Letter to a Dear Friend

This was written sometime in late December, 2015.

Dear Jana,

I started writing this when it was still your birthday. I do not know where I wavered in my efforts, for I am approaching Christmas, and this email is still sitting in my drafts folder. 

I am inclined to believe that I am too busy to write, because the alternative would mean that I am unable to give shape to my feelings, unable to mould my thoughts into words, unable to finish this email, and unable to make sure that it reaches you.

It has been well over three years since we last met. 

Our last encounter was on the banks of that willy Garonne – the dusk was settling in fast then, the booze running free and the dark night sky was littered with sparkling fireworks. I did not know then, that that was going to be our last meeting, otherwise I would have made a much better effort to encapsulate that moment.

In the years since that warm spring evening, a lot has changed. 

This email is an effort at trying to regain some of that lost time.

After I came back to India, I spent some time with my family at my hometown in Central India. There were things that needed to be taken care of, and there were decisions that needed to be made. The necessities dealt with, I proceeded to New Delhi, the Capital of our nation, in the hopes of pursuance of my aspirations to get into the Indian Civil Services.

That was in late 2012: Winter was setting in on the old Capital, and in the gloom of those chilly months, I found in myself a particularly strong sense of mourning. I am not sure why, but if was there. 

As the months rolled by, the fog lifted from Delhi, and the sun shone bright

It was the same with my life. The first leg of the Civil Service Exam (CSE) was fast approaching, and my mind, cleansed by the sweat of effort, was closed to the sentiments of my heart.

In May of 2013, I gave my first attempt at the CSE. No wonder it was a disaster. But I wasn’t disheartened, because the Government offers us six attempts to clear the exam. And hardly anyone (less than 2%) clear the exam in the first attempt. 

So I shrugged off the failure as a statistical inevitably. But the exam is conducted only once a year, so that meant that I had to wait an entire year before appearing again.

Rains came early that year, and by July, it was already pouring heavily. 

It was my first monsoon in Delhi, and it took my breath away. It is a city continually inhabited for the last 2000 years. Every civilisation, every ruler, every generation and every ideology that has ever set foot in Delhi, has left a mark on the city’s psyche. And the remains of all those countless lives – arches, monuments, tombs, bridges, pillars and forts, stand as testimonials to the incredulity of human existence – an astonishing, impeccably balanced equation of coexistence amidst chaos.

In August that year, my parents started renovating our home. 

The building was too old and too dysfunctional to live in, and there were parts needing serious and urgent repair. The plans for the new home were drawn, the budget finalised and the contracts with the engineer signed. 

Both my parents are working professionals (Dad’s a banker and Mom’s a teacher), and so the only way that work could be supervised at the home was if I moved back to my hometown in Central India.

And that’s what I did — I moved away from Delhi and came back to my home.

The reconstruction was a tiring work. The pay-per-day labour system at our place (like most elsewhere in India) isn’t very efficient. Local workers aren’t very skilled and need constant supervision to produce even mediocre work. But someone had to do it. 

And it turned out to be me. 

So from September 2013 to July 2014, through a winter, a spring, a summer, a fall, and a monsoon, I watched our house being built. Brick by brick. 

It was an exhausting work, but it was also a liberating one. 

There is a sense of emancipation in physical work, in knowing that you’ve put your sweat into the making of something, and then seeing the manifestation of that effort becoming concrete in front of your own eyes. 

But that experience came at a cost. 

We had to tear down the old building and build a new one in its place. And being involved in the construction constantly took a toll on the amount of time I spend studying. It was no wonder then, when in Aug 2014 I took my second attempt at CSE and failed to clear it.

Failure has a peculiar way of playing with our sense of worth. 

When things don’t go your way you tend to lose a lot of self-esteem. Your confidence takes a hit and it feels as if there is nothing in the world that you could ever do right. In our society, there is an added pressure: marriage. Your extended family is somehow excessively involved in your life right from the time you turn 23. Sooner, if you are a girl. 

In India, the main purpose of the existence of your family is to get obsessed with your marriage. 

In every family function, at every wedding or event, over evening teas, or on morning walks, their only topic of discussion centres around plans to get you married. Every girl is now equated on the basis of a “potential match” criteria and no star (and stone) is left unturned in the pursuit of that one “perfect” person. We Indians somehow feel that getting married is the one single greatest solution all our lives’ problems. 

My parents are very supportive in that sense

They aren’t very pushy and support me constantly. But the hoard of Aunts and Uncles in my family is a different matter altogether. Their constant nagging and my two failed attempts at the CSE (technically two lost years) was starting to affect me negatively. I wanted to get away from all that. So my parents suggested that I move back to Delhi and start my preparations for CSE anew.

