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The things I learnt from my sabbatical

No matter what you aspire for, you have one vehicle for it—your body and mind. Keep them well-oiled

Ignore the naysayers, the trolls and the jealous—characters like the cops who relish Amitabh Bachchan’s plight in ‘Aakhree Raasta’.
Ignore the naysayers, the trolls and the jealous—characters like the cops who relish Amitabh Bachchan’s plight in ‘Aakhree Raasta’.

In the closing days of my year-long sabbatical, which ended this February, I used to have a weird dream. I had forgotten how to knot a tie and was asking strangers on the street to help me. It probably had something to do with my apprehension of going back to work after a year in which everything had changed. All through the sabbatical, I had banished the thought of work from my head, telling myself I would cross that bridge when I came to it. I am glad I did not let it weigh me down. Thankfully, I still remember Excel functions, Bloomberg short-cuts and how to knot a tie. Yes, work from home is taking some getting used to and I miss printouts but it isn’t anywhere as hard as I had imagined it to be.

Another “Frequently Asked Question” during the past year was, “Will the sabbatical change you as a person?” That is a thought I didn’t banish. In fact, I entertained it as a curiosity, knowing well that I would never be able to answer it myself. The missus tells me she is happy that I now sit down for breakfast instead of looking for socks with a slice of toast dangling from my mouth.

The question I can answer, though, is, “What did you learn over the last year?” None of what follows is prescriptive or universally true. These are just my experiences and some conclusions I have drawn from them. Think of it as a travelogue. There is nothing right or wrong about a travelogue but if it helps anyone embarking upon a new journey, it would have served its purpose.

Rarely does anyone take to anything new like “a fish to water”. The starting point of learning any skill is clumsy, embarrassing, uncomfortable and at times, painful. Even if the skill is something you are deeply interested in. The agony worsens if you compare yourself to your teacher or fellow students who have attained effortlessness after years of effort. Don’t compare. Also, don’t waste time thinking of what others must be thinking of you. Nobody has the time.

Find a good teacher and surrender. Do all your research before you sign on with a teacher but after that, surrender fully to him/her. Second-guessing the teacher at every step dilutes the intensity of learning. It is possible that you may not agree with some elements of the teaching. Review it periodically and give feedback to your teacher, but do not do it every day. On a daily basis, take a regimented approach. This is today’s workout and I have to do it. That’s it. Don’t get into “Why so many push-ups? This is not going to work.” Grappling with a fundamental question too often is a drain on your energy and will leave you paralysed.

Develop a strong mental dialogue with yourself when you are a new learner. My yoga teacher had a great line. “You will attend every class unless you are projectile-vomiting.” I made that my credo. “Turn up. Give your best. Don’t care about the rest.” I have gone through the process of wanting to quit every activity that I have picked up in the past 12 months. Every single one. An intense internal dialogue kept me from throwing in the towel.

Your role model for achieving a long and difficult task should be a mule, climbing uphill. It never gets overwhelmed by looking towards the summit. The mule is generally looking down, taking one step after another. With this as my inspiration, I decided to make “the next 24 hours” my unit of thinking. Imagining how arduous the climb is going to be can be overwhelming. Mule-ing on for one more day is more manageable.

Despite all this inner dialogue, there will be times when your mind will throw a mega-tantrum and refuse to cooperate. Don’t fight it. For such times, keep what I call paracetamol for the mind, handy. This is some activity or routine that helps you come out of a downward mental spiral. Taking a bath, doing a few sun salutations or watching Hera Pheri worked for me. Figure out your paracetamol in advance.

No matter what you aspire for or dream of in your life, you have one vehicle to achieve it—your body and mind. Put that way, it’s obvious you would want to keep the vehicle well-oiled. Make that priority No.1 even if you are doing just fine as of now. You don’t know what passion may possess you in future. It would be a shame if you can’t pursue it because the vehicle has broken down.

Sometimes, just doing something is better than perfecting it. Creating a masterpiece is a universal obsession. Be it a painting, an opinion column or a cover drive. The pursuit of a masterpiece is also a time black hole and an enemy of output. I experienced this the most during my month of writing short stories.

Which is why deadlines work. Put in your best effort, stick to the deadline and turn in your work. Get that albatross off the to-do list.

There is an insightful scene in the Amitabh Bachchan starrer Aakhree Raasta. The son Amitabh, who is a cop, has made a mistake and let his father Amitabh escape. Two “on-the-verge-of-retirement” seniors are enjoying the cop getting a dressing-down from his superior and one of them mouths this great dialogue. “Maana humne zindagi mein kuch nahi kiya, magar aisi galti bhi nahi ki (We may not have done much with our life but we haven’t made such a mistake either).” You will find incarnations of these two cops everywhere; the naysayers, the trolls, the jealous. Ignore them. Aakhree Raasta is synonymous with Bachchan; you probably didn’t even remember these two men until I mentioned them.

While the pandemic and lockdown derailed some of my plans, it also introduced me to the brave new world of Zoom. If you are a student, it’s an unmitigated blessing as the choice of teacher is no longer constrained by geography. My cooking teachers were based in Goa, my writing teacher in New York and I took online yoga classes that were conducted from Madurai. Technological solutions now ensure that you can find teachers even for niche hobbies. So when looking for a teacher, cast your net as wide as you can.

The lesson that I hope endures the longest is how to make detachment and passion coexist. I learnt of this from a story in Yog Vasishtha that my yoga teacher narrated during class. Vashishtha was Lord Ram’s teacher and the scripture is a dialogue between the two. The sage narrates the story of a crow sitting on the branch of a coconut tree and a coconut falling from the tree at the exact same moment. It is assumed that a thirsty wayfarer sitting under the tree will quench his thirst with the fallen coconut. The question Vashishtha asks is whether the crow alighting on the branch caused the coconut to fall or whether it was always meant to fall at that moment. How should the crow think about it? Did his actions matter or not?

A modern translation of the scripture quotes lines attributed to the Buddha. “Act as if everything you do makes a world of difference, knowing all the while that everything you do makes no difference to the world.”

This is the concluding piece of Sabbatical Chronicles but I am keen to keep the dialogue going. If you are planning on a sabbatical or just want to explore something new while juggling a job and home, I am happy to be a guide. I cannot end this without sincerely thanking you for all the encouragement in this whirlwind year. I hope to live vicariously now through some of your chronicles.

Swanand Kelkar, who was on an year-long sabbatical, works in the asset management industry.

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