An All Pain, No Gain StoryAashish Gupta
Aditya Khanzode, an ever-optimistic neighbour in the hostel of a reputed MBA college in Pune, once said while devouring a container full of ‘namkeen’ that my mother had very affectionately kept in my suitcase – “You have a very different way of seeing things. You should become a writer.” I must say the idea of seeing my name printed in bold letters on a scintillating cover was very attractive. That was all I thought then; so shallow was the concept of a writer in my head – someone who has a name printed on a shinning cover. If I look back, I remember I was always obsessed with my name, and seeing it printed or carved somewhere – on ID cards, stickers on notebooks with brown, grainy covers. As a school kid, I had subscribed to a comic selling club by the name – ‘Ankur Baal Book Club” – meaning Ankur’s book club for kids. Every month, they used to send me a collection of 5 comics and a supplementary magazine which had mundane details on what was happening with the members of Ankur Baal Book Club. The magazine had a full page dedicated for the name of members who wanted to see their name on it. You just had to fill up and mail a form to them to see your name on the page. I don’t have the words to describe the award ceremony that played in my imagination on finding my name on the page titled – “Apke Apne Members”. Zee TV’s filmfare award organizers would die in shame and envy if they could peep into my imagination.
I am sorry for digressing. I have a very short attention span. I meant to tell you how all the writing business started. When Khanzode displayed such faith in me, out of his selfish love for namkeen, I asked him – “But where is the story?”. He replied in his typical Marathi accent – “Arey baba, imagine one of your one-sided crushes has turned out to be a real love story and write it. See where is Chetan Bhagat today. Write love stories.” At this point, I recall a dialogue from the bollywood movie ‘Rockstar’ – “Wo dusri type ki zindagi hoti hai jo kalakaar bana deti hai.” It may sound somewhat laughable to you, but if you ponder on that statement with some gravity, it has profound meaning. Generally, your creations are really shallow unless you have experienced the emotions and their intensity first hand – such as falling in love only to become a jilted lover. Even the thought of it was so repelling that I realized I would be better off as someone who has no desire to pen down anything. Still, I could hear my ego whisper to me – “Not all have to go through the experience part. You are gifted, ma boy! Take that bloody pen, and write. Only let your imagination be the limit. Soar high, ma boy.”
Fast forward 2 years. We have all graduated and begun our corporate journey with unparalleled enthusiasm. It is the moment we all wait for our entire lives, right? The thought of escaping the ignominy of asking pocket money from parents every month, and shunning every god damn responsibility that you were obliged to fulfil in return. Being independent. Ah, flying free in the sky like migratory birds, spanning continents – only to know that you had only been flying all these years and it was time to have your wings cut. Four months into the job, and I couldn’t take all the abuses and unjustified criticism hurled at me. They kept calling to check if I was working, what was I working on – sometimes 20 times a day. Every time they called, they found an innovative way to find faults in me. There was something happening here. They were affirming the idea in my mind, that I was a nobody. Three months more, and I decided to move on to another world. Startups were in, where else I would go? It was meant for people like me – rejected as unfit for the routine and “normal” life. A world that I thought would give me back my lost dignity. I launched a company by the name “Studiomarche”, an opportunity for struggling musicians to showcase their music on an online platform meant exclusively for them. Forget “Indian Idol”, Studiomarche will show your talent to the world. I ‘found a co-founder’, a very dear friend of mine – the best I tell you. ‘We would die and go to hell together’ was how we had planned to live life. Well, as you can predict, he left me alone. I spent more than 20 hrs a day slogging on the website that I thought would change the world. That’s how entrepreneurs are right – they have a vision to change the world. The only difference, it changed me. The lone slogging in front of this blinding screen, was making me a recluse. Food stopped slipping down my throat – the constant worry of what the next day had in it for me – another bug in the code, another failure to configure a mail server, another day before the site finally goes live, another day that proved that I was a shit. I outsourced some part to a vendor, he ran away with my money. Meanwhile, I had not gotten used to hearing – “What does your son do? Nothing? Oh, so sad!”; some kind words from maid to my mother – “Why do you call me? Bhaiyaji is not doing anything. Have him clean the tank”; and then there were neighbours – “You are not doing anything, right? Why don’t you create the class attendance sheet for my teacher wife? She is poor at excel, no”. Never-ending hours in front of the screen amplified my migraine. Kidney stones that had somehow become dormant, were now performing jumping jacks. It was as if every ailment in the past or the ones that were looking to arrive in future had found this to be an auspicious occasion and changed the plans.
