Being wet behind the ears

For a week now, I’ve been working with a fresh new writer. If I had to describe him, I’d say he’s someone full of enthusiasm, completely ‘into’ his work – someone who does not hesitate to ask questions and make corrections whenever he’s wrong. So what’s the problem? Okay, not to split hairs, but he is a little too enthusiastic – if you know what I mean.

For instance? When I asked him to write some content for a website, he mailed me back a CorelDRAW file containing his “vision” of what the site should look like. This would still have been fine if, in his enthusiasm, he hadn’t completely overlooked the ‘content’ part of it. The design of course was no use – by his own admission, he is not much of a designer. Luckily, things moved fast once I’d called him with the news that it was quality content delivered on time – and not his vision – that would get him paid 😉

The incident left me thinking about the perils of being a newcomer to your field of work. People view you with suspicion, expecting you to trip up at any moment. And more often than not, you oblige.

I remember the first time I met a Times of India editor to pitch a story idea. I prepared for the interview for a week beforehand, compiling a file full of my previously published articles in kiddie newspapers and college magazines, collating diary entries that seemed particularly interesting, digging out old class essays with such groundbreaking themes as ‘Global warming: The final solution’…even a humorous piece on dealing with unwanted guests.

Armed with a thick file, I donned my most grown-up, journalist-y outfit of the day – a khadi-cotton kurta paired with a severe white churidar – and tied my mousy hair in (what I thought was) a professional-looking bun.

My ‘interview’ lasted exactly 37 seconds. The editor I had arrived to meet was “out for a smoke,” said his colleague, demanding to know instead what my ‘broader ideas’ for the paper were. Now this I hadn’t much of a clue about. I’d been browsing a magazine article on genetic engineering in their office lobby, and this led me to say that I’d like to bring a whole new scientific tilt to the paper. Seeing her eyes refuse to come unstuck from the monitor, I added that the said scientific tilt could be achieved by publishing a series of articles about new advancements in genetic engineering. Yeah, right.

Something about my earnestness – or my naiveté – must have made an impression on that assistant ed, for I left the place with a mandate to work on an article on ‘Genetic science & advancement in India’ – to be researched & submitted within 48 hours (!)

I still don’t know whether it was euphoria or panic I felt more of. And the best of it is: after working night and day over the next 2 days, I spent the next 3 weeks twiddling my thumbs (also using them to dial the editor every 20 minutes) while they tried in vain to find space for my 500-word article in their 16-page newspaper.

So yes, I do have some idea of what is to be all wet behind the ears. And I guess my new writer now has some idea of waiting around to get served…after all, it’s been 45 whole minutes since he last called!

Death of a friend

Flowing watersI hadn’t known him too long. A couple of months at the most. But the news of his passing came as a shock nevertheless. Especially because he was so young. So nice, friendly, sincere.

Little would he have known, when he set out on a picnic, that it would be one of his last few acts in this lifetime. I can imagine him waving goodbye to his dad, to his sister. And then jauntily putting on a pair of sunglasses even as he headed towards the waiting bus.

It was supposed to be a day full of adventure, of negotiating swift river currents secure in a raft packed with colleagues. With friends. But before that adventure could begin, he decided to undertake a small swimming adventure of his own. Of course it proved fatal. The water had been calling out to him, as Death often will do, in forms benign yet deadly.

And, like Death, it brought him down. To a place where he couldn’t fight anymore. Nor think of an escape from the inevitable.

God knows how it feels to want air, so bad you could die. I tried holding my breath in the shower this morning. It lasted for maybe 30 seconds and didn’t feel all that bad. But I had always had the option to quit. Quit before the panic could take over my capacity to think, to get out of there.

Just imagining it makes me queasy. I cannot trust harmless, bottomless water anymore.

Death by drowning. And then you feel no more. Not the swirling darkness of the water, not the fish come to get their pound of flesh from what remains of your earthly existence. Not the gentle falling and rising from the riverbed to its surface. Again and again. Just like breathing.

It’s not so unbelievable, when you think of it. People die in accidents, in plane crashes, of old age and sickness – even in their sleep. But when those people have a name that rings a bell, a face you recall, a guileless smile you will never forget, then the whole equation changes. It is part of the selfishness of being human. The moment you know someone, they stop being a statistic. The existence of that person in this world takes on an importance all its own. And the ceasing of that existence, the power to make you dream of slimy riverbeds, night after restless night.

I had never attended the funeral of someone my age, before. I hadn’t thought I was old enough for that to happen. But it did. Just one evening ago.