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Step 1: Do what your parents tell you to do. That much is obvious. You’re in high school and don’t know the first thing about responsibility. You prioritise football over exams. You spend your free time in dingy bars on Brigade Road, drinking watered-down whiskies and betting on the outcome of billiards matches. You enjoy smoking joints on top of water tanks, watching the stars and wondering which of your friends will be the next to die, the next to lose their virginity. Try to obey your father when he says it’s time to buckle down and concentrate on your studies.
Step 2: Prepare for the SATs. Go to the used-books store on Church Street and buy the Kaplan Strategies and Review textbook, complete with notes from previous users scribbled in the margins. Spend hours erasing those notes. Begin. No, don’t let your eyes glaze over. No, don’t read Calvin and Hobbes. No, don’t lock the door to your bedroom and watch porn. Remember the importance of this examination. It will help you secure a seat in a top-tier university (as long as you score above 1400). Read and answer questions with care. Ignore the unpleasant sensation in your stomach when you circle option C six times in a row. Wait for the inevitable sit-down when your father reviews your progress and declares you’re lacking in discipline. Because it’s discipline, or your blatant lack of it, that compels you to choose one option instead of another.
Sit with your father at the dining table and watch him fill in the squares of your calendar with tasks to accomplish, portioning away your time until there are no blank squares left. Try not to let your anger show. Try to behave when your father says that this is all for your own good. Hang the calendar above your desk. Resist the temptation to ball up the calendar and hurl it out the window at your idiot neighbour playing cricket downstairs. Doing so will only result in your idiot neighbour returning the scrunched-up calendar to your father, who in turn will call for another sit-down (this time involving you and the back of his hand). Avoid the inevitable. No, don’t punch the wall. You may release some pent-up frustration, but your fingers will swell and bruise. You need them to hold a pencil.
Practise. Practise. Practise.
Have your privileges revoked. No longer go out in the evenings. No longer phone your friends. No longer receive an allowance. After a month of studying non-stop, find yourself rewarded with a practice test. During the three hours of silence, reading question after question, come to the realisation that all your hard work was for nought. Score 1140. Watch your father hiss air through the gap in his front two teeth when he goes through your test.
Go to K.C. Das with your family and eat rasgullas. Drink the sugary syrup they are soaked in and think about how tired you are, how fed up you are, how ready you are to just get fucked. Sneak out in the night and, for the hell of it, ride with your friends to Mysore for a cup of coffee. Blaze up. Enjoy a midnight butter chicken at a roadside dhaba. Marvel at one of your friends, red-eyed from weed, who discusses at length the word adroit and how he figured out a way to remember its meaning. Have no idea what adroit means. Return home at sunrise to the sharp cries of baby squirrels piercing the morning air. Unlock the door and find your father waiting for you. In his anger he will spill tea that glides across the dining table.
Step 3: Take the examination. Comfort your parents. Assure them you’ll do your best. Walk down the road to a school that’s not yours but where the test is being held. See your own uncertainty mirrored in the faces of the children around you. Wonder what the fuck is the god-damned point of all this shit. Queue up, queue up. Wait for an hour until you’re assigned a room crammed full of tables. Take a seat. Pick at the wood of the desk. Laugh at the inscription hazaar lund teri gaand main and be reassured that at the very least you don’t have a thousand dicks up your ass.
Clench your toes in nervous anticipation when the examiners enter. Ignore the heat. Ignore the uncomfortable sensation of your underwear glued to your ass. Listen to the female examiner explain the rules of the examination as she dabs at her upper lip with her dupatta. Watch the male examiner inspect the expressions of your fellow students. Wonder if he’s looking for the future failures of the nation. Line your two sharpened pencils side by side on the edge of your table. Gasp and reach out in vain when one rolls off the table, snapping its lead tip. Meet the male examiner’s eyes.
Begin when the bell rings. Ignore the rustle of papers. Ignore the idiot next to you who chews gum. Ignore the girl who keeps shaking her leg, her shoe squeaking in rhythm. Ignore the whisper of pencil points. Ignore the weight in your bladder. Ignore the voices in your head, for as right as they may be, you have to try your best. Breathe in, breathe out. Answer the questions. You have no choice. Answer the questions.
Step 4: Relish the flush of freedom. No more studying. No more practice examinations. No more slumped over those horrible fat textbooks. Crumple the calendar and throw the damned thing out the window. Hope it hits someone on the head. Sell the textbooks (now complete with your notes in the margins) back to the used-books store.
