Since his younger days, he believed that life was a series of inflection points. He didn’t remember if he had read this somewhere or had heard it from someone, but the idea – that life moved in one direction until there came a moment of dramatic transformation that changed life’s course into another direction, which went on until the next such inflection point, and so on – had caught his imagination very early and remained rooted in his mind. Over the years when no dramatic life-changing experience had occurred, he had at times wondered if this theory was true, but such moments of disbelief were rare and short-lived: the whole point about such dramatic changes, he told himself, was that they occurred after long periods of continuity where life seemed to go on endlessly, like a boat in the vast Pacific with only gentle waves and vacant skies all around, and when the point of inflection came, when the large island appeared out of nowhere, the magnitude of change had much to do with the length and steadfastness of the uneventful period one had just passed through. So it was nothing to worry about – the moment would come, and life would never be the same again.
There were events from his past that had seemed life-changing: his first love, as a teenager; marriage, in his late twenties; divorce, a few years later. But these had been phases where a surfeit of emotions created an illusion of a change that promised new directions; in reality they were nothing but temporary dislocations, small blips in the unwavering trajectory of life.
He was thinking about all this again, seated in a flight to Delhi, and he didn’t quite understand why these thoughts had popped up now. Was it because life over the last months had seemed purposeless and he badly desired change, or was it that he had just felt the faint yet clear stirrings of change? He could not determine which, so he decided to ask Anita – seated next to him, leafing through a glossy in-flight magazine – where her thoughts on this matter of life-changing events lay.
‘I have this theory,’ he told her, ‘that life is nothing but one inflection point followed by another.’
* * *
He had met Anita at Mumbai airport. After check-in, he was seated in the departure lounge when the lady in the adjacent seat had turned to him: ‘Excuse me – I somehow cannot figure how to fix this to my handbag. Could you help me, please?’ She held out the baggage tag every passenger had to attach to cabin luggage items.
He took the tag from her, and with a slow, deliberate movement showed her how to turn it over a strap and then take the tag through the elastic loop.
‘Thank you!’ she said. ‘I never knew it was so simple.’
‘It’s one of those things which, once you know how it’s done, makes you wonder why on earth you couldn’t figure out yourselves.’ he said.
‘Like a Sherlock Holmes mystery,’ she replied. ‘I always felt foolish at the end of each one, when Holmes explained the details to Watson and everything seemed so obvious.’
‘That had a lot to do with the author,’ he said. ‘Arthur Conan Doyle revealed much less to the reader than what Holmes could observe – so the reader was always at a disadvantage.’
‘But it had its impact – there was the Wow! effect at the end.’
‘Yes, I have to admit that.’
She brought out a pen and began to write her particulars on the baggage tag. She had short hair, wore a plain white shirt over deep-blue jeans, and had a thin, beaded necklace strung close to her neck – he would later think of her appearance as “simple yet elegant”. Her features were Indian but he found her accent difficult to place. A leather strap hung over her shoulder held a small camera – it was a model he recognized.
‘Is that a Leica?’ he asked, pointing at the camera.
‘Yes it is,’ she said. ‘But Leica isn’t a brand everyone knows about.’ There was a hint of curiosity in the way she raised her eyebrows.
‘My brother was interested in photography,’ he explained. ‘He always dreamed of acquiring a Leica someday. He would show me pictures of a small, black camera – it looked more like those automatic ones that Japanese tourists carry, than any bigger models one sees with professional photo-journalists – and he would explain that it was the M7 model of Leica, his “ultimate dream”. But it was too expensive – beyond the reach of what his amateur interests could justify.’
‘It is a very good camera, and an expensive one, yes. Meant for professional photographers’ she said, and added: ‘Or for someone rich enough to indulge in such gadgets.’
‘So which one are you?’
She laughed: ‘The poor professional, you could say.’
The next hour went by in a flash. When he learned that Anita was a photographer living in Geneva, his own work – in a leading accounting firm in Delhi – seemed commonplace. But they shared other interests – literature being one – and her life as a photographer was full of “strange experiences” she was willing to talk about. When boarding announcement came – a little too soon, he thought – they both said their goodbyes and parted. But as luck would have it, they ended up on adjacent seats in the airplane.
