„Shit“, Jeannie cried out as the rickshaw splashed dirty water all over her white cotton t-shirt. It was a hot and humid day in Mumbai and she was on the way home after work. Even after years she had not gotten accustomed to India’s monsoon season. The thick mud on the roads, the litter which was swimming in the puddles, the constant moisture that just wouldn’t leave her clothes… It was one of the moments that made her question those major decisions that she had taken a few years ago. A moment that made her think of Adrian.
Adrian was the crisp smell of freshly washed shirts, the soft feeling of cashmere sweaters against her cheek. Adrian was picnic on the impeccable lawns of Cambridge’s botanic gardens. He was May balls and chess games, he was philosophical walks by the river Cam. He was champagne and strawberries and Beethoven. Joie de vivre. And above all, he was her first love. They had met during orientation week at Cambridge and had never let go of each other. Until the day India called her name and she had to leave.
It had a reason why Jeannie and Adrian had gotten along so well during their times in Cambridge. Yes, they both loved exhibitions, classical music and red wine. But the crucial thing was that at the bottom of their heart, they despised those who merely consume, those who let societal chit-chat numb their spirits. Adrian and Jeannie were artist, they were makers. Their philosophical discussions sparked each other’s imagination. When they were together, Adrian’s poems became more vivid and Jeannie’s paintings more colourful. Together, they experienced what passion really is. The flourishing of two souls’ true nature, fostering creativity, fulminating ideas. Oneness, in an explosive way.
They were both living lives of inner conflict and that might have been what united them in the first place. Society and their parents had made them follow their talents of the left side of the brain – their intellect. Instead of chasing their dreams of becoming artists, they had ended up pursuing university degrees that are designed for a mainstream career. He followed applied mathematics and she had chosen biology. But despite enjoying their courses, they always remained restless.
She had moved to India almost four years ago, straight after her graduation at Cambridge. Even as a small child, she had always dreamt of India. It had started with an old coffer in the attic of her grandparents’ house. The coffer was filled with photos of elephants and men in turbans, with musky scent bottles and colourful scarves. Relicts of her grandfather’s colonial adventures. As she grew older, India had become even richer in meaning for her. She had fallen in love with Indian philosophy and she was passionate about development work. So when the day of her graduation came, she did not hesitate for a second, but booked her plane tickets to India. During the first year, she explored the entire country by bus, train and foot. Captivated by the unexpected intensity of this foreign land, its colours and smells, its buzzing streets, she was not able to return to the grey skies of England. Instead, she settled in Mumbai. Its crumbling Victorian architecture made her feel like she had found a tropical and more inspiring version of London.
Only once Jeannie had visited Adrian in London, 2 years after her escape to India. He picked her up from Heathrow airport, a red rose in his hand. A slightly aloof, but familiar smile on his lips. He had not changed much. Same style. Dapper as always. She would have not even been surprised to see him in a black tie. He was one of these people who never seem overdressed. Rather, he elevated the classiness of places around him. His eyes looked paler than she remembered though and his hair had started thinning. Wasn’t he a bit too young to look like that? She was taken aback.
“How is the City treating you, sweetheart?”, she asked as they sat in the cab to his house. “Isn’t this banker’s life boring you to hell?”. He thought for a second. “No, it’s quite a cute job, you see”. She raised an eyebrow, teasingly. “I mean it”, he emphasised. “The long working hours can sometimes be annoying, but it’s not too stressful. And I get to do what I like - mathematics. Plus, it pays well”. “Ha!”, she couldn’t hold back, “you get to do what you like? You know as well as I do that your true passion is something else!”
“There are times in life when you have other priorities”, he replied briefly. “So do you still write poetry and fiction at all?”, she asked provocatively. “No”. Silence. “And do you still paint?”, he asked her back with a firm glance into her eyes. A perplexed feeling hit her as she thought about her life in Mumbai. She lives a colourful, creative life and everyday she is surrounded by art. In the mornings, she teaches art classes for this NGO at the slum and in the afternoons, she runs an art gallery for upcoming Indian artists. But she couldn’t even remember the last time she had found time to draw, not to mention paint a canvas. “No”, she answered sheepishly.
