Friday night, a bar in Navi Mumbai with a close friend. I was having vodka with some Sprite. Having worked the entire week, the weekend before that and the week before that, the lethargy could be seen on my face. My friend asked me if I could carry on as I defied her doubts by ordering another round of 60 ml. The crowd was sophisticated, the music carefully curated to create a peppy atmosphere and the food appropriately overpriced. I take out time for a smoke and head out of the pub, only to be accosted by a balloon selling child. He was begging for money. I shot him a look of disapproval and said “Don’t beg. Sell me that balloon.”. He didn’t budge. I repeated “I am not going to give you alms. Sell me that balloon.” He looked confused and handed it to me. I asked him how much. He said “Twenty bucks.” “Too much!” I protested. “Okay 15 bucks” he responded with a smile. I handed him the amount and went inside with a fucking orange balloon twice the size of my head with everyone from the bouncers, waiters to the pretty ladies with lipstick stained glasses staring at me. I didn’t care. I was escaping adulthood.
In the past year or so I’ve seen my friends grapple with the great challenge of our times. Adulthood! Like an invisible epidemic, everyone is suffering from it and the symptoms are overly apparent with the ones that haven’t taken measures to combat it. I for one cannot wear t-shirts with quotes anymore. Plain shirts with plain jeans is my casual wear and hoodies are taken out only in case of cold weather (anything less than 30 degrees for a Mumbaikar) just to avert the embarrassment of wearing a sweater. My friends are getting married left right center, their comical efforts at pre wedding shoots spamming my timeline as I work out ways of convincing my boss to grant a leave every three months for destination weddings. I am falling out of love with social media and falling in love with the idea of sleeping on time for once in my damn week. I wear a mask while travelling to avoid the pollution in Mumbai which makes me look like a Mortal Kombat character.
I am doing what’s right for me, I tell myself with all the wholesale changes happening in my life, in my personality and my outlook towards the world in general. But nothing could have prepared me for the feeling I got one evening as I lay on my bed after another hectic day in office. It was 8 PM and I was exhausted. I tried turning in my bed and a sharp pain shot across my spine. Where was it coming from I asked myself as my hand automatically clutched my back. My waist. Ravaged by constant rickshaw travel on Godforsaken roads, my body was showing its first signs of weakness. TWENTY FIVE! I yelled internally. I am a kid! How is this happening!? I even exercise regularly. What on Earth!? Am I dying!? Does smoking cause back pain too?
What had I become? An uncle!? Most of my friends call me that now. Colony kids still afford me the saving grace of “Bhaiyya” and so does my watchman. Most of my male friends are losing hair or watching in horror as each strand is turning grey slowly while they sleep. My female friends reluctantly confide their fear of “losing their figure” forever if they get fat at this age! Me and my guys have already given up on any other shape for us that doesn’t resemble a pear. God bless the women and their crusade to retain their last signs of youth. Was it time I asked myself, that I tell the rickshawala to drive carefully? To avoid potholes that they merrily ride over as if it pays them to do so? Everyday I sit in a rickshaw, I hold this internal debate. Everyday I override that feeling of begging for mercy to the driver by sticking to my “I am too young for this” gun. My ego overrides my need to travel smoothly. “I am young!” I tell myself before every ride.
But is it true? Are we young? Or are we standing on the last legs of our carefree, zero responsibility, experimental selves? Is it time to throw the towel? For how long are we going to pretend we can drink all night? You know what it feels like to party all night and wake up the next day nowadays? Death. Three years ago I could make a mockery of the concept of moderate drinking with my friends, go home, sleep, wake up and waltz into college/ office like nothing happened. Today if someone proposes a midweek drink, my toes curl in horror. The only silver lining to this situation is that I am not the only one. It isn’t just mindless partying that’s being mourned as a relic of the past. Just think of your jobs. We once thought of jobs as sources of meaning and income. Today, most of my friends vomit at the thought of explaining their profiles and drag themselves on Monday to swipe in. You thought you hated your Hindi prof in school? Wait till some team asks you to ruin your weekend because THEY messed up their planning.
