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Friday, 5 June 2015

What I want to be when I grow up

Now, this is a question that every Indian aunty in existence has asked me from birth, it feels like.

Anu aunty, source: India Times

Like every kid my ambition changed every week. In first grade, I wanted to be a scientist. In fourth grade, I wanted to be a writer by the time I reached the ripe old age of 30. By the time I was in the fifth grade, if you asked me what I wanted to be, I counted off the alternatives on my fingers: I wanted to be either:
1. A writer and/or
2. A singer and/or
3. An artist and/or...
I know I had five, but I can't remember the other two. At any rate, I was not in the least limited by societal or parental expectations, because I was lucky enough to have parents who hadn't instilled in me any expectations or ideas of a pre-determined path. In the seventh grade, when I was thirteen, an uncle I admired gave me Glimpses of World History by Jawaharlal Nehru.

This book changed my life.

Now, I know that it always seems exaggerated or improbably dramatic when someone famous claims that a single book irrevocably changed their life. I might have said before I read Glimpses that a number of books shaped me (Yes, this was the kind of thing I thought about when I imagined being interviewed after I became famous - I was just that narcissistic and adorably - or obnoxiously, depending on your point of view - certain that I was meant for big things).
The funny thing is that I never even read that book in its entirety. Not that it wasn't a good book; just that something always got in my way. The twenty or so pages that I read, however, led me to my most grandiose dream yet.

I was going to be a social activist.

I was so inspired by the poignancy and beauty of Nehru's writing (not to mention his impressively extensive knowledge of world history) and belief in his cause, that I decided on the spot that I wanted to work towards making my country the country that Nehru and others of his ilk had envisioned when they fought to be free of the British. This resolution and this dream satisfied me like no other had because it was huge. There was nothing huger than wanting to change the world. Than to go down besides giants like Mahatma Gandhi and Vallabhai Patel in history and the world's memory.

Since I studied in Prakriya Green Wisdom school at the time, an unusual experimental school (one of the six I went to between 1st and 12th grade), I knew what a 'social activist' was. I was also hilariously convinced that this was a profession in itself. I knew a little about Medha Patkar and the Narmada Bachao Andolan. This is what I based my decision on. From that day, I went around telling people that I wanted to be a social activist. My dreams got bigger and bigger until I felt like I was some kind of chosen, anointed Being destined to fix everything that was wrong with India.

Obviously, I was setting myself up for a fall. Such hubris does not go unpunished.

And therefore, I had to go through the torment of punishing myself over and over again for daring to dream. I had to suffer the worst of doubt, the worst of self-loathing. For years I could content myself neither with the prospect of a 'regular' job, nor with that of a 'creative' one. Either I felt capable of nothing at all, or everything. My old dream was impossible; stupid and childish; why, then, did no
'real' dream even come close to replacing it? Why couldn't I see past it?

Eventually, as I rebuilt myself and my ideals, I began to see that there was only one path for me. Sure, it sounded grand and delusional, but it was all or nothing for me. I was ready to throw everything away for a dream. But only such a dream as was worth risking everything for. I knew I wanted to change the world. I could see now that only visionaries, only those who deluded themselves with the strength of their visions, ultimately ended up the harbingers of change. To make a significant difference, you have to be able to see past what is to what could be, what should be.

You must have your feet on the ground but your head in the clouds.

So this is what I want to be. A decision maker. A policy maker. A titan on the world's stage, someone who is actively shaping history, hopefully for the better. Sure, sometimes I am attacked by fear and self-doubt, but in my heart of hearts I know that nothing less will do. This is to remind me of who I am, what I want, and what the stakes are, in those times when I regret sorely the decision not to be an engineer, a computer science major, or an IT whiz.

It hasn't been easy. Life is not a linear narrative like it is in the movies. Everything didn't magically smooth itself out the day I decided that this was my path. A montage was not all I needed. The doubts didn't disappear.

From the moment I chose to do 'commerce'/humanities/social science after 10th grade to the moment I decided to major in Economics and English, the doubtful aunties have authoritatively followed me, scoffing at my foolishness every step of the way. I topped my class and school in the 10th grade. Immediately, everyone wanted to know what I planned to do, which subjects I planned to take, and which IIT/medical coaching center I was intending on joining. My announcement - that I was not going to be doing either engineering or medicine - was met with shock and disapproval, as well as with - probably - What are her parents thinking?! Beti ko 99 aayi physics or chemistry mein or kehti hain ki engineering nahin karegi! (Not that I have anything against either engineering or medicine - both are amazing paths that have all my respect - they've just never been for me). Sometimes this was ok because they assumed I was going to do CA (Chartered Accountancy), another surefire path to success. I let them think that. Mostly I just say that I'm majoring in Economics, or even just 'Commerce', because:
1. I'm too lazy to explain
2. It's not going to make a difference
3. It's better not to waste time and effort on naysayers who are so convinced of the rightness of their position that nothing you say will make the slightest dent on their rock-firm convictions.

I topped my class again in the 12th grade, and again I was bombarded with the same questions. Again, I was reluctant to attempt the long and sure-to-be-rather-agonizing explanations. Again I brushed it off or prevaricated.

Now that I have finished two years of college and am closer to graduating, this no longer cuts it. People have begun to talk of internships and jobs. I can no longer afford to pretend that I'm going to follow in everyone else's footsteps. So, aunties, this is for you. Here's to you. Here's to hoping that you can open your mind and see where I'm coming from. Here's to hoping that you see that not everybody can push the responsibility for action and change on to somebody else, because somebody has to be that somebody else. I want to be that somebody else. I am willing to be that somebody else. I am that somebody else. No one asked me to fix the world, or even try, but I want to do it, anyway. I've always been a bit of a busybody and an inveterate meddler. I am very good with unsolicited advice, not unlike yourselves. Might as well put that to good use.

To finish off:
Anu Aunty - The Engineering Anthem