Scales of success

A few days ago, I had posted on this blog a link of an essay I wrote for the tehelka magazine. The online version had missed out on a paragraph which I thought, could not escape the chopping at the Editor’s desk but when I looked at the printed version, I was glad to find out that it was almost unabridged. Sure, publishing in a magazine of the stature of Tehelka was itself the best thing that ever happened to me but to make it’s way to the ink with minimal changes was very confidence boosting. Anyway, I am publishing the essay here now and I am glad and thankful for the good wishes I have got at facebook, email and everywhere else.

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It was almost ten years ago on a starry night in Pune, a friend and I had enjoyed coffee at our usual joint and discussed the benchmarks to measure success in life. Though we differed on a set scale, our lowest common denominator seemed to be a position in life where we could “choose” to come to America. It was a one off thing, just two college grads ranting and dreaming while being conveniently oblivious to the harsh realities of life that lay ahead.

Then at the beginning of this year, a trip to America started to seem like a real possibility. I had long forgotten about that talk in Pune. Instead, the last few months, I had started to imagine, how would it be to see America for the first time, from a few thousand feet up in the air. I had replayed the whole sequence in my mind invariably with the same result because it seemed to center around gazing at the Statue of Liberty below, while the plane approached landing. I knew it was not possible for that to happen because there was a good chance I may not land at JFK afterall.

But I made it close, touching down at Newark. I do not know if my plane hovered above the Statue of Liberty because, despite my best efforts, when the moment came, I found myself seated at the aisle seat.

I had gone to America on a 6 month deputation, work was imperative. But I had other aims in mind too. In those 6 months, I aimed to build a perspective of the country that Hollywood could never help me with, that would be balanced in nature just as I wanted it to be: free from prejudice. There is much to learn from what could be said the most successful democracy of our times. I have always believed very strongly in what Bono has to say about America — “It’s like hey, look there’s the moon up there, let’s take a walk on it, bring back a piece of it. That’s the kind of America that I’m a fan of”. My fascination about the country was centered around this quote.

My first glimpse of America eventually turned out to be the view from the immigration queue. It was Newark bay as I would later realize and the tall red cranes of the port standing in sequence, almost guardian like, to the zipping cars on the highway below made a sight to behold.

Almost a month later, we made it to New York City, which was only an hour away by train. Entering through the suburbs of the city, it looked a lot like Mumbai (minus the slums) and just like Mumbai, it had it’s own distinct smell in the air. A few moments after I came out of The New York Penn station, I saw the Empire State building. I knew back in my mind that there’s a memory being formed right now which would stay vivid forever. I was in such awe of the place that later that misty evening, I spent two hours sitting on a bench below the Empire State, writing postcards to my friends and family back home. I went to Times Square, watched people, listened to U2’s “New York” and clicked pictures while sipping Starbucks.

In the months that followed I kept coming back to New York City, visited Central Park and took photos of Empire State Building in various shades, one of them when the building was bathed in Saffron, White and Green, on August 15th. The New Yorkers thought it had something to do with Ireland.

But my ultimate realisation and my “moment” happened a few months later, on a NYC boat ride that started at Seyport and took us from below the Brooklyn Bridge to the Statue of Liberty. There I was, staring at the monument that was the ultimate symbol of America in my mind, as the sun set over Manhattan. During that sunset, it dawned upon me for the first time, that I had subconsciously fulfilled a promise I had made to myself ten years ago on that night in Pune. By those standards, I had arrived somewhere in life. It was, all of a sudden, surreal. I closed my eyes and let it sink in.

A few months after that moment, I was in the plane headed back to India. As the plane approached take-off, I could see the New York Skyline under the evening Sun. I had cut short my trip owing to various reasons and had chosen, happily and unregretfully, returning back to my country over staying in America.

Could I have imagined this, that night in Pune? Maybe in our rush, my friend and I had discounted the possibility of a finale like this. How would the idea of “choosing” to leave America — at our own will, fare in our benchmarks? I didn’t know the answer and maybe at that moment I didn’t care but I kept my gaze at New York’s tallest building, a faint shade of grey with a hint of silver — far away, until I could.

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