The Slow Cycling Race of 2020

The last time I saw my running shoes, it was only mid-March and too soon for the year to be doomed as an outright failure. Just like any untoward parting, I never foresaw not meeting them for over four months. Back then, the proposal of being cooped up had me feeling more intrigued than distressed. Truth be told, it sounded like a good deal to the underlying homebody in me whose irrational wishes of making a career out of being a couch potato were often snubbed, under the pretext of pursuing professional writing in a competitive world. So when the opportunity (to be lazy) presented itself, I chased my one true dream in the spirit of a true idealist: That of finally getting some sleep in a city which never does. 

They say, the universe shows us signs when our desires are about to come true – In this case, the signs were airborne, in the form of a virus that left us with no option but to be lazy. While this was a hard-learned lesson on being careful about what we wish for, it was the first time in forever that not doing anything became quite something. Much like those slow cycling races in school that I could never make sense of, where the end-goal was to be the last one to cross the finishing line, without pausing the pedals. What was the objective they were trying to achieve anyway? And should you celebrate the (de)feat of being the hindmost? In many ways, this year has played out as a long-drawn slow cycling race, where the finishing line is 365 days away. Until we get there, we need to keep pedalling, slowly and steadily.

Wait, what was I talking about before I started spiralling, or might I say, cycling? My running shoes, yes! (See, I told you I was a professional writer, but I never said I’m a good one.) When the starter pistol was fired, my running shoes were too proud to switch to the slow mode, after having lived their entire life rushing, hurrying, sprinting and speeding. It’s not all their fault, though. We were spending way too much time together than was deemed healthy. My running shoes would tag along with me everywhere, helping me overtake the fastest racer I’ve ever competed against: Time. I had no complaints, but our constant companionship made it difficult to evaluate our relationship objectively. And just like that, my running shoes went on an indefinite break inside the rack. 

Four months had passed since I heard from the running shoes, but I wasn’t thinking about them either. I was actually doing quite well without them, or so I thought. My legs had stiffened and my belly felt bloated. Sometimes, we don’t realize what we have until it’s gone. My running shoes weren’t particularly thriving either. When I finally opened the shoe rack almost half a year later, I found a layer of dust clinging to their surface. 

We decided to come to a compromise. I would go back to spending as much time with them as I used to and my running shoes would learn to adjust to the slow mode. For the first time in four months, I was running. Slowly, yes, but still running. The stiffness in my legs started evaporating; I felt light on my feet. My running shoes were also in a better shape, now that they were being put to good use. And just like that, we learned to master ‘The Slow Cycling Race Of 2020’. Now we knew that its objective had nothing to do with pedalling the cycle or reaching the finishing line, but in fact, maintaining balance. Balance, the ability to give just enough attention to all that we consider important in life, without compromising one for the other. 

And yes, it is a feat worth celebrating. 

A distant neighbourhood

These days,

when I look out of the window

a neighbourhood that was once at arm’s length

seems far, far away. 

I don’t think I ever stopped to notice 

that the gulmohar tree 

under whose shade I stood waiting for my school bus 

five years ago, 

no longer produces flowers.

Back then, 

I would look up at this very window to find mom waving at me 

before boarding the bus. 

This happened every single day for fifteen years of my life. 

For fifteen long years I’d waited under its shade, yet I never took a moment to see how it’s been after all this while. 

The other day 

though, 

when I looked out of the window 

I saw a bunch of pruners trimming away its branches 

with axes and saws.

That’s when I noticed the flowers weren’t there. 

The tree looked like it just got a terrible haircut 

and to draw as little attention 

to the disaster, 

shedding off accessories was the solution 

it thought of. 

But what if the pruners hadn’t shown up that day?

Would I still have noticed the tree when I looked out of the window?

Probably not. 

For the tree, I had been a husband who took his wife for granted 

after having lived together for so long.

Her hair is now white. 

She has wrinkles on her face and bags under her eyes. 

It’s been years since he really looked at her

and she worries if he ever will. 

Why does it take a disaster to realise that we don’t have all the time? 

A speck in seven billion

As a child, 

I couldn’t gauge how big our world is. 

