A Student of the Past
A catalogue of thoughts around graduating, visiting campus as an alum, living as an adult and the frustrating loneliness of it all
This is the last post of 2022. I’m grateful that you’ve spent time with Curiousect by reading the essays, Listening Chronicles and listening to the podcast.
I’ve received a lot of kind words and encouragement throughout this year, and I hope to keep that with me as we step forward into a new year.
Despite being in fortunate circumstances, I’ve found it difficult to navigate life after graduating from law school. It’s been tough in ways I hadn’t even expected. This post is a long essay. A catalogue of thoughts around graduating during COVID, visiting the campus as an alum, living as a new graduate and the frustrating loneliness of it all. I wrote this from a place of yearning, confusion, doubt and some hope for the future.
This was first published on my alma mater’s student magazine Showca(u)se, you can check it out here.
Find a comfortable place, settle in, and read this.
Let me know what you think !
Curiousect is going to be a lot more active in 2023, so don’t forget to subscribe !
I. Letters to the Future
I used to write letters to the future in college. I wrote to my future self.
It was a personal ritual that I thought would pay off after 5 years.
At the end of every semester, right before our break started, I would write a letter to the ‘Me’ who would come back for the next semester.
Often on the last day of the end semester exam, I would take sheets of paper and sit at my desk. Use a fountain pen or a stick pen. Blue ink. Mention the date at the top of the letter and address it to ‘The Future Nirmal’. Start writing.
I would pin the letter on my board, or leave it right at the desk. Come next semester, before I even started cleaning my room, the first task was to open and read the letter.
These letters recounted events from the past semester and detailed plans for the upcoming one. The goal was to have 10 letters by the end. I wanted to document my journey through law school and once I finished the course, I knew I would look back fondly.
Unfortunately, I lost my 2nd semester letter. After coming back from that break, I couldn’t find it anywhere in my room. The letter disappeared into the void like all of the erasers, pens and pencils we tend to lose.
By the end of law school, I only had 6 handwritten letters.
I never achieved my goal. I had failed.
When I came back to read the letter to my 8th semester self in 2020, I didn't get to write one for the 9th semester self. I didn't write a letter at the end of my final semester to the future me who would’ve finished graduation.
Everything changed overnight. We were uprooted from college. A virus had disrupted my life and snatched away the lives of millions of people. The world as I knew it came to a standstill. No one was making plans. Surviving and maintaining sanity throughout the different waves of COVID became the goal now.
For the first time, my hope about the future was at rock bottom. I couldn't find any silver lining. Things weren’t okay. I think of what Clint Smith wrote,
“I have grown accustomed to a lifetime of aphorisms
meant to assuage my fears, pithy sayings meant to
convey that everything ends up fine in the end. There is no
solace in rearranging language to make a different word
tell the same lie. Sometimes the moral arc of the universe
does not bend in a direction that will comfort us.”
- Clint Smith, When people say, “we have made it through worse before”
There wasn't anything to look forward to and I didn't know what to write to my future self. I haven't addressed anything to 'Future Nirmal' ever since.
The ongoing ritual since my first semester in 2016 was severed.
In a few days, I'll be getting a calendar for 2023 and I've been thinking of restarting the ritual. Maybe write yearly letters to the future. I'm not sure though, so recently, I decided to revisit the 6 letters I have with me.
A lot of the time in the letters, I would only talk about my shortcomings and issues with who I was as a person. Each letter I penned centered around academics, my chronic procrastination, my commitments to the Debsoc, basketball, journal work etc. In the early letters, I thought of myself with disapproval. I used to believe that at the end of every semester, my life in college revolved around my failures. I wrote only about my inadequacies. I didn’t write a lot about people, memories or bonds that I made. In the first 2 years, I didn’t talk about moments of joy, I wrote only about moments of doubt.
This changed as I entered the last few semesters of college. The tone of the letters shifted.
