My Life so Far – Part 2 (College Years)

For Part 1 of this small chronicle of mine, go here. It covers (highly inadequately, I might add) my childhood and school life. This part covers my college years. Here’s some links to help you in following it all the way through:

17th Dec, 2014 : Part 1 (Childhood and School)
18th Dec, 2014 : Part 2 (College Years)
19th Dec, 2014 : Part 3 (Work and Marriage)
20th Dec, 2014 : ???

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The first thing that hits you when you land in New York is the air crackling with energy. Everyone is busy doing something or the other, and no one cares a whit what you are doing and with whom. The no-one-has-time-to-judge-you-24/7 freedom of New York was a refreshing change from the stifling societal situation of Kolkata. I had never been to the US before, and that doubtless added to my excitement.

New York (I’m gonna stick to NYC after this) is a difficult city to explain. Perhaps the best way to describe it is that it is all things to all people. If you are a loner, you will feel right at home. If you are a party animal, you will find your mecca here too. If you want to raise a family, you will find like minded people who are in the same boat as you (namely, wanting to enjoy all the benefits of NYC life without going bankrupt raising kids there.) The defining characteristic of NYC for me, though, is its energy. The city positively oozes a metropolitan, industrious personality. It almost seems to me that living in NYC automatically improves your body’s metabolism by 10%. The city has… how should I put it… speed! You walk fast, you talk fast, you work fast. In this particular context, it is almost the exact opposite of Kolkata.

NYU is a microcosm of the city. A university that caters to more than 50,000 students from all walks of life. Whites, Blacks, Jews, Gays, Middle aged men, child prodigies, pregnant mothers, social activists, the incredibly wealthy, the dirt poor… all form a part of the NYU fabric. It helps that it is situated in a location that is the envy of almost every other college in the world (yeah, I include Columbia in that.)

My parents had come to drop me off and were understandably hesitant about the lifestyle they were seeing everywhere. My first year, I roomed with three other kids and nothing could tell my parents more clearly what NYU was all about then their meeting with them. The first guy was a Jewish kid whose goal in life seemed to be to annoy as many people as he could with his conscientiousness. The second roommate was a short kid from Texas who was gay and wanted to become an actor. The third dude was a Bisexual black intellectual who was already an accomplished writer. I rounded out the quartet of our room, an international student who drinks too much coke and is always on his computer. I would love to say that we were the most multicultural and ethnically, sexually, intellectually diverse group of people living in a flat, but this was really par for the course instead of something our of the ordinary at NYU.

I distinctly remember my first day at Stern (the Business School of NYU.) It was Orientation Day and I fell into conversation with a Brazilian girl who had been assigned into the same group I had been assigned in. Her name was Gianna, and I’m happy to still count her as a good friend. I also looked from a distance at an indian dude who looked weirdly asian and had brown hair with red and golden highlights. He would turn out to be one of the closest friends I would make at NYU, but that wasn’t till a couple of years later. All students were also asked to fill out a questionnaire that had questions like – Where do you see yourself at the age of 30? What do you want out of your college experience? We handed them back, and didn’t see them again until graduation day, when we were all given our sheets back! It is an excellent idea, and I loved reading what I had written 4 years ago. I doubt many people remembered this questionnaire and we all were pleasantly surprised!

Classes were conducted completely differently from my experience in India. In subject after subject, I was taught how to think instead of what to think. I was a little nonplussed at first, having never had to think critically for myself, but I soon grew to love the system. I must thank the Indian Education System though, and especially my school, for preparing me well for College. My first year I pretty much coasted along, as I was well prepared for subjects like Calculus, Economics etc. I also took courses in things I didn’t even know were studied. One of the required liberal arts courses was called “Conversations of the West”, or Con West in short, which was about reading, analyzing and interpreting the great books of western literature. I took the Section which focused on Greek Classics, and it was a completely new field for me and quite eye opening. The flair and method shown by old Greek Poets like Homer was astonishing, as were the intense and deep philosophical outpourings of Plato. Another class I (and everyone else at NYU) hated was the required ‘Writing the Essay’ class. We would have to submit some assignment or the other every week, and the writing had to be of good enough standard to pass muster. I wrote about all sorts of things, including the Mona Lisa and how it reminded me of my Maternal Grandma, a walk in the park with descriptions of everything around me, my understanding of Death, etc etc. It was boring, it was routine, but I find now that it was also necessary. It taught me to give my thoughts some semblance of order, taught me how to write passable prose, and also how to work under deadlines. We all came out better writers after this class, but its definitely the most hated class in all of NYU.

