Imagine a universe steeped in blood and clotting in meteors, rushing to the sun in a violent race for annihilation. Imagine that you see the meteors swirling, imagine that they speak to you and something inside you magnetises and rushes in to join the competition. Imagine perfectly clipped English coming out of a mouth used only to eat the remains of the dead foraged from their pyres. Imagine trying to tell Nietzsche that you found the abyss he spoke of and you cannot look away. Imagine that all of this started with an Aghori, a cannibal priest of Varanasi, sauntering on the ghats, looking at you sauntering with a camera, avoiding his acrid glances out of a lifetime of conditioned fear. Imagine that he calls you by your name because he saw you lurking outside their shivir (camp) the previous night, and although not a word was spoken, they saw that you saw them sitting in a concentric circle, covered in grey ashes and vermillion markings, sitting around a five foot tall flame in silence. And today you’ve been sitting in front of this man who has been speaking with you for nearly forty five minutes, and you do not register anything he has said to you because a galaxy in his eyes is collapsing into the black hole in his pupil, when suddenly, someone else calls out your name and you look away, and when you look back at the aghori, the universe is gone, the smile has faded, and he tells you, “Be careful, you have a lot of aghor in you.”
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I forgot, as a decent girl from a decent family ought to, about his warning shortly after. I had just graduated and already had a prestigious copywriting job waiting for me at an advertising agency in Mumbai. I had interned with Ogilvy Mumbai for eight months, I’d written a pan-India radio spot for Gujarat Tourism which Mr. Amitabh Bachchan had recorded and our yet to be Prime Minister at the time, Mr. Narendra Modi, had signed off on. I had published print ads in Top Gear and Overdrive magazines, and a lot of good job offers even before I finished my degree. So when I started my job at ibs, I had no idea how drastically my life was about to change in the few months that followed. The copywriting job was intensive, all-nighters three times a week, working weekends, apathetic bosses. But I was ecstatic. This was the dream. I spent all my free time to find the Bombay of books and films that I had grown up dreaming about. In the by-lanes of Grant Road lay Jeet Thayil’s murky remains of the Narcopolis it used to be, on Cuffe Parade I found Raj Kapoor’s footsteps in character as Shree 420, I saw the Victoria Terminus, a staple establishing shot of Bombay in every piece of film or television since the 1950s. On my lips, was a song from the 1956 film CID that my father would jokingly sing to me, every time I would mention moving to Bombay and becoming a writer. Ae dil, hai mushkil, jeena yahaan….zara hat ke, zara bach ke, ye hai Mumbai meri jaan (Oh my heart, it is tough to live here…be careful, be aware, this is Mumbai, my love). But I whistled it, as I walked down Marine Drive, thinking that this is what Rushdie saw when he wrote the “Su che, Saaru che, danda le ke maaru che” riot sequence in Midnight’s Children, on the face of every little orphan in the local train I saw Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, in Mumbai’s practised dichotomy from Andheri to Virar I saw Paromita Vohra’s Cosmopolis, I saw Film City in Goregaon, the sets of K-serials in the 2000s ballooned into its very own industry with Ekta Kapoor, the champion saint of mass cinema, at its helm. Bombay’s beaches spread as far as the Hindi film industry, and I was a grain of sand on that beach now.
So when my alma mater, Ogilvy Mumbai, asked me to come back home, I decided to quit my job at ibs and follow the thread of my own dreams in a city that spun them a billion by the minute. I told a close friend from work about the offer and we went out to celebrate with the cheap beers at a local bar that were the best we could afford.
The next day I was fired. The friend told another friend, who told our Creative Director, who told Human Resources to draft up the paperwork to let me go. This was explained to me in a tiny cubicle as I was asked to sign papers that said I was being let go for insubordination. The sensory overload was jarring and pushed me back into my history. I was a straight-A student throughout school, I scored well over 90 percent in my ICSE and ISC exams, I was the head-girl, youngest editor of the school magazine, a competitive swimmer, classically trained musician with a degree from the Prayag Sangeet Samiti to boot, I had won State level awards for my essays, I went to the toughest communications programme in a very prestigious government college and graduated with a 10.0 GPA, I was a good friend, I was kind to animals and respectful of my parents, I was a good sister to my siblings and a good girlfriend to my boyfriend of four years, I was never immodest or unpleasant and I had even reconciled my atheism to my rabidly religious surroundings by never disrespecting anybody’s faith so of course, getting fired for “insubordination” made absolutely no sense to me. I did not deserve it. The fear that motivated me to work hard enough to always be safe and stable had finally come true. I knew I had to accept it except, it sat on my chest and refused to look into my eyes.
And because misery travels with acolytes, the Ogilvy HR could not accept me with a pink slip on my record, and after waiting for a month and a half for them to figure it out, I was told that the offer was rescinded. My boyfriend left me for someone happier than I, I didn’t tell my parents because I couldn’t bear to let them down, I didn’t tell me friends because I was ashamed. So there I was, no job, no prospects, my academic record was irrelevant, and I had to pay the rent for my hovel in an expensive city. I was catatonic, I would watch Frasier all day, go for a walk down to a wine shop later at night, and drink myself to sleep. One day I started going through all the pictures I’d ever taken, trying to see if I could sell them to magazines or ad-firms for some petty cash. And that’s when I saw the Aghori and I, and the picture we’d taken of us together. I remembered about the aghor he said I had. So I looked it up. The first aghori was Sati, a princess who had fasted in such hyper-tamasicy that Siva himself had descended on the earth and taken her as his wife. It was later she that burnt in a pyre in her father’s home, and was excavated by Siva – The Destroyer of all life, who wore her like a garland around his neck and roamed the earth, bereft. Aghor is the understanding that every creature, thing and circumstance on this earth is perfect in its own imperfect way, and to embrace the entropy is the fastest method of ascending the chaos of life. Hindu philosophy calls it moksham. And if ever there was an entropy that I needed moksha from, it was the one that I had found myself in the middle of right then.
