Doctor, Engineer or Farmer?

Engineering or medical? The moment I made the shift from simple trigonometric equations in high school to the labyrinthine alleys of derivative calculus in senior secondary school, this question appeared magically on the lips of well-meaning elders and pesky neighbours whose sons/daughters have already cracked the coveted medical/engineering exams. The knowledgeable ones advised me to keep options open. Which meant they had assessed me pretty well and realized I had as much of getting into an engineering or medical college as of Mohun Bagan defeating FC Barcelona. As it turned out, they were right. Engineering was never an option. I did flirt with the notion of becoming a vet for some time though.

In the mid nineties, post-liberalization India was a very dynamic nation. The nation transformed from a somnolent bear into a rampaging bull. And suddenly, there were opportunities that promisedgreat riches. A degree in the medical sciences was always a traditional favourite. However, it was nothing compared to the holy combo of an engineering and management degree.  The ultimate winner was, of course, an IIT-IIM degree. Parents who spent decade after decade in the same job saw a different future for their children. The almost reverent whispers of never-heard-before salary packages played a big role in upping the pressure. Thankfully, my very unimpressive scores ensured no nights without sleep were lost in wondering whether I should attempt appearing for these exams. I had taken the decision to change my discipline from science to commerce. And expectations vanished with the surety of rains on an overcast day. As I languidly opened yet another PG Wodehouse, I couldn't help but take pity on my academically inclined contemporaries who were carrying the massive burdens of expectations of their family on their young shoulders.

But those days were nothing compared to the competition of today. Not only has it increased exponentially but also the surfeit of technical institutions, good, bad and ugly, has made it possible for almost anybody to dream of getting into one.

There was a time though when it was tough to go to school or college, simply because they were almost non-existent. This was during my father's time in the 1960's when he was growing up in a small village in the laidback Lakhimpur district of Assam, a state tucked away in northeastern India. Hailing from a family of farmers, my father could have led the simple yet fulfilling life of a farmer. But my father decided to plough an academic furrow instead. He ended up as the first graduate and post-graduate from that village. Subsequent degrees in law and journalism ensured whenever my father visited his village, depending on their academic inclination, students either flocked around him, or stayed away.

One of the younger lot who sought my father’s company was Dhiren Khura (khura – uncle), my
father’s cousin - a kind and quiet gentleman with an understated sense of humour. On my last visit to Lakhimpur, I had a chance to meet up with him. It was harvesting time. He took me along with him when he headed out to help his wife in the fields. His wife, a graduate, teaches in a school. But the family’s income comes mainly from farming. Dhiren Khura asked me about my profession. I explained how the fluctuating world economy is creating a lot of stress everywhere. Nothing is certain. Nothing is sacrosanct.

Dhiren Khura said that he had read in the papers that people could come in the morning and realize that they are out of a job. He then recounted how he was looking out for a job after completing his graduation. He sought my father’s advice on how to apply for jobs and prepare for interviews. Unfortunately, in the early-80s, the word ‘plentiful’ could not be used for employment opportunities. The private sector was far from opening up and jobs in the public/government sector were dependent on several external factors – a good word by someone influential, some dexterous pulling of strings, an exchange of cash, or just being in front of the right committee at the right time.

Dhiren Khura made the rounds diligently. But an appointment letter always eluded him. After travelling back and forth from Lakhimpur quite a few times in search of that elusive white-collar job, he realised every time he came to a city, he missed the open spaces of his village. He came to a decision to continue doing what came naturally to him – farming.

The life of a farmer is far from easy. The weather plays a huge role. But more often than not, nature is on the side of the farmer. As Dhiren Khura explained with a touch of pride, his hours of work under rain and sun over the years have not resulted in tremendous riches but have given him enough to support his family and unmarried elder sister.

As Dhiren Khura got busy tying bales of hay, humming a song softly, I couldn't help thinking that he
escaped the trap that most people fall into. Working under clear blue skies instead of a room (however well designed it might be), with chirping birds and softly mooing cows for company instead of carping colleagues and disgruntled bosses. He’s leading the simple and fulfilling life that people seek through self-help books, life coaches and online searches.

All because he decided to do what came naturally to him. I guess there’s a lesson in it somewhere.