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Friday, April 20, 2018

The Visa


7am: Calming Nani

Nani has been awake for hours. She hasn’t slept all night, tossing in slow motion, in nervous anticipation of the big day. She’s like this for every big day. She can feel when someone in the house is stressed and takes it on as if it’s her own.

Tests are stressful, after all. My 10th grade exams, my SATs, my GREs, were all tests my family faced together. In an Indian family, life is a team sport whether you like it or not. Nani has been awake in one way or another since 1941, making people their favourite breakfast on big test days to calm them down.

Today is US visa interview day – the most important test of them all – and I am calming her. No, I do not need to shave, Nani. My beard is not that long. Yes, I have got everything I need. No, you do not need to iron my shirt. Yes, I WILL have that extra cheese dosa.

I quadruple-check that I’ve got all my papers: my cover letter, my parent’s bank statements, my income tax returns, my university acceptance letter, copies of my most recently published work and every other piece of bureaucratic application material that the land of freedom demands.

You’re not allowed to take any electronics into the US embassy so I order an Uber upstairs and leave my phone behind when I head downstairs to meet the driver. That’s it. Kisses goodbye from mum, dad, Nani and every courier delivery guy and domestic-help wonder-lady that’s currently scrambling around our little Mumbai flat. All of a sudden, after taking the Indian family for granted, you’re all on your own in a stranger’s car. The big day has come and it’s on you now. Adulthood sneaks up on you like that, in the lonely silence of an Uber ride to America.


8:15am: The Great Leveler

The line outside the US Embassy is one of the great equalizers of urban India. There are the affluent 20-somethings in sunglasses and flip-flops, slouching against the wall as they apply for the privilege to summer in Manhattan. There are the earnest engineering students, with glasses on their faces and flowers in their hair, ready to join the post-graduate fellowship program at Georgia Tech that they’ve worked diligently for. There are sprawling families, including of course a screaming baby and a Nani, proudly wearing a sari and white Nike sneakers. There are portly, balding, 30-year old IT workers, hoping for a business visa so they can help a Silicon Valley with their cloud-based architecture (or something?) – their struggle has been no less vigorous than anyone else's.

They were probably the smartest kid in their school, the hardest worker in their college and now a small fish in a faceless global tech outsourcing firm, earning the most anyone in their family has. A posting to America is the icing on a cake that’s been baking since they went to 6am math tuition and 6pm English tuition every day from 8th grade onward. Behind every placid face and every tech-park ID card that hangs from tired shoulders, is a story of academic pursuit – of forgone college sports and undanced high school proms.

The line outside the US embassy is a leveler not because everyone has to stand shoulder to shoulder. You get that on the local train and at the cricket stadium. It is a leveler because everyone is nervous. I’ve done this song and dance at so many embassies around the world and I’m still scared every time. Because in the eyes of the West you are not rich or poor or dark or fair – you are simply Indian. A person from the outside trying to get in.

Every Indian person in the US probably has a visa story. Queuing up in line in the 80s, back when things were different, back when India was a socialist quagmire that had to be escaped. India has changed, but that embassy queue hasn’t.

Only people with 8:30am appointments – the first of the day – are initially allowed to queue. There is no such thing as a formal appointment time at the US embassy since getting from the outside of the building to the glass interview window of destiny takes about 3 hours – and you’re only allowed to queue up 15 minutes in advance. The experienced among us calm the others in the line. 

"Don’t worry – you haven’t missed your appointment," we tell them like jaded veterans consoling excitable infantrymen.

It is hot even at 9am and the handkerchiefs are out from the back-pockets of both those in line and the hundreds of onlookers. It’s quite a scene. Drivers of the rich look on in bemusement as their employers have to stand in the sun while they rest in the shade. Nervous fathers and their nervous moustaches pace up and down across the street from the stately building near their daughters, who confidently clutch their visa folders in the shadow of the barbed-wire fence.

Make no mistake, the sweaty queue outside the embassy is designed to make you feel small. It doesn't matter if you have lived a cushy life of privilege, like me, or a difficult one. You are paraded single-file before security forces with outrageously vintage rifles.

As you reach the front of the queue and an embassy employee asks you to take out your DS-160 and your appointment confirmation letter, you suddenly remember why you’re there. You enter the building and you enter America.

10:30am: Window to Another World

After another hour of queuing in the embassy’s outdoor courtyard, making sure the photocopy of your mother’s dental records is clear just in case they ask for it, you get to the inner sanctum. You scan your fingerprints and reach the air-conditioning once again, the room where you can see and hear visa interviews taking place just feet away.

As you inch closer to the windows, you stop rehearsing your spiel and instinctively start listening to the interviews roaring away through tense plexiglass. Some interviews are over in a matter of seconds. BANG. Rejected. White people telling brown people they’re not welcome – the optics are not good. You can see people who have tried really hard, get rejected in real time. Where else do you see that these days? My heart starts beating faster. For every successful application, there is a rejection at the next window. Lives are changed in this room and I can’t stress this enough. It is terrifying.

At window 14, a young woman is applying for an F-1 student visa. I think it’s because she has a new passport but I couldn’t hear her clearly. You can pretty much only hear the consular officers because their voices are projected from microphones. The consular officer behind the glass is not in a good mood. She’s the kind of lady Nani prayed you don’t get.

“Why did you think you had to give me both passports?” the officer said sarcastically. The young woman cowered and spluttered as I would have done. I could feel the silent indignation in every person stood in line watching.

“Why would you think I need this,” the officer barked again, holding up the woman’s old passport. The young lady mumbled something which seemed to tranquillize the officer for a moment.

“Wait, where’s your I-20?” asked the officer again, a scowl slowly appearing on her freckled face. She examined the flimsy 3-page document the kurti-clad woman handed her.

