By Ankita Ghosh:
On a dull, concussed evening sometime last fall, my friend Saikat Mukherjee had promised to meet me at the foot of the Andes if we happened to keep in touch just long enough. He was planning to finish a B. Tech to leave for Grad-School in the U.S. We both were students at Jadavpur University and dear friends. As I struggled to submit a poorly researched dissertation, Saikat started living the idyllic life of an expat somewhere along the lingering Atlantic coast of the Americas.
When you leave home you leave a part of yourself behind. You leave an annoying habit, a disquieting story, a soiled handkerchief or the memory of a memory just so you can make room for what’s about to be called ‘the rest of your life’. For Saikat, the first day of the rest of his life began at terminal no. 3, Indira Gandhi International Airport in the capital city. Months later, when I pressed him over the internet for greedy bits from his unfolding American Dream, this is what he had to say.
Saikat is an Indian pursuing a PhD in the United States. He is currently a few months old in the U.S. and often reminisces about home, particularly about Jadavpur University in the thick of cerebral Calcutta that had been his home since late summer 2011 till he moved to America. This is to be treated as an inter-personal chat that attempts to uncover the life of an Indian student in the U.S. It is not to be taken as a generalization but to be read for what it is, that is, ‘the lives of others’. In conversation with Saikat Mukherjee:
A wanderer, who’s yet to travel, is in many ways like a poet who’s working as a copy editor or a lover who’s just writing his banal prenuptial. Shuttling between continents can be intimidating for anyone. When I ask him how it all started he gets sombre. “Here I was a ‘nobody’ and yet, I was somebody,” he begins.
I asked him how he’d felt right after touching down to which he replies, “I landed in Roanoke airport which is a city near the university-town of Blacksburg. I could see the distant Blue Ridge Mountain in the besieging clarity of dusk.” The wide-eyed young Indian confesses at the very outset that soon after landing he’d drawn up his guitar and started strumming the chords to Vande Mataram on an impulse.
For his adopted city, he has in the meantime developed a fond consideration. “Finding your way around in Blacksburg is very easy. The first time I went to the university campus, it was so vast that it was kind of intimidating that I will lose my way if I roamed unfettered. It was kind of alluring as well, as I wanted to get lost.”
When I ask him how the new world’s been treating him, Saikat reflects on the ‘land of excesses’ where life picks up momentum even before you manage to clear customs. As an afterthought he says, “The U.S. is such a big country, I don’t think Blacksburg can represent it in its entirety and neither am I a perfect representation of the many Indian students living in here. I think life is pretty busy, especially if you are a grad student.”
East-country summers are warm but elusive and as we speak, fall is seeping through the swaying leaves while the birches and the maples stand in attention to the coming of winter. When asked about his schedule, Saikat listed a ledger-like itinerary. “A typical day starts with a class at 8 in the morning. I wake up, get my milk and cereals and ride the bike or take a bus to school.” His summers are eternal and his paradise lives amid the raging winds of Jadavpur University. He quips, “In between classes I talk to my soul mate, (I call her Suzy) my beloved back in India.”
Given America’s compulsive need and deep commitment for accommodating diverse cultures, Saikat feels at ease jamming with local musicians at the Farmer’s Market downtown or the quaint little bar called The Cellars where musicians sign up to sing blues. “It’s pleasantly surprising for them to see an Indian jamming to bluegrass, Appalachian tunes. But it’s enriching to the bones. The music of the countryside in old and ragtime overflows the entire valley in waves of John Denver’s country roads.”
Having chased his dreams halfway across the globe, each night, a sore but triumphant Indian comes back home to dream.
Saikat is pursuing his PhD in Engineering Mechanics from Virginia Tech, with a specialisation in Fluid Mechanics. He belongs to the Engineering Science and Mechanics program of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics (BEAM) dept. of Virginia tech.
“The campus life in Virginia Tech is very happening with many active student committees involved with many different aspects of society. The crowd consists of brilliant minds from all over the world, every part you can think of.”
Football remains a perennial obsession with Virginia Tech, readily echoing North America’s almost patriotic sentiments for the game only second to that for baseball. The town dons Orange and Maroon as the bleachers gear up for home matches. “Virginia Tech students and affiliates are called ‘Hokies’ which is a term that emerged presumably from ‘Turkey’, as a cheer for the Virginia Tech American Football team in a match.”
