“Yes, good. But what are you going to do with your life?” My grandfather, my Dada, leans forward and smiles at me from across the low coffee table that he bought almost 40 years ago.
I am a squirming 7. I don’t have an answer. It wasn't because I had never heard the question before. Every time I see him, he asks. On his couch while my grandmother is making tea, while we pee next to brawny white dudes at our first baseball game, when he brings me a Shirley Temple at Shreedhar Uncle's wedding when I am 8.
And then, about a year ago, we are in Widener Library. I am 19 and tall and somewhat confident. Widener's marbly grandeur booms with self-importance. There seems to be no need for justification or purpose when you have a Widener, a Memorial Hall, the bricked, embalmed embodiments of privilege at every turn.
My grandparents have made the trip to see the Promised Land, a place whose name tumbles out of their mouths like a wave, salty and distant and frothy. Haar-wv-aar-d, the -d flipping through and touching the top of their mouths and then receding.
They aren't coming from afar. On Friday nights, they sit on the edge of a parking lot that was a cornfield when they first moved in, and split a bean and cheese quesadilla from Taco Bell. My dad and uncle went to B.U. But they feel as if they’ve arrived. We’ve arrived. All of us.
When they find out that yes, I am going to Harvard, my Ba calls. “In America, we came here for this.” My grandfather wants to know what the hell I'm actually going to do with all this outrageous access. I still don't know. He picks up the phone. “You are going to do what all of your ancestors never got to do."
I sometimes think of the ancestors at inconvenient times. My mind is reeling at Noch’s and I think of the black-and-white portrait of Jentilal. I put off writing a response paper and think of graveyard shifts at 7-11, selling scratch tickets and cranberry juice to teenagers getting drunk out of Gatorade bottles. I’m sitting in the Lamont poetry room, putting off going to section.
There are the kids who have always dreamed, no matter their circumstances, of going to Harvard. There are others who try to justify their legacy heritage, who know they are worth the formals and “access to world-class faculty.” Then there are those of us whose families try to bend the arc of their history towards Harvard and boat shoes and summers by seas bounded by sandy cliffs.
I’ve arrived at the end of the arc. The questioning has mostly ended. My grandfather thinks that, in some serious way, I’ve made it. I’m on the path. My grandparents, Indian and white, do worry that when I declare History and Literature, the arc will bend back in on itself and snap like a wishbone. I’ll be sitting in a seminar on postcolonial theory and walk out into a Gujarati village or a Nashua funeral home. In reality, I walk out into plush carpeting and quiet chatter about Derrida.
There is always the danger here at Harvard that I’ll be insulated from their anxieties and dreams. My Ba walks into the Eliot dining hall and breathes a sigh of relief. She walks up to a dining hall worker who is clearly Indian. “They can eat all day if they need? And you give them more.”
She smiles, “Beta, I don't need to send you food. You can never be hungry.” She has been worrying since I got here that the d-halls are Dickensian gruel factories. I get a package every month with unsalted almonds and granola bars. “They have many calories and make the brain work,” she says.
There is an overabundance of anxiety, but usually not on a meaningful scale. We stay up until 4 a.m. to finish p-sets and scrounge money to buy new expensive shoes for a consulting interview. When I see my grandparents, I am reminded of all the small choices to spend blood and effort and life to ensure that I worry about MLA formatting or overscheduling my social calendar.
They remind me to worry about myself when I am 65, when my grandchildren are going to college, when I have a job and a home.
We walk up four flights of stairs to my room. My Ba and Dada are exhausted. “This is such an old building. Why is there no elevator?” My grandfather leans against the wall. My grandmother whispers that she should have worn a sari; she feels underdressed. We are here and out of breath and wondering where to find a bathroom. We are here.