Towards the end of my 6th semester in early 2019, I was fatigued. There was a bleak atmosphere of figuring out what to do in the future. I was balancing an academically intensive semester with low attendance, multiple competitions and other responsibilities. It seemed never-ending.
I anticipated spending my 7th semester - worrying about internships, final exams and trying to make the most of my remaining time on campus with friends.
So, in the letter to my 7th semester self, I told Future Nirmal to revel in college life a little more. I wrote about how there would be only 2 years left, and that I should start looking at the bright side of my life. I didn’t want to feel fatigued again. I didn’t want to miss out on memories by not paying attention to the smaller joys around me.
To a large extent, I did follow my letter in the 7th semester. At the end of that semester, to my future self, I wrote again to enjoy the time left. While I did write about prioritizing certain goals, at the top of that list was a request to make more memories because there were only 1.5 years left. I was encouraging myself to have fun and not take myself too seriously.
I was keeping count of the days.
I read this letter on February 17, 2020, after coming back from my break.
My past self was wrong.
The countdown was actually 30 days.
My time in NLUJ was up.
There’s a scene with Andy Bernard in the final episode of the Office that I often think about.
At least, I recognized that I was entering the end game of life at NLUJ. It felt like I was running out of time. I told my future self to relish my time here and make more memories together. I told my future self to be present in the moment.
What happens when you know you’re in the good old days, but don’t actually get to live and experience those days?
I thought I would live in those moments.
But I didn’t get to live ALL of my good old days.
It’s been over 2 years and I’m still grappling with all that was lost.
II. Tick Tick Tick Tick…
I went to Jodhpur in August this year for a couple of days.
I was in Delhi prior to that, visiting my friends and spending time together with them. I had just quit my job and I wanted to go to places that gave me some comfort.
Going to Delhi was a natural consequence - some of my closest friends live there.
Jodhpur, on the other hand, was an impulsive decision. It wasn’t in my original plan, but I knew I wouldn’t be travelling to this part of the country again for a long time. Plus, Jodhpur is only a Mandore Express away. It was a solo trip. My closest friends were busy with work. I couldn’t go with them this time.
(I still haven't been able to decide if having more time as a result of unemployment is a good thing or a bad thing. You may have all the time in the world and you still find it difficult to schedule hangout sessions with your friends)
The movie Tick, Tick... Boom! starts with Jonathan Larson saying this:
“So you know, lately, I’ve been hearing this sound. Everywhere I go, like a tick tick tick. Like a time bomb in some cheesy B movie or a Saturday cartoon movie. The fuse has been lit. The clock counts down the seconds as the flame gets closer and closer and closer until all at once…’”
I was deeply confused and lost about what I wanted to be doing. I wasn’t sure if my decision to quit my job was the right one. I wasn’t even sure about my interest in the field of law. I could hear the clock ticking in my head. I had to “figure out” things quickly. I had to hurry. I can’t keep drifting all the time. Despite being someone who wants to live a supremely long life, I felt like I was running out of time. Tick Tick Tick Tick. I only had doubts in my head. Slowly weighing down on me. Eating away at my sense of confidence about what I was doing. The luxury to make mistakes seemed to be reducing with each passing minute.
So, Jodhpur had to be a stop on my trip. Visiting the city and the campus that embraced me with all of my confusions and anxieties in the past just made sense. I was going back to a familiar place. I wanted to be in surroundings where I could find some solace and peace.
I started working on July 26, 2021. For my personal historical reference, that is Day 1.
Day 1 of adulthood.
When I was a kid, I used to game a lot. I felt satisfied after finishing quests, collecting items and beating the next boss to advance further.
I wanted to grow up. While I was nervous about the future, I was excited at the idea of earning money by myself, becoming independent, doing something I could be engrossed in, etc. I thought of life as a game and that I would enjoy playing it as I grew older. I finished the Education Quest. I had levelled up, now it was time for the Quest of Adulting.
