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Some time back I attended a high school graduation party for my daughter’s best friend’s brother, Pat. There were about 50 people at the party and there was plenty of food, drinks, and laughter. Pat is an excellent student and will be going to an elite university on a full scholarship. This means that he will be moving far away and will not be able to come home more than a few times a year.

Pat is kind and caring; all his sister’s friends have crushes on him. He is the class valedictorian this year. There have been many articles about him in the hometown newspaper—some running to several columns because of all the honors and awards he has won.

In my mind’s eye I can still see him singing and playing the guitar on their deck, while the guests sang along with gusto. It was one of those days made for nostalgia—warm and sunny after days and days of pouring rain. It was as if the skies had cleared up just to smile on this party for this wonderful young man.

As I drove back from the party, my eyes filled with tears and I started to cry. I was feeling such a storm of emotions that I could hardly comprehend it all. It has taken a few months to unravel all that I felt then and continue to feel—although not as intensely.

I felt as my own, the sadness that Pat’s parents probably felt because their child, for that is what he will always be to them, would soon move away. They would miss him, of course; but they would worry about him too. I realized that the day when my daughter will leave for college is not that far away. I have only four years in which to prepare her for life on her own. Will she be ready? Will I be ready? Even though intellectually I know that growing up and moving away is part of the circle of life, I am unable to greet these changes with aplomb.

I cried, too, at the thought that just when all the seemingly endless (and sometimes thankless) work of raising the child is done and he has become the person you hoped he would become, he has to leave you. If only he could still be around as your new friend!

Most of all though, I cried for the young me. There was a time in my life when I too stood on the threshold of a bright future, full of hopes and dreams. The big difference was that I was in India. Graduation was not a milestone, but a stepping stone. It was treated as such by me, by my peers, my parents and by society at large. The stepping stone was to lead to further studies abroad or a job with a multinational firm—only a pause on the escalator of upward mobility. There was an emphasis on making at least some of these “good” things happen and there was not even a pause to take stock and congratulate ourselves, my parents and I, on a job well done. We were so busy looking around the corner anticipating what would come next, that we forgot to enjoy the view that lay right before us.

I am referring to the late ’70s/early ’80s in India. The economic climate was much bleaker then than it is now. Those were the days of black-and-white televisions showing just the one television channel,
no VCRs, microwave ovens, computers, Internet. The era of software exports was just dawning and there weren’t the opportunities then that there are now for fresh young college graduates. The difference between the haves and have-nots was greater as was the difference between the amenities available there and here. Inflation and corruption were everywhere and there was but one chance to get the career path right—get into a good college and parlay that into a good job. All this gave the drive to move on to the next phase much more urgency than it has today.

At the time I graduated from IIT Mumbai, 10 medals were awarded at the convocation ceremony—one gold medal for the overall topper and nine silver medals for the topper in each department. Of these 10, only two were present at the ceremony and I was one of them. All the others and a sizeable percentage of the rest of the graduating class were already in the U.S., pursuing their “higher” studies. Their absence was noticeable because by the twisted logic of the time, the ones who stayed back and who were being feted had somehow failed to “make” it.

So, there was no celebration, no pats on the back, no reminiscing about the late nights of studying, no relief to see the end of deferred pastimes. There was nobody to congratulate my parents on their accomplishment—although it was as much theirs as mine. There are no pictures, no memories of food, fun and laughter.

And now, here I am 20 years later, living the life I then hoped to live. But, also aware of all that was lost then and all that continues to be lost. Not celebrating the graduation was only the first of many celebrations that my parents would miss. All the milestones must now be summarized in a short phone call. When we bought our first house, or when one of the children gets an award, I try to share it with them. But not being here and not knowing all the parameters, at best, it is only a report—not a shared event.

Worse, they cannot share our everyday lives—see the children as they grow, share their memories, pass down the family stories. The distance separates them, of course, but also culture and language. So those tears in the car were above all for my parents—for they lost and sacrificed the most.

I often hear people say that they came to this country so that the kids could get a good education. I say that too. But I mean something quite different. I don’t care about whether my daughter gets into Harvard. The point is that she does not have to. She will be spared the desperation to study hard to the exclusion of everything else, to do well enough to get into a top college. She will have a good life by virtue of other things unrelated to her grade point average—because of other qualities that she possesses and has cultivated; because in America those qualities define the person that she is at least as much as, if not more, than her grades do. And also because America, more than most others, is a place of second, third, fourth chances—chances to get an education, change professions, cultivate hobbies, reinvent oneself.

So, in four years when she graduates from high school, we will have a graduation party for her. If we are lucky, my parents will come from India. And it will be a belated graduation party for them and for me as much as it will be for her!

Just recently, I read that two SSC students committed suicide after the results were announced. So maybe even today, in India things are less bleak only for people who have already made it. The good news is that these are more in number and more spectacularly successful than in those late ’70s/early ’80s days.

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