“I think you’re in violation of your I-20,” spat the officer. The young lady now pleaded her case. It was hopeless. “You have been denied a visa at this time. Please look carefully at this document for further instructions. Have a nice day,” muttered the officer nonchalantly as she printed out a generic rejection letter and slipped it to the young woman through the gap under the glass.

Maybe the young woman was in violation of her I-20. Maybe the consular officer had had a terrible day. It was scant consolation to us, shuddering in the line.

“Next in line to Window 14,” said an Indian embassy employee, indifferent to the drama she must witness every day.

Behind another window, a stately, emotionless American man questioned an equally stately Indian man about the temporary business visa he was applying for. The confidence of the Indian business owner assured everyone else in line. He answered every question with technical knowledge.

“So, your business makes hydraulic pistons?” probed the officer, “Why do you need to go to Tucson to meet American customers? Why can’t you just call them?”

“Sir, we manufacture highly specialized automotive components for use in heavy industrial vehicles,” said the 50-year old man, suddenly channeling his inner salesman from 20 years ago, “We operate in the B2B space and this conference in Arizona is the largest meeting of suppliers and procurers of the year. We have bought a stall and I have to oversee it.”

He was approved. He looked around as if to say, "Are you not entertained?"

All of us in line, craning our necks to hear the exchange, high-fived each other (spiritually).

There are so many stories I could tell you. Stories of quiet triumph and loud failure. Half the officers need “Goo-ja-raati” translators to help explain why a family’s outward flight is to D.C. while their return flight is from Toronto. You see confident young men with slick answers, turned away inexplicably. You see single, young, lower-middle class women being rejected because the officer thinks her American holiday is just a ruse to meet a young man and completed her arranged marriage. Maybe it is?

I guess for most people in the developed world, getting a visa for another country is a rarity and when it's required, a done-deal - an irritating formality. For those of us from the developing world, even the lucky few like me who have had the extraordinary privilege of growing up in the first world, the visa interview is the rich world sizing you up. Flights have been booked, plans – years in the making – have been laid, and here you stand in front of St Peter at the pearly gates.

The plexiglass is power. On the other side are humans who have been trained to act like robots, to process visa applications like emotionless machines. Sometimes their humanity shows through and I feel for them.

“Sir, you need to show me that you have the means to fund your stay for 3 months! Do you have any bank statements with you? Do you have a letter of sponsorship? I’m really sorry but I can’t help you at this time.”

I feel sorry for the consular staff sometimes. What must they think, doing such a thankless job? What must they feel, being posted to the acrid air of Mumbai? This was probably not what they signed up for when they took their first steps to being a diplomat. Lots of future Madeline Albright’s will have probably cut their teeth on those plexiglass windows, trying to help promising would-be immigrants realize their American dream. Nani prayed I get one such officer.

11:13am: Your Time Has Come

Suddenly, the moment has arrived. I don’t want to be dramatic here, but I will.

The walk towards the window takes a life-time. I can feel my stammer rearing its head. It so often strikes at the worst moments – when there is no room for weakness. All the long nights studying for my GRE, all the long days writing job applications, all the essays I wrote at university and the articles I wrote at the office, every achievement I had every put any effort into was for this. They would be null and void if my work visa application was rejected. We had a plan, since high school, that I would one day live and work outside India just like my parents had done. I told you that life in an Indian family is a team sport and we had come a long away. This was the final hurdle.

Let’s be clear: I was not applying for an immigrant visa. I don’t want to settle in America. My company was sponsoring me for a 5-year work visa. If I was rejected, I would probably leave my job and make a life for myself in India. But I wanted to live in New York for a few years. I had worked very hard for this. This was it.

My St Peter was a kind-eyed, red-headed 30-something man who had made an attempt at a goatee. I had my speech prepared but his first question threw me.

“How did you lose your old passport?” There was emotion in his voice.

“Oh, FedEx lost my old passport in the mail, when they couriered to the wrong apartment. I’m sure as hell using UPS next time,” I said, trying to use humour to hide my insecurities as I’ve always done.

No real reaction from him.

“So, you’re already working on your F-1 visa?”

“Yes, I’m currently on my OPT,” I said before spilling my prepared speech with minimal stammering – Thank God.

“How long do you plan to stay in the US?” This is a purposely tricky question: they know you want to stay in America as long as possible but if you sound too enthusiastic – like you want to stay permanently – it’s an instant and unwavering rejection. For some reason, I decided to make a “joke”.

“I’ll stay until my company realizes I’m an idiot and fires me!”

Miraculously, he laughed at my horrendous attempt at inappropriate humour. I added quickly, “No but seriously, we’ve applied for a 5-year visa, I think? So, it won’t be longer than that.”

Now there was a lot thinking behind this response. I said “we” to highlight my company wanted me there. I said “I think?” to make it seem like this was a formality that I wasn’t too bothered about. Of course I knew we had applied for a 5-year visa. Do you know how many months have been spent agonizing over this damn visa?

“Hmm. And what’s your highest level of education?”

Now, I am usually a bit embarrassed to tell people that I went to Yale. Some people will laugh, others will scoff. “You went to Yale? Well la-dee-da. You think you’re so smart?” If you went to a ‘good’ university, this comes with the territory. But today, I decided to own it. I went to Yale so I could get a good job that would give me a chance to live and work internationally. I stood up straight and looked him in the eye and decided that pride be damned.

“I have a Masters in Global Affairs from Yale University, focusing on renewable energy finance.”

“Wow, that’s a good school,” he said as he looked back at his computer, “OK, your application has been approved. You can go. Thank you and have a nice day.”

That was it. 

All that build up and it was over in 90 seconds – like the first time you have sex.

“Um, don’t you want to see my application materials?” I asked, half-pulling my pile of documents out of my folder.

“Nope, you’re good.”

