Thursday, December 10, 2009

Private luxury: doing your own thing

[Did this piece for M magazine’s section on what the word “luxury” means to different people in an intimate, personal sense]

I have a friend who works for a bank in London. He’s doing well for himself but he thinks of his job as a necessary evil, something that must be survived for 10 hours each day while he tries to make time on the side for the things he really likes doing. His real passion, going back to our school days, is acting, and when I last met him he had just returned from a weekend trip to Ireland, to play a role in a short experimental film directed by a former classmate.

He loved the experience and couldn’t stop talking about it. “I wish I had the luxury of traveling to Dublin to be with those guys every week, he said, “or even just participating in three or four shows of a theatre performance in London each month. But it isn’t easy to juggle this along with the other stuff.” Looking at his eyes, I could see that the strain of the weekend was making itself felt. We parted after an early dinner; he was very tired and he needed to be at the bank – for “the other stuff” – at 9 AM.

It probably says something about the life I lead that such encounters come as minor jolts. At risk of causing serious annoyance, let me tell you something about myself: for the past seven years, my “work” has largely consisted of reading books, watching movies, and writing about them – all activities that I enjoy. There have, of course, been many commissioned assignments – which means often having to plough through less-than-engaging material – but after I established myself on my beat it became easier to pick and choose. Thus spoilt, I have to be regularly reminded of one of the most basic facts of human existence: that most working people in the world keep their professional and personal lives in separate, airtight boxes, and baulk when the two things chance to overlap; that they meticulously plan their weekends and weekday evenings (assuming they aren’t working late nights) and feel a bitter sense of loss if they don’t succeed in squeezing maximum utility from those precious pockets of “leisure time”.

Four years ago, I made another important career decision (with the help of a generous retainership offer from the newspaper I was employed with) and began working out of home, on my own time. Freelance writing may not be as lucrative as many other professions, but I rarely have to spend on books any more, and that’s where most of my money went in my pre-journalism days. It also means freedom from the ball-and-chain routine, freedom from neat and sterile office routines that make little sense to the writing life (what if the Muse goes AWOL between 9AM and 6 PM and comes calling at midnight instead?). It means being able to avoid the stress and the time-wastage associated with being stuck in Delhi traffic for over two hours each day.

I can spend quality time with my dog. I don’t have to shave every day, or every third day for that matter. Nor attend meetings or conferences, things that rank very high indeed in the long list of pointless manmade inventions based on the pretence that it’s possible to make sense of the world. Best of all, I don’t have to don formal clothes. (When I was a child, I wanted to be a vet. This partly had to do with love for animals, but I’ve come to believe that the real reason was the notion I had that vets weren’t required to wear ties or suits.)

And – to return to the all-important point with which I began this piece – there is no discernible divide between my “work” and my personal interests. I can spend my morning reading a great new novel by Orhan Pamuk (which is in fact what I did today), then watch a couple of films on DVD in the afternoon and evening (occasionally pausing to make little notes), and truthfully claim that I've spent the day adding value to my skill-set as a columnist/reviewer. My banker friend, who earns a lot more than I do, would probably agree that that really is luxury.

I see you turning green, reader, so here are a few crumbs of consolation: each of the benefits I’ve mentioned above comes with small minefields. It’s easy to become addicted to being anti-social. Getting out, even to go to the neighborhood mall, can feel like a chore. On the rare occasion that I do get into my car and travel a long distance, I find that my driving skills have deteriorated through disuse. Self-discipline is paramount in my line of work, and at times when it isn’t all coming together I find myself yearning for the extra shove that can only be provided by a martinet-boss. My dog is over-pampered and sulks mightily when I’m away for even a few hours. Power cuts, and visiting relatives who assume that because you’re home, you’re free, must be hazarded.

