Swami hardly knew where to start. He decided to enlist the help of his confidante - Mani. Mani was always dropping names like CMU, Purdue and Raj Reddy. Mani was one of the people who seemed to know right from their high school years that they wanted to do a Masters in Biomedical Engineering at Pace University, NY. Mani was always bubbling with the latest information (Raj Reddy's recent research interests) and dressed in the latest fad in clothing (Levi's Wrinkle Free Dockers with Twill Shirts and a dash of Polo Sport - all of them gifts that Mani's brother, Rajudu, had brought with him from the US). Mani's fascination with Raj Reddy was so strong that Swami had to once hold Mani back from mauling a mutual friend who claimed to be Raj's cousin twice removed. [Authors note: The self same Mani, now a beta tester for the very soon to be released Win '95 bubbled with please when he saw Raj Reddy's Email address in MSN]
Swami knew that if he stayed around Mani he would not only get the latest information, but also get to know a few of those seniors with whom Mani was seen nowadays. Swami thought to himself -"Who knows! Mani may even give me a few gifts from the states." Swami's wishes were never fulfilled as Mani happened to "fall-head-over-kholapuri-heels-in-love-with" a girl. All the packages in Mani's Gift Department were addressed for his "soul-mate."
Mani opened new avenues for Swami. He showed Swami things that Swami could have never imagined existed. Being one of the earliest in their year to join the race, the duo acquired all kinds of things from their seniors. Mani's clout went up up two years. He knew students who were in the final year. The duo went about collecting the latest editions of Barron's, ARCO's and Arun's guides. They were showered with advice - "To remember the words better you have to use them!", "Write to profs saying that you are interested in their research in Singularity as seen from Dually Consistent Systems!!", "I personally feel that nobody can improve their score by more than 200 points overall, when they retake their GRE!!!", "Write to me. I can pay for your app once I get funded in Tuscany State University."
The flashy Mani even went to the extent of carrying his Rosenblums (Remember? There were two. The Blue One and The White One) and Lewises to classes. Word somehow got around and even the profs did not seem to mind. They stared making pointed inquiries about peoples plans for the future. Swami got to know the rituals for the preparation. Those who, like Swami and Mani, were taking their GRE well in advance were starting to use terms like 'Flash cards', 'Word List number 25' and 'American Educational Aids'.
Swami allocated a solid four hours a day for preparation and taking practice tests. Morpheus usually got the better of him and he usually drifted off to sleep assuring himself that he could more than make up for the missed test by way of bunking the class for "Pneumatic Instrumentation" the next day. In those moments when the boundary between sleep and wakefulness were hazy, Swami would immerse himself in oceans of joy where he saw himself cavorting with American women in bikinis. His sacrilege usually also extended to smoking Marlboro just like that guy in the Newsweek magazine.
The Applying Process
For the next year Swami was free from trouble. He had scored well in his GRE and TOEFL and looked at the late entrants with amusement. Part of the amusement was seeing some of his classmates (and in the final year some of his juniors) becoming way too friendly with him and even taking him out for dinner. Swami never knew that he knew so many people, let alone be friends with them. Swami's seniors, true to their word, sent him applications. Now began the cat and mouse games. Swami did not want his friends to see him typing his SOP (Statement of Purpose) in Balakrishna Xerox - The only "data processing center" in Chidambaram. Some of the students shifted their operation's base to Madras and Student Xerox. The problem of bumping into your friends diminished in Students but did not go to zero. The secrecy behind the whole operation would have pleased the guys in the "Agency" (a term Swami picked up from Ludlum) or the guys behind PGP. All the while, the likes of Swami abused the IIT-ians who were known to be cut throats when it came to the applying process.
Clashes (two equally qualified people applying to the same college) were resolved democratically. The youngsters planning to go west were oblivious of the 'Office Bearers' power brokerage going on around them. One could, at times, see a group of 5-6 GRE enthusiasts gather in a house and "discuss" (meaning shout loudly and lewdly at the top of their voices) their applying plans. They did this because all of them wanted to get into good colleges and did not want to be jeopardized by the another person applying to the same place.
By December in his final year, Swami and early birds like him had already sent out their apps to their friends in the US. It was time to relax. The late arrivals in the race started treating Swami with reverence and consulted him on all aspects of their application packet - the font size in the SOP, sealed vs. unsealed recommendation letters, the exact meaning of the highly philosophical term 'Official Transcript'.
The Letter Arrives
Mani started harassing the postman everyday on their way to lunch from college. It is March and he had still not heard from his beloved Raj Reddy. The tension mounts even with the normally confident Swami. Finally, a letter arrives from East Wyoming University via madras informing Swami that he has been admitted into the Biomedical Engineering program. Swami goes to college the next day wearing a T-shirt of East Wyoming University which he borrowed from his friend whose sister goes to the same school. Swami's moments in the spot light are, however, short lived. Letters of Admission, along with a few letters of rejection, start arriving to all and and Swami finds that even non-applicants have, by this time, gathered a smattering of the jargon like I-20, INS, International Office and Orientation.
The exams end and Swami and Mani are quite sure that they would pass. They start reading the "Westward Ho! Pre-departure Orientation Guide" that one of their friends had smuggled out of IIT. Swami wonders if the crafty IIT-ians had a smaller version that they let be smuggled outside while zealously guarding the original and expanded true version for circulation among themselves. Swami makes mastering the Guide a sort of game. He quizzes Mani on what an I-94 is. He then quizzes JaLaRa (Oops!! Typo! That should have read RaAlJe) on the exact dimensions of thermal underwear.
Despite a few hitches about Swami's exact percentage in his BE, he finds out that he has successfully graduated. Then begins the daily trek to USEFI,the Charted Accountants Offices, Canara Bank, the travel agent and the house of the senior who has come down for a short holiday. The papers finally gather in the folder. One fine early dawn Swami finds himself outside the US consulate waiting in the queue as if for getting tickets for a newly released Rajini cinema. Surprisingly, the whole process is a breeze. Swami is barely aware of the people who were rejected for a visa.
Learning to fly
The next few days move so fast that the author can barely describe them. One fine late night Swami reaches the Meenambakkam airport and bids farewell to his friends and family. Looking at another student fall reverentially at the feet of his parents, Swami wonders if his parents would throw a tantrum asking him to perform the same act of love. Mangalam keeps telling Swami to look after his health. Mani and a few other friends smuggle a 20s pack of 'Gold Flake Kings' and 'Cheetah Fight' matches to Swami's pocket right under the noses of Mangalam. Swami suddenly feels a tug in his heart. His parents look old. Mangalam looks so frail and on the verge of tears. Mani seems so distant. To keep up the appearance, Swami cracks a few weak jokes for which his family and friends respectfully guffaw.
Butterflies start buzzing in Swami's stomach. Compared to the solidity that was Madras and Chidambaram, the United States seems so much like a void. The final boarding call is made and Swami slowly trudges with his hand baggage towards the gate casting glances at the distant faces of the people who were his world.