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When personal experience shapes career choices

Two Distinct Worlds

The city of Boston with all its cultural and historical magnificence—and my parental village in India where there is a struggle for a square meal— are two distinct worlds to me. A city could possess so much of grandeur is unimaginable to the people I left behind. The challenge for me on a personal level is to keep the two worlds apart because mingling together could be an existential threat to my worldview. I am currently a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

I was born to non-lettered farming parents in Dariyapur, in Northern India, a village controlled by feudal chiefs—upper caste landlords— who behaved as conquerors among the poor villagers and looked down on them. Jostling along the muddy paths while returning from a day of fieldwork—exposed to dust, sun, heat, cholera—mom, dad and I discussed how access to a quality education could help us to break the shackles of the abject poverty.

For a child whose parents barely met their ends and slept hungry on many occasions, education mostly meant an opportunity to achieve economic security. For my parents, the real purpose of a good education, however, was to build the power of intellect and strength of character. This they thought when combined with an unwavering resolve could propel like me—with a humble background—to places where I could carve a niche for myself and even influence the affairs of the world.

My parents’ beliefs were impressed by the Gandhian ideology which rested on the twin pillars of altruism and strength of character. In the remote towns of India even today with no access to essential services, like in Dariyapur, inspiration often comes from Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of non-violence and the natural worldview of Rabindranath Tagore—the first non-European who won the Literature Nobel in 1913. The moral stories of India’s just freedom struggle had an immense impact on my thinking which mainly came through bedtime stories in my childhood narrated to me by my parents. It was incredible how a handful of people could rally around the principles of non-violence with the stubbornness of purpose and tenacity of hope to take on the most potent colonial empire and achieve freedom for their fellow countrymen. These positive stories inculcated perseverance—a belief never to give up, regardless.

I worked India’s National Planning Commission before coming to the US for higher studies. While there is some good work going on in bits and pieces but mostly it was the Machiavellian world of competing self-interests where pork-barreling and reelection—and not the public interests—guide the trajectory of government’s decisions. There I saw how little a policy means in the absence of the support from lawmakers in a democracy.

I saw about how political decisions have an overarching influence on countries’ response to the rule of law and the importance of combatting corruption to build a more transparent and accountable society. This whole experience exposed me to the governance challenges in the country. I learned how institutions have failed in delivering the socioeconomic promises of liberty, equality, justice—fundamental principles of the Constitutions of India— to its people. These ideas have merely remained hollow slogans for politicians used every election cycle.

I often discuss this with my parents and lament on how deprived the world of the people of my village is. I also regret the lack of guidance available to me at crucial junctures in my life needed for making personal and professional decisions due to the lack of my parents’ limited worldview. It often took me more time than my peers to reach the same point in my career trajectory because of the circuitous path I had to adopt at times. But then I left it for my experience to guide me on the career trajectory, and I chose the next action entirely depending on the necessity of the present and hope for the future. For example, it was only after getting into Harvard three years consecutively that I thought that it is the MIT where I need to be to realize my dreams.

This whole experience enlightened me to the fact how vital institutions are in delivering the Lockean promises of liberty, equality, justice. In developing countries like India in the absence of these pledges people mostly live in the Hobbesian state of nature where life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Only when we have institutions which are transparent, accountable, efficient and responsive even to the poorest of the poor—then can we truly realize the dream of an equal and just society. How to achieve that is the question that has brought from a remote, obscure village in India to the hallowed campus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This is something which I never thought I would be doing but ended up pursuing only by the turn and twists of events in personal life due to the failure of institutions in preserving human dignity of many like me. I’m enjoying it very much.

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