Would you leave a good, well-paying job to follow your dreams?
So many of us would like to say ‘yes’, but we know that the answer’s not always that simple. There’s a certain sense of security that we need to let go of, and often, that security is not just for ourselves.
Eshwar Sundaresan found himself in a similar predicament before making the big leap. Interestingly, he reached a point where staying on with his job petrified him more than letting go. Today, he’s a published writer with several books to his name. In the meantime, he has also discovered parallel passions as a Life Skills trainer and a counsellor.
He now lives life on his own terms. Needless to say, it was a long period of struggle before he could fulfill his dreams.
Please tell us about yourself
Hailing from a modest background, Eshwar grew up in a chawl in Mumbai. Although he was a late bloomer, he scored well in the crucial SSC and HSC exams, which helped him procure a merit seat in an engineering college. Of course, he spent his days in college reading books and playing chess.
At the age of 8, he wrote his first short story. It was at that point he knew that he would become a writer. “I was very lucky to figure out what I wanted to do at such a young age.” Interestingly, he still chose to pursue engineering. “I had certain familial obligations; writing didn’t pay much, especially in those days. It was a conscious choice that I made and decided to have an exit plan to focus on my writing at a later stage.”
What did you study and what was your career path
He chose instrumentation as a field of specialisation and soon landed a job with Reliance Industries through campus selection. Although most of his classmates jumped to the world of software, he decided to stick with what he had learnt. A year later, even though he learnt a lot, he was convinced that the job was not in his area of interest. He decided to make the switch to IT and started working with Infosys in the hopes that he would find himself fascinated with this booming industry. Six years later, he was a program manager and had a number of people reporting to him; partly because he could interact with clients with ease. Yet, even though he was doing extremely well for himself, and he cared a lot about delivering quality work to clients, IT simply did not fascinate him.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unsuccessful and interesting career?
In all this, Eshwar didn’t forget what he dreamt of when he was just eight years old. In 1998, while he was still with Infosys, Eshwar began contributing to a monthly magazine in Mangalore called Mangalore Today. In between working crazy hours, he made some time to pursue his passion for writing. From writing snippets and one pagers, he went on to write human interest features. Soon he was writing six to eight pages of the 64-paged magazine. A while later, he was given the task of writing the occasional cover story. The thrill of chasing a story from multiple angles, writing and rewriting it made Eshwar very successful in his writing. “Seeing my name in the byline was indeed a heady feeling,“ he says. Writing to the magazine taught him the essence of journalism. To this day, he still continues to contribute to the magazine.
How did you make the switch to full-time writing?
Soon, he started to form an exit strategy to focus on his writing full-time. He wanted to wait till he could meet his familial obligations and then quit, but things don’t always go as we plan it and that was true in this case as well – Eshwar met with other complications and had to postpone his exit by a couple of more years. Finally, in the year 2003, he decided to leave the corporate world. His boss, out of concern and kindness, gave him a sabbatical of 2 months to cool off and come to his senses. But, says Eshwar: “I never faced the fear of quitting. In fact, I was petrified of having to continue with a job that I didn’t enjoy.” Oddly when he quit, he wasn’t worried about the next paycheque to come his way. “Finances don’t bother me that much. I still wonder if it’s a gift or a curse”, he says with a smirk.
His parents had guessed this was coming and had prepared themselves for it. He had gone into engineering on his own terms and he dropped his job on his own terms, too. “There was no sacrifice in what I did”, he says. “I don’t think we do anything as a sacrifice. We do things either because we get joy doing it, or because we are too scared to stop doing it. We give it a very glorious term at the end.”
While Eshwar may have not been worried about where his next paycheque would come from, the mindset had its own repercussions. Eshwar suffered personal losses at this time and began to blame himself for it. He didn’t know who he could talk to or who he could approach to just get some kind of help. He didn’t have friends in Bangalore or a job that could distract him. Left alone with his thoughts, he began to feel depressed and started to wallow in self-pity as he tumbled into a downward spiral. At a particular point during this phase, his ego or pride kicked in. He decided to get up and start working again. “I realised that I was blaming myself for being who I was.” Since then, there was no looking back. He started writing in all kinds of genres.
