Chandigarh, India. January 2002
Two boys sixteen - seventeen years of age are walking down a deserted tree lined boulevard in the twilight on a cold north Indian winter evening. To a casual onlooker they might seem like any two jaunty and excessively happy boys incongruously loud on that mute road, thick with the absence of people the way only an Indian street can be. A more interested observer would have noticed an ecstatic glow on their faces, joy and wonder in their voices and a strange awed exultation in their manner. If the observer had sidled in to within earshot, he might have heard them searching for adjectives to follow "brilliant", "beautiful", "superb", "amazing".....and they seemed to be interspersed with a smattering of topics in general physics and math along with the recurring phrase "N**** Sir".
Surathkal, India. January 2005
A young chap in a loose t shirt and jeans with longish hair and some stubble walks along a beach lined with palms and thick tropical shrubbery. The sun is setting behind the restive waves and he is vaguely aware of the beauty of the scene that surrounds him, the long evening, the tropical breeze tempered by winter, the lighthouse on the hill some distance ahead of him, the people who all seem impossibly distant - their voices carried to him intermittently by the winds. His mind is far away, his spirit is defiant but cracked - though he does not know it yet. He thinks back to the last semester - the ragging and the pressure, his marks, electronics, the stress and his lab partner who went home and never came back. He wonders at his friends who burst into tears in class and others who stood around the campus staring into nothingness.
His mind wanders further back, to the stunning failure that brought him to this place, the indescribable year that went before it and the original failure before that. And finally, with a touch of bitterness he thinks of the two boys walking down that street in Chandigarh - excited and happy in the knowledge that a master had assured them that they had exceptional talent. He remembers the advice the master had given him - do physics, you'll do well at it. He does not regret having ignored those words, (this is India, he could not do a BSc ! and besides, engineering secured his economic future) but he marvels at how quickly his dreams have disintegrated and how quickly "talent" seems to vanish.
Gent, Belgium. January 2008
A young guy in a big black climbing jacket hurries through a cold drizzle on a dark chilly winters' evening. He does not notice the cobbled streets or the lovely medieval buildings. He is mentally kicking himself for not studying when he could have, and getting himself into a tight situation just before his exams. He does not know the hard labour that nanotechnology entails and he is enamored by the power of the concepts he should have absorbed. He is desperate to impress the brilliant professors who taught him so much in the preceding 4 months, and he thinks happily of all the classes he sat through excited and thrilled. "Almost as good as N**** Sir" he thinks to himself. Almost. Deeply grateful for the scholarship and the brilliant teaching, he really wants to do well. He splashes through a puddle and promises to do a good job.
St. Andrews, Scotland. March 2009
A slightly tired looking man in a long black overcoat enters his comfortable room late at night. He has had a good Saturday, though his masters thesis is not going too well. He has interesting friends and plenty of good conversation. He also knows what he is going to do with the next 5 years of his life - an engineering phd with the general aim of someday starting his own company. It seems a little dull and he is vaguely uncomfortable, but he knows he is good at it, his most likely chance of applying his skills to an exotic field has not worked out, and there is nothing that good company and good food along with a spot of cricket cannot cure. He is teeteering on the edge of settling down in life.
He slips into more comfortable clothes and switches on his computer, his mind peacefully sifting through images and snatches of conversations from a day out with friends. He opens his mail box and clicks on the only mail among dozens whose subject line is different from the ones that he sees everyday. His mind does not register the words, but suddenly it hits him. He has been admitted to a elite, intense, 10 month masters course in theoretical physics that pays for all the expenses and needs of the students. He cannot believe it. He is an engineer. He comes from an Indian business family. He will have a masters degree in a few months. He wants and needs to make money. Theoretical physics means completely flying off the rails ! A jump into the unknown ! All these things flash through his mind in a second, and he smiles and knows he will go for it.
He tells his parents (and is relieved at their obvious delight upon hearing the news) and friends. Once the initial euphoria has died down, he takes a deep breath and thinks of N**** sir, childhood dreams, engineering, all the trials and tribulations along the way....and he knows that soon, he will write the most proud and satisfying mail he has ever written.
Dear N**** Sir......