I have always been a hardworking girl. Back at school I was among those irritating kids who always had their homework submitted on time. College was ditto, though much more fun. And then post grad. Well that was even more fun but then I never shied away from work then too. Essentially I have always been a workaholic; a time bomb ticking at the back of my mind always making me feel like time was slipping away and I wasn’t doing enough. This meant that rest was rare. I was always doing something or the other — either working on some academic project/assignment, or participating in some extracurricular activity. Or reading. Or rearranging my cupboard. Or cleaning up the mess that was my wardrobe. Or …. I could just go on and on till you get bored of reading the Or’s or I get bored of writing them.
So when I was returning from office one night (yes I have now reached a new level altogether as far as my workaholic self is concerned and I get paid for it!), I tried to hail a cab. You see, I get refused by at least 7 cabs on an average before I can find one. This in the age of uber, I know it sounds dumb but then, uber at this hour— which is way past usual office hours— in this area of the city, always shows surge rates and I can’t afford to pay 500 bucks to go home every day. So here I am. Waiting for the lucky eighth cab to say yes. Finally a cab agrees to take me home. I settle down into my seat and the cab zooms off into the night. It’s October. The nights are cold now. I keep the window rolled down and as the cool night breeze caresses my face, I notice that the roads are mostly empty. Of course, it’s around 10.30pm and most people are back home having dinner or watching their favourite night time programme on TV. As if on cue, I hear the music of a popular daily soap drifting out of a nearby house while my cab is standing at the signal. Most of the houses still have their lights on though some dark windows in the multi storeys showed that some early birds were already safely nestled into their beds. The area the cab is now passing through has a number of pubs and restaurants. The neon signboards are glowing, some subtle and some more bold than the others. There’s music and happy banter in the air. I see some couples outside a pub; a group of friends engaging in mock fights outside another; some men smoking under the streetlight. A high pitched voice here, a cackle of laughter there. People my age. All over the place. All over each other. Having fun. Serious fun.
I let out a long sigh. I couldn’t remember the last time I had gone out partying like this. I had gone out in the past few months but they had all been with people I did not necessarily enjoy being with. Mostly office colleagues. Or some guy who had been a friend in some long lost era and had suddenly come alive after seeing the latest picture upload on social media, and I was too polite to say no to his repeated attempts to meet me. After saying no for like twenty times, my etiquette seemed to remember itself and came calling to my already guilty self and made me say yes to another long and tedious evening I could’ve easily spent doing something constructive (see, told you I’m workaholic!) The only good thing about that evening is probably the coffee. And, even on the evening out with that guy, while taking sips from the coffee cup that I hold like it were my pot of gold, all I can think about is the email that needs tending to, the half complete presentation on my laptop, the cupboard that I could have cleaned etc.
As the cab moved out of the area into quieter vicinities, I fell into a really sour mood. What was I doing with my life? Why was I wasting it away after presentations and spreadsheets and endless meetings and late nights which were not spent in pubs but at the workplace? Even I could see that I was wasting it away! I felt this sudden wave of self pity wash over me. I had read all those books that said life was a precious gift not to be thrown away (or worked away). I knew all the relevant modern day abbreviations for the thrill seekers and adventurers (read: YOLO =You Only Live Once) and yet, here I was. In a cab going home from work. At nearly 11pm. “Gosh I need a life!” I thought.
“So get a life”, my mind said back to me.
Wait a minute. What was that? Where did that come from?! So it had come to this. I was not only talking to myself but getting talked back to, too! Alright so I’m losing the plot. I’m going nuts, aren’t I? I must be! Oh God, is that how it is going to be like? My story? Sitting in a cab on a cold October night is when I go mad?? Okay so now I am not just depressed but hysterical too. It is all I can do to sit still. I clasp and unclasp my hands several times. I am worried. And for a change it is not a deadline or a client or the cleaning. It is me I am worried about. The elderly gentleman driving the cab looks at me in the rear view mirror. I can’t blame him. My discomfort is almost palpable. He must have felt my fidgeting around in the backseat. N to give credit to him, he looks concerned in the way that my dad looks concerned sometimes. I manage to give him a small smile, reassuring him that I was okay.
