It’s as inexorable as death and taxes.
Once you’re born into an Indian family, your career options are limited to only five things: doctor, lawyer, engineer, teacher, or a disgrace to the family. I went for the fifth option, and trust me when I say it wasn’t easy.
It was all decided when I was a 1-day-old baby
I’m pretty sure that the moment the doctor yanked my legs out of my mother’s womb and handed me over to her, the first thing she and my dad said to me was, “Yes, this one’s going to be a doctor.” Or at least, that’s how I think it went down. I was also the eldest child in the family, so that made it worse. All my parent’s dreams fell on my shoulders.
When I was six years old, I remember playing ‘doctor’ with my neighbours. Later that night, my parents asked if I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up. Obviously, I said yes. I was SIX. Of course I enjoyed having a stethoscope around my neck, fake-listening to heartbeats and giving injections and prescriptions to my “patients”.
“Good.” my dad said, his face beaming with joy and pride. His first-born was going to do the family proud. “You SHOULD be a doctor. If anyone asks you what you’re going to be when you grow up, you tell them you’re going to be a doctor.” he added.
I obliged. For the next five years, that was exactly what I did. Whenever someone asked for my ambition, I would cry ‘doctor!’ without a second thought. I wrote that in all my school books – and it sounded really exciting.
“Mom, I think I want to be a writer”
But something happened when I turned 12, which pretty much changed the course of my life. I was watching a lot of TV series back then – in 2002 – from ‘Charmed’, to ‘Malcolm in the Middle’, and ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’. Whenever an episode ended, I would come up with alternate endings for the show in my head. I would jot them down in my notebook, write an episode of my own, somewhat living out my fantasy. My classmates started reading those stories, and insisted I wrote more of them. I happily obliged.
Inadvertently, I had become a writer at the age of 12.
I started writing fervently. I didn’t have a computer, I hand-wrote everything in my school notebook. My short stories turned into full-fledged novels. My novels had prequels and sequels. I branched into poetry and songs. I never got tired of writing – my hand hurt like hell – but it felt as though I had found my purpose in life.
Somewhere down the road that year, my teacher asked what was my ambition. I hesitated. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew ‘doctor’ was not on the table anymore.
I mustered enough courage to tell my mom about my newfound passion later that day.
“Mom, I think I want to be a writer when I grow up. Not really interested in becoming a doctor. I love writing.”
I still remember how panic took over her facade, and how she scrambled to find reasons to convince me to stay on course – the course she had set for me.
“Don’t be ridiculous. You can be a doctor and still be a writer on the side.” she said.
“Okay. I guess that can work.” I replied, trying my best to hide my disillusioned face. I mean, I was 12. What did I know about career choices? So I agreed with her, but I secretly hoped that one day I’d be able to change her mind. Yes, I was so wrong.
The destined switch to arts stream
After completing SPM in Form 5, I decided to continue with Form 6. I was baffled to find out that there were only two classes for science majors – physics and biology – which I was not quite interested in. Up until Form 5, I was okay with being in the science stream, but not anymore. Form 6 is where you really specialise in a field of your choice; and I felt more inclined towards business studies and english literature as they resonated better with my interests. I decided to speak to my parents about it.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with you. You’re destroying your own future!” my mom yelled, seething with anger while ironing my dad’s shirt. “After all these years of raising you and giving you everything you want, this is how you pay us back?”
Okay mom, first of all, no one gave me anything I wanted. And you forced me into science stream…
I knew she only wanted the best for me, but I was pretty damn sure that being in the science stream was not the only way to be successful in life – and certainly not the only way to show my parents gratitude. Thankfully, my dad was more reasonable.
“It sounds like you really know what you want, and since you’re so sure about this, I’m going to sign this form.” my dad said, picking up his pen.
“You sign that form and you’ll ruin our daughter’s future!” my mom yelled again, tearing up this time. I felt horrible. I didn’t want to break her heart, but I cannot live the rest of my life in misery, succumbing to something I was not even remotely passionate about.
