The passage of years

Pranay Gupte

I was not quite 19 when I left shores of my native India for the promise of America, an only child of accomplished parents whose ambitions for their son did not necessarily embrace the possibility of his going away from home forever.

But that’s what happened. It wasn’t as though I never returned to India — but those were occasional visits, mainly on journalistic assignments. I was, however, never to make Mumbai my home again. Never again would I live in my parents’ apartment overlooking the Arabian Sea, never again would I wander aimlessly through the clangorous byways of the city where I was born not long after the British Raj ended. Whenever I visited, there would be a purpose – a story to be pursued, a book to be researched, perhaps an important birthday of a close friend, and, saddest of all, the deaths of my father and mother in the same year, a quarter of a century ago.

The choice to move my home was, of course, entirely mine: I completed college in the United States, I began a career as a reporter and then a foreign correspondent at the New York Times, I became a columnist for Newsweek International, I wrote profiles and investigative stories for Forbes, I produced documentaries for public television, and I published a newspaper on environmental and sustainability issues for more than a decade.

That choice was driven by an ambition to succeed, no doubt a characteristic that I’d absorbed watching my mother develop into an acclaimed academician and a widely published author in Marathi – one of India’s major languages – and my father apply his legal training in the field of banking. There’s a major square in Mumbai named in honour of my mother, and whenever I’m in my native city I make it a point to walk past the plaque in silent admiration of the sheer courage that it took Charusheela Gupte to lift herself out of poverty into the limelight of a public career.

I realize in those moments, and also at other times, that while I am her son, that while I am also the progeny of my father, Balkrishna Gupte, that’s where the linkage stops. They had far fewer privileges than I did while growing up, they had far fewer opportunities to traverse the world, and while their own lives exemplified the enduring values of tolerance and understanding, they never quite got the chance to study intensively how those values played out in societies such as the United Arab Emirates — where I currently live — which exquisitely embroider diversity into their national fabric.

So it would be fair to say that I’ve been far more fortunate than my parents. But it would also be fair to ask, has my life been as fulfilling as theirs? To what extent has my work in journalism and public diplomacy been a catalyst for change in the societies where I’ve lived and worked? Has my life made a difference to those around me?

There are surely those who’d contend that my presence in their lives was less than salutary. My painful divorce would be testimony to that argument. The estrangement between my son — an only child — and myself would also suggest that my parental behaviour might not have been a role model. Along these many years since I first left the shores of Mumbai, so many friendships were lost — lost not necessarily on account of disputes but because of disregard. I rarely apportion blame to others, but I readily accept responsibility for my actions.

I reflect on these matters now because I’m about to attend a very big reunion of my college class in America. I haven’t kept up with very many of my classmates — my loss entirely, to be sure — but I have, from time to time, marvelled at the temporal triumphs of some of them. I also confess to dismay over not having sustained the narrative of our collective youth.

That youth was tested and tried in the cauldron of major social and political upheavals in the United States: my college years coincided with those of the waning years of the war in Vietnam and Cambodia. The bodies of young Americans sent to a senseless conflict were being brought back in coffins; I covered that conflict not in the jungles of Southeast Asia but from Boston Commons, where students staged massive protest rallies. The anthem of our college years was “Fire and Rain,” that haunting composition by James Taylor that has been the soundtrack of my life in the years since.

Where did those years ago? I know where I’ve been, but did I sufficiently recognise the places that I visited, particularly those lodged within myself? Did I ask the right questions, especially of myself? What explained my judgment calls, notably those that proved unwise. Did I love enough? Did I care enough? Did I give enough of myself to those who extended themselves for me? Was I kind enough? Was I considerate enough? Did I show up on those occasions when my presence would have provided solace for those in distress?

So many questions swell within me as my class reunion approaches. But my former classmates aren’t going to be able to address them; they, too, would have their own inner demons and danseuses that inevitably gather force with the years.

I realize that when I see the men and women I went to college with all those decades ago, even more questions will arise about the life I —and they — have led. I realise, too, that no one but myself will be able to offer the answers, at least about myself. There may well be time to put off those answers until another big reunion comes our way. But, at my age, I also realise that I’m really not so sure about that either.