This Is Just The Beginning: Episode 6

Episode 1: The Beginning –

Previous Episode: Someone Like Me

The time finally came to go back home to America and I slowly packed my bags thinking about how far I had come in these past two months. I felt an odd sensation inside, as if I was leaving something behind. Three hours before my flight, I sat down looking around the tiny room. Memories of me first arriving at the room flooded my mind. Just two months ago I had walked in there, feeling like the four walls were closing in on me. Now, having to leave was strangely harder than arriving. I languidly dragged my suitcase out of my room and nostalgically closed the door behind me.

Twenty-one hours later, I took my first step into LAX airport and took a deep breath. I was greeted by the smell of warm coffee and the rushing crowd around me. I located my family in the crowd and they all rushed toward me covering me in hugs and kisses. My heart was soothed in joy from seeing all my loved ones.

The next day I dragged myself out of bed, my eyes sore from jet lag. I needed a distraction to keep me awake in order to adjust to the time change, so I decided to go to the mall. I parked and I walked past many stores until I reached Calvin Klein. Strolling through the aisles, everytime I found a shirt I liked, instinctively my eyes directed to the price, and everytime I put it back, converting it to rupees. I had a new lens when looking at the world. Leaving the mall empty handed I walked to the parking lot only to realize I couldn’t find my car. Suddenly, I remembered a popular belief in India that Parmeshwari Akka had taught me about. Whenever someone loses something in India they go and pray to Goddess Kali, asking for the safe return of their item. For me, I pressed the summon button on my phone and a sleek black car appeared in front of me. The rims clean and the hood so shiny I could see my reflection on it. The T symbol clearly stood out against the front of the car. Driving home there was no loud bus honk or crowded autos speeding through red lights. My surroundings felt uncomfortably silent around me as the car auto-piloted its way down the road, my mind slowly drifted. Suddenly, the auto-steer buzzed pulling my attention. Some would say it was programmed to do that, but only I understand that my Tesla was jealous and possessive, not willing to split my overall attention with my thoughts of India.

I faced many ups and down in the couple of months that I spent in India. If you thought this season was impactful, think again. Soon enough, you’ll learn how my decisions made others cry.    


Someone Like Me: Episode 5

Previous Episode: Getting Lost In The Middle Of The Night

Joining as a new employee at Idli Podi was initially an unusual experience for me because I had never worked a job before, much less in a foreign country. My first day, I slowly walked into the store, eyes darting around looking for the manager to talk to. All the other employees just stared at me and I could feel their eyesight follow my every move. I introduced myself and told the manager that I was newly hired, but he just gave me a straight face and told me to go stand in a corner. I did as I was told but my mind was running with many thoughts. I didn’t know how the other restaurant staff would treat me or if I would get along with them. I also was wondering if my work would be very tough, but my desperation to put food on my plate overcame any other unnecessary thoughts. One by one, my new coworkers slowly came forward and started inquiring what my name was and where I came from. Slowly, after a few days, I was accepted into their small group discussions during breaks, although my American accent was made fun of a lot, but they started taking care of me. The man at the register, Bilal, was like an older brother to me, talking to me about politics, technologies, and the happenings in the U.S. Parameshwari Akka become an older sister figure and always asked me about my family and my life in America. The head chef, Udhay Kumar, was greatly impressed with my background and made sure to constantly look out for me. The food for the restaurant would get delivered from a central kitchen and the elderly man that drove the delivery truck greatly intimidated me. He was rude and always barked at me to work faster. But, slowly, I talked to him about my life and he was greatly impressed with my story. I got close with him and recognized that he actually had a soft heart. The last character at Idli Podi was a boy named Chinnu Kumar and his story was similar to mine. Chinnu Kumar was 16 years old and had come from Bihar, a state in northern India, to find work. He stopped going to school in 7th grade and started working to support his family. A few months earlier, he traveled to Chennai, a city far away from home where a different language was spoken, to find job opportunities. Both of us did not have a common language to communicate, but we shared a close relationship despite that because of our age. We both washed the dishes and cleaned the floor together and also took walks during our breaks to go eat sweets at his favorite Adyar Anandha Bhavan. The few pieces that we would share would cost me a whole day’s worth of labor. For the first time I felt the value of money. I was able to pick up some Hindi from him and I taught him a little English during the time I spent with him. I maintained contact with him even after I came back home to the U.S. but, after a few months, I could not reach him so I just moved on. One day when I was talking to another one of the coworkers, they told me that Chinnu Kumar had suffered a head injury and lost his memory and his parents took him back to Bihar. When I heard that I was so shocked that I did not sleep for a few days. Chinnu Kumar’s experiences got me thinking. Millions of kids in India drop out of school for many reasons. They end up at a lowly job with no education, and for the rest of their lives they are stuck in the same position. Many kids drop out of school in the United States also, but in the U.S. many people have the opportunity to get back into the mainstream education system at any point in time in their lives. India has a very good education system, but focusing on drop out kids to bring them back should be a major goal for the future.

