Fire in the Belly

APJ Abdul Kalam, India’s 11th President and arguably one of the most cerebral Presidents to have ever taken that office, was born to a poor Tamil Muslim family in Rameshwaram, South India. His father was a boat owner of meagre means. Young Kalam sold newspapers to supplement his family’s income but that did not stop him from dreaming big. After a stellar career of four decades as a scientist that earned him the moniker of India’s ‘Missile Man’, Kalam eventually rose to the country’s top position in 2002, endearing himself to the masses as ‘People’s President’.

N Shiva Kumar was another young boy from a poor family who sold newspapers for a living. His sights were however set higher. With help from a kind stranger Krishna Vedavyasa who recognised the spark in him and funded his education, he eventually managed to complete his engineering in computer science, cracked the highly competitive Common Admission Test (CAT) and went on to complete his management degree from India’s top-rung management institute IIM, Kolkata. The former newspaper boy then landed his first job as Deputy Country Manager in Sri Lanka for a German e-commerce company with a six-figure pay package.

Another icon of corporate India, Mr. Azim Premji, was surely not from humble origins. His father owned Western Indian Vegetable Products Ltd, a small company that manufactured cooking oil and washing soap. After his father’s untimely demise, 21-year old Azim Premji returned from his engineering course at Stanford to take over reins of the company. In next four decades, he turned around the fortunes of the company under the banner of Wipro. Today, he has a net worth in excess of $16 billion and is the second richest Indian.

Closer home, in 1984, there was a young lad from a middle class family who got obsessed with the idea of space voyage after watching a few grainy videos of IAF fighter pilot Rakesh Sharma, India’s first man in space. His family knew nothing about the armed forces, let alone space voyage. However, he dug deeper and realized that becoming a test pilot was an essential step towards being selected for future space programs. His fiery passion drew him to find out all the details and burn midnight oil till he eventually managed to join the Navy, going on to become a test pilot in 2002. India never sent another man into space after 1984. Somewhere down the line, that spark was lost but I am glad I reached the base of the mountain before it did. Today, I am proud to be included in the elite group of testers in India that includes the venerable Wg Cdr Rakesh Sharma (Retd).

There are plenty of examples like these. Everybody loves to berate the underdog till they make it big.

In contrast, don’t we find a large majority of children and adults today who continue to ‘drift’ with the tide, mindlessly pursuing degrees and qualifications when they are unable to clearly state where their true passion lies? Sample this conversation I recently had with a young student near Mithibhai College – a busy educational hub near Juhu, Mumbai.

“Hi. What degree are you pursuing here?”

“I am doing my BBA.”

“Oh, that must be interesting! What do you plan to do after that? Look for work?”

“Well…I don’t know. Do a masters maybe. Not decided yet.”

“Are you excited about the course and the career that awaits after that?”

“Well…yes and no. College is fun, but I don’t know what I’ll do after that”

“Is this your passion – this BBA thing? Have you chosen some specific stream like finance, HR, etc.?”

“No. I love photography.”

“Oh, so do you see photography and this college degree coming together to shape a career in future?”

“I don’t know…I am not sure my parents will approve of that”

“Well, why don’t you just carry a camera with you? Keep shooting, experiment with your talent and keep getting better…?”

“I don’t know. I do sometimes, but I don’t have a great camera. It’s expensive…have budgets and all…sorry uncle, I really need to go..bye!”

You can have a thousand conversations and yet the same story plays out almost always. And it doesn’t stop with students. Working professionals, small entrepreneurs, artists, sportspersons…the list goes on. Most of us are ambling through life without any real sense of purpose.

When was the last time you sat down and thought deeply about where your true passion lies? What is that one thing, that one dream, that won’t let you sleep? When did you, if ever, get consumed by an idea so much it wouldn’t let you rest?

All of us at some stage in life must have had a fleeting experience of this ‘fire in the belly’. But almost always, we douse it with the wet blanket of practicality, reality or peer pressure. Sometimes our parents or spouses help us douse it. After all, it is far easier to maintain status quo and continue down the beaten path, dulled into following a drill that works.

Sometimes you need to take a deep dive into this realm and set absurdly difficult targets to ignite this fire. Or somebody needs to kick your ass down that road – like Mahavir Singh Phogat did with his daughters Geeta & Babita who eventually went on to win Commonwealth Medals for India in wrestling. All too often, we set the bar too low and feel happy we could scale it.

Wictionary describes ‘fire in the belly’ as ‘the emotional stamina and vigour, passion, or inner drive to achieve something, to take action, etc.’

Somewhere in the deepest recesses of your mind, this fire exists. Maybe you need to take two steps back from the humdrum of daily existence and ask yourself what purpose will propel you into the next orbit. Then fan that flame. In yourself. And in those around you. See where it gets you. You will be surprised what you are capable of. Don’t ever let the world tell you it is farfetched or impractical.

