Life’s Almost Missed Chances (London Diary 1)

Finally, here I am. Sitting at the JFK waiting for BA172 to carry me across the Atlantic to London, a city the Bengalis have a special affinity with. For many middle-class Bengalis, London still signifies the best that the civilization has to offer. Talk of colonial nostalgia!

Yet, until a day back, I was not sure if I could undertake this journey at all. I am going to attend the NYU London SummerStudy table Dissertation Writing Workshop which will run from 10 June-20 July, 2013. The workshop is meant to provide the advanced dissertators with committed space and environment to complete their dissertation, away from the madness of NYC. This is a program run by the NYU Global Research Initiative, which hosts multiple research centers for graduate students in London, Florence, Berlin, and Washington DC. There are plans to open centers in other cities as well. While applying for the fellowship, we could choose a second option in case we couldn’t be accommodated to our first option. I had given Florence as my second option which meant if I couldn’t get into the London workshop, I had a chance to be chosen for the Florence one.

While the selection of candidates for the workshop was announced in late April, the formal visa support letter was sent to us by NYU in the first week of May. And we were supposed to report for the workshop in London between 7 &9 June. That practically left me (I am one of the two international students who actually required a visa; the third one is EU resident who didn’t require a visa) with a window period of about a month to obtain the UK Visa. I knew all along that obtaining an international visa in the summer within a month would be a tight affair.

KitchenI got my biometric test appointment on 17 May. Unlike the US visa process, there is no interview in the case of UK visa. Once the biometric test is done, we are supposed to send the hard copy of the completed application form along with other supporting documents to the British consulate. Apart from the biometric, there is absolutely no human contact with the UK visa officials in the entire process. I received an email from the consulate on 23 June informing me the receipt of the application. The email also informed me that the average time for processing the application was 13 working days. And the consulate sends the visa via post, unlike the US visa which is supposed to be picked up from the consulate. A 13-day processing time meant the visa was most likely to be issued on 7 June, if it went down the wire. My flight ticket for London was booked for 7 June, 9.30 PM.

When there was no sign of a visa on 4 June, I panicked and contacted the NYU International Office to ask them if they could get in touch with the consulate to figure out about the processing. The NYU International Office got in touch with the consulate and informed me that the visa was processed on 6 June and would be posted the same day. And the UK Visa finallyBed arrived on 7 June morning, the day of my departure. If I hadn’t gotten the visa on 7th morning, there was no way I could attend the workshop as the rules don’t permit participants to join it even a day late.

I just made it in the nick of time. However, there are hundreds of other examples in my life when things got stuck or happened only at the last moment. I will just pick one more incident, which in many ways has altered the course of my life and career.

It was right after my Masters in English at the University of Hyderabad. I got through the NET (National Eligibility Test), which is a requirement for teaching in Indian colleges and universities, while I was in my second year of Masters. However, clearing the NET didn’t mean any assurance of a job. It simply meant that I could appear for the interviews of teaching jobs in colleges and universities. I was more or less thinking of following the conventional path of either doing a Ph.D. after my M.A. or look for a teaching job. One of my preferences was to teach in Bengal. The West Bengal College Service Commission (WBCSC) held interviews periodically for teaching job in the colleges in West Bengal. However, after I qualified NET, they hadn’t held any interviews.

Since I didn’t find any vacancies for a teaching job in Bengal, I decided to apply for a Ph.D. in the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). Those days the IITs were among the very few institutes in India that offered fellowships for doctoral students who had qualified NET. I applied to Kanpur and Delhi IITs which were known to have excellent Humanities departments.

I appeared for the written test and interview at Kanpur IIT. I cleared both. Unfortunately, the department couldn’t take in any students in English literature that year because the teachers were overburdened with scholars. That practically means, the department couldn’t find a supervisor for me. Instead, they offered a doctoral position in linguistics. The teacher responsible for Ph.D. recruitment had more than an hour long chat with me, in which he tried to convince me that a Ph.D. in linguistics would be an ideal career to follow. However, I was not convinced. In my mind, I could never think of studying anything but literature. It was logical because I have been studying English literature since my undergraduate days, where I enrolled for English Honors.

However, I was not a natural in English literature. I did my +2 in hard science that included Physics, Chemistry, Maths, and Biology. Like any science student, the languages – in my case Bengali and English in the government schools of Bengal – were minor subjects for me. I loved Maths and was always very comfortable in it. And I did score my highest grades in Maths in both tenth and twelfth standard. Studying Mathematics would have been the most ideal choice for me. And with my marks in +2, I could have easily studied any of the science subjects. But as fate would have it, I decided to study English literature, instead. In fact, I scored the least in English among all the subjects in +2. Thus, English was not a natural subject for me. But once I started my undergrad, I just loved it. And ever since, this love-affair with literature has only grown stronger. Naturally, when the IIT professor started convincing me that I enroll for a Ph.D. in linguistics, I wasn’t convinced.

