Five years ago, I dared to dream.
In 2011, I was a computer engineer gulping cupfuls of machine-spewed instant coffee at an IT company while pondering a strange existentialist cloud that rained often on my cubicle. I was disillusioned by the tech bubble that encircled my life, the kind that makes managers worry about web servers instead of people when natural disasters strike. They were just doing their job I guess, but it was clear to me that that job wasn’t my calling. So, I quit. And I dared to dream of a career which would make me travel the world to tell stories through my favourite channels of expression – writing and photography. Now, before you denounce this reckless career leap as a millennial’s privilege, let me stop you right there and agree with you. Yes, I’m one of those Gen-Y yuppies who are constantly seeking their ‘special’ place in this world, unlike their parents whose idea of success was a secure, well-paying job.
Truth is, everybody dreams reckless dreams. But few give up everything to follow them. After all, the blue pill is so much easier to swallow (Matrix reference). You continue on the path you did not choose because you’re already on it, because “it’s too late to turn back”, because if you went after the dream you might “lose everything” and yet never find the fabled treasure, or worse.
I took the red pill.
As I gave up that life, I joined a journalism college and sat amidst History, English Hon. and Journalism grads, trying to comprehend what it meant to be a scribe in the new world. I was told I was a decent writer but had no sense of news. My introduction in every class followed the same pattern. After the customary name, domicile and interests trivia, and the mandatory ‘why quit engineering’ argument, I announced my intent: ‘To become a travel writer and photographer’. It met as much amusement as rebuke. So much so that at one point, I felt I was being unreasonable asking for such a surreal way of life. My ambitions were watered down to the nearest common denominator: city reporter. A city feature writer at most, if I was lucky.
Desperation took over. Whenever an ad announced ‘The Best Job in the World’ – more often that not related to travel – I threw my hat in the ring, akin to buying a lottery ticket. My resume held no qualification for the job, only ‘immense passion for travel, and unbridled creativity in storytelling’. I was a daydreamer, chasing my phantasm with the single-mindedness of a sniper. I shot out query letters to professional travel writers asking for advice. When no tips returned, I inquired about their career trajectory. Perhaps I could try to emulate it. Vague responses only made the job look more like a myth. Travel cafes offered workshops on writing; blogs gave advice on shoe-string budgets and marketing; magazines asked for experience which wasn’t available without prior experience. They were all selling real estate on whimsical clouds. It is then that I decided that if I ever became a travel journalist, I’d write about it. If not concrete advice, at least my own story. So it would give hope to anyone who dreams the same dream.
It’s 2016. And I’m here. A writer-photographer for a travel magazine, one of the two publications I mentioned in a naive Facebook note I posted in 2011 while sketching out the goal. [For those who are quick to make Bollywood comparisons, this was two years before YJHD and Ranbir Kapoor made it cool to be a travel photographer.] I wish I could tell you if the dream lives up to its projection in my head. But I’ve just got here; I’m yet to savour it. Perhaps six months later, I’ll tell you whether the Loch Ness Monster really has gigantic flippers for feet.
Lucky Number: None
It wasn’t luck that got me here. It was an immense amount of stubbornness, courage to take silly risks, many sacrifices, and working insanely hard at whatever I took up along the way. (Also, a lingering sense of discontent that soiled every success I tasted along the way.)
I topped my journalism school. Not that medals are any indicator of talent, but that gold medallion gave me a lot of self-belief, an assurance that I was perhaps right about changing the course of my career. The industry was in such a dire state that there were no campus placements that year. So I interned at what is routinely called the biggest English-language daily in the world.
The internship was supposed to last four months. But after just two months of reporting in a city I loathed, I ran into a wall. A bad bout of hepatitis-induced jaundice made sure that I lay shackled to a bed for four months while my peers got published and scored jobs. When I went back to the newsroom, vitals nearing normalcy, reporting jobs had run out. I finished my internship in a different department, one that held promise of a job but involved work that I had never intended to do. I wanted to tell stories; instead I spent eight ill-timed hours editing others’ political stories and populating pages with them. A far cry from travel writing. But I kept at it for over two years. Back then, it felt like a means to an end. But in hindsight, it was a significant phase of growth.
Did I like it? No.
Did I learn from it? Yes, for a while.
