Monday, January 01, 2007

Have Nothing At All (Aug 2001 - Dec 2001)

Indian students in USA can be broadly divided into three. The 'haves', the 'have nots' and the 'have nothing at alls'. The haves, better known as American Born Confused Desis (ABCDs), come to college in flashy cars, hang around in funky malls and give the rest of us a preview of what our kids would be like if we stay on in US. Most of them are wonderful people. Very funny, very balanced, and often extremely brilliant. Cant help but admire them. But then there are 'the others'. What do I say!! They look upon us as the scum of the earth. They call us PIGS (Poor Indian Graduate Students) and they think that the ultimate dream of all of us is to get a foot into their 'cool' circle of friends. Someday I'm going to ask one of these asinines if he realises that his parents were also 'PIGS' like us.

The have nots are Indian students, albeit one rung up on the hierarchy because they have a scholarship. Some of them deserve it by virtue of their brains, some get it through sheer hard work, and some are just plain lucky. But however they get it, once they get it, they are worshipped. Every semester they is a crowd of new students around every one of them receiving tips on the fine art of 'obtaining a scholarship'. Among scholarships an RA (research assistantship) is the holy grail. If you get one, you are pretty much set throughout your MS. Usually the research you do will be sufficient to get you a couple of publications before you get out, an easy ticket to a job. Slightly less coveted is the TA (teaching assistantship). Here, you assist a professor with his lectures, grade homeworks, take labs, and help students with any doubts on the subject. It is a fun job for those who like teaching. You meet so many different people. I lost a lot of my prejudices about Americans after I became a TA. The big bonus of a scholarship, in addition to the paycheck, is the fact that your semester's fees gets waived. This could be as high as $20000 (It was $5000 in my university). This leaves you with enough money to buy a used car, rent out some furniture, get a PlayStation, and indulge in some creature comforts. A decent life.

The 'have nothing at alls' bring up the rear end of the hierarchy. They would have run from pillar to post from the day they land, to the last day scholarships are handed out. Discouraged and demoralised, they would, in one stroke, exhaust whatever money they bring from India to pay tuition fees for the semester. They then take up whatever hourly job they get on campus to make ends meet. If this is not enough, they also need to get a scholarship for the next semester or it is back to India. To this end, they volunteer to take up a little work without pay from any willing professor (there are many unscrupulous ones waiting for these students) and also study hard to ensure straight As and a grade point average of 4 for the semester. It is a miserable life that allows no more than 4 or 5 hours of sleep at one go and at least one night a week when one doesn't sleep at all. How do I know? .. I was a 'have nothing at all' for my first semester.

I landed in US in August 2001. I couldn't get in touch with any senior, so three of us newbies shacked up in the cheapest two bedroom apartment we could find. Vidyasagar, Meghraj and me. We were a study in contrast. Vidya wanted to live life king size. He got a scholarship the day after he landed. The next day he took us to Walmart and bought everything we could ever need. From toilet paper to a microwave oven .. everything. Meghraj and my eyes popped out. We sat him down and explained our dire financial situation to him. "Dont worry macha!! did I ask for the money? .. you pay when you have it .. till then I'll pay". Magnanimous guy .. but a little less magnanimous and a little more parsimonious was what we were looking for. And so we talked on until we had tempered his enthusiasm and talked him out making walmart a second home. The last day for fee waiver had dawned and Meghraj and I were still unlucky. There was this one scholarship in another department. It was a toss up between the two of us. The person told us that unless one of us stepped down he would have to put off the decision to the next day. With hounds on our tail, we knew we couldn't wait. Meghu's need was greater than mine and I backed out.

So D-day passed and I was on this side of the line. Time to look for a job. Meghraj still needed a little more money and so he too joined me on the job search boat. We tried the cafeteria first, but they had already hired everyone for the semester. That left the cleaning jobs for the stadiums. Person in charge was an old man called Mike who had a reputation of being a grouch. After a brief search Meghraj and I managed to find his office. Wasn't the most pleasant sight. It had 666 nailed on the door and the room was full of pictures of spiders and other insects. In the middle of it sat Mike, in all his glory. "You guys looking for a job? Go talk to Mary, fill out the forms and report for work at the basketball courts after the next game .. get out! " We got out, and it dint feel a second too soon. We filled out the forms and left.
Games were usually on Friday, so that Friday we reported for work at 8:00 0 clock in the evening. There were two people in charge, Mike and his beautiful assistant Rebecca. We warmed to Rebecca instantly. She spoke softly, asked us about India and was really sweet to everyone. "I'll need two people to come with me and mop the Concord." Meghraj and I shot out of our seats as volunteers. The rest of you join me to clean the courts and the bleechers", said Mike. Two birds with one stone. Mike out of the way and we work together. So we followed Rebecca to the Concord. She showed us what to do and left. We put in steady work for a couple of hours and completed mopping the Concord. We were tired. Just as we were about to sit down, Rebecca popped out from thin air. "You guys done? Great, come with me to the next section". We could see Mike and his boys from where we were. Mike was really good to them. To begin with he worked with them, so he knew when to stop. Every 45 mins he gave them a break and often he got them hot dogs or something similar to eat. Our tummies were making funny sounds. Rebecca dint seem to notice. She took us to the next section, showed us what to do, and took off. This went on for the whole night. Mike and his men made merry while Meghraj and I toiled and toiled till our hands were ready to drop from our shoulders. I worked on the courts for the whole semester, but never again did I work for Rebecca. It was Mike or no one. The next semester I landed a TA and said an emotional farewell to life as a 'have nothing at all'.
P.S : That picture was taken in the department building at 3 O clock in the morning. We were just about done with homeworks and were winding down with a game of cards.