I just saw Swades.
Yes, for the first time. The movie came out in 2004 when I'd just left my job in London and returned to India and I didn't want to engage with those emotions that were still raw in me, and so I never saw it even though everyone around me was raving about it. Until last night.
One of the perks of being married to a film maker is that movie nights are sometimes about making sure that our son has seen the major Bollywood films and so we've been through all the Amitabh Bacchan hero films, Amol Palekar, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and so on. Last night it was the turn of Swades. And from the first scene it appeared to be talking about so many of the same things that the Sabbatical Handbook is talking about. Let's dive in!
The movie starts with Mohan (SRK) living what seems to be the dream, a scientist on the up at NASA, sending satellites into space no less. And yet, something is amiss. Some deep rooted voice, tiny and weak, has been calling to him, insistently and continuously to the point where it can no longer be ignored. In the film it is memories of his childhood nanny Kaveri Amma, but if you'll allow me the liberty, Kaveri Amma is symbolic of any one or anything that has been the epitome of unconditional love and acceptance. For many of us, the call comes from inside the house, from our bodies who have always been with us unconditionally, always doing what we ask of them. And Mohan knows he can ignore the call no longer. To make it make sense, he decides to take some time off. Two weeks only. He has to answer the call.
So he lands in Delhi and drives in his caravan to the village of Charanpur. The caravan here is symbolic of his attachment to his life in America. It is his desire to not get too dirty, to hold on to the comforts of his current life as he navigates this mission to find Kaveri Amma and bring her to the US with him.
He finds Kaveri Amma, still so warm and unconditionally loving, she holds no grudge about his years of absence and is just glad that he has come to meet her.
And no sooner has he taken this step than he is rewarded with that thing that he has completely forgotten about -- desire. This is what he was missing in his antiseptic and calculating surroundings -- raw and incalculable human desire.
Pulling the thread
The object of desire is his childhood friend Gita, now grown into a very comely young woman indeed. And Mohan pulls on that tiny thread of desire and it unravels for him a completely new life. Charanpur is remote with no cell phones and no internet and thus separated from his old life, Mohan dives into the thrilling desire and in order to win Gita over he begins a mission to increase enrollment in her village school.
Little does he know where pulling on that thread will take him -- he comes face to face with human suffering and realises that there are missions on this earth that are more important than any space mission.
Finding the mission
Returning from an unsuccesful attempt to collect overdue rent from a most wretched farmer, Mohan feels the overwhelming burden of human suffering and for the first time he drinks Indian water.
He has left his bubble.
The dawning of these emotions inside him represent the awakening of latent desires, subdued by conformism and industrialisation and an impersonal world of capital and commerce. But Mohan learns that he is still human and the feeling of being human is now so well established, so precious, that it is more important than anything else. Mohan has found his mission.
This is what sabbatical is about. Take a break from your environment, stop blindly accepting the desires that are placed inside you by advertising and FOMO, live quietly and allow your own desires to surface, because once they do they will do so with a force that cannot be denied. It's like tasting real food after spending decades eating Kurkure. It nourishes and energises so completely that one can never really go back to the way things were.
And this unleashes an animal inside him. Fed up with sclerotic Indian society that docilely accepts all its suffering, he takes up a mission to bring electricity to Charanpur. With the fire of his mission burning inside him, he energises the youth of the village to donate their labour for the construction of a small power plant, to free the village from the corruption and bureaucracy of the Indian state and its never fulfilled promises.
The mission succeeds and we see a poor Dalit granny's face lit by electricity for the first time in her life.
But the real incandesence that has been born is in Mohan.
This fire that burns so bright, so true that it burns away all the old and powers the journey into the new, into alignment, into living by one's core desires, this is the real gift and magic of sabbatical. It is the most precious thing in the world. Society and conditioning would want you to forget all about this fire, to put your head down, to use your lamp to brighten the doorstep of your neighbour, not yourself.
But having the courage to hear the call, the courage to admit one's desires and pursue them and the courage to allow oneself to surrender to one's mission, these are very rare. And there is no guarantee that walking this path will bring you to your mission. But if you stay where you are it is guaranteed that you will never find it.
And once you find it, you can embrace it with your whole being.
Go on then. Be an animal!