I’ll be turning 30 soon, so I thought I should chronicle some of my memories of a life well lived so far. This first part today covers my childhood and school days. The next part tomorrow will be my college years, and the last and final part on the 19th of Dec will be about life after college (and marriage!) I’ll try my best to stick to this schedule!
I have also mentioned only a few of the people who have been an integral part of my life, as writing about everyone I remember would turn this blog into a novel (not that I promise this wont be novel-length!) This is unedited, stream of consciousness writing, simply because I know I will leave out all kinds of stuff if I spend more than a minute on thinking about what I have written. I only promise to be honest about whatever I write.
I’m including some handy links for ease of reading:
I was born into a loving family on 20th December, 1984. At that point in time, we used to live in an apartment in Howrah, small enough to be called cozy and large enough for me to play around and get injured again and again in. My grandparents and parents were amazing and I have seen innumerable photos of them teaching me how to play, giving me gifts, bathing me, scolding me, feeding me etc etc. Not all memories of photographs are good, though. My mother had an obsession of dressing me up in weird clothes (using a rajai as a pallu and making me pout with a finger on my chin) and making me do weird stuff (kissing a barbie doll) while she took photos. And no, I am not posting those photographs here. She still laughs about them, and I still flush with embarrassment every time they are mentioned.
I dont think I was a very mischievous kid, though my elders take pains to point out how mistaken I am in that belief. I will concede, however, that I was always a bundle of energy and at times may have been a handful for my parents. However, I was usually quite obedient and didnt trouble my mother much. Most of the growing up I did was due to my mother. She was always there to guide me, to teach me, and to take care of my every need. I know she took many pains to make sure I was healthy and for that I can never thank her enough.
My grandmother was the disciplinarian of our house in those times. I would usually sleep with her at night. Later on, once I started going to school, she was the one who would bathe me and get me ready. That was quite an experience, as I still marvel how a child can be ready, from waking up to going inside the school bus after having his breakfast, within 20 minutes flat. My grandma was an iron lady then, and still is one now.
My father also sacrificed a lot of his happiness for the sake of his children. He worked very, very hard to make sure his family was well provided for. I also remember him taking time off to celebrate our birthdays. He would always look quite dapper in those family functions, though most of the photos of him at those functions are with Pallavi, my sister. She has always been his favorite, a fact I am quite used to by now, but I know his love for me is unconditional and that others do not recognize the small ways in which I sense it as his actions are never overt.
My grandfather is the greatest man I have ever met. I have only heard stories of his struggle, but I know for a fact that if I was ever in his situation, I would never be able to accomplish even 10% of what he did. I marvel at his persistence, his capacity for hard work and his uncompromising principles. I have never known him to do something ethically wrong. I feel like there are a lot of similarities between his nature and mine. We are both closet introverts who act as extroverts, we both feel bad if any family member is inconvenienced for our sake, and we both tend to keep a lot of things bottled up inside of us. With me, however, he was as free with his time as he was with his advise. He taught me how to play cricket, how to hold a badminton racquet (captured in a photo by my mother, of course!), how to cycle etc. I love a photograph we have of me, a tiny kid, jumping on his stomach while he is laughing, looking at me with happiness. There really aren’t words fit to describe how much I love him.
Which brings me to my sister. I often say that the happiest years of my life were the first three, as after that my sister was born. In reality, its a joke, and a pretty poor one at that. She was always the laadli of the house and everyone pampered her, but none more than me. She was always either in Papa’s godi or running along after mummy, holding her sari. She was perhaps a little more shy than I was with strangers, and would hide behind papa or mummy when others would be around. We used to play a lot as kids and it was always me with the ball, and she with the bat. My parents would usually take her side and would urge me to bowl. Of course, once she was out, she had a million other things to do rather than bowl to me while I batted. I remember once that I had become very angry at her (for she could be very, very annoying if she wanted to be) and would not come out of the room to play badminton with her. She wrote an extremely sweet letter to me, in her small, crooked, childish handwriting, saying she was sorry and would I please come out to play with her (Mummy was the emissary she sent with the letter to mollify me). She has the baffling ability to disarm me with a sweet gesture or word, as I can never understand how she does it. We fight like all siblings do, but she is one of the most clear hearted people I know with no malice towards anyone, and I love her a lot.
