As I stumble across the threshold of middle age, I find myself succumbing to the very human impulse to look back and take stock. There are times when I wish for a Peggy Sue moment that will transport me back 20 years with the accumulated knowledge of a lifetime—would I make the same choices knowing what I do today?
Then it strikes me that perhaps I only had the illusion of choice. For many of my generation of middle class Indians, the direction of our lives were, if not predetermined, certainly predisposed to certain paths. Given the constraints of the Indian education system, intellectual ability neatly slotted the young individual in one of three simple compartments—the arts, the sciences, and commerce, the middle way for the confused. Family economics dictated that our education had to lead us to a financially viable future. We tenderly packed away our artistic leanings or scholarly ambitions and resigned ourselves to living traditional, successful, if a tad boring, lives.
Those of us who made it out of India have found ourselves getting infected with the Western belief in the preeminence of individual ambition over societal and familial expectations; we explore alternative careers, indulge in athletic endeavors perilous to aging bones, and take an active role in local politics and governance. It is our second innings, and if there’s one thing we take away from our rebirth, it is the determination that the next generation will not be denied the opportunities we were.
But it seems to me that though my children will grow up with far fewer constraints, their decisions will be far more challenging. Today’s youngsters are taught to believe they can be anything, do anything. How much more disappointing might it be to arrive at middle age knowing that the possibilities were endless and the selections few? I find a sort of craven comfort in believing that I made the best of my limited choices.
Still, there are times when I catch myself daydreaming about the roads not taken, and when doubts threaten to overwhelm, I console myself with Everett’s theory of multiverses; somewhere in time and place there is a rock star me, a billionaire me, an activist me, an astrophysicist me, and I hope all of us are alive, healthy, and happy with the choices we have made and the directions our lives have taken.