, eternally swinging back and forth, seeing each other briefly at a midpoint. Only to be never in sync. Sometimes I watch her fight her own battles – to stop the wind becoming a storm. I cheer for her from the audience, for each stride she makes. I don’t tell her that my storm is my gajabuji, coiling around me like a python, slowly suffocating me to death. I want to escape its grip, but I want to be there for her. I wish I could do both.

What brought us together was also the same thing that was pulling us apart.

Pendulum swings and we miss each other again.

Tick-tock, Tick-tock.

I never told her that I had given this state of being in constant anxiety and worry, caught in your own web of thoughts, always in mortal peril, a name. But I could feel her frustration when I wouldn’t discuss my subjective experience of living in chronic illness. I take it all in, never giving anything back of my own.

You don’t share enough.

You don’t tell me anything.

I don’t know how to share without referring to gajabuji. If I did, she would inevitably ask me to explain gajabuji. I wouldn’t know how to do that, without truncating its semantic expanse and what it means to me.

When I explain, I must draw boundaries. But my gajabuji cannot be contained within any boundary. It was initially a pile of mess in my home and now has evolved into something as elusive as the mythical Kraken. The more you try to restrain it by chopping its tentacles, it only grows larger and stronger than before. Akin to our universe, it is continuously expanding itself into the outer unknown. How can I linguistically restrain it?

My head is gajabuji, so is my heart.
And so it begins.

*

Amma thrives among her 5000+ friends. I shrink rapidly in the presence of 300 who I carefully curated. I shrink away until I feel nothing in me. Except my gajabuji, which now makes its presence known externally:

In the calls I didn’t return
In the messages I didn’t send
In the meet-ups I didn’t attend
In the friendships that eventually break.

My mother can smell my tears in the furniture, on the bed, in the floor. When the dog is sad again, she knows, the gajabuji is here. Maybe I shouldn’t have quit my job again, only to babysit this gajabuji.

Are you missing your friends?

They are my colleagues, Amma.

I think they are your friends.

Maybe they remain my friends, because they haven’t seen the gajabuji yet. It was a good decision to limit your colleagues to LinkedIn. Because gajabuji has the habit of peeking through tagged memes and inscrutable statuses on Facebook. Once they do see it, I’ll be back to where I started:

Once in a week, I give my mother a demonstration. I take my two-wheeler’s key try to put it through the keyhole of the home.

Can you see it Amma, I’m like a key with the grooves which won’t fit into any of the keyholes in the world! Do you get it?

Maybe she does.

I know many people who have a Black Dog instead of the gajabuji. The Black Dog fits neatly into the DSM-V. Isn’t that a relief! Gajabuji doesn’t and hence, it creates its own mini-gajabuji. I do not know whether I can ever turn my abstract gajabuji into a concrete Black Dog, which can be kept tightly leashed. Meanwhile, I will continue to live in the house anyway, where ideas outnumber people, fighting against my inheritance and explaining to my mother why I’m a key with false grooves.

After all, ideas have always sustained me, when friendships did not.

Tragedy is a straight line, gajabuji never is.

*

Featured Image credits: Jesper2cv via Flickr

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Amulya B

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One thought on “Tragedy is a straight line, Gajabuji never is

  • 31st July 2018 at 1:06 pm
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    You are still a mystery! Wonderfully penned… A swirling vortex of ‘Gajabuji’… My favourite part you wondering whether abstract gajabuji could ever be turned into concrete black dog tightly leashed!! There’s the mystery!

    Reply

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