Readers Write In #289: Aims, a Memoir

Posted on October 24, 2020

30


(by G Waugh)

Born into a middle class family that subsisted on a single income, there was only one purpose for which I was thrust into education- ‘settling’ in life. ‘Settling’ meant only one thing- getting a well-paid job, marrying and having kids. After slogging for over four years in an area where I was not much interested in, I finished Engineering and joined a multinational software company in 2010. For over a decade from where I entered Secondary education till my initiation into the IT industry, my aims in life wereonly too modest- to get a job, share my father’s financial burden andget a good-looking wife as ‘the final feather in my cap’. The first two aims were done when I was 22 and the third one I hoped, shall easily follow later.

***

My first year at the company was simply too fabulous. I used to work for just close to eight hours a day, get paid in five digits, buy things in online platforms such as Flipkart and Amazon with my own money, swipe my Debit card at showrooms located inside malls that were just too new and alluringto me, visit air-conditioned cinema halls every fortnight for a movie, munch expensive pop-corn and dine at glittering restaurants whenever I felt like. We had official project parties too, every three months or so and our teams at my office had the habit of spending on an average, at least twenty thousand rupees on every such occasion. Sometimes in the middle of these parties, I used to sit in a corner of the plush restaurant on a table loaded with delicious starters tempting my palate, simplystaring at my team-mates and savouringthe excellent ambience I was in. All those years of slogging at my college, those sleepless nights that I had endured for my board exam preparations and all the hard work I had poured into my studies, the rigorouswork-ethic I had inherited from my father – everything made perfect sense. I worked hard and here I am, a System Engineer in one of India’s biggest multinational corporations.

***

This was also the time I was introduced to the habit of reading books. My team-mate had a copy of H.D Thoreau’s Walden which he told he was struggling to complete on account of the mind-numbing drabness of the content. I googled about the book and learnt that it was an account of an Englishman who decided to take a break from his social life and move to a forest, to live life like a hermit. Frankly, the subject did not interest me at all but I borrowed the book from my friend so that I could pass off as a well-read guy in front of the girls who used to accompany me during my one-hour long, train journeys to office.

This was also the time I was getting introduced to Hollywood films and one of my friends insisted me on seeing a film called Into The Wild (2007) directed by Sean Penn. I downloaded it one weekend and decided to reserve it for a Sunday afternoon. The story looked totally incomprehensible to me then. A boy of eighteen, a topper in college if I remember correctly, blessed with well-to-do parents and a great society, abandons all of that to assume the life of a tramp. He soon discovers a place of complete isolation in an unknown territory and keeps recording all his experiences faithfully. The reason behind his curious decisionis shown to be a complete disillusionment with whatever he was supposed to be proud about- his grades at college, a lucrative career that beckoned him and his high society. Though the ending packed a cruel twist to everything that was shown before, the basic premise of the story kept confounding me, though this time I was eager to get hold of thatbasic ‘idea’ that drove successful people like him towards a life of complete ‘ascetism’.

***

My first appraisal at office ended in 2012 and I was given a ‘default’ rating. I was told by my manager that I was spending only eight hours at office and that this was the age where people learnt a lot of things for future advancement in their careers. He advised me to stay at office for an additional hour or so, learn newand emerging technologies, accept extra work from my team mates to ensure that my next appraisal went smooth. I was fine with what he had suggested but it reminded me curiously, of what my father and other elders in my familyhad told at various points in my life in the past–‘work hard, stay disciplined for one more year and you will be rewarded handsomely in future’.I think that this is some maxim which almost every middle-class youngster must have heard in Class Ten, Class Twelve and even during his Engineering days. I had stayed ‘disciplined’ right from my Class Ten, worked doubly hard for Class Twelve and ended savingup a lot of money for my father by getting a ‘merit’ seat in Engineering. But my struggles hadn’t stopped there. I had by mistake, chosen ElectricalEngineering as my major, which required enormous reserves of concentration and perseverance on my part, to clear. When I had received my offer letter in 2010 at the end of my engineering course, I had assumed thatall my difficulties had come to an end. I was free, no longer under pressure to exercise restraint with respect to indulging in the many pleasures of life and had absolutely no reason to be afraid of failure anymore. But it has been more than a year since I had joined work and now I was being asked to work hard once again to avoid landing in trouble in the future. Why? For how long was one supposed to keep running?

