Saturday, January 17, 2009


Every moment has its own magic. We just have to look swiftly but carefully to find it, but it is always there for that one fleeting instant, after which it becomes just a memory.

It is funny how the smallest, most insignificant things can change a life. Yes, that does sound like the trailer of the latest Richard Gere movie, but do bear with me, because it is one of those cliches that are very, very true.

More than a month ago, my Princeton classes for this semester officially ended. After that was winter break, then it was "Reading Period", which is a pretty much self-explanatory term, and right now we have exams going on.

Anyway, the point is, a month ago, almost to the day, one of my classes ended. It was the last day, and in spite of the baklavas that the professor brought as a parting gift for each of us, it was not exactly a sentimental moment; every single student of the class was relieved to go.

Class was more or less the usual. The professor desperately tried to hold the students' attention and failed disastrously. She droned on and on about while the rest of the class Facebooked furiously (we sometimes talk to each other through Facebook in the class, a far more interesting occupation than the class itself) or stared at a fly on the ceiling.

But after the last baklava had been demolished and the final parting pleasantries exchanged, I discovered that it was raining hard outside. I had, with my usual alacrity, forgotten to bring an umbrella. Luckily I had my bike, so I would get drenched for only about 3 minutes before going back to Forbes.

So I took my bike, and started pedaling in the rain, when I heard something in the distance that I have not heard for a long, long time.

So I turned and rode to Nassau Hall, and discovered magic.

Sometimes there are things that mean nothing and everything at the same time. It is futile trying to explain them, and it is always much, much easier and provocative to just describe them as they are.

This is what I saw.

It was just after sunset, so that there still was a semblance of light, but the clouds and the rapidity of evening had made everything darker. The lights were on in all the buildings, and Princeton is a gothic wonderland, with the buildings looking ancient and grim, like something out of Edgar Allan Poe or Emily Bronte, with gargoyles and massive stone blocks and towers and turrets. Just behind Nassau Hall, there is a small opening larger than a garden and smaller than a field, before the actual main road. This opening is surrounded by gothic buildings, and I was in the middle.

And the lights were shining through the windows, half-veiled, mysterious, intensely sad in the darkening sky. There were a few students hurrying back in the rain, or huddled together under one of the many arches, waiting for the rain to abate. There was a bell tolling in Nassau, the 4:00 bell, and a flock of birds flew overhead, drenched.

The trees, bare, stood silhouetted against the sky, the few remaining leaves rustling in the howling wind, whispering unknown stories and unspoken secrets. The rain was falling hard, and once in a while there were scuttling sounds, and I could look up and see characters straight out of London in a Victorian novel, with top hats and long tailcoats and canes hurrying from the small alleys and disappearing behind the gothic buildings.

And in the middle of the field was a man. He was silhouetted clearly against a tree, which offered him no protection against the rain. He was simply getting drenched in the rain, and was playing a bagpipe. The bagpipe case lay on the ground before him, and nothing else. He wasn't playing for money, he wasn't playing for entertainment. He was playing only, only for himself.

And what a tune he played. A soft yet harsh, sad, lonely tune, echoing throughout the fairytale Princeton campus, played with an intensity unmatched. It was the first time I have ever heard bagpipe music with my own ears since 1994, and it was strange what the music evoked. Shadowy nameless thoughts, long-lost desires, half-forgotten memories ... everything came rushing back to me, everything that the bagpipe was saying to me. So many stories, so many dreams ...

The bagpipe was playing me my childhood.

And I stood there, leaning on my bike, getting completely drenched in the rain, for twenty minutes, taking in the picture I saw, etching it on my mind, desperately hoping to cling to it forever. I stood there, in a swirl of thoughts, my only company the childhood that no longer actually exists, but is an extended memory of the happiest times I have ever had.

I never saw that man again, nor heard his bagpipe. But to me, he is one of the many characters who define who I am, who shape my life, in a sense. He is the integral part of the magic I glimpsed at - and he created the moment.

And then he went away in search of lives yet to be changed.

And I still stood there in the rain, lost and alone.

If you have time, try to watch these two videos:

Lumina Princetonia

The Spirit of Princeton

Also, the pictures are both from Flickr, not taken by me. But I will maintain that the visual sight I saw was much, much more spectacular.