Growing in the Middle
“Baba, tell me once and for all, am I a grown up girl , or not , or what ?”
Mukta, my 11 year old wants to know . While its perfectly natural to be curious and inquisitive at her age, this seemingly innocent question comes at me with a look on her face that is not so innocent. Her little mind has figured out enough to know that this could be a check-mate move for her. She completely knows that any firm answer from me puts her in a winning position. Either way , it gives her a free license to do things she is either not allowed to do, or, not to do the ones she is told to . I know this calls for some diplomatic, sitting-on-the-fence answer that both gets me off the hook and gets her out of a dilemma that is far real than she suspects at the moment. I tell her she is as much of a grown up person as she is supposed to be at 11, just as I am at 46, and that the growing up never stops, and one way of doing a good job of it is not to repeat the same mistakes as you go along.
Just like any diplomatic answer , this one too works well enough for her to nod her head a couple of times, and retreat with a look that makes it plain she isn’t convinced at all.
I know most of the people would say my answer to her was correct and exactly what they would have come up with themselves. They would also insist that diplomacy had nothing to do with it and that is exactly the way one is supposed to live. Scriptures would be quoted, passages from ancient holy books, quotes from sages and philosophers would be produced in support of the argument. But the reason I myself am not sold on my answer , is that all these arguments would be right, and just, in their own place. Its my mind that has always rebelled against anything that comes with a tag of ‘supposed to’. It shuts out anyone who tells me that I should or shouldn’t act in a particular manner in any given situation, no matter how right they may sound. I honestly don’t put too much stock in this thing called ‘growing up’. I think the roots of this mindset go back to the 70s , my formative, impressionable years. The time when the social scene was all about being ‘in’ with the anti-everything movement. The economic scene at home too was such that even electricity was beyond our means right up to my 6th std. The schoolbooks every year were hand-me-downs from my elder sisters. The outcome of this conditioning was a mind that was not exactly bitter, but not one very keen to follow any prescribed set of rules either. Of course I had my own definitions of good and bad that were not too alien from the rest of the world , but I loved breaking the rules even if to arrive at the same destination as the rest of my fellow-travelers. I also follow all the rules and regulations of my chosen profession as often as is prudent. I mean, lets face it, a maverick accountant has only as much of a chance at survival as a kamikaze pilot might have.
Now, mind you, this is nothing more than a passage of introspection that might just help me get an insight on why am I the way I am. Getting any deeper is strictly loony tunes time , because the mystery that is human brain is actually intimidating to even contemplate. It’s the most complex thing there is, and the toughest task it can undertake is to understand itself. So, lets just go exploring into this thing called “growing up”
Here are a couple of instances that underline the fact for me that no matter what you do , life has a funny way of doing its own thing in return, the result of which may earn you anything between a kick in the family jewels and a peck on the cheek. Call it the luck of the draw if you like and see if you can decide if I acted like a grown up in either of these two incidents.
It was 1989. I had just resigned from a job I had held for 5 years , because my employers wanted me to think about my work even when I was traveling in a bus, watching a movie, or having a hard-earned beer on a hot June Sunday afternoon. That made me ask myself why don’t I go freelancing and do all this for myself, if at all I had to do it. And I resigned without any concrete future plans. In other words, I took the plunge feet first and then started thinking about buying a swimming manual. On one hot June afternoon I picked up some tax forms from Tax-print and was walking towards Churchgate station. You might know the Mocambo Café , near GPO on the left sidewalk of P.M. Road that serves beer among other things. Those were the good old days when a chilled beer was yours for only 26 bucks. Job or no job, that price-tag was right up my alley. You have to take my word for it that it was not the beer brands advertised in bold letters on the blackboard placed on the side-walk that drew my attention to it, but the words right at the bottom of it that said “Accountant required”. I thought here was an opportunity as good as any to kill two birds in one shot. I might just be able to sell the management the idea of hiring a professional accountant on assignment basis rather than appointing a full time one, and also be able to quench my thirst that had gone up several notches at the site of my favorite watering hole. I walked inside, and was quite proud of myself for heading straight to that little cubicle they used for office, and not to a table under a fan. I gave my newly printed visiting card to the owner, a middle aged Parsee bawa and laid out a spiel on how wonderful an arrangement it would be for them if they hired me in a professional capacity. The bawa asked me a few questions, offered me a glass of water and generally looked impressed enough with my experience, not to mention my awe-inspiring personality . He gave me one of his own cards and asked me to call and drop in again. So far so good, I said and hurried to a table , telling myself the deal was almost in the bag and a celebratory beer was very much in order. Cups, lips and slips happened only in fiction and movies, right ?
After one refreshing cold one, as I was settling down, convinced there was a God up in the heaven and everything was alright with the world, I heard a commotion from the table behind me. A quartet of musicians that looked straight out of a college band had been having a few since I had walked in . An argument seemed to be brewing up directly in proportion to the quantity of the good brew that was going down their hatches. I quietly worked on my pitcher, idly wondering what could the argument be about. Was it purely a musical issue of F minor being the more appropriate scale for a particular song than G minor ? Or was it something even more basic and obvious like which one of them got the first go at a particularly cute groupie ? Well, whatever it was, by the time I was through my second one, it had ceased to be an argument and had turned into a nice fracas. Mind you, even with a couple of cold ones inside me I knew enough to ignore it and mind my own business, which at the moment should have been the third one. But when I saw the fracas turn rather quickly into a free-for-all, I decided the third one would be a waste of time and money. I got up to settle my bill but then I saw the brawl unfold with a 3 against 1 ratio. The good ol’ Samaritan in me jumped to the fore and right into it even before I knew it.