I didn’t make too many friends easily in the beginning. I had trouble relating to the experiences of other students, who had all traveled more, seen more, experienced more than I had. In time, I got close to a bunch of people. Varun Kapoor was a great dude from Mumbai, as was Anand Piramal, who later transferred out to UPenn. I also hung out with Rajiv Harjani, one of the nicest people I have ever met. Its true when they say that good people are called by God before their time, and so it was with Rajiv. The memories he left his friends with are priceless. Haresh Kishore was a chilled out guy from Chennai. Everything was funny to him, and I almost never saw him lose his cool or be flustered. He was permanently high on life. Rakesh Mani was the intellectual of our group. He was the type who would discuss scholarly articles and worry about the condition of the world.

It was with these kids I roomed in my second year. We transferred from Third North to Water Street on the south side of Manhattan. We were on one of the higher floors, 24th or 28th, and we had beautiful views of the South Street Seaport and beyond. Education wise my first two years were excellent, and I scored the highest grades possible in almost all my classes. I was also the quiet, studious type in those years, and usually applied myself to make sure I was in the good graces of all my teachers. I am glad to state that this happy state of affairs continued throughout college, ending with the Dean of Stern, Professor Sally Blount-Lyon, writing me a glowing recommendation for admission to MBA courses.

I had decided I wanted to travel and make the most of every opportunity NYU threw at me. With that in mind, I applied for and was accepted to spend the second semester of my Sophomore (second) year in London, where NYU had a study abroad program. I lived in Crawford House, near Farringdon, and it was a 25 minute walk to the main NYU building at Bedford Square. I used to cross the public library on my way and got a monthly subscription there. In fact, one of the things that most fascinated me was the library of NYU. Called Bobst library, someone had jumped off the top floor during the first few weeks of my first year, and since then they had installed tall glass on the stairways and corridors overlooking the atrium. The small library of my school next to the Bobst Library looked like a snowball in front of an avalanche. I must have checked out at least 400 books during my undergraduate years from Bobst. I maintained the same schedule in London, checking out around 50 books during my 4 months stay. London was definitely a lot of fun, though I was none too impressed with the city as such. What made the stay so much fun was the group of people I hung out with.

My flight got delayed a couple of hours so I reached London late. The bus taking the students to their dorms had already left, so I took a cab down to my dorm. As I got down, an Indian kid skipped out of the building and told me “Yo Piyush you’re with us!”. That might possibly be my first interaction with Chirag. Matt was right behind him, a white guy in shorts with a weird stubble that never seemed to go away, however much he tried. He was good natured without being a pansy, and knew how to have fun. The dude living below us was Amir, and he was, and still is, one of the funniest guys I have encountered. He had tons of stories, the large majority of which were exaggerated beyond belief, but the amount that were true was still mind boggling. If you wanted a story about trying to follow a police car while driving drunk, he would oblige. If you wanted to know what it felt like to jump on cars at 3AM and get their roofs dented, he’d done it. In fact, if you could think it, either he or someone he knew would have done it. The chances of him having done something was directly proportional to how outrageous the thing was.

With a group like this, London was far more fun that I had thought. I remember going to Rosebury Kebab late at night for burgers and discussing whether the owners were part of a sleeper cell (dont ask, it was completely dumb and yet completely plausible.) We used to go to a bar called Printworks which had turned into the designated hangout spot after classes got over every evening and eat some Indian food. I remember accompanying some friends on the Yellow Line Pub Crawl and having to help support them back to our dorms. I went with a friend to see The Mousetrap, which was pretty amazing. It was the longest running show in history at that point in time. I also enjoyed finally talking about cricket to people who seemed to know what the sport actually was, after two years of getting blank looks in the US when I mentioned Sachin Tendulkar!

Classes were pretty chilled out, so we had a lot of time on our hands and used it to get into all sorts of trouble. One night, the printer of our admin building was somehow ‘misplaced’. The next day, an email was circulated to all NYU London students regarding the ‘theft’ of a printer from the admin building. It was found, back in its usual spot, the next day. Another time, I helped a few people carry an 8 foot long bar table (with attached benches on both sides!) back to our dorms. This was at 3 in the morning. When the security guard asked us what the table was for, Amir nonchalantly replied “Its a birthday gift for a friend, actually.” The poor guy helped us carry it inside. Of course, he found out the truth the next day and we had to send it back with our profuse apologies. Drunk friends are the best people to have spontaneous adventures with.