* * *
When he told her about his belief in life’s inflection points, at first she smiled but didn’t say anything. Then she stared at the patterns on the back of the seat ahead, as if trying to remember something from a distant past. Was she trying to recollect events that had changed her life? Were there any?
‘I want to tell you about an incident that occurred many years ago, while I was still at college.’ she said finally, and continued without waiting for a response. And when she spoke it did not feel as if she was addressing him – it was more like she was reading aloud from a book.
‘We used to go on a lot of hikes those days – Switzerland is full of walking opportunities. We were a group of four girls, and on such weekends we would leave early on a Saturday morning and drive to the mountains. Brigitte had a car and she took the lead, deciding on the destination and planning the trip. Ulrike was the expert in flora and fauna – she had gathered a large collection of wild flowers from different regions of the world – and she always carried with her a notebook and a bag for gathering specimens. I was the photographer, lugging along my assortment of lenses despite a “rule” from Brigitte that we travel light. And Florence, the beautiful, delicate and moody Flo, was just interested in walking, wandering.
‘On this particular Saturday we were headed towards the southern branch of the Jura mountains, near Lausanne. It was early summer, and the day – sunny, with a mild breeze – seemed perfect for hiking. We reached the town where our hike was supposed to begin, parked the car and removed our bags. The town was next to a lake with low hills in the distance. The sun was already above the hills, which made the lake sparkle like a large silver foil and the hills – shaped like a woman sleeping on her side – appear as a dark silhouette. From that first view itself I had a strange feeling about the place, but I couldn’t pinpoint why.
‘We began walking, first next to the railway line and then on a track that led uphill. Brigitte led the way, as usual, and we followed, pausing occasionally when Uli – that’s what we called Ulrike – found a plant or weed that interested her. The path led us through the hillside full of pines, and it was only us on that path, which was very unusual: our paths always crossed with those of other walkers, unless the weather was bad or the hiking route was remote and unknown. I mentioned this to the others; Brigitte dismissed it with a grunt, Uli was too busy examining some creepers nearby, and Flo simply kept walking, looking dreamily at patches of blue sky between branches of pine.
‘A little ahead Uli called out to me, and pointed to a flower nearby. “That’s the Glacial Buttercup,” she said. “An alpine wild flower found only above 2000 meters. But we are hardly at 1000 meters.” What does that mean, I asked her, but she simply shrugged her shoulders and carefully plucked a specimen for her collection.
‘After about two hours we reached the ridge that led to the other side. The view was spectacular: there was a sheer drop that led to a small lake, beyond which there were meadows and small clusters of cottages, and higher mountains in the distance. We stopped there for a while; I took pictures. For those few moments the uneasiness that was with me since morning vanished. But the respite, as I was to learn shortly, was temporary.’
‘Tea or Coffee for you, sir?’ the flight attendant asked.
‘No, thank you,’ he replied. He wished no interruptions at this point.
Anita looked at him with a mischievous smile: ‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes, yes, I’m quite sure. Do continue.’
‘So where was I? At the ridge, yes….we climbed down and took a path that wound across the lake. Once again the path was deserted, and although we saw cottages – typical lakeside vacation villas – they all seemed uninhabited. Along the way I saw a sign that said “Le Pont – 2 Km”. It was placed next to the highway that ran for a while alongside the path we were on, but we never saw any vehicles. I
wondered what “Le Pont” meant – I lived in the German part of Switzerland and my French was very poor – and somehow decided that it referred to “The Point”. But what kind of point was it? A viewpoint, with beautiful views of the surrounding landscape? Or something else? The phrase “turning point” came to mind, but what did it mean? Was it a turning point for all who came this way?
‘We chose a small area next to the lake to stop for lunch. There were two wooden planks arranged on tyres, and although they looked clean I found their presence a bit odd as such picnic spots usually had benches and tables. I pointed this to Flo, who was looking at the cottage facing us. She ignored what I had just said, and replied: “We should go and check out that cottage.”
‘The cottage was a small single-storey house. All windows had their shutters down, and the lower half of the house was obscured by bushes and tall stalks of dry grass – it was an abandoned place. Towering behind the cottage there stood three pine trees in equal distances from one another, like tall sentries standing in guard. I didn’t like the place. I suggested we find another spot, but the others had settled down and were too hungry to move. So we sat there and ate our sandwiches and all the while Flo kept her eyes on the cottage like someone in the hypnotic trance. “We should see what’s in there,” she kept saying, and Brigitte made fun of her: “Do you expect a hidden treasure or something?!”’
