Roads and Relationships
What is an adequate amount of time to wait before buying a bicycle in a city that’s not yours? After spending two years as a tenant in Delhi, I decided it was time to stop waiting for life to be less uncertain. The bicycle was a step towards stability in the big city, towards calling it my own. But I had read an essay in my junior school English textbook titled ‘Traffic in Delhi,’ which outlined in some detail the terrifying frequency of accidents in the city. One of my flatmates, a lifelong resident of Delhi, admitted that he would never dare. “You’ll die, bro, you’ll die,” he’d say, always twice, always with ‘bro’ in between. Could it really be that bad?
Gliding through the streets of Jamshedpur as a teenager, I had lived a secret life on the seat of my bicycle. After much nagging, my dad had bought me a bike with gears, with streaks of luminescent green on a matte black surface. Heads would turn each time I took it out, but what I wanted was to not be seen at all. In a small town, the road is one of the few places where you can hide with your emotions. On some days, the trees were magnificent, the sky infinite and the winds a gift from god. On other days, the autowalas looked like they had unsuccessful marriages they were somehow putting up with. At home, there was a fixed range of emotions that were acceptable. You were either happy or sad, and you weren’t allowed to be sad too often. On the road, I often didn’t know the things I felt, but I could see them all in the town passing me by at 15 kmph.
I had made the intention then, as a teenager, that wherever in the world I lived, I would always own a bicycle. It was time now to make that intention manifest, so I bought myself a sleek road bike from a shop a few kilometres away from home in Delhi. The staffer asked if I wanted it delivered, and I refused outright. The moment I set foot to the pedal, I was on the road. This was okay, this could work, I thought, trying to pace my breathing. There were vehicles. There were a lot of them, and they were very fast, but it was okay. Was this entirely stupid? Would I die before I got home? It would be alright, I told myself and pedalled on.
I was fifteen when I first discovered the sheer depth of suffering one can get plunged into when relationships go wrong. My first girlfriend in the ninth grade made me unhappy. During lunch breaks, I always wanted to play football with my friends, but she always wanted us to spend time together. I had many reasons to want a break-up, one of which was that I needed to ‘focus on my studies’. I went to my mother seeking help in this situation. I had kept our relationship a secret from her until then. She took some time to process it all, sighing, pausing to think, as if in doubt about the lesson she was going to impart. And then she said, “This is how relationships are at this age. They will just distract you from your mission.”
I remember thinking of this lesson as the affirmation of a suspicion I already had. In my mother’s imagination, my mission at the time was to get the first rank in class. In mine, I wasn’t so sure, but I knew that I had to be wholeheartedly dedicated to some mission, because that was how people became great, and I had to become great. I was convinced that you could either love a person or you could be on a mission but you couldn’t do both, and that I was supposed to choose the mission. It was around that time that I started to feel a strong aversion to giving in to the distraction that is other humans.
You are told that in a liberal-arts college all your beliefs get challenged, but my experience has been that if you do it right, your surface-level and perhaps even tightly-held beliefs get challenged. For your deepest, barely conscious ones, you just accumulate more intelligent-sounding justifications. This happened to me when I read Descartes. He at first seemed to reject the most basic of beliefs, which was that everything around us was real. There was never any guarantee, according to him. We believe things around us are real when we dream, but they’re not. So what’s to say my whole existence isn’t just a dream, crafted by some evil demon? Then came the masterstroke: I think, therefore I am. My consciousness is proof that I am real, if not as a physical thing then at least as a thinking thing. The argument fit neatly into a solipsism I had already imbibed. All I could be sure of was my own existence. Everyone else? At best, a bit suspect. At worst, created by the evil demon to distract me from my mission.
My idols in college were chosen on the basis of this radical individuality. I watched all the Steve Jobs movies and read all the Steve Jobs books. This was a man so dedicated to ‘putting a dent in the universe’ that he had no time for his own daughter. In one scene from the movie Jobs, Steve is sitting on the floor of the Apple headquarters at night surrounded by pages spread out on the floor, and Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, comes to let him know he’s leaving the company. “I can still remember when we were just kids, back in your dad’s garage.” Wozniak says, “We just wanted to create cool things for people like us, you remember that? Well, it’s not about people anymore for you. No, it’s about the product.” Wozniak breaks into tears, “Worst of all, it’s about yourself. You’re the beginning and the end of your own world, Steve, and it’s so small. So sad. And it’s gotta be lonely.”
I felt an inkling that these lines were relevant to my life in some grand way, but had no real grasp over how or why.
When Sartre famously wrote ‘Hell is other people’, he did not mean the suffering one feels because of fellow humans. But driving on Delhi roads, the popular, misguided usage of the phrase makes itself felt very strongly. On the back of a steering wheel, I have seen the most patient of my friends and relatives become full of rage. How could he just swerve like that? What a motherfucker. That fucker will die, and he should. These are not people who swear often; there’s something about the driving seat that brings this out in them. My suspicion is when people are helplessly dependent on other people’s decisions, they cope through anger. The idea that any stupid person who makes one stupid decision on the road can change our lives forever is a bit much to handle on a daily basis.
