Rosalyn D'Mello: The secret to being broke and happy

The pursuit of dreams may interfere with a healthy bank balance but provides a fulfillment that is otherwise hard to find

Since I woke up this morning my left cheek has tripled in size. I felt the tremors of a swell last night. All day I’d monitored my gums. I was sure it was that stray cashewnut nestled in one of the rava idlis I had for breakfast yesterday that had triggered this unease. I knew there was something amiss about the root canal that’d been done years ago. The crown had come undone. But because I’ve been scraping the bottom of the barrel, as the saying goes, thanks to my perpetually broke state of affairs, a visit to the dentist was out of the question. Of course, this morning I had no choice. Given I’m scheduled to be in Kolkata tomorrow for the launch of my book, I desperately needed the swelling to subside. I’m sad to report it hasn’t, and I look as though I have mumps and I talk as though I’ve been gagged.

I’m aware that health must always come first, but when you’re trying so hard as a single, independent woman to make ends meet, it’s difficult to see logic. Last week, as I was composing my reply to a rather honest and frank email I’d received from Nilanjana Roy, a dear writer friend who is about a decade older than me, I was asking myself what more I could do to cut down my living expenses. I barely go out, and when I do, it’s because I’m either being treated, or I’ve chosen to go to some place with an elaborate happy hour scheme. I haven’t bought myself a single new item of clothing in months. My main indulgence consists of books and groceries. Her email was a continuation of a conversation she and I were having at Meenakshi Madhavan Reddy, another writer friend’s housewarming party. One among many traits Nilanjana, Meenakshi and I share is that we are each committed to writing as our primary profession, and so we each have been freelancing for years. “Women, power, money,” was the subject of Nilanjana’s email to me. When I’d met her, I’d found myself cribbing about how I would love to have the luxury of focusing solely on writing my next book, and not having to hustle for money. She, the reassuring soul that she is (bless her), was bequeathing to me her collected wisdom. The one line that resonated most was about how, often enough, women get paid much less than their male counterparts because they don’t ask for more.

There have been a lot of discussions in the last few weeks about what constitutes the “urban poor”, thanks to an article that appeared online. Despite not having a solid monthly income and therefore being rejected several times by credit card companies, I wouldn’t ever dare to call myself poor. I prefer “perpetually broke”. That line from The National’s song, “Blood Buzz Ohio” captures it perfectly: “I owe money to the money to the money I owe”. To my credit, I have managed to save. Twenty years from now, when several policies mature, I’ll be stable and secure. Until then, as long as I’ve chosen the writerly life, I have to contend with brokeness.

But I realized, during a phone call with Nilanjana after I’d replied to her mail, that I am happier than I’ve ever been, even when I was earning in dollars three years ago. There’s less glory and romance than you’d imagine there’d be in living the creative life, but you’re a slave to no one, and that’s satisfying enough. The struggle isn’t for anyone, and it isn’t always a choice, but you learn that the rewards can never be measured by rates of interest. All the biggest contemporary artists working in India presently have their fair share of stories to recount about how difficult it was starting out, how hard it was to resist the lure of a salaried life. Many did odd jobs, many hustled, and even continue to hustle, but with a fixed goal in mind... creative fulfilment.

It takes a lot of courage to chase a dream. You have to sacrifice numerous comforts and compromise on a lifestyle that’ll never be as sexy as that of your investment banker friend, all in the far flung hope of maybe making it big one day. You may never afford to buy your parents their dream home, or even buy yourself a modest apartment. You may spend most of your life moving from one rental to another, struggling with water cuts and power outages, because you’d rather spend on books than an inverter.

And yet, you may just find yourself the sole person in your social circle whose life will have amounted to something significant, because it was lived in the pursuit of art and ideas.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D’Mello is a reputed art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx

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