It has been months now since he last smiled. He was troubled. Not physically, not even in the professional life. When with his ‘friends’, he curled his lips to make the edges arch upwards with great difficulty, revealing a couple of teeth at times just so he can avoid a conversation about his life. ‘Smile’, what does that act truly mean? He was oblivious to the joy of having his lips automatically curled. The joy which came to a person when a lover holds your hand, when a dear friend puts his arms around you and you find comfort in the warmth of his hugs, when you talk to your parents about their experiences after a long time, or when you just walk in a park in a warm breezy day with your favorite book of poems in your hands. Was he incapable of doing all this? Possibly no. Man is fully responsible for his nature and his choices. So why was he so miserable?
He was ‘happy’, once upon a time. But define happiness for me if you can. A better statement would be, He was ignorant, once upon a time. He ignored the decisions he had to take, he ignored people who wanted to be a part of his life, he ignored his ideals, he ignored his ideas, he ignored friendships, and he ignored friends. And none of it was deliberate. This was all automatic. He didn’t think for a second to look back to all the things which mattered. Why? You may ask. Possibly because he was fed up of all the rejections he has had in the past. Rejections and failures break a person. And honestly, he was not that strong to rise from that fall and start believing in people again, to start believing in humanity again.
He used to read books, a lot of books. Maybe because it gave him a refuge, an escape route from all the obnoxious stuff taking place around him. Intentionally or unintentionally, he was drifting further away from what we know as the real world. He used to talk to characters of his favorite books, he used to portray himself as the protagonists of his last read novels. He ceased to have a character of his own. “What am I?” he used to ask himself. Not who, but what!? Was he a human? Was this being a human? He believed in nothing, only his skepticism kept him from being dead. He saw people around him who had a feeling of being eternal. He saw it not as a feeling, but as an illusion. As Sartre said, “Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal”. Was he alive? Or was he just layers of tissues and cells occupying some space. A log of wood perhaps, lying in the world without any purpose or without any instinct. This was probably because of him never failing or maybe not recognizing his failure.
He didn’t celebrate his birthdays. He locked his room on his birthdays and pretended to be asleep, just so he didn’t have to encounter other layers of tissues or cells, the only difference being, they were ‘happy’. Unsurprisingly, his door was not knocked. He drifted into light sleep reading the book he has been reading for the past 3 months. It was War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Every day, he came back from simple existence to a divine experience. He felt alive while reading those printed words. He felt real. He felt human. The mental turmoil which the characters go through, especially Pierre, was so real for him that he felt elated when he tried to put himself in the characters’ place. Every single quote struck as a bullet against his preconceived notions about humanity. Each monologue struck as a hammer against the anvil of his fake prejudices. He had driven people away from him. He knew somewhere deep down that those people would probably never come back. Even if he could go back in time and try to change his each action, still, he could never get those people back. Was he in despair? No! He was not sad. He was miserable. And he did this to himself. He was ‘unhappy’.
It was a Saturday morning and he woke up very early; to exist. Do nothing, meet no one, experience nothing, just exist. He picked up the book again and read a monologue by Prince Andrew. “It would be good," thought Prince Andrei, glancing at the little image that his sister had hung around his neck with such reverence and emotion, "It would be good if everything were as clear and simple as it seems to Princess Marya . How good it would be to know where to seek help in this life, and what to expect after it, beyond the grave! How happy and at peace I should be if I could now say:" Lord have mercy on me! But to whom should I say this? To some power indefinable and incomprehensible, to which I not only cannot appeal, but which I cannot express in words: The Great All or Nothing," he said to himself, "or to that God who has been sewn into this amulet by Marya? There is nothing certain, nothing except the nothingness of everything that is comprehensible to me, and the greatness of something incomprehensible but all important!” All those questions and queries rushed back in the void he had created in his head. He was helpless, and he couldn’t ask his God to help him. Because his God was dead.
He was constantly trying to communicate something incommunicable, to explain something inexplicable, to tell about something he only feels in his bones and which can only be experienced in those bones. He was having doubts now. Doubts about his decisions, doubts about his life and his own existence. Was it the right thing to do to push her away? Was it the right thing to do to disregard her love for him? Was it the right thing to treat her feelings that inconsiderately? Was it proper to blame all of his actions on his selfish behavior? Was it ethically right to blame his surrounding for everything he had become? Maybe, maybe not. He wanted answers. He wanted to sort everything between the two extremes of the spectrum. He wanted things as white or black, as right or wrong, as true or untrue, as proper and improper, and correct and incorrect. But things, emotions, feelings, thoughts, even people can seldom be categorized in these discrete points.