The summer of 2005 was not a happy time for me, and I will be eternally grateful to friends like Chirag, Matt and Amir for cheering me up. I met a lot of great people in London and those friendships carried over once I came back to NYC. Pavni, Meena, Amanda, Larissa, Jenna, Jenn, Richa, Amit, Naveen, Neerav, Lenny, Manasa, Kinjal, Amita… the list goes on and on. Of course, many of these guys had nicknames too. PK/Pavneezy, Meenu, Larizzle, The Blumkin, Richardina, Wombat/Wombino, Navi… Chirag was Hugo, Matt was always Horseman, Amir was Ballack, and I was Pi, as in the mathematical term, and the four of us together were the Sonic Breaker.

The above paragraph alone contains a hundred stories.

Things accelerated from there. Classes got harder and the courses became more advanced, but Chirag and I quite easily maintained our reputation as Finance geeks. I had tons of friends by this time and usually had something or the other to distract me pretty much every evening. I used to go out almost every night and would meet new people, make friends as well as stories, and study hard during the day. It was in NYC that I really understood the meaning of work hard and party harder. I would see executives in suits leaving a club at 4 in the morning and still reaching their offices at 8 for work. It was a crazy, uncompromising attitude towards making the most of the life you are given, and I quite enjoyed it. NYC is the best place in the world to taste every cuisine, meet people from every country in the world and experience things that just aren’t available anywhere else.

Stern used to host the International Study Project where the whole class was sent to a foreign country to study its business environment as well as be exposed to different cultures. I was in a class that went to Germany, and my company was Schering, the pharmaceutical giant. The day we were supposed to go to Schering’s office, we opened up our morning newspapers to see the headline – “Merck makes play to acquire Schering.” Obviously, all the preliminary due diligence of the company we had done as well as all the questions we had prepared was for naught, as the whole outlook of the company had changed. Of course, at Schering, they weren’t going to answer any of our questions related to the takeover/merger due to all sorts of non-disclosure agreements they had signed. Amir and Me were in the same group, and we ended up changing our whole presentation to focus on whether Schering should let Merck take them over. We decided that they should… and our recommendation came true in the future. By the way, we won amongst all the groups of Germany, and went to the finals with two other groups who had gone to the other two countries. In the finals, our group came second in the ISP competition, and I still feel we were robbed. I still remember the recommendation of the two other groups, and ours was bang on the money while theirs wasn’t.

Pretty soon, my time left at NYU started dwindling. I had taken extra classes in the Summers, and was ending School a full semester early. I left in December of 2006, but not before throwing a going away party. I held it at 40/40, Jay-Z’s club. The peeps there were kind enough to give me a room after looking at how large the guest list was, and I was told later by the hostess that 213 people had come, far more than I had anticipated. That was a far larger number of friends than I had thought in 2003 I would have at the end of college. I can never thank my NYU classmates for being great friends.

I next got back to NYU in April 2007 for graduation, giving a pleasant surprise to many people by arriving early. I enjoyed the Stern Formal party as I got to meet all my friends again, and it didn’t hurt that I was looking and feeling pretty good, even if I say so myself. I hate almost every picture taken of me, and yet that day I couldn’t get a bad picture taken! Our graduation was held at Madison Square Garden, and I was happy that my parents had come down to US for it. Walking up the steps to the stage, getting my certificate, hugging the Dean and then throwing our caps in the air… that was a bitter sweet moment. This was the culmination of 4 years of hard work, and I was admittedly proud of my grades, but I was also sad that my NYC adventure had come to an end. Then again, all good things in life come to an end, and I was glad I had that experience. It made me more social, turned me into a critical thinker, and helped me broaden my horizons and dream bigger, better and farther. While I will always credit my family members and the values they inculcated in me for making me the person I am today, my time spent at NYU was instrumental in shaping my mindset and thought process. Like I said previously, I have never regretted going to NYU.

