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The Price of Freedom

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The notion of freedom is depicted as a foundational ideal in both Edward Bellamy’s and Ursula K. Le Guin’s utopias in their texts Looking Backward and The Dispossessed respectively. It’s presented as unassailable, a cornerstone of the utopian societies of the year 2000’s Boston and the fictional planet of Anarres. However, in both these societies freedom is understood and defined in different ways: while Bellamy’s utopia sees freedom as the right to be free from hunger and want, Le Guin’s Anarres sees freedom as the right to free will. These different delineations of what it means to be truly free create extremely different utopian societies in both these texts: while Bellamy’s utopia has a centralised authority with complete administrative and executive power, Le Guin’s utopia is modelled as an anarchist state with no formal structure of power. The differing definitions of freedom in these societies also raise questions about the different types of freedoms themselves, and the compromises each of them demands. Hence, in this essay, I compare and contrast the divergent ideas of freedom in these utopian societies, and explore what these variations can tell us about the concept of utopia itself. I further question if it is possible to create a seamless utopian society which would demand no compromises of its citizens. 

Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward presents a communist, utopian society set in the year 2000 in Boston, Massachusetts. In this society, the entire division and regulation of the various forms of labour, industries, and commerce is entrusted to the nation state; for all the citizens believe that individuals are inherently self-serving, and the common interest can be effectively served only by “a single syndicate representing the people” (Bellamy 241): the centre government. This utter concentration and extension of the government’s power is disconcerting and is understandably questioned by the protagonist, Julian West, who believes that a government’s true responsibility is to protect and defend its citizens. On his prompting, the representative of the utopian state, Dr. Leete, explains: “We have no wars now, and our governments no war powers, but in order to protect every citizen against hunger, cold, and nakedness, and provide for all his physical and mental needs, the function is assumed of directing his industry for a term of years” (Bellamy 242). Dr Leete’s response throws light on what this utopia’s citizens believe to be the most important tenet of freedom: the freedom from hunger, cold, and nakedness. Plus, while he uses the word “function” to refer to the control imposed by the government over citizens’ industries, Dr. Leete uses the word “powers” while talking about the government’s role during war times. This difference in word choice suggests that the citizens view the government’s economic tasks more as a laudable responsibility than an opportunity to harness power and influence. The government’s extension of “powers,” hence, is more a necessary taking up of utilitarian responsibilities to efficiently allow their citizens to be free from hunger and cold. 

However, in order to provide all its citizens with this particular freedom, the government encroaches upon another kind of freedom: the freedom of free will. In Bellamy’s utopia, the exercise of free will is seen as an absurd and complicated notion. The act of work “is regarded as so absolutely natural and reasonable that the idea of its being compulsory has ceased to be thought of” (Bellamy 244). Hence, it is completely unconceivable to the people here that someone might want to exercise their free will and refuse to work. This contradiction of freedoms renders a complicated utopia in which while people are never hungry and cold; they are also not provided with the space to choose to serve themselves over the community, and derive pleasure from that act. It is, hence, commonly accepted that individualism, “which in your [West’s] day was the animating idea of society, not only was fatal to any vital sentiment of brotherhood and common interest among living men, but equally to any realization of the responsibility of the living for the generation to follow” (Bellamy 272). Here, serving the community is seen akin to serving the self. 

Le Guin’s Anarres, on the other hand, depicts a stateless, anarchist utopia. Their society is founded upon the right to exercise their free will unperturbed by the power and influence of any kinds of governments. They have no governments; they only have a singular production and distribution coordinating system (PDC) which oversees the work groups and labour assignments, in which every person is regarded as a replaceable tool whose job is to assure the smooth functioning of the PDC’s ideological apparatus. In Anarres, ideally, while the community is still paramount, the individuals are supposed to retain the freedom to propose individual ideas and execute them; and the only court they are answerable to is that of public opinion. This is drastically different from Bellamy’s utopia in which the notion of individual, novel ideas is a foreign concept. Since their entire society is founded upon an effective regulation of work, Boston’s citizens find that there is no need for new ideas which herald change, and to ever consider “any new laws of consequence” (Bellamy 266) because “the fundamental principles on which our society is founded settle for all time the strifes and misunderstandings which in your day [West’s year – 1887] called for legislation” (Bellamy 266). This exhibits the stagnant nature of Bellamy’s utopia; a quality which is in stark contrast to Anarres’ ideals which posit individual creativity and revolution to be foundational values and, hence, yield unceasing strifes, conflicts, and arguments. 

