As far back as I can remember I have wanted to belong. A little more recent in memory has been the desire to be part of some riotous partying. Be part of an in-crowd of hedonistic hooligans. Especially on NYE. It’s a bit shallow, a bit sad. But, in the words of Carl Johnson –
“Don’t blame me, blame society”
Imagine my melancholy, then, on a lonesome New Year’s Eve before midnight ushered in the new decade (and the year of the pandemic). Three days prior, I was with two friends traversing a Central European town. That night I was chain-smoking and binge-watching The Office alone in my dorm room; reminiscing about the previous year when I was, in fact, part of an in-crowd celebrating in my friend’s coffee estate; and dreaming about the Eves to come when I would not be alone.
I rationalized; most people go back home for the holidays; it was a new country, I’d make friends soon; this is part of life, I gotta be okay sometimes being by myself, blasé, blasé. Truism, all of them. Midnight; clad in self-deception – I went for the proverbial “last cigarette” at the end of the hall. I forced myself to goofily say “Happy New Year” to the trio who had been chilling all night in the corridor; drinking, dancing in an Slavic language, keeping each other company.
A couple was getting married on the 31st of December 2022. I got the invitation from the bride’s sister; an old friend. I accepted. The wedding was in the state next door – the one calling itself “God’s Own Country”. It is lush, green and Malabar. So, yeah, grudgingly you can let them have the moniker.
The bus reached Kalpetta at four in the morning. Two tea stalls side by side were the only archipelago of light. Travelling alone, you’ve got to always be “On”. On point. You have to accept the company of strangers.
Strangers are mostly helpful. They pointed me to the bus going to the wedding town. The driver didn’t understand my question of whether the bus did indeed go to Sulthan Bathery, he just grunted in denial – his default mode of comms. The old lady behind the driver’s seat was eyeing me as if I stepped on her toes or something. Then she asked,
I was like, ‘Yeah. Sulthan Bathery’.
She asked the driver on my behalf, in their shared lingo. I continued backtracking towards the exit. But then she, another lady and the couple seated by the door all affirmed for me -
I walked across town at 5 in the morning. Still dark. There were a lot of hotels and Churches. Churches decked up in Christmas and New Year’s lights. Blue and yellow. Some night owls and early birds hung around the few open establishments. The roads running through the town kept forking and re-joining – splitting in the middle, allowing islands of buildings and settlements.
The accommodation, arranged for the wedding guests, was shut. I sat on the ground by the small pond in front of the entrance. Only for a minute though. I heard the grill door open and saw a small man pick up the newspaper lodged in the main gate. I accosted him, demanding a room; but, there was a language barrier.
He looked at me, disturbed; acting like he had no clue about any wedding. My interior monologue wondered if he and I were gonna have trouble. I showed him the invitation card on my phone. He was still bullish on acting confused and being polite in denial. So, I called my friend (it was 6 o’ clock in the am), she talked to him. Suddenly, checking in was as smooth as silk satin.
What do you do when you have a lot of time to kill? In a new town. You don’t speak the language. The only person familiar will be busy with her sister’s wedding preparation. I had a book with me, but Kierkegaard’s musings on Abraham were not really what I was feeling. I was feeling a little lost.
Coffee is one of those natural artefacts of punctuation you can use. So, I went to the café adjacent to the guest house. Drank a cup as I contemplated what to do. I walked around town, till I decided to sit for another coffee at another café. My friend texted saying she was at the guest house. I was like –
‘Oh shit, I’m walking around town. God knows where. But it was at one of the many junctions/intersections of the town’.
She told me, ‘Take your time, I’ll be around’.
She was around. Engaged in a conversation with her sister, the bride-to-be, in the empty dining hall by the entrance of the Guest House. We sat by the first table. They asked about my journey, whether I felt rested enough, how I was liking the place and all that. I asked how what was new with Aadhira; how Aadya, the bride, was feeling on the eve of the big day. There was talk about the family’s law firm, and how Aadya did not have the stomach to handle criminal cases, and domestic abuse cases; but she did like handling cases of constitutional law. Talks about what I was up to these days - you get the gist.
A woman and two men pulled up. The woman, Priscilla, was a friend of Aadhira’s; she was vivaciousness. The dudes were tagging along as people do, like for adventure. Like me. The trio were enthused to see the sights of the place - the waterfalls, caves and all around.
