Breaking Away

I don’t remember the last time I sat down, with nothing to do, and stared blankly at the evening sky. I often find myself casting about for something to do, which is to say I often find myself without work, but this is not the strange part. And I do occasionally look up at the evening sky, but it hasn’t ever been this deliberate.

On my request, after a day spent isolated in my windowless studio apartment in [the city] – a room I felt I ought to leave on account of the irritatingly fine cement mist that buildings undergoing renovation shroud themselves in, and the fact that the silence I expected to enjoy during this isolation was frequently interrupted by the sound of pneumatic drills – the city municipal corporation promptly dispatched an ambulance that would drive me to the [local hospital], where I would begin a 10-day quarantine. You see, I had tested positive for COVID-19 just the day before. After a few routine tests were done, I was prescribed a course of medication. “Plenty of fluids, and plenty of rest,” advised the nurse from behind a face shield and baby blue scrubs, both a few sizes too large for her. I entered the room that was assigned to me at the hostel, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it had a small balcony with an old plastic chair.

I sat down and watched the clouds shift for a long time.

I wondered then why it had been so long since I sat down and stared at the sky. Why did it seem like the last time I allowed myself to sit idle was as a child? I guess I could say I had always been busy, but I’d feel like an idiot saying that. This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way, either. I work at a research institute in India, not too far from an invigorating stretch of shoreline. Brisk winds beat against the coast in the early evenings, occasionally shepherding in the tides, and at other times encouraging waves to jostle and lap against the breakwater that hugs the shore. I’ve been a postdoctoral fellow there for over two years now, and I’ve really only been to the beach fewer than a dozen times. Everyone I know says the same thing: “It gets old quickly.” I accept that this is true, and I say the same thing to my visitors, but I feel stupid about it: how could the sea get old?

This is the story of how I found my way – at least, for now. As a member of the academy, it is difficult for me to avoid feeling that time spent over the weekend, say, reading a book, is time that could really be put to better use thinking about some research project I’m currently working on. The habits of my officemates, who work evenings and weekends, always well beyond office hours, serve as unwitting reminders that I should spend more time working. They routinely schedule calls and discussions for the weekends. It is implicit, too, in the suggestion, casually passed on during coffee with senior colleagues, that perhaps some-or-other work could be “completed by Monday”. Sometimes grudgingly, but always unquestioningly, my colleagues and I acquiesce. If we were troubled by this intrusion, what little is made of it is only ever teased out by tumblers of rum drunk in the dimly lit, seedy, smoke-filled bars we frequent. It isn’t proper to speak of these reservations in the light, let alone sober.

There are fewer jobs than there are contenders vying for them in my line of work. If that wasn’t enough, the number of open positions shrink rapidly as you climb up the ranks. I’ve found that over time, I’ve felt more and more guilty about spending time not working. So where as a graduate student I’d occasionally treat myself to a walk through the city markets, as a postdoctoral fellow here that walk on the beach seems like a luxury I just can’t afford. The concept of leisure itself starts to seem like an injudicious use of time, if not a total waste. “Ja kaam kar, be!”, my former advisor occasionally barks at me, playfully. I know he doesn’t mean it this way, but it serves as a constant reminder that maybe I should spend less time messing around and more time working.

And what does rest look like for an academic like me, anyway? I close my eyes sometimes and I can hear my senior colleagues saying “We’re lucky we’re theorists, we don’t need laboratories so our work won’t be affected by the pandemic.” A doctor may advise against work, but will my colleagues understand? “Of course! They’re not unreasonable,” some offer helpfully. I’m not so sure. I’ve only ever seen them grumble and mutter vague things about “work/life balance” but rarely have I seen them factor these considerations into their evaluations. To them, I am nothing more than the work that I have done. I worry sometimes that internalising this, subordinating my personal growth to the rubric of this particular iteration of academic excellence, will make me dull. I feel sometimes that to be an academic in good standing with my community is to foreclose on the possibility of not being an absolute bore.

I honestly believed that the pandemic would force a reevaluation of the status quo. I’m not sure why I entertained this notion, but it is now plain to see that it didn’t. We changed gears, took our seminars and conferences online, and happily carried on. I don’t think my colleagues and I will come out of this pandemic more rested. People like me will burn out, and committees will pore over application documents with furrowed brows and wonder why I hadn’t written more papers.

The clouds above cleared soon and a cool breeze set in about an hour before sunset. Scores of birds roamed overhead, and more flitted from branch to branch of the tree across the street. They cooed and trilled and cawed as they searched for the right perch on which to spend their evening.

There were different kinds: mynas, pigeons, starlings, and crows at eye-level (I was on the fourth floor); kites and eagles far above. They moved differently. It seemed that the higher one went, the less frantic and more economical, more deliberate their movements. The smaller birds were louder, more boisterous, seemed more alive as they darted back and forth, restlessly. In flight, they were more likely to be caught unawares by a sudden gust of wind. At these times they looked to me rather foolish, hastily attempting to regain their composure, after which they did something I still struggle to do: carry on as if nothing had happened, without ignominy or guilt. If they felt shame at occasionally seeming like bad fliers, it was indiscernible, at least to me. The bigger ones up above would appear motionless for long stretches of time, coolly banking and weaving against the steady winds funnelled through the evenly spaced columns of apartment complexes, occasionally darting towards the ground in a sharp and effortless parabola. It was too far to tell if they actually caught anything, though.

It is difficult to watch birds fly and not know what it feels like to want to be free. I haven’t felt free in a long time. I feel caged by who I want to be one day, and by the guilt that visions of a future impress upon decisions taken in the present. This is how it usually goes: I do my job – at times diligently, even – and after a while I feel guilty that I am only doing my job and neglecting my other interests. Then I try to even things out by trying to grow more holistically as a person (read widely, exercise more) and sure enough, there’s that guilt again, asking me why I’m studying the fall of the Roman empire when I could be reading that review article relevant to my research project instead. Maybe if I focused on my job more I’d write more papers, too! And just like that, I’m back at the starting line. I feel bad that I’m not myself, and then I feel bad that I am. In the heat of every quarrel with the voice in my head, I sometimes feel like a stranger to myself.

I asked myself this evening if it made sense for a myna to feel bad that it wasn’t an eagle. Of course it didn’t. I’m not like my colleagues. And I’m not saying that I’m not more or less than them, just different. In the same way that a myna is no more or less than an eagle, they’re incommensurate. People are, too. I just wish we’d stop to acknowledge this once in a while. Or, perhaps more importantly: I wish I believed this myself. I don’t know if I do anymore. Is there any use in affirming a truth that finds no image of itself in experience?

Academia reaffirms a different truth: to be driven by a passion that falls short of self-sacrifice is to be a dilettante, which is worse than being incompetent.

“But if you aren’t spending every waking hour working, are you even really interested?”

I think a lot of us face questions like this about our work. I think the answer for me is “Yes, I’m interested in my work, but I’m also interested in other things.” This, I think, is the only thing I’m certain of. And if the academy can’t accomodate that, fine.

I will change it.

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