“What do you want to become when you grow up?” Manju Miss asked. Forty bright-eyed 6-year-olds, full of wonder, came up with a variety of careers. Moonwalkers, scientists, magicians, doctors, cricketers. Me? I wanted to be a teacher, for Manju Miss was so knowledgeable and kind. “Or a Prime Minister,” I blurted out, as an afterthought.
I was pushed to be ambitious. Unlike most Indian parents with daughters, mine wished a powerful career for me. A doctor I was to be. And while I did become independent, I was utterly unsure if this profession was for me.
“Cyclone” is the only word that aptly describes what followed after I began to doubt my medical career. For nearly twelve years I harboured this storm within me. I studied for the medical entrance test right before the Monday I wanted to be a crime-beat journalist. Tuesday: I wanted to be a singer. Wednesday: a writer, Thursday: a chemical engineer (for I love chemistry and the act of creation). And on Friday, I wanted to be a diplomat, in charge of India’s peacekeeping mission to Pakistan. I eventually completed my undergrad in journalism but worked in content marketing at MTV.
To my loved ones, I said, “An inner compass tells me loud and clear I am off my life path.” And then, one day, I heard of the Haji Public School, located in a mountainous village called Breswana in Kashmir. Volunteers from across the world were selected to teach the local kids here. This compass suddenly recalibrated when I was chosen as a teaching volunteer at HPS. It told me I had finally found my purpose, the front where I had to be strong and fight.
What I can share in hindsight (after a journey that included a stint in entertainment, restarting my career in education and starting an alternate school) are some lessons that were helpful in completing the search for my purpose and breathing life into it. And a critical ‘gain’.
I learned to accept being a misfit. It was only after 7 years, 3 jobs and 4 volunteering gigs and working with throngs of colleagues that I found partners who resonated with this elusive“purpose”. We got into an unsaid agreement and began working on the School Of Accelerated Learning (SOAL, a tech school for millennials) almost immediately. But till then, neither were my ideas fathomable nor did they find an unjudging ear.
I learned to listen to my inner voice, separate it from the surrounding noise and developed the tough skin to follow through.
I was at Haji Public School for nearly 5 months. Here, I learned to tune into my calling and began to differentiate its voice from its many impostors. For one, it was what I was doing that helped me realise this—teaching primary kids in a village with many farmers but few teachers. Secondly, it was the luxury of silence, stillness and living with myself, a lifestyle that is highly undervalued in our times.
While at Breswana, from 7.30am-7.30pm, I completely dedicated my daylight hours to the growth of my kids. From 7.30pm onwards, I spent time with myself. In my room, in the woods, while watching the sunset, hypnotised by the beauty of an unpolluted night sky and the serenity of the moonlit hills. The stars, they whispered to me, helping me regain the clarity I had when I was just 6.
Right after I returned from Breswana, I knew my purpose: I wanted to reform education. So no child across India—like my kids in Breswana—has to live without inspiring role models like Manju Miss and the many great teachers I’ve had since.
Committing to acting upon this voice was as critical as listening to it. For there were trade-offs, some of which I am still making. Many say these sacrifices are worth it in the end, but while you seek or choose your purpose every day, it isn’t so romantic after all. It pinches, hard. The years before you’ve found your purpose can be very destabilising, and it demands you unlearn everything that is ingrained deep within you. For me, it was shaking off the idea of being a wealthy doctor.
The toughest one of them all is the self-doubt that comes along with experimenting with your life and career. “Have you made an illogical choice? Is that peer smarter to have chosen an engineering job?” Even if you learn to rise above the comparison, you’re still riddled with conundrums about your potential, courtesy the little devil’s advocate in your brain. “How can you be sure that you’re the one who will bring this change?” “Are you sure that you’ve chosen the right path? Because, evidently, there were many!” I learned soon to carry the burden of this self-doubt. For it settled only as I moved forward in time and allowed the future consequences of my present actions to materialise.
This journey required me to crave knowledge, take risks and experiment. It has only been by churning myself through trials that I stumble upon precisely what I sought. Even after I came back from Breswana with immense clarity, I worked on various projects in my two full-time jobs and one part-time volunteering gig: curriculum design, teacher training, student coaching, life skills training, operations, online learning, communications and volunteer management. I left no stone unturned in the education sector. This meant that I gained a lot, but I also lost 3 years in the entertainment industry, 3 years in an irrelevant degree and 2 years in science. That’s time that you never get back.
One may wonder: what did I gain at the end of these long years, losses and rebellions? What do I still gain as I tread this path? I am not one of those people who says that none of it pinched. The zeniths that I yearn for (i.e. the complete reformation of Indian education) are still ahead of me. So I cannot yet claim that it has been worth it.
The one thing that I do have, though intangible, is unfettered honesty to myself. What I live by every day are my truths, ideals and beliefs that have precipitated from the years of “overthinking” from varied perspectives. By dusting society off myself.
So the one critical question I’d like to leave you with if you wish to begin seeking your purpose is: What price are you willing to pay for the freedom of existence of self?
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