Two weeks before I am to graduate from Duke, I begin to make a list of things to do and see in North Carolina that I don’t want to have missed. It’s a last-ditch list of all those things I said I’d do and see but never managed in four short years of college. Have a picnic on the Eno River. Listen to a band at the Cat’s Cradle. I make a list of people to say goodbye to as well (professors, friends, acquaintances I haven’t seen in years), of places to take farewell pictures on campus, of my favorite foods at local eateries that I should make sure to eat, just one last time. I plan what I hope will be a series of ceremonious goodbyes and memorable events that will structure my last 10 days of college. I entertain multiple fantasies regarding my Duke Last Supper.
I have such good intentions. But when graduation weekend rolls around and I still have not met A for coffee or gone to B’s office hours to say goodbye, I start to feel a mounting sense of failure. My mind fills with a litany of things undone, of outings I could have taken, of conversations I wish I had had with friends I never did manage to see. How do I account for the fact that I never attended the Full Frame Documentary Festival, arguably Durham’s most famous attraction and one of the best documentary film festivals in the nation? I never celebrated Halloween on the infamous Franklin Street in Chapel Hill; I never went to the beach in North Carolina; I never ate at Bojangles.
I never. It is at the moment of transition that I am most painfully aware of what I am about to leave behind, of all that I might have done differently, of decisions made and postponed that figure in my thinking now as regrets. I torture myself over each delayed action, until I realize this: all those things that I did not do and see while I was at Duke are in fact those things that will compel me to go back. I move out, then, content with the knowledge that I must return.
I return to San Jose, degree in hand, and move back into a room I’ve inhabited since age 15. I feel that nothing has changed since I went to university because nothing in my room has changed. Proust writes about this—the powerful way in which habit structures each of our encounters with a particular space, determines our behavioral patterns, even our thinking. The posters, the pictures, the bedspread, the nightstand, even the books here have occupied their places stolidly for seven years.
It feels both natural and absurd to walk the halls of my old home and try to imagine it now as the new. Everything is in its place; I know where to find the potato chips in the pantry and which bathroom drawer contains the extra toothpaste. But I am so used to encountering this house as a place to visit between semesters, to stop and eat with family on short vacations, that I am not quite sure how to behave like anything but a guest in my own home.
The first thing I do when I move in is to strip the bed of its comforter and replace it with the one I used at Duke. It’s worn, unwashed, and has acquired all manner of strange stains after having been stored in garages and bins for three summers in Durham. But when I pull it over my head it achieves the desired effect: to interrupt the thoughts of a teenager, of a high school student, the thoughts I begin to have when I move back into my room and must role-play a younger version of myself.
Hong Kong boasts one of the world’s most unique public transportations devices: the longest continuous stretch of escalators in the world. I wander around the city alone, camera in hand, passing street vendors who sit before a veritable death row of fish, still alive and wriggling in their bowls of inch-deep water, across the street from fashionable people shopping at Gucci and Esprit. I am looking for the escalator to take me back to my cousin’s place at Mid-Levels. I wind my way through packed streets of business people, tourists, expats, and natives, reading signs to Sun-Yat Sen University and Hollywood Road. All the streets have English names (Queen Victoria, Jubilee, Connaught Place). “Is this China?” I ask aloud. There is a fine line, I realize, between geography and belonging.
I reach the Central-Mid-Levels escalator. Walk on the left, stand on the right. I stand. As we begin to inch forward and up, I watch the men and women walking beside me on the escalator. Indians coming from Jamia Masjid, Chinese with their children in tow, French, Filipino, German, and my fellow Americans with their Lonely Planet guides. I take them in as they pass, sometimes in a blur, sometimes with slow, laborious steps. I do nothing to hasten my own ascent, but I watch everyone around me, eager to understand and inhabit the lives of those who have come from all over the world, who hold different occupations, and are in Hong Kong for distinct purposes and durations. I am fascinated by these people who seem to embody clichés about globalization and world citizenship, and are connected here, of all things, by a giant moving platform.
Everything has the same potential when you’re staring at a blank Word document, willing your fingers to move on the familiar keys and make patterns of words to communicate where you are and how you feel about it. The writing process is funny like that; so much writing happens in the space between encountering the screen and producing the material. It is in fact the generative white space of no-article that determines what is eventually created. So many times I have sat down with the intention of writing one piece and come away with another thing entirely.
For six years now, I have had the privilege of sitting before blank screens in order to make something to share with the readers of India Currents. The locations from which I have filed my column have been varied—Cochin, Cape Town, London, Paris, Durham, Guatemala City, San Jose—but the blank screens have held the same promise. I have tried in so many words to communicate my experiences as a high-school, then college student, as a young woman, as an Indian American, as a Bay Area resident, as a citizen of the ever-changing world. In the six years that I have written for IC, everything around and within me has moved. But my convictions remain in place, my commitment to the intellectual and creative space of this column, and my deepest appreciation and respect for the readers of this magazine.
I write now from the space of in-between, of moving in and moving out, transitioning from the position of student to that of working adult. I close my final Youth column without regrets, with gratitude for the space that I have had here and the habits it has enabled me to form, and, with great excitement, I look forward to all those I will encounter as I continue my journey with India Currents.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan will move on to the role of managing editor of India Currents starting with the August 2007 issue.