When trials morph into triumphs
I grew up in the idyllic suburbs of 1980s Mumbai. The modernity and dynamism of the city itself were always accessible, yet the suburbs insulated one from the changing cultural landscape. The strongly engendered faith-based ethos of the suburbs manifested as reasonably strict adherence to the traditions and value systems embraced by the community as a whole. In this environment, as a young girl from a conservative middle-class family, my primary education was aimed at acquiring skills that would make me a good wife. Competence in the kitchen, recitation of prayers from memory, classical music or dance training, composed speech, general housekeeping and, most importantly, an obedient disposition were key prerequisites.
Academic education leading to the prospect of future employment was a bonus. What’s more was the idea that employment typically meant a job one held, not necessarily a professional career. Pursuit of an intellectually fulfilling career was a luxury few could afford in that milieu.
Since school was more about treading the road well-trodden and not really about new learning, I did not find it very stimulating. Also, my accolades in the performing arts kept me engaged throughout school life, further widening the gap in my academic training. However, as I approached college/university, I began to recognize the importance of true education and found myself enjoying the intricacies of chemistry and biology.
College was also my first foray into a culturally diverse atmosphere. I was fortunate enough to meet a few young women and their families who were devoted to their education and overall development. I was just beginning to think of the role of women on the world stage and the representation of women beyond the home and the holy mantle. But instructive learning aside, I really struggled with my evolving world view as it acutely reflected the limitations of my own development. This was an unsettling time in my life and I struggled to find harmony between my changing outlook and the conformity demanded of girls.
Out of a sense of mutiny about the world around me, I decided to fail the final exams of my Bachelors’ degree. It was my way of rejecting the life imagined for me by others. This would be a big gamble, but there was an odd sense of quiet self-assurance that stayed with me. It has to be said that a part of this came from the knowledge that the man I loved accepted me for everything I was and would remain undeterred in his affections, regardless of my risky decision. Unfortunately, nobody else in my world at the time would understand my resolution or my reasons, but it was something I had to do to discover who I really was. Subsequently, I found the words that expressed just how I felt at the time in an excerpt from Rudyard Kipling’s If:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
Despite the self-assurance I had felt, the first few months following the failure were crippling and I was instantly a pariah from everything familiar. But, while traditional society makes failure seem like mental purgatory; in time, this failure felt liberating, even empowering. Suddenly, there were no ground rules or guidelines and no associations to hold me back. It was a fresh start on the voyage of self-discovery on my own terms, defining my own reality. It was unrestricted freedom. I know now that, although success is sweet, sweeter still is the success that follows debilitating defeat.
I knew I had to go far away from home to learn about myself outside of the social construct in which there was little room for drastic change. So, I applied to schools overseas, despite great resistance from my father. Based on my prior history of academic merit and a strong letter of intent, I was admitted to Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, UK for a Master’s degree in Forensic Materials, where I learned about applying materials characterization to evidence from crime scenes. There, I flourished personally and academically, feeling right at home in the progressive setting of international education and new ideas. Despite the peak of global recession in 2008, I secured a job as a Research Assistant in an alternative energy development company characterizing catalysts and chemical processes and was later promoted to a Research Associate after negotiating and implementing a career development plan. Later, I moved to the US and continued to work across the private sector and in the government, gaining more skills and confidence.
Today, I am a doctoral student in one of the best Immunology research programs in the US. I find myself shoulder to shoulder with students from some of the most prestigious schools in the world. The program is rigorous and requires a multitude of skills to be successful. Having been away from academic education for over a decade, I find it challenging to garner the discipline to stay focused and manage time carefully. I am also learning to ask for help when I need it and not feel embarrassed about it. It helps that I have a supportive husband and family who are invested in my development now. Moreover, in time, with patience and prudence, my parents’ views on what it means to be a woman today have changed. They now not only accept my choices but are proud of where I stand and hopeful for my professional future.
Because I’ve had no scholastic mentorship in life thus far, it has taken me longer to figure things out for myself. But what this has afforded me are an appetite for challenge, resilience, self-reliance and resourcefulness – qualities I would not trade for anything. That being said, I have to remember not to take myself too seriously and that everything in life is an experience – the good, the bad and the ugly. And there is great humility in knowing how insignificant one is in the grand scheme of the universe. Few failures or successes are too great to consume us permanently. For now, all I know is that life is sweetest at the precipice of challenging discomfort and I look forward to the lifelong learning ahead of me. In the words of Alfred Tennyson:
“It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”