Mainak DharHad the opportunity to speak to some great kids at a school in Mumbai a couple of days ago. Here’s what I told them.
Good afternoon and thank you inviting me here to be with you today. I always enjoy interacting with young people like you. On the one hand, it reminds me of just how much the world has changed since I was in your shoes. Though I hardly think of myself as ‘old’, when I was in school, there was no Internet, no smartphones, no Facebook or Twitter. On the other hand, I suspect some things have not changed that much. After a nice lunch, when you’re made to sit down to listen to a guest speaker, the questions in your mind are perhaps the same ones I had when I was in your shoes.
How long will this guy speak?
How boring will he be?
When can I go and play?
Will they actually expect me to pay attention to the wisdom he claims to impart?
I have good news for you. I have little wisdom to offer and will take only a little bit of your time. What I will do is tell you a story- a story that starts when I was in school like you. I had a pretty nomadic childhood. With my Dad in the government, we moved around a lot. I was born in Nagaland in the North-East, then lived in Sikkim- both then relatively remote areas. Then we moved to Delhi, lived in Canada for close to five years and then back to India. By the time I finished my education, I had been to nine different schools or colleges. Moving around so much meant few stable friends, and I began to rely on my imagination a lot. I loved reading, and I began to love making up stories. For all of Grade 7 and 8, I had an imaginary friend called Freddy who would sit next to me in French class. I would write his exams for him and also tell the teacher when he was absent because he was sick. I once wrote down an account of how the world ended (a combination of a meteor strike, nuclear war and virus outbreak, in case you’re interested) and buried it in our front yard, hoping to mess with the minds of future historians who might find it- my own twelve-year-old equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls. At school, I would put an intricate cover page on every report with an illustration and my name. When teachers asked me why I was going through all the trouble, I’d say I was pretending I had written a book. My mother was a big supporter of these childhood dreams and when I did write my first book when I was in college, she was my literary agent before I knew such a thing existed. She would go with me to meet publishers, and then hound them to ensure they paid royalties on time.
Then, something changed. I went to Business School, got an MBA, began working, and suddenly different things became important. Meeting sales targets, when I got promoted, how much my salary increased. Don’t get me wrong- these are not unimportant things, but in ‘growing up’, what had been my childhood dreams were now something I had begun to leave behind in the pursuit of all the things I thought ‘grown ups’ needed to do. I was reconnected to them by the person who had helped nurture and support them in the first place- my Mom. I lost my Mom to Cancer in 2001. In one of my last conversations with her, she told me I could be anything I wanted; I would have big jobs, earn a lot of money, see many countries, but there was one thing she wished for me to do. She said that she would love for me to not lose that dream I had as a little boy. She wanted me to have that joy she had seen on my face when I had been making up stories. I promised her I would, and that I would write a book a year.
Today, when people ask me how I find the time to write and how I manage to balance a full time corporate job with my writing, they’ll realize that things fall into place when you’re driven by a promise like the one I made my Mom. I still thank my Mom for reconnecting me to my childhood dreams, and it has made my life so much richer. Today my storytelling is inspired by my own little family- my wife, Puja and our son, Aaditya. I make up stories, share with them, involve them in my stories (in my latest novel, the hero is called Aaditya). In connecting back to the dreams I once had, I realize I am able to bring my full, authentic self to my day job as well- and do better at it. My business card may call me all sorts of things, but somewhere, deep down, I’m still just that boy who loves making up stories.
Why am I telling you all this?
You are growing up in a world which is much more connected and you have access to many more ideas and opportunities. Literally, the world is your oyster. Some of you will be doctors, some engineers, some work in the corporate sector, some begin your own start-ups. You will go to colleges that people dream of going to, earn great degrees and work in big organizations. But don’t let those titles, degrees and jobs be the only things that end up defining you. Think of what brings you joy today- what your own childhood dreams are. Some of you love dancing, others are great singers, some paint well, yet others are great at sports, and perhaps some love making up stuff like I did. Whatever it is, hang onto those dreams and don’t lose them, because they are probably the purest part of who you are. They are the things that inspire you and bring you joy. You will do big things, have big jobs and big degrees, but if you keep those small childhood dreams alive in some way, you will find that they have a disproportionate impact in making you happy, and in keeping you grounded in who you really are beyond the labels the world will stick on you.
Don’t lose the years I did and don’t wait to be reconnected to those childhood dreams as I needed to be. Go on, sing that song, paint that portrait, dance the night away, play football in the rain, and indeed, invent your own Freddy. And keep doing it even when the world tells you that you’re supposed to have ‘grown up’.