Thoughts about 2011 (and 2010)

2011 started in a drunken blur. The then girlfriend and I had been in another one of those fights (around the 23-24th of Dec) and I had been sitting in the usual huff. A week of this, and I had decided to spend 31st night alone, with a lot of alcohol. Rum, as it be. (Do not generally prefer rum, but was in a sailor mood. Most amount of alcohol, with the most potency, harsh to drink, and cheap). I was in the Malad house then, and I used to have a favorite piece of furniture there, a large, red sofa with your back or side to the open window (depending on how you sat on it). The television would feature right in-front if one parked there, or if one chose to lie back and stretch, one could see the stars up above and the trees outside. That was the plan.

Hypercity Malad was close by, and on 31st afternoon, I had walked to the store with a list, and started stocking up on large reinforcements. By the time she called and suggested a “truce till the new year, let’s not fight tonight”, it was already 4 pm, and I had sold myself the whole idea of the new year’s eve alone. But spending it with friends and loved ones sounded better. I had fought with the girl, but I really liked hanging around her friends, they were good people. And I was really good friends with their dog.

In the next one hour, as a compromise, I quickly polished off six large ones. (Now, almost a year later, I do not remember or understand the logic why. Why didn’t I wait to join the others and then drink?). By the time I reached the friends’ house at 8 pm and hugged and laughed and danced and played with a very happy dog, I had had 2 more.

I must have been harboring secret hopes of a macho ability to hold off a drunken state.

I was fast asleep by 10:30 pm. I vaguely remembered people trying to wake me up at 12, a lot of bonhomie, but of course I remembered it all as an after thought. Woke up around 4 am, felt rather foolish to find absolute silence everywhere (my snores had stopped). I gingerly let myself out, walked to my house in the morning of 1st January 2011.

So well, that was that.

2010 had been a blessed year. Had certainly felt like one. I was in a different relationship when the year started, in a different relationship somewhere in the middle, and in a third different relationship by the time the year ended. I seemed to be able to do no wrong. I had extricated myself out of a messy end of a relationship in Jan 2010, got into another one by end February, and was visiting Shillong, Gangtok and Darjeeling, walking along peaceful shrines. Within a month I was walking along beaches in Mauritius, and walking in the open heat in Dubai. A month further down the line I had quit THE job. By end June I had moved to Bombay, with three suitcases and no plans. No idea of what to do with a career. In the very first week of my being in Bombay, I was hit by two things – typhoid and a breakup. Rains were lashing across the city, I was much too weak to move, and the friend’s house I had been staying over had to leave India and the house in 15 days.

I had to go through 62 houses before I could find one where I could hope to survive for 6 months (at least) before things got better. It was a blank slate, almost stunned into submission those first few months in Bombay. But then, I wasn’t working on a job. It felt exhilarating! To not worry. To not reach a far flung space at a fixed time to sit and while away the whole day. I had once been jobless before, for 4 months – and that had been a particularly tough time to reconcile to. More so since I had been fired. My confidence was in tatters, all self belief crushed by a rejection which felt a million times more cruel than the biggest breakup. 2010 was a breeze in comparison.

I got into another relationship by August, which pretty much defined my Bombay experience for me. She took care of me, healed me and my shaky self belief. Got me on my feet, got me confident. Cooked for me (no woman has ever cooked “for” me except my mom). Listened to me (initially, at least). By the end of 2010, I remember going on a trip to Bangalore, meeting friends, my sister, and an ex from a time far back. All of who were aghast at my lackadaisical attitude about my career, about my plans for life. That I was getting older, that I wasn’t yet married, that I didn’t even have a job anymore. That I am not making an effort to get my shit together.

I remember telling them that I am in a state of complete conjugal household bliss, perhaps one of the happiest periods of my life. I was shopping for vegetables, cooking together in the kitchen (I would chop and stare), making cocktails on Sundays, lighting up at 3 am before sleeping, watching stuff together on the desktop (watched 6 seasons of LOST in a month. Also Planet Earth and a lot of other documentaries). Waking up late on weekdays, reading newspapers until late, sipping tea, kissing and cuddling in the mornings, talk a lot, share stories. Ah, it was bliss!

