Here’s a revelation. There are few things as pleasant, nay, wonderful, to do on a Sunday afternoon during the Delhi winter than go shopping for glasses. This activity is best undertaken with a friend, or, better yet, a paramour, so that with each frame the other tries on, there are inside jokes and gentle teasing about face structures (chubby, boney, angular), what others will think (worse, say) and even the chance for a rare variety of non-depressing self-deprecation, as the poor salesperson has to smile politely at the supremely boring spectacle of a spectacle-shopping date.
Last week, at a lovely and reasonably-priced optician at Green Park, I had all of the above with the promise of chhole bhature to follow. But as we narrowed down the choices to three frames after an hour of playing dress up with my eyes, a punchline hit me straight in the gut. “Take all of them,” she says, “one is the writer, the second the stand-up comedian and that one’s the filmmaker.” It became suddenly apparent that, at almost-32, once real possibilities have been reduced to caricatured costumes; that in the chilling words of Jack Nicholson, this is as good as it gets.
The most important and long-lasting dream lies in tatters, almost literally. The half-completed prologues and first chapters of a barely-begun novel, perennially in progress, are strewn across laptops, notebooks, hard-drives and even a floppy disk. Meanwhile, on a newspaper desk (which is, as a rule, underpaid, overworked, and, on most days, an unmitigated joy), I have the temerity and misfortune to read and edit writers far superior (and sometimes not), most of whom have one thing common: They actually bloody write. Books. While the rest of us produce copy, more commonly known in the moments the profession gets depressing as kal ka kabaad.
The first time I was offered money to tell jokes was when I was 14. I narrated and mimicked the experience of playing (co-ed) basketball (badly) with a bunch of north Indian men, and their attempts to woo (with my help) “angrezi wali bandi”, to a minor TV celebrity at a friend’s house. Stand-up comedy in its current avatar was unheard of then — we just told jokes to make people laugh, likely because it broke the tension and kept you from getting beaten up. Nobody really likes to wail on the funny guy.
Finally, cinema. Let it suffice to say that I like movies like the rest of the world. And a chance to work with film and video is much like an arduous Himalayan trek: While you’re in it, all you want to do is catch your damn breath and have a moment to yourself. When you do, tinsel town engenders dreams, and the first AD often has to shout in your ear to bring you back from a reverie of humbly accepting a national award.
In the extended adolescence that is the lot of so many of us — even now, my friends and I talk about TV shows, how wasted we got and “what we really want to do” — the underlying assumption has always been that the 9-5 (or 9-9) boredom of the workday life is just a passing phase. That, like the characters in a bad Zoya Akhtar film (is there any other kind?), we are on the verge of discovering our true passion. But, as the coolest celebrities of the day become younger than us and contemporary music increasingly begins to feel like noise, there is no escaping the fact that a middle-of-the-road, underachieving life is likely my destiny.
This melancholy, triggered by an innocuous punchline, is not a sudden feeling. Often, people will laugh at long-winded stories and say as an aside, “You should do stand-up”. Or even suggest that one start a YouTube channel. “There can be good money in that, you know”. Why be a journalist, many will ask. “If you know about video and all, make corporate films”. And, most irritatingly generic of all: “Why not start a start-up?”
This is, of course, all well-meaning — meant more as a compliment than as advice. And, very often, it makes sense. Why not, after all, “follow your passion”? Why not “get paid to do what you love”? Why, pray, should we not give in to the cliche of the day? Keeping aside for a moment that for many the structure of a job allows them to be their best, and, for me, eclectically so, there is something deeply disturbing about the idea of commodifying every interest we have.
The problem, the root of the depression at “not doing enough”, perhaps, lies in the twisted idea that interests and passions must lead to something public and monetary. That unless they are a profit-making performance, or have the chance to lead to one, the whole endeavour is somehow wasted. That, in my case, being funny and trying to write, is something that is of no consequence, like the zero before a decimal.
I like being funny, when I am. There is a sense of joy and validation every time you make a person laugh, a feeling that is compounded if it’s people you care about. As for a novel, no writer worth their salt wants to be a writer. They need to write, and once they are done, they need to be read. And knowing a bit about cinema has a wonderful effect, even if you don’t profit from it: It gives you a visual and conceptual vocabulary that enhances every piece of art you encounter.
A life of unfulfilled dreams is the lot for most of us — there is little chance of great public successes and celebrity. And while the regret of that remains, it need not be bitter. After all, when all is said and done, dreams gone by still make a great line on a spectacle-date.