Despair that Wasn’t, courtesy ISI @ Boston

“…how miserable my life is. A man lives his life, and then he falls apart and soon there is nothing left. Ka felt as if half his soul had just abandoned him but still the other half remained; he still had love in him. Like a snowflake, he would fall as he was meant to fall; he would devote himself heart and soul to the melancholy course on which his mind was set. His father had a certain smell after shaving, and now this smell came back to him. He thought of his mother making breakfast,  her feet aching inside the slippers on a cold kitchen floor; he had a vision of a hairbrush; he remembered his mother giving him sugary pink syrup when he woke up coughing in the night, he felt the spoon in his mouth, and as he gave his mind over to all the other little things that make up a life and realized how they all added up to a unified whole, he saw a snowflake…”

Thus went Snow by Orhan Pamuk. The blame for wanting a vacation where I would let despair destroy me is on Pamuk. My share is a desire for drama which culminated in a plan to dramatize sorrow: all alone in an unknown city (called Boston) with a house to myself to allow profound grief of being an immigrant embrace me. I would let every memory of the life left behind, the fragrances, the colors, all of that and more, to surface and acknowledge that Life is trying to become harsh. There was the feeling of being adrift, of everything I valued being in India, that I wanted to do justice to. All I needed was solitude. That, and Boston also had Snow. Them feels!

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The catch: in sync with my Life not conforming to plans, for all the desire for despair, grief or even solitude, I barely had time to clock 7 hours of sleep. There was not even one day when I was by myself engaging philosophically with the meaning of life, romantic love or the lack of it. What transpired was reliving the Indian Statistical Institute days: the tomfoolery of real and fictional love stories, their resilience and ephemerality, generous helpings of Indian politics with a pinch of Boston thrown in here and there.

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Quick recap. Traumatic months post arrival in America: Indian politics and quality of life here resulting in Mariana trench of human emotions. Winter break ahead. No plans for a holiday. Is this really me?! Where do I go? Two friends in succession reveal Boston to be their favorite American city. I plan to make a plan – reach out to fellow ISI folks asking who is at Boston. Receive contact. Text to let him know of my plans and if he would want to meet. He says he would be leaving for India a day after my arrival so I could crash at his place for as long as I want. A five day get-away became a 20 day holiday. Profound grief would need time. Perfect!

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I arrive at Boston airport. I meet my host and he informs that while he is leaving, there are others from ISI who will be around and I met the protagonists of this holiday. The very first night, 2 movies and a web series back to back, of which one movie was Gumnaam, a 1968 bollywood thriller, and as someone later commented, a time when physics was not even “invented” in bollywood, forget gravity. This introductory night and I could see Wodehouse emerge as the “ruling planet” of my Life, yet again. So much for tragic “despair destroying me”!

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The one day that my official host was around, like a good host he took me around Harvard and MIT. Then he left. My mother was paranoid about me being alone in someone else’s house. I have not yet resolved whether the paranoia was for my well-being or the house’s. I would put my money on the latter, but with mothers you never know. After my host left, like a good Jawaharlal Nehru University student, I went to Harvard yet again, to join the protests against Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens and…(basically all that). This holiday was going insane! Participating in protests here in America when they apparently heaved a sigh of relief at my leaving JNU! Who would have thought? Standing up for your beliefs, if you did not learn this then what did you do at JNU?

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Ok then. Maybe now we (my soul and I) should sulk. O, but I haven’t watched Sacred Games. And the house comes with a couch and TV equipped with Netflix and Prime subscriptions that belonged to I-don’t-know-who. Whoever you are, may you find true love and having found it, may you retain it. So next two days #SacredGames and movies spanning the decade! Third day: let’s give Boston a chance? Let’s at least step out of the house. Off we go to the Museum of Fine Arts on a Wednesday when I have a headache with all the binge watching but its Wednesday and there’s free entry in MFA. The top floor of the museum: “Women Take The Floor”, basically an attempt to right historical wrongs. The museum asks if you can name five female artists. In the museum’s own words, “Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment giving American women the right to vote, we are dedicating this entire floor to work by women-identified artists active in the Americas during the last century.” Boston’s definitely woke.

