Now… where do I begin. This was a real tough one to pen down, or rather type out, as it involves making an attempt to come to terms with the biggest decision I made in my life, which is pretty scary. However, I realize the importance of sharing this story because I believe the need of the hour, more than ever, is not just engineers, doctors and scientists, but storytellers — the cultural engineers of a society.
A few years ago, I think in 2011, I went to watch Kung Fu Panda 2 with my cousins. As the movie ended and the DreamWorks Animations name showed up on screen, I was overwhelmed. I declared to my cousins, “that is where I will work one day;” and I did. For three years I relished the company of some of the best people and the best professionals in the Animation Industry, and worked on three amazing feature films — Mr. Peabody and Sherman, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Penguins of Madagascar.
Now, let’s derail for a brief moment. I grew up in the 90s — a time of a global cultural explosion in India. While Cartoon Network, Star Movies, MTV and FashionTV began shaping the outlook of young urban teens, another mysterious phenomenon, called the IT boom, began changing the outlook of most parents. A revelation that their children could earn upto three times their own income and have a better life than they could ever dream of, changed the mentality of the entire middle class parent community. And all they had to do was feed this money generating machine with a slew of engineers. Thus dawned the era of the engineer in Modern Indian History.
India has been known for its rich cultural heritage throughout ages. Some even say that when the rest of the world was still figuring out what to do with their God given gifts, we already wrote the Kamasutra; yes, you are welcome. Now, culture is something that is passed on from generations in the form of mythology, practices of livelihood, religion, family legacy and what not. It is not an overstatement to say that a person’s culture shapes his voice, and protecting this unique voice is essential for every individual, society and nation to preserve its diversity in the long run.
The reason I bring this up is with the advent of the great engineering era, propelled by the IT boom, something happened to this cultural side of India, something pretty devastating.
Do you remember, as a kid, being asked — “what do you want to become when you grow up?” I remember people asking me all the time. It is funny that the answers cover an incredible spectrum between ‘space man’ to ‘dinosaur hunter’ coming from 4 year olds, but streamline into doctor or engineer from 14 year olds.
As a kid, I wanted to become the Prime Minister of India, and thought someday I would make a movie about me. As an older kid, I wanted to become a cricket player — a leg spinner for India, and thought someday I would make a movie about me. The later years of my childhood and my early teens, I had to refocus on academics (read as Math, Physics and Chemistry) to prepare myself to be an engineer, like every other kid I knew. I hoped I could still become someone powerful and important, and still be interesting enough so that someone would make a movie about me. I became a Computer Science engineer.
At the ripe age of 21, I was stepping into my dream job and enjoying life. Everything should have been perfect; it was not. I began to realize that I did not want to become the Prime Minister, I just wanted to tell the story of a good leader; I did not want to become a leg spinner, I wanted to the tell the story of a hard working sportsman. Every dream I could remember spoke to me as a story, and when I asked myself the question, “what now?” The answer was pretty evident — “write them down!” Didn’t seem like a bad idea at the moment, so I started my long and tedious journey into story telling with my first novel.
Let’s get back to the cultural devastation… Yes, the IT boom did help the country in a lot many ways, but the promise it showed wasn’t particularly handled well. Engineering, especially IT studies became most sought out, as parents thought it would give their kids the best opportunities. Almost two decades later, even to this day, the other engineering branches are looked down upon and suffer. But there was another sibling who, in the heat of this fiasco, slipped into oblivion — art.
The arts, which were once very prestigious in many parts of India, became all but forgotten in this era. “No one can make a living writing stupid stories,” people said, and considering the situation — if you did not write a book that had the letter “C” followed by “++” over the cover page, it was impossible to make a living as an author in the country. But little did people realize that art affects not individuals but society as a whole, and in the timeline of decades, not mere years.
However, there was one form of art that persisted and thrived — mainstream cinema, focusing on entertaining the masses. Films, in countries like India, can have a lasting effect and even modify the society’s outlook. But it was in this era, I believe, Indian cinema was washed out, dragged on the floor and ripped to shreds. Film education was neither easily accessible nor charming enough for the middle class to pursue, so only a few people could afford it. As a result, over the past few decades, not many worthy stories have been told by people with and without formal training; most stories which deserved to be heard were lost, or worse — replaced with those with little sense or sensibility.
If lack of encouragement towards arts is one major issue for the aforementioned cultural devastation, a rift in the perception of culture in the society is the other. Our modern day society can be divided into many sections- those who have embraced the MNC, and sitcom induced western culture, those who are still making the precarious transition and those who have outright refused the new culture besides many other intermediate groups. Most mainstream movies are portraying cultures which reflect only one section of the society. The gulf between present culture and portrayed culture is growing wider, enlarging the rift between different sections of the society.
In many countries in the past, art has carried forward culture, bridged social gaps, and lent a voice to stories that needed to be heard. If we want the future generations to understand each other, care about cultural tolerance, socio-economic equality, environment and many more pressing matters, we need more stories, more artists and story tellers, and better ones. In the past, movements of historic significance in cinema were called waves; what we need today, to counter this cultural devastation is nothing short of a new wave in Indian art.
No, I did not consider all these when I chose to quit. I did it because I felt my art deserved more time. Writing my novels in the bathroom, or in buses while traveling to work, in trains, planes and ports would not do it anymore. I quit because a voice in me, which urged me to share my ideas with the world, could not be silenced anymore. I quit my dream job because my dreams deserved to be lived and not just dreamt.
Seldom have I wondered if that was the right decision. Having developed a new perspective, I now realize that the onus is upon us storytellers to ensure that the cultural gulf that has been built over the past few decades is bridged. In the wake of emergence of a new global culture worldwide, it is essential that we preserve our roots while accommodating the changes, and stories are the best means of achieving this.
Stories elicit emotions; stories invoke empathy, and through emotions and empathy, stories inspire action. I believe in the power of stories. I believe every story deserves to be heard. Sharing stories brings us together as one human race in times of hope and despair. Stories stand the test of space and time. Stories are the only means of learning from the past and present, of preserving our identity and shaping the future.
I believe that everyone of us can be a story teller. Write for yourself, write for your friends, write to share your life with your kids. Your story can motivate someone seeking hope, your story can console someone in pain, and your story can light the candles of imagination in some curious mind. Your story can change the world. Now, before we get too far ahead of ourselves — can one anomaly change a system? No. can a hundred? Can one story teller change the society? No. Can a hundred? How about a hundred thousand?
I quit my dream job because the world needs more storytellers.