In the stand-up special Jigsaw, Daniel Sloss tells a story about when he was a seven-year-old kid. Like all kids, he randomly asked his father a series of questions “Dad, what do we all do? What’s the meaning of life? Why are we all here? What the fuck?”
"...This is what he said, right? I’m seven years old. He goes, “All right, buddy. Just imagine that your life, my life, everyone else’s individual life. Imagine all of our lives are like our own individual jigsaw puzzles. As we’re going through life, we’re just slowly piecing it together, bit by bit, based on experiences and lessons that we’ve learned, until we get the best picture. But the thing is everyone has also lost the box for their jigsaw. So none of us know what the image we’re trying to make is, we’re just confidently fucking guessing…."
By the time I graduated NLUJ in 2021, I had a job at a corporate law firm. After a harsh year, I was seeing the bright side of my life at the time. While I didn’t have high expectations from the job itself, I knew I would become independent. I would be earning money. No more borrowing from parents. COVID would go away soon. I could save up to travel around the country with friends and purchase all the manga I wanted.
As long as I worked, I could do whatever I wanted. Things were falling into place. My life’s jigsaw puzzle was coming together.
It is Day 520 as I write this.
Life has been a difficult and tumultuous time after graduation, to say the least. Not exactly the fun quest I was expecting.
I started my job by working from home, alone. I would operate from a tiny room. I hadn’t met most of my colleagues. I was more familiar with the text of their names as it was displayed on Microsoft Teams.
My friends were in different parts of the country (and world), working towards their own careers.
I had grown used to the serenity of hanging out with my people almost every day. Now, I see them occasionally through memes on WhatsApp chats, as frames on video calls, or as missed notifications, when I think I'll catch up with them later.
There is no later.
Our lives were evolving to accommodate for a lot more responsibilities. We were on our distinct paths. It was a struggle to acknowledge and accept this fact during the first few months after graduating.
For a long time since the job started, my head was always at work.
Go to my workspace.
Talk to colleagues and clients (many of whom I only knew by name) over calls and emails.
Finish tasks that don't leave you satisfied.
Eat food for sustenance.
Relive the same day.
I was in a twisted loop.
It wasn't all bad. I had kind and patient colleagues. I managed a couple of trips with friends. Saved up some money. Slowly got used to responsibilities. Learnt how to work again, after all the inactivity in the pandemic.
But something always felt off. I didn't have the energy to make adjustments to improve my lifestyle. I was in a disarray.
So, I went into autopilot mode. Days, weeks, and months were indistinguishable from each other. I couldn’t remember what I was doing. Everything seemed like a daze and I was just watching things as a nonchalant bystander. Ironically, it was only when I would fill in my timesheets at work that I was able to get some semblance of where I was spending my time.
Eventually, I quit my job (Day 325). It wasn’t working out for me. At the time, I thought I’ll figure things out after I quit. It’ll give me a pause. I’ll have some “space” and “time” to take stock of what was happening and what I could be doing next.
I had forgotten what it meant to care or be intentional in my actions. I was suddenly unaware about what interested me. It was like being a minor NPC in my own life – with the same set of actions to be performed while being ignorant of the bigger story. I didn’t know what I should pay attention to.
How do I move forward? I had no answer.
My jigsaw of life was slowly being torn apart, piece by piece. Things were falling out of place and living in this uncertainty only made me anxious and less confident about my future.
IV. A Stranger
I reached Jodhpur on a Tuesday. The familiar streets of the old city, the majesty of the Mehrangarh and the skies greeted me warmly just like one would an old friend after a long time.
On my way to the campus, I was stopped by the guards. They gave me a questioning look, asking me for my identity.
My immediate reaction was of utter surprise. I explained to them that I was a student here and wanted to spend some time on the campus. They asked me to sign on a register.
I instinctively took the student register, to record my roll no., hostel room and in-time. Again, the guard had to remind me that I was entering my details in the wrong book. I needed the visitor pass. I wasn’t a student there.