As soon as I was back, I started working with my father. Things seemed to be going smoothly, until one day I heard my grandma talking to someone about my marriage, and how it was time, and that they might start the process soon, etc. Talk about a shock to the system. I had planned on working for a couple of years before going back to do my MBA, but I moved my plans forward. I talked to my Dean at NYU, and she said if I could wait a couple years till I had come work experience, she would be happy to see me apply back to NYU, but work experience was a mandatory requirement. Unfortunately, I wanted out of this situation, and I wanted out NOW, as I simply wasn’t taking any chances, however remote they might be. I also thought that it might be a good idea to get my education wrapped up asap so I could get into work full time quicker.

I gave my GMAT on the day of the Inaugural T20 world cup final between India and Pakistan. I had to miss watching the final live as my exam was in the evening, during the same time the finals would be played. Since it was computerized, I got my results immediately, and was happy to see I had scored 760/800, a score good enough to land me once again in the 99th Percentile. I have always been blessed in such things. As soon as I walked out of the testing center, I could hear fireworks all over the city. I knew India had won, and though the surprise element of watching the taped final was lost, my elation at both the events of the last couple of hours knew no bounds!

I had applied to colleges that I knew would waive the work experience requirement if they got a good enough application, and top of my list were Fordham and Pace (both were in NYC and had good MBA programs). I was lucky enough to not only get admitted to both colleges but also to receive scholarships from both, and eventually decided to attend Fordham with a Presidential Scholarship that took care of all expenses for the whole of the first year. I had also given the CAT and gotten an extremely good result, but by the time the results came out I was already on my way to NYC to celebrate New Years with my friends!

Fordham was very different from NYU. I was almost always the youngest person in every class I attended, and there was much less socialization as my classmates were older than me. Almost all of them were working, and some were married and had kids. I used to attend the birthday parties of my classmates at NYU, whereas at Fordham I was invited to attend the birthday parties of my classmates kids! Thankfully, a lot of my NYU friends were still in NYC and I hung out with them for the next two years. I did meet a bunch of people accidentally and they have been good friends ever since. Arpit and Ankit Goel, Karan Darda, Sanam Agarwal, Prerna Jhunjhunwala nee Sarda, Aanchal… I dont talk to them as much as I would like to but I know that we will always pick up from where we left off whenever we meet next.

My last semester, I tore a ligament in my left leg. It was almost impossible for me to walk for a couple of weeks. I was living on 26th and 7th with Prashant, the best roommate a guy could ask for. He helped me out a lot, putting ice on my leg, helping out around the apartment while I was out of commission, giving me company while I was stuck at home on the bed. He’ll be one of the first people I call whenever I next visit NYC.

Soon enough, my time in NYC was over. I was sad at leaving a place I had come to love as my own, a city I identified with far more than my birthplace, and yet I was also excited to start the next phase of my life.

On the 1st of January, 2008, once I had landed in NYC to start at Fordham, I had made a prediction to my friends that I would get married in either November or December 2010. I was now back in Kolkata, in January of 2010, and it was time to see if that prediction would come true!

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As usual, many things have been left out. Here’s a small sampling of stuff left out on the cutting floor:

My trip to Florida to spend Thanksgiving with Shweta’s family, and my role in persuading her to pursue a different course of action on the urging of her parents.

My ridiculous cell phone bills in the beginning, before I figured out a far better plan.

My 24 hour bus ride to watch the Indianapolis F1 grand prix, and the 12 hour car ride and 6 hour bus ride to get back an hour before an exam.

How I didn’t speak to my roommate for a whole semester my freshman year.

Attending a Sorority’s graduation party with Matt and Jenn when Jenna kindly asked me to tag along!

Sleeping in a suit in Chirags bed.

Becoming fanboys of Aswath Damodaran.

The incident in the lift lobby at Palladium while Wombino suddenly walked by… and giving him a high five behind my back. Its the sort of cool shit you see in movies. Oh, you had to be there.

Berlin. For those who know, the word is enough.

Frickin Crocker Liu.

How I (completely accidentally) hung out with Arpit and Ankit Goel on Diwali, and only found out how closely connected we were when they came down to see me off!

St. Patricks day, 2008-09.

Harry Potter. Denied. Fish Bowl. My journey through Madison Square Park and conversation with Police Officers. All these events took place over a period of 6 hours.

The story of the Dhoot Booth and crying waitresses.

The one time I almost stabbed an 80 year old man with a plastic knife.

The Village Pourhouse passport.

Watching a TI concert at Hammerstein from the back, and halfway through it, figuring out I couldnt see the stage because of all the weed smoke in the middle wafting upwards.

I could go on and on… you get the picture. See you all tomorrow.