In my own big bang theory

If you haven’t seen the series, you must have heard of it. The big bang theory is now in its 12th season. The series’ plot is pretty simple (and a little clichéd), a geeky physicist falls for his beautiful blonde next-door neighbour and tries repeatedly to win her over. The show is filled with references to many of the theories and laws of physics – which are gibberish to those who aren’t familiar with them. His neighbour, Penny, (the beautiful blonde), who is more street-smart than college-smart, often finds the discussions between the physicist and his friends uninteresting and beyond her comprehension.

I used to think the show was really silly and refused to watch it until I found myself unemployed in 2012 with lots of time to spare and five seasons of the show (thanks to a friend). Boredom will entice one to do many things. For me, I gave in and binged-watched all 5 seasons within a span of one week.

Years later, I thought of the show as I sat listening to a PhD student do a mock PhD defense presentation at the organisation where I was working. It was on ‘dispersal patterns and processes in littorinid snails along the Indian coastline’. As I sat for her 2 hour presentation on snails, a lot of which went above my head and a lot of which I missed as my mind drifted, Penny’s situation resonated with mine. Like her, I too find many of the discussions that happen in my organisation boring. My colleagues are fascinated by bugs and snakes and amphibians. They can spend hours talking about or listening to lectures on reptiles and sharks and fish.

As I listen to them make ‘small talk’ on such topics, I often wonder what makes them so fascinated by these things and how completely different we are. As I struggle to stay awake and repeatedly try to get my mind to refocus on what they’re saying, I find myself in a somewhat surreal situation. Did my colleague who was spending months in the lab examining turtle faeces actually find that interesting? Was that other colleague who brought back dozens of dead snakes to examine for real? And was me listening to ‘fun facts’ about wasps and ants actually happening or was I dreaming?

But despite the many differences between my colleagues and me, I have come to realise that maybe we are not that different after all. We go out for movies and parties together. We talk about travel plans and things that we enjoy. We have fun. And though I still often find myself in my own big bang theory, I have found that you don’t always need to have common interests to get along well with someone. And that, we may be completely different people, but then again, maybe we are not so different after all.

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Restless minds

Has it really been a year since I last posted? So much has happened since that last post. I went to summer school in Norway, got a new job, moved to a different city, rented my own flat and learned so much (probably much more than I ever want to know!) about animals, reptiles and birds. And yet. So much remains the same. A year ago, I was writing about uncertainty and being in-between jobs. And trying to not to lose my footing. Today, though I have a job, I  still feel uncertain, unsettled, about the future. I am still wondering about the next thing. One foot here and one foot out the door.

Perhaps it’s the fatigue of working in the non-profit sector. I’ve been working in this sector for the last 6 years and I already feel exhausted. Tired of living from paycheck to paycheck. Tired of having to spend hours waiting for buses to go to work. Tired of explaining to my richer corporate friends why I can’t go partying every night instead of paying rent. Or to my friends abroad why I can’t holiday in Europe or the US whenever I feel like it. Add to that the usual stress of work, work politics and difficult team dynamics, and I’m ready to not look or talk to anyone once I get back home. Since I live on my own, I am the only one who does the dishes, cooks, dusts, sweeps and mops the floor, scrubs the bathroom, and kills any terrifying insect that comes into the house. When the gas gets over and repeated calls to the gas agency go unheeded, I’m the only one who can go down to their office and sort things out. When there’s a leak in the bathroom or there’s some repair needed to be done, I’m the only one who can talk to my landlord about it and get it fixed.

Perhaps I’m just tired of single living. Perhaps I just need a flatmate. Yet my colleagues, the only potential flatmates, have completely different lifestyles, different worldviews and different moral codes. So forget that idea then. Perhaps I just need a new job, a better paying job. But I still feel called to the social sector which pays terribly. So forget that idea then. Perhaps I can join a think tank or policy research organisation and not compromise on my calling. But the jobs I want are all abroad or in the city where you will choke and die with the pollution surrounding you – Delhi. So forget that idea then. Perhaps all I really need is a long break to refresh and reorient myself. But there’s no money to do any of that. So forget that idea then.

And on and on my mind wonders all these things, leaving me uncertain and unsettled about the present and the future. One foot in and one foot out.

 

These uncertain days

This last year has brought a lot of uncertainty into my life. After going from being a salaried employee at a small non-profit to being unemployed and looking for work, I have often swung back and forth between the fear of not knowing what’s ahead for me and the excitement of having so much time and freedom.

There are days when I struggle to be content with the life I have. Like when I read about my friends’ perfect lives on Facebook – great jobs, family, money, travels abroad; they seem to have it all.

I, on the other hand, spend a good chunk of time listening to well-meaning close friends, relatives, acquaintances, strangers and every other person under the sun, inundate me with questions and advice on my unemployment and relationship status while offering empty platitudes. Apparently, I am supposed to patiently listen to them, smile and respond kindly. Of course.

