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Purple Candles – Avishek Parui

Mar 26, 2021 | Fiction | 1 comment

The sun has nothing to do with light. Real light comes from the night. You know it if you stay up and see it happen. It feels strange at first. Then slowly nice. The smell of early morning breaking in. Stealing some light from the last dregs of darkness. Before becoming a new name, with a different date. For me, it’s the slow flip of a calendar page. The sound of me moving one more day away. From what blocked my brain slowly. From what messed my mind and numbed my nerves with fake warmth, fake thrill, fake life. I have started to believe it was all fake. It was difficult first, painful too. But now I know. That the substance. The thing I don’t want to name. Will not name. Was shutting me softly. Eating up my life. I am happier now. I am now in what’s called pink cloud. It’s not supposed to last. So, I need to write.
I had a day job. I still have it technically. I am good at it. I make codes for an online delivery company. They pay me well. To make better codes for swifter service. With more options for buyers. It’s all about swiftness, about how quickly you can create and re-create algorithms that will attach and attract. Combining velocity with variety. Doing what I do requires knowledge, skill, parallel thinking. It’s also stressfully slow, voyeuristic, manipulative. I am not a super-nice or super-sensitive person. Far from it. I don’t cuddle my conscience beyond the barest minimum. But something about my job, my role in this chain of attractive algorithms, felt fundamentally foolish. I had learned computer science, did a B.Tech. from a premier place hoping to get a fat package. I loved my job for the first seven months or so. Pretty office, partying colleagues, nice perks. But the codes I made began to bruise me slowly. It was all about killing attention, producing distractions, dumbing down, spreading stupidity; the flashy options meant to muddle intelligent understanding with information-overload. In other words, I was selling my smartness to manufacture stupidity. You don’t have to be super-sensitive to be bothered by this. I just got too close to the machine. Not because I worked too hard. It may have purely been an accident. Nine months into my job the substance found me.
Addiction is a dirty word. And entirely untrue. You don’t get addicted to anything. You simply shut down everything else and live for just that one moment. And what comes out of that moment. Until nothing else matters. At least that’s how it happened with me. Shut down. Followed by focus. Until everything crystallized and calcified into the experience I pushed into my veins. My blood knew it. The moment the two lives, the two streams mixed. When one took over the other. It was never an addiction for me.  It wasn’t anything like liberation either. It was just the experience of experiencing a different kind of heartbeat, a different pulse rate, which also meant me. An unfamiliar me. It was like having another person in the room to talk to without saying anything. I was never looking for any solution to any problem, or any answer to any deep dark question. At least I never fooled myself that way. If anything at all, it made me swim away from the numbness in the office. Just swim slowly. With mindless motor movements. I swam a lot, every evening. Till everything began to slow down. Till I began to dive and drown.
My coworkers at the office didn’t notice anything at first. Sometimes someone would comment on my hollow eyes which would quickly be ascribed to a hangover. Usually with an encouraging smile. Alcohol is never a problem in that setting. Drinking is good, it meant you are social, fun, functional. Overdrinking is okay too. That means you are working harder than you should. And that’s always excellent. You aren’t expected to fall through the grids due to alcohol. So, my tired eyes weren’t a problem. My job was muscle memory by then. Walking in, punching my employee code, typing in my system-generated password to resume my coding, coffee break, more codes, lunch, more codes, coffee break, more codes, system shutdown. It was all a small sequence across seven hours a day that passed very swiftly and very slowly. And all I could think of was the evening to myself, in my one-bedroom apartment in the southern part of the city. Talking to another me in my head.
I started avoiding social invites, the usual going out to get drunk on Friday evenings. I started slipping off right after shifts. Again, that wasn’t a big thing. People probably thought I was seeing someone, dating, having a fling. I dodged those questions with silly smiles. Human relationships in that setting are supposed to be shallow, strategic, without strings, with benefits. Depth meant friction there. Deep attachment was undesirable. It meant viscosity in a machine that requires an endless celebration of speed. Staying slippery and shadowy is therefore never a problem. Ideally, we are supposed to be silent specters working away at our cold cubicles, cheering together when we generated large numbers for the machine god overseeing us all.
