Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Middle of Everywhere

“I’m sorry Sir but you simply can’t get on this flight.”
“And there are no seats available till next week.”
“And there is a fine of fifty pounds on your next ticket.”
“Have a nice day.”

On a not-so-nice day, I found myself standing at Heathrow airport, one of the busiest airports in the world, with all my Christmas cheer frozen by the witchy breeze of London. London, ah London: land of a million dustbins, city of a million dreams and the beholder of every unnamed feeling. It has been said in the past that there is in London all that life can afford, but, if you can’t afford anything in London then you will surely suffer the tortures of the damned.

My flight to Bombay slipped away with the haste of an ex-girlfriend and the lady with pearly white teeth on the airline counter (How can I help you? – Susan) looked me up and down like she had been waiting for me over a hundred years. I was late for the check-in deadline by a mere five minutes and it was enough to cause me psychological damage, for she would simply not hear me out (Company policy) and gave me the ticket for the same numbered flight only this one would take me to the skies next week. And with a nonchalant cool that she could have picked up twenty thousand leagues under the sea or twenty thousand feet above it, she robbed me of the only fifty pounds on my credit card. I guess some people can sleep at night without trouble.

The encounter with the airline lady left a bad taste in my mouth and a wobbly feeling in my legs. I suddenly had a precognitive feeling that something of the sort was going to happen when I presented myself at heaven’s pearly gates: the great gig in the sky. If it is anything like I have imagined it then St. Peter’s department will be a little similar to a check-in counter at Heathrow airport; once you get through you can go anywhere but if you’re turned down then you are doomed.

“But, but I prayed every other night…”
“I’m sorry: excess baggage.”
“But, but I was promised a seat…”
“I’m sorry Sir, it’s company policy.”
“Could I please speak to God?”
“I’m sorry Sir, our supervisors are busy. Have a nice day.”
A little too similar.

If time was a physical entity then perhaps we could come up with rather inventive ways of killing it; unfortunately for us it is a dimension that we have no control over and hence killing time actually means that we are required to kill ourselves little by little. I had a week’s time to kill and about eighty pounds in cash; I was sure that I was surfing the edge of chaos. So what could I do? What could I do to make me feel better and not so wretched?
I got drunk.

I left my luggage with the air company and set off to London. My all-day pass entitled me to journeys to every nook and corner of the great city. I could use this whole week to turn every stone in the metropolis, riding the snakes underneath the city and the red elephants above it. Yes, it would be quite true to say that on that first day of my ticking week, I did feel quite adventurous and calm. Things didn’t seem so bad because one can find oneself in worse places than London. One could wake up to the bomb alarms of Baghdad, in the rubbles of Afghanistan or in the horrifying postcard atmosphere of Paris.

The alcoholic in my spirit fought with his adventurer counterpart. Against my will, I found myself sitting in a Soho pub. The sorrow of my delay and the week ahead made me gulp down eight pints of lager and some whiskey. I couldn’t waste all my money on my drinking demons so I decided to walk around and look at things.

Soho is a wonderful place and it is so arranged that tourists, after a drink or two, would be awed at the neon Chinese signs for sushi places and the inviting darkness of the more sleazy joints. Reality is an illusion caused by the lack of alcohol and with my head cryogenically frozen with beer, I knew that I wouldn’t betray myself and could simply move with the flow of London. As I sat at Piccadilly Circus watching the giant neon signs trying to sell me Coca-Cola and electronic gadgets, I was approached by a man dressed in a sandwich board who offered me a ticket to a Coldplay gig that evening. I think it was Mr. Jack Daniel who bought the ticket as I sat busy calculating my waiting misery. When I came to my senses, not quite but near, I saw the ticket and the residue of twenty pounds. Sometimes I wish I were numb so I could slap myself.