It was around 1:00 PM. I was heading to ‘my’ room - MCS 416. I could see a lot of people rushing towards classes, and some were heading back to their hostels, presumably to bunk post lunch classes. I thought I saw some people from my batch walking past the football field. Then I realised I was imagining things.
Most of the faces were new. Strangers who were walking around on my campus, like they belonged there.
I walked to my floor. Since classes were going on, most of the rooms were locked.
I noticed the locks were different. The washing machine on the floor was new. There was a different water pipe. I went to a friend’s room, rather, what I considered to be my friend’s room. The resident of that room was kind enough to open it and let me (a random nobody) have a look. It was completely different from what I remembered. I couldn’t find a hint of my friend’s presence in that room.
I decided to head to my room. Fortunately, no one had moved in yet. I spent some time in MCS 416 by myself. It was filled with dust and emptiness. Exactly, like I had left it. I sat there for a while. Reminiscing about the times here. I missed this room deeply. It has always given me a permanent sense of comfort in the past. It was home.
I could hear some people on the floor moving around. Live long enough on the floor, and you’ll always know who’s walking past your room through the sound of their footsteps. I couldn’t recognize the sound of these footsteps.
I went to the terrace. Stood on top of the water tank in the middle of a Jodhpur afternoon and soaked in the stunning view of our campus. The view was also heart-wrenching.
I couldn’t recognize most of the people here.
Things had changed. Familiar but unfamiliar.
Everything on the MCS Top Floor was a sign that this wasn’t the floor I once knew.
As the guard told me, I was a visitor and not a student. I was the stranger here, not them. I felt like I was trespassing on the lives of these students. I didn’t belong here anymore.
The Debating Society had their orientation planned for the latest batch that day in the auditorium. It was the week of orientations. Students were getting acquainted with all the different organised communities of NLUJ.
I sat in the auditorium, at the back and watched the Debsoc share their stories. The last time I sat in the audience for an orientation I was in my first year. After that, I was always part of the group that explained to new batches what the Debsoc is all about. It felt weird, but I was also really happy and felt proud to be able to witness this community, which I cherished so much. I had come full circle.
I was asked to share a few words by the current convenors. I went on stage and I think it was the first time I was standing in front of such a crowd in years. Despite having given over 100 debate speeches, I was still nervous. My legs were shivering. I don’t recall what it was that I said, pretty sure it was some corny stuff. I wasn't thinking about the speech at that moment.
I had a bunch of other thoughts going through my mind.
I thought about how much I missed the Debsoc and being able to freely hangout with weird, quirky and fun people. As I looked at the current students, I was envious of all the students who were living on campus, especially the newer batches. They will spend more time in NLUJ than I did.
After the orientation, I decided to play basketball with the current team. I played as much as my pathetic stamina allowed me to. It had been a while since I saw the NLUJ basketball team in action. It was a lot of fun. While playing, I had forgotten about all the macro worries and burdens swirling in my head. Nothing else matters when you’re within those four corners.
VI. Forgotten Ghosts
Over the course of my trip in Delhi, and the two days I spent in Jodhpur, I watched my past play out. My mind was replaying memories from the pre-pandemic era, like flashbacks in movies. It was bizarre. My past was superimposing itself with the present, lingering around me
Surrounded by the silence in my room, I could listen to the music I normally played. In the hostel Amir Ali, I saw my friends gathering around one room before heading to the mess for food. When I had lunch at Ganga Caterers, I could hear the sounds of their stories and laughter echoing through the dining area. I stepped out to Laxmi and I could see people arguing at the pool table about who’s the better player. While walking through the Acad Block, I watched the classrooms where my batchmates scrambled to make it in time and not miss the roll call. As I headed towards the old city in an auto, I thought of the other auto rides I’ve taken. So much distance was travelled with so many people through these same roads.
