Driving Ms. Desi


Even as we speak, hundreds of women in India are getting ready to enrol in universities across the United States for the fall semester. I was also a graduate student once, but I set out before the days of unlimited Internet access. Back then, America might well have been undiscovered for the precious little information I managed to gather about my destination.

Once on campus, undergraduates have an option of being rushed into three-letter Greek societies, which let them build lasting friendships with others who share similar ideals and purposes. Such groups purport to let members learn and grow, and double up as a corporate network after graduation, thus anchoring them for life. For Indian graduate students, a biraderi of seniors would willingly do this and more without fancy name badges like abc, tsz.

Indian student associations are extremely well organised. By default every desi on campus is considered a member even if they come to dinners but refuse to pay their dues. Soon after admission, decisions are made, an office-bearer picks up the list from the International Student Centre and mails relevant information to desis therein. And if you need a ride from the airport, why, they will be there to receive you.

When you arrive, more excited than jet-lagged, they put you up till you find an apartment, feed you during your stay and give you pointers till you are all set to live on your own. This process takes about a week and for their troubles they expect no thanks, just a hope that you will keep this tradition alive when the next batch of freshers comes in. In fact, they are so nice that later they never remind you of the many dumb things you said and did in your first week.

Inevitably, there is also a smaller sub-group whose motives are far less altruistic. These protege-seekers are to be found in the campus coffee shop or any suitable vantage. If you are on the way to the cafeteria they will tell you exactly which items on the menu taste good. Are you about to register for classes? They will list courses you should sign up for to land all those plum positions five years hence.

You find out soon that some of these self-appointed gurus are in the sixth year of their PhDs. Not that there is anything wrong with that. But their idea of making you feel at home is giving you way more personal information than necessary and expecting you to return the favour. Some members of this group own nth-hand cars and gallantly offer to give you rides whenever you need them.

America is a huge country with vast tracts of land that cannot be covered by foot, bike or the infrequent local bus. My apartment was within pedalling distance of school. An hourly campus shuttle from 6am to 12midnight would drop people off in the evenings during school days. Still, how do you get to grocery stores, malls and theatres, or just out someplace, anyplace?

Public transportation is not a popular concept in this land of automobiles. Only the ultra-rich get chauffeured around here. If you don’t know to drive you are at a real disadvantage.

In our southern town by the bayou, there was one dingy desi store miles away. The shopkeepers were rude and stocked products that were clearly past their prime. These days ethnic grocers on the Web deliver pappad, pickles, basmati rice and the rest of the good stuff right to your doorstep so you no longer have to make that trek.

A personal getaway car would seem like an extravagance in the first semester, but think of the advantages. You can go where you want, when you want. The ability to put in night shifts in the lab or the library could help you academically as well. The best part is that you never have to go places you don’t want to. Here are a few instances:

* Random potluck parties. Ask yourself this — would you hangout if there was no food involved?

* Viewing the latest Bollywood flick. Nostalgia is a poor excuse to be watching pirated video prints, which you conscientiously avoided back home. Particularly when the media library in the school lets you watch tapes of the very best the world has to offer, Indian classics included.

* Holi celebrations. These simply turn into a licence to grope in crass company, in India or abroad.

Indebting yourself to this sub-group is a sure way of forfeiting a lifetime’s opportunity to be part of the bigger picture. Once student days are over you will never have this unique chance to make friends with people from all over the world. No adventures in American culture after travelling so far? Now that would be a real bummer. Just because you couldn’t fend off one small over-familiar bunch of Romeos who pretended to offer you instant kinship like co-passengers in a second-class coach on a longish train journey.

It is really okay to avoid their company. They will be fine. Why, they could be trendsetters and form the first desi Hellenic society. Here is a name for it — rbr. That’s Greek for Rho Beta Rho.