On the road for the first time in Delhi, I thought about my father’s advice when I started cycling in Jamshedpur: “Your responsibility is not just to not make any mistakes yourself, but also to drive in a way that you can avoid the fallout of other people’s mistakes.” The weight in my chest refused to go away, even with all the deep breathing. Vehicles were passing me by at an average speed of 70 kmph. I pedalled, on my most energetic rides, at a maximum speed of 30 kmph. Each time a car passed, it felt like a missile I was fortunate enough to dodge. I had gauged, based on an estimate of speed differences and impact of collisions, that the fallout of other people’s mistakes on this road (roughly speaking) would be death.
Were there any trees or clouds, any roadside beggars or unique buildings? I did not know. Delhi’s roads demanded my full attention. A search result for ‘how to cycle in cities’ told me that urban cyclists must stick to the side of the road. Only on trying that did I discover that the side is informally reserved for people going the opposite direction. Once, I even stared furiously at a biker who almost ran into me coming from the wrong side. I expected remorse, but he stared back and blurted, ‘This is how it works here.’ The wrong side was the norm. I was the aberration.
When I got home with my new bicycle, the lingering feeling in my heart was that this was a stupid decision. But I told myself that the ride was alright, that my friends were just paranoid. I couldn’t sleep for a few nights. As irrational as it was, I knew that I had bought the bicycle, so I had to ride it. I also wanted to know these roads more intimately, to understand where every nook and corner was, to be able to tell without Maps which road led where. Without knowing, I would always feel like a tourist here.
“I don’t feel like eating,” she said.
“Please? Just a Dosa?” I pleaded.
“Nah, I think I’ll skip it,” she said.
“You have to take care of yourself.” I snapped. I could tell that she could tell that I was frustrated. “When you don’t eat, and you feel low, that affects me too.” And now I could tell that she was hurt.
We were in the final year of college. My partner had been depressed for the better part of that year. I had tried and failed not to feel like I deserved her happiness, like she owed me her effort to feel better. It was undeniable, after all, that her emotions affected me. Eating your meals is something they say is helpful when you’re depressed, and so are exercising and meditation and journaling and seeking therapy and taking medicines. There was so much she could do, I thought, that would relieve my suffering. I would try to remind myself that this was not about me, but it felt then like at least in part, it should have been.
It was also my last year with the other love in my life: Philosophy. My personal mission at the time, the one I was supposed to be fully dedicated to on the path to greatness, was to study as much as I could, working on my thesis, doing my readings, and cultivating my sense of wonder about the world. I tried to carve out time for those things, but in the midst of giving care—helping her decide what to eat, pushing her to exercise, talking back to negative rumination—I grew resentful for all I had lost: an enthusiasm for my discipline, a sense of personal identity, a rich internal life. Had I again made the mistake of giving in to the distraction that was other humans, at the cost of my mission? Had I let myself fall into the tricks of Descartes’ evil demon?
A couple weeks before we graduated, I remember lying down on the bed. My partner was beside me, and I just started wailing like a baby. Neither of us had any clue what was happening. She put her arms around me and tried her best to console me, but to no avail. I extended my hand to hold her back, but only out of a sense of obligation to reciprocate. It didn’t feel right, and I didn’t have it in me to consider her emotions, so I took my hands back. I just held my own shoulders with crossed arms, as if guarding myself against an attack, and kept crying. That must have gone on for an hour, but it felt like a lifetime worth of grief.
I came across a viral tweet last year, which purported to offer a healthy template for responding to requests for care. “Hey! I’m so glad you reached out. I’m actually at capacity/helping someone else who’s in crisis/dealing with some personal stuff right now, and I don’t think I can hold appropriate space for you. Could we connect [later date or time] instead/ do you have someone else you can reach out to?” it read. The template initially felt like language I desperately needed. I had fallen into a pattern of suppressing my own emotions under the garb of responsibility as a caretaker. I believed it was my moral duty as the significant other to give the care I could, regardless of how I felt. The template gave my emotions the priority they deserved, but something about it still felt wrong.
I imagine Steve Jobs must have wanted to say to his five-year-old daughter, “I can’t hold appropriate space for you right now. Do you have someone else you can reach out to?”
If I was to survive on the roads of Delhi, I would have to understand their rhythm. Traveling in the other direction on a one-way road was not objectionable. Horses carrying vegetable stalls with their sellers was perfectly normal. It turned out that they stayed perfectly in their lane. Running a red light, on the other hand, was absolutely unacceptable. It was like the one promise all drivers had made to the god of the roads. All hail the traffic lights.