Unlike Bellamy’s utopia, which is founded upon an efficient division of labour and resources, Anarres was born to stay free—people “didn’t come to Anarres for safety, but for freedom” (Le Guin 295). This is an important distinction which yields two utterly different utopias. For the people of Anarres, free will is more important than safety, i.e., freedom from “hunger, cold, and nakedness” (Bellamy 242). This yields a utopia in which even when people are ravaged by famines and droughts, the citizens do not turn to the PDC to regulate their resources more efficiently. Instead, they locate the fault in the PDC’s policies itself, and believe that they can achieve their ideal, equal anarchy only through a restructuring of the PDC to further reduce its influence and reattain their freedom. The people of Anarres are disconcerted by any sign of influence or power. In a conversation between Bedap and Shevek, Bedap exclaims: 

We have no government, no laws. But as far as I can see, ideas were never controlled by laws and governments, even on Urras. You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them. By refusing to think, refusing to change. And that’s precisely what our society is doing! Sabul uses you, and prevents you from publishing, from teaching, even from working. In other words, he has power over you. Where does he get it from? Not from vested authority, there isn’t any. He gets it from the innate cowardice of the human mind. Public opinion! (Le Guin 138, emphasis mine)

Anarres has no government—here, a lack of a government is the primary influence which shapes their society. Faced with a crisis, the people of Anarres always turn towards the path of more free will and lesser regulation. Bedap argues that there is no “vested authority” (Le Guin 138) in Anarres. Therefore, the only source of the increasing rot in Anarres’ society is the court of public opinion which, to a large extent, resembles the court of law; and conveniently allows people to suppress new ideas by ignoring them. And hence, he suggests that the court of public opinion, alongside its far reaching power and influence, should be destroyed.

I argue that by suggesting that the citizens of Anarres not place any value in public opinion, Bedap attempts to remove the sole locus of influence within Anarres. However, I question if it is possible to create a utopia with no centre of power; i.e., a completely seamless utopia, with perfect freedom from influences and zero compromises. Consider: Bellamy’s utopia flourishes, and provides its citizens with the freedom from “hunger, cold, and nakedness” (Bellamy 242). However, it chooses to not provide them with the freedom of free will. On the other hand, Anarres chooses to provide its citizens with the freedom of free will, and settles to not privilege the freedom from hunger and cold instead. This yields two very different utopias, with different loci of power. But, if one takes up Bedap’s suggestion and attempts to change Anarres’ society to render public opinion valueless, remove Anarres’ only nexus of influence and refuse to compromise—what would replace it? And if nothing replaces it, what kind of utopian or non-utopian society would that yield?

Both Bellamy and Le Guin depict two very different visions of utopia in their texts. This difference in their societies can be traced to their differing prioritisation of which type of freedom they consider more important. While Bellamy’s utopia holds the freedom from hunger and cold as paramount, the people of Anarres believe that free will is the most important ideal to live by. By reading these texts simultaneously, we can better understand their visions, and further explore the concept of utopia. Bellamy’s utopia presents a flourishing society; but one in which people have no free will. Anarres does the opposite: while people have complete free will, they are cold and starving. This juxtaposition raises questions about which type of freedom matters more, and if freedom always implies happiness—for is happiness the state of being well-fed and warm or the state of intellectual and emotional self-actualisation? It also makes one wonder if a truly seamless and perfect utopia, with no cracks of opportunity costs and compromises, is ever possible.

 



WORKS CITED 

Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward: 2000–1887. 2d ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1888), 126–39, 146–54, 210–19, 224–31, 262–71.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. Gollancz, Orion Publishing Group, Great Britain. 2002. 