Next Episode: This Is Just The Beginning

Getting Lost In The Middle Of The Night: Episode 4

Previous Episode: Earning My First Penny

Idli Podi was located in Saidapet, about a twenty-minute car ride from where I was staying in Adyar. Here came my biggest obstacle: transportation. I wasn’t rich enough to even think about traveling by taxi and the cost of taking an auto rickshaw to and from work was almost equal to my daily wage. Starting at 5 rupees, or 7 cents a trip, riding the public transport bus was the cheapest and only option I had. Initially, however, I was very scared to take it. How did it work? How would I know which route number to take? How would I know where to get off?! If you want to ride the bus in India you need to know how to hang on to a monkey bar, considering the large crowds will push you to the edge of the door and your only option to hold on is to the metal frame of the bus. Thankfully I asked for help from some strangers and I somehow made it back to my house alive. My shift at Idli Podi started at 11 am and ended at around 9:30 pm with an hour and a half break in between. The third day of taking the bus, I got on around 10:30 pm after doing overtime, exhausted from toiling away that busy Saturday just wanting to get home. My eyes slowly drooped and then suddenly shot open as the bus blared its horn. Looking around I did not recognize the usual landmarks that I normally passed. Thinking that I had just not reached those areas yet, I silently sat and waited. And I waited and waited realizing that I was nowhere near where I should be. Suddenly the bus conductor yelled, “Last stop! Everybody get off!” and that was when I truly panicked. I nervously stepped down and frantically searched around for any clue to where I was and when I saw the name of the bus depot my heart dropped. I was in Anna Nagar on the opposite side of the city! This was where buses would be parked for the night, and I desperately asked the bus driver, who was leaving, if there was any way for me to get home. He informed me that the next bus would only arrive at 5 am and told me to take a taxi and kept walking leaving me in the dark of the night with nobody around me. The problem was I had no money, so the option of taking a taxi was not viable. My surroundings were pitch black and my heart was beating uncontrollably so I sat down on a rock wanting to cry and escape from this nightmare. I thought to myself that there was no point in crying and I knew I had to take care of this situation. I started to think about any possible options but my brain couldn’t come up with any other than having to wait for 6 hours on the street. A few minutes passed by and lying on a rock on the side of the road wasn’t as bad as I had imagined. My only company were my friends, also known as the mosquitoes and the stray dogs, who kept me up for the rest of the night. My emotions started to change from being frightened to realizing that this wasn’t as bad as I had thought it would be. It was a breezy night and I could see the moon shining with no other disturbance around me. The next day I recounted my adventures of the previous night and I felt I had acquired a newfound confidence that I could go anywhere in the city, at any time.

Next Episode: Someone Like Me

Earning My First Penny: Episode 3

Previous Episode: Dollar A Day Life

I woke up the next day in a daze, still not fully comprehending the situation I was in. The first thing on my mind was to satisfy the craving I was having for street food, and that was what I ate for the next two days. But my inner American eventually came out and I proceeded to eat at a pizza place down the road. Counting up my money after the meal, I realized that I only had fifty dollars left! If I kept this up I wouldn’t even survive the next 10 days. I started skipping meals and four days later I was only eating one meal a day. I was dying of hunger, and I knew I needed a job in order to at least eat every day. I confidently thought to myself, “Hey, I’m a strong young man from the United States who can speak English! Who wouldn’t want to hire me?” Well boy was I wrong. Even though I was positive I would land a job, there was no organized way to apply for a job unlike in the United States and the idea of asking random shop owners to employ me made me nervous. Still, I overcame that and went around pleading for any sort of work. I walked up to the first place, a restaurant, and asked the guy standing behind the reception desk if they were hiring. He told me to wait while he called the manager over and the next few minutes that I stood there in anticipation of what would happen felt like the longest in my life. The man came up to me and asked what I wanted and I anxiously stuttered, “Um I just wanted to know if you were hiring.” He bluntly told me in a serious tone “No” and just turned around and left. Now considering the American culture I grew up in, that was one of the rudest ways a person could act. I was shocked and I immediately left, never wanting to face that situation again. With my heart beating out of my chest, I felt like this was the worst rejection I had ever experienced and made me question my whole self worth. I was twice as hesitant to walk up to the next place, but I did. And I got rejected again. And then again, and again for the next five places.