He didn’t look at a single piece of paper. Even for my student visa appointments, which were also usually a minute long, they had at least demanded to see a piece of paper. This was ivy-league privilege at its starkest. Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis had anyone been more grateful for an anti-climax.

I walked outside the embassy in euphoric disbelief. There was no one to celebrate with except the bemused taxi driver who took me home.

“Mila kya?” he asked me.

“Haan yaar, mil gaya! Mil gaya!” I said as I high-fived him. This was an actual high-five, not a spiritual one. I wanted to hug him and jump with him. He wanted me to give him American money because it was supposedly his daughter’s birthday. I explained I didn’t have any American money and I was too happy to be annoyed by his nonsense.

I just smiled to myself in the taxi home as he tried to get American money out of me. I would have given him a $100 bill if I had one.

A visa is a big deal and it was done. A visa is a constraint you usually don’t have control over – you either get one or you don’t. It’s not like a job where if you get rejected, you can apply for another. With a visa you usually get one shot. Now it was done. It was finally over.

There’s nothing I hate more than uncertainty and not having control of things in my own hands. This visa issue had been hanging over my head ever since I got to grad school. Who would sponsor me? Would the visa be granted? Would everything go to plan?

There is no way to call your family when you’re done so you just sit quietly in a taxi and braise in silent joy. I rang the doorbell and returned home to hugs and tears. My relatives in Delhi called us to hear about the news. Life is a team sport, remember?

I went the next day to collect my passport. There were so many of them piled up behind the window. Mine was just another life-story in that leaning tower of visas.

Maybe I had made this visa thing a bigger deal than it was? Maybe my family had fed off that?

Nope. A work-visa is a big deal. My family has already been blessed with prosperity. But this visa has meant I’ve become financially independent for the first time in my life. So many things have had to fall into place. So many months of job rejections and uncertainty. The final hurdle had been crossed. “The plan” has come together.

Beyond the finish-line is the pristine unknown. For an Indian family, it is the sweetest victory.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

I saw a Father

I saw a father last summer. I saw him park a modest car on Hillhouse Avenue as his family peered wide-eyed out the windows. By the way he adjusted the mirrors and looked down at the gear-stick, it wasn't his car. It was a sunny, still day and regal Hillhouse lay there, soaking it all in like a lion stretching in the afternoon.



His son shot out of the passenger door towards Undergraduate Admissions with a piece of paper clutched in his hand. The boy must not have been 18. His wife tore the airport baggage tag from her handbag, clasped her young daughter’s hand and called to him to wait. The boy turned around and shrugged his slender shoulders in disappointment. I think they were speaking Spanish, but it was melodic enough to be Portuguese. I couldn’t tell from the other side of the street. They were not American or European. They were not dressed that way. Father put money in the parking meter and walked back to the car. His wife looked at him. His son looked to him. His daughter looked past him, at the majesty of the oak trees behind him. He nodded, ushering them on ahead. He put the parking slip behind the windshield of the rental, closed the door, turned around to face Hillhouse and sighed heavily.

I’ll never forget that sigh. It was not weariness or weight. He was his son’s excitement. He was his wife’s curiosity. He was his daughters stoic silence. This was no patriarchal nadir, no crisis of masculinity. This was a father feeling his pride, perhaps for the first time in a long time. He closed his eyes for a second and breathed deeply again. I think he was thinking about all those long nights, all the forms and the doubt. All the tax forms. All those times his son had looked to him for direction. Who did he look to? How was he supposed to know what to do? Could they afford the extra classes? Had he made the right decisions? Yes. He enjoyed his moment alone on the pavement, free from burden and from aspiration – soaring over some imagined chasm. He looked left and right and his shoulders finally settled and his chest swelled out. The man looked down at his watch like he belonged in that moment.

When his son got in, he got in. His whole family got in. Maybe his whole country got in. It seemed like that to me. There was no entitlement. This was new to him. Maybe he had been responsible. Maybe things were going the way he dreamed.

It felt like he was whispering to himself. “OK. OK. I’m here. We’re here. OK? OK.”


I thought I saw a smile. But then he turned back towards the building and strode purposefully toward it. He wouldn’t allow himself the shame of celebration. There was much work to be done and he was responsible for it all. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

What it's like to have a stammer

When I was 10, I realised that I could do accents. Imitating others’ speech came naturally to me. Being able to make other people laugh has given me great confidence. But at roughly the same age, I realised that I had a stammer. It was pretty bad back then. It has improved a great deal since, but my speech problems still persist even though I’ve found ways to hide it. But today it choked me at the worst possible moment.

This morning I sat down for the first large lecture of the new year at university. The class was full of people – perhaps 100 beautiful, bright, good, young people. The lecturer asked everyone in class to introduce themselves by quickly saying their names, where they are from and what they did before coming to university. The lecturer was friendly but asked us all to be quick. The word ‘quick’ set off inexplicable panic within me. He said, “make sure you are ready to speak when the previous person finishes, so we can move quickly through the class”. How can something as simple as introducing oneself to one’s peers cause panic? I have been getting up in front of audiences and telling jokes since I was 20. But this morning I couldn’t even complete a sentence.



So one by one, all these incredibly talented, confident students began introducing themselves in 10 seconds or less. It went like clockwork. It was like a wave. It started from the back and the wave of introductions worked its way down to the middle row, just behind me. I knew what I was going to say, “I’m Shravan from India and I used to be a journalist with Forbes Magazine”. The wave seemed to gain speed as it approached me. “I’m going to be clear,” I told myself, “I’m going to say this simple sentence.” I saw everyone’s eyes fixed on the speaker before me. Their gaze was kind but unerring. My heart began to beat fast. I can feel my heart beating fast even as I write this. The girl before me finished her introduction and suddenly everyone was looking at me. I breathed deeply but that’s when the tsunami took me. I was suddenly under-water. On one side was me, looking up at the surface at the class on the other side. It was like swimming in the sea and looking up at the birds circling above. I was disconnected from them. I wanted to speak but I was choking. My mind was with them but my mouth was filled with water.

