My heart broke while reading the tragic account written by a devastated father on hearing about his 22-year-old son’s sudden death in a San Francisco parking lot some weeks ago. Sarvshreshth Gupta had done all the ‘right things’ ambitious Indian parents expect from their children. He was supposed to be living the Great American Dream, after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, interning with Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank, before landing a job as a financial analyst with Goldman Sachs in San Francisco. His young life followed the golden script written for — and sometimes by — aspiring desi students. Those who toil hard to get into the best business schools in the US, achieve great grades, repay huge loans, make their folks proud, bag high-paying jobs, work harder still… and then collapse! Like young Sarvshreshth did. The unreasonable pressure of a system that expects young people to sweat blood so as to make other people rich, finally got to the analyst — perhaps, had he listened to his father and walked out of his job a few hours earlier, he would have been alive. Fired, perhaps. But alive.
Sarvshreshth’s exchanges with his sensitive, understanding father tell their own story. And it’s a pretty common one. He writes of being severely sleep deprived, working for 20 hours a day, spending nights in an empty office, completing presentations while prepping for a client meeting early the next morning… all the while putting up with the tyranny of a senior VP breathing down his neck — pushing, pushing, pushing. Whenever his father advised him to take it easy and look after his health, Sarvshreshth would bravely reply, “Come on, Papa. I am young and strong. Investment banking is hard work.” As it turns out, the young man was not as strong as he imagined. And yes, the hard work as an investment banker is precisely what killed him.
When I came across the grieving father’s poignant online essay, ‘A Son Never Dies’, I thought about several parents and their children in similar situations. I thought about my own children and their friends… what a scary world they occupy. Look around and you will find many other Sarvshreshths — young men who are literally killing themselves in jobs that pay big bucks, but extract a gigantic price. Yes, Indians today can lay claim to being the best-educated, highest paid ethnic group in America. But, at what cost?
Right now, hundreds of over-wrought parents are undertaking pricey campus tours of various universities abroad. They believe this is their ‘duty’ since they want their kids to ‘get the best’. Is this what they mean by ‘the best’ ? We have equally good universities in India. What sort of absurd pressure is this that forces parents and students to go overseas in the hope of ‘bettering prospects’? Why not have confidence in your child’s ability to shine in India, without going through the sort of trauma Sarvshreshth suffered? Yes, we have ragging in our colleges, and no, some of our academic laurels are not as prestigious in global job markets as Ivy League degrees. So what? If you’ve got it, you will make it. Anywhere!
Just a short while before Sarvshreshth’s body was found (cause of death not officially declared so far), his father had told him to take 15 days’ leave and come home. The fatigued son’s forlorn response was, “They will not allow”. Hours later, he was dead. This sad story should act as a wake-up call for both over-ambitious parents and over-achieving children. Not everybody can take the almost inhuman pressure of the rat race. This young man was missing home-cooked food, the comfort of family and an emotionally reassuring environment. If only he’d had the courage to say, ‘To hell with it…’ and come home, his devastated father would not be writing that pathos-filled essay today.
It’s time we took a fresh look at our craze for ‘foreign degrees’ and ‘foreign jobs’. Today there are over 100,000 Indian students on US campuses. Most will think of this time as the best years of their lives. Some will stay on and be successful there. Others will return and pursue successful careers back home. But a few will crack, crumble and succumb under pressure. The system sees all kinds. But this is not about the survivors. This is about the vulnerable. Every parent wants a child to succeed. But not at the cost of their life.
I wish Sarvshreshth’s father Sunil Gupta would take this important message to many more parents still debating about their child’s future. Earning a degree and bagging a great job are fine goals. But living a wholesome life with people who love and respect you is infinitely more rewarding in the long run.
Irony. This was the worst thing to happen to a young man whose name means ‘The Best’.