The other day I was driving along, daydreaming to the rhythm of NPR, when a voice from the past jarred me out of my reverie. It was John Holdren, President Obama’s top science advisor, discussing the administration’s recent report on climate change.
But I could start the story another way and tell you that one day, when I was a young woman living in India, I came across The Daily Cal, a student newspaper from Berkeley. My life could not have been at a lower point then. I had dropped out of the Ph.D. program in Physics at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kanpur; I had had an arranged marriage that was not quite fulfilling; I was about to turn twenty-five, the magical age at which all government and corporate jobs would close for me. But I had not given up. I was studying for competitive exams like the Indian Administrative Services; I was trying my hand at writing, publishing letters in the Times of India. Most of all, sitting in my garden in Bhopal, I was reading.
When, in The Daily Cal I read about a new graduate program in Energy and Resources in Berkeley, I thought nothing of it. I was totally disenchanted with ivory tower institutions, the sexual harassment at the hands of male students in IIT who outnumbered females by orders of magnitude, the “foreign returned” professors who were only focused on publishing research papers, and the harsh climate of Kanpur.
Berkeley could only be worse, I thought. As a young girl, I had dreamt of America, but it had become a distant Shangrila. But a pen pal who lived in the United States urged me to apply. So I hand-wrote the application, purchased a fortune worth of postage stamps, and after mailing it, promptly forgot about it.
One cold winter morning, I traveled to Delhi by train; out of thousands who had taken the competitive exams, I had been chosen for an interview for the position of Probationary Officer for the Bank of India. As I listened to my competitors chatting in convent school accents in the hallway, I felt I had no chance. My wedding necklace of black beads was enough to disqualify me; the bank never appointed married women to such executive positions.
But then fortune smiled upon me; the chair of the interview panel asked me the one question I could wax eloquent about, the significance of T.S. Eliot’s play, “The Confidential Clerk.” And lo and behold, I secured one of the most coveted jobs in the country, becoming the first woman in the State of Madhya Pradesh to acquire such a position.
My application to Berkeley had bounced back in the meantime because I had not written an essay explaining why I wanted to study there. Why did I want to study energy and resources? Because alternative energy was the only hope for India’s future? Because the country’s poor could become self-reliant with the aid of biogas, biomass, and solar energy projects? Because Gandhi himself had advocated such small scale rural development? I channeled Jawaharlal Nehru, John Kenneth Galbraith, and my father Dada to write my essay, by hand.
Soon, I became a banker. I attended an executive training session in Mumbai; I hobnobbed with Bhopal’s elites; I joined the other half. Once I passed probation, I would get perks like interest-free loans for houses and vacations at hill stations.
I had forgotten all about Berkeley, when, out of the blue, I received a letter from Professor John Holdren, the very same John Holdren who was on the radio the other day. “I believe we can benefit from the perspective of someone from the third world,” he wrote. I was elated. I had made the cut. I had been seen as good enough to enter Berkeley. The knowledge alone was enough for me. I did not actually plan to go there.
So I thanked John Holdren for accepting me into the program but regretted that I could not attend because I had no money to survive in the United States; without financial guarantees, the United States Consulate would not grant me a visa. Besides, the bank would not allow me to leave the country.
One afternoon, I began to shiver. I put on sweaters, I piled blankets on top, but the cold and fever would not go away; I had malaria. The local quack, who allegedly had purchased his medical diploma, could not help. The attacks continued, each one leaving me more debilitated than the one before.
I was in this fragile state when I received another letter from John Holdren. Unbeknownst to me, he had arranged a research assistantship at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab; I was to work on a Department of Energy project to improve energy efficiency in buildings.
Panic gripped me. I would fail in Berkeley, I thought. I was reluctant to abandon my successful life for one filled with unknowns. I was sure my marriage would not survive a move across continents. I was at the proverbial Morton’s fork. On one side were my family, my country, and my security. On the other were risk, adventure, and the foreign land I had always dreamt of. One life promised bouts with malaria, a bad marriage, and a job rife with politics; the other, divorce, minority status, and loneliness.
In the end it was my father who said I should go. “Who gets such an opportunity?” He said. The year was 1976.
Why am I telling you this story? I am not writing this because I want to boast about my achievements, but because, looking back, what stands out is the persistence of the young woman who dared, who showed up every time, who never gave up. I see the tale now, not as a part of my life, but as something that happened to someone else. All my friends were married by the time these events happened. Most took the easy way out, by earning the other “MA” degree, as in ma, or mother. I could easily have settled into the life of a housewife; I could easily have raised a couple of kids; I could easily have relegated my dream of America to a corner of my mind, to examine it every now and then with wonder. Instead, I struggled; I ventured; I persevered.
Along the way, people like the bank panelist, my pen pal, and John Holdren, helped. John, in particular, had the vision to see beyond my degree from the unheard of Nagpur University, to a world where all countries could join together to wrestle with problems like climate change.
But I did my part. “Showing up is eighty percent of life,” Woody Allen is alleged to have said.
That young woman showed up, every single time. It is a lesson I myself need to learn all over again.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.