Three hours later, I found myself standing outside Earl’s Court amidst an army of Coldplay fans. Mr. Jack Daniel was not too wise and had purchased a seated ticket. I reached my seat which was so far up that I could have gotten nosebleeds; fortunately (or unfortunately) the bar was right behind my aisle and I started drinking again. With a cigarette in my hand, I watched the huge venue fill up with hordes of people until the lights went out and Richard Ashcroft of the Verve fame came onto the stage. His set wasn’t too bad and he played the classics such as 'the drugs don’t work', 'Sonnet' and 'Bittersweet symphony'. I was in a good mood and sang along to the songs till I started annoying people near me. One of the ushers had a long conversation on music with me and I played it polite enough for him to promise me better seats near the stage later.
As I smoked another cigarette near the toilets, a drunken Scottish man came out laughing and handed me a rolled cigarette. He disappeared laughing into the corridors leaving me alone with his rolled piece. After smoking my cigarette, I put the one he had given me to my lips and lit it up. Suddenly, without a warning of any kind, my soul left my body. Just like William Blake had prescribed, my doors of perception were cleansed by the wipers of sedation and things began to look as infinite as they really were. After a few more tokes, I understood why. The man was laughing because he’d been smoking a joint and now I was laughing because I had it in my hand. In my intoxication, I sucked on it with a fervour that granted it a status of Mother’s Milk. Now I knew what Huxley, Baudelaire and Coleridge were talking about: revelations.

There are certain substances living on this planet, substances that go further than dinosaurs and cockroaches, substances that unlock us from ourselves. As I stood there shaking with pleasures of another fibre, I understood one simple thing, this: perhaps our brains are not meant to belong to a particular frequency, perhaps we should be able to actively and infinitely switch our brainwaves to different stations. If a radio-transistor without a beating heart can do it, I saw no reason why a species thousands of years old should bother itself with the basic AM/FM choices of sin, redemption, faith and salvation. Let’s just change the station to a chat show where we can safely interview our own personalities, ghosts, beings, souls and our selves, because there is a universe out there which is in suspension and it holds wonders we can’t calculate as yet. As long as we are on the ride, we might as well see how far up it goes. It was on the countryside of these observations that I broke away from my trance and decided to return to the affairs of the Court. There are more things between heaven and earth than could ever be dreamt in my philosophy and anyway my mind polluting my soul was the last thing I needed. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty---that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Something told me Keats and I could have been pals.

My friend in the business took me to a row of seats which were much closer to the stage. I thanked him and sipped from my fresh pint. Coldplay were on now and the people loved it. Everyone was singing along to the band’s tune. The content of the surprise cigarette made the music seem like it was in Dolby-Surround and I was standing on my seat and swaying to and fro like a pendulum. I think everyone around me had a rough idea of my seedy state and let me be. When, during one of the breaks I stepped outside to get a drink, I couldn’t help but laugh in riots at my missed flight, my empty wallet and the whole week that lay ahead. I felt miserable and tranquil at the same time. Here I was, Lord of the Underworld, maker of my destiny, lone but not alone, a thousand miles from home and friends. I felt like matter in the truest sense, I felt like how I really was and had really been all this time: a set of atoms powered by nothing but my dreams and imagination. I felt good.

The gig was over at about eleven o’ clock. Outside it was raining. I ran to the train station and waited for my train with about ten thousand people. It was a calm feeling to know that these people were all somehow connected to me, that they probably all sing the same songs I do in the shower and probably some of them were here under the strict instructions of Mr. Jack Daniel. I fought my way into one of the tube trains going somewhere but I didn’t care where I was going because I had nowhere to go. When you have nothing to lose, you have everything to choose.

As I stood on the train, I watched people get off and on while I gaped at the names of these stations that I had never heard of before. Every fifteen minutes, I would get down at a station and wait for some new train to take me further on this journey into the unknown. I must have switched between twenty-five stations and got on about twenty different trains. All this time, I ran into people and discussed everything from the new Oasis album to the war in Iraq.

On one of these trains, I slept and woke up at the third terminal at Heathrow. It was two in the morning so I staggered onto a bench at the airport and feel asleep. No sooner was I floating in inner space than I sensed being touched, first with a human hand and then by a nightstick. The latter made me jump up with its possible significance and sure enough, I saw myself surrounded by three policemen. They asked me for ID and wanted to know what I was doing sleeping at the airport. I understood that without any luggage around me, I could easily be mistaken for a terrorist or a homeless person. I produced my various identifications and answered questions. When asked about my drunken state, I explained that I had been to a concert and had indulged myself. I didn’t look any of them in the eye because I was paranoid that they would be able to pin-point my earlier smoking of wacky tobacco. Instead, they asked me about the gig and it turned out that one of them was a Stone Roses fan and so we talked some more of music. Soon they were summoned to duty and left me to my ways. I took a sigh of relief and passed out on the bench, again.

