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story | Aryan Chhabra, Prospective Student
photo | Aryan Chhabra
The sandy terrains of Gujarat, a state in India, is home to members of different communities. The beef-forbidding Brahmins, the valorous Rajputs, the fish-loving Bengalis, as well as the proud Marathas all coexist in the small yet bustling town of Surat. To 10-year-old me, these differences were especially pronounced in my school through not only the different appearances of my batchmates but also by the languages we spoke.
Initially, as someone who was relatively new to this fraternity of differences, I was introduced to the basics of survival by my seniors; you hung out with students of your community and the method of communication was your regional language. Thanks to this narrow classification, social groups were generally divided based on regions. Anxious to fit in, I worked to stick with my regional group. This system was all encompassing. These differences were subtle yet evident. From the sharing of tiffins during recess, to the selection of teams during “Sports” time, one could see this structure at work at every instant of the daily grind. Before I realized it, I was no longer an inductee of this system. I was one of its many guardians.
Everything changed when my parents noticed my ever-increasing weight and my never-ending craving for food. They thus decided to send me to a boarding school in the faraway hills of Dehradun in Northern India. The dramatic farewells were skipped in the hopes that the austere environment of boarding school would instill in me obedience and discipline. (The jury’s out on its success, but I can’t really judge, can I?)
Unlike my previous school, my new alma mater was a bubble of post-sectarianism. No one cared about where someone came from as long as they supported the same football team, and everyone seemed to be an atheist all the way until exams approached. Holidays were just a license to play football or have a movie marathon with friends, no matter what festival it was for. My peers did not care to know what occasions the holidays were for, only that they got a day off. For all we knew, Diwali could have been like Halloween with firecrackers, and getting the two Eids straight was a Herculean task for most. In short, sect or community didn’t really govern anyone’s existence here.
As someone from a radically different background, I was initially uncomfortable with how the communities completely integrated in this institution, and I was eager to find a Gujarati like myself. I was surprised by the nonchalance with which my batchmates regarded their ancestry and age-old legacies. After all, wasn’t it the descendants’ jobs to carry them forward? And yet here there were many students who didn’t even know where they were from, let alone cared for preserving legacies.
Fortunately, my extracurricular activities provided an opportunity for me to interact and understand those of different backgrounds. Change came gradually and I understood the importance of not holding onto your identity and instead carving a new one. Above all, I realized that behind the various charades that cover our existence, we are all not that different from each other.
Because of my experience at boarding school, when I saw anyone crying due to punishment or facing difficulty, I no longer saw his pain as his own but mine as well, as I would respond the same way when I faced a similar plight. When I was joking and laughing with my batchmates, I forgot about the sects and other artificial divides that normally pervade our lives. When my classmates and I found out that it was someone’s birthday, the usual playground rivalries no longer mattered; instead, all of us came together to give the much cherished “birthday” bumps and consume rather generous fillings of the birthday cake. Making friends from different communities has added different shades to my life, each of which has made my life more colorful and enjoyable.
My story is a simple recollection of events in my school life that played a major part in making me what I am today. I still talk to some of my “Gujarati” friends in the little Gujarati that I still can speak. But this is no longer a way to exclude people of different communities or assert the superiority of my own. It is simply to tease my friends with the pet names I made for them in the past. And that, maybe only to me, makes a world of difference.