When I was 8 or 9, on a clear starry night in Kerala, my father showed me how to identify the North Star. My science teacher had just covered constellations the previous day in class, and I was relatively unenthused as I found the imaginary lines drawn between the stars to be a great stretch of imagination. So my father, hoping to kick-start an interest in astronomy, prodded me out to stargaze. The way you identify the North Star, he told me, is by imagining a straight line emerging from the three lines in the Big Dipper, and extending this some distance to find the brightest star in the atmosphere. It turns out the North Star represented more to my father than I could then comprehend. When he was 8 or 9, his father, who was a science teacher, also took him outside to show him the North Star. He was told to pay special attention to the bright one that twinkled out of the thousands in the sky on that night. When my father asked what made that one so special, my grandfather replied that when my father would leave his small town, the sky wouldn’t have so many stars; however, the North Star would remain. Much like the green light in “The Great Gatsby,” the North Star would symbolize my father’s hopes and dreams which, at the time, were to escape his small town and see the world. As the son of a pair of educators, he considered academic excellence the best way to do so. He himself wasn’t quite brilliant, in a traditional sense; however, he embraced every opportunity — academic or otherwise — and through a combination of hard work and grit, eventually made it to the States, where he worked for 10 years before moving back to India.
Education represents a great deal to both sides of my family, as it was the avenue through which they escaped poverty. My maternal grandfather was considered to be the brightest amongst his 10 siblings and therefore was the only one who received an education beyond the 10th grade. My maternal grandmother came from a much more financially fortunate family, but due to the prevailing views on women’s education at the time, her pursuit of a college degree was not easy either. Both my maternal grandparents became educators like my paternal grandparents and were adamant about giving my mother and her siblings the best education they could provide. In contrast to my father’s ambition, the stars symbolized something much more spiritual for my mother. Once, before sending her back to boarding school, my grandmother told my mother that stars were windows that angels looked through in the dark, dark night. The angels looking through the sky and watching over her provided her solace when she got homesick at her hostel.
An education represented something greater to my family, not only because it helped them escape poverty but also because of the conditions that made them poor in the first place. Not too long ago, our previous generations were indentured laborers at the mercy of abusive landowners. Moreover, they were oppressed by a restrictive social hierarchy and by British colonial rule. The initial measures that allowed them to obtain an education were also severely limited. They had to sit at the back of the classrooms and, for certain subjects, had to sit outside while writing notes.
Showing me the North Star was my father’s way of saying that he’d started to dream for me too. In hindsight, it’s easy to see that every extracurricular activity I was involved in was in some way breaking into an elitist circle that my parents had never been allowed to partake in. There was tennis practice every weekend at a tennis club that was built by people from my community who were promptly excluded from joining as members because of their caste. There were guitar and piano classes throughout the week which were reserved for the higher echelons of society when my father was growing up. I did not enjoy any of these activities, but I had no say in the matter. In a similar vein, the blueprint for my academics was not mine. Though I had no interest in engineering, I was almost forced into that career path as early as the eighth grade because the premier universities in India were engineering schools. During the transition from 10th to 11th grade, we learned that due to my birthright American citizenship, it would be difficult to gain admission into Indian universities. Because of this, on a random Thursday, it was decided that I would do my higher studies in the U.S. However, only a few selective institutions offered SAT prep in India, and the one I was sent to was in one of India’s biggest metropolises, Hyderabad, 1,000 kilometers away from my hometown in Kerala. The next Monday, I arrived in Hyderabad to start my junior year of high school, away from my family and my childhood friends. I wasn’t enthused about this, but the gravity of the move hadn’t hit me right off the bat and a part of me was excited for my new life.