English singer-songwriter and former Beatle John Lennon’s foster parent and aunt, Mimi Smith, once famously told him “The guitar’s all very well, John, but you’ll never make a living out of it”. How wrong she was.

A plaque outside the Indian Navy’s Diving School – cradle for navy’s tough frogmen – captures it all:

Lift Yourself. By Yourself. You are your greatest enemy. You are your greatest friend.”


©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2017. All rights reserved. Cover photo courtesy Indian Navy (

18 thoughts on “Fire in the Belly

  1. So true, KP…revived my mid life crisis
    Great to see the quote from diving school my alma mater!!

    1. You and rashmi are certainly two people who had the fire! How many can claim to have skydived onto an aircraft carrier at sea?! BZ 🙂

  2. So true…the fire in the belly can bring so much joy. I instantly identified with that conversation you had with the college kid. Many who are drifting and that is sad. Even if one does not have a sense of purpose, putting in your best into whatever you are doing is satisfying. I know I did that and life kept me engaged, never bored, and I continue to learn ……

  3. Nicely written, Sanju. Touched a nerve as I am one who had fire in the belly for couple of things I feel I was born to do and have only felt real peace pursuing those activities. Cricket being one. I have never felt that total sense of peace and “living in the moment”, almost spiritual experience as I did when playing cricket. It boiled down to me, my bat and the ball coming at me. I knew what to do.

    But I was meek and didn’t believe in my abilities. Some people are lucky to find mentors who help overcome fears and anxieties.

    Some I think don’t need mentors to overcome these fears. I have met many people who have known exactly what they wanted to do at a very early age, even pre-teen, had the fire in the belly, determination and perseverance to carry it through. I am talking about you here brother. Sometimes It takes a combination of innate qualities you are born with to have a life rich in experience. People on the lucky side of the gene pool.

    I have also met people who have no fear of failure and in my observations, it is not something they struggled to cultivate, but in fact are just wired that way.

    On the other hand, some of the most interesting people I have met in life are people with no
    ‘fire in their belly” have gone from one thing to another, with no real ambition, and have stitched together rich experiences based on what fancied them at various points in life, without really having a passion for any one thing, but at peace all the same in what they are pursuing at the moment.

    I am still trying to find myself, overcome fears. I have not figured it out, but it is not for lack of trying. Hard to categorize what is the “right” way. Overcoming Inactivity and laziness are the ones I feel we have control over. And being kind, generous and mindful.

    Just some random observations from a spectator bird at 3.30AM in the morning. I am sure it is full of contradictions. But that is me. It takes all kinds to make this world interesting, right?

    You write very well. Keep writing.

    1. Wow, Suresh…such poignant observations. Actually, you were the high achiever…I quietly slunk away into the armed forces 😉
      Looking forward to you scaling many more mountains. Warmly, sanju

      1. Humility is a virtue and you have that in abundance. Back to your article, in many ways, parents are also responsible for producing “cookie cutter” , “production line” individuals. If they don’t transfer their fears into kids, instead guide them to think for themselves and let them soar in whatever they want to do, there would be more kids who grow up to find their own purpose in life. And be happier in whatever they do.

  4. Wonderful article , something I can relate to especially the parent’s contribution to the fire in the belly. Standing at the cross roads where my son often asks me what if he pursues something which is his dream and I have no knowledge in that field , I see him as an alien a robot … something not known to me.
    Is this a confusion of my midlife crisis or as we coolly blame his being a teenager ! What ever but the cycle has begun whether we ignite or douse the fire, I m sure every parent wants the best for their child.
    Lucky to be one who had the fire and pursued it and see the genes being transmitted too. KPS sir your articles are so refreshing and realistic, a pleasure reading and surely ticks the brain to introspect our thoughts and action.
    Looking forward to another one soon…

    1. Having taken the path less traveled, you are in the right position to guide your children, Seema! How many women have left the comfort of steady jobs for a career in the Indian Army? You have that rare experience. Now don’t deny such opportunities to gen next! Let them go for it…break those glass ceilings 🙂

  5. Hi KP,

    Great thoughts and oh so true about the prevalent situation regarding ‘fire in the belly’, ‘chasing one’s dream’ and how so many of us have made peace with being just ‘coasters’.

    Nice, relevant comments from Suresh as well in response.

    IMHO, there are a myriad differing reasons that would make it difficult for a person, even with a raging fire in the belly, to realise his individual dream and those reasons may be totally unconnected with one’s actual performance while pursuing one’s dream. Yes, genetics do play a part, as do parental attitudes, lucky breaks and the general ebb and flow of opportunities that Life holds out for each of us. As such, there is no ‘formula’ that ensures success in one’s pursuit of one’s dreams. KP did not make it to Space due to the lack of a manned space programme in our country. I made it despite he lack of a manned space programme but due to higher level geopolitical compulsions playing out at that time between our country and the erstwhile Soviet Union. The point here is: one did not make it while the other did, due to factors that were totally out of each person’s control! If this is not luck, then what is?