As the cab finally pulled up on the curb outside my building, I realised I had just aged decades during the ride. After paying the cab, I trudged up to my second floor apartment, my limbs seemingly taking the aging thing rather seriously; I had to drag my otherwise twenty five year old legs up the stairs in the manner a fifty something would. When I finally made it to my front door, I had to muster up all my will power to not lie down there on the door mat itself.
It is strange how the mind can affect the body, isn’t it? The journey up the flight of stairs that I usually made in two minutes with only a quickening of heartbeats had today taken about 7-8 minutes and left me panting like an old dog who has just been made to run a mile!
After much fretting about and pacing around in my apartment, I fell into heavy dreamless slumber around four in the morning. Hours later, I woke up with a start and tried to roll over only to realise that I was on my armchair. No wonder I felt so stiff. I had somehow managed to curl up in an otherwise impossible posture on the hard wooden armchair that had been a relative’s second hand (I was sure I had seen it in their house before it was given to me) house-warming gift which I had unsuccessfully tried to sell many times. Sleeping on that piece of wood had resulted in the fact that now I could hardly feel my arms, feet or back. Gingerly, I put one foot on the cold floor and then another; and tried to stand up. I couldn’t help the loud groan that escaped my mouth. It felt like someone was shaking me in various directions simultaneously. Ignoring the pain, I took a deep breath and decided to freshen up quickly because I was sure I was running late. I was sure because the light seemed different. Not the early morning sun. It seemed more like the light that drifted through the window beside my cubicle at office and made the glass paperweight on my desk shine in rainbow colours. A sharp ringing sound somewhere in the distance brought me out of my reverie. It took me a few seconds to realise that it was my cell phone, lying somewhere on my bed under layers of bedclothes and pillows. I quickly recovered it and answered. It was my boss, asking why, for the first time in months, I was late to work. I mumbled an apology and assured him that I’d be there in an hour. I was confused. I couldn’t be that late. I checked the time on my phone and well, I was really that late! I jumped into action, thrusting the toothbrush into my mouth and picking up the first clothes I set eyes upon in my wardrobe. I was running around the apartment in frenzy, brushing my teeth, throwing in things into my bag and ironing my shirt all at the same time. It wasn’t until I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror above the wash basin that I stopped short. Because the person staring back at me from the mirror wasn’t me. Surely, it couldn’t be me. I stared at the pale white face which seemed to be getting whiter still (if that was possible). God I looked awful! Two full minutes of staring later, I finally moved away from the mirror and sat down on the bed. I don’t remember exactly when and how I typed the message to my boss that I wouldn’t be making it to office that day. I couldn’t. I was sick.
I lay curled up on my bed, and pulled the duvet up to my chest. I felt a pit in my stomach that kept growing deeper and deeper by the minute. I just couldn’t get out of the invisible clasp of sadness that was now holding me down, my arms, my legs, everything. I was a prisoner in my own bed. I felt tears sting at the back of my eyes. I was desperately trying to hold them back when it struck me. Why was I holding them back? There was no one watching me here. Over the years, I had developed a coping mechanism so bad that now it was ingrained in my system. I was used to staying strong. I was used to fighting tears with all I had. I had been holding myself back for so long that now I didn’t know how to let go. Every time some emotion ran amock, there I was like some warrior on the war path, giving it my all to hold it back. Always having my act together. Being emotional or letting it on was never an option with me. It took a humongous effort to keep from getting overwhelmed or in other words, to remain just about properly whelmed.
Today was different though. Today for once, I didn’t feel like putting on the act. I didn’t want to hold it in anymore. The realisation that I didn’t want to rather than I didn’t need to was rather huge, for me. And with this realisation, came the danger signal. Water was now above the danger mark and could overflow any moment now. The foundations of the dam built so long ago had been weakened over the years and was now on breaking point. And then, before I knew it, with a roar, out they came. All the pent up frustrations, years of suppressed anger and regret. They came in waves, one after the other, crashing at the shores of my eyes, hitting the shoreline, crossing over and hitting above the danger mark and finally, spilling over. Pouring down my cheeks, escaping from the corner of my eyes onto my pillow and the bedsheet, running down my face onto my nose and lips making my mouth taste salty. Before one wave could hit the shore another big one had started somewhere at the back of my eyes, tall demonic waves threatening to engulf all that lay in their path. And engulf they did. Overwhelming me, completely taking over, so that I cried and cried till I could cry no more. I must’ve cried for hours, my face contorted even when no tears would come out, waiting for the next fresh batch to hit.
