Giving up a cushy and coveted job in London to come back to India and work for education and student development is never an easy decision. But Arjun Puri did just that, and inspired many others along the way.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” The most consistent question we tend to hear since our childhood. Making the right career choice is as important as choosing a life partner. In the line of careers and education, you end up marrying the subject for the rest of your life, and it continues to impact your career choices and job openings. Thus, it is best to select a profession that is determined by your passion.
It is a common occurrence, when most of us feel stuck in careers like round pins in square holes. The moment you feel torn between your profession and passion, it’s probably the right time to do some thinking. Arjun Puri sets an example for all those who want to walk on the path of passion. His life story and career path are a perfect balance between success and satisfaction. Tanvi Kamdar of UnivAssist speaks to Arjun and finds out how he made such a massive shift in terms of careers, and what is it that keeps him going.
Born and raised in Kolkata, Arjun’s lineage is an amalgamation of literary and cinematic flair. His great-grandfather is Manish Ghatak, the renowned Bengali poet and novelist, his great-uncle Ritwik Ghatak, the Padma Shri-winning filmmaker. Mahashweta Devi, awardee of the Padma Vibhushan, is a great-aunt, his mother is Ina Puri (writer and two-time National Award-winning filmmaker), and his father Ravi Puri gained over 30 years of experience at ITC. It was Arjun’s parents who encouraged him to pursue his passion. Needless to mention, Arjun’s inclination towards arts and literature was no surprise at all.
From School till College
Arjun’s career journey began like any other regular Indian student. He completed his schooling from one of the oldest schools of India, La Martiniere for Boys, Kolkata, also known as “the Eton of the East”. Arjun was the 167th School Captain of La Martiniere, an achievement he still holds close.
Reminiscing about his school days, Arjun recollects, “Education at La Martiniere wasn’t limited to the classroom, it was always 360-degree. It was conversations in corridors, activities after school, values passed down from batch to batch. I still recall Tuesdays were spent at a school that worked with children with special needs, on Thursdays we were at Little Sisters of the Poor, and on Sundays we were encouraged to visit free health clinics to distribute medicine. I doubt any of this was mentioned in our report cards, but it taught us to be loving, caring, and good human beings.”
Post his schooling, Arjun went ahead and pursued a degree in International Business from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. While these major career choices were made taking into consideration the popularity of the programme and certain other factors, Arjun feels there were missing links in the entire story. His innate desire was to study English or History, and he wished he had made that choice early on and was given the opportunity to explore and experiment.
The Corporate Grind
An ardent Arsenal fan, Arjun later landed in London, where he started his career as a banker with Merrill Lynch. Going through this corporate grind, the storyteller within him started to feel shelved. More than banking, his focus shifted on the stories around him.
He says, “Investment banking was an interesting aspect where I learned a lot about how other people studied different things and chose careers not relevant to what they studied. The person who sat next to me at Merrill Lynch studied Religion and his degree was in Theology, and the person on the other side was a Literature student. Clearly opposed to the Indian perception of education where, if you want to do banking or consulting, you have to study Economics or B.Com. This difference in approach with regards to careers, made me question the importance of the information passed to students and parents about what they should study. It’s conversations all around us that encourage us to pursue safe/lucrative careers and not what we’re genuinely passionate about.”
It was at this point that he decided to take a plunge and do what he felt passionate about. Though the thought of moving back had occurred to him earlier, it wasn’t a very serious one until then. After spending four years in London, it had become a home away from home. But like many others, Arjun was not looking forward to acquiring citizenship.
He was proud of owning an Indian passport, and never thought of giving it up.
Remembering the exact moment when he decided to move back to India, he explains, “It was on the way to work, and I sat in a carriage on the Tube. The Central Line (Red) to St. Paul’s. That morning, I kept sitting in the carriage, way past my stop. As dramatic as it may sound, I chose not to get down. I looked around, and like every single morning for over four years, I saw the same group of people, dressed in suits and clutching their copies of the Financial Times. I knew I didn’t fit and had overstayed my time in my favorite city, London.”
“An ordinary life has never been my objective. I wouldn’t have ever done anything worthwhile in my life had I stayed on in London. I’d have just been another suit on the Tube. I knew the greater good lay in moving back and doing something I’d be remembered for. That was that. I put in my papers the very next week after speaking to my ever-supportive parents, who have understood me and my decisions all my life. Best decision of my life. From central London to villages spread across India.”
London to Bihar
Arjun moved back to India in the fall of 2011 and joined ITC’s rural development and farmer empowerment programme, E-Choupal. Moving from London to a small village that didn’t have running electricity was not very easy for him. What kept him going was the mantra, “I had chosen to undertake this journey and I will see it through.” As the days turned into weeks and weeks into months, Arjun started enjoying his work. Meeting more people led to many colorful conversations and stories.
These stories gave birth to his blog named “chaiwallah”. He says, “I always loved writing, and here I was, traveling across villages, working on issues that required everyday attention, and writing at the same time. Now when I look back, I don’t think I would be the person I am if it weren’t for those 12-14 months!”
Post his stint with E-Choupal, he decided to give back to society. His next career stop took him back to the education and career counseling sector.
He chose this field consciously and enjoyed advising students and making an impact early for these young lives.
Presently, Arjun works as the Head of Admissions and Outreach for the O. P. Jindal Global University and he’s also a member of the faculty at the Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities. His aim is to share his personal experience and guide students in the right direction. He believes that holistic education is the need of the hour.
Explaining this further he says, “An education must not just be a piece of paper – a degree – the means to find a job! It is so much more. To be compassionate and to be able to make a difference in the world that you call your own is what will drive us forward, not just as Indians, but as human beings.”
Arjun also makes it a point to share this valuable knowledge at various conferences, student meetings, and other education summits. His next speaking engagement will be at the IC3 Conference in August 2017. This conference brings together school leaders, college counselors, teachers, and university representatives to drive transformative counseling and admissions practices in the higher education community. To register, please click here.
Apart from education and career counseling, Arjun takes his food seriously, and updates his Instagram “the_foodwallah” on a regular basis. The journey across the world – with food, travel, and education – is its focus. You could follow him there if you’re hungry or curious!