The next ten months or so brought one of the most difficult periods in my career. In every meeting I used to raise my hand for additional work, take up responsibilities which my seniors had shunned and accept deadlines without asking too many questions. I started spending more than ten hours at office daily with virtually no time for recreation. Mornings and nights never looked too close to one another as they did then and the stultifying routine crippled my sensesas I lost even the ability to tell one day from the other in a working week. All that I had wanted to do in my life with my hard-earned money I had to reserve for the weekends and as days progressed, the equation of my life I began to realise,was fast getting reduced into – five days of work gives two days of life.

***

I started reading Thoreau’s Walden in what must have been October 2011. I used to read just two pages a day as I told earlier, just to show off among my friends and as days progressed, the language freak in me began to get slowly attracted to the neatly laid down descriptions of his solitary life near the now–famous Lake Walden. Thoreau’s romance with Nature was ardent and his love for its innumerable creations, absolute and sometimes mind-boggling. For a youngster smitten by the modern architectural glories dictated and designed by neo-liberal capitalism that his city was so full of, Thoreau’s obsession with simplicity and abhorrence for sophistication was confusing, yet novel.

In one paragraph, Thoreau gave a lot of reasons why he had cultivated the habit of rising early, one of which was his love for the beauty of dawns. That particular time of the day, a stirring juncture where the night that has ended already waits for the morning to take over from it, was a rare duration according to Thoreau, which man must never forget to savour with all his senses.

Thoreau’s long-winded descriptions of his daily routine that involved planting of seeds, tending to them at necessary intervals, walking along the woods and the lake, cooking and other daily chores, even if they sounded boring and quotidian in isolation, started making sense once the larger picture began to emerge. Thoreau for his two-year stay near the Lake, had built a simple house with his own hands, created a small farm where he could grow his own vegetables and proved to the world that a man could remain happy and self-sufficient without any dependence on external society.

In one chapter about civil disobedience, I remember reading his revolutionary discourses on man’s undeniable right to stay away from both society and politics. If memory serves me right, according to Thoreau, man was no different from an animal when it came to his instincts and impulses and he could without compunction, declare himself absolutely independent from the numerous parochial confines that modern society and civilization try to fit him into every now and then. Every soul that takes its earthly form on this planet, finds itself tagged to a race or a culture or a nationality only by accident and if that soul wished to free itself from all these artificial identities, it was the bounden duty of modern society to acknowledge and sanction that.

All of these ideas needless to say, had a profound impact on me and by the time I finished the book in the middle of 2012, even the idea behind the film, Into The Wild that I had watched close to a year back,became clear and made perfect sense to me.

***

In 2013, I had my second appraisal at office.

“Jeeva, I see you have worked very hard for the last one year”It was the same manager.

I smiled with pride.

“The amount of time you have spent at the office shows your commitment and that is one thing which I would really like to appreciate about you”.

All my hard work I thought, was once again going to bear fruit. I was sure to be given a good rating which meant better prospects for promotion and a good hike.

“But spending long hours at office is not the mark of a good programmer. As a youngster, you have to be smart. If you are given work, you should first find out ways on how to complete it quickly and then start on it. As I see from your record, you have only done well as a work-horse. I see that there is completely no innovation in your work. See your team-mate Rishi, he comes to office at 9 am, completes his work and leaves office at 5 pm. Learn from him. Learn new technologies.”

I was given a very ordinary rating that year. As long as I was in the room, I was only thinking about how correct my manager was and how mindlessly workman-like I was, in discharging my daily official duties. As long as my manager was talking, the only emotion I felt was an overwhelming feeling of inferiority and guilt.

It was only after I vacated the room and sat for a quiet cup of coffee in my favourite place at the pantry, a lot of things began to fall in place. Innovation, smart work.I remember very well that since I was the junior-most member, I used to be allotted the dreariest tasks in my team such as filling up of Excel forms for request creation, Weekly Status Reports for managers’ meeting, creating post-dated tickets for already completed tasks, etc. There was absolutely no scope for applying innovation there. And even if one or two tasks demanded proper technical ingenuity, they were always accompanied by strict timelines and I never had the time to analyse on them and come up with innovative solutions. I could have forgiven my manager easily for taking a jab at ‘my lack of innovation’, had he been completely ignorant of all my daily activities. But this man was the one I had been reporting to directly all these days and no one but him wassolely responsible for allotting me the dumbest tasks ever found on this planet.

