The fuel called failure

Despite the decades that have disappeared since, I remember every little detail in great clarity. The kasavu saree I wore. The colour combination used in my PowerPoint slides. The strange shape of the podium. The huge timer placed in front.

I had sent in my paper for the prize session. The presentation couldn’t have gone more perfectly. I finished in time. I felt satisfied. And then this person seated in the front row stood up. The head honcho of one of India’s premier medical colleges. The microphone reached its destination. And when this person spoke, not a soul stirred in the packed auditorium.

“This presentation is rubbish!” I could scarcely believe my ears. If I had been asked a question I could have answered. But this was a statement. A statement by none other than the biggest gun in the subject. Who unfortunately had never learnt either humility or courtesy. What the reasons for admonishing me were, can only be speculated. That this person’s own candidate was a contender for the session was not missed by anyone in the audience. Yet the power equation meant that a low-rung just-appointed lecturer like me dared not question the big judgment of the big expert. And the world around me shattered to bits. Months of data collection. Days of analysis. Nights of preparation. All demolished by one unthinking statement.

It is of course another story that three years later, at the same forum, I presented another paper. This time I wasn’t a contender in the prize session. I was over the age limit specified by a few months. But this year, they did not find any of the papers worthy of the prize. Surprisingly they created a new slot and awarded me the best paper award. But it was too late to matter or bring the joy that it should have. Because that moment of humiliation which came earlier was etched on my being.

This wasn’t the last encounter with rudeness, hierarchy or arrogance. Memories ambush me like an avalanche. The world of academics is brutal. Manuscripts tossed callously into the dustbin. A grimace and a sarcastic grin telling you that you are going to reach nowhere. Ethics takes a backseat. Misogynist remarks strip you of your dignity. Careers are destroyed with casualness. Motivation is murdered mercilessly. I have seen hard work go unacknowledged both in this country and abroad. The rules remain same. It is easier to trample someone’s spirit and laugh about it at a boisterous party. It takes a very secure person to allow another to grow.

I remember Raj Kapoor telling an interviewer, that of all his films, he loved Mera Naam Joker the most, because it flopped at the box office. “It is like that child who didn’t do too well. So it deserves some extra love.” I know exactly what he meant. When hours of work lead to zilch, the pain is never forgotten. It never stops hurting. For some strange reason, Emily Dickinson’s words come to mind:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

In 2012, I happened to be in Philadelphia, and I got a chance to catch up with Dr Prabodh Gupta and his team at the UPenn. Dr Gupta is a huge name in Cytopathology, and he has quite a few accomplisments to his name. There was a framed letter that I spotted on the wall of his office.

The letter in the backdrop says that his presentation wasn’t worth acceptance at a meeting. And the foreground is the letter from the New England Journal of Medicine which heralds the discovery of the ‘Gupta bodies’ which are classical of Actinomycosis in Pap smears. So inspiring!

And yet, years later, he still preserves the rejection letter. You never forget, do you? That intense desire to prove all the naysayers wrong can drive one to work harder. Failure indeed is the fuel which keeps you going.

(Featured art work: Failure by Sara Saeed)


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