The Arrow of Time

I’m not afraid of death. I’m an old physicist — I’m afraid of time.

— Dr. Brand, Interstellar

Seven years ago, on this day, we let Calvin go. He was the first dog of my life. He was on a cold, steel table, surrounded by people, whom he fully hated and partially loved, and the ones whom he loved with his entire being waited in the reception, while he crossed the ‘rainbow bridge’. Between that day and to an unrecognised day in the recent past, I replayed that scene in my head many times to intentionally or accidentally untangle my mental knots about euthanasia. The knots were unyielding, but all of a sudden, there was a day when I thought about him and the image of him lying on a cold, steel table didn’t cross my mind. The arrow of time had crossed so much distance from that day that thoughts about this great black dog didn’t sting anymore. The image, the memory was there, like a Kodak-photograph, waiting to be held by a rational, balanced observer who would recall facts about the day when the picture was taken, who were there, what everybody ate, and what happened the day before and after that, and the observer didn’t have to struggle to swallow the lump in their throat or take a moment to hold their tears from streaking down their cheeks. Is it a good thing or a bad thing? No one can answer and confirm but the observer. That’s not an easy question to answer either.

Calvin’s story had no frills. In 2003, we had returned from a one-day trip to Pondicherry, and this boy who wanted to woo my sister stood at our door, holding a shoebox, with a black hole throbbing inside. We were not ready for a dog. We had dreamt for days and months, but dreaming didn’t mean we were ready. The boy waited to hand the shoebox to us. This black hole snoozed like that was all he was born to do. It took a few hours to convince my father, but the gravity of the black hole couldn’t be resisted. With no vision, no sense of direction, but with only his acute longing for his mother’s milk and another body’s warmth, he tumbled out of the shoebox and into our lives. He was fifteen days old, he was the size of a tiny floor-tile, he had two tiny greed beads for eyes, and his hunger was bottomless. We started the journey of raising him by reading a pocket-sized encyclopedia of dog care. The book had a bunch of information about how big he would become, his innate love for water and retrieving, and how friendly he would be with children, but it failed to warn us about the piranha he would morph into in a few weeks. It was not easy to love him with all the biting and zoomies and barking, and that was the point: he brought a new, effortless sort of love into my life.

For the next 12 years, Calvin was a ruffian. He welcomed guests and thieves; he stole snacks from children; he humped pillows, my short friends from school, tall men’s knees, and my mum; he dove into snake pits; he shamelessly watched people make love; he cold-shouldered other dogs but flirted with their humans; he pulled off a heist to steal dozens of jaangiri with Anu Boo and quietly ratted her out during our investigation by not licking his muzzle. His debaucheries must have shocked the canine moral police. And when we cried, he licked our tears. In my twenties, I dubbed that gesture as love, but now I understand that he simply loved salt. It was a grand life. And something primal and tender stirred in me whenever I held his large, bear-like face in my hands and looked into his cataract-filled eyes. One of the reasons why I love nonhuman animals is how they make the act of loving light and non-transactional.

Today, I retrieved this photograph. The calendar in the background suggests that the image must have been clicked in September or October 2003. Calvin was four or five months old, and I was sixteen years old. It must have been clicked when Calvin returned from his evening walk because the towel draped around his body must have been used to dry his paws after they were washed to remove tics he would have caught during the walk. I was in the final year of school, obsessed about love as projected by the cishet world of Tamil cinema, and I was impatient to finish school, become a grown-up, and do something — I was unsure what it was — with life. I look at the photograph, and I am moved by the untainted hope of the person I was, and I am jealous of this black dog who was cheerfully oblivious to the concept of time. Twelve September since that day, that ball of fur lied like a crumpled doormat on that steel table, and nineteen September since that day, I am here, writing this essay, a witness to the arrow of time that hurtles through space, with focus that can’t belong to this planet, like it knows where it is going, like it can’t wait to answer a call from a force that’s bigger than itself.

I try to not spend a lot of time on Facebook, for it is filled with echoes from my past, but some kind friends prefer Facebook to every other social media platform, and I drop by every once in a while to stay in touch. So, when my Messenger chimed that day, I was sure it was terrible news from someone or a cold ‘Hi’ from a person who had no idea of the rules of asynchronous communication. It was the former. A friend from school had entered my inbox to report that another friend from school was in her deathbed. She was 35, as old and young as me, and she was dying. We hadn’t met nor spoken to each other in sixteen years because I was a bad influence in her life, as reported by her mother, but the news shook me. I made some calls to talk to the people who were not from my past, but who fill my present, and the friend who brought the news to me wondered if I wanted to talk over the phone. I couldn’t. I didn’t want to hear a voice from my past. Accepting that offer would have meant assuming a personality that I tried hard to leave behind. The same evening, I was on Swiggy, trying to order biriyani for dinner, while listening to a virtual meeting at work, and the Messenger chimed again. The friend reported that our mutual friend had passed away. I took a deep breath, typed a feeble sorry on the Messenger, and went back to complete ordering my dinner. The virtual meeting was not entirely important. The dinner could have waited. I could have paused for a moment to process the information, but there was an inexplicable urge in the body that forced me to keep going, that screamed that it was business as usual and that I must fight or take flight, but I shouldn’t pause to give my mind and body a minute to receive the information. And then, that night, I saw this dead friend, sitting in a chair in my room, just like that time when I saw my dead athai sitting in my sofa on the night of her funeral that I refused to attend. I thought about the dead friend when I noticed the clear blue sky spotted with fluffy white clouds and wordlessly lamented about her having been robbed of the time to observe this universe. I thought about her when I had a cup of hot, milky, sugary tea. I thought about her when I listened to an upbeat song. She missed all of it; she would never have another chance. I mourned despite knowing that I hadn’t talked to her in sixteen years, and I had known her for only three years, and I mourned despite not knowing what broke my heart. It wasn’t my The-Prince-Became-Buddha moment. I wasn’t protected from life, for me to have woken up to my own mortality by the death of a friend. Calvin, the pandemic, a loved one who tried to die by suicide only to be held in love and fear later, a loved one who spent a harrowing week in a hospital, flitting between life and death, they all planted and watered death in my mind. But it is this friend’s death that grew and towered over every other memory and thought about death, and darkened the landscape of my fragile mind like a canopy. Maybe, it was because we sat next to each other in school. Maybe, it was how she made everyone else feel important by willingly playing the role of a sidekick. Maybe, it was her refusal to speak her mind. She was a mystery I never paid attention to, she was an absence that never coloured my life, but her death came dancing into my life, like the inebriated, carefree dancers caught in the rhythm of saavu molam, leading the last journey in Tamil funerals.

