A few years ago, I learned about the novel-writing program at Stanford. It has a defined two-year curriculum with an application process which requires a Personal statement and writing samples and references and more things. And it accepts only 45 students every year.
My husband encouraged me to apply, but I wasn’t ready. I was insecure as I was often told that because I was from India, I can’t write in American English. This application cycle, I was mentally ready. I fretted and submitted my application.
Last week I was accepted into the program. I am excited and scared and worried, all at the same time. I never imagined that my life would take this trajectory.
Of course, the big change is that I have gone from not being able to write anything to want to write a novel. But the biggest change is that now I am getting an education because I want it and I am ready for it. It hasn’t always been like that.
My mother was in her first semester of undergrad when she married my father in an arranged marriage. My father is a retired civil engineer who always received top grades in everything. Once in a rare moment of bonding, my father told me that he doesn’t like being an engineer. That his interest lies in finance. That in those days, a good education led to a good government job which would set a person for life. That he was an engineer because he was good at his studies and worked hard.
In the day and age when every Indian family desired a boy, my parents had two daughters—my younger sister and me. My father bought me up as though I was a boy. I was to conquer all and achieve all. I was supposed to be like him—good in studies. (My younger sister fulfilled his aspirations as she studied sixteen-hours daily.) I was supposed to get good grades in high-school (which I didn’t) to get into a good college (which I didn’t) which would and should lead to a good job (which I did), preferably in a government sector.
I never cared to study. I wanted to sketch and play all the time. I questioned (and I still do) the need to learn the Pythagoras theorem and whole-light-passing-through a prism theory. I know many will disagree, but learning how to prove a theorem helped me squat in my life.
But things changed when in eleventh grade I was living in a working women’s hostel. At sixteen, discarded by my parents, shunned by my relatives, and surrounded by women in low paying jobs helped me realize that education was my way out.
Everyone around me wanted to become a doctor or an engineer. I wanted to become a painter like renowned M. F. Husain, but my father said, “Painters don’t make any money.” He was right. Then I wanted to study civil engineering. (At that time, I loved my father with a child’s devotion.) My father sniggered and said, “Are you going to stand on [construction] sites in your V-sandals?” So, I chose a profession which was a combination of both—Architecture.
I will not say that I chose a profession I didn’t like. I was exceptional at it. I was happy with it. I loved being an architect. The opportunity to create a space and environment out of my imagination was mind-boggling. Turning an idea into a reality where humans lived was an ego booster.
But my decision to become an architect was more logical than I ever let on. It was a profession which accepted women. At that time, it was an upcoming profession. (During my undergrad, my friend’s mother pointed to her living-room concrete floor and said, “So, you are going to fix floor like your father.”) It actually held more prestige than being an engineer.
I didn’t have any need to study further. I could have lived my life like countless other women in India—earning twenty-five cents on a dollar, always behind a man, and accepting that I would never rise. The thought of moving to the US to get my masters was a blip that became a reality.
I applied without actually understanding what the program and what my move entails. All I wanted was a graduate degree from America, which would help me get a better job in India and would make me on par with my male colleagues. I never intended to settle in the US. I didn’t attend grad school because I loved studying. I studied because education was a means to an end.
I credit my husband for changing my perspective towards education. He encouraged me to take UC Berkeley writing classes for fun. That fun turned into a writing certificate. But it began because I was trying to correct my weakness of not being able to write. Throughout, I had my trials and tribulations: students told me I didn’t know how to write, a teacher told me that no one would be interested in my work, and I perpetually struggled with comma placements. I studied because I wanted to write better, but I didn’t find enjoyment in studying until the course “Mystery Fiction” taught by Alison Heney.
I found that it is possible to enjoy education. That it doesn’t always have to be stressful. That I should study only when my heart and brain are in perfect agreement with each other.
I could have applied to the Stanford program last year. But I wasn’t ready to study and give a two-year commitment. It is not possible for me to go into a two-year program without any planning. But my life, my livelihood, and my ego do not depend on the outcome of this course.
For the first time in my life, I am studying when I am at peace with myself. I am not studying because I need to prove something to the world. I am going to study because I find enjoyment in learning.