When my tear glands finally gave up, no more salty concoctions to brew, I tried to go to sleep but couldn’t. After about half an hour of lying down, I felt better. My eyes were swollen and puffy, my face was probably a mess but my head felt lighter. It was buzzing slightly but definitely lighter. Again something I haven’t felt in ages.
And most importantly, I found my mind drifting to the rather strange prospect of having the entire day ahead of me with virtually nothing to do. At that thought, I sat up with a start. The entire day? I checked my phone again. It was 12pm. I really did have an entire day and nothing to do! Oh dear! I hadn’t had an entire day off like that before. I had my Sundays but then there was always some cleaning or washing to be done. So this day off stretched before me like an abyss.
Maybe I could go to office in the second half, I thought. But then I remembered my face in the bathroom mirror and decided against it. I couldn’t go into office looking like that. I’d probably be sent back home in any case. And then all thoughts of last night and all the retrospection came rushing back. I thought maybe it wasn’t that bad after all. This long day ahead of me. Maybe it was good. Maybe this was what I needed or more importantly, maybe this was what I wanted. May be it was my fate telling me that it had heard me last night and had served this day to me on a platter by way of breakfast in bed. Breakfast in bed —- the thought of that made my stomach churn. I hadn’t had dinner last night and no breakfast this morning. Spurted by this sudden onset of desire for action (and also the fact that I was extremely hungry), I decided to take a bath first.
After a long and unhurried bath, I ordered a pizza and coke. Then I went about picking up things and putting my room back in order. Once done, I opened the glass window above my study table and let the sun in. Unobstructed, the sun shone gloriously making the wooden table top shine like it were polished new. I put a rug on the floor and sat down in the path of the sunlight. There, I sat watching the dust particles lighted up by the golden rays. All this dust in my room, it was a mockery of my borderline OCDian self. After all my cleaning sprees they were still here.
Don’t be silly, I told myself. There’s always dust in the path of the sunbeams.
Something about the dust particles stuck with me. Maybe they were always here. Maybe they were meant to be here. Maybe by lighting them up, the sun was telling me that I wasn’t alone. That they were here and always would be here, for me to sit and watch them in the sun on days like this. And while I sat there waiting for my pizza to arrive, I wondered whether I was like them too. Maybe as I sat here in the path of the rays, I was lighted up too. For once visible to the world, to the things around me. I looked around me. My bed, my desk, the windchime, the lamp. Maybe they could see me too now. How long had it been since I had looked at them this way, like really seen them? My line of thought was interrupted by the doorbell. My pizza! I half ran to the door.
Sitting down in the same patch of sunbeam on the floor, I started on the food. Four cheese pizza. Thin crust. And hot. I can’t stop staring at it! This isn’t just some food. This is art. A marvellous piece of art right up there in contention for some of my great loves in this lifetime. There is nothing over the top about this pizza. It’s simple, down to earth but it looks heavenly! I mean one moment you’re down on earth and the next moment you could well be floating amid white clouds. Yes, it’s that good. And I love pizza that much! The cheese in this particular pizza—four different kinds of cheese : scarmoza, parmesan, cheddar and mozzarella. I feel almost delusional by the smell of hot melting cheese. I pick up a slice and bite into it. The first bite…mmm…the dough is soft, yielding; not crispy as is the case with most thin crust pizzas. The cheese itself is delicious and gooey. As soon as I take a bigger second bite, the cheese starts off in a mudslide down the pizza onto my hand. I lick it off and can’t remember a time when I was happier.
