Note: I had to edit this post. Some of the content was found to be deeply offensive to a dear friend. My generic commentary on the unambitious nature of the student community there was followed by my delight at discovering there were pearls in their midst. My regret that this discovery took place 40 years after the college experience did not seem to have convinced this person, nor would my friend accept my thesis that there are exceptions to the generalization as I subsequently discovered. I came across to her as snobbish and conceited. Were you the only person to go to this college unwillingly, she asks. Did you think you were the only person who liked to read and improve themselves? Life’s too short. So here goes with edits.
Meeting people who were part of your life when you were very young, after a very long time, is like watching a movie of yourself made on Super 8mm film that’s been dug from the mud and replayed. The film has not been preserved well but it runs. The images are jerky and grainy, the colour has not held true, and the cuts are abrupt wherever faulty film had to be cut out and spliced. Large portions are just grayed out.
And yet a picture emerges of yourself as you once were, perhaps as others saw you, and the self-awareness (if any) that you had at that time comes flooding back into memory. You wonder how that person then became the person you are now and how much of that person remains today.
Last week I attended the reunion of my undergraduate class. My undergraduate college was an unknown government institution in a small town. It was most unremarkable in every way. Admissions were not selective, so pretty much anyone who had scraped through the rather easy State Matriculation exams could get a place. There was no hoary academic history attached to the place or the institution, and that lack of history perpetuated itself into the present that I encountered. Rather, it appeared to be the kind of place to spend the minimum amount of time needed to acquire a BA degree which would make you eligible to take a government job as a clerk. Or, if you were a female student, until you got married. It was not a place for the academically ambitious.
I had rather imagined myself to be exactly that. I did not want to go to this college – I wanted to study at a prestigious engineering college with a tough entrance exam. Without much of the rigorous preparation that is needed for such exams, I went ahead and attempted the entrance test, with predictable results. My father told me he was not willing to countenance another attempt and I was told to go do this degree.
I was angry and resentful the moment I came into class the first day. I found myself in a class with some of the worst behaved youth I had ever come across. I felt as though none of them would share any of my interests in reading and such-like. It appeared as though most students did not aspire to anything more than doing the bare minimum to get a degree – I am sure exceptions existed, and invariably, these were amongst the poorest of students who were often the first to go to college in their families. Attendance in classes was an optional extra. The teachers for the most part reflected this approach to life – do the minimum, and check out for the rest of the day. And I would not blame them for adopting this strategy for one had to be a very brave person to insist on academic discipline.
The situation was not helped by the fact that my sister was in the same college. She happened to have been born in the United States and was a resident alien in India. That and the fact that she was quite good looking meant she was a target for abuse from the very first day. She was also quite aloof and that did not help. She was the subject of catcalls and abuse almost on a daily basis. Some of my classmates were participants.
I was unable to stop the abuse. Something that rankles to this day. A lot of girls in the college stoically withstood the abuse but my sister took it very hard. Some of my nicer classmates used to congregate around two of the culprits. My die was cast. I never associated with any of them socially. It did appear that there were aspirational students. I used to talk to people and interact in class but never outside. This pattern that I set in the very first year, combined with the resentment I felt at being in this place, meant that I had a very lonely three years. Since I had closed my mind to any form of experience I did not ask myself if there were other people there with similar feelings to mine. I mitigated that loneliness by learning to live within myself, by developing an inner life that has ended up so rich that sometimes I thank my stars for those years. When I finished my three year sentence I did not as much as stop to say goodbye to anyone. There were no farewells. I just moved on.
So how did I end up at this reunion nearly 40 years later? One of the two guys who used to catcall my sister became my classmate in business school. Apologies took place and we ended up friends. Over the years he visited us and we visited him. A year or so ago he put me in touch with all these people again and the culmination was what I attended this last weekend.
I met some amazing people. One girl was indeed someone who got a degree so that she could marry. But the marriage became a very difficult one because of the family she married into. So she walked out with her husband in tow, qualified in law and built a legal practice that is thriving. She looked after her husband during final stages of cancer. Another guy married the woman of his dreams but waited six years for her to get round to leaving her home for him. Another went to France, joined the army, toughed it out and made a life for himself there. Supremely happy man. Everyone seemed to have encountered adversity and overcome it.
Did I judge them too harshly then on their behavior? May be I did. All of us were unformed human beings then. If I was immature in passing out harsh judgements, then may be they were immature in their behavior. I think my judgement was the right one – there are lines that cannot be crossed. And yet they were kids too. Clearly most of them also had no choice in terms of which college to attend. They were either too poor, or not very well informed, or came from conservative families. I tested them all on my lofty standards and found all of them wanting.
The reunion was great. All of them were very kind and very nice to me. Despite the gulf of forty years we all connected and the years rolled away. I regret very much that I could not enrich my life in those years with the kind of thrills and escapades that young people have. At the same time I do not regret the reasons why I would not partake. But something was lost.
The picture I saw of myself over the weekend was this studious, bookish person who is a little uncomfortable with the ordinary. That I may actually be snobbish and elitist in my tastes. But then, that’s me. Everyone was affectionate, some more so than others. It was just a short reunion, and hence I do not think I got close to anyone but everyone knew me better than they did 40 years ago. And the stage is set for renewal and refreshment of old relationships. I can only wish all of them well and be a friend to them.
I saw that the anger and resentment I felt at that time was ultimately channeled into making something of myself – a steely determination that this was not what I was intended for. My lack of self confidence arose from other factors, mainly a domineering father. The anger mixed with genuine helplessness and a lack of self-confidence made me a very lonely person.
The years since have been very kind to me. Lots of friends, the opportunity to do interesting work, live in several countries, marry a good woman and have a lovely daughter. And I am known among friends as good company, a raconteur and entertainer. I have tried to be a good man.
I am very happy in my own skin. I learnt to be like that in order to deal with loneliness. I think its a huge gift from those years but I would not want to pay such a price again.