Tell us about your career as a writer
Eshwar soon started taking on several assignments. “As a writer, you need to be willing to get your hands dirty and explore. If you are picky and choosy, you only limit yourself. You need to be willing to do whatever it takes.” He wrote everything from brochures to restaurant menu cards, blog posts and articles. He tried all forms of writing and learnt a lot from them. Of course, his writing spoke for itself and he has never been short of work since. He never had to market himself. Work has come searching for him. “It feels good,” he says. “In a market where there is a lot of anonymity, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. I’ve always managed to find work.”
It’s not always been easy. In 2004, he freelanced for NGOs because he felt he could get a glimpse of the real India. The pay was barely enough to cover his petrol expenses, but he did it nevertheless. In his spare time, he had written a collection of short stories. He sent the lot to the Writer’s Workshop in Kolkata, which was run by Padmashree awardee Prof P Lal. He liked Eshwar’s work, but it was to be self-published. He got 400 copies printed and managed to break even by selling the books through his personal network. Unfortunately, he wasn’t too happy with his work and regretted having tried publishing that early.
“I cringe every time I read that book. It had some excellent ideas, but the execution was sloppy and contrived. It was full of unnecessary complex sentences.” “Never again will I publish a book unless I’m 100% happy with it.”
Tell us about your novel
In May 2003, just two months after he quit, he was ready with the first draft of his IT-based novel, Behind the Silicon Mask. He got lots of feedback on it from well-meaning friends, most of it deservedly critical. Clearly, the first attempt was terrible. The manuscript faced rejection at many hands. Eshwar didn’t lose hope and kept rewriting.
In 2004, while he was in Chennai pitching his book to publishers, he met Mr Padhmanaban of Eastland books, who firmly told Eshwar that he wasn’t looking to publish fiction. Eshwar seized that opportunity to put forth an idea that he had and walked out of the office with a commission to start writing Bangalore: The Expat story. With this, Eshwar finally had a book published by a mainstream publication. The book received excellent reviews. Around this time, he started winning awards for his various short stories. In 2008, he won the Oxford bookstore e-author award for a collection of short stories named Age old tales. Unfortunately, his longer works of fiction were yet to see the light of day. It had been five years since he had worked on his IT-based novel and there was simply no breakthrough in sight. The reality of the situation did not seem to dissuade Eshwar and he continued reworking his novel.
By 2009, he had written nine versions of the book and he still wasn’t happy with it. He finally let go of all that he had written and started afresh on the novel. After a number of changes, he came up with a version that he terms as “almost readable.” He still rewrote it a few more times before it was published. Even then, he faced a number of rejections. “Rejections are part and parcel of life,” he says. “I never based my self-worth on what other people thought of me or my writing.” He didn’t mind getting rejected as long as it came with feedback about the book. Soon after, his novel saw the light of day.
What do you do now?
By the end of 2011, his life took another turn. He is now a practicing counsellor and a faculty of the renowned Banjara Academy. He holds writing workshops too to help young aspiring writers. He is also part of an NGO called FAiTH, which spreads awareness on child sexual abuse. “We have one life, which is extremely fleeting. There are some who derive immense satisfaction from doing just one kind of thing. I’m definitely not that kind. Even if I was asked to write all the time, I think I would find it extremely boring.”
For Eshwar, it was several years before his novel would see the light of day. Not many would have the stomach to wait that long and would have gone back to a more ‘comfortable’ life. His philosophy, however, is a little different. In fact, it’s something we all know of but probably have a difficult time digesting, and in that lies the answer to the choices we need to make.
“I would say that if you want to dream big and pursue something difficult, then you need to be willing to pay a price for it.”