By Rajneesh Narula
(another in my occasional essay series)
Recently, I spent an entire Saturday curled up on my garish orange sofa watching ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’, (hereafter referred to as CCBB) completely enthralled. A children’s classic (for those of you who don’t know), starring Dick Van Dyke and a flying car. But this wasn’t my first time. No, indeed, this particular flick has a special place in my heart, because it is probably the first movie I ever saw, some thirty-odd years ago, and I’ve watched it again at every opportunity since.
I have - as you may know – a penchant for cartoons. You may discuss the morals and manners of the X-Men with me, debate the relative merits of Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner, and exchange anecdotes about your favourite Johnny Quest episode. But my obsession with CCBB is bigger. This is not simply nostalgia and escapism at work. I somehow manage to forget important chunks of this work of cinematic art, and on each re-viewing I seem to find something new, some nuance that has got misplaced in my musty cob-web infested mind. But also discovering new insights and revelations. This time I marvelled at the name of the love interest- Truly, daughter of Lord Scrumptious, proprietor of Scrumptious Sweets. You can imagine how much amusement this provided me of an evening. As it no doubt did to the entire crew who shot the movie.
But, as ever, I digress. The point is that we forget. We misplace tracts of our memories, and we must seek them out anew. And this, dear friends is my thesis of the day. We are genetically disposed to forget. We do so not because we have limited storage space – although this was true for Ronald Reagan, and now the Beloved W– we apparently only use 10% of our available storage capacity.
The advantages of forgetting are many-fold. First, because forgetting is important for survival. If we remembered the pain from your fractured arm at 10 as clearly and distinctly at 30, and at the same time could feel the pain of being ditched by Peggy Sue or Jummai (and the list of women who have broken my heart only gets longer with time), and the death of your best friend, all as distinctly as the day it happened, eventually the collective pain would become unbearable.
Second, because if knowledge became hard-wired into our brains, we would not benefit from the passage of time and the advantage of a new perspective as you acquire new experiences. One might stagnate, wallowing in old opinions that become dogma. For instance, I might still express a deep-seated dislike for Economics, Lord of the Flies, teaching, blondes, window seats and cats. Having been persuaded by life or the need to save face, to try once more, I have subsequently revised my opinions (although I still prefer aisle seats – sheep and cities all look the same at 10,000 metres. Better to have instant access to the loo). Thus the common-place and banal is renewed, re-born.
I suppose this introspection marks my mid-life crisis – who the heck lives to be a 100? – and the fact that I had 3 weeks in isolation thanks to catching chickenpox. My mid-life crisis is not the usual vanilla and parsley variety crisis where one wishes to preserve one’s youth, be it known. No indeed, I remember yearning to be older even when I was young. I think it was for the usual reason. The freedom. The freedom to do whatever I wanted to do. Not to have someone else decide what was in my best interests. Not to follow someone else’s script for the movie of my life, but my own. Not a very original script, it needs to be said. To have buckets of money, to live a James Bond life style, to be a suave, jet setter and irresistible to the women. Although my particular script sounded – even to me at the time -(despite the potent cocktail of hormones coursing through my pubescent veins) like a unreasonable fantasy with no chance of ever coming true, I clung to it despite turning out to be short, unattractive and not so terribly irresistible. I suppose I must take consolation in at least getting around to the jet-setting bit, albeit mostly in economy. But the fact remains that I am not Licensed to Kill, I do not drink martinis, either shaken or stirred.
Middle age, however, has bestowed a License to Chill, during which I indulge in my usual mental excursions with no serious destination. And in my pimply and fevered state it occurred to me that I had managed to do pretty much everything that I had set out to do – in a general sort of way – that I had wanted to do. That – apart from having women flinging themselves at my feet - I had done everything that I have had the courage to do, and for which I have been willing to bear the consequences.
So, apart from the physical deterioration (I admit this is a downer), I do not yearn to be a confused, stammering teenager with unruly hair and unbound optimism looking for answers. I confess to looking forward to re-reading every book and re-watching CCBB, because I can, because the answers seem to change, as do the questions. To be able to stand in the middle of a field of grass and simply breathe fresh cut grass. Because its there. Because I rushed past two hundred times before saying to myself, nice smell, but never stopping because someone somewhere was expecting me, and life was about being there. And because I no longer have to do so because of peer pressure or to impress. And because there really isn’t that much of a hurry, because if your ship comes in and you’re at the airport, there will be another one along if you wait around a bit. Of course I have my regrets. There are friends I should have stayed in touch with, sorry’s I should have said, women I would like to have loved, others that I should have avoided, had circumstances or I been a little different. There are times I wish I had demonstrated more spine, more stands I could have taken, seized the day more often. But these are the usual regrets. They are but bugs on the windshield of my life, which have changed the view on my journey, altered my perspective, but have, on the whole, not altered my journey. And these women, these events will come back if I wait in the right place. As the boatman in Siddartha said, if you wait long enough everything comes back. Spiritually or physically.
It seems to me that life is not about reflections and mirrors, but about refractions and prisms. And that is why we need to do things several times over, because there are several ways of seeing the same thing, because each time you look, the rainbow is different, or maybe gone, and life is not about finding out about you, because there is no single you, because you are part of so many events and people. And you change from one moment to the next infinitely and infinitesimally. I am proposing that we are not really doomed to repeat our mistakes ad infinitum, because they are not the same mistakes or the same ecstasies.
There is an important caveat to this. The beautiful and the wondrous can never be separated from the ugly and the unhappy; they are indivisible, joined at the hip by mother nature herself. The discovery of a flower necessitates the discovery of the bee and its sting. Life and Birth complement Pain and Death. To expect a life devoid of one and full of the other is naive.
Nonetheless, whether poignant or horrific, the extraordinary beauty of nuances is really what life is all about, because these nuances are simultaneously infinite and infinitesimal, and because there is a poet in your heart who rejoices or laments in the beauty of the variation, despite its familiarity. Because both you and the flower are different every time you get together, because people and places and things exist in four dimensions and not three. And by touching the flower, you have imperceptibly changed yourself and the flower. And these changes, when embraced, these variations change you, a small increment at a time, every time.
The Italians have it right: la vita e' bella perche' e'varia: ‘Life is nice-if there is variety’.