Thursday, March 5, 2009

One step forward, one step back.

Today I feel like I have one foot firmly in the past and one firmly in my future and I’m being tugged along two different paths, down nostalgia in one direction and the great, wild unknown in the other, and somehow somehow magically in a Neil-Gaiman-esque fantasy way, both these paths will bring me to exactly the same place. Kind of like infinity and negative infinity (see, I know being a geek would come in handy sometime :D ) It’s like I am on the verge of some grand, fantastical plan and I’m peering into the endless possibilities of the future through the fog of my past.  

Today I am seeing my grandparents after one year. A feud has fragmented our (extended) family into little islands of unsocial beings, and for these and other reasons, I have not had the opportunity to meet them or some others for the last one year. Sometimes I wonder at man’s capacity to be pigheaded and if all those years of stoic conviction and missed interactions is really worth it in the end.

Today is also the day I just returned from a week-long trip to Boston. This trip was essentially a chance for me to catch a glimpse of life at the two Bs – Boston and Business school. A place I will soon call home, and an experience I will plunge into headlong in less than 4 months.

I had always thought of Boston as this Americanized vision of London, a teeming cultural and academic centre of vibrancy and life. This city does after all house some of the best institutions of learning. As a cultural centre, I’ve heard enough and more about its patron-of-the-arts status (Good music and theatre, here I come!) And of course, the city is steeped in historical and cultural significance. I went in looking to find an American version of London. Well, I wasn’t too off – except about the London part. I think perhaps it’s time I realize London is unparalleled and no matter where I spend my nights, that place will always feel more like home than home ever did, and I should give up trying to find the next best thing. Sigh. Here’s to finally letting go…

With that out of the way, here’s the deal with Boston. I like it. There’s something about brick houses and empty trees coated with a fine dust of snow. (Note to self: Never ever go trampling about in the snow in silly cloth converse shoes; they turn your toes blue) What with the work frenzy just before I left, I think my mind really was completely somewhere else till I landed in the states. But on the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel it finally hit me; This is the place I will soon be calling home. And that realization was so sudden it jerked me out of my dazed reverie and made me quietly put away the blackberry, and sit up and take note.

Boston is a tiny city. Somehow I expected something colossal, perhaps not on the scale of New York or Paris or London, but at least Madras. Madras may not have much to do 1, but at least it’s big-ish. Not in an unweilding Mumbai-traffic sort of way, or in an unsafe-and-peppered-by-rural-ghettos-Delhi-ish way, but in a rather nice, balanced goldilocks sort of traffic and size manner. Boston on the other hand is not teeming with people, not teeming with traffic (at least none that I saw, not like Bangalore or Bombay at any rate) and with clean air and cleaner sidewalks. It’s... different. I guess it will take some time getting used to.

Which brings us to the other B: B-school. Walking down Soldiers Field, past the dorms, through Baker’s library, lounging about at Spangler, taking pictures standing on the ice outside... suddenly my dad tells me how being here brings back so many memories. While he’s busy reminiscing some of his best times and buying T-shirts at the coop, I’m wondering if I’ll fit in. Suddenly it’s the first day of school all over again.

I suppose I never thought I would be one to ever experience culture shock. But then again, Boston is not London, and HBS is not Anna. The only thing Church Park, Anna and HBS have in common is that they’re all donkeys’ years old and ‘legacy and heritage’ institutions – 200 years, 200 years, and 100 years. Oh yeah, and all the brick buildings. All of a sudden, being 24 seems a lot younger than I feel.

That’s one of the first things that struck me: how young everyone felt. And this had nothing to do with age, everyone from the professors to the admin working at HBS are really active and do go out of their way to make you comfortable and answer any doubts you may have. I’ve never expected to meet anything but bureaucracy and cold indifference at an academic institution. I think I was taken aback by all of the sudden effervescence.

I can handle chaos in the streets, mad work days and sudden, unplanned work trips but when it comes to actual work/learning... I like everything laid out, a German precision in preparing for exams and no ‘fat’ when it comes to classroom discussions. I make a conscious effort to be very controlled at work, and that lets me be mad and spontaneous in other creative pursuits. So when the two worlds collide and I see a more relaxed, fun and sociable environment creeping into my clinical world of ‘work’, it rattles me. I’ll get used to it I suppose. In time.

Another incident that gave me something to think about was sitting in at a class. The class was great, the subject they were tackling was really interesting and everyone was charged up and energized – I’ve never seen a classroom that proactive and engaged before.  But the most perplexing thing was the comments and the actual class discussion. The professor was superlative in guiding the class discussion and reaching a solution collectively, but he did not discourage any comments. Most of the comments were very relevant but some only peripherally so, and were almost like commentary. This was my first ‘shock’ at HBS.