Moving to Hyderabad was like moving to a different country. By virtue of India’s size and diversity from state to state, the culture, the cuisine and, perhaps most importantly, the language spoken changes. The fast-paced, different lifestyle was extremely exciting to me, but I spoke Malayalam in Kerala, which no one spoke in Hyderabad, so the language barrier was the biggest hindrance in my day-to-day activities there. It severely hindered the number of people I could socialize with. There were only 12 students in my program and though we got along, I had drastically underestimated the amount of time it would take to form meaningful connections, something I hadn’t had to do since middle school. Moreover, the sheer size of the city meant each of us lived at least an hour’s drive away from each other, so hanging out after class was extremely difficult. I was increasingly isolated in my apartment after school ended.
The novelty of my move to Hyderabad had started to wear off. The long hours after school became increasingly boring and unproductive. It seemed that every clock’s arms were moving slower and slower. A gaping hole started to emerge that I tried to plug with early morning runs, spiritual texts and periods of “introspection.” Introspection quickly gave way to rumination and bouts of anxiety. Though the subsequent heart palpitations were new, the underlying fear was not. In many ways, fear of failure was ever-present in my life. Fear was the fuel that drove me and the chain that bound me. It was a trait that my mother instilled in me. Every weekly quiz was a midterm, every midterm was a final and every final was as serious as a major life event. Failure was never an option.
In my household, failure would become synonymous with my mother’s elder brother. He was the cautionary tale of the gifted kid who had lost his way in the world. My mom would tell me he drowned in alcohol until all that was left was a husk of him. From the stories I’ve heard, he was blessed with considerable intellectual faculties. Apparently we look similar and have the same mannerisms, and we may have shared the same apprehensions too — including the fear of failure. It was upon this understanding of the familial nature of my fears that I assigned a different meaning from both my father and mother to the North Star. On most nights the sky would either be too cloudy or too filled with city lights to really capture the presence of the stars. However, like my grandfather told my father, the North Star would be there. It was fascinating to me how an almost incomprehensibly vast celestial body could just be a tiny, beautiful speck to us. The star always helped me to recenter and remind myself how trivial my worries were in the boundless expanse. It helped me to gain peace, albeit momentarily. Eventually, therapy and completing high school helped me regain control. Yet there was still a part of me that worried.
During the summer break after high school ended, I spent a lot of time in my mother’s hometown. Its backwaters, green hills and lakes made it an exciting place to explore. My elder cousin and I were partners-in-crime in our escapades to remote yet beautiful areas in the town. It was during a relatively normal Sunday evening that we decided to go to a family friend’s place a few miles away. Sometime during the summer night, the heavens opened and a thunderstorm struck. As was customary during a thunderstorm in India, a blackout ensued and the beautiful landscape turned dark. The plan to get a cab back home was no longer feasible as the roads were flooded and we had to walk back. And so we set out during a lull in the downpour to walk the few miles we’d have to trek to return home. We took a shortcut through a paddy field. Unlike American fields that are continuous strips of crop, the paddy fields in India are made in a grid-like pattern that are filled with water. As it was post harvest, there were no crops in the field which meant that during a lightning strike, it looked like hundreds of portraits of a purplish-white streak. More importantly, the occasional lightning strike helped us see the way forward.
The water in the field was cold, but the mud seemed familiarly warm. It was then that my cousin told me that this was the piece of land that our family had tilled for generations. Suddenly the cold water signified more than what it had seemed to be — it was the shackle that had kept my ancestors in their destitute circumstances. The warm, fertile land was their legacy, the aftermath of being worked to no end. The downpour stopped and the clouds cleared almost instantly, leaving the star-eaten blanket of the sky and the moonlight that would lead our way.
There, in all its glory, was the North Star. I like to think that for generations of my kin who had no means to escape, it represented a more hopeful future for subsequent generations. In an unforgettable moment, I finally absorbed the message of our history — we were free to dream. The anxious voice in my head that once said, “Don’t let them down,” was phased out by a more calm and resolute one that now says, “Make them proud.”
MiC Columnist Alok Abhilash can be reached at email@example.com.