The flight captain’s voice came over the speaker, announcing the landing and requesting passengers to fasten seat belts. There was a momentary rustle as passengers moved to check their belts and push up their seats. He looked out of the window and saw the outlines of a city emerge in the form of orange, flickering lights. They would soon reach their destination, but Anita’s account didn’t seem close to an end. Where was all this leading to?
‘When it was time to leave, Flo insisted we take a look at the cottage. I didn’t like the idea at all, but the others thought it wouldn’t hurt so we took a path that led us to the back of the house, to a door that seemed not to have been opened for years. There was a window next to the door, and this one did not have its shutters down. We tried to look in through the glass, but it was too dark inside. Ulrike, who was more interested in the vegetation surrounding the cottage, was wandering among the grass when she let out a cry: “Look! I found something!” We quickly gathered around her and looked at the object in her hand: it was a wooden wheel with a raised dot near the edge.
‘It was an ordinary wheel – a child’s plaything, perhaps – at which one wouldn’t normally take a second look, but what kept us intrigued was its surface: it was so well polished and shiny that it obviously didn’t belong in these surroundings. Either someone had very recently dropped it here, or it had – by some magic – retained its shine and newness over a longer period. We turned it around and looked at the edges but could not see anything special – no marks or engravings, just a smooth surface with a dot two-thirds away from the centre. I turned the wheel along its periphery, and the dot moved, tracing an arc along the direction of the turn. At that instant the phrase came back: “a turning point”. I don’t know why I made this connection – I felt it was silly and did not mention it to anyone. By this time the others had lost interest in the wheel, so I kept it with me, in one of the lens pockets of my camera bag.’
The plane landed. They walked together towards the exit but the crowd and the surrounding noise did not leave them any space, so he thought of suggesting a cup of coffee nearby. But as he was about to do so she took out a card and scribbled a number on it.
‘That’s where you can reach me in Delhi,’ she said. ‘I’m here for a few weeks, so call me and we’ll meet.’
At the exit, amongst the dozens of cards held up by people, there was one with her name; she walked towards it, and near the end of the stretch she turned around, met his eyes, and waved goodbye. Much later, when he would think back to this day, he would recognize that it had been a strange wave, a flourish that had the character of something final, of something that had ended.
* * *
He had waited for a few days to call her on that number; he didn’t want to seem too eager. Besides, he had sensed in her narration a deliberate tactic aimed towards increasing suspense and inducing a craving to know what happened next – he didn’t want to show he had fallen for it. She had said she was around for a few weeks, so learning how the incident had ended could wait a few days.
When he called the number a few days later, it was picked up by someone who replied that “Madam” had left for Europe the previous day. But she was supposed to be here for some weeks isn’t it? Yes, came the answer, the booking at the “guesthouse” had been for three weeks, but she had cancelled it. Was there some address she had left behind? No, they did not maintain such records.
In the days and weeks that followed, he kept going back to this brief encounter. He tried to reconstruct all pieces of her story, looking for clues that would explain this bizarre response to his theory. He remembered her remark about the Wow! effect in Sherlock Holmes mysteries, which perhaps indicated that she desired a similar effect for her story – but what was it? What lay at the end of that elaborate construction that was now left hanging without purpose?
Then there was the “turning point” she had mentioned, but beyond the obvious relation to his notion of inflection points it did not make any sense to him. On a whim, he looked for a translation of the phrase “Le Pont” – she had only guessed that it meant “The point”. The translation website spitted back its meaning in English: “The Bridge”.
He then remembered what she had said about photography during their chat at the Mumbai airport lounge.
‘A great photograph is like a bridge that leads you to another world,’ she had said. He thought about that for a while, and remarked that he had heard of photographs being called “windows to another world”, but never bridges. ‘A window implies distance, a detachment of the observer from the observed,’ she had explained. ‘A bridge indicates a cross-over into that other world, at the end of which there is no separation of the observer from the observed. It demands effort, and great photographs act as bridges, easing the cross-over.’
* * *
Life, he thought to himself, is a series of bridges, each leading you to a world different from the previous.