In the last of this three-part series, Rajesh Vaghela recounts the challenge of trying to re-orient his life in a positive direction after a previous life of intoxication, violence and petty crime. To access part-one and part-two, click on the highlighted text.
Having messed up big time on my A-levels, I wasn’t sure what to do next. My parents were giving be a daily sermon on how much of an idiot I was, and how all their friends’ children had done much better than me. They told me not to bother with re-sitting my exams, because I was a lost cause. I too didn’t want to spend another year doing boring A-levels again, but at the same time I desperately wanted to prove them wrong. Furthermore, there weren’t very good job prospects for me, as an Asian kid without any significant education or previous employment. So re-sit was what I did, determined both to perform well, as well as change the way I was living.
In my plan to steer a new course in life, it was relationships with friends that made it most difficult to do so, because most of my friendships were defined by certain activities that we did together, for example playing pool, going for a kick around at the park, drinking, smoking, causing trouble.
Some of the people I had hung around with in the past, I didn’t care much for, and wouldn’t be sad to see the back of. But many others were close friends with whom I had shared some of the most important moments of my life. Despite my desire to change and make amends, I wasn’t going to just abandon and lose contact with these people. I also hoped to be able to influence some of them in a more positive direction.
I decided to stop drinking, half way through the 18th year of my life. The decision wasn’t based on what anybody had told me to do, or even on any religious dos and don’ts. It was an indirect corollary of several Hindu ideas I had imbibed, together with common sense for reasons of health and behaviour.
Most of my friends were aghast – since getting drunk together and smoking together was a cornerstone of our social life. At first, I used to turn up and watch others get drunk, but eventually it got boring.
This led to occasional relapses into habits that I was trying to leave behind. I wouldn’t call it ‘peer pressure’. Rather, it was because I needed people around me in order to keep from getting bored and lonely.
But an occasional relapse wasn’t a reason to give up, so I kept going. I started encouraging people to do different things, like occasionally going paint balling, playing more sports, and going out to clubs, bars, restaurants etc without getting totally drunk. This way of doing things began to catch on with quite a few people. At the same time, I gradually became less reliant and influenced by what others did or said, as a result of trying to put into practice the Gita’s teaching of doing what you know is right ‘without regard to praise or censure’.
Kickboxing and weight training also had a positive effect. The discipline of a weight training routine, and the sense of achievement of consistently beating one’s personal records dramatically increases confidence and resolve. I had started kickboxing, together with two other friends, in order to be better able to handle situations where I was outnumbered in a fight. It soon became apparent that drinking and smoking slowed one’s progress immensely. So all three of us were careful to avoid or minimise intoxicants.
The following summer, my A-levels were completed successfully, and I got admission to a pretty good university to do Optometry. Don’t ask why I chose Optometry, its just one of them ‘Indian subjects’ that many of us do because it provides reasonably certain employment after qualification, coupled with a good pay.
At university I was away from London for the first time and therefore had the chance of making a new beginning. I wasn’t a goody-goody boy – I still did what everybody else did at Freshers (couldn’t help myself). But I didn’t have my past continuously chasing me around and pulling me in directions in which I didn’t want to travel.
One of the main things I became involved in at university was the Hindu Society. I felt I wanted to do something for the religion and philosophy, which had helped me climb out of an abyss from which I could have been stuck in all my life – intoxication, violence, petty crime etc.
My Hindu Society did good work, and enabled me to meet many committed Hindus. But my real interest was in something that they didn’t cover, which I have had to do myself. That is to reach out to young Hindus who are in a similar situation that I was in during my teens, and help them climb out of it and reorient their lives in a positive direction.
I’m currently in the final year of my degree course, and I’ve managed to keep my head down and get things done. But I don’t want to spend my entire time as an Optometrist. I chose my degree at a time when I was unsure of what to do – it was quite a random decision. At the same time, it would be stupid of me to do a degree and not benefit from it. So what I plan to do is to work part time (three or four days weekly) as a ‘Locum’, and spend the rest of time on community work, which is now my real passion. There is a whole class of Hindus in Britain who are in the same situation that I was in, or even worse, who no Hindu body seem to want to acknowledge or cater for. With my own experiences and understanding, and the fact that I was lucky enough to escape a grimy life, I feel it is worth having gone through all this only if I can use what I have learnt to help others in a similar way.