The following is excerpted from the book You Know the Glory, Not the Story by Naresh Agarwal, PhD and Rahul Singh, which features the life trajectories of 25 scholars who were awarded the Singapore Airlines Neptune Orient Lines – SIANOL scholarship to pursue university education in Singapore. To read these extraordinary stories, get the book here internationally, or here in India under the title Engineering to Ikigai.
The Japanese word Ikigai means ‘reason for being’. My journey ever since has been nothing that anyone or even I could imagine sitting in Singapore . . .
Wandering the globe
Living in different Indian cities, and with story books hidden within school books, Baisakhi Saha daydreamt and pondered over life’s big questions. At University, she suffered a crippling back injury. A spontaneous recovery changed her outlook. She not just traveled, but lived across continents, experiencing cultures and differences. From a Computing graduate to a marketing executive to an English teacher, German interpreter, and Spanish translator, she is now an international speaker, author, and performer.
“When you have to live alone, you grow up fast,” says world traveler Baisakhi Saha. The middle child, she was born in the port city of Calcutta, now Kolkata. Her father was an officer in the United Nations and her mother a math and science teacher. Apart from going to her primary school, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, she was put in tuitions such as in dance, music, art & craft, and swimming – “like a typical Bengali kid is”. She recalls, “While I was supposed to focus on those and bring home good grades to make my parents happy, I pondered all the time about existential questions like what happens beyond this physical life, where do we come from and where do we go, why do we get sick, how could there ever be a time when I wouldn’t exist?” In her little heart, there was space for everybody. She loved everyone.
While she was still in her primary school, her father got transferred to Patna in Bihar and decided not to move the entire family. In Baisakhi’s last year in Calcutta, her father saw a newspaper advertisement about an all India contest for children. About 12, she was among a handful of kids selected to compete in ‘The Most Promising Child of the Year’ contest held in Bangalore, now Bengaluru. Although she did not win, she finished in the top 20 and received her Scroll of Honor from the famous cricketer, Vinod Kambli. The contest helped expand her perspective to be bold.
Soon after, the family moved to Madras, now Chennai, in South India, where her father was transferred. She found everything different – the culture, cuisine, costumes, customs, and courtesies. “It was nothing we could have imagined sitting in Calcutta.” Seldom in the top ten in her class in Calcutta, she had thought she wasn’t a ‘good student’. This changed in Madras. “Perhaps, it was the effect of the Bangalore contest. Suddenly, I was the smart kid in class.” From grades 7 to 10, Baisakhi topped her class almost every year and was one of the school toppers in the tenth grade Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) exams. She participated and won in interschool public speaking competitions, including debates, extempores, oratoricals, and recitation contests. She also won medals at the annual sports meet in school.
As a child, she wanted to be an astronomical scientist. She had read in encyclopedias about wormholes and time tunnels in the fabric of the time-space continuum and wrote a poem about visiting the tenth planet. Baisakhi recalls, “I was never fond of the rigorous school routine and spent most of my studying days secretly reading and identifying with every character in adventure books and romance novels, which my parents did not approve of. So, I hid the story books inside my school books and lived grand adventures in my mind.” She liked spending her time daydreaming.
After grade 10, when the family moved yet again, to New Delhi – the capital, she showed her father a newspaper cutting about a scholarship in Singapore that she had saved while in Chennai. He helped her apply. She was selected for the first round of exams in intelligence quotient (IQ), critical thinking, science, and math, and then for an interview. She was awarded the Singapore Airlines (SIA) Youth Scholarship.
On 29 December 1999, her parents threw a party to celebrate her sister’s birthday as well as her farewell. That night, as she finished her packing, she cried at the thought of going away from her family, for “who knows how long”. “I knelt in front of the altar as tears rolled down my cheeks uncontrollably.” As the day ended and the new millennium dawned, she boarded the flight bound for newer territories, leaving India behind.
She studied at Victoria Junior College (VJC) for two years of pre-university education. Life in Singapore was tough, but she learned to be independent and responsible. She had always studied last minute and done well, while in Singapore, she was coached throughout the year for the A-level exams at the end of two years. She found it hard to keep up. “In India, I was the smartest student in class, whereas here, I was the dumbest! I felt those long hours of studying were unnecessary when our imaginative faculties could be engaged in more creative pursuits.”
She excelled in the mandatory physical training and had gold in all six areas of the test. She was honored with a gold badge that she wore on her collar with pride. She was also elected as the Vice President of the Community Involvement Committee, and organized charity events for her college. Her teachers at VJC thought she would not make it academically, but she aced her A-levels. This got her the next Singapore Airlines-Neptune Orient Lines (SIA-NOL) scholarship for four years at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
At NUS, she chose Computing, as “it was the in thing”. “I might have had the aptitude but lack of interest in the subject soon made me realize that I was in the wrong career.” It was too late to change without having dire consequences like losing her scholarship, going back to India, or having to start over. “So, I stuck with it for four years and suffered.” She did serve as Vice President in three committees – the School of Computing club, the Students’ Union International Relations Committee, and the Society of Indian Scholars.
