Flashbacks: Chennai

I was 12 years old when I withdrew from St. John’s International Residential School. I’m 19 now. It’s been seven years since I set foot on that South Indian campus.

Mathematics says, “36.8% of your life has passed by since.”

My mother’s basement security locker says, “You have finished middle school, high school, and since enrolled in college.”

My mind says, “The changes you’ve undergone since outweigh any estimates, infinitely.”

I scribbled burritotumlet47@yahoo.com on a post-it note and passed it to Rajkumar.

“Raj, this has been fun. You really helped me get through this place, but my brother and I decided we’re going back to America. We can only put up with so much food poisoning.”

“This is sad, man. Who knows when we’re going to meet again?”

“I’m not sure bro, but we’re gonna have to. Email me in a couple days after I make that email account.”

We dapped up and gave another a short hug.

“Smuggle another Red Bull from the snack bar for me next time.”

“For sure, man. Have fun in America.”

I left as a young boy, half traumatized, half invigorated. I never made that e-mail account. I never re-connected with anyone I met there. I only thought – always thought – about what would’ve changed if I stayed there, if I learned to accept the difficulties, if I never came in the first place, if I stayed in America, if I stayed enrolled at St. Michael’s, continuing the Catholic education I never returned to.

These questions are inexplicable, incomprehensible, unfathomable.

I had to go back to campus. I had to see what reaction the familiar place would evoke. That was the single thing I promised myself before leaving this summer to India. It would be a suitable last destination for the cross-country journey Madi, Matt, and I planned to take together.

The calendar read June 10, 2016. Matt had parted ways and since left for Bhind. Packing up our bags and dropping them off at the hotel reception desk at noon – our ineptly planned checkout time – Madi and I walked outside into the humid Chennai weather and waved down a rickshaw. According to Google Maps, SJIRS was in Thousand Lights, a locality only twenty minutes away.

After a brief exchange in Tamil, the driver nodded his head, throttled the engine, and headed in that direction. On both sides, the familiar Indian roadside passed by. Shops advertised cellphone recharges. Young and old sold fruit. Horns honked nonstop. Cows blocked off parts of the road. I was used to it all, and I loved it the same; humidity was the only troubling part. Driving around felt like floundering in a marsh.

We pulled up to a gas station; we were in the close vicinity. The driver asked if I knew what street the school was on.

“Nah.”

He waved down a clerk and started asking questions, but it turned out he never heard of the place. I was surprised; campus was huge. The clerk directed us to the nearest rickshaw stand. Again hopping out, I approached the small battalion of men dressed in the same olive uniforms. My driver led off the conversation, but soon enough I repeated St. John’s International Residential School several times in my best Indian accent.

They all shook their heads in denial, claiming no school by that name was around here. I pulled up the location on Madi’s phone and pointed to the area on Google Maps. We stood close by the pin. They did not reverse their stance. Increasingly flustered, I switched on international roaming (sorry Madi) and pulled up the written address. I read it aloud.

“Sir, that’s about 30-40 kilometers from here.”

Google Maps was wrong, but I was in too deep; I couldn’t miss seeing the place I promised myself to visit. A short haggle between the rickshaw driver and I ensued. We settled on 1100 rupees, but that didn’t stop him from trying to extort 500 rupees of gas money off me 5 minutes later. I ended up giving him 200 on top.

It was about 1:00 PM; my flight was scheduled to depart at 6:30. We had time. Cruising down block, turn and intersection, we transitioned out of the dense metropolitan center into the cleaner, less crowded section of the city. Breathing became easier; more animals wandered between the roads – no goats though.

7 years. The number kept popping up in my head, and reflection upon it became meditative. It had been 7 years since I turned my back to that campus. What would the boy who was leaving say to the young man who was arriving?

Rain hammered against the outside walls. Inside, over 50 boys sat congregating amongst themselves – all Indian, most Tamil, myself included. Our warden had locked the door outside, our gateway to freedom, so all we could do was guess. The wind howled, screeching amidst the occasional crack of thunder. I imagined the heaven’s spouting all the sound and fury it found itself capable. I walked over to Rajkumar.

“There’s no way we’re going to have a study session in this kind of weather. It’s probably not even safe to be out.”

“It’s raining pretty hard, I think there might be a good cha–“

Warden burst out from his sleeping quarters. He walked over to front door of our dorm hall and slid in the rusted silver key.

“One line, one line. Shortest to tallest, shortest to tallest. Hurry up, Hurry up. Rain is going to come inside.”

Study hours weren’t cancelled.

St. John’s instilled a 3rd world psychology: it taught me to endure. It took a young boy – fat and stuffed with insecurities – and broke him even further. It showed weakness; it showed dependency. It instilled the spirit of revolution, what my youth often twisted into rebellion.

By 2:30, we had left behind the urban sprawl. Small shops and rural communities dotted the landscape. I checked my plane ticket. I had misread. The flight was scheduled for 5:30, an hour earlier than planned. I thought about turning around.

“Only 2 km, sir, only 2 km.”

A brief stop would be better than no stop.

Is India the norm or is it America? Who says which rules are right? Who judges truth? Who judges value? When customs contradict, who do I obey?

The warden slapped me.

“I have rights, you know. You’re not allowed to do that.”

He slapped me again.

In the seven years since, I learned to question and I learned to break the rules, constantly, often needlessly. It became a pursuit of meaning. Eventually, I found philosophy, I found fiction, I found fashion, I found entrepreneurship.

In the seven years since, on a generous grant, I returned to India to study its textile industry. I saw its beauty, I saw the problems within, and I saw the glory that had yet to be tapped into.

In the seven years since, I realized that I will move back to my homeland after I graduate and help rural farmers in the northeast produce the world’s rarest silk. I have been given what these indigenous communities could never dream of. It has become my mission to improve their lives, to educate them, to allow the youth to rise.

In the seven years since, I understood that if I wasn’t helping others then if I wasn’t helping myself.

The rickshaw started to slow. The driver turned onto the dirt road and slowly depressed from the gas pedal. The vehicle came to a halt. He stepped outside.

I remember the full stretch of campus. A metal gate barred the entry. The customs desk, senior principal’s office, and snack bar were all at the front.  The auditorium and the swimming grounds were a little beyond. Diagonal to them was the gymnasium. Pass the second security gate and there was the school, volleyball and racquetball courts up front. Beyond them were the dorms and sports fields, track and tennis courts opposite. Surrounding everything was that ominous chain-linked fence.

But this wasn’t it. None of it was. This was some Polytechnic Institute called St. Joseph’s. The security guard up front claimed he’d never heard of a St. John’s around here. I got back in and told the driver to turn around.

Sometimes 7 years isn’t long enough.

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