A couple of years has passed since my last note from the hills. I have mostly lived in two Indian metropolises Delhi and Calcutta this entire time and haven’t seen any mountain range, which means there has been no pine tree, no fir, no winding road up the hill sky, no blue day sky, no clear starry night sky and no fresh unpolluted air for quite a long time. Not that I am complaining, I am dead serious about my job now and that kind of work can’t really be done from up in the mountains. But nature was a part of my everyday life when I was in Berkeley and I did miss nature a lot in the big Indian cities, which made me do this escape to the hills for a couple of days.
Right now I am sitting at the outdoors of a cafe high up on the mountains with a cup of coffee and writing this note. The place is called Landour. My table faces the pine trees that have covered the entire slope of the mountain. The cookie that the server gave me on a plate with the coffee didn’t last long though. A monkey came and grabbed it, triggering a shock wave among the people chilling at the cafe including myself.
This place and these trees are particularly significant to me. An hour hike from the touristy hill station called Mussorie nestled high up on the edge of the Himalayas, this small but busy town called Landour is the place where one of my favorite authors, Ruskin Bond, lives and writes from. The trees I am facing right now are essentially the same ones that inspired a lot of his writings. These are the trees that constantly watch him as he sits at his desk next to the window of his house and writes. The sounds of whisper through the woods that he describes in his writings essentially originate from these trees. A large reason for me to choose Mussoorie of all the hill stations to take this much needed break from my work in Delhi was the temptation to visit Ruskin Bond’s town.
I got to Mussorie yesterday afternoon and spent the evening walking along the relatively quiet Camel’s Back Road and enjoying the view of the valley from there. This morning, after an arduous walk through a narrow but busy road uphill from Mussorie, I reached Landour. At once I was greeted by the portrait of Ruskin Bond painted on the walls. Other than Tagore’s paintings on walls all over Calcutta, I have never really seen an author’s portrait on the walls of an Indian town or city. As I walked further up, I enquired the local people about the exact location of Mr. Bond’s house. In this process, I also met a fellow Ruskin Bond fan from Bombay, who is also visiting Landour for the same reason as me- to locate Mr. Bond’s house. Together we strolled around the neighborhood and eventually located his abode, next to a very colorfully painted Domo’s cafe.
The house looked exactly like he described in his books. The red staircase was there, the famous window was there, and also the corrugated tin roof. A dog was sleeping on the staircase. We stood in front of the house, across the road, for a long time and chatted, with the midday sun caressing us. We mostly talked about what were the chances of someone establishing oneself as a writer in today’s age. If either of us moved to the hills and started writing as good as Bond sahab, would we be able to sell our books too? As the chat got more interesting and turned more into a debate, the dog woke up and in order to find a more sunny spot walked up to us. We had to make room for him to lie down as a result. Usually I am quite scared of dogs but this dog seemed overtly chill and friendly. It was Ruskin Bond’s stray-dog after all. My new friend suggested that the dog should be called Rusty.
After a while we decided to leave Rusty alone and walked further up to a place called Char Dukaan, which had a bunch of restaurants and cafes, one of them being Cafe Ivy, where we are sitting in right now. The cafe is particularly fancy with elegant furniture and lighting, and proper blues music being played on the audio system. If only the server made us alert of the monkey threat!
A lot has happened in the last couple of years, since my last visit to the hills, which was Shimla. Things really went south after that- further loneliness at work, confusion regarding what to do next in my career, that insane moment early morning one day when I got up from sleep, looked at the walls around me of my almost empty bedroom in my new house and didn’t even know who I was for a good few seconds. All my pursuit of truth through the science lessons in Berkeley, the intense relationships with Diggy and Polo, the experimentation with spirituality, the loneliness in Delhi- had finally turned successful. I didn’t realize it right away at that moment but later as I pulled myself through all the toll that that experience itself and everything that preceded it for the last few years on my mind, I realized it.
I had essentially solved the “hard problem of consciousness”- at least to my own satisfaction. The problem, as framed by academician David Chalmers. I refuse to use the word “philosopher” for researchers sitting in Philosophy departments of universities writing essays on philosophy for a living and calling themselves philosophers. To me, all human beings who think about the world around and reflect on their lives are philosophers. Why should only researchers in Philosophy departments get the privilege to call themselves so! In any case, David Chalmers essentially tries to explore the subjective nature of reality by calling it the “hard problem of consciousness”. The reality as we perceive it through our minds always has a subjective aspect to it. The problem lies in explaining what it actually is.