Besides Computing, Baisakhi successfully bid to study German as a cross-faculty language course. In her first year, there were nearly 200 students at the beginner’s level, but by the time she reached the advanced level in the third year, there were only four who completed the whole course. German classes were fun with German exchange students invited for informal interactions. During vacations, the German students “would just get a map of an unknown country in South East Asia and set off to explore”, which intrigued Baisakhi. “As Indians, we are brought up in such protective environments. That gets stricter and more conservative when you are a girl.”
Baisakhi had a memorable incident during university days. In her first year, she flew home to India during vacations. Exhausted from the journey, she went to bed straight. When her eyes opened, she could not get up from bed. With excruciating pain, she could not even turn. She had badly injured her back. The MRI reports showed two prolapsed intervertebral discs in the lower spine. Doctors barred her from sports, dancing, climbing stairs, and wearing heels for the rest of her life. In Singapore, she got physiotherapy at the university hospital, and took painkillers often. “At times, it felt like a butcher’s knife was tearing me apart.” To escape reality, she slept for hours, missing most classes and sometimes, even exams. A batchmate called her a sloth but she didn’t mind. At exams, she was allotted extra time to stretch every 15 minutes. After suffering for three years, Baisakhi was ready to quit. “Of what use was my life?” Then, as she lay in bed contemplating, she had a strange thought. “I got up, gathered my medicines, painkillers, waist belt, the ugly pair of Dr. Scholl shoes and threw them in the trash”. She put on her running shoes and walked to the racing tracks. “I did not care if I became a vegetable that night, but I refused to live like that any longer.” She stepped onto the tracks and started sprinting. “I ran for more than two hours in the middle of the night, alone with the stars. When I stopped, I thought my back would have been permanently damaged, but to my surprise, it wasn’t hurting at all. Rather, it felt really good”. Soon, she realized that it had completely healed as she continued running every night alone in the dark.
The German exchange students fascinated Baisakhi. She often joined them for film screenings, Stamm Tisch or meeting over a table of food, German cake baking contests, etc. “For the first time, I was captivated by a culture outside of my own.” She used to go to the foreign film festivals in Singapore recommended by her German teachers and found the films “artistic and beautiful.”
While NUS offered exchange programs to Germany for a semester or two, they were expensive for a foreign student, and her scholarship money wasn’t enough to cover living in Europe. Still, she yearned to go to Germany. She often took her books to Changi airport and sat studying at the viewing mall. She would wave at planes taking off. “Say Hi to Germany.” “Tell Europe I’m coming soon.” Having formed strong bonds, she saw off each German exchange student at the airport. When invited to visit Germany, she told them that she would see them again very soon. “I was joking but didn’t know that my crazy predictions would come true in the most magnificent way!”
Ikigai – Traveling, Writing, Performing
During her final semester at NUS, she received an email from a Swiss university inviting students globally to write an essay on “Inspiring Europe”. Selected students would win an all-expense-paid trip to Switzerland. She wrote and submitted the essay. Three months later, she was among those selected. “I was on cloud nine. It was my birthday when we attended a luncheon with the Swiss Ambassador in Singapore. The following week, I flew to Europe, my first time outside of Asia.” She attended the renowned St. Gallen Symposium, and dialogued with top world leaders, businessmen, and entrepreneurs about pressing problems plaguing Europe. After the symposium, she stayed back in Europe for a month and visited all her German friends who had invited her to their homes. Along with showing the city and eating out, they took her to watch some of the beginning soccer matches of the 2006 FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) World Cup hosted by Germany sitting in open-air biergartens.
She thought that one month in Europe would be expensive, but she soon figured out the hacks. For example, instead of taking the euro rail and paying 80 euros, she took the Mitfahrgelegenheit, where people traveling across cities for work daily offered to take other passengers in their car for only 8 euros. “The only thing is that you travel with absolute strangers. I did not mind. I made the whole of Germany my friend as I chirped away in my broken German.”
To continue reading, get a copy of the book You Know the Glory, Not the Story -25 Journeys towards Ikigai on Amazon or directly at the Publisher’s store World Scientific. Get the Indian version Engineering to Ikigai -25 Journeys towards Purpose on Amazon or at Indus Publishing. To learn more about the book and its authors, read my article titled You Know the Glory, Not the Story | Engineering to Ikigai.
Enjoy the read, enjoy the ride . . . to Ikigai!