And so it was that on Christmas Eve 2014, I found myself staring out the window of a train that was heading rapidly away from my hometown, and running northwards, towards New Delhi. It was no surprise then, when twenty-eight hours later, as I stepped out of my coach and breathed in a chilly Delhi after over an year, it smelled of nostalgia and fresh start. 

And freedom. 

I had always loved writing

Over the past two years, with a considerable amount of free time in my hand, I pursued that further. I wrote constantly. And read constantly. The two need to go hand-in-hand, you know. 

I started with blogging. But soon moved to other things. Reviews, magazines, travelogues, etc. I was not looking for employment, so I wasn’t bound by the genre, and I was ready to write for free, so I wasn’t bound by format or deadlines either. 

I was knocking on the door of professional writing, but  I didn’t know it then. 

I wrote because it gave me a sense of control. In my otherwise messed up life, writing was something I could truly control. It gave me purpose, and it gave me expression. And I loved it. It was just like building the house once again. Only this time, the bricks were my words, and I wasn’t building rooms but ideas!

I continued preparing for the CSE as well, but I will be honest, it was only half-hearted. For one, the odds were really scary. Over 500,000 people appear every year for an Exam that ends up hiring only 1000. That’s a success rate of 0.002! Way, way too low to be comfortable. 

The other part was my reconnect with my passion. Writing was becoming exciting for me. So much so that I had started entertaining thoughts of making a career out of it. But that was another daunting task in itself.

You see, in India, it is not an easy career path, this writing. 

And that holds true for any art form here. People will clap when you sing, they’ll show you off to the guests who come home, they might even attend your gig at the college annual meet. But that is it. That’s where the buck stops. 

For our society, that is just talent. And talent is a medium of passing the time. It’s synonymous with entertainment. You cannot make a career out of it. Because talent cannot make you money. Only degrees can. That’s a given. And to entertain any thoughts of trying to make it work is an exercise in futility. 

This is a philosophy so deeply engrained in our India sensibilities that it is nigh impossible to convince people otherwise

And it’s sad. In fact, it’s so sad it’s funny! The biggest concern a particularly nosy Aunt of mine is if I don’t have a government job, I won’t get a proper dowry!! Shouldn’t her concern be that I might not be able to feed myself, or something? 

But sustenance is only a part of the equation, right? A career is like a marriage. Of course you can change it two years down the lane, but ideally you’d rather not. Choosing a career is saying, “this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. This is what is going to be my bread and butter, and my liquor”. 

And I really think that this is it for me. 

I have been doing this since school, and never for once have I felt it was a burden. I like the feeling of sitting in front of a blank screen, my hands resting on the keyboard, with my head full of images. And I love the sound of the clicking keys as I type, filling the blank page with words, painting a picture, making the canvas sing.

I wrote the CSE for a third and last time in August this year. 

And failed to clear it, for the third and last time. Only this time, I knew I wasn’t going to make it. And this time, I wasn’t saddened by it either. 

I was strangely comfortable with the fact. Maybe it was the knowledge that I was going to appear for an interview two weeks later. The call back was from a content writing company who were looking for people with good writing skills. I had applied without any real hope and was really surprised when I was asked to appear for an interview.

I took the interview.

I liked them, they liked me. But the fact still remained that I was a “fresher”, meaning I had never had a full-time job before and was inexperienced in professional writing in any capacity. So they offered me a freelance writing contract for three months. I would work from home and write as and what was required of me.

This was in September.

I finished my three months and was subsequently offered a full-time position. I appeared for another round of interviews couple of weeks back, to finalise the terms of my employment. You know, salary, perks, work conditions, etc. 

I will be starting at their office from the first Monday of next quarter. That’s the 4th of January, 2016. So that is what I am now:

A writer — in essence and in reality

And that’s been my story. I don’t know if you will find any of this interesting; maybe you’ll not even read most of it. I don’t know. I have no way of knowing. 

For me, this was an excuse to write. For most part at least. Meanwhile, another part of me just wanted to talk to you: to tell you how I am and to ask how you are. 

That’s why I wrote this in the first place. 

So that we may yet share a part of our lives, however minuscule they may be, with each other. I wrote this in the hope that you write back to me; that I may be granted a peek into your life as well.

And in the rare event that I come wandering towards Lebanon, that I may be offered the sanctuary of your company. 

PS: I hope you had had a great birthday. I am sorry I couldn’t get around to wishing you. 

For now and always yours,
Amit

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