Go out with your friends. Drink. Play billiards. Smoke a joint. Smoke many joints. In your newfound exuberance try ecstasy, acid, shrooms, whatever you can. What’s the harm? Wonder if you’ll ever get laid. Go to a pharmacy and ask in a hushed voice for a pack of condoms. Blush when the pharmacist himself lowers his voice. Have no success with the girls in your class, or the class above, or the class below. Masturbate with the condoms, imagining each time you roll one on that the woman on the computer is actually inside your room.
Attend two funerals. Both from car crashes, both involving friends from school. One from drunk driving, one from speeding. One Christian, one Hindu. At a church, look at the body of someone on your old football team. Notice how the skin colour has turned a gangrenous green. Notice how the flesh of his face has tightened. At a house, stand alongside a crowd of people and look at the outline of your friend’s body under a pristine white sheet. Squeeze your father’s hand and be surprised when he squeezes back. Wait until you’re in the car before crying on your father’s shoulder, sobbing until your throat is raw because you’re so fucking terrified that one day he’ll be lying dead under a shroud.
Stop drinking. Increase smoking up. Increase smoking. Get caught by your father, who lectures you on what will happen to your lungs if you’re not careful. Get slapped across your face by your mother. Crush your box of cigarettes in front of them and promise you quit. Smoke a spliff in the bathroom and try not to cry. Make midnight phone calls to friends. Wonder if you’ll die next. Wonder if you’ll get laid next.
Step 5: Take your punishment. Score 1380 and be secretly impressed you performed so well. Watch your father read the letter containing your scores and then close his eyes and inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. Try not to show your disbelief when he congratulates you.
Step 6: Apply. Clean the dust off your brother’s old Complete Book of Colleges and hand it to your father. Sit with him at the dining table as he circles twenty universities; they are a shortlist for you to go through. Read inch after inch of information. Ignore the fact that it’s ludicrous to select a university based on paragraphs of text. When your father tells you that in those dusty pages lies your future, nod your head as if you understand. Select universities based on whether or not you like the rhythm of their name.
Use the landline to dial a number full of hyphens and zeroes, far longer than any you’ve ever dialled. Try to understand the lady on the other end. Ask her questions you don’t even know why you have to ask. Which qualifications do you accept? Does Cambridge A-level translate into University AP level credit? What is the average cost of living? Write down a number that will hold little to no significance to you. No, don’t consider how your parents are financing your education. Why would you? You’ve never considered the issue of money before. Rattle off the list of questions provided by your father and hang up. Turn to your father, busy mulling over the answers, and ask, ‘Can I go now?’
Wait to hear from the six universities you applied to. Ignore the breathlessness that comes when you realise your close friends have all been admitted to their first-choice universities. Get rejected by five universities. We are very sorry to inform you that… We appreciate that… It is with great regret that… Hate those polite rejections. Hate them exactly for their politeness. Watch your mother tear each letter apart. Avoid your father’s eyes as he looks at you over his cup of tea. Keep your head down and think of how fucked you are.
Receive a letter and know, just know, that it’s a letter of admission. There’s something about its heft. Present the letter to your father. Watch a ragged edge of paper swirl to the floor as he rips open the envelope. Listen to him say ‘Good, good, good,’ before handing the letter back to you. Read the words We are pleased… and watch the lines blur. Finally understand what your father meant when he said your fate rests in those dusty pages.
Step 7: Apply for a visa. Receive an I-20 – a thin, folded piece of paper with a stamped code and signature from the registration office of your university. Conduct online research and understand that this will be the second-most important document you carry with you. Without it, you cannot enter America.
Sit with your father and compile a folder full of documents required for your visa interview. Photocopy everything, just in case. Fly to Madras, where the US consulate is, and with the help of a travel agent your father contacted, prep for your interview. Anticipate the types of questions you might be asked. Feel a familiar sense of discomfort.
On the day of your interview, dress with care. Iron your shirt. Iron your trousers. Wear cologne. Carry mints. Take an auto to the consulate an hour ahead of your scheduled appointment and wait in a queue that stretches around the block. Stand behind a businessman wearing an ironed shirt similar to yours. Enter the consulate and advance through security, handing over all your possessions, including your mints. No food and drink allowed. Go through an identification process before sitting in a hall and waiting for your token number to be announced. From where you sit, watch seven people, one a student, have their visa applications rejected. Listen to their unique sounds of despair.