My brain used to go dead every time I sat in front of that mortifying screen. Weeks and months of slog drained me. Fear of ‘what will I ever do in life?’ became more prominent, so much that it crippled my entire personality. I started sleeping in afternoons, and people started tagging me a house wife. I wouldn’t mind the tag, but you know what the intention was, right? These afternoon naps were horrible – full of scary dreams. I would have said nightmares, but you know, it did not sound right – “Nightmares in afternoon”. Anyway, my apologies for drifting again. Where was I? Okay. They were horrible dreams – mother leaving me to the devils, people I have known being crushed by large cranes lifting mammoth containers, people with twisted heads, cockroaches flowing in like water from kitchen ventilator and filling up the whole house, and covering us till our necks, with the head yet to drown. I used to wake up all sweaty and heart palpitating and giving jolts to my chest, like hammer.In short, fear had become a prominent part of my life – so prominent that it was everywhere. The fear created such anxiety that I felt like puking every day. Mornings were dizzy. I had been retching every morning since the time I was hurled abuses by the boss. They only grew worse.
The website did come to life, but I was not happy. I was empty. I had no zeal. What now? Back to finding some job, I thought. It was hard for an unemployed. There was more happening. I had this urge to cry every now and then. I used to find some dark corner in the basement and lie down weeping. There were lizards in those corners. So I found some less “corner-y” corner in our weirdly shaped basement and wept more. It felt as if I constantly needed help. I constantly needed to express what I was going through, and the only way those emotions found a vent was crying. The fear of fear had become so immense that the only thing I wanted was an escape. One day, as I was travelling in the Delhi metro, a sudden burst of euphoria overwhelmed me. It was a kind of happiness I had not felt in months. Only problem, the source of this happiness was not benign in nature. It stemmed from the idea that I could get down at the next station and take a leap of faith on the electric tracks. Everything will be over. No more running away from fear. I realised when you are in such a state, the way of thinking completely changes. Some people think that how difficult it must be to take that heinous step, but only those who go through such low feelings know how beautiful the thought of escape is. The sun shines bright in your eyes, the wind touches your sole, the leaves look so green you wonder why they appeared so dusty before. I do not remember what stopped me that day – I think it was a flash of my mother’s eyes post my cremation.
Fast forward few months. I was back in the corporate world in a company that was worse. Now the cliche’ beggars are not choosers was hitting hard. People around were frustrated, angry, unreasonable to an alien extent. They were forced to do highly clerical work for insane hours. This had made them extremely inanimate. I had no idea what was universe up to. Maybe, this was law of attraction in action. Dullness attracting more dullness. The only thing that gave me some relief was that I was employed, and there was a cheque coming at the end of the month which created a facade of my usefulness. In a few days I saw more happening. The constant insults faced by other people on the floor perturbed me too much. It brought back memories of the last job. The insults echoed in my ears all night. Someone had set his / her ringtone same as that on my ex-boss’s phone. Every time I heard it, my anxiety got aggravated. I started taking deeper breaths to assess these situations. There was really nothing happening to me. I was not being insulted, at least, then why was I reacting like this. It was then I knew that it was my mind playing tricks on me. My experience and affirmations had programmed it to react in a specific manner, a standard flight or fight reaction for things faced earlier in life, and then slowly percolating into anything and everything even remotely inviting fear. In short, it was playing tricks on me. Once I accepted that it was my mind, and not me, doing this – I found some peace. At least, something to start with. You may find this distinct reference to “mind” and “me” odd, but it is in this moment I gained the knowledge that there was this pure soul that I called “me”, which no one can corrupt; and the mind which is just an instrument the soul uses to represent itself in this world. This instrument/organ was corrupt/damaged; and just like any other organ in the body this could get damaged. This was all I had to know to fight the battle. To tell people about this, and give them this first breath once they resurface on water (after drowning for long) was the only objective I had in mind while writing this book. Till that point, I was not well-versed with the medical part. It was only later that doctor diagnosed me with clinical depression and anxiety. I finally had a name for my problem.
Some people tell me that your book is really dark, making certain parts difficult to read through. I understand, but it correctly pictures what an unstable mind goes through. I didn’t just want people to read about what some victims of mental illness go through, but actually experience it. This is the reason the concepts have been woven into a fiction extending the idea to criminal minds, and how some of them are victims of a sick mind. How one idea through repeated affirmations or some backing experience gets amplified and becomes a deep-rooted part of your life.
