Stifled poet in India

Studying engineering is killing me!

By Cary Tennis
Published January 8, 2013 6:00AM (UTC)
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(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Reader,

Greetings after my holiday vacation, which I spent straightening up the house. How glorious not to be thinking or writing! And yet, after only a few days, I began to miss your letters and the daily practice of responding.

Hey, listen, if you are in the Bay Area, I will be participating in an unusual reading on Thursday night in Sausalito called "Pairings," where prose writers and poets read each other's work aloud. I love reading other people's work aloud! And ever since elementary school, I have been very good at "reading aloud."


As I write I note with sadness yet another tragic shooting in America. I have not commented on the terrible events of the last few months partly out of mute shock and partly because they seem to arise from a derangement more the province of therapists and theologists than commentators. I acknowledge them, however, with a heavy heart and an outraged mind. Like the following letter writer, a budding poet trapped in engineering school, I just don't know where to begin.

Hey there, Cary. I don't know where to begin.

I'll start by accepting that I have problems. I've been scarred emotionally so bad that I constantly feel the need to have someone to talk to; to help me. The people I turn to disappoint me, which makes the situation even worse. I feel alone and left out all of the time.


I'm a 20-year-old engineering student from India. I have been failing in every exam and currently I had to take a break for an year since I had failed in most of the subjects. I used to be a good student before I took up engineering. I no longer can cope with it even though I am halfway through it.

Now, the problem here is parental pressure. Why not go live somewhere else then, you'll say. That's because this is India and finding a place to live at this age is next to impossible here. And a girl staying alone is dangerous too. I have considered the idea of running away way too many times. I'm thankful of what my parents have given me but I just can't live with them anymore. I have nowhere else to go so I am stuck.

I'm very sad, hurt, lonely, conflicted, helpless and depressed. No one at home understands me. My father has never taken me out, or even gifted me anything even on my birthday. It's not like we are poor and he can't afford anything, he just doesn't want to put any effort. Sometimes he comes home drunk and nags me for being so academically poor. Yes, that's all that matters to him. He wants a trophy daughter whom he can brag about at work. It hurts me to have a father like that. I cry when I see my friends' fathers caring for them. And I'm 20. Picture a 20-year-old girl crying.


I try to accept the fact that he's not like other fathers and move on but I always fail. My mother is nice and I love her but still there's this emptiness inside me. I'm not trying to be poetic here but my heart actually feels heavy. I spend my time locked inside my room, reading. My friends don't know anything about this 'cause I don't share. I am usually the one lending out advice and helping others with their problems. Ironic, right? I feel the need to be the one who has to be strong for others as well. Am I mentally not well? Do I have some mental illness?

Never in my 20 years of life has somebody said to me, "I'm proud of you." Never. I write poems and some of them were published but nobody was interested in reading them. Nobody encourages me. All I have heard from them is negativity about myself. About how badly I behave, how careless I am, how useless I am ... I know I am useless. I don't need reminding.


These may seem minor issues to some but it affects me a lot. It hurts me so much that I end up in my room, crying. I have no one to live for. Nowhere to go to.

I used to be a child with big dreams, you see. Big, wild dreams. Always wanted to be the hero. The savior. Now I need to be saved. Each day I lose the will to live. I'm grateful, thankful for everything I have, but what I need is not materialistic things or good grades. What I want is to be loved. Yet I don't let anybody get close to me. Funny, eh?

So, the big question now, what do I do? So as not to feel like this all the time?



Dear Lost,

I'll just start out by saying I'm proud of you. I'm proud of you for having big, wild dreams. I'm proud of you for writing about what you are feeling. I'm proud of you for saying what you need. I'm proud of you for accepting that you have problems. I'm proud of you for writing poems and having them published. I'm proud of you for writing to me.


Some of what I say will not make sense to you yet. I will try to give you an overview and then suggest some specifics.

First: You have been wounded and must heal. Nothing is wrong with you; nothing is wrong with who you are or what you want or what you have done. But you have had a misfortune. You have been mistreated. You have been a child in a family that does not value who you are. This is very painful to a child, and it will be a wound you will carry with you your whole life. Your parents do not see who you are, and this is painful to a child, for a child needs caretakers to answer her in her own language, to mirror her, to give her a sense that they see who she is, the unique and cherished and helpless individual she is. So you have been hurt in this way. But you can heal from that, and you can learn to live a proud and happy life with this wound.

