“Your social media usage has gone up by 17% this week” my iPad chimes, as I scroll through yet another Instagram post about baking fancy breads and a picnic by the local lake. Between Instagram, Facebook and YouTube, I am constantly bombarded with content about how to live life to the fullest and it only seems to have intensified since the lockdown. Actually I’m just consuming more of it.

I’ve been avoiding my feelings by scrolling through these perfect lives of complete strangers. But these perfectly captured shots of these supposedly perfect moments make me wonder why our lives seem to revolve around capturing these moments instead of just revelling in them. Why do we insist on curating our experiences to neatly fit the hashtags? Because living fully for real can feel chaotic and messy, but wholly satisfying – something that is amiss in my social feed. That makes me think about the last time I just revelled in the moment completely. The memory comes unbidden.

The first time I managed to truly consciously unplug, also happened to be my first solo trip, two weeks into the fellowship. I took an impromptu trip to West Bengal from Thakurganj, Bihar with little luggage and even lesser planning. It was the first time I stopped trying to curate my experience and just fully immersed myself into my surroundings. It was elating and terrifying at the same time, but through it, I discovered a clarity, even if for a brief moment. And here’s but a snippet of it:

It began because of a low battery sign. I’d left in a hurry, with not much planning on my part and so here I was, 30 mins into a 2 hour bus ride with only 13% phone battery left. There was a power bank barely charged and I had at least another 5 hours left in this journey. This idea was to not listen to music, to not watch videos or listen to podcasts or even to take too many photos. To give up all my usual pursuits to make a bus ride go faster. Deciding to give into circumstances, I plugged my phone into my abysmally charged power bank and sat back to actually take in my surroundings.

My first reaction was actually a surprise. As the headphones came off, I discovered that my bus driver and I shared similar taste in music. The DDLJ soundtrack was playing softly in the background, the feeling of childhood nostalgia washed over me and eased the knots in my stomach. Outside, the sun was like a glowing red bindi over the yellow-green khets (fields) stretching in all directions. I was half expecting to see a Raj serenading a Simran out in those swaying mustard fields.

Inside, my co-passenger turned out to be interesting to talk to. I couldn’t remember the last time I had willingly started a conversation with a stranger. As we chatted about solo trips (hers borne out of necessity, mine carried out on a whim) and munched on namkeen, it felt like there existed no world beyond this crowded little bus, this smiling woman and the greens outside.

Somewhere along the way, the realisation hit me that I’d never actually immersed myself wholly in a journey while traveling alone, never not supplemented movement with a soundtrack, never not tried to capture the view inside the perfect photograph, never not tried to control my experience in some way or the other. The realisation transformed that idea into a conscious decision – no music, no videos, no photos for the rest of the trip. I was going to let go and experience every part of this journey – the thrill, the fear, the beauty, the ugliness, the loneliness, the chatter, fully and in the moment.

Once in Kishanganj, against my instincts, I chose to forego google maps as I found my way to the railway station in the fading twilight. After a little confused wandering, a lot of asking around and way too many glances at the notice board, I finally figured out the right platform and sat down to wait. Nervousness and anticipation were jostling inside me as I sat nibbling on samosas and watching overtired people mill around. When I finally board the train, it strikes me that this is the first time I’m travelling alone, without a ticket and into a part of the country where I don’t speak the language. I felt both absurdly brave and idiotic at that moment.

The first thing I do when I get on is analyse the faces. The men outnumber the women 30 to 1 here. Normally I wouldn’t be here, normally I would have a reservation, a berth, some company and definitely my phone. Not so today, so I get in and do the usual dance in my head.

Who looks like a predator?
Who is prey?
Who looks like they would help?
And who would hinder?
I then categorise the exits, the best ways to get there and the best places to sit to get to those egress. This, I don’t have to wonder if it’s just me. This is every woman I know. It’s also probably every woman I don’t know.

Parallel to that analysis, my brain has supplied me with 25 different ways I could die on this train and at least 50 different ways this could go wrong. It’s only been a minute but I have to try hard to resist the urge to pull out my phone and get lost in it till my surroundings fade away, taking this discomfort with it.

Time takes on a different quality when you travel alone. It balloons and shrinks in ways I don’t fully comprehend. A minute seems a lifetime, a lifetime just a second. And I find I’m not the best company. I oscillate too much between mental quietude and 10000 thoughts per second, between a sense of elation and the depths of despair. Or maybe it’s like that with everyone?

It’s only after I sit (1.5 hours into the journey) that I get a good look at those staring at me. Rather we’re all in such close proximity that they’re staring through me not at me. Maybe their thoughts are racing too?

And while the mind busies itself, the eyes have to focus somewhere…

What once looked like predatory gazes, now just looks like vacant stares of over-tired men. Still, I wonder how many look discomfited because I’m a woman staking a claim in their space? And how many are simply envious that I got the better seat? The anxiety is still there, but now it’s enveloped in a sense of calm.

I wonder as I sit by my little window on the train. Looking at the moon, I experienced a rare moment of quietude. A hush blanketing the usual cacophony of my brain. And then a singular moment of clarity. Would any photograph I take be able to capture this moment, this memory? Sure the visual would be there- the bright shining moon weaving through the clouds as I sit against a yellow train window gazing out.

Would any photograph be able to capture the muted noise of
whispered conversations floating around?

Or the vacant stares of tired men beside me?

Would the tendril of anxiety still in my gut wind itself like a creeper into that image?

Would the mental quietude awash the picture in muted teal?

Could it capture the taste of recklessness in my mouth mingled

with the taste of too sweet chai?

Would the moments that led up to this one shine through like muted stars?

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but would a picture or even my thousand words ever actually catch this memory as it was? To capture all its facets and put it on display for the world to see? Or will it remain a delicious secret between that luminous moonbeam, that playful breeze and me? Maybe somethings are better left unshared.

As I ponder over these questions by my window in my room, I look up at the night sky. My iPad chimes again, another pop up lighting up the screen. But this time, I quietly shut it down and head out into the balcony. Into another night, under a quieter moon, as a different moment beckons me in. This one is just for me.

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