On most mornings when I wake up, thoughts frolic like little children playing hopscotch on a national holiday, and I frolic along with them counting 1, 2, 3… Some mornings, I yearn. This yearning, acute and solipsistic, at once magnifies the self, and denigrates it, for want of sanity. The struggle, of an existential nature, is perverse, heavy pistons lunging and sending off heat in dark boiler rooms. These moments, atemporal and depleting certitude, continue over days while I lose balance, health, and mental integrity.
What I experience is a profound dis-ease; the only way I have been able to lexically contain it for a while even as I try to explore it further. This dis-ease, much like neurosis eats away, scraping what does not come off in the first attempt. Even as I continue to perform without failing at everyday chores, the dis-ease keeps itself alert inside. The other morning, while I walked in the park, I took hold of my sister and vacated myself but to no visible change in my condition. But I must have set off the energy in the universe, for that very evening, I came across this:
“Suppose, finally, they are unaware of any cherished values, but still are very much aware of a threat? That is the experience of uneasiness, of anxiety, which, if it is total enough, becomes a deadly unspecified malaise.
Ours is a time of uneasiness and indifference—not yet formulated in such ways as to permit the work of reason and the play of sensibility. Instead of troubles—defined in terms of values and threats—there is often the misery of vague uneasiness; instead of explicit issues there is often merely the beat feeling that all is somehow not right. Neither the values threatened nor whatever threatens them has been stated; in short, they have not been carried to the point of decision. Much less have they been formulated as problems of social science.”
The writer is Charles Wright Mills, writing in The Sociological Imagination, the book published in 1959, three years before his death from a cardiac arrest, remains among his most influential books, introducing us to sociological imagination. It continues to be recommended for initiating oneself into the social sciences, especially sociology, and what they offer to the mind and soul. Sociological imagination, according to Mills, is the enabling mindset that bridges the gulf between personal reality and social history. Without this knowing, what to look at, how to look at the issue, human suffering can be equated with folly, personal lack, indolence, or as needing psychiatric intervention.
It was when I read about the uneasiness as written by Mills, what he himself sought to understand much like me, that I could feel rest and peace descending. At once, I felt light, as one feels when they defy gravity and not worrying about the groundlessness beneath. Without waiting, I closed the book and tried to get some sleep. I still hadn’t found an answer; just a fringed bit of hope that jumps back and forth until it spends its energy. I trusted Mills much like I have trusted authors, poets, and philosophers for their wisdom and ability to give to others without selfish predilections. I wondered what element of the universe replaced their human egos, for them to transcend time, in thinking and being. During that initial hour of wholehearted relief, I imagined literary characters and writers, with whom I had shared mortal and immortal relationships over my lived history, levitate around me.
When we bemoan the corruption of human spirit, we often fear the loss of faith, our tendency to break apart and lose our internal ground, in times of crises. But it is only when we ignore the extraordinary evidence that rests in history that we stagger, we molest our common family of having adopted poor values and shame them into aversion, anger, and defiance. Much like the iconoclasts before us who, without any corrective changes visible in the immediate, went ahead, believing that another generation would do what they had already undone, we must retain our faith. It is a precious resource that we can exhaust with our carelessness, but with tending, would sustain the planet, including the human race.
And it is with this faith restored within me that I slept.
Every evening, from a precariously-built balcony, I look down at the routine gathering of working men around a bonfire. These men, the remaining four, were employed to manually demolish the old house opposite ours. As the days shorten, commanding the nights to take over sooner, the men finish their work early, washing themselves with a gallon of water borrowed from the neighbourhood, and settle down. Now is the time to build the fire. From my vantage, I cannot clearly see what is being consumed by the lapping fire; I need not see it. The fire speaks for itself when it falls on human faces. Like each human face, each fire is distinct.
The men squat down on the rubble; whatever can hold a human bottom if only temporarily, calculating the distance between them and the fire. The twilight is cool but not frigid; the fire is pleasant but not absolutely necessary. When the civilization around it is absorbed in its vulgar chores, the cackle from the fire rises high. The empty space, where once the house stood, then morphs into a globule with throbbing energy at its centre. Here you can be here and not here. Here you can see the infant cosmos in a whirlpool so dense that space would have been a myth. Here you can see the early humans devoid of any identity except a communal identity, discover the first fire. Here you can see time stopping and moving against the laws of the physical world.
Soon after, one of the men places a wok; the fire contained by red bricks on its sides, its wild roars tamed into a steady meditative hum. Condiments and stale produce come together in alchemy, hissing, gasping, and threshing. The smells from the witchcraft climb upon the winds, like the confidence of youth, and travel under the nearing full moon. The men lay out the food in aluminium plates, sit cross-legged, and consume. It is uncanny how food, in small or large quantities, satisfies different kinds of desires but serves one need without discrimination—filling the stomach.
In the morning, nothing of the fire remains except a dark patch of ashen water. The rubble appears into form, dishevelled, and stands without character. Sunlight, filtered by the smoke, isn’t so harsh. The men pick up their sledgehammers and beat. Occasionally, they yell, discomforted by the work, the heaviness of it all or to communicate with each other. Sweat forms of labour, of blood pumping. It is another day.
I come back to the balcony night after night; as if performing a ritual familiarising with the shadows, the smells, and discriminating the sound of this fire from any other. I gather this over days—the universe must be a continuum of happenstances. The men, the fires, the plot of land, the times past and future that I see, they eclipse each other, they eclipse me, like tiny happenstances laid out in a continuum.