The size of the universe,

my universe,

altered

as per my convenience.

Its magnitude varied 

directly

with the number of years I had lived on this planet, 

our planet, 

which I’d recently learned 

was called the 

Earth.

Earth, 

the only planet that supports life,

third from the Sun 

with Venus to its left 

and 

Mars to the right. 

I learned that I had only been here for four years.

Everywhere I went, every person I met, 

asked me the same question: 

“How old are you?”

Either that or “What’s your name?”

These were the only two questions I knew how to answer. 

Once I finally learned how to count up to 10, 

I realized that 

two was 

a very small figure; 

whereas, the nine planets 

in our solar system, before Pluto called it quits,

relatively 

amounted to a substantial number. 

The only problem was that I had no concept of just how ginormous a planet can be.

Painted like an atlas,

I imagined 

the four walls of my kindergarten classroom 

to be a carbon copy 

of the Earth. 

In my head, 

the Earth had a quantifiable carpet area and anyone who steps out 

of the boundaries of this magic carpet, 

accidently 

or 

out of curiosity, 

would fall 

into a bottomless pit of black. 

When I’d look up to see the birds fly, 

I would see them go to and fro;

from one end to the other, 

as though they’re taking laps in a swimming pool 

built in the sky. 

I used to think the ocean is only as vast 

as the horizon, 

with nothing on the other side, 

except for some space for the sun 

to sleep at night. 

And while the sun rests, 

recovering from a long working day, 

the stars awoke 

to take charge of light. 

Every night, I would count how many were on duty. 

One! Two! Three! Four! Five!

I believed that there are only as many stars 

as I could see with my naked eye. 

In my head, the world was a duplication of the scenery we drew in a typical art class at school. 

It was two-dimensional, 

with a mountain range in the background 

and a river 

streaming down its valley. 

Not to forget, a house with a chimney

and stick figures 

representing 

the few people I had encountered 

in my short life: 

My parents, elder sibling and children 

in the neighbourhood, 

my favourite teacher, Miss Valencia 

and classmates at school. 

Back then, I was too short to sit at the dinner table.

I’d need an extra cushion on my chair to reach the food. And I vaguely remember telling myself at the time:

“One day you will grow up to have longer arms and legs. 

You would be just as tall, as big and as significant as anybody on this dinner table. 

You will go to every place on the magic carpet, 

meet all the people on our planet, 

learn their names,

listen to their tales 

and contribute to conversations at the dinner table. 

One day, you will understand this world in all its glory 

How many more people could there be, anyway?

Another ten? Twenty? Fifty? 

Don’t worry!

Seventy? 

It doesn’t matter!

Ninety? 

You mark my words, I would meet everybody!”

As I grew up, 

I was introduced to the world’s intricacies, familiarized with its complexities. 

I learned that there are millions of stars in a galaxy that are invisible to the human eye.

I learned that no man has ever reached the bottom of the ocean. 

I learned that the world is divided into continents, 

continents into countries, 

countries into cities 

adding up to a world population of seven billion point three!

I grew up and so did the numbers.

The only difference is that the numbers never stopped. 

How many tens does it take to make a billion, to make seven billion?

Now, I think about how 

there are more than seven billion of us out there; 

Seven billion faces 

and

seven billion names, 

seven billion lives 

with a history 

of seven billion tales.

I think about how 

these seven billion stories are more or less, 

the same

but 

different 

at the same time, 

different 

in the same ways. 

There’s always a start, 

of course,

then comes a middle 

followed by 

an end;

all those seven billion individuals 

follow 

the same trend. 

Experts estimate that 

an average person thinks between 

60,000 to 80,000 thoughts,

per day.

When I multiply that by seven billion, 

I can’t help but think about just how many thoughts that makes! 

Even our many billion thoughts stem from 

a limited list of 

countable emotions:

Happiness.

Sadness. 

Fear.

Envy. 

Pride.

And shame. 

Sometimes, 

I wonder why we feel 

misunderstood 

when 

seven billion of us are going through 

the same things? 

Just like us, 

seven billion people are doing all they can

to make it through life.

Just like us, they are birthing, 

hurting. 

Striving, fighting.