My buas filled the role of the pampering aunt to a T. While my elder bua was married when I was a kid, she would always make me feel important when she visited by spending time with me, however little time she had. She was also the person who went through a lot of struggles in her life and came out stronger for it, and that was a strong influence on me. My younger bua was always filled with mirth and merriment, and her nature was infectious to someone like me, who was naturally inclined to be boisterous. I spent more time with her as a kid as she got married when I was about 6-7 and would marvel at how beautifully she danced (like I marvel today at how amazingly graceful Pallavi is at dancing.) I would be the one to go and pick them up from their homes when they were coming to stay with us for a weekend or a function, and their in-laws would always pamper me as well. My younger buas family members would make me recite the whole Bheeshma dialogue from Mahabharat as payment of letting my Bua go with me. I would always oblige, as there would be much laughter and chocolates as part of the payment!
My whole family has always been musically inclined. My grandfather would sing for us and he was excellent. In fact, he still sings beautifully, though he gets short of breath nowadays. However, he has an excellent grasp of sur and taal, and he has given the same gift to his three children. My buas were both very good singers, and my younger bua was also a great dancer. My father is an excellent singer, something that perhaps many people may not know. My mother sings beautifully as well, so it was quite obvious that even a talentless hack like me would enjoy singing. I am nowhere near as good as they are (my sister got those qualities, while I lost out!) but this is the origin of my love for singing. My grandfather really wanted me to learn tabla, and I am happy to say that I followed his wishes. I learnt tabla for many years, eventually getting good enough to perform in front of the Governor for a program.
My constant companions in Howrah were my two other buas, Sonu bua and Monu bua. They were always over at our house and, since they were elder to me, would always good naturedly boss me around. For a kid like me, they were super smart, super obedient, super liked by everyone, and super fun to be around with. In fact, while my mother always encouraged me to read, a large part of the credit for my love for books must go to Sonu Bua. In my formative years, she gave me a gift of the box set of Sherlock Holmes (all 4 novels and 56 short stories) for my birthday, and my interest was well and truly piqued. I devoured them from end to end within days, and I knew I had found a wonderful hobby, one that is with me to this day. That was also my introduction to Sherlock Holmes, one of the characters that has influenced me, my thinking, my mindset and my life in no small measure. That box set of Sherlock Holmes is yellowed and well thumbed through, but in great condition and still a treasured part of my Library.
When I was 5 or 6, we shifted to Salt Lake. A large house gave a kid like me many more opportunities to get injured, and I took advantage of them to the fullest. I remember I used to have a yellow cycle with three tyres, which I used to race in circles in Howrah. Once I got a little older, I got a red cycle with only two tyres, while Pallavi got the yellow cycle (she’s always complained of getting my hand me downs as a kid. Now she has more stuff in one cabinet than I have collected in my whole life.) There is a great photograph of me and Pallavi on our cycles, with Udita (my older buas daughter) in my arms as an infant. I would often come home with the skin of my knees completely scraped off after having fallen on the road. My grandma would scold me, put some ointment and some white powder thing on my knee, bandage me up and send me on my way. As soon as the bandage would come off, I would be out of the house, racing away on my cycle. I would inadvertently come home with the newly formed skin freshly scraped off after falling down somewhere again. My grandma would scold me, and the cycle would continue. BTW, she was the one who would scold me the most at my injuries and cycling escapades, but she was also the one who got me a larger cycle once I was tall enough to ride one.
My cousins were, and still are, supremely important to me. I have never felt the division of an own brother/sister and a cousin brother/sister. I have tried to be an older brother who would lead by example, perhaps an ideal that is spotless and good enough for them to strive for. My mother impressed upon me the importance of doing the right thing at all times, as there were a dozen kids watching my every move, waiting to emulate me. While it was a lot of pressure to set a good example to them, it was all worthwhile in the end. They have far surpassed me in many areas, and they are each impressive in their own right. Udita, Harshu, Ujjwal, Gudda, Sanchit, Garima, Sonu, Krishnam, Devansh, Tanisha, Yamini, Yashu, Monu, Saurabh, Shruti… the list already seems endless, and I havent even covered all of my Buas and Mamajis kids! Nowadays I take them out once every few months to Bombay Shiv Sagar, and the few hours we spend together as always entertaining and full of fun. I love them all, and would sooner take a bullet for them than find them in even the slightest trouble.