I Feel, Therefore, I Am: The Role of Reason in the Houyhnhnms’ Utopia

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In Book 4 of Gulliver’s Travels, Swift juxtaposes the houyhnhnms’ “Reason” with the yahoos’ passion. Through this positioning, he illustrates the completely opposite characters of the houyhnhnms and the yahoos—while the houyhnhnms are perfectly logical and rational, the yahoos are instinctive and impulsive. This contrast allows Swift to depict the full spectrum of human qualities; only, all the traits associated with ‘reason’ and ‘passion’ are segmented and individually attributed to the houyhnhnms and yahoos respectively. Plus, since ‘reason’ is seen as being more virtuous than ‘passion’ in this utopia, the houyhnhnms, who Gulliver idolises, sit higher in the social order than the yahoos, with whom Gulliver locates many similarities with himself, and despises. However, unlike the houyhnhnms and yahoos, Gulliver (and the human race for which he is a stand-in) does not have a similarly divided character. He has both reason and passion, and this makes him a poor fit with both the houyhnhnms and the yahoos and their vision of utopia. Therefore, in this essay I explore the rigid nature and effects of the houyhnhnms’ Reason in their utopia, and I, hence, argue that the houyhnhnms’ utopian society is incompatible with human nature.  

The utopia depicted in Gulliver’s Travels is a facsimile of a socialist republic. Here, all the houyhnhnms live democratically, share all the resources with each other, and lead perfectly harmonious lives. They do not have the words (and familiarity) for concepts like “Courtship, Love, Presents, Joyntures, Settlements” (Swift 149); they do, however, understand the logical and useful notions of friendship and benevolence. These unemotional traits allow the houyhnhnms to uphold the ideals and laws which ground their vision of utopia; a vision which is founded upon “their grand Maxim [which] is, to cultivate Reason, and to be wholly governed by it” (Swift 148). There’s no place for passion in this utopia. 

It then follows that there is no place for the yahoos in this utopia either. The human-like yahoos in this society are solely governed by passion; a characteristic which places them in stark contrast to the reasonable houyhnhnms. In the text, the yahoos are depicted as lazy, selfish, greedy, and violent—the absolute antithesis of the “noble Houyhnhnms” (Swift 147). Because of their lack of Reason, the yahoos place below the houyhnhnms in the social order, and are treated by the houyhnhnms much like other animals like cows. On festive days, “the Servants drive a Herd of Yahoos into the Field, laden with Hay, and Oats, and Milk for a Repast to the Houyhnhnms; after which, these Brutes are immediately driven back again” (Swift 149). I locate the effects of the houyhnhnms’ cold Reason in this harsh treatment of the yahoos. I argue that even though the houyhnhnms claim to strive for friendship and benevolence, they only offer its gifts to the houyhnhnms themselves—the yahoos, with their differing desires and lifestyles, are relegated to “brutes” (Swift 149). Plus, this entire passage and specifically, the word choices of “a herd of yahoos” (Swift 149) and “brutes” (Swift 149) depict a lack of consideration for the ‘other’; a feature which makes it impossible for the yahoos—and, in this model of utopia, for any creature different from those in power—to find a respectful place in the houyhnhnms’ utopia.  

Based upon this familiar quality of passion and the yahoos’ human-like bodies, Gulliver and his houyhnhnm master classify himself (and humans) as more similar to yahoos than houyhnhnms. They conclude that all humans are similar to yahoos; only, “by what Accident he [Gulliver’s houyhnhnm master] could not conjecture, some small Pittance of Reason had fallen” (Swift 141) upon them. Despite this similarity, humans are completely different creatures for while they have passion, they also have enough reason to temper those urges. This amalgamation has curious effects: while talking about a lawsuit between the yahoos, Gulliver comments that “the Plaintiff and Defendant there lost nothing beside the Stone they contended for; whereas our Courts of Equity, would never have dismissed the Cause while either of them had any thing left” (Swift 143). This statement highlights a stark difference between the yahoos and humans: the presence of the ego, or an awareness of the self in the latter. Hence, the remark, “whereas our Courts of Equity, would never have dismissed the Cause while either of them had any thing left” (Swift 143) depicts both the yahoo-like quality of possessiveness and ownership which is also present in humans (a feature completely absent in the socialist houyhnhnms), and the value humans ascribe to material objects, and the associations they create between these objects and their own self-image. Therefore, the humans would fit even worse than the yahoos into the houyhnhnms’ utopia for, unlike the yahoos, they are not impulsive and egoless. Hence, it would be quite tough for them to forget slights, and tolerate the houyhnhnms’ derisive behaviour and their oppressive culture. 