Struggling, barely surviving;

Just like us,

they are eating, laughing, working, singing, dancing, kissing, fucking and sleeping.

Just like how Dalreen missed her flight from Sweden to Norway, Nisha missed her train from Bombay to Pune. 

Just like how Zoya from Islamabad had her first heartbreak yesterday, Marianne from Birmingham filed for divorce on the same day. 

Just like how Steve from New Jersey was fired from his job, Zane from Ethiopia had to drop out of school. 

And just like how Haruto from Tokyo failed his weekly math test, Austine from Bordeaux was denied a driving license..

But all we care to ask is – 

“How am I different?

What makes me special?

How do I stand out?

What sets me apart?”

When in reality, we are one, we are all the same. 

I say, if we go back to sitting around fires every night

to talk about our day,

if we go back to sharing stories 

and discussing what they’ve taught us, 

if we listen when others’ speak 

and let people vent out their feelings, 

We would know that we are seven billion of the same person. 

We would grow to understand each other and we would learn that

The world is not really that big a place. 

Questions and answers

I’ve been tired out 

by this endless debate 

going about 

for as long as I can remember. 

Everyone, 

from the likes of beggars 

and paupers 

to 

entrepreneurs 

and 

self-made billionaires;

from confused middle-schoolers 

to the Buddhist monks 

who 

supposedly 

know all the answers –

have at some point 

of time 

questioned 

themselves and others: 

Do our lives have any meaning at all? 

And while there are only two ways 

to answer 

this question, 

it’s been passed on for centuries,

running around 

in circles. 

Some say, we are born to die; 

that we are brought into this world to eventually 

be taken away – 

so 

what we do 

with our lives does not amount to anything. 

None of it matters. 

Others say, there has to be an explanation, 

some reasoning 

behind why we are here. 

We can’t just happen to be born.

There has to be someone, 

somewhere, 

who is the mastermind

and creator of this 

universe. 

Me, I agree with both of them. 

I think they’re right in their own accord.

But for once, can we change the order of how things are done? 

Instead of wasting our lives 

thinking about 

why we’re living, 

how is it that we’re alive

and 

what it is that we’re supposed to do 

now that 

we have a life 

For once, can we actually try living? Can we just put the thinking aside? 

Predictable

While a pot of tea was brewing on the stove, 

a pair of cuckoos perched upon the window 

against the backdrop of a bougainvillea plant. 

They pecked at the money leaves glistening under the sun. 

A delivery man slid a stack of newspapers under the door,

carrying stories from across the city,

segmented into editorial, entertainment and economy. 

Among them were glossy leaflets and 50% off discount coupons. 

At the breakfast table was a stand of sparkling cutlery 

next to a basket of fresh fruits 

containing apples, bananas, peaches and grapes. 

Just as directed to him, the milkman brought along two extra cartons today. 

Lying atop the study table was a mountain of notebooks

that needed to be put away

and a pencil stand with erasers in different colours and shapes. 

The bedsheet was smoothened and the pillows kept in their place. 

Once the water bottles had been filled,

washed laundry was left to dry on the clothesline 

and the dirty dishes were soaked in the sink. 

The sun rays shone through the living room upon drawing the curtains. 

The toothbrush holder stood still like a sentinel in the cabinet

guarding over the other toiletries

next to a clean towel used for wiping the face.. 

but nobody noticed any of this; it was just another boring day.

Ghost city

The roads that once bustled with vehicles around the clock

are now empty. 

Not a single soul walks down the footpaths. 

All the stores in the marketplace 

have pulled down their shutters. 

Some even had to permanently shut shop. 

Where we had to raise our voice to be heard over the deafening noise, 

silence has now become audible. 

Among the few who can still be heard are the birds perched upon our windowsills.

The sky that never made the stars feel welcomed, 

has now made place for galaxies galore. 

For the first time in forever, the ocean is here to see us at the shore. 

The animals roam freely 

whereas humans are facing the fear of endangerment. 

People have started to question if their jobs were ever that important. 

Credit is being given where it’s due: 

To the doctors, nurses, farmers and cleaners instead of 

movie stars and superheroes in iron-clad suits. 

Those who ordered-in every meal are learning to cook their own food. 

