You’ve probably heard a variation of this joke: Indians first become engineers and then try to pursue their dreams. We all know how our parents and relatives eagerly wanted us to become engineers, doctors, lawyers, or Chartered Accountants. In fact, a lot has been said about how our society puts incessant pressure on us to follow career paths that we don’t like.
Years after finishing high school, completing college and working for a while, I’ve finally had this thought: Thank God my parents dismissed my dreams. That’s the reason it’s still alive and well today.
At the end of 10th grade, every Indian student who is part of an Indian school system has an important decision to make. Choose Science stream, or opt for the other ones. Perhaps things are much better for today’s generation, but when I was in school the conclusion was pretty obvious. Those who are bright enough will opt for the Science stream and chase an Engineering or Medical career. Those who weren’t would be accommodated in the Commerce stream.
When I chose Commerce stream after acing my 10th Board exam, my parents had to frequently deflect surprised inquiries. Why put him in Commerce when he got such good marks?
My reasoning was simple. I hated Maths and hated the thought of learning Physics and Chemistry. With my adamant elocution, I managed to convince my parents that Commerce was the best option for me. They trusted my judgment.
But when it came to choosing an undergraduate program, my parents wanted me to learn Economics rather than Literature. The parental control I’d bypassed two years earlier came back to confront me.
I wanted to study Literature because I loved writing. My aim was to become an author someday (oh, have I got some news for you regarding that!). But my parents reasoned that Economics was a better career option. Besides, they assured me, “You can write in your spare time. Do it as a side hobby.”
Replace writing a novel with singing, dancing, acting, or as was illustrated in the Aamir Khan starrer 3 Idiots, photography. Countless parents in India have told their children that their “hobbies” could be pursued during their spare time. To be sure, not all parents are like Madhavan’s in the movie. My parents definitely didn’t give me an ultimatum. Compared to many others, my mother and father were mild in their suggestions and insistence.
And I’m thankful for that right now. Not their mildness. But rather their insistence. Without either them or me realizing it, those suggestions helped and probably saved my artistic career.
You see, we are all familiar with the story of the misunderstood and captive child, like Madhavan, who wants to chase their dreams but cannot because of domineering parents and societal pressure. I’m sure many people reading this right now have had to sacrifice their artistic dreams in order to secure a safe and socially acceptable career and lifestyle. They have my deepest sympathies. But while they suffered, many like me benefited from these same regulations.
Like me, many aspiring artists were told from a young age that they needed to work hard and secure a dependable income before trying to chase creative dreams. Until now, the common narrative has been that our art suffered as a result, right? Instead of spending more time in the library reading books that would bolster our imagination, we were ordered to attend Physics tuition. Dance classes had to be discontinued once we entered the “serious phase” of school life that was 11th and 12th Grade. Music lessons tapered out until the tabla and guitar began to gather dust. Yes, our artistic talents were smothered during our formative years.
But now I know what I gained in that process. No, it’s not the education required to ensure a steady paycheck. Let’s be honest, by now we all know that fellows who scored 88% with the help of extra tuition classes and the backbenchers who scraped by with just 73% are more or less chasing the same career opportunities. Sure, we realized it too late, but we finally know now that marks alone don’t put us in different tax brackets.
No, what I gained in the process is something much more intangible. It took me over a decade to understand I’d even possessed it.
It was the ability to divorce my self-worth from my art.
Trust me, it’s not a simple thing. In fact, it’s one of the most important lessons I or any other aspiring artist could learn. Without it, I would be a mess right now.
There is this trope of the suffering artist that’s been perpetuated by Western pop culture for a very long time. The idea that we should sacrifice everything and chase our artistic goals. It’s this belief that gives rise to the perpetually broke musician who sleeps on friends’ couches and proudly shuns any attempt at normality. Going hungry becomes a badge of honour, continuously repelling a 9 to 5 job a matter of pride.
So did my parents and the society around me teach me to give up on my dreams? No. Instead, they allowed me to succeed even if I failed. They addressed a question we youngsters loathe to bring up. What happens if you are a shitty musician/dancer/actor/writer?
What happens if you absolutely love your craft, work relentlessly on it, and it absolutely sucks? Can we all agree that simply writing over and over again won’t ensure your writing is loved by others? So what is the solution for talentless artists?
If you were to view this from the perspective of an economist, the problem seems trivial. If the market doesn’t appreciate a particular artist, then that person will end up changing careers. End of story. In a perfect world, those who win American Idol go on singing and those who are rejected take up some other job.
But there is no perfect world. There is, however, the idealized western concept and the hated Indian stereotype.
In the western concept, the artist relentlessly pursues the dream. And if success is elusive, the artist clings on until their life passes them by and they turn bitter and resentful.
In the hated Indian stereotype, the artist’s dreams are smashed and he or she is shoved into the educational assembly line and spit out years later as a particular professional, pursuing a life that holds no happiness but elicits plenty of praise from friends and family.
Many of us Indians eye the western concept with longing, oblivious to the dark side of it all. And we bristle at the constraints of our stereotypical Indian education system, unaware of the benefits it can provide.
I’ve finally realized that I can merge those two worlds instead of dreaming of one and hating the other. And it’s made my life and my art better.
I no longer have to write out of fear of being homeless without the income generated by my words. I no longer have to prove my self-worth by publishing something that generates acclaim.
Do I sometimes wish I’d opted to study Literature instead of Economics in college? Yes. I wonder whether my writing skills would have improved faster by reading classics and writing about them for three years instead of barely understanding economic concepts and feeling disillusioned during that time period.
It might have. I can’t be certain.
But I am certain of the fact that thanks to my terrible college years, I developed a sense of stoicism when it came to my art. It was an outlet when my life was frustrating, and it wasn’t imprisoning me when life offered exciting opportunities.
This doesn’t mean that I want parents today to trample on their children’s dreams. I still believe that our education system saps our minds of creativity and entrepreneurial spirit. But after years of hearing many in my generation lament about how damaging the whole process was to our artistic potential, I thought I had to speak up about the benefit.
I’m grateful my parents dismissed my dreams. They didn’t really dismiss them, though that’s what it felt like at that time. They instead prepared me to endure failure in my endeavours, and as a result, I’ve persisted in my attempts at achieving artistic success. If my parents had readily agreed to my dreams and encouraged them, by now I would have turned my back on it all after enduring failure after failure.
Ironically, by denying me free reign as a kid, they ensured I was free as an adult. Free to live a life independent of my art.
Marwan Razzaq has been trying to get a novel published since he was 13 years old. A decade and a half later, it has finally become a reality. Check out his crime thriller “The Man Who Found His Shadow” on Amazon!