Monday, September 10, 2007

Staying On - Nirmal's Story (Part 1)

Nirmal has four older siblings and is eight years younger than the youngest of them. Money was already in short supply for this Mumbai family which lived in a lower-middle class neighborhood on the fringes of Dharavi when this unplanned addition happened.

His father's business was already failing and soon after Nirmal's birth he turned gravely ill. As soon as he was old enough to understand, his older siblings told him he was unlucky for the family - their mother was widowed by then. Even in their one and a half room tenement, the distance between him and the rest of his family was enormous. He felt like an intruder.

His oldest brother had graduated from an elite engineering school and was now working. He was the man of the family. There were debts to be paid off from their father's business obligations and long hospitalization. There were two younger sisters to be married off. The other brother was in high school and showed every sign of being able to make it to medical college. The girls were very bright too. Nirmal seemed to have fallen through the cracks as the rest of the family worked in lock-step to tide over difficult times.

In the years that followed, the oldest brother got married and moved out of the house, the younger one graduated from medical school and set up his practice in the half room of their house. The oldest sister had got a scholarship to graduate school in the US and was now living in Southern California. The other sister was finishing up law school and had already lined up a clerkship with a reputed attorney.

Nirmal's mother had much to be proud of considering how well her kids had rallied in the face of overwhelming odds. At least all except Nirmal.
Nirmal was her problem child. He wore his hair long, skipped classes in high-school, smoked and did drugs, brought home indifferent to failing grades. A majority of his friends were the sons of gangster types that lived in Dharavi. He got involved in Youth Congress the student wing of the largest democratic party in India. Along with it came opportunity to participate in vandalism and get arrested.

It was clear painfully clear to the family that Nirmal would never make like his older siblings had. His sister in the US came to the rescue and offered to bring him stateside and put him through college. She was able to get him enrolled in an undergrad math program and he was prompt to disappoint her by switching his major to English. And that was only the beginning.

By the end of his junior year, he had acquired a live-in white girlfriend Shelley, a serious drinking habit, some piercings and a yen to become a journalist.
As he came close to graduation, he sensed a paralyzing fear of the future. He had no job prospects and no desire to go to graduate school. Returning to India was not an option because he would never find work with his educational qualifications. The family had done what they could do to bail him out - there were not going to be any more handouts.

He felt desperate and alone with his fears.
When Shelley had started living with him there was never any talk of the future - neither imagined one existed. For both of them it was an act of defiance against their families. Shelley's family was ultra-conservative and given to stereotyping ethnic minorities. Nirmal's folks had thrown a huge fit when they first found out and it was just the reaction he had wanted. In his senior year, Nirmal mounted an aggressive campaign to shape the vision of a life together. Shelley was his one and only hope. Marrying her would give him the legal status to live and work in the US. He knew he had to stay on.

So at twenty three, united by their passion for clubbing and late-night parties, post-modern literature and liberal politics they were able to find enough reason to get married. Nirmal's mother and sister squirmed in discomfort as the wedding party got wilder and louder by the hour at the couple's favorite night club. This was the dollar beer night. At four in the morning some friends hauled the passed-out Nirmal into a cab. Shelley was sober enough to say goodbye to his family before joining him in the cab.

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