If you’re from South Asia, and belong to an “old family” – which essentially means any family with an ancestor who had the forethought to buy a house in the middle of the city, before land prices shot up – there are only two things you can do that will humiliate your family so much that they will baulk to show up at their colonial-era clubs. The first, of course, is to fail to secure a foreign passport. The second is to eschew a professional degree in favour of the arts.
If you’re a man, choosing the arts can only mean that you’re a drug addict, deranged pervert, or worse, a prospective writer. If you’re a woman, the pessimists in your family will fear that you may become a musician, dancer, or actress, and the optimists in your family will hope that you’re grooming yourself for the life of a housewife. For some reason, most of South Asia believes that studying Shakespeare and the Romantics is the key to good housekeeping.
About a decade ago, I declared my intention to switch from the sciences to the arts. Before I could apply to any university, all the foreign-passport-bearers in my family called up to warn us against the evil influence of sex, drugs, alcohol, and racism in their adopted countries.
If you’re a man, choosing the arts can only mean that you’re a drug addict, deranged pervert, or worse, a prospective writer
Then, several relatives began to arrive at my home, ostensibly to pay the geriatrics in the house a visit, but really to counsel me against my instincts.
First, the top rung of professionals – engineers and doctors – were called, in the hope that they could convince me to pursue their branches of study before I burnt my bridges.
When that failed, the second rung – lawyers, government officials, bureaucrats, and chartered accountants – arrived to convince me that, once I had invested three years in “reading books”, I could still turn my life into something worthwhile.
Finally, the housewives and clerks arrived, to tell me the sad stories of their lives, and what they would have done instead, if they had scored as highly as I had in the school final exams.
Once it is clear that you are a gone case, the doctors who said, “At least study law, if not medicine or engineering”, and the lawyers who said, “At least study accounting and become an auditor”, and the accountants who said, “But do you want to be a housewife?”, stop visiting.
The relatives who would bring application forms to engineering colleges – “Just see whether god wills it, at least, no?” – peter out.
Instead, the housewives arrive in force, bearing horoscopes and pictures of “fair, tall, handsome boys from good families, with no bad habits”.
While your family is out at the club, again, whispering apologetically to the other members that “She took literature out of choice; she could have got into any engineering or medical college if she had wanted”, you must deal with these matrons, who brandish the descriptions of the “boys” along with photographs that belie them.
Eventually, as you approach your mid-twenties, the housewives give up on you too. They had finished producing all their spawn by that age, they sigh, as they take their leave of your family. Your classmates are divided into those who couldn’t attend the graduation ceremony because they were getting married, those who were absorbed into the convent along with their degree certificates, those who are foisting their narrow minds on a new generation, those who eloped, and the four people who share your boat.
In an ideal world, this would be bliss. Your relatives have given up on you, you have found yourself a job that pays well, and have no responsibilities other than to make the most of your twenties.
However, the bovine cousins who have produced boring children, decide that your lack of interest in going forth and multiplying must somehow imply that you ache for the company of their offspring.
“They really enjoy spending time with you,” they gush, as a two-year-old drools all over the newly-upholstered antique sofa. When I reply that the feeling is not mutual, they think I must be joking.
The drooling two-year-olds tend to be less annoying than the idiot twelve-year-olds who want help with Shakespeare.
“Explain what this means, no?” they say, thrusting a book at you. At that moment, you know that this can only lead to your checking their grammatically incorrect, and logically vacuous, applications to foreign universities a few years from now.
However, the worst thing that can happen to you when you choose the arts is to actually find success in what you love. I was to realise this when I began to write columns in the papers, and eventually got a book contract.
All this meant to the bovine cousins was that I could now be enabler-in-chief of their children’s “poetries” and derivative stories. n