But these issues can be swatted away like the challenges of the age. What truly bamboozles the hell out of me and a lot of twenty somethings is the question of “What do we do now!?”. All our lives we had directions and milestones. School, score good marks. Get admission in a good college. Get a girlfriend/ boyfriend there if possible. Prepare for placements/ entrances for higher education in final year. Suffer a breakdown due to first breakup. Get your first job. Hate life. Cry about working on Saturdays. Study really hard for entrances. Study a couple of years more in college. Complain/ thank the reservation system depending on your admission. Do well in college, or at least try to! Sit for placements. Call the girls of your batch bitches under your breath because companies want more women now as the girls moan about subtle discrimination against them in interview shortlists. Get placed somewhere. Land your first pay check. Spend the first three months making alcohol and fashion barons rich. And then? I don’t know. You tell me.
Someone is earning more than you. Someone is working longer hours. Someone is earning less but has a better profile while someone is being absolutely ragged by their boss. Someone wants to do an MBA while one person is contemplating a start-up. Some are happy professionally and some are in a better place personally. So what’s there to be compared? 30/30 in Maths in 9th standard was more than your friend’s 28/30. But today there’s no exam and there’s no way you can truly compare anything with anyone. Someone has an ailing father, while some people lost their mothers. Someone wants to get married but is finding it difficult to find anyone suitable whereas another is being forced into arranged marriage as her boyfriend won’t commit! Some people are involved with multiple women through dating apps while some are still hung over their second year engineering crush! Who is doing well!? What parameters do we have now!? There’s no “Most popular in high school” trophy anymore although Instagram does sometimes prove to be popular battleground.
To put it simply, we are driving without GPS and no destination. Just a North Star to guide us with a vague sense of direction. What is your North Star? What is that distant yet seemingly achievable illusion we are running towards? I have friends whose only aim is to get the hell out of this country. Some don’t want to move an inch because their parents are something they can’t live without. Some like me genuinely doubt their ability to combat homesickness so I tell myself India is the place to be. Am I right? Is it correct for me to stay put when almost everyone around me flies away to Canada/ Australia/ USA? I assure you, from the bottom of my heart, I’ve no fucking clue. And let me tell you something. No one has a shred of credibility when they say they are hundred percent sure of all their decisions. Unlike our parents, we were mollycoddled kids who lived life like a train. One station after another. Now we are fishes in an ocean. There are sharks, plankton, fishermen and everything in between. The tyranny of choice has messed us up.
We are clueless. And perhaps that’s how it’s supposed to be. There’s no formula for success, no one to guide you (you can get a mentor but even that’s more like a FAQs section). How can we turn towards our parents for advice!? My mother had two children at the age of 29. Shall I ask my father for relationship advice? That man had to quit his job and get a Government one because no one was ready to let their daughter marry an unstable private job holder in pre-liberalization India! Who do I turn to? My equally out of depth friends? We are in spray and pray mode. All of us. So if you feel bad about messing up, don’t. That’s the best thing you could do. Because the worst thing to do is sit and let life pass by.
As I ordered my third large, I asked the waiter for some ice. He promptly got the bucket and dropped a cube in glass of water! I burst out laughing and told him it’s the wrong glass. Embarrassed, he dropped two cubes in the correct glass as I held my orange balloon like a lunatic. It was getting late. I kept sipping my drink but it didn’t hit me like it used to once. Age had equipped me with better capacity to punch my liver with. My friend and I discussed college admissions, how Navi Mumbai finally had a great crowd and who’s the next mutual friend about to get married. I ranted and raved about Game of Thrones going off the cliff as my glass emptied. We called for the bill. As I got up from my seat, I took a sip from the glass of water. A burning sensation rushed my throat and chest. This isn’t water! I took another sip. It was my glass of vodka that I had mistaken to be water! The waiter was right and I was the fool drinking a glass of water thinking it was alcohol for half an hour! Maybe not so tolerant to alcohol as I thought I was. And definitely not immune to the odd clanger! I walked out laughing to follow my friend who was in the company of a girl beggar selling balloons. I looked at her and handed her my balloon. She looked confused. She wanted money. I told her “Take this balloon. Sell it to someone and earn your 15 bucks.”
As I walked towards the rickshaw stand to hail our ride back home, I couldn’t help but think of the beggars. I turned back to see both of them harrying another group of urban millennials like me and my friend. Privileged, drunk, pretending to suffer more than we are and moping about “adulthood”. I realised right there that adulthood is nothing but a state of responsibility and ownership. If you are ready for those two, everything else will fall in place. We won’t know what to do exactly in every situation but as I said before, we aren’t supposed to. Love your stupid self, forget the past, call your friends once in a while and keep your family happy the best you can. And yes, tell the rickshawala to drive slowly.