Having to make do with whatever little we have, 

minimalism has become a way of life. 

Household chores are now divided equally between husbands and wives. 

Those with a family, a few friends, home-cooked food and a roof overhead 

are the new rich. 

Overnight, the world had to work its way back to the basics. 

Everything we once strived for: Name, fame and money;

All those things that were the centre of our attention: Work, business and the economy –

They’ve all become secondary. 

Who would have thought that the city dwellers would learn how to ‘live’ 

after this place turns into a ghost city? 

The missing florist who sat around the bend

Last year, the corner store 

that sold 

cheap candies to us as children

was shut down.

In its place, 

a hypermarket was erected.

Every day, 

hundreds of shoppers 

flock in, driving in their sleek and shiny cars 

or 

being driven around 

to stock up their larders for 

the next few days. 

They not only sell perishables 

but also 

furniture, toys and giftware; 

each of them numbered 

and 

neatly arranged 

on wooden shelves.

Centrally air-conditioned

with a built-in perpendicular parking lot

but 

unlike the corner store, 

they don’t keep 

sour punk candies or the imli ki golis

we once bought.

The florist around the bend

who sold 

freshly cut roses, 

white lilies 

and 

three varieties of hibiscus, 

was nowhere to be seen. 

Stringing together marigold and jasmine into garlands for the Gods and Goddesses residing in temples, he would say, 

“Madam, main toh 17 tareekein ke bouquet bana sakta hoon.” 

Madam, I know 17 ways to make a bouquet.

Rumour has it that he returned to his village to look after his ailing parents

with the money he earned from selling his shop.

Today, you would find in its place a hardware store

selling saws, chains, hinges and plumbing supplies

in standard quality, shape and size: 

A carefully thought-out, economical decision for

‘Who even buys flowers anymore?

I spent the formative years of my life 

under the shade of a mango tree overlooking my house. 

This is where I was introduced to poetry. 

It was here that I spent hours reading William Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath  

and Rumi. 

Now the tree is no longer there, just like those poets long gone, 

leaving behind memories 

of a full life,

only half remembered by those who lived on. 

The tree was uprooted from the ground 

and stripped off its dignity, 

just like those classical poems that have no place 

in modern society.

As of today, standing on that soil are plush residential complexes and offices that touch the sky, with a multiplex cinema 

across the street 

where popcorn’s priced at rupees three hundred and fifty five. 

The same builder has set up 

an international school 

next to the gym whose members include 

famous Bollywood celebrities.

On the gates of this school, you would find posters 

made by students 

that read 

“Capitalism is a disease.” 

and 

“Plant more trees!” 

The world changed in a jiffy. Nothing remained the same. 

It seems like only yesterday, 

when it happened so long ago. 

Many years have passed since:

Seasons ended like weekends,

governments changed and so did their policies,

new leaders came and went

and all they did was 

rename cities. 

It feels I’ve been living in a foreign land for more than ten years, 

but I still can’t get myself to call it home. 

And it’s only a matter of time before I return –

Home, 

where the corner store sells cheap candy, 

where the missing florist knows 17 ways to make a bouquet

and the mango tree continues to bloom. 

That summer morning

That summer morning,

the sun broke its slumber at 7AM sharp

and we rushed to the playground

to welcome it.

We were still in our night clothes,

unbathed

and tousle-haired

with dirt smeared across our faces.

While the rest of the world slept on,

we spent that summer morning making a football pitch in the backyard.

We split ourselves into teams of four and made goalposts using beer bottles lying outside a tenant’s door.

That summer morning, we wore recklessness as a badge of honour.

It was the third time we had accidently broken the rear view mirror of Mr. Shah’s scooter in a month, barring the one time we did it just for fun.

We were loud and boisterous; cared little about consequences.

When a groggy-eyed Sharma uncle peeped through his window to see where the noise was coming from,

we stifled our giggles hiding behind the bushes.

Nita aunty, who was always in a foul mood, would tell us off for not having anything better to do this early in the day.  

And while Mrs. D’souza made complaints to our parents, Vinod, who lived next door, agreed with whatever she had to say.

