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 little energy left to look for a way out.
I constantly pondered existential questions — What is my job? Why am I here? — Not having 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. It was a perfectly 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. 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. 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 that was my first encounter with 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 ended up reading the whole book by the end of the day, standing all the while.
The pursuit of science 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 the 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 could not be fake. He must be true. If so, I have to rewire my entire psyche. That’s what I began doing.
It made me human.