A career, as any dictionary will tell you, is what you do with your life after you have completed your education. Around the world, this can mean different things depending on time and context, but broadly speaking, it applies to the occupation a person takes up in order to earn money. Yes, we are a part of an economy, where goods are exchanged for money and in order to sustain ourselves, all of us need such an occupation.
In India, perhaps more than elsewhere, the term tends to be defined in a fairly narrow sense. Working for an employer, government or private, is a career. Pursuing a profession as a Doctor or lawyer or chartered accountant is a career. But any artistic pursuit is always seen strictly as a hobby. Singing, painting, dancing and writing – we all knew, I am sure, children in school who were good at these things and later went on to make their ‘careers’ in something else altogether. Somewhere, in the vast expanse of Engineers and MBAs who make up India’s white-collar working population, we have lost countless artists.
Writing – an excess and a famine
But even within the arts, there is a caste system of sorts. A singer may still be encouraged, a painter’s work will still find admirers, a dancer may become a legend. But writers have always been the poor cousins of the art world, for their work is less obvious, harder to appreciate, more difficult to sift between good and bad. And the heavens know, there is a lot of bad writing out there.
In these factors lies to root of the problem, the reason why ‘writing’ is not considered a real profession in India, not, at least, in the way it can be. For writing can very well be an occupation. Content writing, long-form journalism, writing copy for advertising and allied professions – all of these are forms of writing, and all of them do generate an income, though it may not be in the same league as an IT or Banking job. Yet, any young adult or teen who expresses a desire to make a career in writing is always counselled to take up a ‘real career’.
Perhaps this is because the most vocal generation, the one that determines the career choices that young India ends up taking, are those who are not aware of these options. For them, a writer is still an unshaved, unkempt man making a pittance in royalties while living a bohemian lifestyle.
To be fair to them, despite recent success stories of writers like Chetan Bhagat, Amish Tripathi and Durjoy Dutta, this is not entirely a wrong impression. Writing fiction remains mostly commercially unviable, and such success stories that are there owe as much to accident as to design.
It does not have to mean just fiction and novels
On the other hand, content writing, editing, copy-writing, screenplay-writing, journalism and so on, are all writing-related professions that assure a steady inflow of money. Sadly, the information regarding these options is very limited except to those who are already online-savvy. This means that to the average Indian parent, ‘writing’ is still synonymous with the starving artist in a garret, and that has made it almost like a ‘bad word’ in current times. Apart from this, the recent stigmatisation of writers (above and beyond other artists) are anti-national secular liberals has made it a difficult choice to justify to the older generation in any case.
So writing remains a post-retirement dream, something that only those who have completed their careers can take up, or a hobby for stay-at-home wives. Indeed, introducing oneself as a writer often induces the question, ‘But what do you do for a living’, and therein lies the tragedy of writing as a career in India.