Even till the end of 2010, seven months after having quit the job, there wasn’t much anxiety (It started in Dec). I had been thinking of wanting to work somewhere around movies. Went to a couple of job interviews (including a forgettable one at Balaji telefilms where I got into an argument over Dibakar Banerjee. I was politely shown the door), but nothing too serious. Somewhere at the back of my mind, I remember a vague, uneasy feeling that everytime I would laugh off one of these interviews, I am laughing off my own life away. But then I forgot it (deliberately, I think). The headiness of living, really living in Bombay is something I had always wanted. And I was living it! I burnt through a lot of my own savings while living in Bombay, but I wanted to be in Bombay. I had left Calcutta to be in Bombay. At that time in April 2010, there was no other place I had wanted to be in.

2011 is when the anxiety started. Dad called at the end of January, said that if I cannot find anything (work) by the end of February, I should move back to Patna. I started going to interviews in magazine offices. In social media consultancies. In web marketing firms. In unheard of small business agencies. Not to get “just anything”, but just to see what clicks. Nothing did. For a long time. Nothing clicked.

In the meanwhile, she started getting anxious of me being at home all the time. I started getting anxious of me being at home. Everyone around was anxious. Or maybe it just felt that way.

Then in March, I got a job offer through a friend I have known for a long time. In market research. In a niche segment of market research, called Shopper research. The kind of work I have already done in my life. And by the sheer restlessness of my movements, I have seen it from all across. I have been a sales manager, a brand manager, an agency guy, and have done shopper research primarily, on field. Not many people have experience with shopper research in India. It is a popular sub-segment of research in developed markets, but in India, very nascent because of  the very retail network being not developed enough.

The idea of shopper research is to make shopping easier, with the presumption that a happy shopper who is satisfied with her shopping would spend more. So you make strategies at the retail store level, as a brand to facilitate ease of finding the brand, and affecting the shopper’s choice in store. As someone working in shopping research, it would mean studying shopping patterns for a category/ brand in retail formats.

So the research uses actual video footage of shoppers in a store. One would record day long activity in a hypermarket/ supermarket and do your usual capitalist ratio calculations on them. This information, when coupled with intention (captured using more direct interviews) would add another dimension to what is the shopper actually doing in the store?

I had read this book while in B school. And back then it sounded all kinds of fun to me. To be studying retail environments in situ. It had been a hobby of mine to just stand in large stores watching people shop after a long day in office in Delhi. Even during college. I had jumped when I got an offer from an Indian collaboration of Envirosell, a company founded by that guy who wrote the book. The reality was a cold slab. Start up problems in research are an endemic system problem dependent by their very design on the boss’s temperament and mood. But bah, I digress again. This time I was offered an open playing field, my way to run the team, a lot of freedom in how I worked, and not much micro managing. And good money.

Looking at it now, almost at the very end of the year, from April 25th onwards till date, this entire period from the outside looks like a blur. It is easier to say now that the time seems to have just passed. But these last 7-8 months in the year, because of this work, this job would have an indelible effect on me, forever.

After having been out of work for almost a year, I joined office to be given charge of a team and zero revenue (from an entire year of operations. The team had done NO work in the last 6 months). I was shaky the first week while going to office, dad had had arguments with me through the beginning of the year, Savere time par utha karo, discipline rakho life mein, kaam karna bhool jaoge, office mein kaise baithoge? and I harbored all those doubts as well.

But that first heady month, of working as hard and fair as I could, and coming back home to a girlfriend, who you could sit with, in silence, or talk to, or take out, or seduce or do what you would, that initial month was intensely satisfying. I felt control returning back, things happening smoothly, a lot of events one after the other favoring work, in the direction of work. She mentioned in May/ June, I think “You look much calmer, you feel a lot calmer“.

The other look that I was famous for through the majority of the year was Grouchy. I grudgingly noticed/ was forced to notice a set of horizontal creases (stress lines?) plastered across my usually clear forehead, along with a sort of permanent scowl face that I would make and carry along (without meaning to or realizing it). A face like the one you would make when cringing with direct sunlight on your face, in much humidity on a very hot day. Could have been Bombay, could have been job related stress, but I hated my face like that. I kept trying to tell myself to visibly relax my face. It would work sometime, when I would remember. I had also restarted smoking a pack a day. Of two brands at the same time. One as main course, one as dessert.