Did I do it nevertheless? As well as I possibly could. A double-promotion later, I approached the nicest boss in office with mutiny (and guilt) on my mind. I wanted out. I wanted to write. Before my CV was cast in an editor’s mold. And a transfer within the company was the only way. Few firms would hire a rookie reporter, with no sources or portfolio, at the salary of a senior sub-editor.
Internal transfers aren’t uncommon, but they do meet some resistance. Especially when you want to leave the desk for the field. (Because almost everyone wants to do that). I was fortunate to have bosses who acknowledged my calling. But the team I aspired for was the weekly national features team. If I got in, I would be the youngest in the room by at least 6-7 years. I was vying to fill the boots of someone who had 10-odd years of writing experience. I knew I had to earn my place. So, after two years of editing monotonous political stories, I put pen to paper, summoned my muse, and tried to write content-rich national features hinged on news.
Words had abandoned me. The metaphors that once laced my tongue bled like ulcers in the mouth. I wrote nevertheless; I crawled through language, groping for one word, then the next. I turned to my personal blog for momentum. [Yes, this one.] For the next five months, I balanced two jobs. While I continued to follow the eight-hour rut of politics and pages every day, I also contributed the occasional feature story to iron out any doubts about my abilities. In March 2015, I finally broke in. I was a feature writer with a nationwide audience.
Life turned easier after the transition. For one, my day turned turtle. For the first time in 2.5 years, I was going to office in the first half of the day and coming back before midnight. I was eating three meals a day and watching the occasional sunset. My reluctant editing stint proved to be a strength on the new job – I wrote without the fluff which usually clouds rookie writing, because I’d spent two years cutting out that very fat from stories. Most importantly, I was telling stories under my own name. For me, nothing beats the thrill of receiving a phone call/sms/fan-mail about a story that resonates with someone.
The travel dream remained dormant but never died. Being the youngest in the team eventually proved to be an advantage. I could leave for an assignment at a moment’s notice. Any assignment. My job took me to Nepal twice, to China, and to Andamans for a scuba diving experience – all in a single year. Outsiders called me lucky; my insides winced. It’s an easy thing to attribute someone’s way of life to luck. No, I wasn’t lucky. I’d worked my guts out for this; I’d rebelled for this; I’d given up an IT career that promised money and the American dream, for this. While most of my engineering friends uploaded selfies with their new sedans, or pictures of a posh office in Silicon Valley, or a home they moved into with their better halves, I had been busy figuring out if I could pay the bills on time that month. Journalism isn’t an easy job, and the industry pay standards don’t make it any easier. My only reward: Every Sunday when my story came out, Ma would call from a faraway hamlet, once home, telling me she’d read me; school teachers and cousins and former best friends would message to say my stories had become a ritualistic accompaniment with their Sunday morning cup of tea. There is no greater reward for a writer than to be read.
The Treasure Trunk
The job was great. I enjoyed a big audience and the freedom to write on various subjects. But it still wasn’t what I had spelled out five years ago in that classroom. There was travel involved, but it was purely incidental. My feet itched to wander. So, after 1.5 years of writing features on topics ranging from alternative sexuality in comics to couple apps and suicide helplines (http://bit.ly/29xLc7r), I unlocked the trunk beneath my bed and dug out the dream, now covered in sheaths of dust. I applied to a travel magazine. By this time, I had built a portfolio of over 50 national features and composed a Flickr page that featured eclectic frames – from wildlife photographs and unexplored landscapes to underwater creatures and street portraits. The work laid out on the table, I wasn’t asked to give a test. Salary terms were negotiated, the offer handed out. It was mine. Just like that.
Sometimes life offers mirages in the middle of a scorching desert. Sometimes, we build them ourselves, making up a reason to keep walking through the harshest of terrains, plotting dreams with emboldened crosses, reaffirmed, on tattered maps, imagining treasures beyond belief for the taking – if only we walked. If only we survived this. But what happens when you suddenly have it, the dream, tossing and turning like a baby dragon of folklore in the palm of your hand?
Dare to dream. And don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done. But be prepared to give everything up to chase that fantasy beyond the rainbow’s arch. ‘Wishing on a falling star got me here,’ said no one ever.
As for me, my next dream is already keeping me up through nights.