The iconic Buress Hall of the University, according to Saikat, looks like the dorm-room window where Harry Potter sat beside a dying fire in Hogwarts. Virginia Tech is known for bearing the closest resemblance to Hogwarts with its Gothic stone architecture.
In the summer of 2007, Virginia Tech witnessed one of the most horrid mass massacres by a single gunman in modern human history. A Korean-American senior diagnosed with clinical anxiety walked into a classroom and in two separate attacks shot and injured over 50 students before killing himself. Virginia Tech’s shooting caught worldwide media attention, sparked off major debate and led the U.S. to review federal laws governing gun-control and mental health issues.
The grim past has been buried under piles of autumn-colored leaves and thick winter cover as the sky promises of vivid tomorrows. “The sky is something to behold,” writes Saikat from across the seven seas.
A few months old in the city and demanding course work haven’t let Saikat wander off into the lilting wilderness as he’d ideally have wished to. Although hasn’t managed to hitchhike to the lap of the mighty Andes yet, local trails have made sure that he has enough tales to tell.
“I have been to a hike to Cascades, a waterfall nearby, which was beautiful. A wooden bridge connects two parts of the forest separated by the brook.”
He mentions another brief visit to the city of Roanoke nearby that turned out to be a satiating experience for a curry-craving Indian surviving on a yeast diet, because this is where you get good Indian restaurants. “This city has an urban tinge, smoke, dirt, old Italian places, street graffiti, worn out colonial architecture and new high rises coming up. In a sense the place had an Old Calcutta feel to it.”
“You cannot survive the cruel hill climbs without gears and when you do, bingo, you have become a biker.” The bike ride through Huckleberry, a forest trail that runs from Christiansburg to Blacksburg packed a sudden adventure. Surrounded by worn out stony hills of Appalachian, an old rail track runs alongside the trail and ever so often trekkers find themselves shaking from feedback as freight trains ramble on.
“The downhill journey was fantastic, a rush of adrenaline and wind blowing into my face. I felt like I was flying until I actually did. I put my brakes to dodge a rock and in that kind of speed, fell face first over a wooden bridge and at that very moment a freight train rumbled down under the bridge.” Later when a flushed Saikat rolled out on his back, an old wound opened up and something tells me that his wound from a motorcycle accident back home wasn’t the only thing that bled that afternoon.
“The Indian community here, especially the Bengali Diaspora is pretty substantial. Every alternate weekend, Bengalis get together and make authentic luscious Bengali dishes subjected to overflowing gluttony.” He tells me with pride in between sporadically exchanged text messages that the Indian expatriates also have their very own Durgotsav, a coming together more out of camaraderie than out of creed.
In the course of my correspondence with him, I have tried to deal with a rude time difference. As for Saikat, or the thousands of Indian students living in the United States, ‘the dealing with’ is understandably different. Dealing with multiple incompatible time zones, jet lag, occasional heartburn, homesickness, passion, ambition, grades can be taxing, humbling, overwhelming and all at the same time. “Well, my life in the US so far has been busy. All the while I have been trying to maintain my passion for music. But sometimes I really miss contemplating, or just ambling leisurely without any deadlines in my head.” A hint of sadness becomes apparent in his tone.
Yet, in chasing your dreams if you don’t find yourself in bizarre places, you’re not chasing them hard enough. It obviously helps if you find yourself in luck with people, surroundings and circumstances. “The people here seem very friendly, sincere in their apology and gratefulness. It’s so beautiful and certainly safe. Crime rate is null. I feel this is the perfect retirement destination. When they ask me from where I was, I say Kolkata in Bengal, India. For some reason Matt started calling me Bengal Elvis. I have made some great friends here,” he sums up.
This is what he sends for his readers.
A song of you (a song of you)
Comes as sweet and clear
As moonlight through the pines
— Georgia on my mind, Ray Charles
Take campus conversations to the next level. Become a YKA Campus Correspondent today! Sign up here.
You can also subscribe to the Campus Watch Newsletter, here.