When I woke up the next morning, my brain had declared war on me and my treacherous stomach was showing signs of eating itself inside out. It was bad enough to wake up on a bench, smelling of alcohol and sticky socks, between strangers of every race and nationality, but my body wanted me to crawl out of it. I had a funny realization that there was much more alcohol inside me than blood and it was enough for a hangover lurking nearby to get my head into a half-Nelson. Money can buy everything I thought and searched my pockets. Seven pounds: a fiver and two pound coins. Great. A hundred and forty four hours between me and the skies and all I had was seven pounds. Seven pounds to feed me, entertain me and to stop me from going mad. I needed a drink.

A beer later I was standing by the tube station gates so that I could look out for any tickets that could take me back into London. The airport gave me the creeps with all its public service announcements and expensive items. I needed to get back to London so that I could do something with the day. After waiting for two whole hours, I came across a valid all-day pass lying around. Thanking God for small favours and the Devil for my big plans, I seated myself in the belly of the twenty-first century Loch Ness monster: the London Underground train.

I had plans to eat something economical and then visit the British Museum to stare at things. The economics part of the plan didn’t go as planned for the cheapest thing I could find to eat was a slice of pizza at Leicester Square, which I studied with the poetic license of the human jaw. A bus took me to the British Museum, the very exterior of which was making me excitable. There is something about museums that appeals to me because they are places that are free to get in and hold immeasurable amounts of knowledge and history. Even before entering a museum, I am almost always sure that I am walking in a Hyde and would be walking out a Jekyll.

The British Museum has a lot of interesting stuff to share with a visitor and if this visitor has a hangover, even better. Soon my mind was off my petty pains and gripped in the historical fibre of the world. The great civilizations of the world watched me watch them as I moved from one day and age to the next. The Egyptians wanted to know why I was afraid of cats, the Benin bronzes wished to get back to their immaculate affairs, the Greeks stood magnificently carved in their stone oblivious to the football results of Euro 2004, the Romans were good to survey as they flung between Heaven and Hell and the wise eyes of the Indus valley civilization were surprised that I had missed my flight back home. I spent hours looking at tombs, paintings, clocks, dials, stamps, coins, textiles, sculptures and then moved to the Reading room to look at the treasures of the British Library. It gave me a sense of purpose and hopes to sit in the same room where Mahatma Gandhi, H.G. Wells, Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw had studied.

It was evening when I came out and London was as beautiful as ever. A part of me was unconsciously acting out the role of a Roman general who discovered the great city. I suddenly had a strange craving to see all that the city had to show but with no appointments with good luck, I knew that my craving could only taste tainted flavours. I thought that a walk on Oxford Street would break my reverie in history. Very few people empathize with the streets of London. Any fervour is broken by the intensity and diversity that these thoroughfares can hold but I, lost cause that I was, felt more at ease there than anywhere else. Looking at the scores of people before me, I was forced to ask questions that I wouldn’t ask on an ordinary day. How many of these men were scheming to lure money into their hands? How many of these women were getting back to a cup of coffee in a room somewhere? How many of these children had seen a preview of the true things to come? And last but not the least, how many of these durable citizens were waiting for a place in the sun and a grave in the moon? If I knew the answers, I would probably have had a Hamlet moment or two but not knowing any, I was comfortable in acknowledging the old medicine of peace, love and understanding and hoping that this medicine was just what the doctor ordered. There is no romance without finance and finding myself with the same riches of the morning, I crawled back to the airport.

My mother used to tell me that I had always been a restless child; I simply wouldn’t stay in one place for more than five minutes. How time changes things, for, I had been lying on a bench for more than nine hours when I remembered this. The airport was empty and the only ones around had places to fly to in the morning. I was a humble exception. Airports are strange places. When busy, one can’t find one’s legs when one needs them in the godforsaken places but when done for the day, they are as empty as the skies they promise. The shops all closed, the bastardly trolleys taken back to their corners, the floors so shiny that you could see your tired face in it and the announcements resting for the day. It was the announcements that I didn’t really miss because when you hear something a hundred times a day, it kind of registers itself on your mind. I wondered if I would ever look at “unattended” baggage ever again and not think of the Third World War or smoke a cigarette without getting sniped at by some authoritative body.

I think it was on the fourth day that I began to lose it. I had been bumming around for the last two days at the airport and had only had a cheeseburger, for which I would have readily fought with a starving Somalian child. After this one dollar feast, I had to resort to water from the toilets (Evian be damned) and to the shameful (yet helpful) act of either asking people for cigarettes or picking up half-finished ones from all over Heathrow. I didn’t even have a lighter and as I stood outside at nights in the cold, waiting for a Good Samaritan with a heart full of lung cancer, I committed blasphemy (over and over again) so that the Lord would strike me with lightning and perhaps light my crummy half cigarettes. My mental state was not all that together and with every slipping hour I felt more frustrated and dejected, a complete loss of control so severe I couldn’t walk anywhere without muttering a soliloquy. The man in the mirror refused to obey and gave me a look you could have fried kebabs on. I remember having strange urges to commit crime, mug old people and snatch from the young. I just had to get out of the airport because the free Devils of other worlds were walking into my idle workshop.