When it’s your turn, be polite and courteous. Don’t be surprised if the interviewer’s accent is so thick you’re unable to understand what he’s saying. Don’t stammer. Don’t say pardon too many times. Don’t say sorry too many times. Don’t offer unnecessary information. Hand over only those papers required. Surrender your passport and exit the consulate. Pray you didn’t screw up.
Step 8: Pack and say goodbye. Show your PAN card to the deliveryman and sign for your couriered passport. Flip through its pages to your American visa, F1 category, with a photo of you looking like you’re going to jail. Don’t be surprised to find your father excited and thumping you on the back with pride.
Learn to cook. Spend hours in the kitchen with your mother, writing all her recipes in a little red book you will carry with you across continents and oceans. Learn how to make roti. Learn how to make rice. Learn how to make daal. Learn how to make aloo sabzi. Learn how to make chicken biryani. Those are the basics. Prepare a dish for your parents and laugh when they pretend to enjoy your food.
Meet relatives scattered across the country. Hold your grandfather’s hand as you walk through Connaught Place and tell him what you hope to do in America. Indulge your aunt by swallowing a spoonful of sugar with water. It’s for prosperity and a safe flight. Accept gifts from uncles you barely know. Blow the cash they give you on beer.
Return home and begin packing. Do what your mother always does and tie a purple ribbon around the handle of your suitcase (in order to differentiate yours from the hundreds of other bags of luggage on the plane). Struggle to fit eighteen years of life within the dimensions of your suitcase. Only twenty-three kilograms allowed. Sift through mementos of your past – the Sony Walkman your father gifted you, the diary your mother encouraged you to write in, the photographs of your classmates (some dead, some gone). Pack clothes. Pack toiletries. Pack essential travel documents. Listen to your father when he says everything else is unnecessary. Listen to your mother when she mocks your father and insists you pack spices. Don’t carry drugs. Don’t carry contraband.
Attend farewell parties. Kiss a girl. Make a mess of everything by calling her on the phone and not knowing what to say. Deal with your friends giving you shit about it. Go for one last ride with your friends. Clap hands with them, embrace them, solemnly call them your brothers and promise to meet them during vacation. Write a last-ditch love letter to the girl you kissed, but never mail the letter. Let it lie in your cupboard, where it will brown with age.
Go for a final masala dosa with your parents. Go for a final butter chicken with your parents. Go for a final lassi with your parents. Shout ‘goodnight’ to your parents before you sleep and wonder when you will shout goodnight to them again.
Step 9: Fly. Hug your parents. Note how infrequently you do this. Your father will give you a letter to read on the plane and pat you on the back. Your mother will cry. Be brave. Say goodbye and turn from them, push past the crowd milling outside the airport’s departures gate and join the queue. Hand the policeman your ticket and passport. Look back at the faces of your parents, small now, old now, and wave. Enter the airport.
Check in. Go through immigration. Play the game of yessir, nosir. It pays to kiss ass. Move through security. Move through customs. Make your way to your departure gate. Catch your flight. While other passengers sleep, open the letter your father has written. Try not to cry when you see his handwriting. Fail. Promise to do what he asks you to do. Promise to quit smoking, because he knew you smoked. Promise to respect women, because he found all the porn. Promise to give up drugs, because he knew you did drugs and knows America is a far more unforgiving place. Promise, after reading his letter a second time, to try to live up to his expectations.
Layover in Frankfurt. Fly again, for another eleven hours. Land in America, home of the free, and be shepherded into an immigration hall where long, snaking queues lead to officers in glass cubicles. Queue up, queue up. Fill in the details of your disembarkation card. Refer to your I-20 for further details. Be just as bewildered as other international students new to the whole process. Wait an hour for your turn. Try to hide the tremble in your voice, in your hands. Furnish all necessary documents. Have your fingerprints taken. Have your photograph taken. Your personal details will be stored in the Department of Homeland Security’s servers. This process may take more time than it does for others. Don’t be alarmed. For you, this will be the norm. Wait for the officer to stamp your passport. Wait for the officer to return your travel documents. Wait for the officer to wave you through. Thank the officer. Step into the baggage collections hall and notice the crisp, clean smell of air-conditioner. Breathe a sigh of relief. But don’t be fooled into thinking the hard part is over. The journey has just begun.