I was on a bus in India, staring back at a little girl with the blackest eyes.
Not black like death, but abyssal; pools of deep wonder staring back at me. Nothing else. These black pools belonged to a small round face, which had a flat, round button for a nose, and a rose bud for a mouth. Black tendrils of corkscrew curls framed this orbital face. She looked no older than five. Her kurta, so tiny it looked like she had worn her doll’s dress, was red and faded as the earth.
Her curls bounced up and down and so did her tiny ball of a head as our bus—this rickety pile of metal and wood with a 3rd-hand engine and four wheels—bounced and rocked its way down a #####-mile highway of rocks and pebbles. Her eyes though, those abyssal black pools, remained as steady and fixed on me as a placid lake. A tiny thumb was lodged inside her tiny mouth, like it belonged there.
The bus screeched to a halt, throwing most of us forward. I squeezed my eyes shut for a few seconds and blinked them a few more times. I glanced outside the window, my gaze lost out into the dark nothingness of night. I tried to peer through the thick clouds of smog, the dark layers of night, for any mere indication of current location. My watch said 4:30 in the morning, which meant I had been riding through Hindustan for over five hours now.
An infant, the round-eyed little girl’s sibling, started to cry.
What am I doing here?
The question blared at me for the tenth time since I plopped on that torn seat. It was a literal question and less of an existential one, though I knew there would be no escaping the latter for long.
Our driver, this frail little man with three layers of clothes on, jumped out to inspect the engine, muttering words I’d never understand. The baby’s crying grew into full-on wailing. The person behind me was kicking my seat, restless. My temples began to throb.
Really, why the fuck am I sitting here?
And, just as literal as one can ever be, right in the middle of nowhere.
Well, for starters, I was sitting here because I had decided to jump on a bus to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. On Christmas Day (a religious holiday that none of my co-passengers could be bothered about).
And why would I want to do that?
Weeeelll, because… Taj Mahal. Isn’t it somewhere on my bucket list?
Okay, not really, but it is now. And I’ll make something of the experience. I’ll write about it.
And what would I write about it? How to get there, when to go, what to bring? Another ultimate guide to visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is also one of the Eight Wonders of the World? Was I really gonna write a highly original, absolutely authentic, groundbreaking piece about the Taj Mahal?
And thus began my argument with my self; a recurring argument that has lasted over six years and is the most probable reason why I have not completed another fictional novel or penned another poem or submitted anything to any of the literary workshops in the last decade. This self-questioning, overanalysing, critical voice was the bane of my writing career. No matter how hard I tried to fight it, reason with it, meditate on it, it—that voice—always triumphed and I always faltered. The internal skirmish would usually end not with a white flag, but with the crumpling of paper or the loud click on “Delete”.
Why do I want to write about the Taj Mahal anyway? Well, I hadn’t set out on this semi-crazy, very charmed albeit haphazard trip around India just to write about a king’s dead wife’s mausoleum. The whole thing—from the moment I booked my flight, to the moment I set foot outside Indira Gandhi International Airport, right up until I bid my bewildered host family farewell an hour before my impromptu bus trip to Agra—was conceived in the spirit of adventure. Never mind the travel guide, who gives a hoot if anyone else wants to see the Taj Mahal— hey, these are my fucking feelings.
My heart sank, as answers slowly began to unfold. Because, despite all earnest attempts and sincere intentions to produce substantial content that would have a significant impact, or at the very least serve a functional purpose, on other people, there was only a single purpose at the core of why I write and it wasn’t in the least bit profound. I write because I want to.
And it is a want so fiery and so deep it burns straight into my core and resonates within my soul, and that might even sound quite cheesy but there are simply no words to accurately grasp it. And that’s really all there is to it. Stripping away all the identities we attach to the self: citizen, woman, millennial, Asian, professional, nomad, adventurer, non-conformist, writer, whatever.
There is only one person I write for: myself.
People have often asked me when I began to write and all I can ever remember is wanting to make my own book since I learned how to read one and write a full sentence.
But it was somewhere in the middle of Uttar Pradesh, buried in my seat’s ruptured upholstery and sardined with 20 other people in a broken bus, during the first few hours of a holiday that my family was celebrating on the other side of the continent—this was where and when I knew why.
And as we all scrambled out of the bus (the driver was rambling on about something that might’ve sounded like flat tire) and I sat on a curb sipping on a hot cup of chai tea, conveniently available from the roadside chai wala , I felt my mouth melt into a goofy, blissful grin. I write like nobody gives a damn, because, frankly, nobody does.