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The Distressed Sweater

Updated: Jan 18, 2023

I was sitting at a tea stall by the meandering road at Phoolchatti that takes you from Rishikesh to Neelkanth. The year 1997.

By this time, I was almost over a month without a home. Far from the comforts of my upbringing. Struggling to find food to survive and a place to ‘poo’.

The denim I was wearing had begun to give away. My shoes had equally struggled and the sole was beginning to open up.

In these areas, the sun usually retires by 5 pm and then takes over depression. Well, even before depression could set in, I was scared to the hilt. Winter had already set in and I was inappropriately clothed. As dramatic as it may sound, the only thing I was looking for was a pile of dry leaves to cover myself.

At a far distance, I could hear the bells coming from a temple. Though the Alaknanda was not visible, one could listen to the rumble of the waters splashing on boulders that superimposed the rumble of hunger in my stomach.

The last car with pilgrims from Neelkanth stopped at the tea stall for a brief break. When you are in distress, you are always in search of an anchor. So, even though there was no logic to my emotions, I longed for one of the pilgrims to figure out my situation and help me out.

The only passenger who ordered two cups of tea was a lone German lady. She took a cup and offered me the other. I didn’t know how to react but my first reaction was refusal.

She was a bit taken aback. Well so was I.

“...this is for buying some cigarettes and food. That is all I can spare.”, the German lady kept the cup aside and took out 30 bucks from her wallet.

That was the first time in my life, I realized how taking alms may feel. Also, the ego and self-respect were too high to accept a temporary solution.

The tea stall owner, Chandra Bahadur (actual name) was a very kind man and soon figured out that I was in distress. And what followed is another story for another day but the sweater I was wearing stayed back with me along with stories that changed the course of my life.

My family always wanted me to wear a white collar and take over the family reigns. But by the time I had reached the mountains, the white collar was no more white. It was shredded in bits and soiled.

In between, time and tide passed. I reached New Delhi after traveling beyond ‘inhospitable territories’. The hammering that my body took at that time resulted in degenerated vertebrates; causing permanent damage to my body.

Anyways, by the time I had come back to civilization, I had matted long hair, a flowing beard, lice all over, and hardly something to wear. The first thing I did on reaching habitation was to shave off all hair. To get rid of the lice walking all over my body.

Since I didn’t have much to wear, I’d wear the distressed sweater even in summer; much to the surprise of many.

The Jhuggi Jhopdi (J.J.Colony) neighbors of mine at Khanpur, New Delhi, were probably the warmest neighbors that I have ever experienced. And in their simplicity, they thought that the saffron piece of cloth that I was using as a bandana to cover my shaved-off head and the ‘distressed sweater’ was some kind of fashion.
A French person had gifted me a guitar in the back of beyond in the mountains. This guitar too had come down with me to J.J. Colony.

After some time, I bought some second-hand clothes and a pair of shoes with a little money that I had gathered teaching English to local kids. My accented Hindi helped me to buy bread for myself!

As I was firmly not getting back to maritime management and marketing or the corporate world, I had left Calcutta almost penniless.

Well, 'everything less', I began looking for music-related jobs. So, in the process, the neighborhood boys would see me walking with a guitar hanging from my shoulder, a bandana, and a distressed sweater. And to make sure that I carry them well to cover my state of affairs, I added an artificial swag to my walk.

And lo! Soon boys of the colony began wearing torn clothes, denim, and a torn piece of cloth for a bandana and some even bought a couple of guitars.

Decades passed. Life changed. Some media coverage of my works got my estranged family a wee bit closer too. The Universe showered me with a uber stable partner willing to share her life with a madman like me, a great home, family, kids, friends, and even a pet. And I can’t deny that professional progress made my pockets look a little better than before.

But in all this, the sweater always stayed back.

During Covid, I began to rekindle my interest in acting and joined some very exciting online sessions with contemporary doyens of Indian theatre. I’d done some work in a couple of films and TV serials that came on Doordarshan those days. But the excitement was as fresh as when my legs were shivering to give my first shot as a ‘Junior Artist’.

By this time, I’d already made a few fiction films, corporate films etc. In most of my acting presentations, my experience in life helped me and with that, the sweater became synonymous with my attempts to act.

So all charged up to take another risk (mildly speaking!) in life, I began shooting for another film and due to not being so comfortable with the portrayal, I took up the role of the protagonist myself.

Even in this film, the ‘distressed sweater’ was used as a costume. The film has got stuck due to a lack of financial and production support.

But I know that the film will complete sooner or later. And since, a part of the shooting is still left, I very……. very often keep wearing the ‘distressed sweater’. To be in the skin with the character so that moment we begin re-shooting, I am not unprepared.

And, to be rooted in my journey in life.

Now that I have been blessed with time to look around beyond sustenance, I notice brands that we wear initially decide your positioning. So this ‘distressed sweater’ is a serious de-branding factor if this is considered at all in life!

A couple of times, once while walking up to my car and the next, while sunbathing in our parks, people have asked me about the ‘distressed sweater’. Now that I have begun to understand and have begun to make some money from branding, I told them that I’d bought it from a high fashion store in Hong Kong!

Hong Kong….my foot!

Last week, one of them met me again and informed me that she and her husband went all over the malls in our neighborhood but couldn’t find the ‘high fashion’ that I wear!

But the actual moment of distress and simulated moment of distress has a common bearing. In the former, we suffer from the poverty of basics in life while in the latter, we struggle with the poverty of the mind!

I’m struggling with the latter still !! And that of mine!

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