Life and its experiences felt meaningless and unnecessary during a maladjusted childhood in a socially toxic environment. It was not unlike any economically weak community of India with its population struggling to upkeep their day-to-day living with no energy left to look for a way out. Kids bullied at school. The impact was severe on a sensitive, deeply reflective and a shy young man that I was. I hadn’t developed the necessary social defenses.
I constantly pondered existential questions — What is my job? Why am I here? — Not having any answers was frightening. Life was happening unconcerned and I moved with it but I had frequent episodes of panic whenever I was knocked back into self-awareness. If life is purposeless, why not drop out, I thought. Oddly enough, it was an objective observation with absolutely no desperation or emotion attached to it. Living or not was a simple choice available to everyone and life just didn’t seem like a worthwhile choice. I sincerely wondered why so many were choosing to live.I took comfort in science and looked to it for meaning. I built a visceral understanding of all sciences, especially physics and chemistry, which I thought were the closest to the nature and cosmos.
Tending to my obsession with science was not easy during a resource-constrained childhood. Children were not generally allowed into book stores to prevent mishandling and theft but I would gatecrash using confidence tricks and get access to college-level books. One day a local publishing company organized a mobile book sale in a makeshift tent on the side of a dirt road near the place we lived. The shop keeper gave me dirty looks as I walked in. I clearly couldn’t afford to buy those books as a kid. I picked up a short book in my native language, Telugu titled “Earth and Universe” and I was blown away by its text. I knew my 9 planets but never had an exposure to the true vastness of space, the makeup of stars and cosmos. It was smoggy and dusty from traffic outside and scorching hot in the store but I could not put the book back on the shelf. I moved about the aisles hiding behind other shoppers to avoid getting caught reading the book without buying it. I ended up reading the whole book by the end of the day, standing all the while.
The pursuit of science at least served me well in reaching my career milestones.
That short book on universe I read as a school kid and objective science in general were profoundly revealing but did not address my existential uneasiness about life. I went through childhood and substantial portion of adulthood with an undercurrent of mild depression, until one day I encountered the world of subjective through a very different book.
On a visit to IBM Watson Research Center in New York, one of my colleagues suggested that I read “An Autobiography of a Yogi” while we were discussing personal transformation. I politely agreed, but I had no intention of following through. Anything outside of science held zero meaning. As he was driving me to the airport for my return trip, he made a quick stop at Barnes and Nobles and gifted me a copy. With several hours to spare on the flight, I reluctantly began reading it. What followed was an intensely physical reaction. By the end of the first chapter, I began to sweat profusely. I encountered true love. The depth of the author’s personality and the honesty in those sentences cannot be faked. He must be true. If so, I have to rewire my entire psyche. That’s what I did.
It made me human.