While taking a sip of my coke, I look outside the window. It’s such a beautiful day. The sky is a perfect sky blue —- exactly like the shade we would call by the same name as kids —- broken only by streaks of gold and golden-pink rimmed clouds. I took another slice of pizza. The view outside looked straight out of a picture book. Such beautiful autumnal hues: all pastel shades and October sun. The trees looked a shade somewhere between orange and green and pink and gold. Impossible to name it, this shade. Just autumn in its complete and truest essence. The slanting roofs of the houses had a glow about them. For instance, the house with the blue tiles, it looked a shade of golden blue. The house with the green tiles, it looked golden green — a hint of gold in every shade. I nibbled and chewed away my pizza, drinking in this view (also the coke) to wash it down. Finally full, I lay down on my golden patch. I had never felt this content in a really long time. It was intoxicating, this feeling. Like something I could get used to if I didn’t watch out. Through the window, I looked up into the blue and wondered what else I could do on this day when I had nothing to do. I could watch some television. A movie maybe. Or I could go out. Take a walk around. Just random things. Get an ice cream. Maybe I could go to the park. The possibilities were endless.
To think of it, I could’ve actually wasted away this day under false ceilings amidst cubicles and spreadsheets, windows with blinds drawn down with the only nature to experience being the bunch of almost dry flowers in the vase on my desk. I shuddered just at the thought of the cold air conditioned office, so in contrast with the warmth I was presently experiencing. Lost in thoughts, I dozed off right there on the floor. When I woke up, the sun had moved to the western horizon. I stood up and stretched. I felt good, rested. I decided to go out. Nothing specific, just walk around maybe.
As I stepped out of the building, I realised I didn’t know what the place looked like at this time of the day. Because quite simply, I hadn’t seen it at this time of the day. Ever. It had been six months since I moved into this city and today was my first day off. All my time here had been spent either at office or in after-office parties. All indoors.
I crossed the road and walked on the pavement. At the corner I bought an ice cream (when did I last do this?!) and cut across to the park. The park was full of different kinds of sounds. The chirping of birds homeward bound. The giggles and laughter of children playing I spy or hide n seek or just running around chasing each other. The shrill voices of mothers calling after their children. It was such a lovely place to be in. The whole atmosphere of the park was that of one big happy bubble. The edges of the bubble extended as far as the boundaries of the park. What went on outside this park, the people inside did not care. Whatever it was, it could be taken care of later. This was their happy space. Their happy hour. And all other things could wait till darkness descended. Once darkness came, homework would have to be taken care of, clothes ironed, food cooked and increasing expenses discussed over dinner. Until then, this bubble was their world.
I sat down on a bench and gazed out over the water. There was a small lake in the middle of the park and benches placed all along its circumference. A group of kids were playing nearby. I could hear their merry chatter, speaking in a babble that was comprehensible only to their child ears. I sat there watching the ducks on the water bank and a couple of old men who were feeding them. Nearly an hour passed by and I looked back upon the day. What an immensely satisfying day and how content I felt! I marvelled at the fact that I had literally spent a day of doing nothing in particular, just lazing about in the sun and eating. And sleeping. I could well have been on the beach! I liked this ‘doing nothing’ feeling. I couldn’t help smiling. It was then that I remembered a phrase in Italian that I had read in a book sometime back —-
bel far niente
It means “the beauty of doing nothing”.
The book said that although Italians are a hardworking people, their ultimate life goal was having worked hard enough to be able to someday enjoy doing nothing. Bel far niente was like this ideal they held in high regard. I said the phrase aloud, to no one in particular. And then looked around to check if anyone had heard it. No one had. No one was bothered with the girl sitting alone on a park bench. So, I said it again.
Bel far niente
I loved how it sounded. This ideal, this beauty that Italians find in idyllic pleasure and in doing nothing, this could easily become my ideal. I could fall in love with this idea just as easily as I had fallen in love with its articulation. The pleasure of experiencing pleasure and revelling in it.
I remember loving that book too and Italians in general. Oh yes, I definitely like Italy. The Pizza. The language.
And bel far niente.
I rose up from the bench and started walking home. For the first time in what seemed to be a lifetime, my mind seemed to be calm, not running around like a monkey with its tail on fire. I bought another ice cream at the corner stall. Walking past now-lighted shop windows and gorging on the ice cream, I had happy thoughts. Like what if I could take the next day off too? And maybe I could go watch a movie and do some shopping later. And start learning Italian. Yes I’d like that. And maybe visit Italy some day. I let out a sigh! Oh there was so much I could do and it wouldn’t feel like doing anything at all!
And, as I unlocked my front door and stood looking at my empty apartment, I asked myself what would I do the rest of the evening?
The answer came almost instantaneously of course!
I was delighted.