Somewhere between the calmer me and a pack of cigarettes a day, I worked the hardest I have worked in my life. I worked with abandon because I was really trying to set up a team which is free of itty bitty politics and that could be about honest high performing good quality work. I believed in it, and when I really believe in something, I talk a lot. I talked a lot to my team.

Me & my team got in 1 crore in revenue in 6 months. From a department that was doing zero before I came in. Of course, there were other things like the brand value, being at the right place at the right time, and people contacts, but what was very very important that we did it. I did it. From a situation which was pretty much like a start up. New people, with no capability, being trained while being put through a grueling schedule. Self responsible for bringing in business. Self responsible for delivering. I have been responsible for teams before, but in highly hierarchical scenarios. Earning respect through knowledge felt exhilarating.

And I was doing it my way, with very less micro management. Contrary to (self) expectations, I was very conscientious, feeling personally responsible for zabaan de di across projects and never tried before experiments. There were weeks in which I was personally standing in store from 9 am till 7 pm, getting back home (the long, long auto rides), take a shower, (maybe have dinner and watch Bigg Boss in between) get back in by 11, and then start upon making a presentation. On most mornings till 5:30 am. Sleep till 8 am. Repeat process. Weekends included. (Sundays are BIG days for shopper research).

I had never worked this hard voluntarily. For real work (not based upon moods of people across the hierarchy, what I call artificial deadlines. Creating a series of urgencies which don’t yield anything – no real work, no real beneficiary – to anyone. Just egotistical satisfaction of a baboon sitting upper in the hierarchy. I have an involuntary distaste and compliance paralysis for artificial deadlines. Never been able to do it.)

This time it felt exhilarating. To see my (hitherto theoretical) way work. The flow, what people call, is a very real thing. Like those high speed motor chases you see across movies. You always wonder how did he turn that way, how did he make that decision? In the flow, as the challenges keep coming, it just works. And it feels … I don’t know how to describe the feeling of making up To-Do lists for up to 30 items and tick them all off on one day. (I have never made To Do lists in my life. While working at Tata Steel, one of the biggest negative points the boss had put on my appraisal was that I refuse to make a To-Do list and work according to priority despite repeated instructions).

And I was doing all of it voluntarily. To work better. Because in the flow, things just move.

I felt it in my work this year, and it felt wonderful. (The above chart, by the way, I had sent to my boss to explain to her the reason why one of the guys in my team was always anxious, so much so that he would have periodic anxiety attacks just before major deliverables.)

Then somewhere around July was when things starting going wrong in the personal life. By end July, we had broken up. And surprisingly, had lasted a whole year! The first 6 months had gone about without anyone noticing anything except the hazy pleasure of life passing by pleasantly. The next 6 months were in 2011. From a perspective, I had been an asshole for most of the scenario, from another she had been a bitch. Mismatch of expectations from a relationship.

It ended, but I was glad of it, when it lasted.

August was spent in Bandipur. Was apt and desperately needed at that moment.

September limbered by, slow but purposeful. That entire period, second half of August to October end, was an emotional upheaval.

I read the entire A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin from August to October. All 6 books. (The 3rd split into two 1000 page books). On my android smartphone. In between this chaotic personal and professional schedules, I had my phone with me throughout, even for fifteen minute breaks, for those five minutes just before I fell asleep. I took the books from the loo to the auto rides to treadmill walks to trains to diwali night on the terrace in Patna when I was up half the night listening to crackers going off in the distance while reading A Dance with Dragons.

