Published August 26-29, 2023
Home in the World
At dinner with a friend, we started talking about our kids. Our 18-year-olds were headed to the US for undergrad. I mentioned to my friend about memories of my going to IIT-Bombay and hostel life, and the learnings during those four years. My friend, who had done his undergrad in the US, also had very good memories about campus life. As we ended our dinner, he said, “Rajesh, since you love writing so much, why not write a blog series on what advice would you give to 18-year-olds on the cusp of their undergrad life?” I liked the idea. As I thought more about it on the drive back home, I decided to frame it as advice that I would give my 18-year-old self, since most young people are not too excited about receiving life advice from an older parent or adult!
I entered IIT-Bombay at 17. I had never lived away from home. While there was some excitement about hostel life, there were also some anxieties about being away from parents. I had chosen IIT rather than go abroad for undergrad thanks to the sensible advice I had received from a friend who had gone abroad for his undergrad a year ago because IIT education was among the best in the world. So it was that in July 1984, on a drizzling Sunday afternoon, my parents dropped me to my hostel and soon, I was all alone. But not for long. Seniors were waiting to initiate the ragging ritual. Thus began hostel life. I had little or no time to myself between classes and getting introduced to seniors as a “freshie”. Word had spread that I could talk well and was quite sporting. (And could follow instructions on a Maggie packet!)
The first month passed by rapidly. New friends, new surroundings, new explorations. The sheltered life was a thing of the past. Here I was among peers, where the decision-making buck stopped with me. I would call home once a week for a quick update. Even though I went back most Friday nights or Saturday mornings, I was keen to return to my new world quickly. (Going home was about good mom-made food, sleeping, and getting my clothes washed.) The month became a semester, and then a year. My first year at IIT transformed me in many ways, and made me bolder, better, more independent. As it did for many of my friends. Each of us chose our own path through IIT – some concentrated more on academics, others blended studies with extracurricular activities. What we had was some starting advice from our parents to guide us, but eventually we were on our own. We had to fight our own battles, make our own decisions small and big, plan our own way forward. And in the process, we discovered ourselves.
The one advice I have given many parents through the years is to send their children away from home to a hostel for their undergrad. Let them grow up on their own, let them figure out their lives, let them become their best versions. One of the best ways to accelerate this process is to put them in surroundings different from home. As Abhishek and many others his age go out into the world in a process of learning and self-discovery, I asked myself, “What advice would I give him? Even better, what advice would I give my teenage self?”
Explore and Experiment
As my friend and I were parting ways after dinner, he asked me, “If there was just one thing you could tell 18-year-olds what would it be?” My quick answer was, “Explore and experiment.”
Life for the first time away from home offers many attractions and distractions. It is even more so if one enrolls in a university outside India. There are thus two big shifts: from home to hostel, from India to international. It is a change that cannot be planned for or even anticipated. New friends have to be made, new food and other habits have to be formed, new daily schedules have to be created. It is a world ready for an 18-year-old, irrespective of whether that 18-year-old is ready or not. With the benefit of hindsight, here is what I would tell my teenage self.
There’s much to learn and know. The academics in the classroom are just one aspect of life. They are the only constant. Beyond that, it is about the choices you make. While today’s 18-year-old can WhatsApp or Facetime parents daily, I would recommend both sides to give space to each other. Life is not about clinging on to the past and telling Mom what you ate for lunch and dinner. It is about creating some space to look ahead to the future. Just as I recommend contiguous time for writing and thinking through the constant inflow of messages on our always-on digital devices, 18-year-olds must also immerse themselves in their new world. The past has been about creating the foundation, the present and future is about constructing the building.
I discovered myself on the beautiful campus of IIT. I was an introvert who blossomed in the company of strangers who later became very good friends. I participated in cultural activities, went on treks, had long late-night chat sessions, and took long walks at midnight. I broke the rules I had grown up with – in a good way. More learning happened outside the classroom – and it was because I chose that path. I explored and experimented. I did not let my past life define my future. I tried many things for the first time. I kept within my boundaries, but without the rigidities. I shared stories with people who just a few weeks ago were complete strangers. I ate with people from backgrounds very different from mine. I spent hours in hostel rooms not my own talking about just about anything. I learnt the art of conversation watching and listening to others. I built relationships one person at a time.
When I look back, I should have perhaps done more of this. The weekends I chose to come home – could I have spent more time in the hostel? The hours I spent studying concepts which the mind failed to grasp – could I have learnt to play the guitar? Could I have acted in the hostel theatrical productions? Could I have learnt to play tennis or basketball? Could I have explored and experimented much more than I did? Because the four carefree years of undergrad will never come again. There is not a worry in the world, there is no fear of failure, there is no one to judge you, there is no need to be politically correct. There will be a time when all of that will matter, but not in those four years. So, if there’s one piece of advice to my teenage self I would give, it would be to do things you’ve never done before. Even things you thought you were not capable of. Explore, experiment – and expand.