    I feel the learning here is that as a parent, one’s role ought to be limited to providing a ‘safety net’ (essentially funding) and support the child as he/she learns to take to the air while chasing one’s individual dream. But then, can we blame another not so well off parent who may want his child to quickly get himself a stable ‘govt job’ and settle down?

    So you see there are many variables at play here. The best we can do is to have a dream, chase it for as long as one can, giving it one’s best effort all the while and then hoping it all comes together!

    It would help to remember that John Lennon became the legend that he is despite doubts expressed by his foster parents. Michael Jordan became the legend that he is because of his work ethic. In his own words:
    ” I’ve missed more than 6000 shots in my career;
    I’ve lost almost 300 games.
    Twenty six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and I missed.
    I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life
    And that is why I succeed”

    These two gentlemen were in control of their destinies because the fire in their bellies needed only their own hard work to remain burning.

    For many others, just hard work is not enough. External factors do play a part. Ask KP. Ask me!

    1. The man who inspired me to don the uniform has read and appreciated my thoughts. Indeed, life has come a full circle for me today. Thank you Rikki Sir, you remain a tall icon for many generations.

    2. Ah, the element of luck. Being at the right place at the right time.

      My life certainly has been shaped by these elements. It’s been 23 years since I applied to various graduate schools here in the U.S.

      I studied hard for the exams, gave it my best. I only applied to a few, top schools (and an average one) for my discipline. And I absolutely needed a full scholarship. Then the “regret” letters started to come in. I was soon down to the last (average) one. I received a full scholarship from that school.

      The Professor who handed me the scholarship also became my thesis advisor. He told me years’ later that it was down to two candidates for the one scholarship he had. He could not decide between the two as there was not much separating us on our accomplishments and other factors he usually considers. When it came close to decision time, without talking to either international candidate, he took an out-of-character (for him) gut decision to go with me.

      Since we are talking about “fire in the belly” here, his gut decided the trajectory of my life from that moment. My career, marriage (which happened here), kids.

      Many chance encounters have shaped what I have done for years. On the other hand, intense planning and hard work have failed to get me what I wanted at various points in my life (thankfully so in many cases, looking back).

      In spite of all the hard work and preparation, I have often wondered how life comes down to a few key moments that have outsized impact on our lives. In my case, I had no idea of their impact during many of those moments. But because I worked hard, and kept up on things, I was usually prepared. So, I have been a happy victim of cosmic billiards in some ways. As for the scholarship, I have wondered about the other person on the table. I hope she/he is doing very well somewhere.

      There is no substitute for hard work, and solid planning helps. But like Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma says in his response, there are many complex factors that shape our destiny. Like he says, “the best we can do is to have a dream, chase it for as long as one can, giving it one’s best effort all the while and then hoping it all comes together!”

      Nice discussion. Thanks, Sanju.

  6. Very well written.. as always..
    The only way to give vent to the fire in the belly is to have the courage to do so.

  7. Wonderful article. Great discussion. Point of fact here. KPS……remember my exhortations to you. Write full time brother. You have the gift. Let go of the safety net. Maybe you can rekindle the’ Fire in your belly’.
    Cheers and God bless
    You rock

  8. [21/07, 12:27 p.m.] Blossom Bhatnagar: No other term strikes my mind other than WaaaaaaaaaaaaaaO! beauuuutiful…I was smiling throughout​ reading as u chose a topic which is so relevant n every individual can relate to it irrespective of his/ her age… Incredible…in fact the conversation u mentioned with a guy seemed as if u r referring to Jatin
    [21/07, 12:28 p.m.] Blossom Bhatnagar: Exact r his words …the only difference …he says film making instead of photography…
    [21/07, 12:28 p.m.] Blossom Bhatnagar: The examples of all the stalwarts u gave was an eye-opener…
    [21/07, 12:30 p.m.] Blossom Bhatnagar: What a lovely msg thru this article..we all need to contemplate n work towards it…
    [21/07, 12:31 p.m.] Blossom Bhatnagar: Thanku soo much fr touching such sensitive issues…v integral …but often sidelined…
    [21/07, 12:32 p.m.] Blossom Bhatnagar: U r an amazing writer..God bless!:-)

  9. Very thought provoking Sir. It’s not just the youngsters who suffer from low fire or no fire syndrome but many of middle aged men& women too.I relate to the article and also believe that being company of men & women with fire in the belly is a sure shot way to keep yourself motivated and reignite the flickering flame to a full blown fire.
    Thank you.

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