“Kripya Line Pe Bane Rahein”: Why Indians Never Change Career Paths


“Kripya Line Pe Bane Rahein”: Why Indians Never Change Career Paths

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Young teenage life all over India is measured in two events – the board exams, Std X and Std XII. Nothing else matters. Life is mapped out as Arts, Science, and Commerce, and parents are worried sick about our the future before the present even rolls out.

Being a teacher’s son means you’re always giving career advice to parents of her students. But these parents rarely ask about fulfilling professional choices. Their questions are to the point and it reflects the way we think about careers. The one I always get it: “Media line mein paisa hai kya?”

For middle-class India, work boils down to a “line”, the straight road at the end of which is a pot of gold, a neat full stop.

The immortal Paul Klee once said, “a line is a dot that went for a walk.” It is straight; there is nothing more boring, more vanilla than a line. There is nothing more safe than toeing the line. And yet, we view careers as nothing more than a “line”. That’s because in India, when you’ve picked a profession, that’s the track you run on all your life.

In the India that belonged to our fathers, you never left that track. In today’s India, you can switch a track but never change the “line”. A Western Railway train can arrive on Platform No 3 instead of Platform No 1 and the inconvenience is regretted, but it can’t, under no circumstances, suddenly decide to jump on to the Central track. That’s derailment.  

If you jump ship now, you stay in the ocean; the boat you’re currently on board, is going to sail away. Time and line wait for none.

The media is not considered a field, a career, a vocation – for many, it’s just another line. The rest of the words are too layered, too nuanced, and too dense. A line, on the other hand, is finite and at the same time infinite, depending on how much you want to stretch it.

There is no surprise then that most of us choose one field and run with it all our lives. In India, it is not advisable to change course. It is frowned upon; you are considered fickle, someone who wastes time and is unsure of himself or herself.

Sure you can go from advertising to TV to radio to digital media to print, but you have to stay on the course. There is no life beyond this. In the India that we occupy, you can’t suddenly wake up and say, “Heck, I think I’ll be a scuba-diving instructor from today.” That’s unacceptable. Suggest this to your parents and the baggage on the conveyor belt called middle class begins to roll out.

First, you will be sent on a guilt trip with a barrage of rhetorical questions: What about all the fees they paid? What about those classes? What about the sacrifices your dad made, the double shifts and what not. Then, comes the fear: The risk is too high. And what about the drop in salary? And the possibility of starting at the bottom again? Being an intern at 32 is insulting.

But above all of this, is log kya kahenge? How will anyone agree to marry you? As these thoughts begin to marinate, the comparisons begin. “What about your best friend Rakesh? He is happy; is he a fool?” “Are so many people foolish to choose the media line?” And then comes the ultimate comparison – with your father. He stayed in the engineering line all his life. And then, you’re compared to the fabled dhobi ka kutta, na idhar ka naa udhar ka.   

Standing as the paragon of virtue in front of you, is always an unadventurous cousin who has stayed in line for over a decade now. In fact, he purchased a new house, is happily married, and now has a baby on the way. All this, when you haven’t even agreed to make a matrimony profile.

You swear you did not see that coming, but Indian parents are full of surprises. Somehow, a conversation about changing your “line” concludes with a debate on your marriage and a taunt that you haven’t yet blessed them with a grandchild. You choose not to argue but agree with them. And then when you reiterate that you’d like to try something new, they hit back with the “I told you so” argument. “We knew it wasn’t your thing.” “We were telling you to get a government job; we knew there was no money in this line, but you were stubborn.” “You’ve never listened to us.” As you try and process all of this, even as your parents continue to serve you platefuls of guilt, you don’t realise when you agree to meet a girl for marriage.

The truth is, we are too scared to experiment. The stakes are too high. Some of those fears are legitimate. It’s impossible to start all over again. There are too many people in the “line” you are thinking of pursuing. If you jump ship now, you stay in the ocean; the boat you’re currently on board, is going to sail away. Time and line wait for none.

If you don’t make it in your new “line”, you’ll be nowhere. Sure it sounds fancy to switch professions when you are a 30-something, but how long will the social media adulation last? And what happens when you’re 60-something? Your government doesn’t take care of your health plan in your old age. Your company doesn’t give you benefits on sabbaticals that MNCs offer. You need the money and security. And that comes only when you stay in a line.

You can’t just leave everything one day, no matter how much Pinterest urges you to. So follow the line. Or don’t. Depends on which side of the line you’d like to see yourself. The vanilla side or the one with many different flavours.