Coming from Anna, most of the instruction was lecture-based, and of course I’ve been lucky to have had some absolutely spectacular professors. We did have tutorial classes, those once-a-week periods that were dedicated for discussion and problem-solving and reflecting on what we have learnt this past week. During these discussions – and in some regular classes too – we’d tackle problems collectively; but mediocrity was really discouraged. If you had something to say, and it was an epiphany, or progressed the discussion down the right path (and you were absolutely sure you were right) or highlighted a critical flaw in the approach so far, or highlighted an infinitely more optimal way of arriving at the same conclusion... then you spoke up. If what you had to say merely added flavour to the discussion but was not deemed ‘vital’, then one was best advised to keep it to oneself. Here however I found the tables turned, and everyone was encouraged to participate.

At first I was a little annoyed, and wondering why on earth I would want to waste my 80 minutes of precious class time listening to pointless, obvious comments... but then I spoke to a friend who moved to the US twenty years ago when he was my age. What he had to say put things in a new light. What I witnessed in that classroom is probably indicative of American culture in general and their approach to work and learning. Small talk is big in America. No one really gets straight to the point and walks away when their job in done; if they do, they’re viewed as unsociable. I took a while to digest this information.... and thinking back I guess he was right and if this class served to train one in this country’s way of problem-solving, then I guess they’re placing emphasis on the right things by allowing students to really get a rounded education, and not just treat the class as a vessel to cram as much information into passive receivers. I think I will like it here; if I come in with an open mind and try not to get too many “culture shocks”. You know the old saying, when in Rome... pick up a fiddle and start fiddling.

The other thing that I found odd was the number of people who kept congratulating me throughout the day. Faculty, admin, students, you name it; everyone was about clapping, and congratulating and pats-on-backs and being cheerful and optimistic and energetic. Every time I heard someone say, ‘don’t worry, you’ll be fine’ for every doubt raised, I had a mini-panic attack. Don’t get me wrong: its a good thing – and rare – to find people that genuinely charged up and loving what they’re doing. I just wish someone would grab me and say, “Look, I’m not going to lie to you. This isn’t pessimism, its reality. It’s tough and you’re gonna have a hard time here. So brace yourself, and work hard.”

I can’t believe I’m actually worrying about slacking off at Harvard (if such a thing were possible!) but I wish people would stop saying ‘don’t worry’ all the time. But yes, these are early days yet, and really just my first taste of things to come. I’m sure all of that will change and soon I will be wishing I hadn’t wished for it. Or adapt to my new environment – which is also a good thing.

So there we go: fear, hope, worry, excitement, energy, nostalgia and optimism all bundled into one 5’4 frame. But I suppose the more frightful – and exciting – thing is my business venture, and watching the dream that I’ve nurtured and worked on for two years now finally culminating in a launch less than two weeks away. After that, I guess HBS would be icing on the cake.

Here’s to new beginnings. And nostalgic endings.


 1 – Depends on what you consider ‘much’. It’s pretty much the seat of culture, with kutcheri-hopping, classical dance and performance in general finding a hugely appreciative and loyal following here. For the more ‘anglicized’ victims like me, there’s a fairly good theatre scene and lots of individuals who are trying to breathe some new life into an old city. And then there’s the beach. Personally I’ve loved spending a lazy Sunday with a book at a café overlooking the sea. The shore is where I go every time I feel blue (pun unintended!) And then of course, there’re lots of ‘hidden’ gems like Amethyst and Anokhi that provides the perfect place to lounge about. Come to think of it…. Madras does have a lot.

I suppose my only gripe is with people here. Conservative, nosy, close-minded and tight-lipped (except when it comes to talking about who’s wife’s sister’s daughter was seen sharing a coffee with which uncle’s brother’s son) and let’s not forget all the self-righteous moral policing. I suppose one could argue that Moral-policing happens anywhere in India (a friend of mine has currently set her status message to TALIBANgalore and I don’t think she’s too off the mark), but I also suppose Madras is the only city that wholeheartedly supports such activity with a tch-tch-they-had-it-coming-attitude. And oh yes, there are no shops. None. Unless you want to gorge on gold jewellery and silk saris, in which case, knock yourself out.


dheepikaa b said...

Was like taking a step down into your head. Good luck. :)

Converse shoes?

compos mentis said...

my dirty green keds! :D

W H said...

might be of help

Scribbler said...


keep it rollin;)

PS: I will be back for more

Anonymous said...

you are simply jobless

Puchku said...


Just that.


bumshake said...

I came across your blog by chance, i'm not your blog stalker. yet.
The same things about classes in this part of the world struck when I got here, and you're article was very interesting to read.

Good luck with everything you get into