The next few times on the road, I tried to accept the precarious position I was putting myself in, and get a hold of it. How could I survive as an animal in this forest? I would need to learn to be an underdog in the vehicle kingdom, adapting and learning to co-exist with steel-frame predators.
Cue David Attenborough: It never swerves. It drives in a straight line for the most part. It keeps its eyes on the road at all times. The two-wheeled animal can hear the sounds of engines coming closer. To change lanes, it stretches its long hands to ask the vehicles behind it to give way. But there’s no trust between these creatures. It’s a matter of life and death. Only when it sees for itself that they are slowing down does it cautiously make the switch. And now the cyclist has an enormous challenge ahead of it: crossing the road. It waits patiently on the side while the predators rush past it. It knows there’s a red light somewhere that will create a momentary gap. Once it sees the gap, it leaps with the bicycle to the other side. A Maruti Suzuki Swift almost caught it under its wheels, but today, it has survived.
If cycling in Jamshedpur was solitude, cycling in Delhi is the exact opposite: a constant awareness of other lives. Every second on the road demands an adjustment to other people’s decisions. A bus needs to change lanes to pick up passengers. Slow down and let it pass. An auto stops abruptly to drop off a passenger. Slam your brakes and curse the driver. An ambulance siren gets closer and closer. Stick to the footpath and give way. At every turn, every intersection, you have to be in conversation with everyone else. There is just no other way.
The grief I felt from having pushed beyond my limits in taking care of my partner haunted me for a long time. Care was something that was given. If you gave too much of it you were left with nothing, and you were always in danger of giving too much of it. It was imperative to be on guard with those who needed care, in case they asked for too much of it and then you were left with nothing. The responsibility to care was a social obligation hatched by the evil demon to suck the energy out of your soul. You would no longer able to accomplish your personal mission.
A few months after college, I was walking to my one room apartment, the first ever place I called mine in Delhi, with a copy of the December 2019 issue of The Caravan in my hands. I had decided to live alone in the small room, imagining that it would be my sanctuary, a place filled with solitude and imagination and lots and lots of words. Unexpected for me but apparent to everyone else, living alone was terribly sad and lonely, and not much more.
I sat on my bed and turned the pages to find my first story, the accomplishment of a personal mission, hoping to have my eyes full of tears. I thought it would be like a scene in my biopic, in which I was shown struggling for months on end, to finally climax into this ‘Pursuit of Happyness’ styled scene when it all worked out. Instead, when I looked at my story, the moment felt full of a dull, emotionless matter-of-factness. I felt like throwing the magazine on the side and lying down to watch some TV.
“It will never be what you want it to be, Steve, it just won’t.” Wozniac had said to Jobs. Speechlessly, Jobs had looked down at the pages on the ground.
If there was any happiness I’d felt about my first published story, it was when I got an email that my pitch had been accepted. My partner and I were both so excited that we decided to splurge at Nirulas’. We sat at the ice-cream parlor with a hot chocolate fudge, and talked with wide grins on our faces about being 23 and dreams and making things happen in the world. The idea had never occurred to me, until I actually saw the pages in print, sitting alone in my room and feeling the depth of that aloneness, that it was never as much about the mission as it was about the people cheering you on, giving you care, standing patiently on the sidelines. If this was a biopic, it was more like Into The Wild, and it ended with me scribbling on the magazine’s pages: ‘Happiness only real when shared.’
I am on the road again. I pass by the Saket metro station, where autorickshaws have crowded the road looking for passengers. I take a sharp turn to go around them. I wonder what it would look like if you were to draw my exact route on a line. It would be a crooked line with endless ups and downs, like the lines on an ECG or a cryptocurrency chart. It would make me look crazy, but each turn, each sudden break, each lane-change, would have been influenced by other people and their decisions. To omit the autos and buses and horses and ambulances, violently reducing a collective experience to an individual line on the page, is to steal the essence from the story.
The traffic light is red, and I am surrounded by bikes, cars and auto-rickshaws. I can see faces, exhausted at the end of the day. We all want to get somewhere, following our own individual lines on the road. But isn’t there a tremendous risk in wanting to get somewhere? We stop seeing other people. All we see are objects and obstacles, and if some of those objects don’t behave exactly like they’re supposed to, if they get in our way, we, who want to get somewhere, get frustrated and resentful. I wonder if we can travel instead with patience, being generous with our care, trusting that the road will eventually lead us where we’re heading.
The light turns green. As I pedal ahead, the Qutub Minar emerges from between the trees, a magnificent structure gazing at our trivial games like a god. I think about Heidegger, who was troubled by Descartes’ argument for solipsism, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ He refused to use the word ‘I’, and chose instead the German word ‘Dasein’, roughly translated as ‘being there’. For Heidegger, there is no possibility of individual experience isolated from the world around it. We are all always somewhere, intertwined with other objects and other lives. My train of thought is interrupted by an auto, coming towards me from the wrong side. I slow down, extend my right hand as an indicator, make a slight turn, and continue ahead. ♦️