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June 3, 2010 / zanzi

Lord of the Files

Having a sister eighteen years younger is hardly conventional in India, but then I was never one to stick to the norm. Not that the decision was strictly mine either. But it was my call to be spending the evening watching her play with her tiny mates out in their playground, and one I had happily taken.

Come to think of it, citing an eighteen year age gap as uncommon between siblings reeks of an urban mindset. In the sprawling countryside of this overpopulated land of the free, there is no dearth of families where generations span two decades or more, so that cousins, aunts and nephews come in all ages, and indeed shapes and sizes. I had not been acutely aware of that fact until recently, when my third-generation-graduate skull was punched through by a grim observation from a very self-effacing professor. His story, albeit narrated in a lighter vein, left me dwelling on the subject. Said the man, “I was the seventeenth of as many kids, and growing up I could never be entirely sure as to what order the oldest four were in age.”

Turns out that this man, now heading a prestigious department, only gathered the courage to ask his oldest siblings what their ages were after he’d finished his PhD. A couple of generations ago, that’s probably what it took to make it in academia, unless you were born a trust fund baby. Street smarts. You need those to get ahead in life with a family where remembering the names of all your brothers and sisters by the time you enter primary school is no mean achievement.

Tuning into the playground chatter around me, I looked around at the smarts on display here. One kid had mastered all the rides, and was acting benevolence itself towards a shy newcomer. She soon had the smaller new kid picking up the jungle gym, nipping along the monkey bars, and losing fear of the roundabout. But there was a mean streak operating somewhere in her lithe little body, as my infant sister’s plaintive cries bore evidence to. She had been ditched in the middle of some domestic game in the sandpit. But she had no shortage of gumption either, and was soon determinedly plugging away at the swing and seesaw, while one of the older kids called out to her, inviting her back into the fold.

These exchanges, it became apparent on close study, bore a marked resemblance to tendencies that are in evidence in patterns of increasing complexity in grown-up life. How ironic, I mused, that it took a quiet evening like this one for me to zone out sufficiently from my obsession with adult business to reconnect with what constitutes my more earthy side. Suddenly I was smothered with demands from a number of waist-high heads, and escorted over to a ride to execute a prized, functional purpose. “Push, push!” they yelled, and push I did. After a while I ambled a stone-throw away, lying down on my own patch of grass and gazing out to the hills in the distance, below the darkening sky. A decade ago this would have been “my turf”, whether guarding a goalpost or waiting for a leather ball to come ripping through the air at me.

It isn’t like that any more. As high school boys, we used to wonder about seniors who had been school legends as athletes, revisiting school a couple of years into university life with the beginnings of beer bellies. To laugh when they said it was such a joy to see lush green fields again, to be tearing up and down the basketball court, in wonder that it could ever be otherwise after school. I entered university determined not to end up that way. It didn’t take much conscious effort, having grown up spending every evening sweating it out in the open. Even so, for the first couple of years I found myself the exception, waking up at the crack of dawn on a weekend, putting in the laps at our beautiful stadium, overlooking a forest.

Nothing lasts forever, good habits least of all, and nightlife took over eventually. The call of concerts and theatricals in plush auditoria sure beat doing push-ups on a humid evening, and downing a couple of beers at our usual pub was a good way of catching sporting action – on television. I remember stopping head-banging while the DJ was belting it out, and turning around just in time to catch that chest-thumping hundred-metre sprint at the Olympics the night that Usain Bolt arrived. Some pieces fell in place, and the irony of it all suddenly hit home. I’d been sticking to weekend jogs in the countryside to keep my legs from going waste, but that was hardly the same as being the fastest gun at university.

It simply isn’t that easy, though. Exam season finds you sitting in front of a computer, scanning through papers endlessly, sitting at a desk scribbling madly, grabbing sleep at any odd hour. Everyone around is running on a student bio-cycle. There’s lots to do and never quite enough time to do all of it in. “Work expands to fill the time allotted to it”, as some wisecrack once said. Back in primary school, I wasn’t a nerd but liked getting my work done first up so I could get down to the serious business of playing. But that winner habit had gradually taken the backseat, and waking up later rather than sooner seemed the done thing. Bucking the trend is just another way of falling in line, after initial resistance.

As my kid sister and I walked home, the moon rising from in between the rolling hills all around us, I thought of William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’. Kids can be much crueller than us sometimes, because they’re transparent. We go about our evil in carefully measured, sophisticated ways. The subtlety of our deceit is half its addiction. But it’s ourselves we’re deceiving.

A couple of days later, I was watching an early Tom Hanks film. I’ve been a Hanks buff ever since I was old enough to appreciate Forrest Gump, even though some might say I was born a decade too late to be a real fan of his. Be that as it may, ‘Big’ is the film with which he made it to the big time – the first of those ‘outsider’ roles that have been his forte ever since. A kid in the body of a grown-up. Boy, is it easy to mess up a cliché like that, unless you are one smooth director. In this case, I found myself enthralled, as Hanks brought alive all the joys that go with kids, but in the form of a successful adult. Here is a big-shot at a toy firm, content to be simple, able to laugh with that innocence we all lose, sooner or later. And the gorgeous woman in the office is touched by that enough to see through the fake show-off Hanks has for a competitive colleague. Enough to jump on a trampoline with him in her party dress, and all the rest of the jazz that happens in the movies.

But there is something that hit home like a Bolt as I watched Big. The fact that we’re all of us being propelled into becoming lords of the files. Spouting statistics, making a big deal of the inane work our routine workdays involve, faking it. Only for a while, we think, and forget to smile, and stop being open. Payday is the new monthly special, weekends our regular reprieve, and the occasional holiday the equivalent of an annual excursion. For me at school, this meant a trek in the Himalayas, or a trip through the backwaters of Kerala. In an American context, prom night might be more of a highlight. But the bottom-line is the same.

I sat up on my hilltop today as the sun set, gazing steadily out at the countryside as the river below changed colour. There was a breeze blowing, and the last rays in my eye reminded me of a day some years ago, as a high school sweetheart and I sat on a sunny rock, stuck in a moment of forever. That forever didn’t continue, but I had forgotten for a while now that it never ceased to exist. It is – as Bono so aptly puts it – stuck in a moment. In chasing after things I don’t need and a life I don’t wish to live, I’ve been fooling myself that I’ve retained the freedom to do exactly what I want. The truth?

The truth is that the only way to do what you want is to just do it, as Lord Nike observed. Of course it isn’t possible to do it exactly the way you want, to begin with, but whoever said a thing is only worth it if it comes easy? In the doing of it, there is magic. As happened with me out on that hilltop this evening. A weight lifted. I had stopped being lord of the flies only to become lord of the files, and this ship was capsizing. Until it decided to keep right on sailing. As that Rage song puts it, in no uncertain terms, “I won’t do what you tell me!” I won’t even do what I tell myself I ‘should’ do. I’ll simply do what I know from within I must, because that is what needs doing.


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