Men bore me quickly. It’s always been that way. Maybe I have been unlucky. Men are mostly dumb, depthless, and never non-childish. Permanently soaking in self-pitying or self-congratulatory sentiments. Always needy for numbers and trophies. Those that try to be charming are more insufferable as there is the additional stink of wit and vanity. Wit in most men is manipulative intelligence. Trying to conceal lacks or evil intentions. Men never worked for me beyond a point. Dating colleagues did not work either as you end up talking about the same backstories in the office. As the only daughter of my Chandigarh-based parents, I was used to being alone, especially in a big group. That happened more experientially in a big city away from home. I may have gotten used to my loneliness. Perhaps that is the real addiction, more than anything else. The loneliness that is also comforting. Coming back home alone with an expensive pizza that you can oven-warm and eat naked, watching someone scream in your huge LED TV mindlessly. As a 24-year old woman in a different city, working in a well-paying multinational and renting a decent-sized apartment in a posh corner can generate buoyancy. That buoyancy can quickly spill over into buying. Expensive cutlery that you will never use because you never cook. Gadgets that tire you with their funny in-built voices. An overpriced SUV that you drive alone. The typical bored consumer story. So many stories. So many movies. Done to death. All over again. This is no such story. This is not any story.
Maybe there is a constant. A constant to happiness and suffering. A constant that cannot change. Because it mustn’t change. Maybe if you have comfortable money and you don’t have people you care for with terminal disease and all, you just find a way to generate trouble as there needs to be a balance between blissfulness and being botched. There is no poetry or philosophy about addiction and abuse. There is just a ritual you suck up and stick yourself to. Simply sabotaging the possibility of too much happiness by interrupting it with something compulsive. Maybe that’s what happened with me. I just had to manufacture a mess as everything else was ordered and streamlined. Like a neat airbus about to take off for a perfect flight after all announcements are made. There is never a rationale for addiction. You just do it because there isn’t anything else you would rather do at that point in time. It’s a choice, there is no victim anywhere. And because it’s bad for you biologically, you begin to sink and suffer even as you feel fake excitement. You are never liberated when you are addicted. I have this clarity now. Some sites are saying I am too chuffed for too little. That this pink cloud will pass and I am going to crash again soon. So, I am writing this now so that it feels more real. In case it’s unreal. This isn’t a story. It will never take off. It will ramble, repeat, and then stop. Like everything else. Everyone else. Shrink, slow down, and then stop. Stop.
I got caught when I crashed on the floor one day. In office. Near the coffee machine. My eyes were blood red. And I had just started having my periods. My periods are never regular, always messy. Always a lot of red. And now my eyes were red too, almost bleeding. I may have overdosed the night before. I had ceased to measure, to care. Someone was trying to start a conversation. A man who smelt like a pumpkin and had a scar on his right cheek which pretended to look like a dimple. I stared at the scar as he spoke and breathed in the pumpkin smell. I wasn’t listening. Just staring and smelling. Till I could smell the scar too. Till I could see the knife that made it and the blood that got spat out of it. Till the same knife started cutting my head. Slowly at first. Till I could see myself in my LED TV having my head cut. With a screaming news-anchor analyzing it with a panel of excited experts. My head was a pumpkin by then. A pumpkin wrapped with my period pad. The same pumpkin I had smelt. Very red. Very bad.
Of course, the hospital found out about the substance in my blood. The exact amount. Their machines can measure everything. The ones that beep slowly and show your insides on a shaky graph. There’s something scary about those graphs, something handcuff-like, something you are tied to and can’t look away from as they undress you. And then there were endless blood tests. And more penetrating questions. Perhaps they also figured out why I pushed the shots in my system. A detailed report was sent to my office and I got a call from HR soon after release. Because I was technically good at my job I was not to be terminated. They hate to lose a well-trained wheel in the machine. Instead, I was to be dismissed for three months, without pay, during which I was supposed to enroll in and finish a rehab program at my own expense. Only after finishing the rehab successfully and upon producing a fitness certificate from a counselor was I allowed to rejoin my job. Till then I was supposed to be away. My desk was to be cleared. With immediate effect.