That morning when I woke up from my sleep I had no understanding of who I was for a good few seconds. It was just a body lying on the bed- and I was just looking at it. No, I wasn’t under the influence of any psychedelic. Just by living in a new city for months where I couldn’t connect with anyone personally, by simply talking about only science and mathematics with colleagues at work and by never really doing anything simple and fun like reading fun story books or watching some dumb show on cable TV as opposed to reading existential philosophy, I had started getting detached from all my memories of living like a normal human being. There is something eerie about workplaces- people never connect with each other personally and emotionally, they are always throwing facts at each other and talking of stuff in a strange impersonal way such that you get to know nothing about them even if you meet them at workplace for months, as if there is nothing to life other than facts and logic and deliverables. All that got into me- I forgot to laugh, forgot to smile, forgot to feel, as insane as that sounds.
And all that led to a strange detachment from memories of my past- memories of childhood, high school, Berkeley, Polo, Diggy, parents. There is a subtle difference between forgetting things and being detached from things- I still remembered all these things and people, it’s just that I forgot the feelings associated with my experience of these things and people, which led to this sense of detachment. And that resulted in dreams vanishing from my sleep slowly- the science and mathematics you discuss at work don’t make your dreams, what makes your dreams is the feeling and emotion you attach to them when you discuss them at work with other fellows- you voicing your aspiration to be a top researcher or a heated debate with your colleague about how a certain thing works- that’s what dreams are made of along with other things like good and bad memories you make during the day, the longings you have for your loved ones- practically all sorts of emotions. Since all emotions were going out of me living in this strange work environment in this new place, my dreams were vanishing too until that morning when I woke up from my sleep with a completely blank mind.
Careful reflection on that moment probably explains the subjective nature of experience, and hence the hard problem of consciousness. At any given moment in time, our experience of the world has two components to it- the external world that is sending signals to our brain through different stimuli perceived by our sense and motor organs, and the memory of our past moments that is embedded in our brain. The subjective nature of reality that we perceive or rather subjective nature of our experience is essentially a calibration between the incoming signal from the external world and some pre-existing signal/ memory already embedded in our brain. Without this calibration, we can perceive the external world as it is as I did that morning when I woke up- I just saw the walls, the bed, my body the way they were without relating them with anything I had pre-conceived about them. Finally after all these years I was probably able to “live”in the moment”.
But then given that I experienced a moment just the way it was, why couldn’t I just live like that? What was so scary about it? The reason for the scare was the fear of death- somehow death reveals its scary face in a such a moment, as I had also felt in the past during my entire spiritual pursuit. It actually makes sense now that I think about it – what really makes us continue our lives is this will to do something, to achieve something, to realize our own potential. If we experience the world around just the way it is independent of us and you even look at our own bodies that way, and we don not have any sort of attachment to the past or aspiration for the future, we may just do anything to ourselves at that point. What stops us then from jumping off a building or coming in the way of a car and getting ourselves run over. I earlier used to think lonely people commit suicide out of sadness, out of the desire to terminate some kind of pain, but now I realize it’s not necessarily so. People can commit suicide simply because they experience moments when they have lost all attachment to their memories and aspirations, and they just get obsessed with some idea that can hurt them, but they don’t care and they simply just do it.
Moments like that were happening to me very frequently around that time, and after that morning, they started happening even more. Suddenly I would see a small object like cap of a bottle and would want to swallow it and choke myself. As I would walk on the pavement of the road, I would see a car coming in front of me at high speed and I would feel like jumping in front of it. It was a strange gripping obsession, where I wanted to do such a thing not because I was pained by my existence and wanted to terminate it, but rather I simply just wanted to do such a thing and see what it felt like.
The mind was an absolute void other than that thought- no memory of the past, no aspiration, nothing!!!
I realized I had to pull myself out of it- otherwise I would kill myself. I told myself – this was enough, I wouldn’t think about anything “existential” or “philosophical” from then on, I would just do light stuff and not think about anything deep until I pull myself out of this situation! And the people who you would largely depend on to pull yourself from such a situation were your parents- too people who would always be there for you at any cost. I decided to go to Calcutta for an indefinite period and stay with parents until I got well. If that meant losing my job, so be it! I am a smart guy with the best qualifications in the world, I will be able to find another decent job for sure!
So within a couple of days from that morning, I took a flight from Delhi to Calcutta. I still remember when the plane landed at the Calcutta airport and we got down from the plane to walk into the airport bus that would take us from the run-way to the airport, I touched the ground with the tip of my fingers and then kissed my fingers. I needed to get back the calibration in my mind I had lost- I needed to feel grounded again- and what better way to feel that than reconnecting with the city I spent in my childhood in, where my parents lived and where I had some of the best memories of my life.
To be continued.