The amalgamation of reason and passion also has other effects, namely the presence and optimum utilisation of imagination. In the text, Swift only uses the word ‘imagination’ once, and solely with regards to the yahoos (Swift 146). This specific word choice reflects Swift’s ascription of the quality of imagination to the yahoos and, as it follows, to humans. The lack of this quality in the houyhnhnms is a particular choice, one I see reflected in the houyhnhnms’ engagement with poetry, astronomy, and architecture in which they always use “a Kind of Tree, which at Forty Years old loosens in the Root, and falls with the first Storm…(for the Houyhnhnms know not the Use of Iron)” (Swift 150). The houyhnhnms’ lack of knowledge about iron, alongside their elementary knowledge of astronomy and uncreative poetry, reflects this lack of imagination and the consequent lack of motivation to discover new ideas. This is very unlike humans who are wont to build non-utilitarian, beautiful buildings just for the sake of beauty and architectural advancements, and who plan expeditions to space and unravel astronomic mysteries to satiate mere curiosity. This characteristic of efficient imagination then sets humans apart from yahoos and houyhnhnms, and finds them incompatible with the houyhnhnms’ utopia. 

The houyhnhnms’ language also reflects the unimaginative nature of both the houyhnhnms themselves and their utopia. Their language has “no Letters, and consequently, their Knowledge is all traditional” (Swift 150). This supports their ideal of serving objective Reason; for without letters, no subjective interpretations can occur. The lack of differing meanings is also depicted in the houyhnhnms’ lack of understanding of the word ‘opinion’, “or how a Point could be disputable; because Reason taught us to affirm or deny only where we are certain; and beyond our Knowledge we [the houyhnhnms] cannot do either (Swift 148). This, alongside the lack of a word in the their language for lying, exhibits their lack of comprehension and consequent lack of regard for differing perspectives. Because they tell everything as it is; they give up on the potential to envision a different world, a world which could be both better or worse. This stagnation allows them to create and preserve an isolated world which is not perfect, but utopian—primarily because it precludes conflicts by wielding rational Reason.  

The houyhnhnms’ utopian society, hence, is incompatible with human nature which is always on the lookout for imagining, executing, and satisfying novel ideas and conflicting desires. Unlike the houyhnhnms for whom whenever there’s “any Want (which is but seldom) it is immediately supplied by unanimous Consent and Contribution” (Swift 150, emphasis mine), lively humans have both unending wants and the creativity to fulfil them. This renders them severely unfit for the houyhnhnms’ Reason-governed utopia—a lifeless space in which death seems no different than life itself.



WORKS CITED 

Swift, Jonathan. Travels into several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver [pseud.]. Volume 3 of Works (Dublin: George Faulkner, 1735) 315–52, 356–60. Originally published 1726 and better known as Gulliver’s Travels.

You shan’t have both: Beauty and Sovereignty in “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” and “Tale”

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In Geoffrey Chaucer’s verses “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” from The Canterbury Tales, the readers are told that the thing that women most desire in the world is sovereignty. However, the possession of sovereignty in Chaucer’s verses is a complicated chain of control, in which only the husband or the wife can possess sovereignty and be sovereign at any moment in time; and because these characters are habituating a patriarchal social space, sovereignty is usually held by men—until and unless the woman intervenes. In The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, the wife is depicted as a gap-toothed, handsome woman who consistently strives to dominate all her husbands. Similarly, in The Wife of Bath’s Tale all women—beautiful queens and loathly ladies alike—are shown as yearning for and seeking sovereignty. In this social space, there are very few ways for women to intervene for all of the usual routes—economic power, legal settlement, etc.—are the paths of the establishment and the state, and hence, inherently patriarchal and designed to facilitate the suppression of women. Effectively, the only—and most—useful tool in women’s arsenal becomes their physical appearance, both ghastly and lovely. Their ‘beauty’ and ‘ugliness’ become both a feature and a body of characteristics which can, and in Chaucer’s verses successfully does, disrupt the patriarchal social order and creates pockets of opportunities for women to utilise to attain momentary and partial sovereignty. Hence, in this essay, I argue that The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and The Wife of Bath’s Tale depicts a social space in which the fulfilment of women’s desire for sovereignty is contingent on their physical appearance. I further explore the effects of this relationship within the text, and the similarities between this textual relationship and the treatment of women within the real world. I arrive at the conclusion that Chaucer’s verses present an alternative model of ‘feminist’ rebellion, one in which women resist, and attain sovereignty by exploiting the patriarchal system itself. 

