#13. New Year & Virginia Woolf
"Now is life very solid or very shifting?"
I've officially done this for six-months and outlasted my own expectations from it. I began writing long emails to people sometime in the second year of my college. It was a shameless attempt at wanting and seeking out a single-person audience for the dumb, occasionally insightful, mostly self-obsessed things I had to say. Finally this year, I turned a more-indulgent and less dumb (hopefully) version of that into a newsletter.
A few days ago I realised that this edition will be the last email to go out this year. So naturally, I can't help but indulge in what a year, more specifically A New Year means.
For most of my life, A-New-Year meant simple things. On the 31’st of December, at home, my father usually makes an early-morning visit to the fish market. He spends the afternoon marinating and freezing the fish. As dusk nears, my parents fry the fish, wrap it all in delicate pieces of aluminum foil, pile them up in casseroles and get ready to leave for my grandmother's house — where all of my family gathers at night.
The night is a template of sorts, and as a kid, it was an event to play dress-up at. For most of my early teens, I made it a point to wear hideously over-the-top clothes. There would be hairbands with large pink bows, blue sparkling sling bags, golden flat-heeled shoes. My wardrobe had no filter.
New Year was a day of excessive fish-eating in paper plates that would be dumped later in one of the large garbage bags in the garden. Stray dogs would come and prod around it, smell it, and growl. We would give them leftover bones from our chicken and fish, and feel content for having fed another being. At 1 AM or 2 AM, everyone would take their leave and whisper goodbyes. We'd walk outside covered in shawls or sweaters, telling each other it was 'quite cold' this time around, and look for a rickshaw. We were like anybody else with a salty Bombay grain of oblivion running through us — we didn't know what winter was. New Year for us was 26°C and breezy wind that we chose to call cold.
Tangibly speaking, a year is not much. At best a period of time, a set number of days one has lived through. Still, as a bow-wearing child, I was (and possibly still am) drawn to this idea of New Year's Eve. This whole day when we're allowed to live entirely in retrospect. I suspect I do this on many days, most days in fact — but on this one day, everyone seems to be doing it with me.
I was told once that as a person I'm more interested in re-living than living itself. In parts, there might be some truth to this. I compulsively re-read highlighted passages from books, I re-watch Grey's Anatomy on an average twice every year, I find myself strolling through old texts, old images, old everything way more than I care to publicly admit.
My oldest habit is to reconstruct moments. It is an irresistible affair. I think, over and over, so that I don't dare to forget. And oddly, writing fits well here — words are the best trail to leave for any kind of reconstruction. Virginia Woolf once wrote in her diary, "So I have to create the whole thing afresh for myself each time. Probably all writers now are in the same boat. It is the penalty we pay for breaking with tradition, and the solitude makes the writing more exciting though the being read less so. One ought to sink to the bottom of the sea, probably, and live alone with one’s words."
A New Year in some ways is space to take some charge of life, as everyone tries to. But mostly for me, it has been about this one-free day of reminiscing to no end. A wild last chance to still be up close with what is rapidly slipping away.
It's enjoyable, addictive even because I've come to realise that it is only in retrospect that you know things. It is only after that you can point to a mistake or a general pattern of behavior in your existence. Otherwise, it's all annoyingly unfamiliar landscape, colored only by the brushstrokes of our actions.
To quote Virginia Woolf's diary again, "Now is life very solid or very shifting? I am haunted by the two contradictions. This has gone on forever; goes down to the bottom of the world — this moment I stand on. Also, it is transitory, flying, diaphanous. I shall pass like a cloud on the waves. Perhaps it may be that though we change, one flying after another, so quick, so quick, yet we are somehow successive and continuous we human beings and show the light through. But what is the light?"
On March 28, 1941, Virginia Woolf filled her overcoat pocket with rocks, walked into the River Ouse, and drowned herself. She never emerged alive, leaving behind only a suicide letter for her husband. It was a relapse into a depression that claimed her life. No one can ever confirm why she chose to fill up her pocket with rocks, or why she chose to die on that particular day.
A lot can be found in Woolf's writing, especially her diary writing. The past — the already lived moments offer solace. They confirm the things we know about a person, a time, a thing. They hand-hold us into the rest of it — the vast, unwavering space of not knowing what our future holds.
I think as a syllabus I've revised the past so many times that I recognise it by smell and sight. I remember the wait through mid-afternoon when our home would smell of ugly, freshly-caught, uncooked fish. The smell lingered — it stuck to the walls, on amma's hands, on plates and spoons, on hand-towels. It was a mild silent force that left only when tea was put to boil in the evening, and when finally the fish was put on a crackling pan with oil.
Thank you for reading.
Six Impossible Things is a monthly newsletter about art, books, reading, and feelings. You may sign up if you want it delivered to your inbox. You can follow me on Instagram @a_catinthesink