After finding an abandoned rail ticket, a dearer find for me than the Holy Grail, I found myself sniffing fruits at a stall in Hyde Park. I didn’t have any money for the yields of Mother Nature and hence bought some cider and ambled on deeper into the Park. There I lay for a whole day, talking to myself and a vast bottle of White Lightning. It is a terrible thing to be alone and not lonely, to hear your head churn out hopes and fears. Who knows what true loneliness is: not the word, but the naked terror? I had heard these lines ages ago but I had failed to grasp the terror spoken of. Now that I was not only living in that terror, the newest homeless in town, but actually feeding on it, I understood them all too well. As the cider took the reins of my thoughts, I went into absurd desires to cure cancer, to lead the world into peace, to help the poor and to show children beautiful truths. When I woke up later and dusted myself down, my noble thoughts had disappeared with the sun and left me alone with the darkness of my prodigal nature. I wanted to smoke till my lungs were black and drink the pain away but a quick scan of the wallet revealed that neither of the two were possible. I had a single quid left and myself to defeat. Now I had real problems.

Doctors call it the Alice in Wonderland syndrome: a distorted awareness of time, space and body. Patients are known to have hallucinations. Although I wasn’t Alice, and certainly not in Wonderland…it would be fair to say that my hunger and boredom were making me hallucinate. I hadn’t eaten for so long that I wasn’t even sure if I would remember how to use my teeth. I was imagining that the sweet blonde sitting opposite me would strike up a conversation with me, ask me out for a nice meal and buy me a drink, I was inventing goodwill in the corporate structure so that perhaps Burger King would send their staff with a burger for “that forlorn young man there who has been sleeping on that bench for six days. Tell him we appreciate his composure”. I was dreaming up scenes where the police would arrest me because I “fit the profile” and lock me up in a warm cell with a bowl of soup and a piece of bread. Of course, they would soon realize that I was an honourable citizen and let me go with two bottles of whiskey and a pack of duty-free cigarettes.

It’s a wonderful world when you’re dreaming.

My last day at Heathrow was one of my best on Earth. The next day I was going to fly back home and join the rest of the normal world. I decided that I would walk to all four terminals and see everything for the last time. For the last week my equal affection and fascination for all of these travellers: the ones flying to Bangkok to shop for a wife, the unsuspecting children going to Disneyland, the couples flying to Paris so that they could strengthen their union and have yet another photo-album; my fascination with their dreams and desires, hopes and futures, made me realize that as long as there are people around us, we have little to complain about because their follies are our follies and their dreams are our dreams. There is no singular truth and in a world of such plurality, everything is permitted.

I went back to the airline counter to get my baggage and to confirm my ticket. As I collected my suitcase and my electric guitar, I recognized an error I had made. If I had foreseen the whole week I would have taken my electric guitar, use my cap or a case as an appropriate hold and would have busked outside the airport. Surely, some of the countless people passing through would have given me some money or cigarettes, if not in appreciation than at least to shut me up. Well, there is always another time.
As a rule, happiness yields more when analysed and misery is best left summarized. The chaos of these seven days presented more to me in terms of visual and moral trickery than I could put down in words so I think it’s best to leave it abridged. I really did have a great time in my deprivation and wish that someday I can return to the state of despair that I reached in that week in London. It was in this week that I had the slightest idea of what it must be to be homeless or a vagrant of some sort. Those seven days transformed me from a normal twenty- something into an evolved mutant. Since those days of broken spirit and lazy eyes, with a sky above me and a drink in my hand, I have learnt to call any place Home.
“Hello Sir, would you like another drink?”
“The in-flight entertainment system is on for all passengers to use.”
“Chicken breast in a honey and mustard sauce, roast potatoes, carrots, broccoli and sage and onion stuffing, served with a bread roll and butter. We also have a lemon cheesecake for dessert.”
“Passengers are requested to put on their seat-belts for the landing at Bombay International airport. We hope you will fly with us again and are sorry for the minor delay.”
Ha Ha.

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