The wife from the city of Bath is described in the general prologue as a bold and beautiful woman who has had five husbands till date. In The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, she describes three of these husbands—the ones who are rich and old—as “good” and the other two as “bad” (263). In all these relationships, the wife strives to control her husbands through treachery and manipulation. Here, I posit a direct relationship between the wife’s beautiful physical appearance, and her successful seduction of five different men to convince them to marry her. Furthermore, I interpret the wife’s assessment of her old and rich husbands as “good” as her recognition of what they can provide her—sovereignty—in exchange for her ‘beauty’, which can be utilised to satisfy their sexual appetites. In this text, it is repeatedly implied that women can only gain sovereignty through their husband’s power and status in society. Here, then, the wife of bath’s relationship with her “good” husbands presents a stark exchange economy, one in which women can exchange their ‘beauty’ (physical appearance) for a measure of sovereignty. The wife in the text further clarifies this relationship when she sets out an ultimatum to one of her “good” husbands: “You shan’t have both, you can’t be such a noddy / As think to keep my goods and have my body” (267). These lines paint a vivid picture of this exchange economy within the marital relation, in which the husband can only enjoy her “body” if he lets the wife keep her “goods”/possessions i.e., provides her with a measure of economic freedom. Unlike her fourth “bad” husband who is young enough to keep a mistress and hence, does not need the wife of bath severely enough, and her fifth “bad” husband who the wife was desperately in love with and consequently, unable to coldly manipulate into capitulating through ultimatums, the wife’s first three relationships present models of marriages in which, by the virtue of their lovely physical appearance and resulting sexual power, a wife can earn sovereignty from her husband. 

Besides beauty, ‘ugliness’ is also depicted as a tool to attain sovereignty in these texts. While a beautiful woman can earn sovereignty from her husbands by trading sexual favours, an ugly woman is deemed unworthy of being ‘chased’ by men and of participating in this exchange economy and hence, is always positioned as the active agent who desires and pursues various men. The wife in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue rages at one of her “good” husbands for holding these views, and explicates that “if she has a pretty face, old traitor, / You say that she’s game for any fornicator” while “if her looks are foul you say that she / is hot for every man that she can see” (265). In these lines, the wife states that a beautiful woman is ‘game’ i.e., the hunt/hunted while an ugly woman is “hot for every man” (265) i.e., the huntress. The word choices here depict a transfer of sovereignty between the man and the woman depending upon the woman’s physical appearance. While a beautiful woman can only be the ‘hunt’, and later attain a measure of sovereignty by trading sexual favours with the man, an ugly woman is in the position of the ‘huntress’ i.e., she’s—by virtue of being able to choose her object of desire—already sovereign. The wife further clarifies her husband’s notion by declaring, “You say it’s hard to keep a girl controlled / If she’s the kind that no one wants to hold” (265). These lines throw light on the power of ‘ugliness’ to make a woman invisible and hence, untethered by the patriarchal rules of society which seek to possess and control beauty. Through her loathsome physical appearance, the woman effectively attains sovereignty. 

The tale of the loathly lady in The Wife of Bath’s Tale further complicates this relationship between physical appearance and beauty by presenting a woman who can choose to appear either beautiful or loathsome. In this text, a knight is morose because he has been forced to marry a foul-looking lady. In response, his ugly wife offers him two choices: to either have her old and ugly till she dies, but still be a loyal, true, and humble wife; or to have her young and pretty, and in turn, risk her loyalty to him (291). On hearing his options, the knight significantly does not make a choice himself but tells the wife that “you make the choice yourself…Of what may be agreeable and rich / In honour to us both…Whatever pleases you suffices me” (291). In this moment, the knight seemingly offers the loathly lady sovereignty i.e., the freedom to choose either beauty or ugliness. I, however, argue that by virtue of offering her husband these choices itself, the wife loses her sovereignty. The lady who, until then, could have freely chosen to appear either beautiful or ugly binds herself to her husband’s desire by offering him this choice. His offering of free choice to the lady then is not a transfer of sovereignty to the lady, but a transfer of a measure of sovereignty (and control over herself) to her husband. Before marrying the knight, the lady had appeared as an extremely foul-looking creature; and by sheer virtue of her ugliness, she had maintained her sovereignty in the patriarchal society which values, commodifies, and exchanges women on the basis of their physical appearance. In essence, she would have been invisible to others; and hence, free to look at everyone. However, by “cast[ing] up the curtain” (292) of her ugliness, and by transforming into a young and beautiful woman (which makes her husband ecstatic), the knight’s wife loses her sovereignty. By further vowing to her husband that now he shall find her “both fair and faithful as a wife” (291), the wife even gives up the power of her beauty to potentially manipulate him for favours, and completely binds herself to a life of partial, and eternally earned sovereignty. 

