Saturday, January 28, 2012

Shiny happy people

So many young people.

So young.

It was my first week at the NDTV broadcast training programme. I had started spending over 8 hours a day every day in a room with over 40 people in their early 20s. Most of them were 21-22, there were even a couple of 19-year-olds. I was on the other end of that bridge. In another year I would turn 30.

The last time I had been around so many young people in one room for extended periods of time was in high school. And I had been one of those young people, so it doesn't count. Life since then had been one hard impersonal knock after another. No time to enjoy being young. I was too busy dealing with deaths and almost dyings and God. The last couple of years I had almost exclusively spent in the absence of people my age or younger or even a little older. I had had some sort of inkling about things the whole time but I know it for sure now - life had done something to me. I had gone from 20 to a life-weary 60 that looked like 80. I felt so...desperately (almost gratefully) anaesthetised.

But being around so many young people so suddenly wasn't the only major change in my life. I was in India now, in New Delhi, all by myself. I was in a country I had only visited for summer holidays in childhood and barely at all in the past ten years. I was in a city I had only transitted through too many years ago to bother. My environment had changed overnight from a sanitised, controlled, elephant graveyard to an overcrowded, overstimulating, crumbly third-world capital city. I was so out of my element - and feeling so vulnerable - that for the first few weeks I would not even get out of my chair at the NDTV media institute, not even to go to the restroom or to get a drink of water. I would sit there like a rock for over 8 hours everyday with 40-something young people around me barely able to sit in one place or be silent for more than 15 minutes. I would sit so long that every day felt like a long-distance flight. I didn't speak much either. I was so disoriented by the new faces, new sounds, new smells, new lingo around me, that once back at the shabby room I was renting out, I would not even step out for a walk, even when asked. It took me over a month, 2 months even, to get comfortable enough to allow myself unplanned movement.

That first week, I spent a lot of time observing...absorbing the people in that room with me at NDTV. Collectively they were very exciteable and had very short attention spans. They talked too loud, and they laughed too loud. They seemed to jump straight from neutral to fifth. For many of them it was the first time they had been away from home. With some you could tell from the way they would interact with the opposite sex. They loved taking pictures of each other and of themselves. This was obviously the digital generation. I was raised on that precious non-renewable resource called the 35mm film. They monitored their Facebook accounts more often than they checked their email. Some even kept track of Facebook comments and would come find you the next day if you hadn't been leaving comments on their pictures. It was...overwhelming. On top of everything else for me, it was too much.

I noticed some other things though. I noticed how strange it felt for me to look around and see strong, young, healthy bodies. Strong, young men and strong, young women. Children in grown-up bodies. What a different vibe they gave off compared to the dying and the elderly. It was quite startling. Here there was noise and life and sun. I noticed the strangest of things. Did you know that a young person's hair has a certain shine and a bounce? Their skin looks thicker and shinier, as if soaked in some youth nutrient. Like a ripe golden mango. There is an eagerness in their eyes. Young people talk a lot and smile a lot. Something happens to their body language when they talk to a person of the opposite sex. They begin to smile a little differently, it's almost as if their bodies put on a performance. The boys stand taller, and the girls toss their hair more. The boys hold court with their humour, and the girls applaud them with their laughter.

I don't know why it seemed so strange to me. I thought about it some more. I think I had also started on a phase like that once, but somehow it had got cut short. I had had to grow up and forget about smiles and boys.

That week I felt a strange faraway fondness for these very young people that would be around me every day for the next 6 months. There were so many things I wanted to tell them, so many things they needed to know. About failure, about disappointments, unfair tragedies, and unanswered prayers. I wanted to tell them to channel their youth and their energies to better the world while they still believed they could. I wanted them to believe that their health was more important than money or fame or praise. I wanted the boys to know that clean speech and kindness would make them into better men. I wanted the girls to believe that real men will respect them before they love them. I wanted them to know that in each of them I saw potential, that humility and not arrogance would make that potential flourish. They needed to know that there would be times when their will, their convictions would be tested. They needed to be told that it was okay to stand for something even if it meant letting go of something else. That that's what would separate them from the rest. That it's not going to be easy. That it can tear you apart and leave you on the floor, blind and mute and stupid, wondering for years what it is that you lost.

There was so much they needed to know. These strong, young beautiful, people, each and every one of them. I feared for the realities that awaited them. I feared for the compromises they would make. I feared that they wouldn't ever realise that they always had a choice.