They didn’t stay for long; brief pleasantries, and then off to wanderlust. Our conversation circle had moved to the stairs by the entrance. Aadhira’s friend Sonu joined the circle. When the indiscriminate chatting hit a pause, I suggested we go for coffee to the adjacent café – the one I visited in the morning.
We talked about work again. How Aadhira was loving her work, and how Aadya’s career was in flux at the moment. Sonu was a data analyst; having recently emancipated herself from Amazon’s toxic work culture, not before sending a strongly worded Jerry Maguiresque letter about all things wrong in the company. I told them I was trying to invest in equities. The bride wanted to know – ‘what we think of the idea of marriage’. Sonu told us her younger brother was getting married soon. I was like ‘Yeahhh…not really on the cards or anything anytime soon’. A home loan was likelier.
Our conversation turned to online dating. Aadhira did not dabble much in it. The other two were done with it because – “It’s Hell”. I echoed a similar sentiment. The sisters wanted us to try some sweets wrapped in rice-based flat dumpling-type snacks with our coffees. Sonu and I obliged.
Our conversation turned to faith and religion. I remarked that atheism, pure resolute dry atheism, was like teenagers going through a phase. Sonu noddingly smiled, and the sisters beamed in approval. We must have all felt the lack of inspiration and motivation when thinking of nothing higher than ourselves.
The chit-chat reached its cul-de-sac when the sisters’ father pulled up to pick them up. We introduced ourselves. He enquired about our stay, lunch plans, dinner plans and all that hospitable game. Sonu and I reassured them that we were full and that we’ll straight up have dinner.
I was feeling drowsy. But, also acutely aware that now I was gonna be left with a relative stranger. We walked back past the broken wall that seamlessly bound the café and the guest house, and she said,
‘So, what do you want to do now? Wanna hang out?’
When you’re not at your best, when you’re a bit drowsy, low-energy and you got a stranger to entertain (out of respect to them and yourself), you should ask for a rain check.
‘I think I’m going to crash for a bit.’
‘Okay, I’ll continue working on my resume or something.’
I told her to let me know what she planned on doing for dinner. We had rooms opposite each other.
The Guest House’s vacuum was filling up with more people, ostensibly wedding guests. I roamed about aimlessly through the crowd and the Toyota SUVs parked outside. I went towards the nursery and the exterior dining hall’s entrance, the path opened up to a garden. I wasn’t interested long enough to go walking and just being. But, also at the same time I had to do something. Still didn’t feel like reading.
Was this a good time to find out what Sonu was up to?
She opened the door. I mumbled something like,
‘What time do you plan on dinner?’
It was just six ‘o clock. What was the shame in just asking to “hang out”? You should ask my therapist.
‘I usually eat a bit later, around 8 ‘o clock or something. If you’re really hungry…’
‘Oh no, I didn’t mean right now, I was just asking whether you have any ideas where we could go?’
‘I don’t know. Aadhira’s dad was also saying something about arranging dinner.’
‘Hmm…I was gonna walk around anyway if you’d like to join’, I offered.
‘Yeah, sure. Just let me get ready.’
We walked along the highway, through a lane cutting across the town to the parallel highway. She told me what it was like work in IT, I told her what it was like to be me. She thought Bhopal was a “small town”. We discussed travelling, about college, and all that. We ended up sitting at a café; I drank my fifth cup, she had some chocolate shake and a rice-based pastry – it was dense and dry af.
We walked some more.
She had friends all over the place; the air force, and a diplomat in Islamabad. The latter point piqued my interest (how did he find living there, and how was his life? Could he like chill?). Sonu tried her best to answer on her friend’s behalf. We turn left at the next junction. The road and the town seemed to stretch on and on.
I noticed all the shops were lined with lottery tickets; something of a cultural phenomenon in God’s Own Country. I told her about it. And then suddenly, we could not help but oversaturate our peripheral vision with lottery tickets laced across shop counters and vendor trays.
We made our way back talking about movies and TV series we liked. Sonu was a bit of a film connoisseur; she and Aadhira met at a film appreciation course. The first movies she quoted I had no ideas about. I was more of a normie.