I managed to splutter out the first part: I’m Shravan from…. My mind wanted to say ‘India’ but my mouth wouldn’t let me. I knew after years of stammering that the opening “I” in “India” was not going to happen so I quickly switched to “Mumbai” and luckily the “M” was working so I was able to say it. So far so good. I was approaching sea-level. But then I began truly choking: my lungs filled up and was sinking again, spiralling downwards into the abyss of indecision. The problem was clear: I was caught between saying “I used to write for Forbes” and “I used to be a journalist”. My mind was thinking so unnecessarily far ahead. Is it too pompous to say Forbes? Would they judge me? At the core of my stammering is insecurity. It is insecurity about being wrong, about being disliked and about dismissed. My dad and mum have both tried to help me with my stammer and what I’ve come to realise is that my stammer comes from two primary sources: indecisiveness about what I’m going to say and the deep insecurity I just mentioned. My dad showed me a technique where I need to say affirmations like “I have nothing to defend”. For a while, I used to say those affirmations but I don’t think I put my heart into them and I stopped trying. So I know that stammering is my fault and no one else’s. And in that lecture hall this morning, I really didn’t have anything to defend. I was just as justified in being in that room as anyone else. I shouldn’t have overanalysed my sentence. But I did and so here I was, swept under the wave of embarrassment.

I have this new tick where instead of s-s-s-stammering the start of the word, I try and find alternatives that I know I can say. If I’m unable to find those synonyms in that split second, then I cover my face and close my eyes as if I’m yearning deeply, strenuously for some long forgotten memory. And so that’s what I did. I spluttered and stuttered with uhhs and umms and errs and all the while I felt us, as a class, cringe collectively. We were all one body of young people, watching this guy trying to speak and willing him to finish. Stammering is an out-of-body experience because the cerebral part of you – the mind – is watching the nervous part of you (in every sense) flounder. Under the ocean, I was a Flounder.

My heart was racing, I was sweating. I hate my body for many reasons but prime among them is that it reacts so viscerally to the most fleeting misdemeanour. Finally, after what seemed like a life-time, I bit the bullet and tried to say “journalist”. Just one word. I was forcing through the “j” and so I stammered. J-j-j-journalist. I opened my eyes as if to let everyone know that I was back from the depths of meek misadventure and they class could move on.

And the class did move on. They rattled off their intros like a well-oiled machine. The lecturer thanked the class and rained platitudes on us about how amazing and diverse we all were. He then continued with his lecture. But I was left there, stewing in my own self-pity. Why can’t I speak! Why can’t I talk! I just want to talk normally like everyone. If you wake up in the morning and your mouth says what your mind tells it to, then I truly envy you.

This is what all my friends say: “but Shravan we can hardly notice it – I think it’s completely gone!” Maybe it doesn’t manifest itself as such a big deal to others around me. For everyone else in the lecture hall that morning, it was 10 seconds of some guy who doesn’t have his shit together. For me, it’s all I can think about for hours. The shame and humiliation of not being able to do something that everyone else does naturally. Let’s be clear: I don’t consider this a disability worthy of anyone’s pity and my life has been granted obscene privilege - my health, loving family, friends, money, education and Level 82 Gyarados. I always question how much of my stammer is simply being ill-prepared and how much is an actual mental disability. I err with the former because for the majority of the time, I’m able to speak pretty well.

And there are three occasions when I speak absolutely flawlessly: When I’m with a girl, when I’m drinking and when I’m doing stand-up. When I was dating my last girlfriend, she told me that I literally never stammered around her. I felt so comfortable, accepted and respected that I didn’t have anything to defend or prove. But I have to be able to excel without constant adulation from someone else. When I’m in party-mode and a few drinks down, I feel confident and spontaneous. I trust my lips to carry out the orders issued by my wits. But while alcohol gives me temporary eloquence, it has also given me the worst experiences of my life when I’ve had too much. The last one – when I’m telling jokes and performing for people – is the most interesting case and something I’ll try to do more research on.  

Over the years I’ve sought help from various people, including a hypnotherapist (which you can read about in a piece I wrote when I was 18). I’ve never been able to pin-point why I stammer, but recently I got some good advice on how to over-come it. We had a workshop in public speaking at my university and the instructor told me to approach everything like I was about to do a gig. I should psyche myself up like I’m about to entertain an audience because then I don’t think about speaking. It does work. But it can also feel forced. Do I always need to be in “please like me” performer mode – even when I’m with my friends? I can’t keep that up.

I’ve also never been in a situation in the workplace where I’ve been unable to do a task because of my stammer. If I need to speak to someone important, I make sure I’ve backed myself with all the knowledge I can get and then trust in the fact that I’m coming from a good place of genuineness and sincerity. I just can’t figure out why it’s become so bad at university. I feel like I belong here. I felt like I belonged in that class.

It’s funny actually because I actually didn’t belong in that class. I ended up dropping that course because it was way, way too easy for me. All that drama for nothing. At least I have my Level 82 Gyarados.


Monday, July 18, 2016

Another Window

And so I find myself at another window. Another apartment. Another beautiful night sky. Another evening sitting staring out at it alone. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve had to relocate and realign over the past two years. Bombay, Hamburg, New Haven and now Jerusalem. Soon, New Haven again and after that, who knows? The only constant is change. Isn’t this the life I fantasised about?



