Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Freelance Journalist Who Thinks She's the Female Hulk - sure you want to read this?

Until very recently, I had no idea how powerfully therapeutic exercise can be in any form. I’ve been obese for a number of years now and believe me, I’ve tried everything in the book – the diets, the exercises, starvation, bottle gourd juice, no caffeine, aerobics, sports, gym, surviving only on grapes for a month and on boiled vegetables the next – the list just goes on. I know every gym in my neighborhood, I know most gyms in the city actually and several people who run them.

The levels of stress I was under as a 15-year-old were drastically different from those I’m facing today. Back then, I didn’t have to worry about finding a full-time job or getting enough freelance work to be able to pay back the monthly education loan installment. Through the last decade or so, exercise has routinely been my worst enemy; not because I hated working out or was lazy, but because I was being forced to do it by people who genuinely care about my health but don’t quite get that nagging just doesn’t work with me. So because it wasn’t MY choice, I hated it. Under stress, I eat – and I binge eat. Obviously, I don’t binge eat celery and lettuce and sunflower seeds. I binge on chocolate, ice cream, cookies – pretty much anything and everything that’s bad for my body.

I had never planned to be where I am today and yet here I am. As I like to say though, plans have an uncanny tendency to make their own (other) plans.

There’s one other thing I’ve learned today. It is extremely taxing – physically, mentally and emotionally – to be a fighter. I don’t mean the kind of aggressive person that always gets into fights; I’m talking about the spirit to never give up or a will-not-be-defeated personality. Having such a personality, I’m realizing how tired I am of fighting right now; Fighting against circumstances, against people, against inhuman behavior, and against myself at times. I’m tired and stressed out and it shows in multiple ways. I have over 150 failed job applications sitting in a folder on my computer, an amazing grant opportunity decided not to knock on my door yesterday, I don’t have the money to get out of the city for a few weeks and head into the wilderness to recharge my batteries, my parents are paying my monthly loan installments because as a freelancer, I make peanuts.

Despite all that, for whatever reasons, my spirit refuses to put her hands up in defeat even though my body wants to. A body that is sleep deprived, has to work overtime given its weight and has more health issues now than it has ever had before. From a very young age, I’ve known what I want to do – professionally and personally – and I’ve never been apologetic about it because I genuinely believe that I would have been dangerously unhappy right now had I given in to the pressure of becoming a dentist or pursuing a career in engineering etc. Just like I’ve known what I want to do, somewhere I’ve always known that the path I’m choosing to walk isn’t going to be a lucrative one and as someone who doesn’t believe money is everything, I’m okay with that.

However, things become truly challenging when someone who doesn’t care a lot about money, is suddenly in a position in which making money needs to be relatively high on the list of priorities. Why? Because the confidence with which I applied for an education loan to go study environmental journalism at the graduate level will prove to be a lie if I can’t live up to the promises I made, my faith in the importance of informed, skilled environmental journalists in the world will be irrelevant if I can’t keep those promises.

I’ve narrowed the present circumstance down to two possible strategies – 1) Focus solely on landing a lucrative job even if it’s outside my academic and thus-far-gained professional experience, or 2) I accept that one way or another, I’m going to have to pay off this loan so it’s probably best to focus on building a sustainable, happy career based on long-term objectives and hard work, all the while managing finances to prioritize the bank first.

I’ve spent several sleepless nights wondering whether I too, like many of my undergrad classmates, should have moved on to pursuing an MBA and taken up a job at some random corporation or private company as a marketing or business executive. Every single time that question has been answered with a resounding “NO!” from within and I’ve ultimately smiled a sigh of relief and drifted off to sleep.

I turned 26 last month and that number is only going to increase so it makes way more sense to choose the second strategy. I’m going to get older, the loan’s going to have to be paid off no matter what, and so I might as well take the choke-collar off and live a little while trying my best to find a healthy balance.

This is where exercise comes in. I’ve now been back in India for a little over a year and wasn’t getting anywhere with the fitness goal until I decided I could travel next year and for now, I ought to invest in hiring a personal trainer who is quite frankly, brutal. I love that. This self-made, hard-working guy from a middle class Maharashtrian family inspires me with how passionate he is about getting results. I get that. When it comes to work, that’s how I am. It’s only fair then, that I at least match his dedication if not top it.