I remember we used to have a chandelier that had a lot of glass pencils hanging down. My cousins would come over for a night stay over the weekend, and my Grandma would go to Satsang on Sunday at Alipore instead of Salt Lake, meaning we could cause whatever chaos we wanted for at least a couple of hours. We would play badminton a lot and our favorite game was to try and get the shuttle as close to the pencils without touching them. Either that, or to get the shuttle to rest on top of the chandelier. So while we aimed for either the top or the bottom of the chandelier, it was impossible for us to not hit the glass pencils in the middle. If the glass pencils would break, we would get it cleaned up as best as we could and try to be on our best behavior when Grandma arrived. It never worked as she always knew. I sometimes wonder if she would count the number of Glass pencils in that chandelier before she left and compared when she came back. All the children would line up behind me and I would have to face the punishment meted out.
School was a lot of fun. I was quite restless as a kid, but had been brought up to be obedient as well, and the two conflicting parts of my nature would always land me in some trouble or the other. My teachers would find me mischievous, and my fellow students would call me a teachers pet. I was perennially between a rock and a hard place, and eventually I learnt to find the right balance between being a good student and being a good friend (not surprisingly, both do not always coincide!) My most dreaded experience was the Parents-Teacher meeting day. My mom would usually have to endure an hour of various teachers telling her the same thing, “He’s quite brilliant, he just doesn’t apply himself.” I, on the other hand, was happy to coast along on my wits alone. Looking back, it seems to me that I learnt about a cost-benefit analysis at quite a young age. Studying for 5 months extra for 5% extra didnt look too appetizing to me, so I was happy to just study before the exams and get a good result instead of an outstanding one. This went on until I decided to go to college and straightened out my act, but I am getting ahead of myself.
My friends and batch mates were a great bunch of brilliant kids who didnt want to study too hard either. Sharad, Abhimanyu, Rajkumar, Chetan, Vineet, Avishek, Rohit, Aditya etc were all capable of doing extremely well in studies (like me)… they just werent too concerned with it (like me!) By the way, before you get the wrong impression, we all did relatively well in school and all got into good colleges. By extremely well I mean coming first in class, which took too much time away from the fun things in life. As is the norm with all kids, we all had our nicknames, some that made sense and some that didnt. The above lineup, by the way, is Pangu, Munni, Raju, Ghoda, Barakar, Muri, Lohia and Chullu. Like I said, we were too busy having fun to notice how dumb it all was.
We enjoyed our school life very much, by which I mean we enjoyed each others company a lot. We had to go to school just so we could all hang out together. Some of the things we did were perhaps not in keeping with the decorum of a school, but we were kids and had enough of the screw-it-all attitude of youth to cause trouble tempered with just enough street-smartness to not get caught. We burst chocolate bombs in our school toilet, destroying a urinal in the process. A few of us boys would bunk school after the first period to go play Pool, and come back just before the last period to maintain our attendane. Our whole class bunked school one day, and 50 odd kids went to see a movie since we hadnt planned anything beyond the “Lets-everyone-bunk-school-today” stage. We ended up going to watch, I kid you not, Mujhe Kuch Kehna Hai, the debut movie of Tushar Kapoor. Because God works in mysterious ways to thwart the plans of the mischievous and the naughty, the theatre’s projection equipment broke down, leading 50 kids in school dress to camp outside. At 1.30, the primary section of our school got out and the school buses of the area we were in trundled past us, with a few school teachers gazing at our group in astonishment and not a little anger. We were well and truly caught, and our punishment the next day was to stand in the corridor outside our classes. We didnt have to go to class, no studies were conducted, we chilled outside with each other in the corridor and the other kids looked at us with envy, like we were some sort of rebels. I fail to see how it was a punishment as we all had a gala time.