Growing up, we would move country every few years. Packing and unpacking our lives across continents was a given. We didn’t know any other way. I remember being woken gently for a 4am flight. The distant lights from the corridor were warm and filled with the muffled chatter of mum and dad planning our latest exodus. The movers had already whisked away our home, box by box. Shambhavi and I would be bundled into a taxi after a cup of tea, still half asleep but safe beneath the tender blanket of excitement. It was blanket excitement. The new flight, the new food, the new school, the new food, the new weather, the new TV, the new food and the new food. India, Singapore, London, Hong Kong and back to India – all before I was 13. We just went with it. It was the 90s. We were expats. The company would take care of mum and dad and they would take care of us. Everything was handed to us. We had the most charmed childhood. I went to university in England and Germany at 17 before moving back to Bombay at 21. But even university was organised by someone else. I was traveling again – this time mostly alone – but I didn’t question anything. I was meant to travel. You’re meant to go to university abroad. Last year I spent summer in Hamburg before heading to America for university. It was what I’d wanted: to get out of India.

I am out of India. I am in Israel. What the hell am I doing here? It’s the first time I’ve asked myself. Why am I in yet another country? Another consulate. Another visa in my passport. Another lonely, tired trek to the airport. Another long flight. Another sales pitch to a tired immigration officer, explaining why this Indian kid is here. Do I even know myself? Yes, I am here to do an internship to save the world. OK. But where has the excitement gone? There’s no warm light from the corridor. There’s my iPhone alarm. I have to turn the light on and make tea. I have to meet a stranger outside an Airbnb and get my house-keys. There’s no taxi driver with our surname on a placard. I’m not an expat. I realise how ungrateful I sound. People live their whole lives without moving around half as much as I have. Most people would give an arm and a leg to have seen so much of the world. I’m not sad about that. Most people would love to look out this big beautiful window into this amazing city. I just wish there was someone else here to look out with me. “Go outside and meet people,” I hear you say. I don’t want new friends. I have plenty of friends. My best friends are scattered all over the world. I have two sets of best friends. One from university in England, who are scattered across Europe. One from high school in India, who are scattered further still. Whatsapp is my best friend now. Maybe there will be a new set of best friends from my time in America. Another Whatsapp group. Another set of friends I’ll lose to this big world. People say the world is getting smaller. I think we are just getting more used to how big it is.

I met a girl called Lexy recently who was someone I would never usually have met. She was an au-pair taking care of our family-friends’ children in New York. I spent a month with them and I remember her reaction to my life story. She has lived in the US her whole life. She hasn’t left the country, as far as I’m aware. She’s a lovely, caring, feisty young woman who I’ll never speak to again. She’s my age but her experiences and world-view are so unimaginably different to mine. Usually when I tell someone my life story, they react with awe and envy. Wow you’ve moved around – so lucky! She was the first person who ever said, “Why did you move around so much? That must have been hard.” She felt sorry for me. It made me think. How much are we supposed to move around? We, molly-coddled, 3rd world children with 1st world problems, too good for our own country but not good enough for others, ungrateful dilettantes. My mum quipped over Skype, to my terror, that 25 was the age that my dad’s nesting instinct kicked in and he began to settle down. Settle down? Could it be so soon? I always fantasised about spending my 20s gallivanting around the world, seducing outrageously beautiful women and making money. But now the only girl I want is far away and things are weird (but that is a story for another blog) and more than money, I want to make a difference. Or, I want to make enough money such that I can make a difference.

In my current internship, I’m making a difference and I love it. If I am successful, I will help put together a deal that will generate solar electricity for 700,000 people in one of the world’s poorest countries where only 2% of people have electricity. Imagine them complaining about this kind of nonsense. What do they complain about? In India, the poverty that adorned my surroundings fortified me with perspective. Here, the lives of those 700,000 people are the perspective I cling to.

The laundromat ate my $5 today. Isn’t that expensive for a washing machine? It only takes specific coins and I lost my coins to the chasm of futile detergent. I went to three nearby shops to ask for change for my notes and they all declined in various degrees of rudeness. So I walked around town like an idiot, holding a green tub of Ariel detergent in one hand and my pride in the other. Another set of new institutions to get used to. Another integrated, end-to-end, cloud-based, cleanliness consultant and laundry solution. Another supermarket. Another commute. Another barber. Another housemate to appease. But the 700,000 are not complaining about this stuff so I can’t either.

I never questioned my innate path in life – my serial ability to find myself by another window. But I think I will start now. Is it worth it? It is worth it for another set of anothers? Another set of friends to make. Another evening having to introduce myself to new people and prattle on with the onerous task of recounting my spectacularly self-involved life story and trying to paint myself as a good person who deserves sympathy and admiration. Another SIM card. Another triumphant Facebook status, outlining where in the world I am. Another double bed filled with a single guy.

I apologise for my incoherence. I have no answers – only the 700,000 and their unimaginably different set of questions. Another time, then.


Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Book of Michael

Americans are the friendliest people. You make eye-contact for more than three seconds and boom: in, they jump.

“Hi, I’m Mike. I’ll be your neighbour on this flight,” said Mike, my neighbour on the flight. Neighbours on flights can tricky: either it’s uncomfortable because you don’t say a word to each other for hours even though you elbow each other more than Maroune Fellaini at rush hour. Or, you get one of AMC’s “The Talking Dead” who will not shut up. Finding the perfect balance is rare: someone who knows when to flit in and out of conversation as your both your moods see fit. I call these people “soul-mates”. Mike was a talker. And he wanted to spread his message: the teachings of Jesus Christ.  
Mike was on some sort of Christian bible tour of Israel. Our flight to Tel Aviv from JFK would take 10 hours. He started off harmlessly enough, asking about me and what I do. I told him I was headed to Israel to do a summer internship at a solar energy company. Then I asked him about what he did and he mentioned that a group of 10 of them from their church-group were going to visit all the holy sites in Israel. Mike was in his early 40s and spoke softly but with great conviction. After we exchanged introductions, he got down to business.

