(In which we begin with a tip of the hat to/shameless rip-off from a certain Zadie Smith )
What does beauty mean to me?
What do I find beautiful?
I could, of course, go into an elegant discourse, citing various high-and-low-brow sources to back up whatever definition strikes me as suitably edgy or off the beaten track, as it were. Beauty might be found in Tagore one day, in Joyce the other, in silky Mozart on a calm Sunday morning, or in hoarse Dylan when we seek shelter from storms, both within and without. Beauty defies association, resists description;beauty is transient, always on the move, beauty is frozen in time.
The only universal thing about beauty is that it's always intensely personal.
Hence, I will simply tell you what happened when I went looking for beauty, retracing my steps, to a time when I thought my life itself was truly beautiful.
As is often the case with these questions, I found myself returning to my childhood, and those first, fleeting memories which one searches for, years later, only in vain. I hail from Ranchi, one of those quaintly in-between towns, a bunch of villages really, unsure whether they like the word "city". I've lived here ever since I was five, which means, importantly, that I don't really remember living elsewhere. Ever.
Hence, it is nearly impossible for me to view this place from an outsider's point of view, although the four years since I left Ranchi, (and went to college) have also, coincidentally been the years in which it has most rapidly and visibly changed. (read: "Expanded", that lovely bourgeouis usage which encapsulates so much and reveals so little)
I went ahead, anyway, to the neighbourhood I grew up in (my parents live in a different locality now) just for kicks, mind.. I had no intention of seeking out my old haunts, or going to some of the places which held a special meaning for me. My friends were supposed to pick me up from there, on a bike (the number of bikes on the road was another revelation, by the way)
There were no old haunts anymore. In fact, the entire place looked too sanitized, and could have done with a bit of haunting.
The places which held a special meaning for me had become a meaningless pile of rubble, in most cases. The fields and the empty stretches of land had been filled up with something or the other, an ugly house, a shopping mall, a call centre in one case.
This is the chief paradox of beauty: quick to dazzle, and quicker to disappoint.
Have we not felt this again and again, this terrible aesthetic burden of having to look back upon the past with rose-tinted glasses? Note that when I see the whole thing now, with the curse of postmodern sensibilities, there's a small voice inside which says: It was never that good, you were too small, you were too stupid, and now you know better.
Whenever we're confronted with terrible beauty of this sort, it is this same voice which tells us: you know better, you know better, you know better... don't give in, don't fall for it, you know better.
This rant goes on and on, and at the end of it, we're still no better.
This is another tell-tale sign that you've fallen for something beautiful: Time ceases to flow in a strictly linear fashion. In the graphic novel "Watchmen" , Alan Moore writes about how a superhero character Doc Manhattan experiences everything simultaneously, all the time. Yet he is able to influence the future through his "present" actions. I know now that this is undoubtedly a curse.
When I was a kid, I used to sit down beneath a particular tree, exhausted from all the running I'd be doing on the field, wanting nothing more than a few minutes of respite. I used to secretly hope for a rabbit-hole to materialize, down which I'd happily disappear to escape this world, which was already proving no match for the ones inside my ten year-old head.
That tree was intact, miraculously.
I sat down, unsure of my feelings. I was convinced I wouldn't spend much time there at all. I wanted the disgust I felt, the outrage, to sweep everything else aside. I wanted to mourn the death of a beautiful place with its last surviving member.
But again and again, I'd see the plainest wild flower, and my affinity for the place and the familiarity I enjoyed with it, would transform it into the most beauteous rose you could ever hope to see. (Sometimes, you have to call it by another name to realise its worth) I'd see shabby little hillocks in the distance, but the moment the first drops of rain fell, they would rise before my very eyes and become Himalayan in stature. I was at home, you see.
Every child, every dog, every noisy car began to speak to me, as if to console me: It's all right, you don't know who we are, but a part of us is this right here, this mitti that you can smell now in the rain.
It was a truly beautiful feeling, there's just no other way to put it. This was beauty at its most inscrutable, and like all Art, it was inherently easier to understand than to describe.
The rain picked up pace and I stood up from where I sat. It took me a while to realize that I'd been grinning non-stop since it started to rain. I wasn't even trying to go back beneath my tree, let alone scamper for a shelter.
Presently, my friends showed up, bikes revved, wheels making a splash of an entry. One of them took off his helmet,frowning, and said, "Why were you standing in the rain?"
I said, "You were late. " I paused, before continuing, "So I decided to light up my day". As I said this, I broke into a dopey grin once again.
"How was it? " asked my friend.
I considered this in silence. How would I describe my day after all?
Beautiful, I murmured... just beautiful.
(This post is written as an entry for the Yahoo/Dove "Real Beauty" Contest. If you like this post and would like to promote it, just use the Facebook "like" button here. You can click the blue badge below to see more such stories, about what beauty means to us.)