‘I also liked that woman’s work…Phoebe Waller Bridges…’
I found a leeway, ‘Oh yeah! Crashing’
‘Yeah, and Fleabag’
‘Yeah, she had a big moment a little while back’.
We talked about Akshay Kumar doing cringey patriotic uncle roles, my past love for old Hindi films; how I was a big Dev Anand fan and all.
We sat by the Guest House stairs next to the reception. All of a sudden, I found myself revisiting the topic of how I decided to pursue writing. I wanted to express it in more detail. Talking to strangers about your life is easier because they do not know you from anywhere. You can project all you want about how you wish your life is going. How would they know? So, I (re)told her how just mere journaling and working on my master’s thesis made me appreciate the idea of writing.
The trio entered the scene. They looked cheerful, even as they explained that they did not have much success seeing much of any sights around the place. They spent most of their day in town itself. I learnt later; the cave they wanted to visit would cap the number of visitors to 19. Total. Once the limit was reached, they would shut it down. It was a point of absurdity and humour for us.
I didn’t like the fact that when I was explaining that I write and am learning how to invest, Chirag told me to “answer the question” about writing. TBH, he had expressed more curiosity about the writing, and I had plugged in the “learning how to invest” in a moment of insecurity. But again, no one had to justify their position to anybody.
Chirag was into filmmaking. Priscilla was in content marketing; she quit her job recently, a was looking to get into broader marketing in general. Or study some more, take up a new course; she was levitating in that transition phase, suddenly there were more options than not for her. Sanchit silently snapping angles through his camera, prompted me to ask whether he was a photographer. He said,
‘Just getting into it. Learning monochrome photography…coz portraits are prettier’
The adjective before the “photography” indicated he was serious. He’d also quit his “corporate” job recently. To pursue photography? It was to pursue music – he was part of a band with two other (more seasoned) musicians, one of them a Saxophonist. He was the guitarist.
So, there you had – one guy who worked IT, but liked to make films; three people who quit their jobs, to get a better bargain for their time. And me, naively self-enterprising, bullish on my game plan for eudaimonia. Priscilla told Sonu not to expect the job market to be easy , incoming recession and all. Having decided upon the pursuit of music and photography, Sanchit was immersed in his camera. I expressed dismay at the mention of “recession” given my plans for retail investing. Chirag said not to invest in crypto. I said I wouldn’t unless I really understood them. We got dinner, we talked more.
Whether Saxophone was more jazz or blues. The answer was obvious. Whether pork is GOATED as meat. The 9th grade chapter “Sounds and Vibrations” of the CBSE syllabus may have been discussed. We talked about India being a big exporter of classical musical instruments. Then Priscilla monologued about how her dance classes also taught her about the rhythmic idiosyncrasies of different instruments, and their own unique sound and beat. She was speaking from the heart; her eyes glazed up as she spoke, and she was smiling.
Priscilla was staying with Sonu. Chirag and Sanchit had gotten a place at a hotel up the road - Hollywood Rooms. They left in an auto after dinner. Then Priscilla asked –
‘So, you guys wanna hang out?’
I woke up to a knock at the door. I guessed it was the receptionist wanting to usher my potential roommate – all the rooms had two beds, desks and cupboards. There were three men and the receptionist.
The receptionist showcased the vacant bed next to the door. I stood there groggy and accommodating. The more obviously middle-aged man was not too thrilled, looking at me, the room, and the empty bed. If the crowd wanted to shack up together, I wasn’t too thrilled about having them either. He impressed upon the receptionist the need for an alternative. I stood by the door, watching them try different rooms down the hall.
A visibly drunk guy with his kid entered the scene. He slurred to me in his native lingo, showing junior how to talk to strangers. I shrugged; I didn’t care. I was too sleepy. He slurred a little louder to the crowd. Impressing upon junior how to interact with friends. They were still too busy trying out rooms down the hall. Father and son trailed the crowd.
I stood in my room for a while, the door open, and mind blank. The little receptionist came back and indicated that it was all right, they didn’t need this room, and shut the door.
Morning was bright and sunny. I put on my earphones and went to find coffee. I went to a shack serving its daily morning patrons, maybe half a kilometre down the road. I came back; read some Kierkegaard.
