One of my earliest memories is sometime in the year 2000. I was at a book exhibition at school with my parents, which was sponsored by Scholastic. I remember being happy and excited, even though at that age I barely knew anything about anything. But I did like books, and was fascinated by the dizzying collection of colourful books there.
My favourite book as a kid was the Atlas. I loved poring through my copy, and to look at not just maps of India, but of the whole world. This atlas not only had political maps, but geologic and weather maps too. I used to play atlas with my cousin brother where he would name a city from a country and I had to find it. It is unbelievable how much joy I got out from one book. I used to look at the scale at the bottom and marvel at the sheer size of the earth, how 1 centimetre on a map could equal a thousand kilometres.
The appeal of geography is for people who find ‘what is the world like out there?’ an interesting question to pursue. There is another subject that poses the same question: Space & Astronomy. That day in 2000, the only book I asked my parents to buy was one on the solar system. When I flipped through it and saw the pictures, there was no way I was leaving without it.
Books were my lifeblood. And I don’t mean novels. I mean the atlas, the book on the solar system, Tinkle comics, and Amar Chitra Katha. For my 11th or 12th birthday my dad bought me a collection of 25 Amar Chitra Kathas. To this day it remains to be the best birthday present I ever got. I was so hooked onto these books that my parents had to lock up my collection during exam time. And I of course sneaked them out and read them to my heart’s content.
Another gift I received around that age from my cousin brother, was Trivial Pursuit in the form of a small digital console. Every time I pressed the button for ‘Next question’, I yearned for the shuffle to land on Science & Technology. Though I fortunately wasn’t aware of the word at the time, but I was a dork, and glad to be one.
What I love the most about my childhood was the certainty I had about the things that made me happy, and the determination to pursue them earnestly. Granted, books and games are inherently quite ordinary and not particularly challenging. But no act is small when it is towards something your heart truly enjoys. I never stopped to question whether these things made me a dork/nerd/geek, or whether my friends liked it, or whether my parents liked these things about me. I liked doing these things and that was it — end of story.
It’s 2020 now, and doing what I want has become incredibly hard. And it is not because of work or this pandemic or ‘a part of growing up’. Consider writing for example. Apart from a couple of long captions on Instagram, I haven’t written a word in the last 6 months. I had time, I had things to say, and I genuinely enjoy writing. It creates a coherence and flow in my thoughts like nothing else and there is a sense of adventure. It’s like you start drawing a fruit, which then becomes a part of a tree, at which point a nest emerges, and you end up drawing a baby bird taking its first flight to grab the fruit.
And yet this is how my attempts to write go: The moment an idea enters, my friend’s face pops up, smirking at me and telling me this is no good. I think of how certain people will react, most of whom never read what I post anyway. I picture them narrowing their eyes, flaring their nostrils, and just scrolling past my words mercilessly. I remember a friend calling my writing a ramble, and another one saying I don’t mean the things I write. And thus the idea dies before it even takes shape into words.
Rationally, I know I’m not supposed to care.
Should I care about what people say? No.
Should I care when my friend smirks? No.
Do I care anyway? Yes.
Singing is something I enjoy too. A few months ago I purchased a condenser mic to record better. But I have been falling into the same trap again. Instead of recording, I hopelessly go through songs and think “well, this won’t be well received.” “This one will make people call me gay.” “This is too niche and nobody will connect to it.” “I sound funny on the high notes so what’s the point recording, fuck it.”
I think this is what is known as compulsive behaviour. They’re kind of like these bad habits, that you know are bad, yet you find it impossible to break out of them. When I eat at home, I absolutely must watch something while eating. And 95 percent of the time I will be watching something I’ve already seen. A re-run of Seinfeld, It’s always Sunny in Philadelphia, Arrested Development, the entire MCU movie list: it is just an automatic action, into which no thinking goes whatsoever. Grab plate. Open mac. Open chrome. Enter Hotstar or Primevideo. Click on next episode. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, tea, or even fruit: press play.
Breaking out of these loops is like going through withdrawal. Last week I was angry at myself for watching The Newsroom for a 4th time, so one day I just didn’t watch anything. It literally felt painful leaving it mid-season like that even though I knew what was going to happen. The next day, I tried browsing to see whether there’s something that genuinely interests me. I searched for space, and ended up watching an Engineering Marvels episode of the International Space Station. The next day I found the show Cosmos, and it rekindled joy. The joy of rediscovering a lost love, of the mind actually having to work to decipher what was being said, and rewind, if needed. Planet Earth is the only other show to have had this effect on me. It is Cosmos in fact, that sparked the memory of the book exhibition from 20 years ago.
There are other more embarrassing instances of compulsive behaviours that angered me. The launch of reels on Instagram meant that whenever I clicked on the search button, I was forced to constantly see what is usually a teen/young adult woman prancing and dancing in a series of costumes. I somehow got hooked to this particular profile, and started obsessively loading it again and again till a new post came. I don’t know this person, and yet dutifully watch her and learn 5 different ways to style a black tee. I had to uninstall Instagram for a few days to come to my senses, then eventually block her.
Everyone wants to live their life doing the things they love, and everyone has the time to do it. Looking back, if I think about why I haven’t done (more) of things I like, even the easiest of things, the answer is simple. One, I have spent way, way too much energy on ‘what would people think?’ and two, I spent my free time on auto-pilot, instead of taking the wheel and driving where I want to.
Doing what you love is level 2. Level 1 is to be conscious of what you’re actually doing. Watch and study yourself. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be surprised at the number of things you do without actually consciously deciding to. Love can wait, I’ll be happy to take the wheel for starters.