Sunday, August 23, 2015

18 years ago...

An anniversary of sorts - an important one, actually - one of those days that change your life for good! 23rd August 1997, the day I flew from Mumbai to Chicago, left India for the US - the day that has shaped my life for the last 18 years!! Didn't give it much thought back then - was kind of a go-with-the-flow thing - finish your B.E., take the GRE, apply to an US university for the Masters program, and wait to be accepted, before packing up and taking off!! Nothing to it, isn't it?!! In hindsight, I'm amazed I even dared to go - can you imagine, 21 years I had lived in the same city, in the same house even - and then out of the blue, one day I'm flying 8000 miles away to a country I knew nothing about!!

Taking the GRE was the easiest part - well, relatively speaking!! Minor problems, really - my very first passport, the only ID allowed for the GRE, didn't arrive as expected - and it took a nerve-wracking day at the sweltering, crowded Mumbai passport office with my uncle - before I could get my passport!! Rushed back to Pune, and celebrated my passport with a glass of cool sugarcane juice - really, really bad idea - as I came down with a high fever just 2 days before the exam!! I'm not kidding - not a drop of sugarcane juice have I tasted after that day!! All things considering, I ended up with quite a decent score - first step done!!

The application process was incredibly clunky - nothing online, no scanned copies - everything had to be a hard-copy and hand-written - and what with all the mark-sheets, the recommendation letters, the Statement of Purpose, birth-certificate, passport copies, and copies of every possible document or certificate I possessed - the application package was considerably large!! I think I had sent off applications to about 10 short-listed universities - and I remember that the postage was absolutely astronomical!! Once the replies started coming up - was quite the thrill, receiving the envelopes with the US stamps - the actual selection was based on a very simple criteria - I needed not only a tuition waiver, but also an assistantship with a stipend - obviously, the school had to have a good Engineering program - finally, ended up being Michigan Technological University!!

The biggest potential obstacle - no surprise there! - was getting the US student visa. Once the acceptance and admission letter arrived from MTU, it was back to Mumbai - this time to the US Embassy. This was before you could book visa interview appointments online - I remember reaching the Embassy at about 7am, to join a queue of at least 50 people - to wait for the Embassy to open. I had a single file with my MTU documents, and a statement from Dad's bank - and my heart sank when I heard the talk as I waited - that I had to show funds to support a 2 year stay in the US before I would get the visa, and all these people had these sheafs of documents - whatever was I going to do? Thankfully, my fears were quite unfounded, and my F1 visa was approved without too many questions!!

And then the days flew by in a blur!! There was shopping to be done - can you believe, leather jackets from Mumbai and woolen inners from Ahmedabad - both of which proved to be quite ineffective against the bitter Michigan winter!! Rudimentary cooking lessons - and basic utensils and staples - and lots of snacks!! Rounds of farewell - I was quite literally the first person in my extended family to go abroad - and ended up getting a ton of probably undeserved attention - not that I was complaining, with so many delicious meals coming my way - I was quite enjoying my sudden celebrity status!!

Every little detail was special then - including booking the airline ticket! We're talking 18 years ago - way, way before the era of e-tickets and online payments - the Air India ticket that the travel agent brought home was like a little booklet - Mumbai - London - Chicago, departure 23rd August!! Finally, the 2 huge suitcases were packed - 50kg was the baggage allowance - and weighed, ribbons tied to the handles for easier identification, big labels with the destination address stuck on (in case they were misplaced!), friends dropping in at the last minute - this is it, down to the wire now, time for final goodbyes!

The morning we left for Mumbai was quite chaotic - quite a drama was coming our way! My mom had given me a pair of earrings as a farewell gift - and that morning, I happened to lose one - well, all of us searched high and low, but the errant earring was nowhere to be found. Not a great start to the journey - but I had a flight to catch - and it was time to leave. My Dad had arranged for a different car to drive us to Mumbai - a bit larger than the Premier Padmini Fiat we owned at that time. And true to the saying - when it rains, it pours - funnily enough, it really was raining that day - not 30 minutes on our way, and the 'special' car was stuck in an a stream that had overflowed. Hmm, it's a good thing I don't believe in omens!

Nothing left to do, but head back home again - and resume the journey with our Fiat - its higher chassis meant that it would do fine on the monsoon flooded roads! And then - I still don't know how to explain this, was this a higher power at work, or simply, a mere co-incidence - one shining moment, which elevated everyone's spirits - as my bags were being loaded into the Fiat, something shiny caught my eye - near the left rear wheel - is it? Can it be?? Yes, yes, yes - incredibly, unbelievably - it was the missing earring!! What's that I was saying about omens, again?!! The good old Fiat - BTJ 122, strange the things that stick in memory - took us safely to my uncle's house in Mumbai, and then to the airport a few hours later.

Those few hours - were probably the longest in my life. Knowing that soon I would be leaving everything familiar behind - for the first time ever, I would be completely on my own - and worse, I didn't know when I would get the chance to return! I think I must have blanked out at that point - can't believe that I didn't break down, and point-blank refuse to go. And although at that time, it was all about me - looking back now, I can't imagine what my parents must have gone though!! Hardest thing ever - to let a child go - and what troopers they were - smiles on their faces until I left to board, showing me no sign of the immense mental turmoil they must have felt!

On the other hand, I was completely in tears by the time I was in my seat on the plane. If someone had offered me the chance to turn back, to get off the plane - I'm sure I would have jumped at it. But I did stay on that plane, did make it all the way to Chicago - finding reserves of strength that I didn't know I had! What happened when I got to Chicago? - well, that's surely a tale for another day!! For now, I'm reliving this day 18 years ago - the first step on a journey of a lifetime!!

No comments:

Post a Comment