A missed bus, English, August, and a wasted life? (part 1)

+25 Jan. 2005 Tues. ~9:30am,  13 August 10 Fri. 12:15pm, 23 August 10 Mon. ~9:00am, & the better part of September 2010

While waiting for the bus at Poplar & Clark this morning, I sat in a pleasant, sunny spot that Hi and I had discovered a few days before.  This morning I am re-reading (for the umpteenth time) English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee when I come across this rather poignant and telling passage.  The scene takes place at The Club, and Agastya (the August of the title) has just endured an afternoon playing cards with his superiors where the atmosphere is a smoldering rendition of politics as usual:

“Agastya was enraged at himself, for agreeing to the afternoon, for being in Madna, for a job that compelled him to be polite to Srivastav [his boss] and his wife, for being in the job he was, for not having planned his life with intelligence, for having dared to believe that he was adaptable enough to any job and circumstance, for not knowing how to change either, for wasting a life.  He watched the chairs being arranged in rows and tables being hidden by bed sheets, and couldn’t believe his future.”


13 August 10 Fri. ~12:15 pm

I bought this book at train station bookstore in India when I was preparing for my train trip north from Madurai to Varanasi.  Little did I know, when I picked it out in June of 1995 or so, that I would still be re-reading it (in passing) fifteen years later, after the pages had come loose, and the plastic coating had started to slough off the cover.  Initially, I enjoyed its drug references and aligned myself with the title character’s anti-hero status and fuck-it-all attitude.  Later I found myself returning to it, like an old neglected friend, when my life seemed meaningless, or my job bogged down, or I found myself wondering what in the hell I had done with my life.  In its pages, I would find solace — no matter how downtrodden I felt or how little meaning I found in my life, somehow I always came away from the book feeling better.  I, after all, was not exiled to a bureaucratic backwater the middle of nowhere rural India, having doomed myself to follow in my uncle’s career civil service footsteps.  I think I also felt a certain kinship with Agastya because I, too, had failed to plan a more pleasing future for myself than the retail hell I had happened upon when, fresh out of college, I found myself in need of a job.

Picking up with English, August (p. 135), we find my fears echoed in this passage:

“He had never before had any ambition, perhaps because he had never before been unhappy.  Now he was surprised by the memory of these earlier desires of what he felt had been his innocence — to choose colours for the bogeys of trains; such wishes had always been frivolous, now they became blasphemous.”

Truly, I had never wished “to choose the colours for the bogeys of trains.”  When I was much younger I had wanted (obscurely) to be a writer, maybe get paid to travel and write about the trip.  One of my early heroes was Michael Palin, not so much for his work in Monty Python, but for his later efforts as an innocent abroad, recreating the journey from Jules Verne’s Around The World In Eighty Days for British (and then American public) tv.  My highschool era heroes were writers or musicians, and I numbered Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac (of the Beat Generation and later years), Loren Eiseley (anthropologist, professor, poet, naturalist), Mickey Hart (drummer for the Grateful Dead and later self-educated writer of books on percussion, music, anthropology, and the like) among my heroes.  All of these men lived life to the fullest, and all write beautifully about the experience.  Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Eiseley all hopped trains, hitchhiked, saw the world first hand, and made art of the experience.  Hart didn’t even finish highschool, yet found himself the multi-instrumentalist percussionist of a very successful band and then channeled his passion into beautifully written books about the intersections of percussion, cultural development, history, and life lived to the fullest.  I always have thought that an itinerant life of reflection, of broad experience, of passions and dreams fulfilled suited me but I never have had the momentum to make it happen for myself.  When I first arrived in Memphis, I was in college and no one expected me to know what I really wanted out of life; part of the college gig, though, is that somewhere in that four (or more) years, everyone expects you to find what you want and concretize the vision into a firm, financially viable reality.   As I approached my sophomore year and the need to pick a direction loomed, I increasingly became mired in the decision-making process.   When the decision could no longer be avoided, I chose history because that’s what my dad had done.  Because studying history wasn’t nearly as challenging for me as making a real decision, I stayed a history major instead of stirring the pot with roiling indecision, radical changes of direction, or life-changing travel.  Everyone in college needs to choose a degree, and I had mine.  Truthfully, although I had an officially sanctioned decision, I had little more direction than I had before I chose a major.

Like Agastya, “life had suddenly become a black, elusive, definite but clichéd goal, how to crush the restlessness” of my mind.  I too had begun to feel that I was mostly wasting time living and working in Memphis.  That famous phrase about “men being masters of their fates haunted” me as it haunted Agastya, “continually taunting” me to face it.  I could readily identify with the sentiment of the character when he admitted that “he did not know whether he should resign himself to his world, and to the rhythm that, living as we do, is imposed upon us, or whether he should believe, in the mere words of an ancient Hindu poem,  that action was better than inaction.  But he found all this impossible to explain to anyone, there was no one in Madna to whom he could say this, and no one else anywhere either.  No one would really be interested, and the others would not understand.”  And so it went.

The philosophy and sentiments of the author as espoused in the book weighed on me, influencing my state of mind to an almost unnatural degree in my first five years or so in Memphis.  Looking back, it seems strange that I would fixate on that one book, finding solace in its well-worn pages and bleak comfort in the author’s rather dark view of life and one’s place in it.  Strange, yet not entirely out of character, since I had spent the better part of my first twenty years of sentient life on this planet mired in “roiling uncertainties,” paralyzed by my own insecurities and fears, seeking certainty where there was perhaps no possibility of finding any.  I identified with Agastya’s frustration, his own peculiar take on J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye outsider motif, railing against his own failure to plan and what he perceives as his dead-end life.  I hung out with lots of  “Agastya’s” when I first left school in Memphis, before I finally found my community among the Radical Faeries.   We had a good time together, but I differed from many of the guys I hung with in that I had a college degree, and in principle anyway, I had other options besides the retail/service environment where we’d met.  So we drank, explored the inner workings of our brains, watched movies, made art, talked late into the night, took trips, walked and biked most places (unless one of us happened to have a working vehicle), and most importantly, shared each others dreams.

At some point, that existence, pleasant though it was, was no longer enough.  Maybe I bought into the American dream just a bit more, or maybe I wasn’t really as cynical as I had thought I was.  I had spent many years, as my friend Liz once put it, operating at a low-level of depression.  When I found kindred spirits, I clung to them as long as I could.  When that friend-group splintered — some got married or moved away, some just fell by the wayside as time marched on, and one spiralled into heavy drugs and heavy alcoholism.  He may have dived in to Charles Bukowski’s world just a bit too deeply.  Where I ultimately found  my niche in life and moved on from the dark nihilism of Bukowski, my friend slid into the darkness and became almost inaccessible.   Eventually, enough of those factors came into play at once, and I found myself alone once again.

At around the same time, I got an opportunity to go to India to study Indian culture and religion with one of my favorite professors from a school and a group of his students.  Really, this was just opportunity to go abroad dressed up as an educational opportunity, but I jumped at the chance.  “Seeking ” has always been one of my strongest things, so finding myself without so many friends, I was eager for new experience and “ready for love.”

(end of part 1)


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