The blessed sound of whining

We have all known weeks that drag on forever. Ones where the Mondays seep slowly into endless Tuesdays, which refuse in turn to give way to the promise of mid-week. By the time Friday rolls around, we’re ready to throw our hands up and give into the powers that be. Let it end, we cry, desperate for the relief that a brand new week will bring.

The past two weeks have been a bit like that for me. For my entire family, in fact. Torrid, never-ending.

There I was, still basking in the newness of the year. Still firmly sticking to my resolutions. I was disciplined with my writing. The edits I had struggled with at the end of last year now seemed under control, and I hoped to have the next draft of my novel ready by the end of the month. And I was sticking to my plans of posting fortnightly on this, my fledgling blog.

That’s when my husband (we’ll call him H, shall we?) fell ill. The kind of ill that stops you in your tracks. Nothing serious, no, just your seasonal ailment fraught with misery and self-pity. He coughed through the night, he monopolised the living room – colonising the sofa and the TV – so we had to step around him while feeling guilty for invading his space.

Work was impossible. Suddenly the complete burden of childcare fell on my shoulders. I undertook the school drop-offs and pick-ups, took the children to the playground. I did all the cooking, all the cleaning around home while H lay on the sofa and complained how exhausted he was.

And then, just as he was beginning to recover his health and equanimity, our two children came down with the flu.

At the same time.

They had been running around the place, clamouring to be taken out to the playground. We’d fetched their woollens; it being early February in London and all. And as I reached to lower my son’s jumper over his head, I felt something as comforting as a hot water bottle in bed at the end of a cold, gruelling day. Except, the comfort of this touch was fleeting. It was my son placing a burning hot palm on my face.

I turned to H. “I think,” I said, “he has a fever.”

H felt our daughter’s forehead. He nodded grimly. “She does too.”

Out came the thermometers. Both children registered a temperature of 40 degrees. Ignoring the genius of their synchronisation, this put paid to any hopes of our family outing. For the day, and for several to follow.

We gave up our work for a near fortnight. I forgot about my writing, forgot to check in on the world. We abandoned all hope of personal hygiene and routine. Instead we became soothing machines. We sang lullabies. We made puzzles. We read books. We cooked soups by the gallon. We fed them water, sip by slow cajoling sip. And in a move that saved our sanity, we let them watch TV.

It was bad, worryingly bad before it got better. And most worrying was seeing them listless at home. There was no clamouring to go out, to meet their friends. There was no stubborn insistence on doing things their own way.

They were too tired by their flu, and that, more than anything else, brought home to us how poorly they really were.

And then, one morning, my son woke up ready to return to school. “Not today,” I reasoned. “Wait till you’re better.”

And to my delight, he argued. He whined. He unleashed the dreaded ‘but I’m bored’. And I was thrilled. Finally, after the fortnight when time stopped for us, my son became conscious of how still things had really become.

My daughter was on the mend too. Her energy returned as suddenly as it had disappeared, and all at once, her toddler demands resurfaced. Instead of TV, it was now park, or blocks. She wanted to be on the move.

And they were suddenly hungry again. They turned away from soup now, from the lentil and rice khichdi that has always brought me succour when ill. They wanted pasta. The wanted cake. They wanted something different.

And as they discovered their resistance, as their voices grew plaintive and then high pitched, H and I discovered that after the weeks of bated breath, of sleepless nights and endless worry, time was starting to move forward for us again. Tomorrow I’ll worry about my missed deadlines, but today, while the clamour of bored, healthy, childish whining builds to its inevitable crescendo, I’m grateful for its noise.

The importance of listening to myself

I was a good girl as a child.  Obedient.  Well behaved.  I listened.

And I wrote.  I kept diaries.  I wrote stories I placed in the most volatile setting I could think of.  The first Gulf War, which was then playing out several thousand kilometers away from my protected middle class life in India.  My family read all I produced, then advised me to avoid unfamiliar settings.  I listened.

As I grew, I was advised to study Economics at university, and to try for a career in Investment Banking.  That’s what a lot of cousins were doing, and they were making tons of money.  They were working long hours too, but we never saw the unglamorous side of their lives.  Banking seemed the sensible option.  I listened.