The hyperawareness of time that I have now been gifted with is not entirely a present nor a curse. I look outside the window, a blue bird enters my field of vision, I sniffle, and in a moment, I am arrested by the fear that I could lose that fragment of beauty any moment. I dust, catalogue, and put my four-hundred-and-five books back in the chest, and I am rendered immobile by the math that even if I read one book a week, it would take nearly eight years for me to finish reading all of them; I will be forty-three then. I listen to A.R. Rahman’s albums from the nineties, and I know that I am trying to reach something back in time while the arrow keeps moving in one direction and that’s not where I have turned toward. Time confiscates my agency and incarcerates me. My therapist once told me that staying deeply rooted in a moment, especially when it’s happy and pleasant, calls for some sort of courage to be vulnerable. Brené Brown’s talk was recommended, but I have read the book, and I am still on the fence. The omnipresent pop-culture makes it harder than what it is already by strategically placing a tragedy right after a happy moment in a show or a movie. The system has conditioned the humans to believe that being happy, taking in the good, is dearly expensive, and not everyone is bestowed with that privilege, except for teething puppies and hormonal teenagers perhaps.

Interstellar Fan Art Courtesy: Gulsah Minsin

In some ways, it’s not the pandemic or the friend who passed away or anyone’s close-shave with death. It’s my own fault. I crash-landed on thirty-five. One moment, I was twenty-six, giddy under neon lights, swaying to music, stuffing the face with food, untouched by the worries about health and finance and infidelity and dying alone or dying early and loyalty, and the next moment, I turned thirty-five and woke up to my dead friend’s apparition in my room. The answer to this meditation, the response to this essay, is slowing time down. My meditation teachers from Headspace would simply direct me to my meditation cushion to feel anchored, to gently latch on to the arrow of time while it flies and flies, but that’s still not the antidote to this existential dread, this longing for longevity. They would nudge me to accept that the arrow of time would keep hurtling but the speed is still relative. By slowing down my life, I could eventually trick myself into believing that the arrow slows down too. Who can be sure?

As a space nerd, I draw strength from the way cosmic objects behave. I find comfort in the randomness of the chaos and the predictability of the unknown in the cosmos. And I thrive engaging with dystopian science-fiction and solarpunk. When my mind is not actively monopolised by the endless deadlines and meetings at work, the reels on Instagram, and the ramblings of my own fear, I let my mind expand by thinking about the wonders of travelling near the speed of light, thanks to Interstellar. Cooper would hold his daughter, Murph, as she weeps and struggles to stop her father from taking that interstellar trip, and he would say that he wouldn’t age much as he would travel near the speed of light, and by the time he would return, they both could be of the same age. As the unpredictability of the universe goes, and a trip into a black hole and back, when Cooper returns, he ends up staying younger than his daughter. Time slowed down when he rushed, physics-wise and philosophically, very unlike how I feel living on this space rock. I rush, time rushes, and I look around to see that everything ages, including the observer and the traveller that I am. Knowing that every cosmic particle will decay some day, and the universe itself will age and end, and the arrow will fall, doesn’t help. It’s such a rich life, in spite of everything, and it’s fucking not enough.

3 thoughts on “The Arrow of Time

  1. Ah Deepika, time as an arrow, Calvin, death, friend, dinner, books, you took us on a non-linear thought-journey. A zig zag ride, sometimes poderous, other times melancholic and later despairing. Humans are the unfortunate being who exist with a conscious understanding of their mortality. As poet Russell Edson once wonderfully phrased it, “teetering bulbs of dread and dream” .We gladly race through life trying hard not to look at the finishing line. No time will be long enough. Who lives a full life? Keat perhaps lived all of 96 years in his 25, while the Queen cruised through her 96 as sprightly as she was 25. We still mourn the Queen and we still celebrate Keats. Another million years would we remember the specifics? Both Queen and Keats will be star dust that make up the universe. Our self-forgetfulness as we live our precious lives…perhaps an armour to deny our deaths or a device to live it whole heartedly despite our mortality, knowing our mortality?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If not you, who else can quote the most relevant lines from literature, Leena! Your memory is a mystery. Remembering is one thing, and recalling and connecting is a whole other thing. I am in awe of how you make the whole act of summoning words effortless. ‘Teetering bulbs of dread and dream…’ It was Baldwin, wasn’t it? ‘You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.’ We truly are already and will continue to be the stardust that makes up this dark, cold, but utterly forgiving universe.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The recall button is rusty, sometimes it works, other time it gives up. But we have the trusty Google to aid us these days. So I will credit Google to help strengthening our memory. And you are always so encouraging, needless to say, kind.

    Liked by 1 person

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