The glass walls of the elegant office cabin on the 45th floor of Emerald Towers looked out at the beautiful twilight touching the city of Mumbai. The alleys and lanes and by-lanes zigzagged their way through the maze of concrete and shanties as the city in all its unpretentious splendour spread its arms to greet the inevitable embrace of the Arabian Sea.
He stood on the beige carpet looking out at the maze and beyond, scanning the city which 12.5 million called their home. He was searching for some space; some space to breathe, to escape from his harrying thoughts, some space to just be. On his desk, beside the laptop and the bunch of printouts lay his wallet containing a few crisp notes. An array of colourful plastic cards flaunting various logos, which had till then filled up the space of his wallet, lay carelessly scattered on the carpet.
It was past seven thirty in the evening. He was done for the day. Yet he felt himself incapable of going through the routine of winding up work and dashing straight home. The mobile was ringing; possibly his wife checking where he was, under the disguise of the familiar question, “When are you coming home? I am making rajma and pulav tonight.” He ignored the rings.
Space. It was in quest of space that he had locked himself up in his plush cabin. On an impulse he had thrown out the cards from his wallet. They took up too much space. There was one that bonded him to a particular restaurant to have recurrent meals there to earn points; yet another to a retail chain where the platinum membership promised incredible deals to keep him off competitors’ territories. Then there was a card tying him to a particular multiplex experience, another to a gaming experience, yet another to an elite club and so on. His life seemed to be controlled and his choices stifled by the conspiracy of the plastic cards that ruled him like an obliging puppet. Yes, the cards were taking too much space in his life.
Now as he gazed at the skyline of the city, he realised that it was not just the cards. Everything took up space; his relationships, his memories, his commitments, his work schedules and deadlines, his dreams, his failures. And in the midst of all this, there was no space for him, Anirudh Mehta, 38 years of age, Chartered Accountant. Even his name and title and his business card took up space. Claustrophobia hit him and he wanted a breath of fresh air.
He sent off his chauffeur and found himself driving, negotiating peak hour traffic and heading on a different route than usual. He stopped a few yards off the base of the flyover at Marine Drive, opposite a sprawling five storied building that stood next to the Aquarium. The lights were just coming on and one by one the jewel-studded Queen’s Necklace (as the entire stretch of that seafront promenade is known in the evenings) revealed itself in its full glory. He carefully removed his blazer, tie, and shirt and stripped himself to the bare minimum of trousers and vest. Throwing off the pile of discarded clothes along with his cell phone on the back seat of the car, he decided to take a walk along the sea front. The salty air carried a trace of nostalgia, something that invited a momentary flicker of a familiar sensation and then disappeared. He walked briskly heading towards the direction of Malabar Hills. He felt light without the unnecessary burden of his formal clothes. He wondered how long he should walk to catch a fragment of that elusive space that could hold him.
A few yards down, he was interrupted by a nagging beggar woman who kept following him and tried to touch him with her filthy fingers hoping that he would be disgusted enough to toss a couple of coins her way in the haste to get rid of her. Anirudh was irritated as expected, but on a weird impulse, he surprised himself by doing something unexpected. He told the woman to wait at that very spot as he needed to complete his walk and that he would return in an hour’s time. If she would still be waiting, then on his way back, he would give a ten rupee note as value for her time. This suggestion threw the pestering woman off track and she retreated promptly wondering if she had been following a lunatic.
This incident somehow made Anirudh feel light headed and he chuckled to himself as he walked oblivious to the amused stares of passersby, who, taking in his attire and manner may have been impelled to reach the same conclusion as the beggar woman. After a while it dawned on him that he had exercised a wonderful option, in fact a key instrument to ward off unnecessary intrusion to his space. And that instrument was choice. He had chosen to break the pattern of his familiar thoughts and actions and attempted something different. All at once, the concepts of ‘space’ and ‘choice’ overlapped with each other to point towards the same thing.....freedom.
His intuitive mind was guiding him now through a zone where logic didn’t know the way. He realised that to find space he had to get rid of needless encroachments that cluttered his sense of self. He had to be free. He had to choose to let go of his past; the past where things happened and did not happen; where he failed time and again and then tasted success whose essence was immediately swallowed up by some other loss. He had the choice to forgive. He had to free himself of the desires and fears of tomorrow that took up all his space today. He had a choice to be detached from worries of uncertainty. As if on cue, the sea wind picked up pace and eroded the record of thoughts that played and replayed on his mind incessantly. The sea breeze carried the allure of freedom. Just as he crossed Chowpatty Beach and Wilson College, the wind had eroded everything except an all pervasive feeling of self and at that moment there was a space so huge that it engulfed his complete sense of being. He felt himself expanding to fill in that entire space till the space and he became one.
The city hurried by, never stopping, never asking, never intruding. The traffic lights changed from red to green, then yellow, then red again. The scent of pani-puri and bhel pervaded the evening air. People talked, children laughed, a lone blind man sang an off key note. A bunch of eve teasers made lewd gestures at a teenage girl who was jogging along with earphones plugged in, blissfully unaware of the injustices of the world.
Anirudh slipped on his shirt and checked his phone. He answered the missed calls of his wife and chose to ignore the business calls. He understood that he had a choice to keep his work away from the space of his personal time. He had a choice to refuse to be a slave to plastic cards or to familiarity. In his sphere of commitments he had a choice to keep his soul untouched by personal history. He had a choice to trade irritation with amusement, a choice to forgive himself; in fact wherever he looked, he had a choice. He kicked the engine and the car plunged forward. Just as he was about to change lanes, he spotted the beggar woman on the sidewalk cradling a child on her lap. He slowed the car abruptly and lowered the glass. As the car passed the woman, he tossed his wallet at her; a deep chrome wallet bearing the Hideskin logo and containing 2 five hundred rupee notes, a few coins, and a lot of empty space. He was priding his mastery over the incredible option of choice.
The car whizzed through a blinking yellow light, flanked by a jungle of zooming traffic and drowned by a cacophony of unnecessary honking. The unbearable lightness of space all around and within him found him choosing the familiar route once again through the peak hour rush in Mumbai where 12.5 million people live and breathe every single day, fighting for a scrap of roof and some space.
(I dedicate this post to the city which has been my home for the past 20 years, where I learned to experience freedom in many forms and which, in spite of my occasional curses, never ceases to inspire me and has taught me that space lies in the incredible power of free will. The sprawling five storied building facing Queen’s Necklace is the government women’s hostel which is home to some of my most beloved memories during my college days.)