It’s tough not to be stressed out in a country like India.
From the minute you step out of your home, to the time you collapse into bed, exhausted, at night (or, more realistically, the early hours of the morning), you can be sure that something will be gnawing away at your consciousness, stubbornly demanding your attention.
When I was in my 20s, fresh out of college and hungry to leave my mark on the creative world, I was constantly told by hiring managers and editors that the future belonged to me, and people like me — young, ambitious, confident, aggressive, willing to do whatever it took. As a somewhat shy, unsure, hesitant-to-speak-up new adult, this flurry of adjectives terrified me. I remember wondering, a little uneasily, what if I didn’t want to be any or all these things?
But I brushed away the thought.
There was no time to sit and ponder, to really think about who I wanted to be, or what I wanted my career to look like, when there was so much stuff to do. There were stories to chase, and competition to beat down in the relentless race to cross a constantly moving finish line. It was like being handed a manifesto of what it would take to survive in corporate, competitive India. Which 21-year-old would have the courage to question the holy grail? So, I decided to learn and adapt, instead. I learned how to speak up, and to make my voice heard, even when I had nothing very important to say. I learned that creating the illusion, the perception of relevance, was more important than actually being relevant to the conversation.
It served me, and my ego well. My name cropped up in important, empty conversations, by important, empty people. I spent enormous amounts of time and energy to ensure that I wasn’t forgotten. Every time I faltered, a well-meaning mentor would helpfully remind me of the sheer volume of subcontinental millennials who were just as qualified, as talented, perhaps more deserving than me, waiting to take my place.
I’m told that India is a pulsatingly young country, with half of its population under 25, and a third that is under 35. I’m also told that by 2027, it will house the world’s largest workforce, with almost a billion people between 15 to 64 years of age. Those are scary numbers. What are the odds of success, when you’re competing with a billion other people for the same 15 seconds of fame?
The fear of losing my spot was enough to make me keep my head down and nose to the grindstone. Everything was sacrificed to the race — sleep, friendships, romance, mental well-being, physical health. In that decade of silent confusion and bone-crushing exhaustion, I went from being a quiet, contemplative young woman to a tense, nervous, under-confident but over-achieving go-getter. I was the editor of one up-and-coming webzine, a weekly columnist for another, and a consulting editor for a third. 60-hour weeks were my norm, and 70 were not unheard of.
This toxic, tiring relationship I had with my profession worked well for the various companies I worked for. As long as I was scared, I’d never get around to asking some very important questions of myself. Was I happy? Was this what I wanted? They said that the future belonged to me, but how could it, when I barely had a handle on the present? And most importantly, if not this, then what? Was there an alternative? If yes, what was it?
The beautiful, and tragic thing about the whispering ghosts of your conscience is that you can’t outrun them. One way or another, they will catch up with you and make themselves heard. Several things happened in succession, bringing me to a fork in the road that would forever change the course of my life.
In a span of three years, I went through a nervous break-down, watched my father as he walked the tightrope between life and death within the cardiac care units of three different hospitals, and found myself waking up in a hospital with my partner, both our bodies mangled and broken, as our families flew to the city from different parts of the country even as we were being readied for surgery. These incidents changed me in ways that I cannot undo, teaching me things about myself that I can’t unknow.
I remember the panic I felt when I sat in front of my laptop, trying to form coherent sentences on the blank document in front of me, without success. I remember the panic slowly turning into desperation, as the hours turned into days, and days into weeks. I remember wondering, frantically, if the universe allotted a finite number of words to each writer, and if I had squandered mine away before I had something important to say.
I remember the four months my mother, sister and I spent, huddled outside intensive and cardiac care units, clutching each other for courage, as my father’s condition seesawed daily. The experience broke each of us individually in some ways, but glued our family together in a way it hadn’t been for many, many years.
But what I don’t remember is why my partner and I ended up in the hospital — there’s a big, gaping hole in our memories about what happened. Our best guess is that we fell asleep behind the wheel. It’s a good guess, given that we had both been running on less than five hours of sleep for several before the accident. Lying in the hospital dazed and incoherent, as the police fired questions and demanded blood samples, I wondered: was anything in the world worth this?
It took us four months to get back on our feet, six before we could walk without help, and a year for the scars to fade enough for me to be able to look into the mirror and see myself, not the tapestry of marks left behind by the glass that shattered on my forehead and tore through my skin.
It’s amazing how quickly you stop caring about all the trivial junk that life unwittingly fills up with when you come within inches of losing everything that makes life worth living — family, the thing that gives your life purpose, the love of your life. Those three experiences made me realise I no longer wanted to be a part of the race, or to spend large chunks of my life and sanity embroiled in worthless equations.
The decision to walk away wasn’t easy, but I haven’t regretted it once. It’s difficult to suddenly stand still, when you’ve spent a decade moving, moving, moving… Chasing one thing after another, because pausing for breath would be a sign of weakness.
I walked away from work that left me feeling drained and hollow, and started seeking out connections that meant something to me. I worked fewer hours, but took care of myself better. Walking away meant lesser money and lifestyle changes I hadn’t thought I’d have to make, and there were days when I was petrified I’d ruined my career, but somehow, miraculously, I had the sense to recognise that the knot in my stomach was the fear of the unknown, never regret. There were fewer fancy dinner parties, but more meals with the family. Fewer bylines, but more of what I was truly proud of. And for the first time in over a decade, I wasn’t waking up dreading the day, or pumping myself with caffeine to get through it in a haze of artificially induced vigour. Bit by bit, as my life realigned itself to follow this new path I’d carved for myself, I regained all the parts of me I had thought were lost to me forever.
I reunited with my silence, and realised this silence, not the words and the sounds I had accumulated over the years, was what made me a good writer. I found that I’d spent so much time convincing myself that I didn’t need as much sleep as the others that I’d forgotten how to dream. I discovered that I was a better person, partner, family, and friend, when my thoughts weren’t blurry and irritable, thanks to the fatigue I was constantly battling. I made better decisions — professionally and personally — when I was at peace.
You can’t undo a decade’s worth of conditioning in a few short weeks or months. I still have restless days and sleepless nights because my muscle memory still remembers all the years of abuse, but they’re fewer and farther apart.
I’m a work in progress, and some days are harder than others because workaholism can be every bit as addictive and difficult to kick as a narcotic, but I’ve seen what lies on the other side, and paid its full asking price. It’s not a price I’m willing to pay a second time around.