Turning something you enjoy doing into a career can be a tricky business in other ways; it can easily lead to a situation where you’re never really switched off from your “work”, and this can affect your family life. This is something I have to consciously guard against. My wife has standing instructions to smack me on the side of the head if things get out of hand. (Thankfully she’s a feature writer herself – albeit an office-going one – so she understands something of the compulsions of this life. But she’s afraid of discussing movies with me because I’m too “analytical”.)

All that said, would I trade this in for a regular working routine, or a high-paying job that I couldn’t be enthusiastic about? No way. Whenever I even consider it, I think back to a remote time in my past, a time when I had just graduated in Commerce from college and seemed set for a career in chartered accountancy (because it was the done thing, the inevitable thing. I’d been good in Maths and Accounts in school, so what else was there?). There’s a vivid memory of interning for my Articles in a middle-rung CA’s office, reading out and making tick-marks against debit and credit entries in an office ledger under the supervision of a genial man with whom there was nothing I could really talk about, while I secretly daydreamt of the movies I would rent from the British Council library later in the evening... if I got out in time.

When I think back to those days and reflect on the life I’m probably leading in a parallel universe right now, I can only thank my lucky stars.

Peter Joseph’s cult Internet film Zeitgeist posits a near-Utopian world (and a very improbable one) built on a high-technology, resource-based economy rather than the debt-perpetuating monetary system that all of us take for granted. One of its many conceits is a future where people won’t have to spend their lives chained to jobs (described as “paid slavery”) that they aren’t inherently interested in, but would find their own niches, adding value in little ways by doing things that are personally satisfying and meaningful to them. I like to think I'm already halfway there.


  1. Completely identify with what you'e written. Except that, in my case, I hardly earn anything while you have a regular income :)

  2. Oh, I'm sure you're greatly overestimating what I earn - especially in the last 5-6 months, when I've cut back on the regular journalistic stuff to concentrate on the longer projects (for which, as you know, publishers hardly pay anything). Will definitely have to look for a new retainership or two after a few months.

  3. very Nice read . People often confuse ostentatiousness and excessive materialism as Luxury .Two are different things . Real joy of luxury is self sufficient and very personal. i see "wear-a-old-coat-buy-a-new-book" as a luxury . it doesn't require a observer to validate.

    As Howard Roark said in The Fountainhead " Luxury is a limited endeavor. What they want is ostentation. to show , to stun, to impress. They are second handers"

    Most of popular press don't make that distinction . thats why this article was so refreshing .

  4. An article I can relate to. Luxury depends from person to person but this can't be understood by all. It has a very fancy definition in general and people tend to relate it with the brands that you use, places you go to etc.

    And like Prashant said, this article is a refreshing change from the "luxury" articles that talk about spas, lounges, private yachts.

  5. Hi Jai,
    Dont know how to describe your post but this is one of best post I have read in long time!!!!
    when I speak same thing to people ,they ignore it being philosphical and say you dont have guts to face challenges of life????

  6. Prashant, A Line of Thought: if you can get hold of the magazine, read the piece written by my friend Devangshu Datta. Really good.

    And in full disclosure, I should mention that I visited the Ananda spa a few days ago - for the second time, but this time at my own expense (which is why it was a VERY short trip!).

    Anonymous: thanks, but I would be the last person to suggest that I've done something very brave. Like I said, if it hadn't been for the generous retainership, I wouldn't have been able to give up the day job. And I do shy away from such "challenges" as having to sit in an office cubicle with people all around.

  7. Your post reminds me of the Johnny Case character in Cukor's Holiday!

    By the way, I'm not sure if loving one's work makes work any less dreary. I wonder if watching a favourite movie becomes tiresome if the deadline for its review is fast approaching.

  8. shrikanth: can't believe I didn't think about Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Holiday when I was writing this. I watched the film just a few months ago, and I remember smiling at Grant's idealism.

  9. I had to comment on this one. Have you read Sarah Heploa's freelancer's diary?

    She writes for Salon now. I'm so trying the alcohol-in-the-afternoon thing.