Soon, I felt restless and decided to walk about the garden. But on the way, I noticed the breakfast and the crowd, seated through the opened grilled gates of the garage-like area. So, I changed plans and sat down to guzzle. Appams and stew, and tea I over-sweetened and regretted.
The crowd was composed of wedding guest factions. I recognized the now-sober father and his son, eating with another man at one of the middle tables. He looked sharp in the morning.
I walked around after eating. Then, I dumped the remaining lukewarm tea, and returned to Kierkegaard. It was the kind of time you could sink your teeth into Abraham’s antics and Kierkegaard’s opinion of those antics. Leisure time.
Time stopped when Priscilla knocked and asked –
“Yeah, sure”, I said.
She asked about breakfast. I felt shame slide through my veins. I hadn’t asked them to join me for breakfast. I had failed my comrades. I told her that breakfast was being served and there could be some left to find.
The Appams were down to two in the container. But they were cool sitting and having tea. I still felt bad, I didn’t call them for breakfast. They asked whether I manage to document yesterday in my journal. I told them about the interruption (of my sleep) by the receptionist and the boorish crowd yesterday. We discussed what we thought was gonna happen today. The big day. The wedding day.
‘Aadhira’s texting that they have are all gathering at the Church now for the ceremony’, Priscilla read out from her phone.
We went to get ready. I put on my nice black suit. It was sunny, but the temperature was tolerable. I sat waiting at the first table in the dining hall. My limb movements felt very formal, practised and deliberate. Whenever I sat down, I would unbutton my jacket. And when I stood, I would button it back up. I kept adjusting my tie too.
The dudes arrived at the Guest House. Chirag donned dark blue formals with a waistcoat, and Sanchit was in a blue shirt and jeans. We had discussed in yesterday’s banter; whether we’d get to see a “you may now kiss the bride”, the best man toast, the bride chucking the bouquet back to the crowd, and the bride and groom dance, and all that. I brought up my concern of being the only one in Western formals. To which Chirag told me about his waistcoat plans, Sanchit expressed concern that he only got a formal shirt to wear.
Chirag and I sat at the table. He said he tried reading my story on Substack; I told him the one he was trying was my hand at pulp, and the previous one was like he’d asked –
“Things that actually happened in real life”
He showed me his YouTube short film. I notices though, the camera angles, shots, and videography took on another level of significance when the film was shorter. Every frame had more deliberation behind it. I was worried, at first, about not having anything to say. The concern was superficial, borne out of juvenile anxiety. The more interest you take in simply being Present, the easier it becomes to engage. And I found the style and content of the film engaging enough.
Sanchit was outside, smoking and snapping angles (monochromatic, I presumed).
Chirag went on to tell another story, about an old man in a beach camp getaway meeting an old friend. The story was interesting, he told me that it was another short film idea, it all clicked into gear – the story’s format did complement the short film format, I thought. He said Goa would be a good place to film. I thought it could be a good short film if he could pull it off.
The ladies entered the scene. Sonu was in a red saree, and Prisicilla, was in a blue dress. We could get going now.
To the NPCs on the road, we looked like people attending an event. A wedding maybe. The Church was a little under a kilometre up ahead on the road. In between Hollywood rooms and our Guest House. On our way, we took some pictures and saw a bat hanging electrocuted on the electric wire. Then came the Church.
It commanded we all stop and take pictures of it. I think everyone in the group took one.
The hall inside was huge; the ceiling was high. The crowd, split into two by the aisle running down the middle, was big, but the hall was just too large for it to feel packed. There were people in the peripheries and outside the verandas of the building too. The bride and the groom were in the centre; the priest, on a platform a little above them, spitting gospel into the microphone.
We split. The two dudes got busy looking for snaps with their cameras, the ladies moved to the right column of the crowd. I loitered around in silence. Aadhira had told us, that this was going to be different from the movies. They would not be saying vows to each other, the show was the priests all the way.
Plural, because the Head priest had a choir of other holy men standing by his side. At one point the mic went to another priest in the group and he recited some chants. The head priest then took his put the Mangal Sutra around both the Bride and the Groom. Yeah, it’s a different tradition. A unique one.
I met Aadhira’s brother up in the crowd too. We discussed for a bit the idiosyncratic character of the Syrian Christians, their Orthodox aesthetics and Catholic ethics. The ceremony was over soon, it ran for maybe two and a half, three hours; we arrived like when half of it was done.
