It happened almost 20 years ago, when I was a teenager. I was volunteering for a Tibetan festival during my summer break, when, from the margins of new learnings and new yearnings, I witnessed the creation of a kala chakra mandala. A group of monks spent their time in silent focus, creating an elaborate labyrinth of cosmic realms out of coloured sand. The mandala seemed like the maze life must navigate, linking the mundane to the supernatural, the spiritual to the daily. At the end of its creation, the artist-monks gathered and performed the final ritual. They lifted the base, tilting the sands onto each other. Some of them waded their hands through it, destroying what had seemed to be their biggest preoccupation and labour over the past few days.
It took me years to understand the scope of ambition that I had witnessed that summer. It is the most human of ambitions, linking the monks to the householders, the artists to their characters. Even though impermanence is the biggest adjective of our lives, we are ill-equipped to let go.
Some people write to challenge their mortality, dreaming of books and words that will outlast their human lives. I write to reconcile with it. One day, I hope that my writerly tasks will lead me towards a wisdom that celebrates it. For how can we appreciate life in all its vastness, if we keep fearing death?
At 23, I wrote my first novella. It was a children’s book for adults, an oddity on most accounts. It was universally rejected by publishers, and often without grace. When a publisher addressed me as “Sri Aurobindo” in a rejection letter, mistaking the author of the opening quote for me, I decided to withdraw with dignity. But my manuscript, along with dozens of its drafts and notes occupied my entire real-estate — a shelf. There was no space for new ideas and new lives here. So, I tore all the sheets from the spiral-bound copies, separated the plastic from the paper and burned it up in a bonfire. It broke my heart. Unknowingly, I had performed the ritual of letting go, without the wisdom that strengthens it.
Over time, the shelf turned into a cupboard, and my writing desk found itself a new room. It had been years since I burned my work down, and the fields of fiction remained fallow. At 28, it was time to start writing. Again.
It would take me seven years to research, write and rewrite Latitudes of Longing before it was published. While the room was big enough for a writing desk, it was too small to accommodate the research papers, notes and profound silence I needed to write. It was “our” room now after all — a couple’s bedroom in a burgeoning household. A careless wallet thrown on my desk, or unwanted things shoved into my bookshelf could lead to a breakdown. This was my altar, my sacred ground. And like all fanatics, I was insecure.
As I approached the final edits, the insecurities only grew. I didn’t know the fate of the novel once it would be published. Nor did I understand my own. How would I sleep without those stories brewing in my dreams? What would I reflect on, if not those familiar lines?
I spent two whole days sifting through my notebooks that were organised by location, theme and research. I looked at them for the final time before tearing them all up. I collected the shreds of paper and packed them in my suitcase. I was on my way to the Kumaon to complete the novel in a warm, secluded room in the mountains. Somewhere in the mountains, I would bid them all farewell in a solitary bonfire.
The month would be especially difficult. This was my final chance at un-knotting, re-weaving and smoothening the lines. Even as I felt the imperfections and insecurities with intensity, things also started to fall into place. The parts that I struggled with opened up to reveal their essence. I was vulnerable, raw, and surprisingly receptive.
On an evening walk one day, I had an epiphany, upon seeing the snow peaks across the horizon. If you were a visiting tourist, you could have easily believed that the green forested hills were as far as the horizon stretched. It was only on translucent moments such as this, immediately after winter rains, that one could see the Trishul and Nandadevi mountain ranges, lording over the valleys. As I stared at them with longing, something struck me. The best stories are the ones that lie ahead — waiting to be expressed and experienced.
A few days later, I had an accident. To make a long story short, I fell off a cliff, and a tree saved my life. It was the sole tree growing vertically from a steep cliff, and it held me so securely that I had to be pulled out by a few men. As I hung there (almost upside down), I had time to gaze at the snow peaks ahead, clear blue skies above and sharp drop below. It struck me that I hadn’t orchestrated this moment, definitely not the acrobatic feat of hanging from a tree. Yet here I was, calm as I waited for someone to get me. With the tree holding me tight, I could let go with faith and gratitude.
The accident prevented the bonfire I had planned (half of it, at least). I returned home with most of the crumbled paper and torn sheets that I had left with. Yet, I had surrendered to the possibilities that awaited. I had let go of the umbilical cord that connected me to my words.
Nine months after the accident, my bones have healed from the fractures, but the scars remain. A free fall lives within, especially when I stare from heights, or find myself alone amidst uncertainty.
And so does the feeling of being held.
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