Then, 2 weeks ago, something changed. I re-realized that I was beginning to get inconsistent after some unexpected breaks in workout schedules. And I re-discovered the sheer exhilaration of playing badminton.

I started playing badminton when I was about five-years-old. The racket was taller than I was at the time. It quickly became my favorite sport and the most beloved extra-curricular activity, of which there were many. I continued playing till I was 16. I played at the district level, and was on my college badminton team until the social pressure of academics forced me to withdraw into an unpleasant study-induced state of coma in 2006-07. The HSC exam demon did away with a lot of my fun activities and I hated being confined to classrooms and tuition groups. The rebel in me hated it even more. Fast forward to last week. Thanks to the magic of technology, a group of people I know came into existence and we now have a regular group that plays badminton three days a week and it is hands-down the best thing I’ve done in the entire time I’ve been back in India.

Three days of badminton, three days of intense gym workouts and Sunday – that’s what my weeks look like now. Why is this therapeutic? Because I’m one of the very people on the planet (or so I like to believe) who gets The Hulk. Yes, The Hulk – the big, green superhero.

You know how he told Captain America in the first Avengers movie that his secret is that he’s always angry? That’s me.

I am always angry – angry about how people treat animals, about how uncivilized some people are, how uncompassionate and selfish people can be, about how people treat senior citizens or the homeless, about corruption, bureaucracy, scams, frauds, celebrity criminals getting off scot-free, migrants risking everything for a chance at life, racism, privilege, climate change deniers, having to swallow my pride when my parents pay off loan installments…You get it, right? Always. Angry.

But as a journalist and a communications professional, it is imperative that I exercise ultimate control over my anger – something I have learned to do very well over the years. The gym and the badminton court are where that anger is unleashed. Moreover, I’m a very competitive person. I don’t like losing but I’ve learned to take it in my stride if that’s the hand I’m dealt. That these two activities work their magic on my physical fitness is a definite advantage, but the fact that they are amazing stress-busters is what I love the most.

Things aren’t perfect right now and in all probability, they’re never going to be. But apparently, my personality is infused with a concoction of characteristics that render it incapable of ever giving up. So no matter what the situation, how bad it gets and how much my body wants to surrender, my spirit will never allow it to raise the white flag. Which is why, even in this sort-of-unemployed period under a disastrous dose of stress, I actually mean it when I say, “I love my job.” The element of satisfaction and happiness is unparalleled and being able to report global stories of environmental news value is the entire point of having taken out that back-breaking loan in the first place. So even though it may not be a traditional newsroom ‘job’, it is work that I love, respect and will do for as long as I possibly can because it makes me extremely happy.

An independent journalist, I report environmental and science stories of public interest for U.S.-based mongabay.com and am working on expanding my freelance network and portfolio. And because I’m a workaholic, I’m also pursuing an online Certificate Program in environmental justice while working on an application to an absolutely smashing PhD program at Michigan State. This program is outstanding – it’s everything I’ve ever aspired to do and everything I’ve done up to this point has been a work-in-progress towards achieving exactly this goal. This is the kind of opportunity that gives me a perpetual adrenaline rush and a chance to bring the full force of my life’s work down on this application and hit a home-run. Even today, I am clear as ever about knowing exactly what I want to do. I’m figuring out how to get there using a combination of routes and off-road paths, but that’s the journey – that’s life.

It’s like with love – when you know it’s right, you just know it’s right. It’s never going to be easy but it’ll always be worth it. (Full disclosure – I’m not the genius that came up with that last line.)

So this is me saying thank you to the incredible people who have taken the time out of their busy schedules to come play badminton for 4 hours a week and my trainer at the gym – for creating an atmosphere that neutralizes my anger and lets me get to work with a refreshed, clear and focused-as-hell brain that’s raring to go. I’m going to cook you guys something (hopefully) lip-smacking someday soon.

To those who’re reading this and wondering if they will ever meet their fitness goals, I am no expert on the matter but here’s a motivating quote I came across a few weeks ago that I read every morning and then actually feel The Hulk in me gearing up for a brutal hour of smashing, running and sweating – “If you want something you’ve never had, you have to do something you’ve never done.” 

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