By Sonali Kokra
You can grow up to be anything you want to be, they tell you. Anything at all, that is, except unambitious. I know this, because not too long ago, I had the unfortunate distinction of finding myself staring my 30th birthday, and this illuminating realisation, in the face, simultaneously. Life, as I knew it, was over, in that terrifying, yet clarifying moment. What do you do when you’re forced to delete the one descriptor that’s been a constant in your life?
You pack a bag, book a flight to Goa (now that you think about it, even your #travelgoals are perfectly mediocre) and spend a fortnight trying out this new identity for size. At first, it feels alien and uncomfortable, like a too-tight bra that wants to crush your rib cage and coil its murderous underwire around your heart. But you wrestle and pull, until one day, when you strap it on, miraculously, it hugs the curve of your bosom with the familiarity of a lover.
I was born in a privileged, upper-caste, traditional Indian household. Home, for the first 16 years of my life, was a looming three-storey house bearing the family name, crammed with so many cousins, second cousins, uncles, aunts, and old people that were all referred to as grandparents, that it could easily be mistaken for the set of an Ekta Kapoor soap. Thanks to the succession of children churned out by the extended K-family, we probably paid for the new wing at school with our combined fees.
My teachers kept beseeching my parents that I had a “lot of potential” if only I “applied myself” a little more. Personally, I thought I was applying myself enough.
Being born a K-kid meant you were in a race even before your two front teeth had completely sprouted. We suckled at the twin teats of competitiveness and ambition, from the time we opened our eyes and closed our fists around the waggling fingers of the many adults peering at us anxiously. Each set of procreators had a point to prove. Would their spawn scribble their name on the family’s wall of fame by breaking the record of who started speaking/walking/reading/writing first?
I have to admit, I was a slow starter. The “big school” accepted me only because a director was my grandfather’s friend — and he donated an obscene amount of money to it — and even then, I was made to repeat nursery.
Which is why you can imagine everyone’s surprise when suddenly, after I turned six or seven, I started showing this awful thing called potential. My teachers kept beseeching my parents that I had a “lot of potential” if only I “applied myself” a little more. Personally, I thought I was applying myself enough. I knew that to escape mum’s practised-to-perfection stinging across-the-face slap, I had to rank among the top five in class. Anything below that would mean Aunty M’s kids were ahead of me. My entire school life, I placed a consistent fourth. It was the perfect balance of being sufficiently competitive at academics, but not so much that there was no time to spend in the library reading Harry Potter.
Also imagine my parents’ surprise when they realised that with the help of a dedicated teacher, I had developed a talent for something that could not be measured within the stifling constraints of quarterly exams: writing. For the first time in life, I was “applying myself” because I loved doing it.
Each set of procreators had a point to prove. Would their spawn scribble their name on the family’s wall of fame by breaking the record of who started speaking/walking/reading/writing first?
Somehow, when it was time to enter the workforce at 21, armed with a degree and a folder crammed with recommendations from past internships, I, helped by the world’s ridiculously narrow view and vocabulary to describe individual motivations, managed to f*ck it all up by confusing my personal pursuit for excellence (an entirely internal exercise) with ambitiousness (a wholly external drive).
I spent the next 10 years playing a part I had never meant to audition for – the part of a person consumed with plotting promotions and planning wins. Wondering when I’m going to make it to this list, or win that award. Because how else do you let the world in on the spectacle that is success? Ironically, the more I obsessed about making a name for myself, the lesser I created work that was worth being known for. But whenever I stripped my writing of my name, the words flew across the page.
A decade’s worth of the performance of ambition came crashing around my ears circa the 30th birthday, when I finally found the courage to say out loud the words swirling in my brain for many months: the manuscript I had just spent the year writing was worth less than the paper it was printed on. I cringed at my self-absorbed, half-hearted characters. Fear dripped off of every page, as I employed every trope in the history of formulaic storytelling in the interest of guaranteed success. I also realised that I was exhausted of pretending I enjoyed being in the race, and sick to my back teeth of the social media pageantry and self-promotion on steroids that is expected of practitioners of all manners of creative arts.
And that’s how I found myself in my tiny cottage in Goa. Unostentatious, accessible, inexpensive Goa, ready and willing to accept — finally — my absolute lack of ambition to be someone important, instead of simply writing the best way I knew how. It was the best investment I’ve made in my mental health.
Lofty ideals have a way of vanishing into dust when your head is spinning at the laughable numbers peering at you when you courageously log in to your bank’s app.
Once I got rid of the paraphernalia and window dressing that I’d cluttered my mind with, I wrote some dreadful poetry that no publisher would touch with a bargepole, and half a book that I’m ridiculously excited about. I made some anonymous submissions, and was delighted by their success, knowing I could never claim it. It was a humbling experience.
Which is not to say it’s easy, or that life has been a bed of roses. FOMO comes bolting out the door the second it sniffs fear, or sees you falter at the sight of peers plastering Instagram and Facebook with photographs of all the discussions they moderated and speeches they were invited to give, while you haggle over per word and per article prices with editors. Lofty ideals have a way of vanishing into dust when your head is spinning at the laughable numbers peering at you when you courageously log in to your bank’s app. Suddenly, you wish you’d made the effort to show up for this networking event, or that launch party. Or at least the sense to not create half a dozen writing alter egos.
But then I look at the pages and pages of (dreadful) poetry I’ve written, because for the first time in my professional life I’m not scared to try something new, because no one cares if an unambitious nobody fails or succeeds anyway. And it fills me with the same giddy delight I felt when I wrote my first short story in my red and blue-lined schoolbook. Turns out, you can grow up to be anything you want to be — even unambitious — as long as you don’t look too closely at the price in the fine print.
Sonali Kokra is a Mumbai-based journalist, writer, editor and media consultant who writes on feminism, gender rights, sexuality, relationships, and lifestyle.
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