Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about almosts.
It started in Chicago. Sitting in the airport early morning, I considered how I almost lived there. Almost called it my city, my college town, my home away from home. Almost prepared to travel miles away for months at a time. They were just simple thoughts, mostly sparked by a sudden philosophical view of my life and the world.
But just a few hours later, I became thankful for my almosts. Upon landing in Delhi, we received news of the MH17 flight shot down above Ukraine, an air path that we would’ve almost encountered, had we flown just a couple of hours earlier. In the great scheme of things, that doesn’t seem so significant. But when it comes down to the cause of the crash, it’s clear that it could’ve been any plane. Our flight was the same size as MH17. It, too, consisted of hundreds of innocent people—going home, working, traveling on vacation. And just like MH17, it could’ve been mistaken for an enemy plane. To come so close to an incident like that makes it suddenly more tangible; it makes all of these issues we see about the world more striking and real.
There’s no doubt that our world isn’t in a good place right now. Open up the first page of New York Times, and you’ll see infinite acts of terror, intimidation, war. It’s heartbreaking to even consider the fact that an act of terror like the one on MH17 is so common today. On top of that, there’s the war over Gaza—which has provoked large rallies throughout Kolkata—Ukraine/Russia, Delhi rape cases, large scale deportation in the U.S. Coming to a place like India sheds light to so many other problems in the world—it’s a bit of a reality strike from the relative perfection of a place like Vermont. We live in such a bubble. Seeing this city makes our daily politics seem so insignificant.
Having said that, Kolkata has, for the first time, brought me total and utter peace. After years of grappling with the city—the pollution, poverty, uncertainty—I’ve finally reached a comfort zone. Everything is suddenly familiar. I recognize little street corners, know distances between towns, notice subtle changes in structures. In a relatively progressive country, Kolkata is ages behind, and I guess, in some way, that’s what draws me to it. It teems with tradition and culture. And while sometimes it may seem unbearably backwards, it seems to me like a preservation of the past.
As I’ve grown older, the glitzy bits of the city have attracted me less and less. We spent a few hours in the large, über-Westernized mall, South City, yesterday—a place where, instead of choosing the incredible fresh Indian foods (which I would honestly die to eat every day in Vermont), people opt for Pizza Hut, Subway and KFC— and nothing about the mall was interesting to me. It felt like a desperate effort to try to be “Western.” Instead, I find solace in those dilapidated street shops, where the shopkeepers write in scribbled Bengali script and speak with a rawness in their language. That’s what I’ve always known Kolkata as—why should it be anything different?
It surprises me how the young generation here is so influenced by what’s happening in the U.S. or in whatever English movies they watch. Teenage guys suddenly wear snapbacks. New Bollywood songs have more English rap than native languages. And if I wear a traditional Indian outfit out and about, I seem out-of-place as a teenager. Being here, surrounded by everything, I’ve realized that neither India nor the U.S. is perfect; each have infinite flaws. To aspire to be one over the other is a waste of attempts, and I honestly wish I could just tell every rapping, snapback-wearing teenager that. But in all honesty, living away from Kolkata means that every time I come back, I expect it to be exactly the same, when, in reality, it’s rapidly changing. I guess part of me is truly an old soul (I mean, what else is new), but nothing makes me sadder than seeing this beautiful, beautiful culture slowly disappear.
I just finished the book “The Opposite of Loneliness” by Marina Keegan, a Yale student who passed away a few days after graduating magna cum laude and a few days before starting a job at the New Yorker, and it was the perfect source of inspiration. She was a brilliant writer, and so the book compiles all of her essays and short stories. Anne Fadiman, who wrote the introduction, talked about how Marina was everything a writer should be—perseverant, bold, unafraid, open. While her classmates struggled to enter the finance and consulting worlds out of sheer uncertainty and fear for the future, Marina had no doubts about her aspirations as a writer. In her first essay of the book, which was published in the Yale Daily News, Marina writes, “We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life…We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time.”
I’ve thought about this a lot, and it makes me both anxious for the future and nostalgic for the past. We are so young, but there is so much we worry about. I question why, at age 18, I’m worried about post-Brown or what I’ll be doing ten years from now. It makes me envious how optimistic Marina could be as a 22-year old, while I can hardly even conjure the optimism or inspiration to maintain a blog, forget about writing a series of short stories (I’m so desperately trying). But more than envious, I am incredibly impressed and inspired; in such a short time, I have totally fallen in love with her writing—it’s raw and honest and vulnerable. “The Opposite of Loneliness” has been the perfect pre-college read, and I highly, highly recommend it.