Times have changed. And dramatically. When I was completing school in Calcutta and getting ready for college, I didn’t have a clue as to what I would study. That I would at least need to do an undergrad degree was a given. One could not get a job otherwise. But what would I study?
My heart was set on cinema and I was deeply in love with the films of Renoir, Kurosawa, Bergman and Hitchcock among others. But cinema as a career and that too in Pune was unthinkable then. I was the only child and my parents did not agree to let me leave Calcutta! My uncle, who was an erudite and a scholarly person, advised my parents against such foolishness. Another uncle chipped in, as well. I wasn’t too bright and though I did get a First Division in my Higher Secondary examinations, I had never considered myself to be academically inclined. Creative pursuits, like writing, cinema, theatre, photography or painting were what interested me most!
“That’s a hobby,” my uncles admonished me, “not a career.” And so, I found myself studying a Bachelor of Commerce at St Xavier’s College in Calcutta. I had always been a Xavierian and so, the move from school to college was seamless. I didn’t do particularly well in my undergraduate studies, though I did manage to get through.
My family and I knew I would make the worst accountant! Those were also the horrific years when life in Calcutta was all about the severe Naxalite violence that daily saw killings, police reprisals, closure of schools and offices. An air of uncertainty enveloped all our conversations and our worldview. All of us lost a year, as exams were disrupted and Calcutta University faced regular disruption.
Many of us face a similar situation even today when what we study is imposed on us by our family and our peers. We succumb. We don’t pursue what we are good at but what others expect us to study. Alan Watts, the great Buddhist scholar and teacher, has a wonderful story about this. He asked his class to write down on a piece of paper what they wanted to be in life. They did so. Then he asked them to put that piece of paper away and put down what they wanted to be in life if money was no longer part of the equation.
The responses were dramatically different. In the first instance, the students said they wanted to be lawyers or chartered accountants or doctors or engineers. In the second instance, the same students wrote that they wanted to be painters or poets or writers of children’s fiction or filmmakers.
Watts argues that it was a powerful moment and embodies how we actually see and live life. The story has stayed with me all these years. If we are driven by the expectations of others, we would never give 200 per cent and unless we give more than we expect from ourselves, we would never feel fulfilled. The boxes we tick must be the goals we set for ourselves.
When Vincent Van Gogh painted, for instance, he lost sight of time and space. There were times when he painted through the day and night and never realised he had neither eaten nor slept. It made him the genius he is considered. Many called Van Gogh mad. Perhaps madness is what we all need.
I call it passion. Seek it. Nurture it. Incubate it. Live it. And you will find your fears melting away because finally, you would do what you love and love what you do. You would live your dream and not someone else’s.
The writer is India country head, University of New South Wales, Sydney