I read Economics at university, joined a bulge bracket investment bank.  I worked late, made money.  And then, as I spent a birthday at an anonymous Private Equity conference in an anonymous Frankfurt, I had an epiphany.  I hated banking.  Absolutely loathed it.  The poring over accounts, the painstaking projecting cashflows years into the future, the constant touting for business.  I looked around me at the sea of grey – men and women, all bright, well educated, well turned out, and now all uniformly consumed with the acquisition of money – and I realised that I wasn’t one of them.

And that birthday evening, as I sat alone in my anonymous hotel room, I wrote.  It was all forgettable and formulaic, but I finally felt like I was doing something I wanted to.  It felt like I was listening to myself.  It felt like coming home.

I wrote around work for a while.  Between meetings, during my commute.  On weekends.

And then I decided to leave finance.  I told my husband, and though the loss of one income would hit us, he was supportive.  I called my parents, and they panicked.  It was a perilous life I was about to choose.  Who knew if – and when – success would come.  In the meantime, it would be better, both for my equanimity and my solvency, if I continued to work.  I didn’t listen.  I was past it now.  My own voice sang loud and clear.

I quit my job.  I set up our spare room as a study, filled the bookcases with my favourite books, our music system with my favourite music.  Everything was set up for me to write.  Except I didn’t.  I couldn’t.  Days stretched before me, inspiration refused to strike.  I found distractions.  Coffees with friends, long walks, daytime TV.  Books I had never before had the time for.  And suddenly time turned unyielding.  I’d end my weekend with good intentions.  On Monday I would work.  But there was always an excuse, a handy distraction.  By the time Wednesday came around, I’d feel like it was nearly the weekend.  It would be better putting things off till the next week.  As I was starting to realise, a surfeit of time is sometimes as, no, more debilitating than a lack of it.  My folks worried about me.  ‘Go back to work’, they said.  I didn’t listen.  I was going to begin my magnus opus.  I was.  Just as soon as the weekend was over.

When I did finally begin to write, I was told to think commercially.  Not to write short stories, as it was hard to sell a debut collection.  Novels were more marketable.  I didn’t listen.  I wrote story upon story, submitted them to agents.  They didn’t sell.

I was told not to write a novella.  Was told they were even harder to place than short story collections.  And of course, I didn’t listen.  Again, I clogged up the inboxes of agents with no joy.

I was counselled to write, then put my work away for six months before returning to appraise it.  I didn’t listen.  I didn’t have the patience, or the required distance from my work to give me objectivity.

Do something, my parents implored.  ‘You’re losing your self-esteem’,  And they were right.  Now a mother of two children, I was starting to lose my sense of self.  When asked what I did, I furtively told people I was an unpublished author.  They nodded pityingly before changing subjects.  I was guilty of that social sin; giving an unanswerable reply to a casual question.  I killed conversations.

Still, I didn’t listen.

I was determined to write.  I wasn’t going to work in finance, and I would have to start at the bottom in any other field.  I was in my thirties now, and just didn’t have the will to graft for something I didn’t believe in.  I was going to write.  Only now, time had become a rare commodity again.  I had two very young children.  A three year old son, and a six month old daughter.

Not now, I was told.  It will be too hard.  Wait till both the kids are in school.  But I didn’t listen.

I wrote.  The story came to me, and after years of rejections, I found an agent.  Measured success.

There is still a mountain to climb.  A publisher to find.  And if I look at the years that have passed since I stopped listening, since I stopped working in banking, I find myself financially poorer.  I find myself more emotionally fragile, more defensive about work.  But I’m happier.  I’m fulfilled.  I love my family, and I love my work.  I’m happy to wake up at three in the morning to write in a way I never uncomplainingly did when I worked in banking.  And the mistakes I made, writing unsaleable stories and that early impossible novella, pressing the send button months too soon, well, they allowed me to hone my craft.

And so, despite the setbacks, despite the blows to my confidence, I’m glad, thrillingly, worshipfully grateful that I stopped listening.   That I let myself do what I always was meant to do.  That I’ve finally come home.