I will spare you the gory details , although I suspect some of you are actually salivating at the prospect. In a nutshell, there was a lot of give and take among the participants, the minor details like who was on which side long since forgotten, and at the end of it all , yours truly had ended up getting a lot more than he gave . The Parsee bawa , with a bit of help from the waiters succeeded in tearing all of us from each other. And after a spell of temporary insanity lasting about 10 minutes, sanity prevailed. The bawa , once again with a bit of help from the waiters, helped all of us on our way out after the bills were settled to his satisfaction. He then singled me out for some special attention , threw my card back at me and yelled “ Don’t bother to call, son ! I am not planning to sit by the phone”. Needless to say that put paid to my chances of garnering my first ever client as a freelancer.
But now, as a man to another, tell me , beer or no beer, client or no client, wouldn’t you jump to rectify the 3 to 1 ratio in a brawl ? I know I would, every single time, and that’s where I think my answer to Mukta was a diplomatic one.
Now , lets jump over a few years to 1993. I had just walked out of a clients office at Wadala, and was on my way to another near the Five Gardens , Matunga. It was an afternoon too , but a pleasant ,December one. It’s the only month in Mumbai when we Mumbaikars bring out our long sleeves, pullovers, scarves , caps and other such stuff to convince ourselves that Mumbai too just like any other city has its winters. If you think I am just making a case for myself about not feeling thirsty and finding a place that serves the cold ones, I cant stop you , can I ? But the fact remains that I talk more about my beer than I actually consume it. But why am I explaining this ? As the old adage goes, never explain, your friends don’t need it and your enemies will never believe it.
So, I was walking , formally dressed under a jacket , briefcase in hand. A cricket game on TV that evening that I did not want to miss was more on my mind, than the client I was on my way to. Well, wasn’t that exactly the reason I had resigned from employment and had decided to go solo ? My time was my own to think about cricket or the price of a condom on Mars for that matter, right ? As I passed the first of the five little gardens and was about to take a left turn from the second one, I stopped. I had to , for the opportunity was too great , the time just right, and urge too irresistible. I glanced furtively to both the sides, over my shoulder and told myself its now or never. I rested my briefcase on the nearest bench, rolled up my sleeves, took another couple of sideways glances and with a carefully muffled “Yippeee” jumped on the vacant swings . I swung back and forth , high and low, fast and slow to my hearts content for at least 15 minutes. Now take it from the one who knows, that the high those 15 minutes gave me can out-swing at least 2 cold ones any day. Just don’t ask how I figured that ratio out ok ? It’s a skill that needs to be acquired over a period of good times.
I got off the swings, unrolled my sleeves back, picked up my briefcase and stepped into the building next to the garden, with the cool confidence of an extremely seasoned accountant that I was. Of course I was 15 minutes late, but honestly, the city was going to the dogs with its traffic getting worse by the day, right ? Right , said my client and we went about our business for the next hour or so. After a cup of tea, it was time for me to leave . As I was about to put my shoes back on, the doorbell rang and my client answered it. Back he came with a beautiful lady of about 38-39, exuding sartorial elegance with her impeccably tailored business suit. My client introduced us. She was his neighbor, a high ranking official with Air France. After the perfunctory pleasantries, as I was about to take my leave, what she said made me want to dig a hole and bury myself then and there. My client threw me a look with raised eyebrows when she said “ Didn’t I see you out of my window about an hour ago, enjoying yourself on the swings in the garden ?”
It was one of those situations when your tongue weighs a ton, you grin like a retard , shake your head in a manner that says neither yes nor no, and generally want out and quick. She seemed to understand my plight, took pity on me and came to my rescue. “ I liked it the way you did what you did, simply because you wanted to do it. I have wanted to do it myself but haven’t had the courage so far” She said. She followed it up with sharing a few more of her experiences when she hadn’t been able to summon that courage too. And then , as both my client and myself were warming up to her candid and completely informal monologue , she asked me if I would be kind enough to take care of her accounts and tax matters please. Still tongue-tied , I nodded eagerly as my client smiled at me benevolently as if he himself was single-handedly responsible for my getting a new client out of the blue. The lady and I exchanged cards and since then have shared a warm friendship, not to mention a healthy professional relationship.
Again now, as a man to another, tell me , December or June, garden or side-walk, swings or slides , wouldn’t you jump at the chance to revisit your childhood no matter what your age is ? I know I would, every single time, and that’s where I think my answer to Mukta was a diplomatic one.
Its said that middle age is the age when a man stops growing at both the ends and starts growing in the middle. I wouldn’t dwell too much on that, lest this talk once again turn into beer-talk. This is the way I look at it. Middle age is the time we can best enjoy by juxtaposing the past and the future as the two ends and the present as the middle. Since we have absolutely no control over our past, and very limited control over our future, why not put more life into the middle that is here and now ? Screw the rules, regulations, manners, netiquettes, protocol and all such limiting words. Just say yes whenever life presents you with an opportunity to sing, dance, play, and laugh . So long as we are here, growing up is mandatory. The only choice we have is whether to grow happier or grumpier. Lets just make the right choice, and then, beer or no beer, we can proudly shout out loud from the rooftops “ Yes ! I am growing in the middle ! Who needs the abdominal six-packs when the other kind can be had with a lot of fun thrown in to boot ?
By the way, Mocambo of today has really jazzed itself up with some spanking new decor, air-conditioning and a cellar that is second to none among the places in its class. Please don’t take my word for it, just give me a call , and lets make it a three hour lunch date on a hot afternoon……. Lets grow in the middle…..