“So are you interested in religion?”
“Not really,” I said, “I’m not very religious.”
“But do you know about them? You must know about them. What religion are you?”

To his credit, he had already probed me about renewable energy and my plans in Israel. But now we had come down to brass tacks. This was his domain. This was the Game 1 of the Middle-Eastern Conference Finals and he had home court advantage. We were going to do this.

“I guess I was born Hindu, but I’m not religious,” I reaffirmed, my previously dormant atheism now yawning into life.
“Well, all the world religions say that there is going to be a saviour who will come to fix all the world’s problems. What does Hinduism say about it?”

Having spent the last few weeks reading Amartya Sen’s masterpiece “The Argumentative Indian” to try and figure out why my country is the way it is, I took a stab at some sort of answer about reincarnation and had little clue what Hinduism’s end-game was, other than all of us being enlightened enough to know how girls work. He wasn’t convinced. While he was polite and magnanimous when talking about other religions, his knowledge of them, for someone who claimed to be all about that life, was starting to strike me as scratchy.

The conversation moved – of course – to the Israel Palestine conflict and how it was all down to religion. I disagreed, arguing there were many issues that keep it going. He kept starting every sentence with “if you read the Bible, it says that…” and each time I didn’t have the heart or the will to counter with the notion that we need not take everything in the Holy books literally. But that was against my policy of not antagonising religious people, like a lot of atheists do for no apparent reason. I even threw in a few “hey, science doesn’t (yet) have all the answers” to ease the swelling furrow in his brow. Eventually we reached the grand question of why is the world so shitty and how we fix it. We don’t, explained Mike. Jesus will.

“We [his sect of Christianity] believe that Jesus Christ will return and save us and make everything perfect. No war, no suffering. Other religions believe in a saviour too. That’s why there will be a conflict. The Jews will not accept the Messiah. We don’t know when he will appear.”

The atheism inside me now went from groaning to growling. A tepid self-righteousness began to warm - filling me with eloquence I didn’t know I had. I must have sounded unbearably pretentious.

“Well, Mike, I have had a great and privileged life and I can afford to sit around and wait for the Messiah. But I come from a very poor country where most people cannot afford to sit around and wait because their child could die of starvation tomorrow. (Jah will not provide.) I have a duty and an obligation to do what I can to improve their lives today. If I can help build some solar plants to delivery energy and cut down on coal emissions, then that’s what I’ll do. I can afford to sit around and wait for the Messiah, but I won’t because they can’t.”

Mike had lost Game 1 of the Middle-Eastern Conference Finals. The conversation was amicable and we both did our best to make the other person’s viewpoint feel valued. But it had run its course and after a few “hey well you know, what you gonna do’s” from either side, we popped in our earphones and settled into our in-flight movies.

Disaster.

10-hour flight and the sound on my in-flight entertainment system doesn’t work. I tried changing the ear phones. I tried fiddling with the audio levels. Nothing. I was doomed. The flight was absolutely packed. I asked the flight attendant if I could move and instead of helping me, she said I could move if I found a free seat. Now begins one of the most awkward interactions you’re likely to face unless you’re a hot girl: going up to people on flights who have prized empty seats next to them and asking if you can sit there.

The first guy was some tall, blond dickhead who had moved to the empty back row (that doesn’t recline much) to stretch his giant legs. He was sat in the middle of the three seats, with his bag on the seat left of him and his giant horse legs in the space on the seat to the right. He was taking up an entire row.

“Excuse, may I take one of these seats next to you?”
“Uhhh, why?”
“My audio isn’t working.”
“Uhhh only if it’s necessary and you can’t find another one.”
“Ummm….”
“I moved here from my seat, 41F, go sit there.”
“OK, thanks.”

I went to 41F, there was a family sat in that row and I wasn’t about to evict them. I went back to fuckface backbencher to plead my case. Audio-less on a 10-hour flight? What am I going to do, read a book? Fuckface backbencher had, in those 5 minutes, laid down sideways across the entire row and gone to sleep. Fucking fuckface.

I saw another empty looking seat. This time, a friendly looking girl stood in my way.
“Excuse me, is this seat taken? May I sit here?”

Her “Uhhhh why?” had even more disgust than the other guy. I explained my case. She did the smart thing by saying, “I don’t know, ask the lady on the other end of the row if it’s OK. I think her kids are coming to sit there.” Again, going all the way around to the other side of the row was not going to happen.

I went back to my seat, rather dejected. Would I have to talk to Mike about why bad things happen to good people because it’s all God’s divine plan?

And then something happened that I will not forget.

“Do you want to swap seats with me? I don’t really want to watch these movies” said Mike. It would have meant he would be separate from the lady sat next to him who he knew and who I assume was his wife. The compassion of the Christ. Of all the people on this Godforsaken flight, it was him that offered to swap seats without thinking twice. I declined sheepishly and spent the flight watching foreign language movies with English subtitles. It was actually rather nice to give my ears a rest. I watched a great Mexican film called Güeros and a nice Chinese documentary called My Life in China with an awful, misogynistic Parisian romp called Nos Femmes sandwiched in between.

This isn’t some parable for how the religious guy turned out to be right in the end or any of that. It was just a nice, surprising turn of events that lead me question how we think about strangers and the judgements we form based on our initial impressions.

I go some sleep. I chatted some more to Mike about religion, India, Israel and more. This time, I wasn’t looking to score any more points. I conceded the Middle-Eastern Conference Finals to him. And then Michael said that it was good. And then God made it good. And then it was good.


Friday, April 8, 2016

Storyteller


The scariest thing about growing up is realising that your family are just normal human beings. They are flawed. They seem more and more imperfect, the older you get. And yet they love you unconditionally and in that moment you remember what family means.

