There was this news item buried in the coverage of all the suffering caused by the government shutdown, of elephant seals taking over a beach left vacant because of it. It felt like a private joy when I saw it, a tiny measure of rightness with the world when so much was not. I ought to have let you all know, but the minute passed. As did this, when they did it again. This time, the seals would arrive during a particularly tumultuous period in my life.
The exhilarating part of the story is easy to tell: my debut novel, The Alchemy of Secrets, ten years in the making, found a home. My agent in India, Jayapriya Vasudevan, sold India rights for the novel to Deepthi Talwar at Tranquebar press, a literary imprint of Westland. It felt like coming out of the wilderness. Someone else, other than friends and family or my long-suffering agents in the US or India, loved my book and the characters I had grown to love. I say this without exaggeration: it was as if the world had shifted under my feet, and nothing would ever be the same again. As periods of exhilaration go, this was particularly long-lasting—I must have had a good twelve hours. It wasn’t the deal that evaporated after that, only the euphoria. (I jest, but only in part.)
It’s harder to explain the worries that followed, or the self-doubt that they were rooted in. I looked my deep and long-wished for joy in the face, and all I could think of was of all that could go wrong. I suspect most writers are neurotic, as I am— how else do we get the tiny details right; make sure the myriad little details line up in the tall tales we tell? Then, there are the overactive imaginations we possess, and the personal history—even for wildly successful writers, the path towards success is often built upon a scaffold of prior rejection upon rejection. Essentially, we fail and fail, until we don’t. Perhaps we fail better each time, or perhaps it is more capricious than that. Perhaps it all leads to a deep-rooted superstition that one must ignore joy, or pretend it doesn’t exist, lest it take flight like some wild butterfly approached too close.
The next part is even harder to tell. Perhaps because it is not my story, only one that I observed at close quarters. It has nothing to do with writing, and everything to do with life. We lost a friend recently. It was an unexpected death—he was still young and in good health, with years left to give and grow old in. If exhilarating joy is evanescent, I can tell you that sorrow of any kind is not. It is nothing if not faithful, a dogged companion you think you lose, only to find waiting at unexpected corners. When we first heard of his passing, his wife, a dear friend, told me over and over, disbelieving, “We were so happy.” As they were, and as we all are. And as we continue to be.
I began this blog with some half-conceived idea that it would be a happy place. And yet I find myself attempting to write about joy, and lingering instead on its absence. But perhaps what I am reaching for is perspective. There are the wild swings of emotion: the moments we remember from when we first fall in love, or when babies emerge naked and instantly adored from our wombs, or the loss of a beloved grandmother. There are events that change the ordinary course of our lives, for better or worse. But underneath it all is the steady hum of life lived daily and the quieter joys that pass, for the large part, unnoticed. A quiet meal at home with family or tea and a chat with friends, an unexpected and welcome text from a child away at college, a glimpse of bridge or elephant seal, but also the periods in between when nothing happens of import but everything does. Here’s to all of those moments, where joy hides in plain sight—undemanding, and ours for the taking. Perhaps those are the joys that truly matter, in the end.