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Now begins the ISI-reunion. The folks are done with their submissions and everyone is in holiday mood. Evening 1: Food, drinks, random walks and intense debates over Indian politics while someone somewhere is playing Coke Studio and then moving to greater heights in choice of music. On another fine day, we head out for a hike to Blue Hills. I had thought that the local folks would have taken the snow into account but apparently they hadn’t. They were as surprised to find the entire trail covered in snow-turned-to-ice-and-slippery-as-hell as I was. Trust the ISI males to not have worldly relevant information! Their defense: we came last year and there was no snow. That it snowed two days ago was not a data point you ought to have considered, of course! But do not underestimate the power of folks giving their life to social science research to deal with setbacks. This was nothing. We marched on – avoiding the white (of the snow), searching for the brown (of fallen foliage)! O and we did catch up on break ups. Seven year hurdle seems to be a thing. It was only after all three of us had spoken about life and relationships that we realized upon meeting a friend of one of us that his breakup story was a result of peer pressure! His friend enlightened us on his supposed love interest not even being aware that he was in a relationship with her in college. The nail in the coffin of his one-sided love affair with the woman of his life (in his dreams) #EngineerWoes! Who would have thought that the competitive Indian education system drives us to a point where when you hear two people narrating their break-up stories, you decide to chime in with one of yours! (Do I need to add a disclaimer about my exaggerations here in diminishing the status of his relationship!)

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Anyway, life moved on, a bucket list of movies watched, BJP lost elections in Jharkhand, of the friends I had invited to Boston one turned up, so I was now officially hosting others(!), our conversations continued along familiar lines of food, love and politics. On one afternoon we broke down the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens problem in India as: suppose the Indian government is a benevolent social planner; then CAA and NRC, individually and taken together, must be the optimal policy response to some problem. Let us identify the problem and see if it is indeed the optimal and only possible optimal outcome. The details of this long discussion is beyond the scope of current discussion but notice that students take their theories, training and politics seriously. What else does the nation want?

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Amidst all this there were long and random walks around downtown: Copley Square, Boston Commons, Harbor and Brattle Book Shop. Those random walks! Get off at Park Street with the intention of finally doing the Freedom Walk; my feet take me towards Brattle Book Store instead. After a considerable amount of time spent with books, move towards the Harbor. Walk beyond the Boston Tea Party museum, choose a spot with a view to continue reading Snow. Don’t at all relate with the grief and misery of the narrator, be cold to the bones, get up and walk back towards Government Centre. Walk through Boston Commons and admire the beauty of capitalism as you walk past the homeless sleeping on the steps of Arlington street church standing tall next to Burberry and Tiffany and Co. stores! Walk past all that to arrive at Copley Square and walk beyond to reach Kendall and then take a bus home! Those long walks with beautiful sunsets!

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The tomfoolery of the company I was in cannot be ignored. ISI folks lived two houses down the road. For the benefit of those who were spared ISI, it lives on the principle of a family that eats together stays together. At ISI, the one hour of lunch and dinner was family gossip time. Who broke-up with whom, which professor said what, which senior did what. Continuing the tradition, years later, miles apart and spanning different batches, we did just that. And got onto each other’s nerves. One incident would suffice to give a flavor of what I was putting up with: We made plans of community-watching Ghost Stories. We start: equipped with spicy chanachoor and pop-corn. The show was pathetic. Two stories down I got up to go to the washroom. The lights had obviously been switched off (so much for horror feels). As I walked towards the washroom I noticed light coming from the kitchen and turned to see the microwave open. No sooner had I shut it did I realize that this would have given ideas, and the man, never to disappoint, started off with “but I had shut the microwave.” Ignoring this I went to the washroom and come out to find the house exactly as it was except man and woman both missing. Momentary shock followed by realization of the characters I was dealing with. I decided to call. Nobody answered. Minutes later received a call with a concerned why had I called so late at night, if I was ok and that they had been sleeping! So much for horror.

Next morning I noticed that they had left their tiffin with the chanachoor at my place, which they refused to acknowledge as their property till finally the curtains were drawn, not just on this drama, but also on my Boston vacation: it was my last day there, the decade had ended, a new one had begun. There was no Pamuk. Only Wodehouse! Lesson learnt: your past never leaves you. Commit the sin of being a part of wonderful organizations and they embed you in networks of wonderful people who will add the morning dew to your scorched patch! All of us at Boston had barely spoken to each other when at ISI, but that’s the beauty of ISI: it is all you need to get started on long trails of friendship, love and laughter!

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