My Dadima was a storyteller. She wanted nothing more than an audience and I humoured her. I suppose it’s true for many of the elderly but boy did she have stories. Of all my four grandparents, she was the most talkative. She would spend all afternoon reading her books and her newspaper and all evening explaining the ways of the world to me. I lived with her for a few months when I first moved to Bombay in 2012. She was in fine form. The saddest thing about the cancer than eventually took her way was that it silenced her. There are few tragedies more heart-breaking than a storyteller silenced. She lost the ability to speak and my world lost a familiar voice. Let us not deify her – I don’t think she would have wanted that. She was not perfect. If I may be so bold, I want to tell a few stories of my own.

She grew up in a different time. She was 11 when India gained independence from the British Empire. She really really didn’t like the British. She didn’t much care for white people in general, from what I could gather – they were all out to get her. She was a deeply proud Indian and I think she carried the pain of colonial oppression with her. She was proud of being Indian. But she was prouder still of her Hindu identity and I think that that identity freed her from the tendrils of modern history. She could lose herself in the greatness of the ancient scriptures, cosy in the knowledge that it pre-dated these blood-thirsty Europeans by thousands of years. She danced between Hindu philosophy and myth in a way that mesmerized us as children, laying on the sofa-bed in our Bandra house and watching the purple night sky saunter heavily on outside. The night sky from that Bandra house – her home for the better part of 50 years – was lit so beautifully by our imaginations. It was a worthy canvas and I can’t begin to say how thankful I am for that giant window in the living room that let the night sky roll in every evening. She would never miss a chance to explain to us how this God built this and that Goddess said that and every story would end with some mere mortal understanding his inescapable finiteness and “falling at the feet of Lord ______”. If the guy didn’t fall at the God’s feet, it wasn’t the end of the story. I couldn’t separate the myth from the metaphor and I dismissed them all as fairy tales. I’m not going to say I’ve had a change of heart now. I’m simply saying that as a storyteller, she enchanted us with the majesty of Indian mythology – as only a grandmother can. We didn’t ask questions or fall asleep. We just gave her an audience.

Dadima always reminded us spoilt, foreign-educated kids who we were and where we came from. She would make it a point to sit us down and tell us about the village she came from and how she raised my dad after moving to the city. She came from romantic poverty – at least that’s how she made it seem. Life in the village was crossing rivers to get to school and drying tamarind in the summer. The childhood she told me about, was about seeking and striving for an education. She and her two siblings would study by kerosene lantern. Listening to her talk about the value of an education was more humbling than inspiring. To get out of the village, you had to study and learn to read and write and learn to love languages and learn to love learning. She told me how much she loved learning English (without loving the English) and how empowered she felt with it by her side. She told me how when she went for a job interview (at the bank where she would eventually spend her career at in Mumba), she carried an Oscar Wilde book. She didn’t even understand all of it, but the bank manager was impressed by her ambition. She told me about the bank manager, a Parsi gentleman, who was an eminent womanizer and whose charm crashed hopelessly against the folds of her sari. She would remember these kinds of things. Who wouldn’t be impressed by a candidate carrying an Oscar Wilde book to an interview, even today? Maybe some things never change. She showed me what it is to love the English language. She showed me its power and its beauty. She loved languages and spoke so many, so effortlessly. It is one of my deepest insecurities that I cannot speak an Indian language anywhere near as well as she spoke about 6 of them. “Once you learn one of the four South-Indian languages, you can learn them all.” She found comfort in Kannada poetry. She eulogized about a Kannada poet and teacher she had in high school. She loved the nuns who taught at her convent school, despite being Christians. She’d give out rationed bursts of begrudging love from time to time.

She was clear about the way things were and they were as she understood them. She would say things like, “I was never beautiful, but I worked hard.” What a thing to say! I was never beautiful? She was always apologising for herself like that. Here was a mother who woke up at 5am to cook food for the family's breakfasts and lunches before taking the train to work, working a full day, managing the children in the evening and making dinner by the time my granddad got home. These days she apologises for other things.

“Sorry, I didn’t make any non-vegetarian food.”

At the cancer ward (after her successful surgery) when she was weak and unable to move, she saw me looking at her with sadness and said, “Sorry you have to see me like this.” She found the time to apologise to bystanders for having cancer.

She loved singing and music and chanting her bhajjans and putting coconut oil in our hair on Sunday mornings. She would make us her trademark yellow dosas and chai using utensils given to her as wedding presents 50 years ago. She was someone who didn’t throw away the plastic cutlery that comes with home-delivered Chinese food. She would wash and reuse them. “Why should we throw them? We can use them.” And they will sit, unused, for another 50 years.

I’m glad she remained sharp of mind until the end. When I was leaving Bombay in January, she asked me to sit next to her on the bed and kissed me and said “I love you”. She would sing to us in Konkani about love all through our childhoods but she had never said those three words. I knew then that she was ready. She had checked out of the hotel. When her voice began failing, maybe she thought her story was told. I wish I had recorded her stories when she was alive. I told her to write them down but I don’t think she told stories to document them. I think she told them because she loved doing it. She loved holding an audience as I hope I’ve held you. So here’s to her, the storyteller never silenced.





Friday, September 25, 2015

The America Jon Stewart Forgot

The America Jon Stewart Forgot

Every day at work for the last three years, while I ate my lunch, I would watch Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. He’s what I want to be: a bridge between laughter and reflection, between awareness and action, between the wisdom of adulthood and youth’s naïve optimism. And yet because Jon Stewart holds America to such high standards (standards America should perhaps hold itself to more often), his brand of parody emphasises America’s shortcomings. Watching Jon Stewart, Bill Maher and other comedians has jaundiced my view of this great country.

I’ve been in America for exactly a month and my friends always ask me “so how is Yale?”

