I had picked up Hornby's How To Be Good from a Sunday market in Delhi I think, a couple of years back and promptly forgotten about it until last week when I found it, Nick Hornby carved out in bright, bold, banana-yellow on the dusty jacket, during one of my very infrequent clean-up fits. I put it in my to-go-to-work bag, to colourize my long commutes to and from work. It's a circus act, these commutes. You wait till the vehicle you are supposed to get arrives. And like most things in life, it doesn't. Then you wait for anything that will arrive and take you anywhere remotely close to where you are supposed to be. You spot the thing, wave madly and if you are lucky, you hop on and if it's a normal day, you just manage to squeeze in. Manipulating your body through a human jungle, you find just enough space to stand on one leg, which you then proceed to do for an hour or so. There are jolts and jerks and all sorts of vehement, violent movements you subject your body to. Sometimes you are flailing about awkwardly, sometimes grabbing just about anything solid and if you have a hand left over, you reach in and pull out a ringing phone. Or a book.
How to Be Good. Well, it's Hornby, so of course there must be no such thing as steps to being good or even any valid reason to be good, provided of course, you can define doing this,this,this is also known as being good. Hornby does not disappoint. It's a rant and while the Angriest Man in Holloway might have actually written a newspaper column, you realize the Angriest Woman in Holloway is writing the book. Having an affair doesn't help. Career doesn't help. Getting faith doesn't help. Children don't help. Friends and family, ditto. Religion doesn't help. Ha! Like Hornby was going to make it that easy. There is no ideal man, there is no ideal marriage, there is no ideal life. But that you already knew. If you get out trying, good for you. If you stop trying, well, just as well since it really does not matter either way.
Someone mistakes you for a handle. Reading time over.
Come evening and you head back. Yet another long commute but there is something lovely about the evening. Something very mellow about the tones of the sky. All those blues and greys and smattering of stars above the traffic signal seems almost romantic. And that beautiful juxtaposition of those birds sitting calmly on the telephone wires, above all the craziness and rush that is the prime-time traffic. You take your book out and read again. And now it's not a rant. All Hornby is saying is that people are unhappy and people are human and there are different ways of dealing with life and sometimes actions aren't meaningful while non-actions mean the world and you can do what you want to and do what you need to but be prepared to accept that often neither is going to be enough. You look up and take in the people around you. There are people waiting to get back to the comfort of home. There are other people really, really not looking forward to that, and clearly wanting to spend more time with the present company. And there is the slightly creepy co-worker who you've begun to suspect follows you home.
It's such a mixed bag, life. One day you are waxing sentimental about your old college days, the next being horrified by front page news of some boy attempting to kill a girl who rejected his advances and then killing himself in the very same college. Then there is love and hate and their interchangeability. You think of some beautiful lines you had read-
Oh yes, I have known love, and again love,
and many other kinds of love;
but of that tenderness I felt then,
is there nothing I can say?
If one person knew of this tenderness, then by induction, so did others. Given that in parts at least, we are commutative.
Hornby ends with
'And then, I can do this. I can live this life. I can, I can. It's a spark I want to cherish, a splutter of life in the flat battery; but just at that wrong moment I catch a glimpse of the night sky behind David, and I can see that there is nothing out there at all.'
But that's just it. There is. Maybe not as annoyingly magical as THAT friend claims it is. Maybe it's a moment, a person, a time-point.
There are the hills. Always. Surely anyone would find the spark on the hills!
The evening deepens. So does the cacophony of car horns. And then suddenly, you spot the vehicle of your choice. It's not crowded either. Perhaps poetry is not dead after all.