Thursday, June 13, 2013

Towards infinity and beyond

On her newly-minted blog, my niece, a budding physician, was reminiscing the other day about the first time she set foot outside her family home, her city, her comfort zone - her first foray into the greater world beyond, in order to pursue her dream of becoming a medical professional. Under the Indian medical education system - quite different from the American system - one gets into medical schools right after graduating senior high school, what is known in India as the Higher Secondary, and represents 12 years of basic schooling. For her, then a teenager, this parting from the nest was a bitter-sweet experience, tinged equally with the fear of unknown and the determination to make her place in the world.

-Sniff!- They grow up so fast. Both my nieces, she and her younger sister, have turned out to be strong, independent, accomplished young women - a testament to the foundation created and values inculcated in them by their parents and family, my Dada (elder brother), Boudi (sister-in-law) and Mashima (their mother; my aunt). I couldn't be prouder of my nieces.

Anyhoo... Not to be distracted by familial reminiscences. I found that my niece had asked a question to her readers: What are your first memories of moving to a new city for college or work?

Thought I: Challenge accepted! So that's how this post happened. However, since brevity has never been my strong suit, I'm going to start with a bit of background, hoping that you - my dear readers - would bear with me.

Having spent my final five years of school in residential institutions, I didn't find too difficult or troublesome the idea of living apart from my own family for work. My school life was tightly regulated by well-heeled schedules (yes, I was little mister goody two-shoes, why do you ask?) leaving not much time for private ventures. During my three years of undergraduate studies, I lived at home with my parents - but the honors curriculum coursework in my college, one of the best undergrad institutions in the whole country, was brutal, once again leaving very little time for extracurricular activities.

So, finally, when it was time for me to leave the nest to determine my future, I took stock of myself and my preparedness. I was not quite the sheltered kind, and yet, I didn't have as much of the whole gamut of real-life experiences as I would have wanted. But it was certainly time.

Funny how circumstances often play out to force choices; c'est la vie.

For my Master's Degree studies, I had qualified a National Entrance Test to a prestigious biotechnology university in the southern part of the country, placed at a distance of 900 odd miles from my hometown, Kolkata. I was also placed on the wait-list for another prestigious university in the northern part of the country, similar placed at 900 odd miles from Kolkata. I accepted the offer for admission at the Central University, Hyderabad, put down the necessary deposit, made travel arrangements and packed my bags. It was to be a 22 hour train ride into town. I even managed to calm down the jolly old mater, which was quite a feat.

I was about to leave for the station to take the train to Hyderabad in the evening. As I was saying my good-byes, my eyes fell on my mother's face; it was drained of all color, she looked unusually pale and haggard, and even though she was trying to hold back her tears, it wasn't quite working. Boom! Something went off in my brain, and I cancelled my trip - forfeiting the advance paid, my admission, and the train ticket price in the process. I went and hugged my mom, and that was that.

Rash and impulsive decision? You betcher. But what to do? I'm like that only. So, for one whole day, there I was, stranded in my city, no future, no prospects. It was scary and weird. What was I thinking?

But something wonderful happened the day after, thereby inviting a slew of proverbs from my mother, the most notable of which was: Good things come to those who wait. Puh-lease! However, I can't deny that it was awesome. I received a telegram (I know, I'm old!) from this university in Delhi, one which had me on a wait list. I was supposed to send them a small amount of money immediately, and must reach Delhi to attend the orientation, because classes were due to start in 4 days.

Now, I know this is irrational; Delhi is at the same distance from Kolkata as is Hyderabad. Both are highly cosmopolitan cities with a rich history and cultural heritage. The only difference would be that in Delhi I could manage with my broken Hindi spoken with a terrible Bengali accent, whereas in Hyderabad, I'd have to learn, and pronto, a new language - Telegu (a rich South-Indian language by its own right, but very different from my mother-tongue, Bangla, or the North Indian Hindi. I'd not have thought that to be a big deal, but this time the mater's eyes positively sparkled. I sent out with alacrity the money via Registered Speed Post (the Indian Postal Service's equivalent of Priority Mail with Confirmation), and before I knew it, I was on the overnight train to Delhi, the Poorva Express, this time parents in tow.

