Princeton, New Jersey: Sukrit Silas strolls across the Princeton University campus with purpose, these steps to the laboratory familiar by now. But, suddenly, he stops and points out a building that rises above the other ivy covered dormitories and collections of classrooms.
“John Nash and Andrew Wiles sit in there,” he says, a look of pride breaking through the day-to-day routine he has established in almost four months at one of the world’s leading institutions of higher learning.
Shiv Mohan Dutt (left) and Sukrit Silas come to check their mailboxes at Princeton’s student centre.
Wiles stunned the world in the early 1990s when he announced the proof of Fermat’s theorem, which until then had stumped generations of scholars. Nash, the Nobel Prize winning mathematician for his work on game theory and the inspiration for the Hollywood blockbuster, A Beautiful Mind, is among the many renowned academicians who have called Princeton home.
Even after the mountains of school work and trials of adjusting to a new culture thousands of miles from home, Silas and the five other students, who form a record number of Indian nationals in this year’s freshman class, haven’t lost the sense of awe that they have actually made it to the place where some of their heroes walk (Mint has been tracking their journey for some months now as part of The Indian Education Dream series, which began on 27 November.)
“It’s not just guys like them,” Silas continues, on the way to the Carl Icahn genetics lab to work on his final problem set of the term for an integrated science course. “A few of my professors are under consideration for Nobels, and even as an undergraduate I get a chance to study with them. That’s not the case everywhere.”
On a recent Monday, just after the students endured their first Nor’easter, a storm that brings icy gusts of wind to New Jersey and other coastal North Atlantic states, Mint met with three in the Class of 2011 on the last day of their first term. Besides Silas, Jahnabi Barooah and Rohan Malik also planned to fly back to India for two-week breaks. Meanwhile, Shiv Mohan Dutt’s mother planned to fly to the US instead, so mother and son could travel together, while Tushar Gupta was spending the holiday with relatives, also in the US.
As Barooah, Malik and Silas gathered at a Starbucks café on Princeton’s main drag known as Nassau Street before leaving, they said they knew the holiday would feel too short since their first set of final exams loomed on the horizon in early January.
Each said they came with big hopes of joining a lot of extracurricular activities, volunteering and taking on projects outside of school. Now it seems like all that will have to wait for future terms—after they get used to the workload and achieve the balance all have been looking for. Turns out prestigious Princeton is also really, really tough.
The meeting at Starbucks was appropriate as coffee suddenly has become its own food group. Barooah, who hails from the tea-producing state of Assam, said coffee is her main staple, the only way to get through the day and stay awake. Even then, she dreams of dreaming.
Dutt (left) and Nikhil Seth, both in the Class of 2011, enjoy a game of pool at the student centre
“Never has sleep become so important to me,” she says. “Technically, all the math and physics that I’m doing right now should not be difficult to me and I should be supposedly breezing through physics but that is just not happening. I am starting to appreciate how difficult it is to get an A and A+ seems an impossible dream.”
And her “Introduction to Programming” course in computer science feels like anything but an introduction. “The classes move very fast and it’s way too much work to even keep up with all the reading,” she says.
The stress has been getting to all of them. So much that they find themselves rushing to relax. “At least for me, I can’t wait to get home and chill like crazy,” said Malik, before rushing to catch a train from Princeton to Newark International Airport. He planned on spending the night studying and working in the departure lounge until his early morning flight. He was bound for his parents’ home in Gurgaon, Silas for the same in Old Delhi, and Barooah for Jorhat, Assam.
But first the loose ends of life on campus needed tying. Malik had to pack his bags. Silas had to finish his last problem set. Barooah needed to do some shopping for a newly discovered custom that had left the three of them slightly stumped.
“I got this guy from my hall that I don’t know very well for secret Santa and I have no idea what to buy him,” she said as she sipped coffee, her scarf still wrapped around her neck inside and face still red from the exposure to cold.
In offices and at universities around the US, people are assigned to buy Christmas gifts for someone by drawing names at random—becoming their “secret Santa”. Barooah was headed to the shops around Nassau Street, an eclectic mix of independent bookstores, a second-hand music retailer and luxury stores selling everything from chocolates to clothing. Following the rules her hall had laid out, Barooah could only spend $10—just under Rs400—which pretty much ruled out the latter option.
Like shopping for gifts for new friends, the term hasn’t all been work. Silas is learning to play the tuba and has joined the marching band. Malik, a drummer, still makes time for Bollywood music more than he did in India. Barooah has found a close-knit group in her residence hall.
There are certain things from home they are yearning for, mainly food. Silas finds American food too bland. Barooah too greasy. All look forward to the times someone organizes Indian food at a study group, usually about once a week. Though family and friends top the list, what they mainly miss about home is intangible. “I just miss the whole Delhi culture, the crowds, the people, the way people talk to you,” says Malik.
Barooah said she knows it sounds weird but she’s just longing to be herself again: “I miss my home, my family (including my dog) and my friends,” she wrote in anemail. “But I also miss the freedom to do whatever I want and weird as it may sound, being thought of as ‘Jahnabi’ and not as an ‘Indian’.”
Silas says he will head straight for Karim’s, famous for kebabs, in Old Delhi.
As he walks out of Starbucks, bound for his dorm room— which sits in a century-old building and is decorated with the eponymous poster of John Belushi from the movie, Animal House, in a college sweater on the wall and strewn with clothes and books—Silas stops before crossing the street, something he would never do at home, he says. “There I don’t feel bad because sometimes I think cars are trying to kill you. Here, I feel like it’s rude to make them stop.”