  10. Hi Jai interesting piece as usual.

    Having worked in different places I am not sure if the office job is as bad as it is made out to be. It's a personal thing in the end, I know bankers who enjoy their jobs:-) And sometimes the tension between "boring" and "exciting" is needed and feeds off each other - not sure for e.g. if your friend would enjoy full time acting.

    When anything becomes a "job" - even when you are reviewing books and movies from home and love it - surely it will have its downs (I guess that's why you end with utopia and the elimination of wage etc)? On the other hand luxury of any sort means little if it is unlimited in nature i.e. is it that into every life some "boring" must fall?!

  11. It sounds more like an making an opportune decision, rather than lucky stars. But great going anyway. Doing what you love and actually earning from it can be an unlikely feat.

  12. Anu: not making a summary judgement on the office life, just saying it doesn't work for me. And having said that, I might still get back to it at some point in the future, depending on circumstances/job profile/distance from home.

    Janaki: luck and randomness plays a big part in nearly everything, in my view. I hope the piece hasn't given the impression that I was always very clear about what I wanted to do, and charted my path out carefully from the beginning. That definitely hasn't been the case (as the CA stint should tell you) - one thing just led to another, I kept drifting along, and eventually the popularity of the blog is really what put me in a position where I could make a living out of freelancing.

  13. Niranjana: thanks for that link - very funny, and familiar.

  14. Good.
    What happens if the paying public suddenly decide not to cough up asking price for your leisure ? Or media itself becomes bacnkrupt ?

    Second, in the absence of any certifications/qualifications, are we saying that anyone can become anything ? No checks. aah Roark


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  16. Where is the life we have lost in living ? People live parallel lives wich they can't afford to do so due to responsibilities. It takes time and long term planning to shift to the hobbies part unless they have talent like yours. Jai sir, you are a lucky person but not many are...

  17. "And sometimes the tension between "boring" and "exciting" is needed and feeds off each other"
    Great point Anu! I have worked from home for a project but I would prefer 9 to 5 @ office.I don't like blurring the lines between home and office.I like the discipline that comes with the office atmosphere and the relaxation when I step into my apartment.
    In any case,I think in Jai's case being able to manage your own time is the more fulfilling part of free lancing; instead of work from home.

  18. I'll keep it brief: the title of this post could well have been, "Two Lucky Dogs" :)

  19. Recently, I decided to switch to ‘private luxury’ mode. It took me close to three years of being a slave of globalization to realize what I want. Worked with an internet giant, advertising to be specific. For close to three years, I battled inner monologues on creativity, reasoning, writing and money. During the recession, when people were safe guarding their jobs and security blankets, I decided to take the plunge. Gave up the nice cushion chair, the unlimited cappuccinos, the mindless bull shit writing, the company of conniving desi’s who sold their soul to wipe the MNC ass, the free stationary, heart warming glimpses of the IIT boy who sits on the fourth floor, pseudo friends, free internet and the feel of Gandhi notes.

    Took a three month hiatus to unlearn certain nonsense I learnt on the job, for clarity, to discover what it is to yearn, to listen, go back to the basics of living, expose myself to art, be blown away by simplicity and creativity. Good things do arrive out of a hiatus; I figured the one thing I love to do – Write. The minute I say the above to someone, I get replies as, “You are so lucky” or “I wish I could do so and yada yada.

    I know a lot of people who crib endlessly about how miserable they at work. These bonded slavery folks are the ones who can actually afford to draw the line when it comes to selling their soul and doing something like they. I think most people are aware that private luxury at least in the initial stages spells cutting down on life. A road side chai and conversation constitute my Saturday night fun than being Hard Rock cause I don’t make that much to spend. This Christmas, there is no doubt I will be wearing the old coat and buying the new book. I think most people rather crib than actually go through the phase of wearing the old coat till you reap the profits which can be indefinitely.

  20. Hey Jai,

    I have been gleefully reading your blog for a while now. Mostly as alurker.

    I have a request for you. An endeavour I would like you to be part of on my blog. I couldn't find your email address on your blog. Should you let me know what your email ID is, I would write to you with details.

