In 2002, I spent a summer doing an internship in Palo Alto, California, and sharing an apartment with another Indian grad student – let’s call him Niraj.
At 24, with a degree in computer science from IIT-Bombay, I thought my life plan was set: Finish a PhD by 27, get a cushy job at Microsoft or IBM, move to San Jose, marry a beautiful ‘fair’ highly-educated Bengali Brahmin girl my parents picked for me, have two kids, two cars and a house with a yard and garage.
In short, the desi tech immigrant ‘American Dream’.
And then my roommate invited me to lunch with his college friends.
Niraj was a couple of years older than me and had a CS degree from IIT-Kharagpur. Unlike his friends who went for jobs straight out of college, he had taken the academic route. He was also a bit of a rebel, spending his weekends learning to surf in the Berkeley Marina, dancing salsa and trying really hard to be cool.
On a bright Sunday, we walked into a giant vegetarian Indian buffet in – where else – Sunnyvale. The place was packed, loud and smelled deliciously spicy. Niraj’s friends had captured a large table to themselves and waved us over.
Right away, I noticed a few things.
First, all of them were couples – clearly once you’re done with school, the expectation to get married quickly is laid on strong.
Second, the men and women were on opposite ends of the table with a significant gap in between. There was even a baby or two – on the women’s side.
Also read: ‘Indian Matchmaking’, the Calcutta Way
I instantly realised I had to code-switch to Indian. I was a PhD student at Rice University, a small school in Houston, Texas, that didn’t have enough of an Indian population to completely seclude myself within, so I wasn’t used to purely desi gatherings any more.
As the lunch continued, the men (and mostly the men) started talking about their lives and their marriages. Niraj and I were the only bachelors and I was a stranger, so they started ribbing him a bit, as if they’d already turned into nosy uncles in their mid-twenties.
“Arrey yaar, shaadi kab kar raha hain? (Hey dude, when are you getting married?)”
And then, to illustrate their state of marital bliss, they started getting competitive.
“My parents went through 300 biodatas to pick her,” said one, pointing at his wife.
“Arrey, mine went through at least 500 biodatas and 50 meetings,” said another.
And it went on and on. Some of the women laughed uncomfortably, some looked at their husbands with what looked like pure adoration. I just took in the scene with growing horror.
And then something inside me snapped.
As I walked out of the restaurant, I had a visceral and terrifying realisation. I did not want my life to look like that in ten years. I didn’t know what I wanted, but it was anything but that.
I came back to Houston at the end of the summer to continue working on my PhD. But things were never the same. I began to deliberately take classes outside of CS to get to know people outside my tiny circle.
Six months later, I was driving to lunch with a new friend, an Asian-American dude I had met in a Chinese class. I nervously took a deep breath, turned to him and asked: “Tell me about this dating thing that you Americans do.”
Raj Bandyopadhyay is a recovering techie from Mumbai turned artist/photographer in San Francisco.
Featured image credit: Stefan Vladimirov/Unsplash