Schooling the Self, (Re)Cycling the Self

I was bunched with a few kids of Benaras, when I started school, to sit in a red and blue school-rickshaw. All I remember from those days are the posters of Shehanshah and Mard. Amitabh Bachchan, who would be a cop in the day and turn into Shehanshah in the night, wore chains, and blocked bullets with his bulletproof  left arm. Then, the arrival of the next dancing star, Govinda, with Inteqam, perhaps the first film I saw repeatedly. Later, I walked to school with a bunch of kids, from one village to another. Long eventless walk among the trees and birds. I don’t remember being very chatty. The walk encouraged an active sort of solitude. We carried our own jute mats, sat on the floor, wrote with homemade white ink on a black wooden plank. Even later, my father’s peon would cycle me to school. Very rarely my father would come and pick me up in his office jeep, which made me wait endlessly. I would spend that time watching bigger kids play gulli-danda; sitting next to a very obese semi-naked man, sweating all over, selling toffees and biscuits of indigenous variety; observing craftsmen make intricate and majestic kaaleens. Much later, for around a year, a schoolbus picked me up from home. Fear and loathing. Systemic violence. Not as bad as going to school in your own car, however, but only better than that. Passive consumerism. No romance with the outside, no possibility of it inside. Smoke, noise, discipline, punctuality, and serious bullying, pretensions, arrogance, affluence.

And then, I got my own bicycle to ride through Lucknow. First a mid-sized one for a few months before getting an adult-sized one. Time ran on wheels now. Spaces curved in on me as I would sometimes breeze past them, sometimes stand still and soak them. Like that spot where I chatted with Abhaya for endless hours before he would go across and sit in a tempo, I would ride back home. For the next ten years or so, the world as I imagined it, would play with me. It spread itself in a manner that would allure as well as tease, make me go after itself while it came at me. A boy on a cycle was an active participant in the world; he would offer his unprotected self to the world and allow himself to be taught as an equal who could not escape responsibilities. As the world blessed the boy with freedom and independence, it also told him conclusively, you shall have to bear the consequences for whatever you do, therefore, learn to respect and put a price on every choice you make. The cycle took him far and wide, often across the city when the school moved away. It gave him an intimacy with the city, with those who peopled the city, with friends, their houses, their colonies, their friends. I had entered a revised order of time-travel. That it wasn’t the fastest a man could go hardly mattered, that it was faster than himself always rendered an overspin, a spring to the jump, a new shine to every new day.

But there’s more to a cycle, lest you should overlook it. Slowly, it introduces within your body a regime of patience; the rhythmic negotiation between effort and result that it inculcates, resides within an orbit of patience. It teaches you what only dance and sport can at an early age, but unlike them, does not introduce ambitions of a largely visual achievement. While the young boy works with his musculature the paddles of a cycle, his perception also renders a musculature to the universe around him. This point requires elaboration. Much like the relationship between self-conversation and an ethical world-view as explored by Sundar Sarukkai, the musculature of self-at-work and the musculature of the world outside as perceived, operate in tandem. The insides extend their work-ethic to the outsides. The patience caressing the margins of the outsides infiltrate the self and consolidate the value of working with time. I am reminded of Rilke,

    Always trust yourself and your own feeling, as opposed to argumentation, discussions, or introductions of that sort; if it turns out that you are wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will eventually guide you to other insights. Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.

In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!


Think of patience as opposed to restlessness. Think of cyclicity as gestation – a consciously active resting, the tempo-building of a muscular patience. Think of Lucknow as if floating in the time-tub. Think of wit paddling through spaces, holding the interest of time in a manner that it forces it to stand still. Think of andaaz-e-bayaan and its own musculature.

The universe I inhabited demanded a regime of rhythmic discipline, of punctuating yourself, the tongue in particular, in a manner that it should hold attention, yours as well as others’. As Vinod Mehta writes in his mesmerising chapter on Lucknow, it was a sin to be a bore in that city. As one seeks a variety of interests and cultivates a few of one’s own to not be labeled as boring, one also learns to wait for interesting things to begin. It’s a bit like leaving outside the off-stump till you get one in your area. Through an entire process of cultivating rhythm of one’s anticipation, one learns to regulate the equilibrium of anticipation-response, to wade through stimulus-heavy chaos conserving energy and unleash it only at the right time.

Even though I was not cycling in the 60’s like Mehta, from Farangi Mahal to Sanyal Club, the traces of 60’s were still lying on the margins of the early 90’s, however low. Even today, as I chat with my muslim friends, as I listen to the gentleman at Izharson Perfumers in Chowk, as I sit and listen to the resonating voice of Ram Advani and notice his energy and excitement about books at 90, as I put a malai ki gilauri in my mouth, I can taste the margins of 60’s. I don’t ride anymore but the cyclic eye, rhythm, and patience, has been internalized by now. I always feel I have more time than others. I am always ready for a delightful phrase, a beautiful gesture, a telling manner, a moment of quirky behaviour, a desire to walk at one’s own pace, not take singles on a day when you don’t feel like them, as Boycott would tell us. Cycles, unlike cars and bikes, which constitute traffic, can be moody, as can be their riders. But it is not everyman’s thing to have moods. To have moods, one has to have a lot more – a desire to test new grounds in particular, and leave the comfort zone without any bitterness. I didn’t always find it easy to achieve. The bitterness also found many other sources. In the years to come, I faulted several times in judgment on account of a new found rhythm which was not yet in sync with my being, as a batsman would be hurried into a shot on a day when his body does not settle down. One can always cycle the self, re-cycle the self, school the self back to a familiar moment, gestate all over again, birth all over again.

Let me return to Vinod’s Mehta’s beautiful portrait of my city. I am particularly taken by the charm and tragedy of Safdar. His extraordinary quip to a car-driving friend, whom he refuses the honour of giving him a lift because he is in a hurry, remains etched on the memory, as one turns the page over to the next chapter. It should be not reduced to a mere flourish of wit, of gently breezing past someone’s nerves. The quip resonates with another sense of time itself, a time that cannot breathe inside a car.

With that, I turn the page to another city, Pune, another rhythm of movement, a bike, and to many new possibilities. But that page is blank yet, and the story is yet to come under my grip. Let’s leave that tale for another day.


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