The question often troubles me, and invariably takes me back to a certain day in the final year of my college. My father had come home that evening, holding a booklet from a coaching centre, and declared it was the Indian Civil Services that I would prepare for.
I thought about arguing against it, telling him about my own ambitions in life, but realized I had none. So, I joined the classes the next week.
On the first day there, I sat in the crowded hall, listening to a retired IAS officer giving an orientation speech. “My future officers!” he said, an hour into it, “I can give you two days, and no more. Just two days this year to relax.”
I noticed backs straightening up around me, as I sank further in my seat, grabbing hold of all the relaxation I could.
“Diwali, and Holi!” he revealed. “But even Diwali allows you the whole daytime, my friends, and Holi the whole night. So give me no excuse.” He pounded the podium. “And keep your focus sharp. And when those aimless creatures called friends come to derail you off your noble path.” He raised his hands above his head and joined them, like Amitabh Bachchan in Sarkar. “Tell them – ‘sorry, no thank you.’”
The hall erupted in a big round of applause at this twisted allusion to the Bollywood movie ‘Mene Pyar Kiya’, while I stiffened in my seat, offended. Aimless creatures, they might be. They were friends, nonetheless. No way I was going to abandon them because this gentleman said so.
But a month later that was exactly what I was doing.
My classes began in the morning, which meant I missed college on most days; and even when I was there, I found myself in the library sifting through books, and magazines.
Weekends were free, I admit, but then I had assessment tests on Mondays, so I had to opt out of all the Sunday hangouts, movies, and TT games. And before very long, nobody was bothering me with their calls, and visits.
I was sad, but I knew it would all be well once the classes were over, so I kept pushing myself, wanting to give it a fair try. And it was around the fourth month into the preparation that I first started feeling the signs of a burnout.
Suddenly, the very sight of those hard facts, and dry concepts was making me nauseous. I woke up every morning feeling heavy in the head, thinking how much more I had to study and learn. So to lighten it, I began visualizing stories out of the dull subjects.
Like while going through medieval history, I would imagine Razia Sultana strutting across her opulent palace in her ornate golden dress like a super model, through a crowd of cowering subjects, and bowing courtiers. And, in anthropology, a Neanderthal pummeling a gorilla beneath a giant tree in a bloody fight for a piece of fruit, both growling, and roaring in each other’s faces.
The preparation went sluggish, as the days passed by. And, one fine morning, feeling guilty as hell looking at the course books, magazines, and newspapers piling up unread on my table, I finally admitted to myself that I was never going to make it. So I decided to quit.
But how to tell the hopeful father about it? That was the question.
I couldn’t face him, I knew. Therefore, I picked writing a letter as the only viable option, and immediately sat down at my table.
It took me the whole day to finalize it, as I wrote, and then rewrote it several times over, getting totally immersed in the process. It was probably the first time in my life I had done something so exhaustive, yet – so exhilarating.
I gave the letter one last look. It was a five-page beauty (front and back), dripping with my raw emotions. And, quietly that night, brimming with pride, I slipped my magnum-opus under his door.
The reply came sooner than expected, as he burst into my room before the sunlight, and threw at me the crumpled papers.
“Well done!” he said, with trembling lips, as I tried to shake away sleep from my eyes. “Very. Well. Done. My able son. What else could I expect from you?” He shook his head in disgust. “I should have known better than to…” he suddenly broke off, unable to complete, and stood staring at me, his chest heaving up and down rapidly. And then wheeling around, he stormed off out the door.
I picked up the letter, and smoothed it flat on my table. Red arrogant circles scarred it all over, marking the errors, mocking me. And, on the last page, a royal dictum read:
Clearly, you are not brilliant enough for an exam such as this. I wish you had written me a letter years ago. Would have saved me a lot of money.
That hurt. I won’t lie. But, I couldn’t help feeling a huge burden lifting off my chest, nevertheless. I pulled in a slow deep breath, inhaling the air of freedom, sweet and fragrant.
And along had come the realization that there was something in the world that I could imagine myself losing in. Writing. I know, I know – the errors, and a million other problems of being a writer. But, suddenly all that was acceptable to me. I was ready to take the pains to improve myself.
Later that morning, I went to the college, all excited to meet the friends I had so long been avoiding.
They were in the canteen, as I had expected, chattering over hot samosas and cold drinks. But as soon as I joined them, they all fell silent, exchanging looks.
I spoke up, feeling like a stranger trying to strike up a conversation. But they seemed not to hear me. So I began blabbering out all that had happened in the previous months, explaining my position, and ended up sharing my newfound love for writing.
“What!” they all shrieked in unison, finally out with a word.
“F**k my a*s, you can be a writer!” one of the guys cried, taking it as some kind of a personal insult.
Every head in the canteen was now turned in my direction.
“Easy…” I urged him, and glanced at the other one beside him.
“Don’t say that, man,” he admonished him, “he’s got potential. I know. He can write some horny stuff like that mastram. Right?” He looked back at me, as others burst out laughing, spraying cold drink out through their noses.
I stared at them, rooted to my spot. I wanted to retort, to say something witty and equally mean, as I used to earlier, and normalize things, but my words caught up in my throat. So I turned around to go back, and as I did it, cold water splashed hard on my face, and the whole canteen rang with laughter.
Gasping, I looked up, and found another of my dear friends running away with an empty glass in one hand. “Just wanted to wake you up buddy!” he shouted back.
One of the girls stepped forward then. “I’m so sorry, yar,” she said, handing me her handkerchief, clearly no longer enjoying the show. “You know them, right? They’re all a**holes.”
My eyes flew at her boyfriend (the one who took it as a personal insult), at the same time as hers. His death stare made her recoil; and she snatched back her hanky, and scurried away towards the counter, with the other girl.
I too rushed back home, after that, feeling angry, and maybe hurt.
I knew I had avoided them during my preparations, but I never insulted them. And I had assumed they would understand, and even support me.
I did not approach them again, and neither did they. Soon the final exams came and the college was over, leaving me bitter about the whole friendship thing. So much so, that even during the next two years, while doing my post-graduation, I rarely ever opened up with another soul.
And then I started working.
It was during this time that I picked up writing again, out of sheer frustration about the ways of the corporate world. I wrote, first in the notebooks that I burned at the end of the year for fear of someone discovering them, and later on a blog where I stayed anonymous, never daring to show my name and face.
To work, I went with a solid armor of a persona around me that no one could pierce through. I worked, mingled with people, and then came back home and peeled it away.
I did make friends there, a couple of whom are still in touch, if only occasionally, but mostly, friendships there were motivated by very different objectives. Many of them I saw flaring up at once, and then vanishing just as quickly.
The only friendship that I seemed to be enjoying was with books. So I spent all my spare time at work reading, often at the risk of being mocked by my fellow employees. And then back at home too; a childhood love, rekindling.
Books provided me the peace I needed, and the escape I yearned for.
I kept scribbling too though only on the margins of my day. It did take some time to put aside all the negativity surrounding it, but I managed to finally find back the joy I had once felt so strongly in it.
In addition, over the years, writing has connected me to some amazingly like-minded people. They are all mostly faceless connections, and they come and go like seasons, but I have felt the sensitive hearts beating hard behind their words. In fact, they’ve been more of friends to me than the ones I have ever had.
And those other ones from school, college, and locality, the people I once cared for so much, they’re all there too, somewhere. I see them all the time on Facebook, and Instagram, clinking beer bottles, and laughing out together. It’s just that I am no longer in those pictures.
Truth be told, they seem to be doing quite well without me. I knew, they wouldn’t notice my absence from their worlds.
And they never did.
Image Source: Pinterest