***

“Career is a 21st century invention, I don’t want one” I remember these lines in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood that released in 2013.

In an interview to a cinema magazine to a question whether he had decided to take up ‘writing’ as a career as early as childhood, Jeyamohan replied that ‘career’ was something people who belonged to his next generation ‘coined’ and ‘invented’ and that people of his time had virtually no reason to think seriously about it.

I also chanced to see an interview by Director Ram who decried the way governments and societies hurried towards marginalizing crucial disciplines such as the Science and the Humanities, as soon as they sensed that the Information Technology Revolution was set to sweep the country in the late 1990s. Funding for subjects other than Engineering was steadily brought down, people who specialized in arts, economics and history were simply scorned at and only those who had set their eyes on engineering and technology were considered as‘doing something worthwhile’. ‘Career’ was something as unquestionable as the idea of God and one had to plan it well in advance if he did not want to be left behind to suffer a life full of ignominy and abuse.

***

That appraisal had drained all motivation in me to work. I decided once and for all that I would not spend time at office more than what was required anymore. I decided to dedicate my spare time for fitness and started running for half an hour daily to shed a few pounds from my bloating body. As weeks passed, I made running a regular habit which in turn made me shun all my cravings for junk food. I used to wake up early, run for five kilometres in the morning, dedicate one hour for reading, go to office, take only Chapatis for lunch, drink only green tea and reserve non-vegetarian food only for Sundays. Within months, with a view to increase my reading hours I stopped visiting social media sites and even started withdrawing from my friends. After almost half a year, this kind of routine infused a certain amount of discipline into my life which was also not so difficult at all to adhere to. I lost close to six kilograms of weight and successfully regained the shape which I had in college. When many of my friends were pursuing girls, falling into and out of relationships I was right there in their midst proudly pursuing totally something else. This was also the time my parents had started taking up match-making as their full-time job to get a good wife for me.

It needs mentioning that I too had opportunities to flirt with women on a lot of occasions, but it required absolutely no effort on my part to give them up.  Courting women, I thought would eat some additional hours off my schedule and totally disrupt my all-too-holy routine. After all, it was only one year ever since I had adopted this lifestyle and the results were already, just too phenomenal to say the least. A proper focus on physical fitness and a cultivated reading habit had helped my spiritual well-being as well, as a result of which I barely had any need for emotional companionship. Without emotional dependencies, a romantic attachment I thought, would make no sense at all and end up affecting both the persons involved. This was also the time I had indulged myself in a meticulously planned pursuit of knowledge that spanned different, uncharted territories such as literature, space science, physics, economics and Marxist political economy. A lot of answers regarding man’s obsession with careers, commodities and other superfluous commitments were found in Marxist literature and all this knowledge only helped shape my attitudes at office for the better. By this time in 2014, I had already finished two or more visits to the houses of prospective brides being left with no other option to assuage the feelings of my parents. Needless to say, I had turned all of them down.

By the end of 2015, I was already celebrating two years of my ‘ascetism’ even if I wasn’t one in the conventional sense of the word. In the course of my celebration, I also discovered one, big practical reward, my ‘ascetism’ had the capability to give me. If I could remain unmarried for the rest of my life, there would be no future commitments for me and hence absolutely no need to obsess over the progress of my career. And that would liberate me completely from the dreadful compulsion to learn new and emerging technologies to sustain my career.

On one occasion when one of my close friends broke up with his girlfriend I even had the audacity to give him the following advice, “Dei, don’t worry too much da. The moment you decided to depend upon someone else for your emotional needs, the ground for your failure and downfall was already laid. Depend upon yourself and no one else. You are only your companion who would never let you down.”

***

In May 2016, I had to visit a girl’s house in Chengalpattu and took leave from office for a day. I saw her that noon, got engaged in July and married her that September. I celebrated my first wedding anniversary with that beautiful woman holding a two-month old kid in my hands in September 2017.

As I finish typing this, the big bound volume of Data Science For Business written by Tom Fawcett that lies beside continues to stare at me.