Savitri didi, who used to be one of us a few years ago, now chopped vegetables in the balcony as she watched us play.

And the Singhs, who lived on the 2nd floor, warned us not to raise our voices, while they watched another one of those crappy daily soaps.

That summer morning,

we promised ourselves never to become like them.

We decided that when we grow up,

we would be just as loud,

boisterous

and reckless as we had been

that summer morning.

We would still be waking up at 7AM,

rushing to play football.

We would still be hiding behind bushes,

still be climbing walls….

but then one day,

just as age took over our lives

and fatigue slipped into our bones,

that summer morning packed its belongings..

and never returned home.

Look closely

Have you ever noticed

a sad face 

in a happy crowd

with no apparent reason 

to be sad?

The kind of face that shows 

withdrawal 

from a conversation 

that goes around

in circles.

One moment, you see them

beaming, laughing 

at a silly joke.

Then slowly, almost secretly,

their smile begins to 

wear off

the way a fistful of sand slips 

through gaps 

in a clenched palm. 

Imagine the spine 

of a 

middle-aged man 

who has had a desk job 

for the past 25 years.

One day, his back breaks; 

the doctor suggests he correct his posture

and 

tries to sit straight

but 

every time he does, 

his shoulders 

dissolve

into a hunch,

just as naturally 

as

the sun 

sets in the west.

It’s as if to say 

his shoulders can’t bear 

the weight of pretence 

and 

fakery

no matter how good they may look

on the outside;

just like the sad face, in a happy crowd 

that can’t put up an act.

If you look,

look closely,

at this face, it has a strain on its shoulders, 

a pain in the back.  

Look closely – it’s tired of carrying the weight 

of a forced smile.

Waiting

Most of us 

go through life 

simply waiting;

spend half our time 

in transit 

before accepting 

that most likely, 

we won’t get anywhere.

Somehow 

we are okay 

with 

‘most likely’ 

and its alter egos-

‘possibly’ 

and 

‘probably’. 

They give us hope

and

keep us going. 

They allow us to build castles in the air 

and map out imaginary escape routes. 

Within the walls of these castles is where we make plans 

to find a way out 

run away 

and 

eventually

leave everything behind.

Eventually- 

These plans, they will happen

somewhere down the road;

sometime in the future. 

Their very foundation is based on tomorrows 

and day afters. 

We are certain 

that tomorrow will come 

and so will day after

but just don’t ask us why

or when 

or how soon. 

We can see it in our heads, 

our minds;

visualise it on vision boards 

and wish for it in our 5 year plans

but today,

right now

and

at this moment, 

we are comfortable simply waiting. 

We are comfortable waiting 

for love 

to walk into the door; 

the dream job 

to write to us,

lost friends 

to call us 

and a successful business idea 

to find us. 

We are waiting 

to adopt a stray,

waiting 

to apologise to our parents, 

waiting 

to get onto the stage

waiting 

to be a giver

waiting 

to be forgiven

waiting 

to admit our mistakes

and waiting 

for change. 

Sometimes

waiting looks like getting a degree 

we do not value,

meeting friends 

who do not mean well for us

and

returning from work

too drained to do anything else. 

Sometimes 

waiting looks like heading out of home

to go somewhere

anywhere –

to parties, 

clubs,

restaurants,

bars or brothels –

any place that makes us forget that we are waiting

or that we are not yet there. 

We, we look like the man in the car next to ours 

smoking away his life at the traffic signal; 

the lady standing behind us in the ATM queue

too stern to smile;

neighbours who take the elevator everyday

but have nothing to talk about 

and 

colleagues who sit next to us during lunch break 

but don’t exchange names.

When our eyes meet,

we look away 

in the direction of tomorrow 

or day after

or any time but today 

when we will be nicer and kinder,

when we will follow rules, 

be the first one to smile

extend a handshake 

and learn their names. 

but 

today,

right now

at this moment, 

we are still here – 

trapped

longing 

yearning 

wishing and wanting. 

It sucks that at this moment, 

we are unfulfilled 

and paralyzed by inaction 

and egos.

At this moment, 

we are comfortable waiting

and

at this rate,

the next moment won’t be any different

neither will the one after that

or the one that follows it..