    Thank you,

    Poonam Sharma

  21. Poonam: the ID is on the Profile page now:

  22. I don't like blurring the lines between home and office. I like the discipline that comes with the office atmosphere and the relaxation when I step into my apartment.

    Rahul: I know, many people feel the need for that compartmentalisation. But as I've indicated in the post, a minor peril of doing what you like doing for a living is that there's no "relaxation" in the real sense. Back when I was in the regular office routine, I would still be doing "work"-related stuff when I came back home. It's a double-edged sword.

  23. I think most people rather crib than actually go through the phase of wearing the old coat till you reap the profits which can be indefinitely.

    Tina: well said, and based on your comment I think you made the right decision to take up writing.

  24. Dear Jai Arjun Singh,

    It was such a pleasure to read this post. When you do decide to say something personal about yourself, you unravel yourself in such a nice fashion. I have not had the good fortune of meeting you in real life, but there is so much that one can know about someone by reading them.

    I have always visualized you as a kid who sat at the front bench, did homeworks on time, and never missed a class. One thing you do have is a kind of discipline. I know many people who just go thru a day doing nothing...they are too lazy to pop a DVD into the player. Also, if something interests you, you show remarkable tenacity to dig deep. Like...X said this about Y...I do not know when I read something about Y, I remember the connection between X and Y, and dig deep into knowing more about Y. This kind of analytical way of thinking is manifested in your posts. This is a great trait to possess as a researcher, a reviewer, a chronicler, a librarian or a critic.

  25. Over the years of reading you, two questions always revolved in my head:

    1> How does this man get the money to buy all the books and DVDs, and what does he do day in and out?

    You answered that question partially in this post. Thank you very much for satisfying my curiosity.

    2> What about his love and sex life?

    As you have said, interests as arcane as yours, and your painstaking devotion, which sometimes borders on the overbearing, to the research of those things can make you anti-social. Few women can survive back to back double plays of Hitchcock followed by De Palma. So my idea was there must be a female version of you, in your 20s with whom you indulged in these activities. If after watching a movie, both of you felt tired, you just cuddled on the couch and dozed off to sleep.

    I have also visualised a scene like this :

    You go to a high-class Delhi party with a couple of Godard DVDs in hand. You are dressed like Robert De Niro in the Taxi Driver, unshaved, a bit unkempt and not befitting the occasion. This makes a sexy model present (Model A- the kind who has read only one book in their lifetimes- The Alchemist) there laugh at you in a condescending fashion. However, another sexy model (Model B), decides to kiss you and showers you with attention. You and Model B go to the restroom and make love. When you leave, Model A cannot take it anymore and goes to Model B as to what it was in you that made her do it. She says, "Oh you know what, he provided me with the intellectual satisfaction that none of the Salman Khans I had dated did. So while making love, he made some "jump-cut moves" which
    made me "Breathless". He is a great scholar of our age, a chronicler of the past, and an acerbic critic of our lives and times. You are a true bimbo if JAS doesn't turn you on."

    Secretly, she felt bad for you and the way Model A treated you. That is what her act the way she did. However, what she never knew was why she never saw Model A after that night. Model A did the mistake of discussing literature with you over dinner, where she said that people who read Pahmuk and not Paolo Coelho are just plain crazy. This set your blood pressure racing, and you duly murdered her in a way that made Hitchcock applaud from his grave.

    Murder is the sport that you excel in. You are the Rafael Nadal of the art of murder. Of course, no one knows this but you and me. :) The reason again you cannot be a paid professional murderer is also not a surprise. If a gang/agency hires you to murder someone at say 12 noon, you don't like that idea as you would watch a dvd...take notes and then go out to murder at 12:30 leisurely, when the target has just left. So like reading and watching movies, murder too is committed by you in a freelancing manner.

