The words I most commonly find myself saying is “I’m sorry I haven’t called you back/ met you. I’ve been so busy!” Busy, busy, BUSY: everyone in Bombay is inundated with so much stuff that we’re just too busy.
I don’t work and I have domestic help, as well as a joint family in place to be around my child and yet, I feel like I’ve made a business of my busyness. I haven’t read a book in the last 3.5 years (although I’m a student and lover of literature) and I barely watch any TV any longer (although I would be a student of TV studies if someone would start that course). My daughter goes to school for 4 hours 5 times a week and yet, I have no time!
My husband asks, “What are you so busy doing?” The question offends me (also because he thinks that he’s the only one who has the right to be tired or busy) but I can’t answer it. I have no idea what I do! I don’t really have very much home responsibility, but yes, I am around my child most of the time and we play a lot. She also likes me to be singularly focused on her when I’m with her, but I remember being just as busy when I didn’t have a child and wasn’t working!
I talk to other friends and find that I don’t need to be quarantined. It’s an epidemic because the business of busyness is infectious in Bombay. I know friends that moved from Kolkata or Delhi who complain that Bombay people are ‘cold’, ‘self-consumed’ and ‘unhelpful’. The Kolkatan said that it’s impossible to get people to meet you for coffee because they’re always busy. Another complain she had was that in Kolkata, everyone loves inviting friends home. In Bombay, no one does that. People are happier meeting you outside.
I try to defend my city people saying that that’s because we live pigeon-holed existences and so we don’t have the space to entertain. I also put forth the fact that we waste so much time in traveling to places that we become very selfish of what time is left, but I know that she is right. My reasons are correct as well, but the real reason I rarely invite people home is because I can’t control how long they will stay. If I meet them outside, I can scoot when I wish but at home, I can’t shove them out (or even politely nudge them out).
I’m the same way with the phone: when my phone starts ringing, my first reaction is complete panic. I want to fling it across the room and run out screaming, putting as much distance between it and me so I don’t have to take the call. Simultaneously, I will happily WhatsApp people for hours on end, having conversations that could have been completed, by the use of a phone call, in a minute. The reason is the same: in a phone call, I find it rude to hang up so I can’t control how long the conversation lasts but on WhatsApp, I can reply at my own convenience.
It’s simpler to pretend to be busy on message because there are no environmental clues like where you really are or what you’re doing: it’s easy to seem like I’m being mauled by my impatient cub to put the phone down when I’m actually at the gym (loud music blaring in the background), while having this conversation through texting. It’s more convincing to say, “Hey I better attend to this urgent toddler meltdown” rather than saying “Hey, I better attend to this urgent undoing of my shoe-lace while doing cardio (because I’m actually so over this conversation!)” WhatsApp is just a safer option in terms of cutting a conversation without hurting anyone’s feelings while returning to your busy life. My WhatsApp status is quite direct, “Hate phone calls, love texting! Don’t call me!”
When I visit my sister in Pune, my Jiyaji comes home early to be with me; he takes us out and shows us a great time. On the other hand, when my sister visits Bombay, my husband can barely find the time to meet her for dinner. We may just be sitting home on that night, but he’s resistant to step out on a weeknight. My bhabhi, who moved from Delhi, told me that she finds Bombay people very cold. I can understand her point completely but I wonder what makes us this way.
I think just the way Indians are viewed as ill-mannered and aggressive, because we constantly need to push to get ahead in line, something to do with the environ that we live in makes Bombayites also insecure.
Indians have to compete in life with millions for a handful resources, right from the time we are in our mothers’ wombs; stressing about whether we will get a room in the best maternity hospital to getting an admission into school, college, (list goes on). Life is a race and this gets embedded into our psyche. In Bombay, this ‘Indian’ situation is magnified; with such a disciplined, competitive working culture, long working hours and very less space to live in, breathe in, travel in (whether you’re trying to find a seat on the local or trying to wiggle into the left lane to get one car ahead at the traffic jam), we find that we are fighting to gain some amount of control in our lives and personal space.
Our home becomes our sanctuary and we find that that is the only place where we exercise some control. This is why we are fiercely possessive of it, not allowing anyone to enter for fear that their visit may reduce our sense of control here.
After all the time we spend commuting, working and fighting for space, we become selfish about what time we have left. We get into a mentality of constantly conserving: from space (I know of a top Bombay architect who was called to Delhi to design a country club and was sent back, as he couldn’t get out of his ‘saving space’ mentality while designing over sprawling acres) to time.
Even in our free time, we need to schedule everything. My husband’s sunday schedule goes something like this:
5:45 am Wake up and go for a long run (only possible on Sundays). 8:00 am Reach home, read the newspaper, chat with the family for a bit. 10:00 am Departure, with toddler and wife in tow, for a swim and breakfast at the club. 1:00 pm Eat lunch. 2:30 pm Take a nap. 5:00 pm Wake up and go out for a couple of hours (without toddler because father-baby time is over). 8:30 pm Dinner. 9:30 pm Off to bed
We (Bombayites) are constantly running: running to work, running to get home, running to take a nap and relax! The ironies don’t escape me when Nandy, despite this Sunday routine, doesn’t wear a watch on this one day because he says it’s too heavy on his hand. I suspect, time weighs too heavily on his mind rather than the certified lightweight watch I have bought him.
Time is the noose that hangs from every Bombayites neck; working, mothering or not! We try, every Sunday, to break loose but we can’t. Even when there’s no noose, we can’t help but stumble around; still enslaved in our minds to our routine. We have truly made a business of our busyness. So when you call me and I don’t call back, remember the standard reply: “I’m sorry! I’ve just been so busy!”, and before you get annoyed, remember that I’m not lying. I suffer from the disease of busyness (a mental condition where you always feel extremely busy, irrespective of whether you are actually doing anything).