My dad handed me back the signed form. My mom stormed into her room and slammed the door.
“Don’t worry, your mom will be okay.” my dad said, reading the guilt on my face.
I want to go down the road not taken
After STPM, I sat down with my parents again to discuss which university to go to, and what course to take – which is honestly the toughest decision you’d ever have to make in your life. MY parents, however, seemed to have it all figured out.
“So, we have a few options for you.” my mom started. “Don’t worry, just because you switched to arts stream, doesn’t mean it’s all over. You can try teaching, or you can apply for this staff nurse course. Or, if you REALLY want, we can pull some strings and get you into dental school.”
“What? I thought I made it clear that I wanted to study performing arts.” I said with utter conviction.
“Here she goes again!” My mom got up, walked into the room and slammed the door again. I could hear her sobbing from the room. I started questioning my decision. Am I doing the right thing? Should I just become a teacher? Maybe dental school isn’t so bad? Do I really have to follow my heart?
“Okay look.” my dad began. “We wanted you to be a doctor. You said no. You want to study performing arts. We’re saying no. How about we meet halfway?”
“I guess I can do that.” I was tired. So tired of fighting and having the same conversations over and over again. I was emotionally drained.
“How about you study English? You like English. You got an A for English literature. And we’d be okay if you picked English.” my dad added.
“Alright.” I obliged. I couldn’t bear hurting my mom anymore. I hated seeing her cry. Yes, I wanted to pursue my dreams, but not by putting them through pain. And I did like English, so how hard can it be? Turns out, REALLY hard.
Deep down where no one could hear me, I was crying
Much to my parents’ gusto, I entered Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), majoring in English Language and Literature Studies. To be honest, I had a lot of fun in the classes, it felt great to be that person who knew all the answer to all the lecturer’s questions – thanks to my obsession with Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and Edgar Allan Poe. I excelled in all the tests and quizzes. My mom was excited to tell all her friends her daughter was studying English in one of the best universities in the country. It seemed like a win-win situation.
But there was one problem. The ‘School of Humanities’, where all my English classes were – was located right in front of the ‘School of Arts’, the VERY place that offered Performing Arts. I tried to turn a blind eye, but I swear I could hear it calling out to me every time I walked past it.
Eventually, it got to me. Every day, I would head back to my dorm after class and start crying. All my dreams of becoming a scriptwriter and or a play director was over. It was gone. The image of myself winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay played over and over in my head. None of that was going to happen anymore. A month later, I succumbed to depression. I cried every night, and hardly ever ate. I felt like I didn’t know what I was living for anymore. I refused to speak to my parents, and I’d lock myself in my room. I even wanted to take my own life. Things got really bad.
One day, when my parents came to visit me on campus, and I decided to vent. I broke down and told them that I had to follow my heart and pursue performing arts. I cannot bear walking past the ‘School of Arts’ without being a student there. More importantly, I did want to regret not fighting for my dreams 20 years from now. After a heated argument at the hostel cafeteria, my dad gave his approval. Mom was still not convinced.
The very next day, I went to the admissions department and switched to Performing Arts.
And the rest, as they say, is EPIC
It was honestly the best decision I had ever made. My life took a different turn from there. It felt great to immerse myself in something I was genuinely passionate about. I spent a month in China studying the traditional Chinese opera – where I did not take any pictures – and then went to Indonesia for six months to study traditional theater and puppetry. I staged a full-fledged production for my final year project – where I was the scriptwriter and director.
Fast-forward to the future, I am now a full-time writer, writing for a major publication.
I had made my dream come true. I’m a writer, and I’m making a decent living out of it – I’m not homeless and living on the streets. I may not have won an Oscar – I don’t know if I ever will, but I can look back at my 12-year-old self and say, “Hey, I didn’t let you down. We did it.”
I’m going to leave you guys with some wise words from William Carlos Williams,
“I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it.”