Imagine a winged world wherein only two species have survived. The larks and the owls. The larks rise with the sun. The owls, on the other hand, soar after the sun sets. Stop imagining. There’s no need to imagine. I’m not talking about a distant universe. I’m talking about us. More specifically, I’m alluding to the unbridgeable divide between the early risers and the late sleepers.
It’s a divide alright, perhaps the most important one amongst homo sapiens barring the gender divide. Because a few thousand years from now, when caste has been abolished, religion made irrelevant, the skin tones rendered an even beige and national boundaries erased, the lark will still sneer at the owl and say:
‘Aren’t you a lazy bum?’
To which, the owl will offer a half-owlish, half-sheepish, wholly apologetic grin and flutter away into a dark corner.
This exchange between the owl and lark has been one of the defining themes of my life. For I’m an owl. I’ve been one for as long as I can remember. In fact, I vividly remember my first day at secondary school. Having enjoyed the luxury of attending an afternoon primary school, I was now being given the opportunity to “be an adult.” Which meant I’d have to wake up at 5 am, take a cold bath, gobble a breakfast and hop off to school, pretending to be happy.
‘You’ll get used to it soon enough,’ my mother told me.
I never did. For the next six years, I woke up surly and sleepwalked through the morning routine. At school, I acquired a crucial survival skill. I learnt to appear attentive, although it was obvious to me that my brain refused to wake up before 10 am, no matter how long my body has been limbering along. Once past that threshold hour, I’d acquire the magical ability to comprehend the blackboard. I’d realize that my teachers weren’t speaking Swahili after all.
‘But you’re missing more than half the lessons,’ my mother worried. She began playing Suprabatham and Bhaja Govindam for me in the mornings. ‘That’ll perk you up.’ I tried telling her that the great M. S. Subbalakshmi’s voice sounded platinum to me only in the evenings. In the mornings, however, I couldn’t differentiate between her melody and a catfight. ‘Never mind. I’m sure it will help,’ she concluded, raising the volume. Now, that’s totally acceptable in our country. You can blare a devotional song from a loudspeaker at 4 am and everybody will take it in their stride. Try listening to an Eminem song on your stereo at midnight and the chances are that your neighbour will pay you an angry visit.
It seemed a little unfair that society was based on such hypocritical practices. I often tried to plead my case, especially to those oldies in the family who liked to kick me awake at 7 am during my summer vacations. All I received in return were sermons camouflaged as lessons:
‘Asuras lurk in the nights,’ an especially orthodox granduncle informed me once. ‘You look like an asura, I concede that. But you don’t have to behave like one.’
‘If you don’t learn to obey nature’s laws, you’ll never amount to anything,’ a grandfather added.
‘It has been scientifically proven,’ an uncle – US-returned and all that – said, ‘that the human brain works best in the mornings. Haven’t you heard the Chinese proverb that one must finish half the day’s work by 9 am?’
I nevertheless begged to differ. Experience taught me that waking up at 4 am to study for the exams meant that I’d languish at the bottom of the class. So I began studying till 4 am and did well. An idea began forming in my mind. Perhaps there were others like me. People who were journalists, security guards, truck drivers and the like. Heck, even the milkman relied on someone who drove a van through the night. Upon reaching this conclusion, I began asserting my Owl Rights (since Human Rights apply only to humans and I wasn’t one). I even rebelled when necessary. By the time I began employment, I had acquired the joyous habit of sleeping well past midnight.
The working world partially brought me back to reality. Like school, office began early. Unlike school, it kept me chained way past midnight. This was no longer a battle between birds. It was a battle to overtake fatigue and retain sanity. But even in this overcharged atmosphere, I quickly learnt to tell the larks and the owls apart. The larks insisted on having the heaviest discussions first thing in the morning. The owls, as usual, didn’t have a say in the matter. This discovery worried me. I had zombied through 12 years of morning classes, confident in my ability to teach myself later, preferably a few days before the exams began. But that sort of thinking doesn’t work in the corporate world. One must make lucid decisions all the time. For which one must be lucid. So I learnt to listen intently during the morning meetings. I made detailed notes of everything that was said – the parrot part of my owlish brain worked alright in the mornings – and reprocessed them post noon. My bosses realized that my most productive inputs arrived after lunch. They began making allowances for my “disability.” As a happy corollary, I realized that I was at my singing best in the evenings, around the time the larks were ready to throw in the towel. The time zone, too, worked in my favour. I did well during the conference calls with American clients. When I moved to the US, my offshore team called me during my nights, when I could resolve all their problems without batting an eyelid. Of course, they continued to call me in the mornings, but with the understanding that my half-coherent replies would crystallize into complete solutions by the time they returned to work the next day.
Today, as a writer, I find that my stories seep into my bones after the sun sets. And even now, I work extensively with corporate clients who insist on calling me as soon as they reach their workstations in the morning. I’d have gone to asleep around 7 am, but I’m duty-bound to pick up calls starting 9 am – after all, won’t any self-respecting professional be up by then? And having picked up the call, I practice my latest art – the art of having a plausible conversation on autopilot. The content in these conversations “dawn” on me hours later, while I brush my teeth.
So there it is. I live in a world where I feel like a hapless minority. I don’t accept this world’s clock, but I must accept every other rule it imposes – rules regarding decorum, timelines, meeting hours etc. And despite my glaring disability, I've never missed my deadlines and meetings because I overslept. Oftentimes, I don’t sleep in order to attend an early morning meeting. My body runs on an owlish clock, but I force it to wear larky apparel at least once a week. Does it take a toll on my body? It must. Not because my body is deprived of sunlight or is playing host to demonic elements. My body suffers simply because I don’t give it sufficient rest. Because I’m dancing simultaneously to two rhythms – mine and the world’s. Because I don’t live in a progressive Scandinavian country which allows owls to begin work at a later hour.
As a result, I accept that friends will message me at 6 am, just as I’m drifting off to sleep. My bank will run early-morning batch jobs and thus send me an SMS at 7 am reminding me that I used my debit card last evening. School-going children of neighbours – fellow owls, I think – will create a ruckus and break my sleep. Telemarketers and travelling salesmen will wonder why I’m angry about nothing. And, finally, when I enjoy Bhaja Govindam at 9 pm, I will be called a weirdo.
And as we know, the majority is always right.