The clapping subsides. She says something in my direction. I smile and nod in return. She looks confused.
Well, what do you think?
I agree with you. You are absolutely right.
The uncle who forwards WhatsApp messages on positive thinking every morning pulls at her elbow, and I am let off the hook. A webinar would be ideal. Someone hands me a cup of coffee. It would engage the younger lot. I smile and say thank you. Maybe 4 speakers? Familiar faces are a blur. And a young moderator?
Do you think you can let work be for one evening?, my mom is back by my side, scowling in my ear. It is my grandad’s 90th birthday.
You get that glazed look in your eyes, she said to me on a previous occasion, that’s when I know you’ve left the room. Moms. What an anticlimactic superpower to have: knowing everything about everything. Imagine spotting a zombie in the first frame of a Hollywood sci-fi movie and knowing exactly what was turning people into zombies even before the scriptwriter’s had a chance to introduce a plot-point observation from the likely lead about the strange look in a character’s eyes.
It isn’t her alone though. Far too many lucid eyes have remarked that something strange is going on with me at holiday brunches and evenings out. I feel it too. I am only half present in any present. The other half is far away. Thinking of things done, undone, to be done.
But am I stranger now than I was before? Let’s see. I took up science in school to keep my ‘options open’, and then exhausted myself ‘building a CV’ in law school. Mooting, papers, committees, I did it all without once connecting the dots with my career goals. Come to think of it, I am not sure I had career goals. Until year five of law school everything was a random shot in the dark. No connecting the writing dot with the LL.M. dot, or even the mooting dot with the judge-or-advocate dot.
Professional life has been more of the same. One moment, nose-deep in a case file. The next, eyes squinted over ways to network. A third, eyes wide at an idea to write about. Later, hunched over a laptop looking up webinars and conferences.
Welcome to life, a part of me snubs. To the inspiring and terrifying possibility that anything is possible. A master’s degree from Harvard can become a relic on a forgettable chamber-wall in Allahabad. A 5-point-something can live out his passion for soccer tossing files to advocates from his Judge’s chair.
The other part of me is frantically trying to figure out ways to maximise my chances of success. It labours relentlessly under the modern-day obsession with activity as the means to a successful life: if I keep working hard at something, I will get somewhere. ‘Something’ could be anything. ‘Somewhere’ could be anywhere.
The vagueness and ambition of this idea is so overwhelming that I just can’t sit still without feeling like I should be doing more. More cases, more conferences, more drinks with clients, more messages to network. In the end, I am calmer re-organizing emails amidst empty office chairs than clapping ‘happy birthday’ at my grandad’s party. I find it easier to be busy than to be bored.
A glance at the glazed eyes of other lawyers at social dos tells me I am not alone. The virus has spread far and wide. I am one in a sea of zombies, arms outstretched in no particular direction, hypnotised by the compulsion to keep going.
Mom turned into Buffy-the-zombie-slayer when I hinted that she might’ve been right about my absent-mindedness. Talk to your bosses. Reduce your workload. See a shrink? Meditate. The slayer was swinging about wildly. I feared she might self-destruct.
Can’t I just start by singing ‘happy-birthday’ in earnest every now and then though? Being lazy on a holiday, getting bored in company, walking aimlessly in a park without counting the number of rounds? Maybe all I need is to re-learn to do nothing, and be ok with that. Like I was on those sultry, vacant, afternoons of childhood while the adults of the house slept. Revelling in the freedom of time, thinking up idle pleasures.
Maybe in a quiet moment, I will catch a fleeting idea that needs a little more attention to become a big idea, or recognise a deep-seated ambition, or figure out how to prioritise my time better – things that just don’t surface when I stare at a blank sheet of paper with a pen in hand on a busy day.
If that were to happen, I could do the thing – not just anything – that gets me closer to where I want to end up – not just anywhere.
In a sense, being genuinely, completely, idle in modern-day chaos could be valuable hard work too. Just not the kind we are used to fussing about.