So what do you do? Healing from this wound means giving yourself what your parents cannot give you. It means giving yourself the love you wish they would give you. It means giving yourself the support you need. It means loving yourself and parenting yourself. To do that, you will have to go out into the world and find what you need. That means finding allies in the world of poetry and the expressive arts.

You did not innocently misplace your dreams. Your dreams have been taken from you.  By forcing you to work on engineering, something you are not any good at and do not like, your parents are forcing you to let something precious within you die. Your dreams require work. Creativity is a gift, but it requires things of us. It requires time and work. If we cannot give it time and work then it festers; our dreams fester and become rank; they begin to stink and eventually attack us, making us ill and depressed and angry and unlovable.


You have no talent for engineering. You have talent for poetry and writing.

So first you must halt the destruction of your own creativity so that you do not have to grieve any more loss. That means to write poems at all costs. That means to throw yourself into your creative work no matter what the outside world says. Do it in secret if you must. Put on a facade but work feverishly on your poems. Feel everything. Write it down. Draw pictures. Paint. Scream. Make music. Dance in your room. Allow yourself some craziness. Let it out. Cry it out. Scream it out. Write it out.

There is no shame in being a failure at engineering. Poets do not make good engineers.

So fail at engineering. Fail gloriously and with purpose. Fail like a revolutionary. Prove yourself monstrously incompetent. Eventually, when you are so terrible at it that there is no hope, you will be released.


Write more poems. Throw yourself into your work. It is a matter of life or death for you to revive this creativity.

You can do this. You have courage and you are very alive. You are strong. This will bring turmoil and outrage to your family but they will survive it. They will survive you and you will survive them. They will not kill you. They will just say things that make you want to scream and cry. So scream and cry but stay true to this spirit you were born with. This spirit will save you in the end. Trust it.

While you cannot leave home and live on your own yet, you may be able to change fields of study. When your father sees that you are utterly hopeless as an engineer, he may slowly come to see that saving face involves allowing you to pursue another field of study that has some respectability, though perhaps not the respectability of a commercially viable field like engineering. That is what is strange and sad about India today. It shows us how intoxicating is industrial progress. In India and in China, two great and powerful civilizations with a brilliant past in literature and the arts and spirituality, we see now the mad scramble for riches that once was the shame of a young country like America. We Americans see ourselves, the worst of ourselves, in what is happening in India and China. It seems to show that no matter how venerable a civilization is, its people are just people. Given the chance, they will throw it all away for a fast car and a new necklace.

So arm yourself with knowledge. Read about liberal arts studies in India. Talk to your engineering professors. Tell them that you have no talent for engineering and want to study poetry. Professors are educated people and though their specialty is engineering some of them, too, may have been pressured into a field more narrow than they would have liked; some of them may have wanted to pursue creative things but had to go into the technical fields for practical reasons. So you may find an ally among your own faculty. Talk with such a person about switching majors from engineering to liberal arts, possibly to the study of literature.


If it is not possible to study liberal arts at your college, then look into other universities. If there is a good library in your school, use it to browse brochures on universities in the liberal arts. Make a list of possible colleges you can attend. Also search for colleges in your area here.

Next, contact poets whose work you admire. Write to them as you have written to me. Tell them you want to study literature.  Ask for recommendations.

Your father cares about status. He may not listen to you, but he will be swayed by the opinions of respected men. If you can secure the  recommendations and support of a well-known writer or professor in literature, you may sway your father. He cares about saving face. In such a negotiation, you must give him an out so he can hold his head high when he has to tell his friends his daughter is not going to be an engineer after all.

Oh, your father loves you. Sure he does. But he loves his own ego more. Your father is simply a man. He is flawed, like all men.

Many American poets make their living working in academic institutions, and many of them are kind, decent people. Find some American poets you like and write to them. If there are Indian poets working in America whose work you like, write to them. If  your plight touches their hearts, they may help you come and study here. It's worth a try. There is much wealth in America, and many people who will go to great lengths to help those they consider less fortunate.

So that is what I suggest to you: Recognize that you have been wounded, that it is not your fault, that you have a brilliant and blazing soul that only cries out for recognition. Let it have its way. Write feverishly. Abandon these things that make you feel like you are dying. Address the needs of your soul, your essential being. I want you to remember that you have allies in the larger world. You may not have found them yet but they are there, waiting for you. They have been through things just like you. They have been raised in repressive households, ignored for who they are, and they have found ways to save themselves through expressive arts. They recognize their own kind, and they will help you. Find them. Save yourself.

If you can be clever and have patience, you can become who you were destined to become.

Cary Tennis

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College Creativity Family India Indian Women Poetry Since You Asked