He moved ahead, he saw a quote he had underlined, “What is right, what is wrong? Nothing. If you are alive, live. If you want to be happy, be.” Such a simple sentence. If you want to be happy, be. The solution to everything lies in this simple sentence. He knew this. He had known it for years that he was responsible for his actions and his condition but can he get happiness from within? Probably yes. Didn’t Siddhartha find that happiness within and attained salvation? He had always believed there are three phases of a person’s life. First is the phase of ignorance, which generally is very prolonged in most people. He had come out of it at a very young age. Second is the phase of realization. The phase he was in. The phase where he came to know how evil human society can be to a stranger. The third and final phase was the phase of acceptance. The phase Buddha attained. The phase where you tend to accept that people lack self-awareness and you’ll meet such people at every stage of your life. The best policy is to accept their existence and be content. Just believe in your own conscience and contentment will reach you sooner or later.
He had a habit of not being able to resist some good books. Every time he read a long novel he started some other small book along with it. This time it was ‘The picture of Dorian Gray’. The picture of Dorian Gray talks about beauty and how we perceive beauty. What is our perception when it comes to beauty. How a simple act of kindness can make you much more beautiful and a simple evil act can make you much uglier. This ugliness is not only of the soul but also of the physical reality. He read the book twice reading each and every sentence slowly and carefully. He had heard that sometimes things just fall into their places. You don’t have to try to get something, it is just given to you by some divine intervention. It sounded so unrealistic, till that day. A colleague of his sent him a picture in which on the left side was his picture from the first year of college and in the other was his picture in the fourth year. He saw that picture and tears swelled up automatically in his eyes. He could see how ugly he had become. He could see how the once beautiful shining temple was full of lines now. He could see how his cheerful face of his youth had wrinkles now, formed due to all the evil he had done and thought. He cried. He cried like a baby who had lost his parents. He cried like a lover whose love had died in his arms. He cried like a mother whose son had died in war, he cried like a man whose existence till date was false. Yes, it was screwed. His entire being cried.
But this doesn’t end here. There is a special kind of attraction which pain and suffering and misery gives us. There is a weird sense of sublimity that distress provides. When you’ve made yourself suffer for a prolonged period, you tend to get attached to that suffering. It defines your being, your ideas, your thoughts. And we humans, if we are humans, are the worst at accepting changes. The only thing we resist is change. He knew he had to change. He knew it was necessary, he knew it was inevitable but he couldn’t. Something was stopping him from changing. This inertia would doom him. He knew it but he resisted.
Days later he reached the epilogue 2 of war and peace. He started it at around 9 in the night and read those few pages for like 4-5 hours. The epilogue explores the idea of freedom. It’s based on the ideas of freewill and necessity. What was freewill to him? He never felt dependent. All his actions according to him were free. Free in their own way. But this part of the book broke all those mirages. He was not free. He had no freewill. He had never been free. Everything he did was somewhere a necessity, a compulsion. A lady steals a piece of bread from some shop. You say it’s bad because it was free will. She was free to do the theft, she had a choice and she chose to steal it, hence, she should be punished. Now if someone tells you that she had a small baby who hadn’t eaten for three straight days, will the theft still be called an action of free will? Probably not, she had a necessity to steal. Whatever he did till date, was it his own free will? Was this punishment which he was giving himself appropriate? Should he be punished? Was the ugliness that he believed he brought upon himself as an act of free will actually his act? Or was it a necessity? A necessity to be able to recognize the true meaning of life. The whole story comes to the point where we started. Was it white or was it black? Was it freewill or was it necessity? Answer: None. They were an alloy of both. There is no black or white. There is only grey. Multiple shades but only grey. Every action is an amalgam of necessity and freewill. And one can’t punish himself for his condition.
This thought left him astonished. He was so amazed that some written words can have such an impact on a person’s identity. He was so mesmerized that he didn’t get out of his room for the next 3 days. He didn’t eat, didn’t attend classes, didn’t meet a single person for three days. He was just there, contemplating over his 21 years on this planet amongst the other humans. Humans, a mixture of emotions, a mixture of ideas, consciousness, actions, freewill and necessity. It’s strange how a single book can change someone’s entire thought process.
3 days later when he got out of his shell, when he dismantled the wall he had created with the bricks of fake prejudices and rigid beliefs, he was a new man. A happy, more beautiful, more genuine person. He felt beauty, he saw beauty, he admired beauty, he loved beauty. The world was beautiful, the people were beautiful, the human existence was beautiful and the beauty lied in its unpredictability. It lies in the amalgam that different emotions, thoughts, actions and feelings create in a person. From that day, that person had changed.
That person was I.
“I read a book one day and my whole life was changed.” – Orhan Pamuk