Advertising professional Anurag Mallick hadn’t contacted home for seven months. Even his mother didn’t know where he was. Worried sick, she filed a report with the police. Last heard, she said, he had quit his job, packed his bags and headed out to the Himalayas to find himself — and now was lost. But when 22-year-old Anurag came back home a few days after the report was filed — looking very zen — he told her to chill out. After all he had been on his gap year, travelling and just enjoying the days of his youth.
That was a decade ago. A time when the concept of taking a couple of months or a year off from studies or work was unheard of. A time when the middle-class couldn’t afford a journey of self-discovery. A time when parents were afraid to just let go of their children.
A lot has changed. Taking time out, or gapping as it’s called, has become a trend across India. With youth institutes like AIESEC and World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), supporting gappers young and old, the trend is here to stay. Mayank Batheja, director of north and east operations of AIESEC, believes that there are twice as many people taking a year off now as compared to two years ago. “Earlier only one in every 10 would take the year off to gap. Now nearly four out of 10 are not only ‘allowed’ by their parents but are also very keen to take time out to figure things out for themselves,” he says. And what’s more, it’s not just the rich who become gappers, but all those with the desire to do something different or just travel around the world.
The thirst to learn a new language is often key to where a gapper chooses to go. Take 25-year-old Veer Singh. Between school and college, he took a year off to study Spanish in London and Madrid. Enamoured with Spanish culture, Veer returned in 2007, after completing his undergraduate degree in India, to become an organic farmer in Majorca, the largest island in Spain. “For a year I farmed and was able to sustain myself through my earnings. At other times, I travelled to various places in Spain,” says Veer, who currently works with Max India. “It was the single most fulfilling experience — to work with the locals and experience their culture first hand.”
Whether it’s backpacking across South Africa, or working in disaster zones, Indian youth today seems to love the idea of doing exactly what they want to, just to walk that path of self-discovery. The only thing that matters is being able to afford it — both time and money wise.
While younger gappers ask their parents to help them financially while they travel and rough it out, there are others who work for a couple of years and design their own gap project. Aparna Shekhar Roy is one of the latter group. Last October, she gave up her job as a brand manager in an FMCG company and travelled extensively across South America. “I saved up and then headed to all the places I had always dreamt of — Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Chile.”
She adds that it’s taught her a lot — how to stretch the moolah, value simple pleasures in life — and even instilled a sense of national pride. Back from her trip, Aparna finds herself appreciating several things that she took for granted in her daily life.
Several gappers also prefer dropping a year before they launch into a career in order to pursue a hobby that they wouldn’t otherwise. Shivani Salhotra, a qualified lawyer, was always interested in Kathak, so under the aegis of Shovana Narayan, she has been training professionally for the last year and a half. “This was the best time and to be honest I have only been dancing for myself. This is my passion,” says the 25-year-old who will be joining a law firm later this summer.
Another popular gap trend is volunteer work. History graduate Shruti Mahendroo has taken the year off to work with different NGOs working in the Bihar (Kosi) flood-affected areas. “I deferred my admission to the University of Southern California to help out along the Kosi river,” says this 22-year-old. “It has been meaningful and has changed the way I think and look at people.”
Papa do preach
For most gappers parental support, both mental as well as financial, is very important. And with technological advances, most parents too are taking it easy and letting their children do all the soul-searching they like. From the days when an STD or ISD call was difficult to make, they too have tech-smartened up. “Learning how to email was probably the toughest thing ever,” says Prakash Mittal, whose 22-year-old son Harsh has been backpacking all over Europe with his friends for the last four months. “But it has set me free from all kinds of worry. Now I use Skype — and we chat every other day at least.”
Global credit cards, global calling cards — it’s all made the world a more accessible place. And for young Indians, the world is their oyster.