If you’ve ever been in my position, you’ll know how difficult that can be. Most people aren’t really interested in your problems. To them, your life is just a topic of conversation; something to be debated. Like a puzzle that needs solving.

Then there are those days when I am not weighed down by work or family and can go wherever I want and do whatever I want. Sleep in, afternoon movies, read a book the entire day, learn new things; it’s all good. Need to hop on a bus or plane to go to another city? No problem! Late night plans with friends? Absolutely! Need help with something and don’t know who to call? I’d be more than happy to help! I haven’t had this much freedom since I took a gap year after my bachelors degree.

So when people ask me how I am doing, I’m never entirely sure how to answer them. I am doing very well and terribly. It just depends on which day you catch me.  I know, I know, most of life is like that. But uncertain futures make the oscillation between hope and despair even more intense.

But I don’t want to waste my life or the time given to me. So I’m learning to thrive in the uncertainty while hoping that stability is just around the corner.

 

Friend-dates

A couple of weeks ago, I met a college friend I hadn’t seen in years. We hadn’t been in the same city since 5 years ago when both of us found ourselves in Delhi. Now, we were both back in Pune and decided to take the opportunity to catch up with each other.

We had never been close friends, but considering neither of us had really attended classes in college, that was hardly surprising. Still, we had kept in touch through the years, dropping a line or two for each other’s birthdays.

The restaurant he had picked to meet was a cute rooftop restaurant with fairy lights strung across the restaurant and from the trees. Music was playing softly in the background and there was a cool, gentle breeze in the air.

It was a great place to meet. Except for the mosquitoes. I have never had so many mosquitoes attack me all at once. They buzzed all around us, circling our heads before diving right into our faces! My friend seemed unperturbed but the mosquitoes were driving me insane so I began to viciously swat them.

Completely ignoring the mosquitoes, my friend told me that he had come half an hour early and reserved a table for us. I was surprised but also slightly hesitant as I wondered – was this a date?

Deciding to ignore the uneasy feeling, I chattered away about what I had been doing these last 5 years and asked what he had been up to. We talked about the usual random stuff – about whom we had kept in touch with from college, about our jobs, about the weather, about traffic. And then he asked me – do you smoke?  No, I answered, can’t stand the smell.

With that, we resumed our somewhat banal conversation. We talked for another 10 minutes when out of the blue he said, I asked you if you smoked because your lips look black. I stared at him, a little unsure of how to react. His statement, so casually and cheerfully said, seemed rude. I self-consciously pursued my lips. I was pretty sure my lips were the same pinkish-brown colour they had always been. So I decided to shrug off his comment and changed the subject.

He talked about his dating life and how he was single now. He asked me about my dating life and my ideal partner. The uneasy feeling that I had had earlier reemerged. He asked me about my hobbies and what I did in my spare time. Then he asked if someone, like my potential in-laws, asked me what my skills were, what my answer would be.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get more awkward, he told me how different I looked now. He mumbled something about my weight. You mean, I’ve put on weight since college?  I asked him in disbelief. He couldn’t really be that clueless about what not to say to women! Yes, he answered and laughed.

Finally after almost two hours, I decided it was time to leave. That’s when he started to dig into his dish and sip his coffee. I stared helplessly into the sky over our heads. Politeness dictated that I stayed until he had finished eating, but sanity mandated that I flee immediately!

When the cheque finally came, I heaved a sigh of relief. 5 minutes later, I waved goodbye to my friend and headed home. As I sank into my couch, I replayed the evening in my mind, still unsure of what to make of it. The whole evening had felt so weird, like a friend-date. Whatever that is. Everything is so casual these days that it’s hard to tell what’s really going on. But wait, those things that he had said, that couldn’t have been flirting!

A few minutes later, my phone started to repeatedly vibrate as messages from him telling me what a great time he had had with me popped up on my screen.

I groaned and buried my head into a cushion. I think I had gotten my answer.

 

Unexpected sunshine

When my friend Michaela told me last October that she was thinking of going to South East Asia early this year and was wondering whether I’d be up for a trip to Thailand with her, I was incredibly excited! I LOVE travelling to new countries and Thailand was one of the places on my list of countries to visit.

Then, unemployment happened. Unemployment turned into prolonged unemployment which meant that I didn’t have the money to travel anywhere. So when she emailed again in January asking if I was still interested in going, with a very heavy heart I had to explain how impossible it would be for me to go. I was terribly disappointed but there was nothing I could do to change my immediate financial situation.

I turned off my computer after responding to her email and lay in bed thinking of all the many dreams I had had for this year that were one by one being destroyed. Life was unfair and I was starting to learn what that really meant.

When I awoke the next morning, I saw that there was an email from Michaela. I could guess what it would say – yes, I totally understand. Sorry that it couldn’t work out but maybe we can do it another time. I thought she’d still go ahead with her plan and I would have to find a way to be genuinely happy for her.