Her visit to London passed by like the grey and dull waters of the river Thames. Dinner parties, useless chit-chat about politics, too many drinks in bars that looked all the same. Jeannie felt depressed, uninspired. Adrian’s new friends seemed all too predictable to her, so politically correct and well adapted. No creative spark in sight.
On her last night, whilst packing her luggage, she finally burst. “Look at yourself and your comfortable life! All the time discussing politics and all those issues that neither have a direct impact on you nor do you have a direct impact on them. You’re lulled by the idea that what you do matters, just because you’re in London, at the centre of the universe. Tell me, what do you really know about the world out there? All you do is sitting at your desk in your ivory tower, pitying the rest of the world whilst keeping your own hands clean. You don’t know anything about the world until you have experienced it! Until you have taken a deep breath of the rotten stench in the slums, sweat in the unforgiving heat of the deserts and held a crying refugee baby in your arms.” She took a breath, still beside herself with rage.
He kept quiet for a long while and then said calmly, “Jeannie, I know I haven’t set out to save the world like you have. I am not getting my hands dirty. But with my job, I am contributing my small part to the functioning of our economy. This might not seem much to you, but I help to keep this machine running. What is so wrong about that? And let me be a bit critical of your own life. You ran away from England to play the Samaritan in the developing world for some time. But let’s face it, you will always be the patronising English girl in India. Imposing your Western standards and ideals on people. Are you changing the world for the better? Or just running away from your own problems? Listen, get back to me once you have found your way back to where you belong. I can’t stand this do-gooder attitude that India has taught you.” He walked over to his study room and closed the door behind him. She felt disheartened, packed her bags and left without a goodbye. Tears were standing in her eyes. So who of them was seeing the world as it was and who was running away from reality? The answer had ceased to be so obvious.
Not much had changed in her life in India since she had come back from that visit to London. Another two years had passed by and she was still working in the same jobs, still unable to find the energy or time for her own creative work. Her easel was getting more and more dusty in a corner of her living room. One thing had changed though: She had lost much of her enthusiasm for India. She still loved her job, but she felt stuck in between two worlds. Adrian had been right when he said that she would always be the “English girl” in India, that she would always remain a foreigner with different ideals and views. At the same time, she couldn’t picture herself back in the UK, following the do’s and don’ts of English people’s etiquette. How would she be able to relate to people who had not seen what she had seen abroad? People who had never experienced the intensity of life in a developing country?
Lost in thoughts about the past, her t-shirt wet from the incidence with the rickshaw, she continued her walk home. Adrian… It was probably too late to return to his world. Maybe she and Adrian had never quite lived in the same world at all.
When she reached her house, she found a large letter on her doormat. It was soaked from the monsoon rain and she could hardly make out the name. Eleanor Ramsay, St John’s Square, London… Adrian’s mother… She opened the letter with trembling hands. Why would Adrian’s mother write to her after all those years of no contact?
Dear Jean Louise,
You must have heard the tragic message already from somebody else I suppose. If not, I am afraid to inform you of Adrian’s death. He passed away in January in the unfortunate event of a car accident during a holiday in the South of France. I know that you have always been dear to his heart and a big inspiration for him. Let me share with you this manuscript of the novel that he started to write after quitting his job at Goldman last year. I thought he would have wanted you to read it. It is a shame that he was not able to finish it.
With cordial regards,
Jeannie didn’t put down the manuscript of Adrian’s novel until she finished reading it entirely. Exhausted and in tears she collapsed on the rug in the hallway at 3am. The next day, she didn’t go to work. She went to her living room, set up a canvas on the easel and fully lost herself in the world of colours and shapes. For the first time since she had left Cambridge.