    Now of course after getting married, due to increased vigilance, you cannot go off to murder someone when you want. Also, Rafa has had such an influence on you that your last few murder attempts were failures as you tried to stab women in showers with your left hand, as a Rafa tribute, quite unsuccessfully.

    I would say that increasing the frequency of your murders of young women will help your case. Then that car drive to your victim's place would be so full of adrenalin that by the time you return to the grocery store, the clerk would look at you say, "Kya saab, ajkal rafa ki tara tennis khel rahe ho kya, kafi thake hue lag rahe ho. Ndal ke sath pach set khel ke arheo kya?". The urgency to do it will help you be more disciplined, time-wise, to arrange your schedule, and not to get spaced out while pondering books or movies. You can always tell your wife that you are going to the British Council. The second hand book stalls are a good place to ponder and plot your murders. Lots of young hot chicks come there to buy the latest Dan Brown book. Good luck!

    PS. And thank you for the post. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

  26. I would just like to add that had you been born in a different age, your wife would most definitely have been Patricia Highsmith, with Hitchcock as your best man during the wedding.

  27. Rafa: brilliant stuff! I'd kill (with an electric drill, the way the "Indian" does in DePalma's Body Double) to have comments of this quality on every one of my posts.

    Also, can I commission you to write my authorised biography?

  28. Great piece, Jai. But Rafa's comment is awe-inspiring and possibly the best thing ever written on this blog.

  29. suffice it for me to pen the sole dissent. i guess most of us harried everyman folk have crunched the numbers and figured it is often much more efficient to grind away at the till a few more years until we are in our 60s/70s/80s etc. i mean, look at khushwant singh. the chap is 100 years old. literally. i don't expect him to manage the un-merger of citibank and the fed or starve for a new statehood of rayalseema or shoot the next minor masterpiece with a pondicherry hippie girl or whatever. the man can barely lift his dick as it is. but his opinions haven't waned, and he's the sort who should, in the scheme of things, watch bunuel dvds in the privacy of his 2-room vasantvihar apartment and pen some prose comparing it to mister kashyap's latest work. not a chap in his prime who has imho mistaken abject penury for doing his own thing. also, all this sacrifice is worthwhile if you are in the golden age of writing/moviemaking etc. the other day i was at crosswords in saket and asked the manager for the most popular fiction and he hands me an amitvarma and says kya bakwaas likha hai yaar aajkal ke publisher kuch bhi chaap dete hain! what i'm getting at is that we're not exactly living in the age of satyajit ray and r.k.narayan. our auteurs are well-heeled globe-trotting marketing gurus who are writing or directing or composing or whatever because it happens to be the in-thing. there is no discipline, no love of craft, just wordsmithing by the rules. mister kashyap says he doesn't care for storyboarding or taut scripts or anything - i just get a stedicam and follow abhay deol around and whatever he does is what's on screen! no wonder then that the writing is so sloppy, storytelling has been subsumed by newspaper reportage. schoolgirl goes down on her clasmate, ok put that in. bmw mows six, put that in too. hippie muse was a former juggler - ok we'll find a way to incorporate that as well. in the end you get hi-tech hotchpotch, and you applaud because the reviews say you must. and to write about these jokers i should sacrifice my six figure income, 5 bedroom house, library gymnasium, prius and swimming pool ? no sirree. and this ain't luxury, not by a long shot. luxury is not just 1, rather several 5 bedroom houses across the country, a fleet of suv's not just a single prius, vip membership in the tennis and racket club, not a $25 walmart barbell next to a used treadmill etc etc you get the picture. in this manner i have dubiously shifted the goalposts, but i will eventually get down to doing my own thing, whatever that is, someday. par abhi nahin.

  30. @Rafa
    That was hilarious . I was Rotfl .

  31. I envy you. Not only do you earn a living doing what you love, you earn a living doing what I love :)

  32. I am one of those guys, Jai.

    Never been able to find a peaceful middle ground between what I do during the day, and what I do post office hours.

    My blog is so different than the me that exists during the day that most people close to me refuse to read my writing.

    It is just sad