On one of these bleak, foggy mornings that make for reflection, my mother wondered aloud how my life might have turned out if we hadn’t moved from Bombay to Delhi when I was a teenager. Not fundamentally differently, I like to presume. I’d still be me. But whenever I glance at a black and white family photograph with a raging monsoon sea in the background, I feel a twinge of not exactly regret, but longing, for a city that could have been my home but is not. I know, I merely exchanged one metro for another, a pretty lame example for randomness considering how people are tossed around by twists in fate and fortune. However, the role chance plays in our lives is under appreciated. There are overlapping possibilities but no infallible map to serve as guide. Some are destined for serendipity, others to be trapped by circumstances — how the universe conspires to decide who ends up how and where, remains an eternal mystery.
Take the utterly arbitrary case of a bus conductor falsely implicated in a Delhi school boy’s murder. The case, big news three years ago, was trending again since the CBI has filed a chargesheet against four Gurgaon police officers for framing Ashok Kumar. Accused of sodomy and brutally tortured during his two-month incarceration, Kumar can no longer work and needs strong pain medication to get through the day. His life took a shattering turn because the alleged murderer, another student, scared of his parents’ wrath at his poor academic performance, was trying to get Open Day cancelled.
Hypothetically, if Kumar had been a conductor on any of the other 20 buses except the one the victim travelled in, he would not have even been an accused. Happenstance placed him there and all it took was a little bit of godforsaken luck to permanently alter a future.
There are turning points in all our lives when life could have been one thing but turns out to be another. The human tendency is to view the opportunities that passed us by in a mood of hazy dreaminess, like great things might have happened if only we had let them. Fortunately perhaps, we dwell less on the calamities that could just as easily have befallen us instead. “Into this world we’re thrown, like a dog without a bone. An actor out alone,” warned Jim Morrison, in his somewhat creepy last song, Riders on the storm, before unexpectedly dying. The truth is one simply cannot predict where another fork in the road may have led. Yet, we inhabit a state of wistful conjecture on all the improbable possibles that didn’t come to fruition. It’s perfectly natural to look back and contemplate where we would be if situations had panned out differently. But viewing our imagined selves through rose-tinted glasses prevents us from fully enjoying the lives we are living.
A historic event like Covid has suddenly given all of humanity endless hours to ruminate over the frustrating gap between what is, and what may have been. In an ideal world, 2020 would have provoked huge amounts of gratitude. And it did, albeit briefly. It didn’t last because human beings are selfish, unbridled narcissists whose main preoccupations are themselves. It’s no surprise that Kumar’s life, a Kafkaesque fog of laughable evil, is effecting only in a visceral kind of way. The most captivating aspect of this case is that justice has been served. Kumar has been absolved of a horrific charge and his accusers identified, as opposed to languishing in jail forever (an all too possible alternate reality).
The most critical part of his haunting narrative is that he went from poverty to destitution through no fault of his, a devalued social identity abruptly diminishing whatever meagre prospects his two children had. The explanation, if there is one, lies outside the realm. But we may glean from injustice the precarious nature of things, maybe even appreciate the obstacles we avoided, on this strange and unpredictable ride.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 24, 2021 under the title ‘The inescapable lure of Neverland’. The writer is director, Hutkay Films