I was very surprised when her email said that she did understand my situation but she was undeterred in her plans of meeting me and spending time together. Would it be okay for her to come to Bombay for a few days before she headed to Singapore and Cambodia?

I was incredibly moved when I read it. Would it be okay?! Of course it would be okay for her to come to Bombay for a few days! More than okay, fantastic really! After the awful months I had been having, it would be such a nice change to have some fun, quality time with a good friend.

So last Friday, I met Michaela at the International Airport in Bombay and we had four days of fun (mainly eating and drinking of course!). We went all over the city, and for a few days it was almost like we were back in Paris again, talking, laughing and discussing everything under the sun. Like we were 21 again.

She left for Singapore yesterday but when I dropped her at the airport, I didn’t feel any twinge of sadness that I wasn’t going with her. I was just so happy to have had this time of unexpected sunshine, this respite from dark and gloomy days.

 

Jodhpur, Rajasthan

I recently returned from a family holiday in Rajasthan. My dad’s friend’s daughter was getting married so we decided to attend the wedding and do some sightseeing as well.

If you haven’t been here, I fully recommend a trip. Rajasthan is a myriad of colours and mesmerising designs. The architecture of the palaces and forts is incredible and the detail in their intricate designs breathtaking. There is a sense of grandeur in this state that is reflected in its structures and culture.

There are no words to fully describe my experiences so I’ve decided to post a few photos. The ones below are taken in Jodhpur, the first stop in our trip.

 

The green-eyed monster in me

We’ve all been told ‘don’t compare yourself to others. You have no idea what they are going through’. And as I have listened to friends and strangers confide in me their struggles and problems, I must admit, I have often felt ashamed at having compared my life with theirs and envying their seemingly great lives.

After finishing my masters in Paris in 2012, while my peers were off to different countries, working with organisations like FIDH, Amnesty, UNHCR, and the European Commission, I started working for a small anti-trafficking non-profit in India.

Pictures of my friends’ travels to different countries, meeting people of different cultures and high profile people, and their exciting work, regularly appeared on my Facebook newsfeed while I stared at my computer, struggling to remind myself what I was doing in a tiny NGO that was constantly understaffed and underfunded with office politics creating further divisions.

Still, I consoled myself, I was working for an organisaton that saved lives and what could be more important than that? Plus, this was supposed to be a temporary job – just until I had enough experience working in a grassroot organisation before doing a PhD or working in a more renowned policy or advocacy organisation. So I kept the green-eyed monster in me at bay with an eye on the future.

Somewhere in my three and a half years of non-profit work, I got sucked into the organisation politics, the frustrations and the constant exhaustion that is synonymous with working with a non-profit. Two years of living in Ooty with few people to talk to made things worse by leading to loneliness, magnified mixed emotions and distorted views.

I was frustrated with the inefficiency of the organisation and the CEO’s unwillingness to step in and change things. There was potential to do so much more, yet there was so much division, so much unhappiness, that progress was not possible.

Money was a key problem for most of the staff. Most of us were underpaid and unappreciated. Working for fundraising meant that I knew just how much everyone was underpaid. I also knew that the founders, American expats, received significant funding from abroad in addition to their regular salaries. Enough to buy land, build houses in India and the US, build an apartment building that they rented as a homestay, and a ‘ranch’. They had workers to take care of the cleaning and maintenance of their property. They could fly to the US with their 4 kids and enjoy 2-3 months of vacation each year. On the face of it, they were really living it up.

I thought back to the time when I received a promotion and had to beg and plead with the founder for an additional increase of about Rs. 400. 400 rupees is nothing. It will, at the most, pay for one meal at a nice restaurant. I couldn’t understand why he would grudge me such a small amount. I think I eventually succeeded in receiving that amount, but I know that despite the ‘win’ it felt like I had lost.

I thought of the times when staff repeatedly asked me why the founder wouldn’t increase their salaries so that it was on par with industry standards; or why they couldn’t stay at hotels which were clean; or take a flight instead of spending 48 hours travelling in a train. And slowly, the comparisons of our very different lives awoke the green-eyed monster in me.

I began to look at only the good parts in the founders’ lives and blocked out the bad. I blocked out the huge sacrifices that they would have needed to be make while founding the organisation and the risks and burdens they must have borne. I knew many of the problems they had, how unhappy they were on many fronts and yet I chose to ignore those parts and focus on what they had and I didn’t. Just like a kid, right?

Thankfully in the months that followed, I recognised the jealously, frustration, anger and loneliness that were tearing me apart. But I think it was only after I stepped out of that NGO and took some time off that I realised how toxic I had become.

Maybe we all need time outs every once in a while. Time to re-evaluate our lives, to re-evaluate ourselves and to work on our monsters within. I know that having these last few months of unemployment have allowed me to do that and have left me, dare I say, happier, at peace, and back to being the brown-eyed girl I used to be.