Be True to Yourself

Photo Credit: Patrick Vierthaler

My older daughter graduated recently and is back home with me. The good news is that we get a lot of time together. The bad news is that we get a LOT of time together. When she asked for some advice, I realized how much she was like me. And that wasn’t necessarily good.

“Be True to Yourself.”

I found myself telling her. Later that night as I reflected on our conversation, I realized how many years, it had taken me to understand this.

I share my story today so that you don’t have to take as long as I did to “Be True to Yourself”.

The world will tell you — what to do, who you should be.

AND, if you grow up in an Indian family it probably starts soon after you are weaned off mother’s milk.

AND, if you’re a girl then everyone feels they should tell you what is the right way to behave, how to dress, how to speak, how to even walk daintily!

Some of you know, I am a professional singer and writer. And I am a pretty decent one at that. As I began learning music when I was five years old, you would have thought it would have been a fairly straightforward path getting here.

But you’d be WRONG.

At last count I had tried at least six different career paths. Ok, six that I’m willing to admit to!

My father — bless his loving heart — was a banker. He wanted me to study finance and that’s why I studied accountancy and finance.

I was a good Asian child doing what my parents told me, getting good grades. Yet, there was something missing. It was only when I graduated from college that I first asked myself the question-

Was I being true to myself?

I then looked to my friends. They seemed to be having the time of their lives — they were all training to be software programmers and all they talked about was the money they’d make writing code. This was the early nineties. So I decided to follow the herd and studied programming. Maybe that’s overstating — I attended the classes and my dad paid for them. Yet I wasn’t happy. I even did work as a programmer for a non-profit in the Silicon Valley. Yet far too often I would come home with a long face and constantly asked myself the question -

Was I being true to myself?

Why should just my dad or my friends get in on the “molding Chitra” action? My mom — who’d tried to shape me from my earliest days decided it was time for her to get back into action. Even as I worked as a programmer my mother decided to help with “useful hints” in our weekly trans-Atlantic phone calls.

“You’d be better off studying computer science,” she started. “All the young people I know — who are doing well are all studying computer science.” I knew I wasn’t happy being a programmer, and enrolled myself at the university for a masters in computer science.

It was a DISASTER from day one. The first course was Assembly language programming — what was rightly called MACHINE language. No human I knew, at least not any in their right mind would use it! Every night after dinner I would ask, beg my husband to help me with homework — not a recipe for a happy marriage — and when the grades reflected my enthusiasm I found myself asking the same question -

Was I being true to myself?

What I thought I had wanted — was not what I really wanted. Then I had an epiphany!

I remember the day as if it was yesterday. I was walking around the university campus at San Jose State and I stopped by the bulletin board at the career counselling centre.

AND there it was! A flyer all about a program in technical writing. If this were the movies, or at least one of the romance books that I devoured, a frisson of excitement would have run through me. I don’t recall any such thing, but nevertheless I switched fields and before you knew it, I had been certified as a technical writer and even found a job at a software company right after the program.

I’d love to tell you that it was a dream job and was everything I ever wanted it to be. But it wasn’t. Luckily, by that time I figured I didn’t like technical writing, I’d discovered I liked writing. Erma Bombeck and even Art Buchwald, both of whom I’d read as a teen were a stronger influence on me than I realized.

So I began writing personal essays — often humorous. If you’ve met my family you would know I have an endless source of funny tales. But even with my writing I was timid. While admiring others work, I was never bold enough to “Say it like it is!” in my writing. I hid behind humor and still felt that I was not being true to myself.

You’d have thought that by now I’d have learned that it’s better to be true to myself than chase after others dreams for me.

What can I say? I’m a slow learner.

Now should I tell you about the time I worked at Heintzelman’s — a bookstore in Los Altos. Just that Nirvana was not found behind the stacks. Or as a ghostwriter for an encyclopedia on a CD on India? Maybe not!

My long suffering husband finally had it. One day — while trying to be helpful and NOT yell at me (he failed at both) he said, if you ARE going to write, why don’t you write about music? Finally the penny dropped and as luck would have it, yet another startup — a music website — long since dead hired me to write about Indian classical music.

Admit it. All of you have seen that sappy movie, where the silly heroine goes through a series of losers, before realizing that her best friend who was always there languished unrecognized was ‘the one’. Music was that best friend in my life. And I’d finally re-discovered my calling — performing music and the icing on the cake writing or like today talking about it!

Looking back — despite singing and writing for many years now — it was never easy! There were enough people along the way telling me what I had to do — things I really didn’t want to do. It was only later that I understood what Mahatma Gandhi exhorted us to do —

“Be congruent, Be authentic, Be your true self”