Boules & roses: The paycheque-free, freelance life

In the hyper-networked default setting of our time, it seems to not actively project yourself is to write yourself into career oblivion, says Lalita Iyer in the latest edition of her 'Reset' column

Representative image of a seedling being carefully transplanted
Representative image of a seedling being carefully transplanted

Lalita Iyer

Every few months, I have an existential crisis about money. I ought to earn more of it. I am not stretching myself enough. The pockets of time that I have created to stand and stare are a luxury I can ill-afford. Such are the thoughts that pin me down.

For someone who hasn’t had a day job for the last eight years—not counting the strange start-up that I accidentally fell into sometime last year and which lasted all of 44 days—I should have got used to the project-to-project, hand-to-mouth life of a freelancer. But the hangover of a regular pay cheque is hard to get rid of.

It was on one of those dark days last week that I called the friend of a friend who had, despite a late start, “winged it”. Turns out her daughter was pursuing her undergrad studies in America which cost as much as a plush apartment in Gurgaon. And although her husband was paying for it, she realised she should also contribute to the family kitty.

She started a business in education consulting, which grew exponentially. If I wanted my son to have a ‘foreign education’ once he finishes school, she admonished me, I should aim to earn at least ten times my current earning, every year, for the next four years.

She pointed out everything I was doing wrong. I was not networking enough, I didn’t have a website, I was not on social media or LinkedIn. And sacrilege! I was not even writing LinkedIn posts (which I recently found out were a thing). Instead of agonising about the larger picture, I should focus on the low-hanging fruit (forget the fact that I might not recognise it even when I see it).

In my defence, I said that I had put myself out a few years ago in a very vulnerable Neena Gupta-like post, asking for work on Instagram and that work had indeed come my way. I also said something like, “LinkedIn is Tinder for work” and since I didn’t do Tinder why would I do LinkedIn? It was all too noisy. Besides, I was a writer—shouldn’t my work speak for me? Why did I need a website? At which point, her patience ran out and we hung up.

I was a writer—shouldn’t my work speak for me? Why did I need a website?

The 10-minute phone call caused a turbulence that I thought was typical of youth. It was my bad that I had called her. Why did I? What was I seeking? I tried to soothe away my angst with the placebo, “Oh, she meant well.” She, and so many others.

I get plenty of unsolicited advice when I say I write for a living in response to the inescapable “What do you do?” question. Why don’t you try ghost writing? Or business/ brand storytelling? Web series? Corporate communication? “That’s where the money is,” they tell me.

It makes me realise I have a singular gift. I gravitate to all the places where the money is not. It’s not like I haven’t tried to get a ‘real job’ in the last few years. I have sent out resumes to several people and made it to a few interviews, too. But the only jobs I seem to want are the jobs of the people interviewing me and somehow, they seem to know this too.

And so, I found ways to work around the (lack of) money. Instead of hotels, I found homes that people threw open. Instead of retail therapy, I found art and music and bread and sewing projects. Instead of social media, I found real conversations.

“What you have is sukoon, and that is something people in the system will never have,”

Mostly, I found bliss. Which didn’t save me from the dark clouds in the aftermath of the aforementioned phone call. I texted five friends. Four of them called me within the hour and the fifth called later that night only because she was in a different time zone. They were angry for me, on my behalf. They made me see where my real wealth lay.

I realised that I truly didn’t want to make my liabilities bigger. I would much rather make my dreams smaller. Because how much is enough? Will it ever be enough? “What you have is sukoon, and that is something people in the system will never have,” my friend Zara said, over a WhatsApp call.

I was no longer ‘in the system’ and the job of people in the system was to bring me back, because how dare I presume I could do without them? It all started making sense. Sukoon is a difficult word to translate into English. While the meaning of it is loosely contentment or calmness, the texture and flavour of it sits in a more palpable, visceral space.

I know I am supposed to keep my eyes firmly on the future—of my child if not my own—but it has taken me so long to savour the present that I want to linger. After years of wanting to be someplace else, I have finally found a place to be happy in. My days are simultaneously alert and restful.

One could say I am lying fallow, and that fallow is important in the wake of decades of fertility. Certainly, some of the choices I have made—leading an un-LinkedIn life, quitting social media, moving to the hills—have cast me in the role of the outsider, creating a willful blockade to ‘progress’, as it were.

I wasn’t unprepared for this. I had figured a long time ago that either my skills, such as they were, would become obsolete, or my real life responsibilities would increase so much—single-parenting my teenage son and caring for my aged parents—that there would be less of me to offer at a ‘real job’.

And maybe because I knew this all along, I did not allow obsolescence to creep up on me. I walked toward it. I engineered my life to welcome it joyfully, instead of fighting it. I saw it as an opportunity to make a new me—someone who was strangely optimistic, someone who believed that there was a time for caution and a time to be reckless.

I did not allow obsolescence to creep up on me. I walked toward it.

Soon after the soul-depleting call, I got dressed and went to the local community library for the launch of Roses in the Fire of Spring. A book written with generosity and great attention to detail by Girija and M.S. ‘Viru’ Viraraghavan, perhaps the country’s most celebrated rosarians and rose hybridisers.

Together, they have been on the path of creating convention-defying roses that lend themselves to diversity, universality and survival in a rapidly warming world. They name their roses after people or stories that have inspired them—Chantal’s Kolam, Ahimsa, E.K. Janaki Ammal, Takako-Tradition’s Torch, M.S. Swaminathan, Meghamala, Stephen’s Dream, Sheenagh Harris and Kindly Light.

Over the last 40 years, they have released 118 roses, with more seedlings about to be released and yet more being tested. Considering that it can take seven to eight years to grow, test, and release a rose, what else is this but a labour of love?

At the event, which was anchored by veteran environmentalist Pippa Mukherji, someone brought a bouquet of wild roses from her own garden to present to the Viraraghavans. A local baker organised chutney sandwiches, cookies and coffee. It was a Wednesday morning and who cared that the world hadn’t promised us a rose garden? Each of us present was exactly where we wanted to be.

Girija explained that the rose “has a natural talent for diversity and beauty”—it only needs to be helped on its way. “Roses of the conventional type will ‘conform’,” she said, and therefore sell well, but the focus must be on creating new roses featuring “every possible variation of colour, form, size, and plant habit”.

This made me think, we are not all meant to live on the same track—sometimes we can self-graft onto a way of being that makes us feel most alive. And so, back home, renewed and smelling the roses, literally and figuratively, I decided to announce to my small community in the hills that I was taking orders for sourdough bread.

Maybe I won’t be a bread baroness, but my heart will skip a beat every time I cut open a crusty boule to reveal the open crumb.

(Lalita Iyer is an author and freelance journalist)

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