Each of us has, at some point of time in our lives, received life advice from our personal life-coaches – parents, siblings, teachers, mentors, kids, the vegetable vendor or the stranger sitting on the adjacent seat on the flight. Something that moved you, changed you or made a difference to your perspective forever. India Pages brings to you these slices of life, shared by people from all walks of life … Writers, Photographers, Artists, Television Producers, Hands-on mommies, Entrepreneurs and Engineers …. Meet Mauktik Kulkarni
For most of us engineers, inspiration conjures up images of Newton sitting under an apple tree or Archimedes entering a bathtub full of water. Sometimes it is the result of years of thinking about the same problem over and over again, attacking it from all possible angles. At other times, it is a total accident. In my journey from being an engineer to studying neuroscience to getting bitten by the travel bug and then jumping headlong into film-making, the moment of inspiration did not even feel like it until I looked back at it after a few years.
About ten years ago, I was a grad student in Baltimore and my buddy from engineering college was working in Washington, DC. The cities were so close to each other that we used to crash at each other’s place every other weekend. After months of drinking and reminiscing about our college days, we decided to travel to Mexico and create some new stories. Christmas vacation was coming up. We decided to cover the Baja California peninsula on the Western coast of Mexico in ten days. Fly to San Diego, rent a car, drive down to the Southern tip, spend the New Year’s Eve at Los Cabos and head back home. My buddy being a compulsive planner, all I had to do was book my flight to San Diego and reach the airport on time.
As the plane hit cruising altitude, I asked my friend ‘So, you have the itinerary, right?’ He had it all planned out on a piece of paper, but he had forgotten it at home. In a matter of hours, we were sitting in a rental car in San Diego, ready to enter Mexico, but nowhere to go. We picked up a Lonely Planet guide full of maps and all sorts of useful information for backpackers. Mexico, are you ready for two Indians who don’t speak Spanish and don’t have a plan?
In hindsight, traveling without a plan was a blessing in disguise.
We were introduced to backpacking; not just as a way of traveling, but as a way of life. After navigating the chaotic traffic and the greedy traffic police of Tijuana – the sin city of Mexico – we picked a tiny village named Erendira for our first night. It was an imposing mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean with a steep cliff separating the backyard of the mansion from the water.
The mansion was owned by a rich American who used to visit one or two months a year. It was a youth hostel for the rest of the year. Travelers could sit on the back porch in lazy chairs for hours, with a drink in hand, enjoying the moonlight’s silver edge cutting the ocean in half and pondering the meaning of life..As a grad student, I had embraced the frantic pace of American life. There was no time to contemplate the meaning of life. I walked back in and found all the backpackers enjoying the half-priced happy hour drinks and sharing their life stories. I was new to all this. As a stranger, how do I randomly strike up a conversation with strangers and tell my story? I found refuge in a chair next to the manager cum bartender who had checked us in.
After I introduced myself, the guy told his story. He finished his college degree in hospitality management from Minnesota, landed in China, taught English in a local school, studied Mandarin, and backpacked through the entire China-South East Asia region for five years. He then moved to that tiny village in Mexico to master Spanish and manage a hostel. He was planning to do it for a few years before moving to Europe and find something else to do.
My middle-class Indian brain couldn’t help but ask him ‘So, what do you want to do in life?’ He said ‘This is my life.’
I came back to the United States, oblivious to the fact that that moment had changed my life forever. While in grad school, I watched the movie ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ and felt inspired to ride a motorcycle in South America. I did not speak a word of Spanish and had no idea about the local culture and terrain, but the day I got my Masters degree, I asked myself ‘Why not?’
I somehow covered 8000 km on a motorcycle in Peru, Chile and Argentina without getting killed. When I reached the United States again, I wrote down all my crazy experiences, mostly for my friends and family. A friend from grad school insisted that I publish it because Indians generally don’t do crazy things like that. Since he was a published author, when he agreed to help me, I said ‘Why not?’
Before the age of thirty, I managed to publish my first book titled ‘A Ghost of Che.’ After finishing my Masters degree, I interviewed with a neurotech start-up. The company was developing a diagnostic device for Alzheimer’s disease. After two days of interviewing, I asked ‘So, who is the neuroscientist in the company?’ I found out that I would be the neuroscientist. I asked myself ‘Why not?’
A four-year stint at the start-up gave me itchy feet again. During my motorcycle trip in South America, I had met a lot of backpackers who were doing extended round-the-world trips. I was debating whether I would be able to travel for a year or more without taking a break. Plus, my middle-class Indian brain was telling me that it is ridiculous. Once again, I asked myself ‘Why not?’
I managed to cover thirty-six countries on all the continents in a year before moving back to India. In my first week in India, I bumped into a National award winning director named Brahmanand Siingh. He found my solo traveling stories interesting and asked me whether I would like to travel like that in India and make a documentary. I had absolutely no background in film-making or even being in front of a camera.
Then again, I asked myself ‘Why not?’
That was the birth of our unique backpacking documentary named ‘Riding on a Sunbeam.’ While we were making that film, a few acquaintances found out about my book and asked me why I am not making a feature film based on it. I hesitated at first, wondering whether I should take up film-making as a full-time gig. Once again, I asked myself ‘Why not?’
While that project is now underway, I sometimes wonder whether it is just a matter of converting the ‘Why’s into ‘Why not’s. I have to say that that is the first step, but it is not that easy. You also have to meet the right kind of people to make these things happen. Staying unmarried helps as well, but you will have to buy me a drink to get that story out of me.
About Mauktik Kulkarni:
Mauktik Kulkarni is a neuroscientist, author, movie-maker, travel buff and sports enthusiast.