Habits and Friends
It is very important to also set the ground rules of what you will not do. Peer pressure is a big deal. It can push in many different ways – and not all are for the good. This is where nurturing matters. Parents have imparted to us the framework for deciding between what is right and wrong. They know us better than we know ourselves. At no time should we do anything that we or they will regret. In that one moment of weakness among a group of friends, in that one sentence challenging us, we are very liable to go astray. That is the moment of truth. No one is looking, but there is an inner voice talking and eyes above watching.
Freedom comes with responsibilities. These have to be self-defined. There are no parents to set the boundaries. What time one wakes up, what time on esleeps, what one eats or drinks, what friends one makes, what habits one embraces – these are the decisions that only you can make. The guiding light must be the boundaries one sets.
Going from the constraints of home life to the extreme freedoms of dorm life can be exciting at first. No permissions, no answering questions, no asking! It is a life which I could only imagine when I went to IIT. But then I also realised soon enough that I have to cultivate habits carefully and make friends even more judiciously. Just because there were no minimum attendance requirements did not mean that I could miss class when I wanted. Just because there was no one to make sure I am awake did not mean I could sleep as long as I wanted. Just because there was no one to check the statements I was making did not mean I could lie to those closest to me. I had to make sure I stayed true to myself. I could not in a few months undo all the good my parents had taught me – just because I had the freedom to.
Above everything is the selection of friends. Not only will you select friends but your friends will also select you. Choose carefully. And do not let old friendships die just because some new ones are being formed. Even today, two of my best friends are those from school. While we may not meet as often, the friendship has stayed for 40+ years. It has survived slaps, short-lived anger, time, distances, and periods of silence. Friendships do not see caste, class, gender, or nationality. With friends, it doesn’t matter when one meets; the conversation can be continued as if you had met just yesterday.
Just as parents did not judge you, take you for what you are, and see and bring out the best in you, so do good friends. Cultivate good friendships and go the extra mile for them. Friendship is not a balance sheet where giving and taking needs to be matched. It is about unconditional giving. It is about being there when needed – and sometimes even when not needed. Friends are the one true constant in a world that changes, where short-term demands take over, where time pressures and deadlines are abundant.
Because when you look back to your younger days, you will not remember what was written on the blackboard. But you will always remember the vulnerable moments shared late at night, and the comforting hand that you felt on your shoulder.
In Difficult Times
There were times when I felt lonely and alone. It happens to all of us. That exam which did not go right, a relationship which suddenly changed, a mistake that should not have been. The answer to many of these unpleasant situations is to lock oneself in a room and brood. I wish I had not done that. I wish I had studied more. I wish I had not said that. Life doesn’t always go to plan.
In moments like these, you can always count on your parents. Their love is unconditional. It does not expect anything back. It is just there – invisible like oxygen in the air. Every breath has it. However old we grow, parents are always there for their children. And yes, we will always be children for them. So, in these moments, when you feel the world has turned against you, when nothing seems to be going right, always remember that you have your parents. It is not always possible for them to know what you are feeling given that you will be in a hostel. And even when you meet or talk for a few hours occasionally, you can always put on an act to make sure everything’s normal. But remember that when the times are difficult, they will always be there for you.
A parent’s life is not easy. For 18 years, you have been the centre of their lives. You were never a “meeting” scheduled on a calendar. They were always there when you wanted. You hurt yourself? They were there to take you to the doctor. You liked that train or plane to play with? They went that extra mile to get it for you. You wanted to read the book? Next day it was at your study table. You were too young to realise what they were giving up to make space for you. And now, as you leave home, think about what’s going on in their lives. There is a void nothing can fill. Even as you sleep in a faraway land, they are awake wondering about you. The words may not be spoken, you may not even be thinking about them, but you are always there in their heart, mind and soul.
So, remember that. If anything goes wrong, talk to them. They have always solved every problem you faced. They always will. You are never alone in this world. Even if everyone else is on the other side, they are on your side. Just their sight, their words will be enough to cheer you up and turn the tide. But remember, you have to tell them. Tell them when you are not feeling good, when you did something you should not have, when you broke a rule, when you crossed a threshold you should not have. They will show you the way ahead.
So, that’s it. The rest is for you – my 18-year-old self – to figure out. Nothing to add beyond the reco to explore and experiment, cultivate good habits and friends, and never forget that even in the hardest of times your parents are always there for you. Go out in the world, live life well, and be the best version of you. The next one month and four years will be unlike any that you have experienced. They are to be celebrated. Life is waiting with her embrace. You have to take the first steps.