So, I embraced the aghor of my situation. As much as the medals and accolades were mine, so was this rejection and failure. I approached a small, independent advertising agency with my resume and my pink slip, explained my situation to them and requested them for a job. They rejected me, so I went to another one, and then a third, and a fourth till I found a job at a small, independent advertising agency called Tonic Media, who generously took me in, gave me their best accounts, and asked me to work with honesty, writing and producing digital shorts and ads. So I did that. I stayed overnight so often people suspected I was homeless but I worked hard to get their bigger accounts. And eventually, they came. McDonalds came, then NBA, then AXN India and Sony Pix. Tonic promoted me, in six months, and promoted me again in another six months. We got Paypal. Another six months passed, and I was made head of the department of the English cluster. I bumped into a man at a small housewarming party who offered to drop me home just to be able to talk for a few minutes. We ended up talking till 7 am in the morning. I was a Creative Superviser, I was a girl, and I was only twenty three years old. Another six months passed and suddenly, all those lines written at 3 am found themselves on advertising award shortlists. In another two months they’d won three IDMA Awards, Abbys and even shortlisted for a Webby. Magazines wanted to interview me. They called me the enfant terrible of indie advertising. My bosses at Tonic offered me a 70 percent appraisal on my CTC, and the chance to be a Creative Supervisor for the firm. The situation was perfect, but by now there was a hunger for some aghor in my stomach because it was utter chaos that had lead me to this perfection. I yearned to use my newfound notoriety for some measure of good in the society. I was tired of selling fries.
I wrote to a new OTT platform called Arre, founded by the same team that founded Network 18, an organisation that changed the face of Indian news. I asked if they needed a writer. They told me I was over-qualified for the job, I might have to take a pay cut, I might have to work late, I might not have the perks of an advertising job. I asked them when I could start. In the next six months I’d written nearly thirty long-form op-eds on everything from politics to culture, and several of those pieces had gone viral. I wrote a sketch with the Indian NGO Wash promoting menstrual hygiene, which went viral too. I had fan-emails in my inbox, my team was the cream of Indian journalism and I could still talk to that boy I met at a party till 7am, even though we’d been together for over a year and a half. But as hungry as I was for aghor once, aghor was hungry for me too. My boyfriend had another girlfriend he forgot to tell me about. When I confronted him with it, our happy relationship turned abusive so fast that I was not even sure if he was the same person. It started with him grabbing and pushing me so hard in my home that my arms were bruised purple for two weeks. I ran into my room as he stormed out of my apartment and I thought he’d left for good. He showed up to my office the next day and created a scene. My team hid me from him as he begged to speak to me. He started sending pictures of him cutting himself up to our friends. A few days later, I was at work late and by the time I got home I discovered that he’d broken into my house, trashed my room, broken my laptop that my parents got me as a graduation present, broken the pair of glasses I had since I was in the eight grade, thrown away my journals and punched a hole in my mirror. I saw him, standing in a corner, furiously smoking cigarette upon cigarette as he asked me who I’d been shacking up with, when I was quiet he inched close to my face. I did not react, because this perversity was simply more existential chaos, I could not react, I had to respond. Or perhaps that was a rationalisation I gave myself because I was terrified, and could not do anything to stop him from forcing himself upon me. In subsequent months a #MeToo movement would rise, and women would talk about the men that raped them. Back then I didn’t know I was about to become one of those women.
He claimed it was love, he needed another chance, and it was upon me to not be a “bitch that couldn’t let go of the past” as he so kindly put it. I went back to catatonia. My work suffered, to the point that I was told to pull up my socks or leave. A few weeks later, at his birthday party where he went around telling everyone I was his fiance, he pushed me on the road so hard I fell back. And as I was falling I smiled, and it occurred to me that this was finally over. I took a rickshaw and ran back home, changed the locks, called the police and waited. When he finally showed up to my house unannounced, he found me waiting with three of my closest friends and I told him to, pardon my French, go fuck himself. Sure, this was chaos. But by now I was the queen of turning chaos into order. I went back to work, and two days later, Zee5, Zee’s OTT platform, reached out to me, saying they needed a Creative Producer for Original Content and would I be interested? And I was.
Since then, I’ve produced one of their biggest shows, called Zero KMs, directed by Q of the Brahman Naman fame, which was one of the first Indian films Netflix acquired. My essays in Arre were picked up by a German photographer called Wolfgang Zurborn, who had them translated into German and published in his book, Karma Driver. I’ve written a feature with Ms. Tanuja Chandra, one of India’s first wave feminist directors, who calls me skinny-binny out of love and feeds me cake every time she sees me. As I write to you I’m producing a digital series for Viacom, writing short films with Eros Now and Phantom and thinking about a sci-fi series of my own that will take close to seven years of work for me to finish.
But this statement of purpose comes from a place of, you guessed it, aghor. Your programme
(Part about why their programme is so great etc.)
Will you take an aghori in?
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