Nobody spoke to me when I came to collect my things. Nobody wants to be seen speaking to one caught doing substance abuse. I was trouble. A troubled junkie woman. This was too messy to be made cool. Even in a private chat. I had become a person-not-to-be-associated-with. My medical report was most likely a WhatsApp forward by then. With memes maybe. First a graph, then a forward. I was an algorithm now, circulating among people who make algorithms. I was a sad joke. Also, a moral lesson to most. There were no goodbyes or see-you-later-s when I walked down the hall and reached the elevator. I was to go down. Even men who used to touch my fingers deliberately while passing coffee, stayed away. The report may have revealed something contagious. The contagion was probably there between the lines. For the eyes of the extra-curious. The extra-refined.
There was only one moment that moved me. Made a lump in my throat of sorts. There was an old security guard, at the main door of the office building. He always reminded me of my grandfather in Chandigarh. My grandfather passed away when I was nine. He had lung cancer, of the very painful type. He always loved, listened to, indulged me, a lot. Right before he died, he had given me some purple candles which his father apparently brought from Lahore before the Partition. I had never seen purple candles anywhere else. I always kept those with me. Never lit those to use. The old security man at our office building used to call me just like my grandfather did. ‘Madamji’. The same deep voice, the same honest smile. The same straight spine.  He would always greet me on my way in and out. Every single day. On that day, when I was asked to pack up and leave, he was there. Right at the main gate, near the turnstile where people punch in and out with their employee cards. I was there too, crossing over, going away. But he looked the other way. I tried to get his attention, I slowed, I stopped. To look at him. To hear his ‘Madamji’ one more time. He never looked back. This may have been purely an accident. He might not have known of my eviction and dismissal. He wasn’t supposed to. But I chose to read it as a sign. A deserved design. That night I brought out my grandfather’s candles again. The purple candles from Lahore. I touched those and felt his wrinkled skin. It smelt of very different days. Something must have stayed unforgotten in the wax. From somewhere far away.
Purple candles and pink clouds. My life sounds full of colours now. I don’t want to describe the battle in my head not to inject again. Nor the harrowing rehab or how I was treated by the counselor. For that may be unfair. But I did stop. I did put an end to mixing up my blood. Not because that would make me a better person. Not because that would make me a comeback hero in office. Because I simply wanted to. For that matter, there was no real reason why I started the substance. Then also, I had simply wanted to. Just like there is no real reason why we fall for algorithms in our smartphones. Most, if not all, of what we do are irrational acts. I figured that out while creating codes for consumption in my clean and cold office. We just stick to things because some part of us want to, for reasons we don’t quite know. If you count closely, you will find you move your toothbrush inside your mouth roughly the same number of times every day. Or the number of times your towel moves while drying your hair after a shower. Autopilot acts generated by each system are unique. As well as mostly constant for each system. This is my theory. But then I am not trying to promote any theory. I am not trying to tell any story.
I have submitted my rehab report to HR. And the counselor has pronounced me fit to rejoin too. This is my last weekend as a dysfunctional junkie suspended from work. Day after tomorrow, I will be a respectable employee again. With my unique access codes. With salary and tax sheets. I ironed my dresses earlier today. Ordered in pizza again. Turned on the TV to see the same news channel and the same scream. Later at night, I will touch and clean the candles one more time. Those purple candles with wrinkled skin. I will talk to them till they show if I am really okay. And, if that happens, I will walk past the turnstile tomorrow before that old security man. The one with an honest smile. A straight spine. He will see me before I see him. And he will greet me with his grainy ‘Madamji’. And then I will smile. And greet him back. And then I will walk up to the elevator. One which will take me up again. Make me feel that I am flying. I will feel free. I will probably feel more. All this will happen. For sure, for sure. For sure.

Avishek Parui

Avishek Parui

Avishek Parui (PhD, Durham) is Assistant Professor in English at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, and  Associate Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy. He researches on storytelling, embodiment, and memory studies and is the author of Postmodern Literatures (Orient Blackswan). He is currently working on his second book titled Culture and the Literary: Matter, Metaphor, Memory to be published by Rowman & Littlefield.

1 Comment

  1. Sarthak verma

    Beautifully written. It’s always a delight to read and hear Prof Parui. This article was something special. Made me smile and sob simultaneously in ways mysterious and incomprehensible. Wish to see more of you Profesor in the days to come. What a flair!


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