My friend T has recently moved to a big city with a conservative reputation. T has moved countries, cities and jobs in the last few months and already sounds like she is having a good time. I wouldn’t expect any less from her. She was in Korea for what I think was five minutes and got on a bus and travelled, while slightly unwell, to a Buddhist monastery a day’s travel from Seoul. Why? Because it was there. She was in Turkey for two-and-a-half minutes and quickly leapt on a ride down the Bosphorus. My friend M is the same. Years ago, we were together in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, on work and we did everything fun that could be managed quickly and cheaply in the evenings.
One day she was busy and I was free and she urged me to make a trek to historical ruins. I turned pale. Why would I do that when I could just watch Suriya and Jyotika on TV, I thought. My urge to be extremely comfortable has mostly always trumped my sense of intrepid adventure.
I have grown to think some people approach life as if they were Richard Linklater characters who have to take in everything before sunrise/sunset. My friend R moved to a small university town in the UK. Within weeks, he had walked everywhere, taken photographs of everything the city and nature had to offer. He was not ticking items off a list, just propelled by a desire to be out and about. When he moved to Manesar, Haryana, for work, he routinely walked to Delhi on weekends—making me not turn pale but collapse fully into a faint.
I, on the other hand, live in cities and barely ever take in the sights unless friends and relatives visit. And when I escort said relatives and friends, I am almost always delighted. On the way home, I always ask myself, why didn’t I come here earlier? Probably because the sights feel like they will always be there next week. And this week there is all that urgent life stuff. So urgent.
Last week, I went to the zoo with many adults and many children and what do you know, it was great! Just an hour away, green, quiet, animals in haute couture, gigantic flowers, and so many happy memories. Even my experiencing self (usually grumpy in comparison to the remembering self, who only remembers the nice parts of the trip) had nothing to be grumpy about. And as it turned out, it wasn’t just my happy memories that the trip triggered. More than one naturalist friend talked about how childhood visits to the zoo changed their lives. Other friends talked about childhood expeditions. There was the inevitable Mysuru zoo versus Bengaluru zoo spreadsheet. It left me asking why I hadn’t done this earlier.
When I live in a place, you can depend on me to know where you can buy tacky costumes or excellent second-hand books or get a blouse stitched or find one quiet park or two crispy dosas. But that’s about it. History would curl its lip at my ignorance and hopeless lack of curiosity. I am in the Richard Much-Later category.
Sunsets and sunrises fly by while some of us try to work our way down the urgent to-do list. As if the fixing of door handles and welding of the rusted gate and sorting of papers and cooking and cleaning will ever get done. I don’t think of myself as someone who postpones pleasure. In fact, I am shamefully into instant gratification. But some pleasures do require you to lift your head from the endless lists and in my case, the endless piles of books or streaming options. Adulthood can only be enjoyed if adulting doesn’t drown it.
If left to themselves, governments have a tendency to turn into those tuition centres which tell you your whole life has to be about passing the entrance examination, all else is a waste of time. They will tell you that you should only work and earn a living and if you can’t, it’s your fault too. And everything else is out of syllabus. And who do you think you are to want any more?
In a way, the pandemic experience has deepened the dark well of adulting, forcing us to stick to the brutal essentials. As if to want anything beyond earning a living is sinful. It’s doubly tragic because even as our finances have floundered, our pain has been located in the distinctly non-material—the loss of loved ones, the collapse of our bodies, our struggles with depression, the missing of loose connections with strangers and community, the end of aimless walks, the end of the belief that if we worked hard, we could make beautiful things. It’s hard to remember it when all interactions with the state end with the possibility of going to jail. It’s hard to remember when we too convince ourselves it’s best to earn a living and watch TV and worry about those to-do lists. But life is not in the entrance exam, it is in the group excursion and colour dress days. Life is what lies out of syllabus.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.