New York: On a bleak, wet New York afternoon, Sukrit Silas has just been to the United Nations (UN). He looks sharp in a blue suit and red tie, but inside, he feels hollow. The lunch at the UN was “pitiful,” and at a Ruby Tuesday on Times Square, he takes his chance to fold himself around a chicken pot pie.
“This,” Silas informs his waitress, “is the best chicken pot pie ever.” The waitress, who likely rarely has been told Ruby Tuesday makes the best anything ever, retreats warily to the other end of the bar.
But perhaps any chicken pot pie tastes good after two straight semesters of university dining hall food— even in a university as swish as Princeton, where Silas has just finished his freshman year. His trip to the UN, in fact, was part of Princeton’s activities roster for its International Relations Council.
“It was sort of cool to be walking around that building, around the General Assembly and the Security Council, where all these huge decisions are made,” says Silas. “Both my parents were in professions involving public policy, so that was pretty much ruled out for me. But now I’m tempted by that field too.” He then muses a little, and adds: “The truth is, right now I have no clue what I want to do with my life.”
Silas is one of six Indian students who joined Princeton last August and have been tracked by Mint as part of its series on The Indian Education Dream. He attended St. Xavier’s school in New Delhi and applied to 10 US varsities—and none in India.
Silas arrived at Princeton with a condition that is uncommon in an Indian undergraduate: an open mind. He hadn’t given any thought to college until class XII, by which time his schoolmates in New Delhi were already neck-deep in tuitions for Indian Institutes of Technology entrance examinations and extra coaching.
“I was, I don’t know, lazy maybe,” he says. “My mom’s colleagues with children of a similar age would come in and ask questions about me. ‘What is your son going to do?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Which institution will he join?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘What subject?’ ‘I don’t know.’”
New note: It’s not just the piano. Silas has taken up the tuba too.
Applying to universities abroad was, by all appearances, a near-whimsical solution. “I always seem to make all my decisions as the big red line of some deadline is looming.” On his application to Princeton, he put down his intended major as economics, but as he fills with the warm goodness of food, he admits: “That was just to shut people up.”
Things were no easier when Silas began his first semester; before him lay choice upon academic choice. He moved initially towards his listed major, but then doubled back towards the sciences. “Right now, I’m considering physics or astrophysics or biology, but even within that, there are six or seven possibilities,” he says. Silas needs to make his decision by the end of next semester—the nearest big red line in his life. Fortunately, he possesses a temperament that doesn’t easily stress itself out. Instead, he has elevated detached amusement to a new art form.
For example, when asked about the girls in his life: “Nah, there’s no time. Plus you need to spend too much money, take them out, spend time with them. It’s more fun to just sit back and watch the whole dating scene.”
On a television above the bar, the Champions League final between Chelsea and Manchester United blooms into a gripping penalty shootout. Conversation stutters for a while, but Silas says, with a laugh: “If you aren’t as involved in the game, it’s so much more fun to just sit back and laugh at how tense it all gets.”
In a way, his permanent wryness of spirit has allowed him to take extra advantage of Princeton’s bank of opportunities. Silas has, for instance, travelled to various other universities with the college band, playing the tuba—and yet he’d never touched one before in his life.
“It just happened. One day, I went up and said: I want to join the band.”
“‘Okay, what would you like to play?”
Silas looked around.
“That looks cool.”
So he began playing the tuba.
But a year at Princeton, with its sheer breadth of academic freedom, has also infused in him an earnestness and enthusiasm that occasionally betray his casual demeanour. He talks about his Integrated Science curriculum, and its recent exam, with the sort of verve that most undergraduate boys reserve for binge drinking or Grand Theft Auto.
“Even in that exam, theytry to teach you. They aren’ttrying to trick you, as exams usually do,” Silas says. “Over thesemester, they teach you till here”—he stabs a finger on the Ruby Tuesday place mat—“and then, in the exam, they test you till here”—a spot inches higher than his first finger.
One of the many open seminars Silas attended over the previous year was a talk on string theory. When the floor was thrown open to the audience, he suddenly heard a familiar voice somewhere to his left, asking a question.
It was of Ed Witten, a leading theoretical physicist at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. “I recognized his voice from Discovery Channel documentaries on string theory,” Silas says, without a trace of self-consciousness at how geeky that sounds. “It’s a distinctive, sort of high-pitched voice. I’d have recognized it anywhere.”
“It was unbelievable. Probably the smartest guy in the world right now, sitting near me, asking a question about his subject,” Silas says, looking gobsmacked. He shakes his head. “That was great!”
Next: So how has an education at Princeton been really different?