Then the pictures started. First, at the altar itself; the Bride and Groom and the priests, the bride and groom and their families, then their friends. Then people took pictures with the happy couple at the entrance. I myself was in the frame along with Sonu, Aadhira, and Priscilla. I looked so goofy.
The crowd spilt out onto the lawns. A man in a grey suit came up to me smiling and said something in Malayalam. I told him,“Me No Hablo”.
He shook my hand, a little longer than I was okay with TBH. I asked him if he knew the bride or the groom’s side. I told him I was a friend of the Bride’s sister. He told me he was a lawyer. I spoke -
‘Ah, so you must know Aadhira and her parents professionally too.’
People now posed for pictures against the Church. It was not just the Happy Couple and their clique. It was now open for all. We took some pictures too.
We waddled in that scene for about the better part of an hour. Then, the crowd began siphoning themselves off to where the banquet was at. A dining hall was set up by a different Church, a kilometre back from where we came from.
The crowd felt larger in the dining tent. The Happy Couple sat on stage at the far end; on the left-hand stairs, people lined up for more pictures with them. The heat had beaten my jacket off me. I had also left my gift in the Guest House. I told Sonu, I’d go pick it up. She asked,
We walked back to the Guest House, it straddled the two Churches. I asked her if she wasn’t feeling hot, coz the Sun was killing me now. She looked zen in her acceptance but then confided that it was indeed hot. All my comrades were leaving in the afternoon, coincidently by the same bus.
‘I think I’ll buy a lottery ticket before I go’
‘Oh, as a souvenir?’, I encouraged.
‘Yeah, as a souvenir’
‘You’ll find some to buy near the bus stop. You decided what plans for New Year’s Eve then?’
‘I don’t know, I told my friends to organize it.’
‘How are you going?’
I smiled like I was smart,
‘I think I’ll catch a public bus tomorrow, way cheaper than the private ones’
The queue to meet the Happy Couple had lengthened. The others had eaten. We talked with Aadhira for a bit, before she returned to play the host again. Sonu and I sat on the chairs up front, eating and watching the line trickle onto the stage one click at a time. I told her I didn’t see anybody giving them gifts, they were just posing for photos. I asked her if she thought we were the only ones coming bearing gifts. She remarked about having to get involved in organizing her brother’s wedding soon.
By the time we finished, the trio reappeared, they had been trying the various kinds of tea being served at the end of the reception hall – tent. Sonu and I had to give our gifts, and Priscilla wanted another picture. The perks of VIP entrance; Aadhira was now on the stage, and she called out to us to come from the other side, give our gifts and take another photo. So, we cut the queue. I saw a couple of more gifts stacked behind the chair.
I said goodbye to the motley crew. They were leaving by a private bus - operated by Kyros. We sat around for a bit in the Guest House’s dining hall. Final parting words. I just sat there observing the people get ready to leave. Chirag and Sanchit spoke to the effect of things like –
‘We’ll meet up in Bangalore’
Maybe. It was a nice thought, but stars have to align for such events to precipitate. Still, there is something to be said and appreciated about the sentiment. We found each other’s company cool. For the occasion of this winter wedding, we hung out together to see the ceremonies, run our own commentary, and lived through the time together.
I tried to fill the void by reading my book. In the evening, I walked to the state-run bus station, to see whether I could spontaneously board a bus back tomorrow. The station master looked at me sympathetically when he found out that I still had to book a ticket. All tickets for tomorrow were booked.
‘Everyone is travelling back after the holidays’, he shook his head.
In the evening, I met Aadhira at a café, wedding now over. We caught up, properly, after almost four years. We caught up in more details; all the gossip about my life, and hers, and about our ex-office, The Caravan and its personnel changes and drama. She was a stranger once, with whom I developed camaraderie, albeit under a longer timeline. Camaraderie is the best of bonds; circumstances and company dictate it, and it comes easier than you’d think; like a forgotten procedural memory you knew as a child.
I was back at the Guest House and it was the final hour of the year. I crashed. I returned by private bus the next day – it was operated by Kyros.
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Reading through your blog was a vivid flashback sequence for me. Thanks. I won't be the first one to say this, and definitely won't be the last, you write well, Sabyasachi! 😌