In 1999, Pappu Patligali “passed out” of the New Elite Institute of Technology with a job in hand. He had been recruited on-campus by Technotomorrow, an IT firm that promised to send gullible prospects on-site to their Connecticut branch to work on VLP (very-low priority) coding solutions for the Y2K problem. Technotomorrow wasn’t innovative and they certainly didn’t pay well, but their share price kept skyrocketing. They had adopted a simple business model: they hired engineers straight from the state colleges for as cheap as possible, trained then in the minimum skills necessary to do the job, and worked them until they quit for better paying jobs. A constant supply of fresh engineers ensured that they could undercut the major IT competitors, and a cadre of perennially-angry managers with no technical skills made sure that deliverables were always on time and on budget.
After six months of working in a converted-godown in NOIDA, Pappu decided he had had enough. He called it quits. In the meantime, he had looked up graduate engineering programs in the US and had taken the GRE. He hired a professional editor to write his required “statement of purpose” and letters of recommendation. He applied to twenty graduate programs and got a few nibbles. Most of them panned out into “we regret to inform you” letters. however, after an extended dance with a potential Master’s thesis advisor at a very small program, he received a coveted letter of admission.
By the time Pappu was ready to leave for the US, he was very well-prepared. He had taken the necessary medical checkups, bought cheap textbooks for courses, found temporary housing and potential roommates, and contacted his advisor. The Office of International Students at his school had been particularly helpful in making sure that he would have everything he needed to make a smooth transition.
Or so he thought. What the Office had not told him was that he was about to have The Conversation.
For Pappu The Conversation happened the day before his flight out of India. Pappu was sitting in his room at the time trying to fit 200 grams of besan laddoos into a pressure cooker. The pressure cooker was going to go into Suitcase Number One which was exactly 200 grams less than the maximum permissible weight for checked-in baggage.
“Make sure you have the Gita and the framed picture of Guruji with you at all times,” said Pappu’s father who was now standing in front of the door.
“I have put the tulsi–chandan in his moneybag,” said Pappu’s mother agitatedly as she joined him.
Pappu was a bit upset that his parents had been going through his things and had inserted various divine charms without his knowledge. Still, he didn’t dare to defy his father or to hurt his mother’s feelings especially since he was about to leave the country.
“Pappu, remember your heritage,” his father continued. “You come from a line of rishis who wrote the Rig Vedas. Our ancestors were solving abstract mathematical problems when savages were roaming the rest of the world.”
Pappu sat still. He had heard these stories before, but was puzzled why his father was mentioning them to him now.
“You know, Pappu. You have an opportunity that we never got. You can study modern advances and of course you will apply your knowledge when you come back in India.”
It had already been decided that Pappu would be coming back, although no one had told him.
Pappu’s father cleared his throat and the continued. “Remember to recite the Gayatri Mantra every day during your bath. Never touch alcohol and other impurities. Stay pure and eat only satwik food. Remember cow is like your mother.” (Pappu was glad that his father didn’t say it the other way around).
There was silence. Pappu’s father stopped for a minute and lowered his voice. “And remember… don’t go in that direction.”
What was his father talking about? “Which direction?” asked Pappu.
“That direction,” repeated his father as if it was self-evident what he was referring to.
After a pause, Pappu’s father continued. “Chatranang adhayanam tapa. You know son that there are four ashramas in life. Bhahmacharya is for studying. There will be many enticements in foreign lands. Of the six vices – kaama, krodha, lobha, moha, mada and maatsarya – kaama is the worst. It is like a fire that engulfs a man’s soul. Don’t go in that direction.”
When Pappu finally understood what his parents were hinting at, his face turned bright red. Just the previous day his friend Bhola has infuriated him by saying “Going abroad, Pap-pu. Everything there is open, no?” At the time Bhola was winking and nudging like a professional Kathakali maestro. But you could expect Bhola to say stuff like that. Bhola was a philanderer. These were his parents.
“I want you to touch your mother’s feet and vow that you will not go in that direction,” said Pappu’s father.
Pappu was uncomfortable. Not because he had any impure thoughts in his mind at that time, but because he was being asked for an agnipariksha by his parents. Pappu revolted in his mind. He would not put up with this embarrassing situation. He froze.
All three of them were quiet for what seemed like hours. Pappu’s parents were staring at him trying to gauge his reaction. Pappu was looking straight at the ground and hoping it would open up to engulf him like it had swallowed Sita.
Pappu’s mother finally spoke. “No, I know my son. He is not like that. He is being a bit shy. Our Pappu has grown up.” She laughed nervously. “He is a good boy. He will study in abroad only, not do any mischief. We know what is best and will fix one bride for him from our caste.”
Pappu’s father nodded. Having somewhat convinced themselves that they had done their duty, Pappu’s parents left the room as mysteriously as they had come in.
Pappu thought to himself, “what the hell just happened?”
© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban