When the past is gone, it is gone; no amount of imagery can truly reconstruct it.
I travelled to Boston a few days ago to attend the 40th reunion of my college class, my first such get-together with former classmates since I graduated from Brandeis University in 1970. I went because I hadn't stayed much in touch with them, I went because I was curious how their lives had played out over these long years, and I went, perhaps most of all, to revisit the past that had shaped me, a past that I had always thought served as a prologue to everything that subsequently happened in my life.
But that past had disappeared from view. I found myself a stranger among classmates whom I hadn't even known during my college days. The campus had changed — it's still pretty, of course, but it has suffered from the “edifice complex,” that peculiar American condition where wealthy donors raise buildings as much to promote education as to set their names in stone, or marble. What once was a bucolic area was now filled with malls and a bewildering maze of highways. There was a superficiality to the reunion parties, the food wasn't very good — it never is on American campuses — and it became quickly clear that the courteous young students who served as guides for the occasion had little cognisance with the past I'd experienced, and even less curiosity about it. They seemed eager to talk about themselves, and so I did what I like to do best — ask questions.
I went to the United States in 1967 at a time of great cultural upheaval over its involvement in the Vietnam War, which cost nearly 60,000 American lives — and those of a million Vietnamese — and maimed tens of thousands of young soldiers on both sides, and altered forever the lives and destinies of untold numbers of men, women and children in Indochina. In the end, it was all for nothing — America lost that war, its only such defeat, and, Vietnam still figures as a metaphor for how the best and brightest policymakers of a wealthy nations can misread developing societies many thousands of miles away.
Coming from the relative placidity of my native Mumbai — then known as Bombay — I wasn't prepared for the tumult and turbulence that I would encounter in a country that I'd never before visited. America was alluring, to be sure, but it was also completely alien. What I'd seen in the movies produced by Hollywood wasn't quite the reality I'd encounter. The weather was unpredictable, I had no friends, and, as an only child, I missed my parents terribly. I missed the colour and clangor of Mumbai. I missed the ethos of India.
It wasn't easy to acclimatise myself to a new country that would eventually be my permanent home – although I would have had no way of knowing it at the time — and it wasn't easy being at Brandeis University near Boston, a campus of ambitious, politically hyperactive, and sexually libertarian students and faculty. Much of my time was spent covering the huge war protests in and around Boston for the campus newspaper, The Justice — named after the man in whose honour my nonsectarian university had been established in 1948, Louis D. Brandeis, an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, a great legal scholar. Little wonder that my newspaper articles sparkled more than my grades.
But that was where my professional life as a journalist began. I went on to be a foreign correspondent at The New York Times, then at Newsweek International and Forbes, and later as a producer of documentaries for public television, an author of 14 books, and as the founder and editor of The Earth Times, a newspaper on the environment and sustainable development. I don't mean to seem facetious, but I am what I am because I skipped those stimulating classes at Brandeis and opted to attend antiwar rallies and write about them for The Justice. This also offered ample opportunities to meet women whose personal and political passions nicely intertwined.
I looked for some of those women at my class reunion, but none was there. There were those with whom I hadn't enjoyed liaisons, but I could scarcely recognise. The years hadn't been biologically kind to most of those who attended. Many of my classmates — both women and men — had gone on to great distinction in fields as varied as the law, the sciences, medicine, the theatre, and academe, of course. We took a lot of pictures, some with cameras, most with our eyes. It will be the last such album that I will preserve.
That's because when the past is gone, it is gone; no amount of imagery can truly reconstruct it. Before I made the journey of 10,000 kilometres from my current home in Dubai to Boston for the class reunion, I knew full well that one could never recapture the past. I did not realise that one couldn't really relive the past either. Forty years is a very long time — two full generations have been born and graduated since my college days. None of the professors who taught me is still around at Brandeis. My parents aren't around either; they aren't there to write home to about my travails in what was then an alien experience. Two larger-than-life figures in Massachusetts who welcomed me into their homes and hearts — Selma Feinstein and Charles Noble — are long dead, and I didn't even know about their demise; my failure to keep in touch with them may have been one of omission and not commission, but it certainly showed that I didn't bother to nurture my past.
There is no way that I can translate my regret into something more meaningful. My past was lived in a different time, and although it will linger on in my mind I don't think that I will revisit it through another punishing physical journey. With every word I write, that past recedes, it moves away beyond my grasp. Perhaps just as well.
(Pranay Gupte is a veteran international journalist and author. His next book, on India and the Middle East, will be published at the end of 2010.)