By this time, my parents had pretty much given up on me getting into Xaviers and were prepared for me to attend Bhawanipore college. Xaviers is where the people who come first in class go to, Bhawanipore is where Marwari kids who start working in their family businesses right after school hang their cap. My parents didnt have much hope of me setting my academic scores on fire. I think thats where the determination to do one better than Xaviers took shape inside me. I had always wanted to fly the nest and live independently for a while, to see if I could cope without an emotional security net around me. This was my opportunity to not only get out of the protective shell around me, but also to prove my worth to those around me who perhaps doubted me.
I decided that I would go as far away from home as possible, and US was right at the other side of the planet. If I had to aim at something, I wanted to aim high. I started taking SAT tuitions. I remember my parents thinking in their hearts that it was a fad, and that they thought they were letting me entertain my little fantasy. However, by then I had seen what SAT tested, and my heart had soared. It wasnt about hard work at all, it was about how smart, quick and intelligent you were! These werent questions, these were puzzles! I had always been an inquisitive and curious kid, and this was right up my alley. I am sorry to say that I bunked more SAT tuitions than I attended, and I only seriously studied for the exam the last two weeks before the test. I gave the test on the 2nd of November, 2002, and everyone promptly forgot about it. I had been allowed to indulge my side project, and now it was time to get back to life, seemed to be the general view. This lack of confidence hurt a bit, but then again, I had brought it upon myself due to the lack of applying myself. I am thankful to say I have done well enough after that for this to never be the case again.
On the 25th of November, the results came out of my SAT exam. I received 1550/1600, with 99 percentiles in both English and Maths, and a 99+ percentile of the combined score. The reactions were extraordinary, especially my fathers. When I told him, he was speechless for a second. His face was the picture of bewilderment for a second, as if processing completely unexpected information. Then came surprise, then happiness, and finally pride. That was a pretty good feeling. Everyone’s reactions ranged from incredulousness to astonishment in various intensities. At that point, I remember thinking that while there were a lot of people who expected me to do well, there were only two people who had expected me to exceed all expectations. Those were my grandmother, in whose eyes I could do no wrong, and my sister, who knew how boneheaded I was and thus knew that I would not let an opportunity I actually cared about pass. I still remember her hugging me with joy (she knew how badly i wanted to get out of Kolkata and do something on my own) and then saying matter of factly, “Humko to pata hi tha tum kuch chhupa rustam wala kaam karega. (I knew you would do something that no one would expect)” My grandmother cared not a whit about the score. My grandfather was asking me details of what 99+ percentile means (it means I was ahead of 99+ percent of other test givers) and while I was telling him, my grandma cut us off by saying “Eeko matlab baki sabse aage hai aapno chhoro” (It means our boy is ahead of all other boys), pride dripping from her every word.
Of course, a score like that meant that suddenly, my going for college in the US had gone from a distant fantasy to a foregone conclusion. The only question remaining now was how high could I aim? For ivy league universities, I had to give SAT II exams, which consisted of three subjects. People studied for months for this exam, whereas I decided in December to give it in January. Like I said, no one expected me to do so well, so I had not entertained the notion of giving higher level exams. I ended up getting 95+ percentiles in each subject, and a combined percentile of 99+ again. I had already scheduled my TOEFL for 30th January, and since it was computerized, I got my results immediately. I had been unable to study properly for it since I had suddenly had to shift my attention to SAT II exams, which were quite tough, but still received 297/300. The percentile was 99+ again.
To my family, this was getting way out of hand. This string of results were unexpected and beyond the pale, and it seemed to me that for my family it must have been like a desert receiving an unexpected thunder shower, followed by another the next day, and another, and so on for a month. Suddenly, within three months, I had demolished any doubt about my capabilities and was well on my way to academic success. I had already been accepted into NYU in the first round itself. I found out at a later date that I had gotten into Wharton and Carnegie Mellon as well, but by then I had already sent my acceptance to NYU. I have never found cause to regret my decision later on.