The instances of the wife of bath and the loathly lady in Chaucer’s verses present similar but distinct situations where sovereignty is attained by women by wielding their physical appearance. While the wife of bath trades sexual favours to earn her sovereignty, the loathly lady depicts a woman who was originally sovereign—for she chose to appear ugly and hence, was invisible and positioned outside this exchange economy—but gives up a measure of this sovereignty by both turning beautiful and vowing to stay faithful to her husband. These women, then, present a model of ‘feminist’ rebellion in which women attain sovereignty by exploiting the patriarchal system itself. By successfully wielding ‘beauty’, a quality which is highly valued and priced by social agents in patriarchy, especially in association with women, these women posit a pattern of protest in which women steal slices of freedom without any grand, explicit revolution, and while staying within the patriarchal system itself. This depicts a form of disobedience in which women exploit the fractures in patriarchal societies; and turn sexist notions on their head to avail benefits for themselves. Plus, it reconfirms that while women need to earn sovereignty through beauty (or, as in the twenty-first century, by proving themselves as effective cogs in the capitalist hierarchy); men in patriarchal societies are always already sovereign. These notions urge me to ask then if this form of resistance is even desirable, for does it not effectively prompt women to surrender to the patriarchy, and repeatedly re-earn their sovereignty? It also makes me wonder if any other form of revolution is ever possible in a social space principally shaped and regulated by men.



WORKS CITED 

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Translated into Modern English by Nevill Coghill. Penguin Classics. Published by the Penguin Group. 2013. 

Put It There

hi. i wrote an essay about family, last summer, & The Beatles. It’s called “Put It There” & it’s been published in issue-9 of the fantastic The Teatles Book. you can get yourself a copy through @Teatlemania on twitter.

hope u like this. cheers. 

p.s. the title is inspired by the song “put it there” by paul mccartney. it’s lovely, & it pairs really well with this essay. you might want to check it out. have fun!


I was in a restaurant with my parents when I learned that my university was indefinitely sending us all back home due to the pandemic. It was the middle of March. I was home for the weekend. I read the email out to my parents over plates of spaghetti & chilled beer; & they were ecstatic. My mother ordered another plate of rice, & my father started calculating how many games of chess we could fit alongside my daily classes. 

March through June, I spent my days lolling about at home. Classes came to an end at the beginning of May. My hours were now filled with mangoes, ice-cream sundaes, cooking pizzas at home, & playing Ludo every evening (my mother had grown tired of watching me & my father play chess). I watched too many period dramas & didn’t listen to a single song. 

In July, I took a class called “Trauma and Event”. For one of our lectures, we were assigned Hideo Furukawa’s book Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure. In the beginning passage of his book, Furukawa writes, “What if there were this extraterrestrial, and they are in their UFO, and you could pick just one Beatles song for them to listen to, what would you pick? Younger brother answers immediately: “Strawberry Fields Forever”; the answer suggests no other possibility”. Strawberry Fields Forever — that was the first song I listened to in three months. I liked it.

I liked it enough that I decided that the most optimum use of my time would be to listen to the Beatles’ entire catalogue. & so, I spent the summer of 2020 writing poems about loss, re-reading Harry Potter, & sobbing to The Long and Winding Road. The speaker in my room would emit sounds of John & Paul harmonising all day long. My father loved my new-found obsession. He would repeatedly tell me stories of how when he was a kid, he & his cousins used to listen to classic rock, despite not understanding half the words. It was the cool thing to do. 