Game of Thrones ignited something in me. I had started by seeing all episodes of the HBO series. And since I was perhaps desperately seeking something to get absorbed in, I started reading the first book, a re-read in a sense since I already knew the story from the TV series. But to say I was blown away is the understatement of the year. I was completely involved in every story twist, every character, every dialogue like I have never felt from a book. I am a sucker for good characterization, story be damned, because well, we all can do what we can do, but then life is what life will do. Character to theek karo. I gifted the entire series to three different friends (the books that is), so in essence I have spent four times on those books, I own a copy as well. And yet, I read the entire series on my phone. 3.7 inches in diameter. Reading these books has been a significant part of the experience of 2011. I had perhaps read one book in the entire first seven months of the year (Khushwant Singh’s Delhi, I think), after I read Game of thrones, apart from the books in the series, I have read a further 4. This series reignited my desire to read.

October was a tough month. I got highly dissatisfied with what I was getting out of the job. My returns, so to say. And the cheap way they treated me after a particular project was over.

Why I quit

There was anger bubbling over, but even though there was intense fear (even after the deed was done), by the 1st of November, I had decided I was quitting the job.

I quit smoking (cigarettes) mid October. About 20 days before I quit my job. And it had me shiver me timbers all this while.

A friend, another one from the team, also quit. The job, that is, not cigarettes. In disgust.

We thought we should do something of our own. Well yes, we have been thinking that since it is fashionable to think that, but as my first boss in Asian Paints told me, “Humaare paas gotey nahi hain. Isiliye hum naukri karte hain, aur wo dealer apne se jyada har mahina chaapta hai.

So yes, that is the plan. There are a few technical bits here and there, but that is just about the jist of it. Doing something of our own.

2011 is about to end in another 10 days. Barely a count, and apart from consistent expectations to actually work on presentations during my notice period, it should just pass by in a blur. (I have used ‘blur’ a lot of times in this post!) It has been a very weird year for me. I think I have grown, I hope I have matured.

The year had been ending on a sour note in the air. The disappointing part of having created something very special from scratch professionally and then seeing it go all poof on vagaries of people. And then again, back to the familiar uncertainty. Not something you feel good about at the end of the year.

Sharma, my friend and I even went to a Tarot card reader. He was supposed to go at his anxious family’s requests to meet and speak to a tarot card reader (His jija-ji had good word of month for the tarot reader) . The family was anxious that he ask her about his impending wedding. Shaadi kab hogi teri? He is 31.

He got me along with him.  I was sitting in the tarot reader’s living room while he got his cards read in a closed room. Meanwhile, the tarot reader’s year old daughter decided to make me her newest friend. I was carrying her around (she looked up at me, raised her hands and said “Godi”! What should I have done?), she guiding the way by pointing at random things and saying one word commands. Like “Botal“.

After about an hour, my initial enthusiasm had vanished and the way she had taken complete control of my life was bugging me till Sharma got out of the room and seemed entirely agog at seeing me with the kid. I set her down, though Sharma later told me that the kid could have been a boy. I didn’t want to go in by now, but Sharma asked me to relax. Jaa ke dekh. 

I got in the room next and to swear by god, I was quite scared. I didn’t know at that time whether I am a believer or not, just the fact that she could say something to the effect of “what you going to be doing is a very stupid idea” was very scary. I didn’t quite know what to ask of her (Sharma had told me to ask her pointed questions. About anything! I just couldn’t think of anything, honest!).

But she kind of explained my emotional upheavals through the months from July onwards, and mentioned that it is all part of a build up plan, and you are planning something markedly different.

I am not sure if Sharma had bribed her before to say nice things (he swore he didn’t), but she said nice things. She said that these last two years were essential (and I certainly feel they were). And what I am doing looks to be correct. I must have asked her most questions about 2012, not abstract in the future, but here now. And she said things like how I would expect things to be, in my head. Hard work, but rewards coming in.

I asked her about death, and she said even if she saw death, she would not tell me.

It felt good to hear what she said. Even if she had said the opposite, I guess I wouldn’t be doing anything different than how I am doing it now. But it felt good to hear what she said. And it sounded like a neat plan (in the absence of a better one).

It feels sad to be leaving Bombay by the end of it, barely three weeks from now. But I am always dumb headed giddy about change. And I somehow know when it is time.

That is one thing I believe about myself. I trust myself when I say It’s time! 

One thought on “Thoughts about 2011 (and 2010)

  1. Pingback: The year that was. |

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