Gul Mulls: On Your Marks, Get Set, Go! (But Where?)

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This appeared in The Quint website on June 15, 2018

The year was 1997. I was studying in the Government College for Girls, Patiala (as my father, then a Brigadier, was posted there). I had just received my first-year results. I had not got ‘good marks’. I, of course, had an inkling about this (it’s ideally a pretty straightforward equation between effort put in and result received). What made matters worse, was that I was the proverbial “good student”, doing exceedingly well in my studies.

My father was understandably livid given that he’d been pushing me and chasing me all along to do well in my studies so that I may become an “independent and successful individual”. He would joke that if I didn’t “do well and stand on my feet”, I would meet the same fate so many of my sisters across the country had and would meet – ‘be married off’.

The D-Day and that Eternal Question

On the result day, he walked into the dining room (already upset about something). My mother and I held our breath as he asked if my result was out. And then he let loose!

“If you don’t get your act together,” he thundered, “I will marry you off to the first willing young officer”. (There were many of those!)

This was no longer a joke. It was now a potent threat! I was terrified. And didn’t sleep for days. I could potentially have worked harder and got better results (as I did much later, in fact recently, in my Masters, but that’s another story). But I didn’t want to. Why was getting “good marks” the only gateway to standing on my “feet and being independent” (and successful)?

Why? Why? Why?
This question is still relevant in 2018.
It had been a few weeks into 2nd year classes. And I walked around like a lamb that knows it’s going to slaughter. When one day, my economics professor (spotting my argumentative skills in class) sent me to represent the college in an inter-college debate (our star debater was down with viral). I won. And several such public-speaking event victories followed. I felt much better. My self-esteem rose. I still hadn’t solved the problem of how I was going to become “independent and stand on my feet”.

I mean, even if I got the “good marks”, what were my options? The Delhi cut-offs were already crazy. How was I ever going to compete with someone who had done the same course from say JMC, like my childhood friend, the now super-successful business & finance journalist Ira Duggal?
Where exactly would these good marks lead me? To success? I had my doubts.

I Dared To Dream & That’s What He Said

Like every young man who probably wants to be a pilot and every young girl who probably wants to be a beauty queen, I too had thought about it. Being a pilot and a beauty queen. Both didn’t need crazy-type good marks. (One has to study a lot to be a pilot, I would learn later, but at least you’re studying something you’re interested in.)

The former needed a massive investment I knew because:
a) The Patiala Flying Club was right next door.
b) My cousin had done his flying there and he was now with Jet Airways, successful and standing on his own feet. {Wait, we don’t say that about men?}

The latter would also entail some expenses, but considerably less. Moreover, I didn’t want to work as a pilot, I only wanted to be a pilot. So, it didn’t seem fair at the time, given my family’s very meagre resources, to even mention the pilot thing. Thoughtfully, I mentioned the other, the beauty pageant thing. My father was very open to the idea, in fact he said why not? He’d also probably figured that studying, at the time, wasn’t my thing after all. And thank god for him supporting me!

He said:
“You’re fit” (he’d had me running every day for no reason since I was 15).
“You speak well” (courtesy the massive confidence that comes from public speaking wins).
“And you know how to conduct yourself” (courtesy the armed forces upbringing).
“I think you stand a good chance.”

He emptied out his savings in getting my professional photos done (I was planning on sending my photos from the family album), getting my clothes sorted (one of my gowns cost Rs 17,000, only 1,000 less than his take-home pay at the time), and packed my mother and I on ‘Mission Miss India’.

My mother, without giving a second thought, left behind the house she ran (and my then little brother), as we set up trying to figure out the whole pageant thing.

Graduate-ing to What, Exactly?
What if my parents hadn’t supported my endeavour? Would I have been able to do something with my life, something that gave me satisfaction with marks alone? Perhaps. Perhaps not. The answer lies somewhere in an alternate and parallel time plane.

Most of us back then treated college as an extension of school. Something that had to be done. Except, we got to wear cooler clothes, or so we thought at the time! Things today aren’t very different. Graduation is the new high school – without which one isn’t considered ‘educated ‘. Little thought is given to the need for that degree. Or interest in the subjects to be studied. Little wonder, then, that so many of our graduates are unemployable.

Let’s try and avoid treating higher education as elementary education, a bare necessity. There is life beyond the degree one obtained half-heartedly and will likely never put to use. And in doing so put undue pressure on our already stretched higher education resources.

It is important to extricate oneself from the maze of labels. Chasing “good marks” only, inevitably leads down a well-trodden path. Of trying to be doctors, engineers, MBAs, lawyers. That same path is also strewn with some very unhappy people.

Two things happen. One, people end up in careers they are not very happy in and sometimes they don’t end up in the career they’ve been conditioned to want. And become unhappy versions of themselves pursuing a second-best profession.

The other thing that happens is that the demand-supply curve in the job market gets skewed. How many doctors and engineers do we want, after all? And how many engineering-degree holders actually practice their trade? We need people who have vocational skills. As a society we need to move towards giving due respect to vocational education and skill acquisition.

The Ends-Means-Means-Ends Cocktail
Another thing to think about is, given our focus on marks ( and marks alone), are we instilling in our young folks the other things that are equally valuable in determining success? A well-rounded personality? A value judgement system? Are we in our zest for “good marks” creating perhaps a one dimensional person? You’d have to be pretty one dimensional to make it past the crazy DU cut offs!

A society does much better when spirited people begin to think beyond degrees and acquire skills they are best suited for. Let’s bring back aptitude. Let’s bring back interest. Success will follow. And even “good marks”. I scored much better in masters four years ago, because studying further was a well-thought decision based on interest and aptitude. There was no social or parental pressure to acquire a degree.
There are many careers to choose from today that don’t necessarily fit the traditional outlook of “good marks” being a means to the ‘perfect end’ . It might be a good idea to question the end good marks serve too. Is it money? Satisfaction? Or happiness? Let’s take a moment to figure out the end per se. And marks are a means to an end, let’s not forget that; and make them an end in itself.

Until next time, keep questioning everything, because you make the better choices when you ask questions!

Gul Panag is an actor, pilot, politician, entrepreneur, and a lot more. The views expressed are personal. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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