‘Duration only means delay whenever it exceeds the span necessary for realization.’
Count Hermann Keyserling, traveler and philosopher
It’s a long bone- battering bus ride from Dharamsala to Delhi. My seatmate began to chat from the moment I cranked up my footrest. Sandeep. Young, Indian, polite, inquisitive. I found myself curling my blanket more tightly around my torso and my privacy while he whittered on about how much he loved coming to Dharamsala, well more precisely Dharamkot, a mountain village which over the years had become a stronghold for baggy-panted charris-eyed guitar-wielding Israeli youth fresh from the bootstraps of military service —‘the occupied territories’, as it’s come to be known, complete with synagogue and falafel plates. He also loved sketching, music, Bob Dylan, meeting new people, walking up mountains, gazing at mountains, sketching mountains. Snoozing on buses? I wanted to add. His lengthy repertoire of enthusiasms was only interrupted by the thumping decibels of a Bollywood movie, spinning out its multiple wardrobe changes and nonsensical plot, while the bus swerved like a tanked Anaconda out of the lap of the hills into the plains below. When we stopped for dinner, he hung around the restaurant entrance waiting for me and I resigned myself to his company. When our thalis arrived, he watched as I launched into mine, a roti dangling from his fingertips.
“I loved her so much, you know.”
“Sure,” I replied, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to begin a conversation this way.
“But it was one-sided.”
I looked at him properly for the first time. He was about twenty-six. An open, trusting face, and a mouth that turned up at the corners so he seemed to smile even in repose. We could hardly have been more different, and yet he had recognized me. A fellow veteran from distant wars.
“One-sided,” he repeated, as if still convincing himself of the fact. “We lived like man and wife for over one month. And then she left. I was ready to marry her. I was very foolish.”
His large clear eyes welled with emotion. He was a true believer. She must have seen him coming a mile off.
“You were in love and you got hurt. It comes with the territory. Like skiing.”
“Yes, I got very hurt. I’m in so much pain. It’s been two months now. I still think of her all the time. What can I do?”
The waiter tossed two more rotis in our general direction.
“Just keep going,” I said. “Don’t give up. You’re in good company.”
It felt like small change, but it was all I had.
“Does it get easier?”
“Yes. Now eat your dinner,” I said, sounding more maternal than I intended. “The bus is leaving soon.”
Two days later, he called me and asked to meet. I don’t know why I agreed, but his young and sudden trust and half mad intuition that we shared some core truths, had touched me. We sat in a booth under a flickering fluorescent light in a crowded South Indian restaurant. A temporary confessional. Over salt lassis and masala dosas, he continued his elegiac story. The girl was from Israel, very pretty and flirtatious. She both craved male attention and was damaged by it. She had once called him from the Andaman Islands, crying into the phone that she had narrowly escaped being raped.
“I would have done anything for her. Anything at all. But in the end she said she’d just wanted me for the sex. How is that possible? Sex she could have with anyone. She didn’t need the emotional connection we had.”
“Maybe she did,” I shrugged.
“I don’t understand. She keeps telling me how many guys she’s having sex with. Why would she tell me this? To make me jealous?”
His vulnerability was humbling. And it was mining something buried in me.
“Possibly. She may not be thinking about your feelings at all.”
He handed me a sketchbook; thick-lined angular charcoal drawings of curvaceous women playing veenas and Himalayan forest scenes.
“This is all I did for a month. I just drew and drew. I lost my job. It’s funny. I think I miss her but really I miss…”
“Yeah. This is exactly true.”
Carbon copies from distant worlds.
“Look. You’ve lost a lot of confidence, but you’re not broken. Just badly bruised. You need to distance yourself from her.” I spoke as gently as I could. “You know that, right?”
“Yes, I know.”
I was, finally, and rather reluctantly, giving him what he had come for.
“You need to treat her like a virus. It doesn’t mean she’s a bad person, though she may be…damaged in a way that makes her bad for people like you.”
His eyes locked onto mine. Pupils taking notes.
“Right now, every time you engage her you’re re-infecting yourself.”
“That is exactly how it feels.”
My rickety dented heart was now a holy book, its sorrows a cantica. He roughed up his thick short hair, and smiled awkwardly.
“My friends think I should just get another one. You know. To get over her.”
“Is that what you want?”
The smile dissolved in thoughtfulness.
“No, I don’t. It seems cheap.”
“That stuff’s for amateurs. Professional romantics like us have to do better.”
There was an adumbration of relief in his laugh.
“Pain doesn’t go away by taking it out on the world. And anyway, you’re not like that.”
I had known him only a few hours, but I knew it to be true.
“No, I’m not like that. I don’t want to use someone that way.”
“Then don’t. And anyway, right now you have a great opportunity.”
“To connect with your own power.”
Was this a line from Kung Fu Panda?
“I’ll do that.”
The flickering fluorescent settled into the ‘on’ position and lit up his face as if his words had turned luminous. A young couple and small boy were waiting their turn for the confessional. It was time to go.
“Tell me something. How do you know when you’re…you know, over it?”
“When you stop pouring your heart out to random women on buses?”
He laughed but was quickly serious again. He wanted more. Actually, the question had startled me. I was someone to talk to about crashing into snowdrifts and getting back up. I wasn’t a ski instructor.
He stood there, stubbornly patient.
“I guess…..” I pushed his wallet away and laid 500 rupees into the silver tray the waiter had slid artfully onto the table edge, trying to dredge up another Kung Fu Panda line but coming up empty “…a good start is when you feel okay about having fallen so badly in the first place.”
“So when did you know you were? Over it, I mean.”
The carbon copies fluttered in the karmic winds as he opened the door for me to leave.
“Just now,” I said. “Just now.”