I was scared of waking up one day and realizing that I had turned 70 and completely ignored what could have been another road to take. I heard this voice inside me that said, “It’s now or never!” To quote a friend, who is in a similar boat, “Why 30s? Because there’s time enough to recover and rebuild if things don’t work out.”
The bigger challenge was acting on that voice; telling my boss, a great guy, that I was leaving; and finally informing my family who, like most other South Asian families, is caring but cautious.
Growing up, I wanted to become a journalist or a dancer, but I didn’t. My folks didn’t think those were the best career choices. They didn’t question my abilities. They had their reasons for hanging onto certain beliefs, and providing explanations would have needed airing of family skeletons they were not quite ready for. Ahead of their time in many ways, at the end of the day, my parents taught my brother and me to choose careers that promised steadiness.
We didn’t have those melodramatic moments where our parents dictated what my brother and I studied, but there were suggestions and not-so-subtle hints about “unacceptable choices.” Backpacking across Europe, like Simran fromDilwaale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge, or joining Bollywood as an “item girl,” would have never worked in my house. Nor would have adventurous travels in politically unstable places—if I were to become a reporter. I was grateful I wasn’t coerced to study medicine, engineering, or law or marry some random uncle’s childhood friend’s son. You would think bad films fuel such exaggerations, but it was usually the other way around. One of my closest friends in college was informed by her parents that she could have all the fun in the world until she graduated college. Right after that momentous milestone, she would be married off to a rich businessman, just like all other girls in their social milieu. Boy, did they keep their word! Not just her; I met other educated, unfortunate people in school and college whose the families had full control over their every breath.
Our parents’ generation wasn’t exposed to many options growing up in India. I am not sure if they even knew what having an individual desire meant. They were told, early on, to do what worked best for the family. Men were the bread earners while women stayed at home to take care of the house and children. Both my father and father-in-law are engineers and my mother and mother-in-law are exceptional, immaculate homemakers.
Both the couples had two children each: first a son and after three and half years, a daughter. They were like the poster children for Doordarshan commercials that presented the image of the “perfect family.”
No wonder I agonized over how I was going to deliver the news to my parents and in-laws that I had chosen to relinquish my job as head of marketing and had decided to walk down the path of unemployment because I wanted to be a fulltime writer in these recession-infused times. Risk-taking is neither in their DNA, nor in their dictionary. I rehearsed dialogues in my head. I envisioned scenarios where every synonym for “irresponsible” was hurled my way. To save me transatlantic telephonic grief, some friends suggested I share the news with the family when my husband and I were in India. I thought about another friend’s words of wisdom: “They won’t understand, so why bother telling them?” But I couldn’t do that. It felt wrong. And, when it comes down to it, the child in all of us does seek our parents’ approval. I am no different.
So, after handing my resignation letter and mentally prepping myself, I called up my father and then my father-in-law—in that order. What happened afterwards was the most humbling experience of my life. My father screamed, but with joy, when he heard that I had bid adieu to my job. He said, “You can only imagine how happy I am. You should do what makes you happy. Money is secondary.” I had to pinch myself to believe his reaction. We had a long conversation where we talked about my plans for the next few months. He was so proud when I told him about the writing residencies I had been accepted into.
Next, I called up my father-in-law, who was crunched inside a Mumbai local train. He could barely hear me over the human cacophony, but he truly heard what I wanted to say. He, too, was ecstatic for me. Once he reached home, he called me back. “Beta, creative work is, any day, better. I am very happy. But don’t write from home. The whistling of the pressure cooker will disturb you and interfere with your writing. Find out if you can work from a place where there is no disturbance. This is your full time job now.”
I was stunned and overwhelmed. I felt blessed and guilty in equal measure. I, like most of my peers, had assumed that neither set of parents would understand or accept my decision. For all the talk of generation gaps I, even if unintentionally, almost created one out of thin air with my stereotypical beliefs. The whole experience made me wonder if my generation sometimes doesn’t give our parents enough credit. We create a wall of presumption and, instead of involving them in our lives, we get into passive-aggressive informing. I am not saying that both the generations can always see eye-to-eye. In fact, we don’t always have to agree; but we do have the same goal in mind: our happiness. Granted we might have different visions of how to achieve that contentment but, instead of preemptively judging our parents’ capacity to understand us, have we tried having a real conversation with them?
If I have grown older and my ideologies have changed, who’s to say my parents and in-laws haven’t evolved too? Maybe, after making every effort, the two generations will remain parallel to each other but, if they too are willing to take a step, shouldn’t we at least try to close the gap?
Sweta Srivastava Vikram is a multi-genre writer based in New York City. www.swetavikram.com