Next I appeared for the IIT, Delhi interview. The interview went on very fine. The results were supposed to be declared a day later. I started for home (Calcutta) on the same day of the interview. The very next day, I called up the office attendant about the results for the Ph.D. recruitment. The attendant informed me that he didn’t find my name on the list of selected candidates. I was disappointed, to say the least. I felt my interview went on well. And I wanted to work with Prof. Rukmini Bhaya Nair.

Just before going for the IIT interviews, I had applied for a college teaching job in Tuni, a small town in East Godavari in the coastal Andhra Pradesh. I saw the advertisement for the job in a local Hyderabad newspaper and thought of applying. The institute was run by a private trust that had built a large group of educational institutes, starting with schools to a college. I still remember vividly my journey from Hyderabad to Tuni. I took an overnight bus and changed it at Rajahmundry. Without the local language (Telugu), I still don’t know I managed to reach that place.

I reached Tuni the next day morning. After checking into a very ordinary hotel (well, I hardly had any money those days. I depended on my father’s money for my survival.), I got ready for the interview. The campus of the institute was beautiful. It was built on a few acres of lush green land dotted with coconut trees at the foothills of the Eastern Ghats Mountains. Coastal Andhra is breathtakingly beautiful, unlike the desert that Hyderabad is.

The interview was a two-part process. In the first part, I had to do a teaching demonstration. In the second part, I had an interview with the management. Our conversation went on well. Then came the most crucial and intriguing part of the interview: the negotiation of salary. In private jobs, this is the trickiest part. One is never sure how much would be the right salary to ask from a private employer without appearing to undersell or oversell oneself. I didn’t have any prior experience of a job interview, especially with a private employer. I asked for what appeared to be the most reasonable to me: the salary of a government college teaching job. I was very clear that I didn’t want to undersell myself. I asked what I thought was my due. I was surprised when they accepted my demand. Along with the salary, the trust told me that my boarding and lodging would be free. I knew the trust agreed to my demand because I had already qualified NET. And very few with NET would come to teach in a private institute as a long-term career option.

I was really happy because this was my first job. The trust also informed me that if I accepted the job, I would have to surrender my certificates and marksheets to them for at least a year. The logic was that I could never quit in the middle of the year to take up another job. It was a form of bonded labor. And that’s how most private education operators work. In fact, right after the interview, the trust wanted to keep my certificates with them. I somehow managed to convince them that I will need them for getting my final clearance from the university. In the course of the interview, I realized that the trust wanted me more because of my limited skills in extra-curricular activities like debating, quiz, essay-writing etc. They wanted to build champion teams in these areas. Otherwise, there was no substantial literature to teach in the college as most private colleges don’t offer literature as a subject.

When the office attendant informed me that I wasn’t selected for the Ph.D. at IIT, Delhi, I decided to take up the job at Tuni. While I appeared for the interview at Tuni, I never told them I was also appearing for interviews at IITs for an enrolment in the Ph.D. program. I started for Tuni for my first job with a mixed feeling. I knew this was not what I wanted. I knew I might get stuck in this job forever. Yet, I was happy that the management seemed to be extremely eager to have me there. Moreover, I didn’t have another job. And I didn’t want to sit at home after my Masters for job vacancies to appear. I wanted to work. I wanted to earn my own living. It was plain and simple.

I arrived at Tuni the next morning. I knew once I reach the campus, I had to surrender my certificates. I knew I would be contracted to work there at least for a year. I also knew that it would be almost impossible to get out once I get in. My mother insisted that I call home once I reached Tuni. Mobile phones were almost non-existent those days. I didn’t have one. So I couldn’t call her on the go. I had to call her up from a phone booth. I decided to call her up once I reached the campus and dropped my bags. Once out of the station, I was looking for a vehicle to take me to the campus. I don’t remember now if auto-rickshaws ran there. The institute was about a couple of kilometers away from the station.

As I was looking for a vehicle to take me to the institute, something inside me told me to call home first. I was in two minds. I thought it was just a matter of half-an-hour before I reached the campus and called home. Yet, something inside me said, I must call home first before reaching the campus. Being an intuitive person that I am, I decided to call home first.

I reached the first available phone booth and called home. My mother picked up the phone and the very first thing she said: ‘Come back home.’ I was puzzled. She informed that I have been selected for the Ph.D. program in IIT, Delhi. I was stunned because I had already been informed by the office attendant that I was not selected.

As I received my UK visa on the day of my departure for London with just about seven hours to spare, this particular incident came to my mind.

What if I had called home after reaching the institute and surrendering my certificates to the trust? My life would have been very different today. My life would have taken a very different turn.

As I always believed, I still believe in my intuition, more than in my reason. Intuitions hardly go wrong! And that life always gives you a second chance.

[I have included some of the pictures of my spartan life in NYU London residence.]

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