The girl who had no Plan A

Updated: Nov 05, 2019, 08:04 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

People would ask her, what will you be when you grow up? Tanya’s answer: Why must I be anything when I grow up?

I don't think I knew what I wanted to be when I finished school in 1969. Even today, I'm not quite sure who I want to be
I don't think I knew what I wanted to be when I finished school in 1969. Even today, I'm not quite sure who I want to be

You’re having a parent-to-child chat with your daughter (or son, let’s not be gender-biased). “What do you want to be when you grow up?” you ask.

Your child, a class 10 student, replies after barely a pause, “Does everyone have to be something when they grow up? Can’t I just be myself?”

So here’s my question. The child you invested so much hope, love and money into bringing up says she’s happy to be an anonymous nobody when she grows up. Would you be okay with that?

I don’t think I knew what I wanted to be when I finished school in 1969. Even today, I’m not quite sure who I want to be. There are days when I wonder if I ever really grew up. I just knew that I kinda liked writing — and my father told me no one ever made money off that thing.

So why is it so important that your child, in 2019, should have a Plan A for life, with a Plan B if that fails? While you think about that, let me tell you Tanya’s story.

When she was in class 10 of a reputable school in Mumbai, Tanya announced that school sucked and she didn’t want to go any more. Her mother, a wise woman, could not think of a single reason why she should insist her daughter be part of an assembly-line education that discouraged independent thinking while promoting rote learning. Yet a part of her was in panic. What would happen to Tanya’s life if she dropped out?

She consented on the condition that Tanya agree to homeschooling. Tanya said, “Cool!” which is what millennials say when they don’t really care.

In the next two years, though, homeschooling didn’t happen. Tanya pretty much lived in her room, futzing about on her computer while her mother quietly had anxiety attacks outside. She did, apparently, nothing.

One day, her father walked into her room and was surprised when Tanya and her sister both shot to their feet and bodily blocked his view of their computer. Whatever was on the screen, he was not allowed to see it. Later, the mother sat the girls down for an interrogation. The story emerged, reluctantly and on a strictly need-to-know basis.

Tanya, it seemed, spent most of her time watching old movies: classics, comedies, drama, award-winners, fringe, indie, anything. She snipped bits from different movies and stitched them together into entirely new stories. Her little mashup edits were posted on YouTube, where she had a channel.
“It’s not your kind of thing,” said Tanya when her mother asked to see.

Upon probing, it came out that Tanya’s channel had 500,000 followers.

The parents were excited, of course. Their apparently do-nothing daughter was a secret do-something girl. The something was film editing. A friend suggested that she should probably join film school. Things moved quickly now. Soon, with Tanya’s consent, applications were sent to film schools in several countries.

The Art School at Bournemouth, in the UK, impressed by her work on YouTube, offered her admission, waiving the school requirement. Three years later, Tanya returned to India, a highly skilled, certified film editor now, and began working in the Indian film industry.

You might be having all kinds of thoughts right about now. Like whether you should take your own kids out of school. Or whether the best way to parent is by stopping parenting. Or why millennials are so darn obsessive about privacy. But that’s not what this is about.

I had lunch with Tanya recently and asked her how it felt to be doing something she loved so much. She thought a bit and then answered, diffidently, “Okay, I guess. You have to do something for a living.”

That didn’t sound terribly passionate, so I probed. “I thought film editing was your passion.”

“Nah,” she said. “My parents were more excited about it than I was. I like it, it’s something to do but it doesn’t light me up.”

“Why go to England then?” I asked.

“My parents looked so excited. I didn’t want them to feel bad.”

“So do you even have a passion?”

“To be honest, I’m not passionate about anything,” said Tanya. “I’m not particularly ambitious and I don’t care if I never become famous or rich. I’m just happy being me, living my life, quiet and unnoticed. I don’t want to be a star. Is that very bad?”

We push our children to be ambitious and organised and to plan their lives when most of us have mostly stumbled through our lives. A child who doesn’t fill her life with goals and an action plan is made to feel somehow inadequate. Tanya challenges that. She asks: Why are ambition and success such a big deal? I don’t have an answer for her.

Oh, and Tanya’s mother has still not been allowed to see even one of the YouTube mashup movies her daughter made.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com

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