Those people aren’t here at the moment. Our destinations have changed. This is the new normal.
Helena Fitzgerald writes about our obsession to go back to our pre-pandemic lives and how it is preventing some of us from moving forward. She says,
“We’ve been haunted by the ghost of 2019 since March 2020, and now, as we attempt to construct the future, we keep turning back to the past, summoning that same ghost. It makes sense that many of us would long for the time before all of this, when we didn’t know the things we know now and hadn’t lost the things we’ve lost since. But we can’t imagine a new way of being if we cling to an old one.”
I knew that this chapter of my life was over and I had to write my next one. But for quite a while, I refused to accept and face the losses that came with it. I allowed the ghosts of the past to haunt me, while I struggled to imagine a new way of being.
VII. Absence of Communities
Given the structure of a 5 year long course, the proximity to people, the diverse interests and backgrounds of the students living - there are multiple ways for you to form, build and maintain connections. I was extremely lucky and fortunate. I had a circle of friends, I could trust and be vulnerable with. I was part of different communities where I learnt a lot and I hit it off with the people within those communities.
When I was struggling, I always knew they were there. If I felt lonely, I only had to step out for a bit, and I would find them. Even when I doubted myself, they shared quiet whispers of trust and wisdom, which gave me the confidence to move forward. My doubt filled tendencies never got the better of me, because their presence was around.
In the 500 odd days that I’ve spent adulting, it has only recently dawned on me that I don’t have similar access to these small communities anymore. At least not in the exact same way. Throughout my life, the educational system put me in environments where with a little bit of effort and luck, I could find my way into building bonds and connections. The proximity and consistent rituals helped sustain those bonds. The fact that everyone else around you pursued the same degree/goal of graduating, meant that you were in it together. It was like being in a fellowship, and all your companions had the same quest objective to fulfil.
Now, the quest of graduation has been completed. The fellowship has disbanded. Everyone is off to different adventures and are writing new chapters of their life. The proximity isn’t the same. The space that you occupy isn’t shared. Some of the memories you make now may not involve the same people. You can’t live the same moments again.
For a while after graduating, it was lonely. It still is. I wasn’t clear about my career progression and I wasn’t confident about my actions. I had grown callous to what was happening to me or around me. I didn’t know what to do with the sinking feeling of constant doubt. I was stuck ruminating.
VIII. To Future Nirmal
The last time I was in the NLUJ Campus, it was empty and desolate. Our spirits were broken at the time. My friends and I had come there to wrap things up as students, and say goodbye.
It is alive again.
There are students who are embarking on their journeys for the first time and taking tiny steps forward, amidst a lot of uncertainty and difficulties.
It was heart-warming to see the campus filled with students, struggling, pursuing and getting involved in different activities. I was reminded of what it felt like to care about something, to be engrossed in something that interests you. I remembered what it was like being part of small communities that shared your quirks. I don’t want to forget that feeling ever again.
My past is an historical record of how I got introduced to communities through some effort and good luck. While I may not have the access to the same communities anymore, it doesn’t mean I will never have access to good groups or my friends. I got by in college by making at least some effort. All of this didn’t happen automatically. I didn’t hesitate so much to reach out for help. Now, I’m hesitating all the time.
Designing and building your adult life, in a way where you feel at ease with yourself is a constant struggle. It’ll take time, but it is possible. At least, that’s the hope. As John Green writes - “your now is not forever”
I’m not sure if the pieces of my life’s jigsaw will be coming together again in the same way. I’m still wandering. I’m constantly confused. I still feel detached sometimes and I do miss hanging out with my friends in a carefree manner.
But, I’m going to follow what I wrote to myself in the last letter I have - make more memories, try to have fun and not overthink problems.
It’ll be okay.
And I think I should also restart my personal ritual. I'm going to write a new letter to The Future Nirmal of 2024.
Thank you so much for reading !
Wishing you a kinder 2023, and a year filled with lots of memories !