While all this was going on in the prepare-for-college front, I was chilling in school. I had gone to a couple of school trips and had been, perhaps, a little rowdy. In fact, to go back a little, in Class 11 my school used to appoint prefects. I had been told by my class teacher that I would be one of them, but the day came and went and my name wasnt called out. The next time I met the teacher, a couple of my friends asked him what had happened regarding my prefect nomination? He said a teacher had blocked it and apologetically replied “tor reputation ektu theek nei” (your reputation is not so good.) My mischief making had come back to bite me in the ass!
But yeah, back to the school trips. My School refused to give me my Class 12 report card along with other students. When I enquired, I was told that my report card would be given to me personally by my Principal. I trudged up to the Principals office, knowing full well that it would not be as easy as me waltzing in and the Principal just handing the Report card over to me. I was met with a stern faced dude who was sorting some papers. I asked him about my report card. He looked over to his left at a cabinet. I could make out a paper that had been pasted there, and the name on top of the paper, in bold block letters, was PIYUSH DHOOT. Oh dear.
I was sent to the Principals office. She told me that I would not be given my report card, and that I would have to call my parents and it would be given only to them. I asked her that I would bring my parents, but what should I tell them when they ask why it had been withheld? She said that my report card was being withheld due to “Severe indiscipline during the school trip.” To this day I do not know why I was singled out. I had never portrayed myself as some sort of a leader of the group, and there had never been any incriminating evidence against me (I need to stop watching cop shows!). I went home and told my parents. They asked me if I had done anything seriously wrong. They said ‘seriously’ because they were pretty sure I would have done something a little wrong, just like they were sure I would never do something seriously wrong. I said no, nothing serious had taken place. Hearing that, they declined to go to the school and let me know that since I had done nothing wrong, I should go and state my case. The trouble is, they didnt know what my case was, but I did, and I knew I wouldnt get a proper hearing. To get around that, I shot off an email to NYU. The reply was in my inbox the next day.
I spent the next week outside the principals office. She finally tired of me and told me that no college would accept me without a final Report Card. I played my trump card and earnestly informed her that I had enquired with NYU and my file with them was complete. After my scores, they didnt need any other documentation, and that my college admission was secure, whether I received my report card or not. She didnt say anything for a minute, busily dealing with the pile of documents on her desk, then curtly told me to collect it tomorrow from the stern faced dude outside. I walked out, walked in the next day, collected the report card, walked out again and decided to not walk in again until things improved. I have so far more or less managed to do that and have not returned to my school.
My Board Exams of 12th were a formality as I was already admitted at NYU and all I had to do was not fail. Here is my routine during that period.
12 PM – Get up. Shower. Read Newspapers. Kill time.
2 PM – Have lunch. Study for an hour or so.
4 PM – Take out the car and start picking up friends.
8 PM – Drop the friends off back to their place.
9 PM – Dinner.
10 PM – Pretend to study while reading something else.
1 AM – Play video games after making sure everyone else had slept.
4 AM – Go to sleep.
I have no doubt I was the cause of at least a 3-4% decrease in many of my friends Board Results!
My parents threw a going away party to celebrate my acceptance into NYU. All my relatives from across India came and I am thankful to them for coming and giving me their blessings. Many people shot video messages for me which were played during the Party on a big screen. I took along a CD of those with me and they gave me great solace whenever I felt lonely later on. My father, in his typical fashion, stole the show by reminding me again and again with just two words – “Akele Aana.” (come back alone!). My friends were there in full force and I had a great time with them. I was also extremely happy to see so many of my teachers who had come to wish me the best for my future. It was humbling to be so loved, and also inspiring in a way to have so many people celebrate my successes.
Soon, it was time to head out for college. Throughout the flight, I wondered how the next phase of my life would be. I found out very soon. As the lyrics of Summer of 69 go… those were the best days of my life.
I have left out many, MANY things from this small recollection. The time I got stuck outside the fire escape of the 26th floor of a hotel, gingerly walked down and was greeted by the fire department as someone had called them after seeing me on the fire escape. The time when I came closest to death in an accident on the sand dunes of Rajasthan after leaving a Religious function. The fun-filled Europe trip I took with my grandparents just before the Football World Cup of 98 in France. My life changing trip to Maldives with my parents. And of course, girls, simply cuz there isnt much to say.
Next part of the recollection will deal with my college years.