Saturday, May 14, 2005

Zig n Zag - II

When I think of a life with zig and zag the name that comes to mind is Tony Foley. This was a guy I met on a flight to London in 1998. I was going to intern with the Daily Telegraph on a scholarship, he was on the final leg of a one and a half year discovery-of-the-world trip.

Tony was from New Zealand, a country where it is not unusual to chuck a well paying job at Cadbury's to fulfil ones wanderlust. Which is what he had done. After spending a few months in Africa (where his expensive camera was stolen), and s e Asia, he travelled the length and breadth of India.

At the end of it, he was down to almost his last penny. He took a local train to Sahar airport, single bag in hand. In London, he had friends - and was to collect insurance money for the stolen equipment. And he seemed so cool, confident and unconcerned about the future - I couldn't help but envy him.

So I'll say once again, it's not about money. It's a cultural thing. I didn't take up the campus placement after my MBA - I wanted to a bunch of 'different' things. Like work with CSE (Centre for Science and Environment) for a while, then spend a month or two travelling around India (alone). Neither plan materialised.

The travel bit was shot down by my parents. (Ladki, akele? No way). Instead of CSE I joined the TOI where I was offered a job in 'brand management'. It paid peanut ka chhilkas, but allowed me to stay connected to my first love - writing.

It's your life but...

Of course, had I been more strong-willed, had I been more of a rebel... Things would have been different. But I cared for 'approval'. As most of us in India seem to.

Approval comes from following the rules laid down in society. The rewards of following these rules are that you enjoy the warm cocoon of family, which an individualist like Tony probably does not.

And of course, in their own way, parents are right. Life in India is a struggle. If you take off for 6 months someone will replace you and you may have to start from lower down the ladder again. You can't take even a basic upper middle class lifestyle for granted. You have to claw your way to a 'good job' and then hang onto it.

Family is social security - emotional too. Which is why you think a million times before doing anything which may upset the applecart.

As we get more economically secure, this may change. But cultural influences are quite deep rooted - so it will take a generation or two to strike the right balance.

The other side
On the other hand, one can argue that 'backpacking' for a firang is an activity pursued, at least partially, for approval. Everybody's doing it - you do it too.

So much so that backpackers who start out thinking they're going to 'discover' a new country and culture simply walk down the path set down by the Lonely Planet guidebook. So in Mumbai they stroll down Causeway, eat at Leo or Mondy's, visit the dhobi ghat and chor bazaar.

And in Goa or Manali, stay in 'backpacker hotels' which serve muesli and banana pancakes for breakfast. And only take in other white skinned residents.

The other point is that travel is something that a lot of young people in the Western world experiment with at some point. But then settle down to predictable lives. It's only a small minority that 'lives to travel'.

As Vicky from Tasmania puts it:
"Forget having kids, buying houses etc: travel light. So many people, not that much older than us, seem so full of regret about the things they never did and places they never went to, and now probably never will. Their lives just seem so empty.

I don't think I could wait until retirement: I could get knocked over by a bus tomorrow. In other words, carpe diem! When people tell us to settle down it seems a bit like a conspiracy: are they jealous that they're stuck with 20-year mortgages and time-consuming children?"

I'm just saying if you are born in India but would like to be a Vicky, you should have the choice. Currently, it doesn't seem like we do.


  1. how come the shift from management to journalism?kinda drastic,dont u think?

  2. i do have this choice. i can say this for myself. although i am very fortunate to have the kind of support around me where my parents aren't too worried about what i am doing as long as i am independent financially. in a manner of speaking i am on a five year holiday from their expectations. after that they would 'prefer' that i settled down and live the middle class life they think their child should be living.

  3. Hey rashmi.I know that feeling...........Its not just the backpacking.These foreigners do have a lot of freedom;It's the way children move out after some pt of time or the way the children can take a 1 or more yr break in studies and then continue or even the way their parents expect nothing for them but to be present on thanksgiving diner.I think its makes one very independent but then on the flip side they are also lonelier than us.It reminds me of a quote:"The grass may be greener on the other side but you still have to mow it!"

  4. A couple of years ago, when I finished first of my graduate school degrees, I knew what I wanted to do afterwards. There was a Seven month period between the two, and I really wanted to travel around India for at least three of them. Unfortunately, I chickened out, and took up a temp job for those seven months. Now, its hard for me to think when I will get such a chance again.

    On the other hand, I met a gentleman last month who did exactly that. After finishing his PhD, he took a year off, travelling all over India. Now he is back to his more academic roots, but he had the guts to take the time.

    I find that more and more of my friends from the graduate school have taken it slow after the degree. Some chose to hang around for a few months, some have chosen to experiment with business and travel for a year, and many have indicated that they are not under pressure to find work immediately as their parents would be happy to put them up for a few months, if need be.

  5. You are a real gutsy gal to not take up a job after doing a MBA from IIM-A, since "placements" is the sole reason why more than half the people do an MBA for.

  6. Sometimes I feel what you personally advice people and what you write on your blog contradicts the other.

  7. I guess you are missing a important point about Indians in your post. It is not only about having guts, or about sticking to job, or approval from parents and following rules of society: a very different element of Indian society is added responsibility for family. As a guy, you are expected, and moreover most of us feel resposibility ourselves and are not forced into it, to provide for family. You have parents to take care of, sister to marry, relatives to manage. Now more and more girls are taking this reponsibility too. This is big factor we cannot just "live for sake of living or having fun" without care for future. Unlike foreigner, we cannot depend on social securities to fend for our parents, or fullfilling their dreams. We cannot run away from expensive marriages and associated costs. To sum it, most of Indians do not live their life just for themselves, but for whole set of people around and dependent on them. This trend may change, but not untill we have better social structure, or untill we are too morally bankrupt to dump our parents into old age homes.

  8. wow. stumbled across this blog and post about zigging and zagging. i think this is true of many people in developing asian countries, not just india.

    i can speak for americans (don't know about other "westerners") in that people here have been wandering long before we saw economic prosperity. we were, however, chasing a better life through wandering. either from europe to america (or from asia to america), and then from place to place throughout the continent. even now, american demographics are shifting to favor the west coast, which is more sparsely populated.

  9. ah, i just noticed you guys say "firang" for white foreigners. did you know the word in thai is "farang?" in thai, it refers to how a split papaya looks: big and pink. is it coincidence?

  10. Did (still do) things that 'people' might not 'approve' of!!! Then felt more than justified when I came across this Mark Twain quote-"Twenty years from now you'll be more disappointed with the things that you didnot do than the ones you did do......"

    Guess slowly but surely,things are changing in India too I guess,with 'approval' not being as difficult as earlier.

  11. Very interesting analyzations. I agree on most parts but still hold that it is open to more explorartions. Its what the NASA scientist says in Swadesh-- "we bring everything down to culture."

    Too simplistic, ain't it?

  12. Vishal4:08 PM

    Good observations and an interesting point of view.Do agree with AshishG to some extent.Something 'cultural' does stop us from exploring the world.this is from a guy whose just finished his tech studies and whose parents say that he's 'done nothing but wandering for a whole year'

  13. LOL @ peanut ka chhilkas

    On a serious note though, I think what you say about life in India being a struggle is very true. There are just so many people out there to take up your job, that you cannot "take a break" at any point in time. But I think, these travelling backpackers you talk about, are also a minority in their country. For most people, taking a break from studies, is more about interning with different organizations to see where their interests lie. These internships are interspersed with trip financed from any money earned. The definition of an organization varies. While Indians would scoff at a CSE or a environmental NGO working in Sudan, Europeans would treat it as another experience, making it sound exotic to our culturally conditioned ears.

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