It’s easier now than it was then to imagine him as a teenager, gorging upon crime thrillers & his father’s collection of cassettes. When my grandfather died, my father & I divided all of his stuff amongst ourselves. I kept his iPod, he kept the pictures. My father could always read the stories written in the objects we choose to surround ourselves with. The first time I heard McCartney sing Junk, I was standing again besides my father emptying his drawers every eleventh Sunday, & still struggling to decide what to throw out. I opened his cupboard the other day & found two broken phones & faded pictures of my mum. 

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He turned 53 last November. My mother fried potato bonda for breakfast & I burned my upper lip on my first bite. That month, I was working on a terrible short story titled The Walrus, whose main plot was an anxiety attack in an aeroplane & whose sub-plot was a sufficient sprinkling of Beatle references. I’ve never been very good at writing stories about others; therefore, I decided to create a character who was stuck, feeling anxious all the time, & constantly humming A Day in the Life. For the past month, I had been constantly feeling on-edge. I attributed my nerves to turning 20 next January; pinned beneath time, running head-first, & getting nowhere. On his birthday, we watched a film, ate cheesecake & drove back home.

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It had not rained for a few days. The chill was seeping into the walls, & we were doubling up our blankets at night. Every morning, I would wake up & curl into my hoodies. My parents had just gifted me a new sweatshirt with Robin Scherbatsky’s face. I can’t remember the occasion. It does not matter. It never mattered. I grew up within a home where it was never uncommon for me to wake up to baked cookies or presents hidden in dusty nooks. I have been loved. I knew every night going to sleep that if I did not wake up, it would not be okay — because I’m loved. 

It was the first Sunday of December & I was gearing up to submit my class assignments. We had a delicious breakfast at home & my father flipped the channel to Aap ki Adalat. Muting the TV, he took my right hand in his palm & traced the calluses on my fingertips: “They still haven’t healed?” — “No, I keep typing & forget to bandage it”. He talked of Switzerland. & Italy. & New York & Vietnam & France & every place he had never seen but longed to. We made plans that morning of flying to Europe in the summer of 2023. He grinned at me, & turned up the volume. 

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That night, I went to sleep envying Derek Shepherd his perfect hair. Next morning, I woke up. He didn’t.

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The first time I heard McCartney sing, it was 4:00 a.m. on a cool August night. It was the first week of my college & a group of us were sitting around a tiny speaker playing our favourite songs. I played A. R. Rahman’s Luka Chuppi. Someone else played Hey Jude. I sang along. Of course, I sang along. It’s surreal to remember that I knew the lyrics to that song, for I can’t remember ever having heard it before. There’s a picture on my Instagram of my parents & my mamu on a beach in Goa from October of 2019. The caption reads, “Hey Jude, don’t be afraid” but before that August night, I cannot remember ever having heard the song. It’s terrifying to look at my skin in the mirror and see faded outlines of leaves & scratches from trees when I have never been to a forest since I was four. It’s terrifying to think of all the conversations I don’t remember having & all the carnival posters I don’t remember seeing & waking up on a Wednesday to find one clinging to the back of my knee. 

When morning dawned on that cool August night, it did not matter that I could not remember listening to Hey Jude. We were drunk on the music & the conversations & the yawning blue sky. I heard “Hey Jude, don’t be afraid” — & I did not look back.

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In If You Knew, poet Ellen Bass poses a question: “What if you knew you’d be the last / to touch someone?” I measure that December Sunday in his touches. His fingertips caressing mine, our hands stumbling into each other over a bowl of carrot halwa, our elbows knocking together as we sang & danced circles around my mum. Me touching his black & white Sherlock Holmes cufflinks as he dressed up to meet a friend. Him hugging me as we crossed paths in the kitchen at 12 a.m. Some mornings, I expect to wake up & find violets blooming everywhere his skin has touched mine. If I knew I would be the last person to touch him, I would have hugged him longer. If I knew this was the last time I was touching him, I would not have stopped.

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The only Beatles album I was familiar with before last summer was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — & by familiarity I mean knowing its name. My favourite song has always been She’s Leaving Home. I could empathise. I yearned to run head-first & get nowhere; I never ran far enough in my mind to realise that I always ended back home. Yesterday, I was rummaging through my cupboards when I came across my father’s stamp collection. I spent the afternoon flipping through its yellowed pages.

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In the streets of Switzerland in 2023, I feel the snow whisper across my socks. I hold my hand out. An old stamp falls into my palm.