by Neelini Sarkar
Having recently left my first job, one that I held for five years, not in favour of a better job but simply to take a sabbatical, I wake up every morning with feelings of anxiety: Am I wasting my time? Is this going to harm my career? Did I make a mistake?
I decided to spend the first two months of my sabbatical in Milan. The Italians ask me, Why Italy? And why Milan? It is nowhere as exotic as Rome or Tuscany. I shrug. Just because. The truth is, I was worried I might get bored in a rustic country villa with only myself for company. I’m a city girl. I need people. And I didn’t want to live like a tourist for two months. I wanted the real deal. And so I rented a regular apartment in a regular neighbourhood in Milan, just north of the city centre, where I can cook and clean and wash and dust and read and watch films, wondering occasionally if I could just as well have done these things in Delhi.
A city can make you forget your heart while it hurls abuses at you from every direction. This may not be true of every city, but it certainly is true of Delhi. It doesn’t let you be. You have to become one with the city if you want to survive it. I realised this when I noticed the aggression that had rubbed onto me when I engaged with people; when at work I rushed from one thing to the next with no time to enjoy it; when I spent nights losing my soul to the city. Oh, there are good things too, it is not entirely a nightmare. I was lucky to work with some of the loveliest people in the city; I loved my job and I was good at it; it took time but I made friends and built a neat social life for myself; and at dawn when I walked around the colony park to the sound of parrots and woodpeckers, I was happy. But everything about my life there had begun to feel empty. Even the moments of pleasure felt forced – as though I did them because I was supposed to. And I knew this for a while but brushed it away, I was too busy to indulge myself beyond a point, and my attitude, like every other person in the city, was to just get on with it.
One day I didn’t want to be that person any more. It was a hot summer afternoon. I had just returned from a trip to the US and was jetlagged, and I didn’t feel like working. I just wanted to sleep. I wanted to leave the city, even though I had just returned. And so I decided I would do just that. In the next few months, I looked for – and found – more profound reasons why I should leave: I wasn’t happy with my job, I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere, I wanted to learn new skills, I needed a change, I wanted to ‘find myself’ – this last more for the amusement of friends who called this my ‘Eat Pray Love’ experience. The truth is perhaps all these things and none of them. I don’t know yet.
And so I left one city to come to another city. I am fortunate even to have the luxury of this choice, there is some level of extravagance attached to the very idea of soul-searching. This is perhaps why I gave myself, my coworkers, my friends and family all those practical reasons why this was a wise decision. I suspect they saw through me but supported me anyway. And it needn’t have been Italy, I could have gone anywhere. The point is, I had to leave.
Now here I am in Milan, doing the things I love: going for long walks, discovering new books, watching old movies, meeting new friends, reconnecting with old ones, and cooking new things every day. Am I at peace? Certainly when I am doing these things, but not all the time. Human beings need a purpose, and work provides a large part of this. I have a draft mail in my inbox begging my ex-boss to give me some freelance work. I haven’t sent it to her yet. I don’t want to escape into work. I want to do it for the love of it not because there is nothing better to do.
I know there are many who have felt this way, some had the option to take off and explore, others felt too weighed down by their lives to change it. It’s easier when you are single, when you don’t have children to take care of, but more often than not that’s an excuse and not a reason. Change need not be dramatic or extreme, but if life does not fulfil you, it’s important to do something about it. I had other options, more practical ones: I could have changed jobs, or tried to make better space for myself in my current job and life, I could have stayed on until I had decided what I wanted to do next, I could have taken a vacation. Hell, I could have spring-cleaned my house and I probably would have felt better. But I was so tied down to my life that I needed a dramatic departure in order to see the other possibilities in the world.
Why and how you choose to leave your life also depends of course on how old you are and where you’ve got to. I am too young for a midlife crisis and too old for a gap year. So for me, this is not about discovering what I want to do in life nor is it about making a fresh start. I have left with every intention to return. In time, I will be ready to plunge into the stresses of everyday once again, because I believe that is an inescapable part of today’s life and a part of me loves the energy with which we rush from one thing to the next, soaking up every bit the world has to offer.
When I return, I do not hope to be wiser or happier or ready to do things differently, I simply hope to feel fulfilled and therefore at peace.
(Neelini Sarkar nurtured books and authors 24/7 at HarperCollins India for five years before her sabbatical. She has promised us many Milanese adventures in the coming weeks, particularly, though not only, in the realm of food.)
(Photographs by Devapriya Roy.)