Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Question of Legacy

This is the complete version of a piece I wrote for MW's October issue.

Almost a decade ago, in a youthful display of exuberance and nauseating mushiness, I burnt a CD full of romantic songs for a girl. This was a time when CD burners weren’t ubiquitous and blue-ray discs were still stuff of science fiction. The intent was right. The songs were good. Sadly, she wasn’t impressed. Suffice to say, the CD didn’t get me very far.

Bruised ego was eventually healed. Drinks were chugged endlessly and references were made to the availability of other fish in some imaginary pond (or was it ocean?). I never burnt another music CD for a girl or created a colourful sleeve for the cover with an index (did I say nauseating, I meant insulin imbalance causing saccharine trash). But what makes this incident significant in the bigger scheme of things is something that happened a few years later.

Back to the present.

By the time you’d be reading this, gentle reader, I would have added another feather to my birthday cap and turned a year older. Birthdays always make me a little melancholic. They remind me of childhood, of years gone past and of the supposed dawning of wisdom (for someone who has guarded his ignorance with a vengeance, this can be a bit off-putting). The other reason for my sourpuss behaviour around this time has to do with legacy.

For as long as I can remember I have been obsessed with creating a worthwhile and long-lasting legacy – something that will survive me, perhaps for generations to come. Legacy can be in the form of material wealth and riches. It can be in the form of ideas. An artist’s legacy is his work; a gangster’s his street-cred and the urban legends that surround his name. As an author I hope my books are read for years to come (they better immortalise me – I’m looking at you, first draft of new novel). But my concerns here are of a very different kind – a legacy of a more personal nature.

How do people remember us when we are no longer around (we need not have departed to our heavenly abodes, but perhaps moved to a different city)? Do they miss us? Do they remember us fondly? What is it about us that they miss? In short, did we have any impact on their lives? These questions trouble me often.

As we grow old we surround ourselves with people. Some of them fall by the wayside as time goes by – either because we outgrow them or perhaps due to circumstances.

Anyone who has ever lived in a megacity knows that a social group of friends and acquaintances (however close they may be) has a limited shelf life as a collective. The constant churning and flux of the city ensures that old faces disappear and new ones keep appearing.

But there are a few who remain connected to us at a much deeper level, irrespective of the time that has passed or the distance that separates us. These friends and companions are our extended family.

All of us have a few close friends we don’t communicate with on a regular basis – no phone calls, no Twitter replies, no Facebook comments, no emails, not even a new year’s greeting card. But these people are always in our thoughts – at every heartbreak and failure, at every moment of triumph and joy – these are the people we think of. Trivialities like distance and a lack of communication don’t affect such friendships. These friendships are our legacy.

But with friends there is also a legacy of shared experiences that transcends space and time. Take, for example, the unassuming long island iced tea; so unassuming that it doesn’t even have any tea in it. The LIT, however, packs a walloping punch and in terms of its alcoholic content probably provides the best value for money in an upmarket watering hole. But for certain stellar upstanding denizens of Singapore, Bengaluru and Mumbai (friends of yours truly) an LIT would always mean an LIT at the Hard Rock Cafe in the beautiful garden city (aptly housed in what used to be the Bible Society building). Because this was the setting of an evening of raucous and unbridled revelry, a day after a dear friend got married to her sweetheart.

Mention the word LIT to this group and their eyes will glaze over and a soft smile will spread across their lips. This will then give way to an adrenaline rush that is more contagious to the people around them than a medieval bubonic plague.

Every group of friends has such stories, stories that they never get tired of reminiscing about. Stories that are recounted again and again over the years to the chagrin of their loved ones. They usually involve imbibing large amounts of alcohol or puffing on that most magical of purple dragons. Over the years they become bigger and better, taking on a life of their own. This is how legends are born, legacies created.

Now back to the significance of that CD story. A few years after that incident I had become one of the wise old men on my college campus. A fresher was being made fun of by a group of his seniors and peers for having made a birthday greeting card for a girl he fancied. The tenor of comments was mostly mocking and cruel and I could see something break inside the young (relatively speaking) man.

Past images flashed before my eyes. I came to his rescue and whisked him away on the pretext that he had to buy me a lime mint cooler (which he did very gladly and not because he was petrified of me – a senior). And then I did something strange. I told him the CD story. He listened attentively and nodded every now and then. I didn’t really know why I was telling him the story, but felt that it was somehow significant.

I bumped into him yesterday after six years. He thanked me - told me that my coming to his rescue and sharing my personal experience all those years ago meant a lot to him. It helped him keep his naiveté and innocence intact for a bit longer. I was speechless. He now creates greeting cards for a living. This perhaps is also my legacy.

I think the American journalist and critic HL Mencken had the right idea about legacy when he said, “If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.”

Anshumani Ruddra is an author who suffers from chronic introspection