While some people may think writing as a great way of ventilating pent-up emotions, it was otherwise for me. I had to re-visit all the experiences in my mind in order to pen this story down, and it only added to my existing problems. Sudden urge to cry, fear, loneliness, dullness, they all started haunting me more. I remember while writing the last part (out of 4) of the book, I just couldn’t feel how captivation felt. What feelings must come in one’s mind when trapped in a small cell, things that one sees, etc. I locked up myself in my tiny washroom every night for some nights to feel the character. It was then that part came out smoothly. Managing writing was becoming difficult due to the nature of my job. I used to start writing mostly at 1 AM after coming back home from work at 11 or 12 in the night. Weekends presented best opportunities, so I spent most of it crying and writing, avoiding all social contact. One creative excuse after another to every friend’s call. They ultimately stopped calling me. What I was doing was hazardous given my condition.
Four years down, the book was over. The feeling was indescribable – as if taking a peaceful breath after a long time, but another battle was yet to be fought. The manuscript got rejected by all publishing houses and literary agents. When I called one agent out of desperation to seek his opinion on the script, he gently said – “I just couldn’t connect with it”. The industry is full of fraudsters ready to rip you off your money. I used to get acceptance mails from vanity publishers who only revealed later that they would publish my work in return of Rs.3-4 lakhs. Sigh! Few days later, I dropped an email to a not so popular agent, but fairly known in the the circle of debut authors. The agent took some advance and then started his search for a publisher. Every time I called him to enquire about the status, I was told that there are other authors in line and that I will have to wait. After six months of false promises and repeated calls, he finally got me a startup publishing house, one owned by his friend. I was told that I will have to shell out some more money for editing and cover design of the book. Tired of the process, I accepted the deal and signed a contract which appeared to be one-sided for most parts. They promised offline distribution, e-books and kindle versions, marketing, and other stuff generally provided by a traditional publisher, so I din’t mind some of the one-sided clauses in the contract. I also made the payment so that editing and cover design could begin, which I was promised was in line the next month. One month, two months, four months, six months, and then eight months passed. There was no sign of cover anywhere. The agent never picked up the call, and only replied with a simple yes / no or a one line promise to commence the work next month. At times, when he did pick up the call, he would make me feel as if I was the guy cleaning toilets in his house. Other few authors (three precisely), who had already got published couldn’t see an e-book version or any kind of marketing happening. I created a Whatsapp group inviting all the authors to join and started raising questions around the publisher’s progress and practices. The objective was to unite and ensure that we were not being cheated. I also got to know that the publisher had a full-time job, with no serious intent to run the publishing house – a part time affair. Someone backbit and complained to the publisher that I was spreading negative sentiments among the authors by creating a back channel on Whatsapp. The agent called me immediately and informed that the publisher was not happy with me on taking such steps and that I had the option of letting go this publishing opportunity. I was really disheartened. I just couldn’t imagine all the hard work and suffering ending like this. I apologised and promised that I would dismantle the group.
Few weeks later, I received a cover design from the agent in my mailbox. It was a shoddy work from some amateur. I asked for re-design and all I got was more shoddy work. After 2-3 attempts, the agent got pissed off. Tired of this whole process, I created the cover design on my own and asked him to just take it as it is. I was pissed off, because they had taken money from me to do the work, and it was me who was doing it. He seemed to be particularly delighted with my work, and he had the guts to call me next day and ask if I was interested in designing covers for him. Seriously? Is that why I have been taking all his tantrums these months? To design covers for him. What about the book? When will it be edited? Will it ever get published? Where is the marketing happening? Where are those questions? Then began another cycle of false promises and lame excused for the editing. Another four months of this, and I had lost it. I got in touch with another author from the same publishing house and got to know how he had been going through similar experiences. I called the agent and unleashed my fury. I told him that I had now decided to go for self-publishing and that we should break the deal from the publisher. Then he started telling more lies about how he could convince the publisher to publish my book next month. I said a clear “No”. I had made up my mind. He suddenly turned meek and talked to me like I really was some dignified writer. He asked me if he could find another publisher. I refused to go by anything he said. I self-published my book, that too with some more trouble, but finally it was out. Meanwhile, I kept on fighting for getting the editing fee refunded from the agent and was fairly successful.
After years of pain, the book is out and the struggle to make it visible continues. The dialogue from the movie Rockstar continues to haunt me – Wo dusri type ki zindagi hoti hai jo kalakaar bana deti hai. At the end of life, I will have no complains in living this “dusri type ki zindagi” if all this actually translates into something meaningful. Otherwise, I wish no one gets to live this “dusri type ki life”.