Contrary to my niece's idyllic experiences of her journey, I just slept. At the best of times, the 2nd Class 3 Tier Sleeper compartments of the Indian Railways are not the most comfortable means of conveyance. I took it as a journey from point A to point B, and tried to keep my occupied with the thoughts of everything I was leaving behind and unknown things that were to come.

We reached Delhi in the afternoon, and took a transport - a three-wheeler, referred to as an 'Auto Rickshaw' or Auto for short - to the picturesque, vibrant and green campus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, 'JNU' to all. Offices were generally closed at that time. As luck would have it, the warden of one of the student hostels, a Bengali resident of Delhi and professor at the university, met with me and a few other students who had arrived at the same time, and made arrangements for our temporary accommodations. A senior student in the hostel named 'Jhelum' had graciously offered me a little space to park my belongings and sleep at night, until such time as I was allotted my own room. (That took a while, as it turned out, but that's a story for another day.)

My mother, again teary-eyed, and my father left the campus to spend the night at a pre-arranged guest house in the South Delhi area known as Chittaranjan Park; they were to return the next day by the same train. I was taken to the hostel mess hall for dinner by the senior student (whose name, unfortunately, eludes me completely), after which I rolled out my bedding on the floor, and slept the dreamless sleep of a tired human. The next day would bring a flurry of hectic, essential but boring activities, such as registration, payment of hostel fees and mess charges, and so forth.

Was that it? EoM, end of memories of the first days? Hell, no! My first memories can never be complete without the mention of my very first day at class, when I met my classmates-to-be-for-two-years. There were never-short-of-a-smile Jenny, from Manipur; quiet and reserved Srabani, from one of the eastern states; brilliant but quirky Shiva, from Madurai; hearty and generous Ranjit, from Himachal; Abhijeet of the sweet voice, from Delhi; gentle and caring Lakshmi, from Bombay; talented dancer and a fitness-freak Mitali, also from Bombay; and of course, mon cher ami, mon frère Atish, my friend whom I came to regard as my brother-from-another-mother. These last three have been my close friends and confidantes, and I am still in regular touch with Mitali and Atish, neither of whom have - thankfully - changed much.

My first encounter with Atish in the classroom is my most memorable event in those first days. The professor had asked us to introduce ourselves. After the class, this lanky bespectacled guy - who I had noticed was giving me the side-eye for the longest time - comes over and asks the strangest of questions: K******? (My name) CL-something-something? (a string of numbers, which was my applicant number for the admission test) Both being correct, I am slightly flabbergasted. He claps his hand on my shoulder and gives me his patented mischievous smile. It turns out that he had a friend with the exact same name as mine, who had taken the same entrance test. This friend opted to go attend another university, possibly vacating the seat which came to the person at the top of the wait list, namely, moi. Repeated viewing of the admission list had caused him to commit my serial number to memory. Heh!

At that age, such encounters create bonds. Atish was a day-scholar. His family lived in a neighborhood that was close to the university campus. Every morning, Atish drove his yellow LML-Vespa scooter to class. It was he who had taught me how to drive a two-wheeler. I remember the first time Lakshmi, Mitali and I visited Atish's parents at their residence. My elder niece (one whose blogpost inspired me to write mine), Inu, was this cute little curious kid then, and the younger niece, Dali, was this baby with her thumb firmly tucked between her lips. Yes, I am not related to Inu-Dali, Atish-Dada-Boudi-Mashima by blood. And yes, they are family. They have been my foster-family in Delhi ever since, showering me with untold love and affection - Nuestra casa es su casa - never making me feel even once, during my 8 long years in that city, that I was not a part of the family. Mashi-ma is my Ma in Delhi. Whenever I wanted, I always had a home to come to - even in that relatively-foreign, initially-unknown city. And because she was there, my own parents almost never had a moment of worry about me.

Goodness. I should stop now; there seems to be a speck in my eye.


  1. Awww you just made Ma and I sentimental! ( Baba has yet to read and Ma is yet to learn how to comment ;) I remember when all of kaka's friends came over a.k.a all the names you mentioned! And I would bask in all the attention I received and long to enter the closed room and be a part of the conversations and feel important! haha. Time flies! Btw seems like there is going to be Delhi to Kolkata trip article soon now.. seeing how I am going to IPGMER. :)

    1. Looking forward to reading that account! :)