Yale is everything you’d imagine: unequivocally, unapologetically Ivy League. It is grand: the gym looks like a cathedral and the resources available are staggering. Do you want to bring in a guest speaker to augment with group work? Here’s $1,000. Do you want to spend the summer in Ukraine working on energy policy? Here’s a blank cheque. But that’s not what captivates me about this place. On 55 Hillhouse Avenue (that Hemingway and Dickens called the ‘most beautiful street in America’) sit a group of young people who fill me with more inspiration than all the regal courtyards we walk through every day. They are my classmates at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and the best thing about Yale (and my life right now) is that I get to sit with them.

They are the America Jon Stewart forgot. They are 30 men and women from around the world who have good in their hearts and steel in their veins. I am hesitant to say “we” because I am still figuring out my place within this tribe. My biggest goal and erstwhile challenge is to shut up. Shut up and listen. What I love about my class – and particularly the Americans who anchor it – is their will to go out into the world and improve things. It is something that as a journalist, you come to admire – as a writer I am at best an advocate, at worst an armchair activist. But my classmates left Ohio and New Jersey and Texas with that same naïve optimism (that Jon ought to recapture) and built things.

My classmates are the America you don’t see in the news: the America that wants to be an international force because it feels it has a duty to ameliorate. An America self-aware and confident enough in its virtues that it ventures back into Iraq and Afghanistan and Benin and Rwanda simply because it feels it has the capability to amend. They are army officers supremely cognizant of their misadventures and fearless enough to go back and fix things; fearless enough not to give up. They are the Peace Corps volunteers who build schools and hospitals and help young atheists become more tolerant of the religious. “Libya? I’ll go there. Kosovo? I’ll go there. You can stay in London and go to warehouse parties or continue working for your dad’s company in Bombay. Enjoy your weekend trip to Bangkok. I’m going to South Africa to work on an anti-AIDS project.”

The Americans I’ve met here have a profound, unerring will to learn about and improve the world. From my own limited experience, Europeans seem happy with enjoying their lives and finding the beauty in things (nothing wrong with that) while Asians want to secure prosperity for their families, their clans and their countries (in that order). But the Americans here, the ones that Jon pays scant credence to, are going to venture forth and do their best, armed with bags of money and hearts of gold. The international students in my class are no less impressive or loveable. The Russian, who has inserted himself into the lion’s star-spangled den, finds his proud nation repeatedly critiqued by the world’s most august historians and responds with a measured candour we should all aspire to. The Chinese approaches problems (and opinions) with the understated sincerity that has driven his economy’s logical resurgence.

You know when you see horrible news on TV? When you forfeit hope? These people stop you in your tracks. They will not stand for it. It is really quite incredible.

Everyone brings something unique to the table. You see someone struggling through economics lecture in the morning. But in the afternoon, he’s knee deep in Hannah Arendt while you’re still figuring out what “The Banality of Evil” actually means. It is sobering and intoxicating at the same time: we’ve all begun this journey together and we have no idea who or where we’ll be two years from now.

I’ve found myself changing too. Yale is a petri dish for studying one’s plunge into mediocrity. This is where learning to shut up comes in handy. As a result, I’ve had to push myself and challenge myself more than ever before; I naively thought that getting into grad school would be the toughest part (working full time while also studying for GREs and putting together solid applications) and then things would get easier. But grad school is harder. It’s a relentless avalanche of duties and here’s the problem: They are duties to yourself. If you slack, you lose. Not your parent, not your employer. The undergraduate zeal for finding the path of least resistance is quickly disappearing. Procrastination is the last vestibule of a crumbling empire. There are days when you do calculus for five hours and then come home to an hour of German homework and two hours of marking undergraduates’ homework. I find solace, on evenings of mental maelstrom, in America’s single greatest export bar none: Miles Davis. An hour of jazz and I’m ready to go again. Between Miles and Jon, I’m good.

Yale is a bigger catalyst for self-improvement than any “90-day weight loss program” or stupidly titled paperback. Every junction pushes you to dig deeper and find something within yourself you didn’t know you had. I wrote a book review the other day that, I think, is some of my best writing. Why? I had spent a week reading the most compelling memoir I’ve come across: William J Shirer’s “Nightmare Years”. For me, reading a 600 page novel used to be a once-a-year event; my first month at Yale requires that I fill my mind with the words of genii every week. 600 pages worth. I can feel myself getting smarter, I just hope I don’t try to act smarter too.

Today I attended a classical music recital out of my own volition – something I’d never have done a few years (or months) ago.



As the pipes of the grand organ tower above you in Woolsey Hall, you suddenly understand the immortal power of a symphony orchestra. The double basses rumble in the deep, like clouds of war gathering ominously in the horizon, tempered only by the playful violins chirping feminine messages of defiant happiness. And when the brass section bellows into earshot, you feel the energy in the room suddenly pick up. It’s a gravity that wasn’t there before – a gravity that only live music can emote out of thin air. It’s the ultimate team sport. It is raw, ethereal compulsion, summoned at the fingertips of musicians who have mastered their craft. Yale had opened my mind to experiencing the beauty of this sonic drama. I was happy I went. The tickets were free (because of course they were free) but I had overcome the inertia that had stymied my intellectual curiosity in the past. In one month, Yale has changed me.

If I were to leave you with one message it would be this: try to find your tribe. My parents, in the last ten years, seem to have found theirs and they are happier for it. I think I have found a community where I can just shut up and absorb the ideas that optimism and rigour churn out. I hope you are, at whatever level, able to find yours. I hope you’re able to find a group of people who have similar ideas about finding (and creating) and happiness. It is like being part of a team. It is comforting and motivating in equal measure: you know your peers will keep you honest and vault you to creativity when need be.

Look at me: the temerity to lecture Jon Stewart on America! Take a plunge into naïveté with me and you may also find a better version of yourself. “How is Yale?” Yale is good man, Yale is good.