Palm trees and the open road

On a rather cold Pune morning last week, I read Joy, Zadie Smith’s celebrated essay. This is from one of the central passages, and the specificity of it is, what else can I say, joyful.

"Until quite recently I had known joy only five times in my life, perhaps six, and each time tried to forget it soon after it happened, out of the fear that the memory of it would dement and destroy everything else. Let’s call it six. Three of those times I was in love, but only once was the love viable, or likely to bring me any pleasure in the long run. Twice I was on drugs—of quite different kinds. Once I was in water, once on a train, once sitting on a high wall, once on a high hill, once in a nightclub, and once in a hospital bed."

In another place, Smith describes the emotion as "that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight."

I know what she means.

When I shared it on Twitter, a friend replied that she always felt joy as: "an intense sense of well-being/connection whether it shows up unsummoned one morning or after your heart's been cracked open by a movie or in a relationship."

This is true too. The word unsummoned is important here. 

As I read the essay, I found myself trying to remember the times when I had known joy myself, or at least felt a semblance of it.

I understood both the definitions of it, though, both Smith’s and my friend’s. Like Smith, I don’t think I have ever felt joy without the terror of loss. I always thought this was peculiarly Indian, a superstition we have about not letting ourselves feel too happy, and I was surprised when I saw it here.

And like my friend, I have also known it as an amiable companion, as someone looking over my shoulder at times when I had nothing to worry about, or when I was enveloped by something completely of the time and place I was in.

There’s one memory that immediately came up, though.

In early 2008, I had just entered my final year of engineering school. I had been doing very badly in my 2nd and 3rd years and had a bunch of papers to clear. But for the first time, gripped by fear that I would never graduate if this went on, I had pulled myself up, studied like a lunatic, and attempted to pass everything in my 6th semester exams.

Now, in the 7th semester, I was in my final year, and waiting for the results.

This was the town of Karaikal, part of the Union Territory of Pondicherry, about 7 hours south of Chennai along the coast. It’s the countryside, basically, and all we had was open space and the wind. The tea shops of this old fishing community opened at 4 am, some even at 3 am, to serve working fishermen who had to leave for the sea. For an early riser, this was great, and the miles and miles of open coastline meant that the scenery was beautiful, in some places astonishing.

I was playing cricket at what we called the stadium. This was a huge parade ground at the southern end of the town, near the border with Tamil Nadu. It had running tracks and cricket pitches that were ignored for most of the year, but cleaned up on Republic Day for the local MLA to hoist the national flag.

I was fielding close to the batsman when news arrived that our results were out.

The year is 2008, remember: we had feature phones, and internet access was from the local cyber cafe. So off we went, in a procession of noisy motorcycles, hearts in our mouths, the tension showing up in coarse language, teasing, and laughter - the refuge of nervous and insecure young men the world over.

Outside the first internet place we could find, someone checked my results, and told me what I thought would never happen: I had passed everything; the current semester’s papers, the old papers I’d failed, the practical I’d been attempting to pass for three semesters, everything.

Emotions ran high there, some of us had passed, some of us had failed, and some of us had done a bit of both. The sun was going down, the southern dusk arriving quickly and quietly, with that suddenness that I’m still alarmed by.

I had a Bajaj Caliber 115 then, the motorcycle made popular by the hoodibaba campaign. There almost always was no one on those roads, but that day, I would not have noticed even if there was traffic. I zoomed past the palm trees, the wild bougainvillea, and the thorny bushes so characteristic of Tamil country.

I felt light, like a weight had been lifted off my young shoulders. In that euphoric daze, I realised also that life was coming at me, and that I had just passed the first hurdle of what were going to be many. I was terrified too, of the future, of course I was, but right at that point, I was happy.

For now, it was me and the road. And this feeling in my heart. Joy, maybe.

Written in February 2021.