"It was the only time in my life when I sat and crossed out day by day how many days were left before I could return to the normal world."
Those are the thoughts of Ratan Tata, India's great business tycoon, about his initial days at Harvard University (the Harvard Business School). It has been a week since I started school at Harvard and though my feelings are not as extreme and intense as Tata's, I can still relate to his emotions. The phrase "normal world" is paramount. At an institution as extraordinary as this, the concept of normalcy is mercilessly crushed under the galloping feet of talent, ambition and intelligence. It's like comparing what's normal for the bedroom mirror of Hrithik Roshan or Arnold Schwarzenegger to what's normal for us lesser mortals' mirrors. Thus it is never surprising to come across an Indian student finding themselves completely out of place at a foreign university, or even "confused and humiliated" like Tata felt at Harvard decades ago. After all, there's a wonderful history of some of our national stalwarts having to slog it out in foreign lands in their youth, including Mahatma Gandhi himself. But then, students like me could be among the last in that historically long list of "confused desis"—the new crop of Indian kids sure looks much more confident, assertive and eloquent.
I saw people around me opening up and talking fluently at length, but I couldn't (still can't) go beyond a few sentences.
Thankfully, Indian parents these days are quite cool about kids going abroad as against the times of Gandhi, when he had to take a solemn vow not to touch "wine, women and meat" to appease his religious mother - something which he at age 19, surprisingly and admirably, actually adhered to. [All references to Gandhi are from An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth.] Today, parents are more like "do it safely" rather than "don't do it." But still, there are numerous similarities between the experiences of the Western world that Gandhi had then, and which many Indian students have now. For example, he was told by an Indian acquaintance in England to "never address people as 'sir' as we do in India." More than a century later, we still are the same and the advice still holds (especially with respect to university faculty).
Just as it was for Gandhi then, the process of reading and understanding a restaurant menu in the West is exhausting and painful even now. The first time at a Starbucks in the US, a friend and I ended up ordering an unexpectedly bitter, black, milk-less coffee because we just couldn't wrap our heads around the menu items, and didn't know that they actually had milk jugs up there. We should have asked, but then we were too shy—reminiscent of the famous incident at Pietermaritzburg where Gandhi, having had himself thrown out of a train, was too afraid of being ridiculed again to ask the station master for his overcoat during that terribly cold night.
Post-Slumdog Millionaire we may have become a little less uncomfortable talking about our country's damning dark realities, but still there are Indian students who prefer to shirk mention of embarrassing Indian truths in conversations with foreign students. Gandhi too did the same initially, long before he became the Prophet of Truth as the world knows him to be: despite being married as a child at 13 and having even fathered a baby, he lied to people in London that he was a bachelor.
I learnt that preserving your own unique identity is very important in a big university, where you tend to get bogged down and overwhelmed by everything and everyone...
Then there is the issue of many Indians being shy and fumbling in conversations, which is especially disadvantageous in the US where being assertive and "blowing one's trumpet" are far more common than back home. That's something I've had to most work on. I can't express myself eloquently in my own tongue, let alone English, and here we were on the very first day of school being asked to "start conversations" with fellow students (who are all awesome, and hail from the US and 60 other countries). I mostly screwed it up. I saw people around me opening up and talking fluently at length, but I couldn't (still can't) go beyond a few sentences. To make things more awkward, I would forget the names of people I had just met. The initial days were, all in all, agonising—the same "confused" feeling that Ratan Tata described. There were also times when I wondered if my school-mates, illustrious as they are, found anything even remotely bright about me.
But then, finally, things started getting better. I stopped worrying and began, as they say, just "being myself." I learnt that preserving your own unique identity is very important in a big university, where you tend to get bogged down and overwhelmed by everything and everyone around you. It is tough initially to adapt, but one need not lose heart. Whenever things start getting terrible, one must remember that the Britain which once overwhelmed Gandhi, later made one of cinema's greatest biopics taking his life as the focus (Richard Attenborough's Gandhi), and the Harvard Business School that once confounded Ratan Tata, later erected the imposing Tata Hall using money he himself generously donated.
This piece first appeared in the author's personal blog in August 2014.