Wandering around for more than an hour in the South Indian heat I was exhausted and hopeless. One of the shops required me to speak the local language thoroughly. What I thought of as my strength, my ability to speak English very well, turned out to be my undoing. I went home hungry and dejected. After a few days of trying the same thing around the city, my mind had accepted the idea of rejection, but my body refused to accept the idea of receiving only one meal a day. On my 8th day in India, I was just wandering on Velachery Main Road and I noticed a small, newly opened vegetarian restaurant named “Idli Podi,” so I went to go see if they were hiring. They needed any sort of labor they could get so I was immediately offered the job with a salary of 250 rupees a day, or about 3.50 dollars a day, $0.45 per hour. I wasn’t assigned any specific task and I just filled in where help was needed. Sometimes I would be a waiter, while other times I was in the back washing dishes. One typical day at work, one customer finished her meal and ordered a coffee but the chef told me to inform them that we had run out. I told the customer that we didn’t have any more coffee but I offered to go and get her some from the coffee shop next door which I personally really liked. I carefully handled the steaming cup of coffee and delivered it safely to the customer, and she just nodded and proceeded to drink. After finishing, the customer stood up and called me over. She just smiled at me and placed a 5 rupee coin on the table as a tip, equal to about 7 cents in America, and left. The satisfaction I felt from receiving that hard-earned tip was equal to almost nothing I had ever felt. It was the first penny I had earned in my life and it truly meant a lot to me.  I was able to fully appreciate the hard work that waiters at restaurants in America put in just for that end of dinner tip. From having no job and nothing to eat to earning my first tip was a huge achievement for me and I realized that happiness is not what you get but how you get something.

Next Episode: Getting Lost In The Middle Of The Night

Dollar A Day Life: Episode 2

Previous Episode: The Beginning

The next few days are a complete blank. I laid on my bed staring at the ceiling for hours, as day turned to night. I wanted to get out of this situation as soon as possible. One of the toughest parts of my former regimen was food control. From breakfast to dinner and snacks in between, every spoonful I took in for each meal was formulated by my nutritionist, Alessandro, and I ingested it like medicine. I sat at the table gnawing on a protein bar while slowly sipping a protein shake as I remembered food I had ate a few years back. This was at a roadside food stall in India while sitting next to a cow on the street. I could re-imagine the kids of my age playing cricket on the road. They didn’t wear shoes nor shirts and they played their sport without any other purpose but to enjoy it thoroughly. Sports should be for enjoyment, I realized, and not a stressful experience.  

As all these thoughts clouded my brain, I slapped the table and stood up, I couldn’t take it anymore. The next day I woke up and told my parents I’m going to India for two months. I borrowed five hundred dollars and an economy class ticket from my dad with the goal of escaping not only from my miserable state, but also from what I felt was my parents’ financial shadow that I was living in.

On June 17th, 2017, I boarded an Emirates flight headed straight for Chennai airport. I didn’t know where I was going to stay, or what I was going to do the next day, but I felt a unique rush of independence and nervous excitement. Despite the daunting tasks ahead, I was committed to not seeking help from any family or friends in India. Before starting the trip I had reached out to a few room sharing locations. Reaching Chennai airport at three in the morning, I waited a few nervous hours not knowing if I would find a place to stay or would end up on the street. When I finally got through, the house owner on the other end of the line coolly stated that he had given the room to someone else who had paid more money. This was where my nightmare started.

After multiple desperate phone calls to many places, I finally had some luck. Since I didn’t have the luxury of time or money to take a sightseeing tour around the city to find places to stay, I frantically jumped on the first opportunity I got. But, only after taking an overpriced taxi to the address did I find out that I would have to pay four hundred dollars for two months of rent! I couldn’t believe it. I was only left with one hundred dollars to feed, transport, and take care of myself for two months. “Ok I’ll somehow manage,” I thought to myself. “At least I found a decent place to live in.” But oh was I wrong! I was expecting a small room with a regular bed, that’s it. I enter inside and find myself with barely enough space to take even two steps. The “bed” wasn’t even a real bed. It was one of the ones they use in physical therapy clinics and my six-foot frame barely fit on it. Thinking my accommodations couldn’t possibly get any worse, I slowly realized that there was no microwave or refrigerator. Next, I stumbled upon the restroom. It was shared with many other “lucky” people just like me, and it didn’t even have running water most of the time. Looking around I didn’t see a washing machine so, like a primitive, I had to wash my clothes by hand. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something scamper across the floor. I soon realized that it was a rat! I couldn’t believe what I had gotten myself into.

Next Episode: Earning My First Penny

The Beginning: Episode 1

Hey! I’m Pritwik. I’m a normal teenage boy with an abnormal life. While every kid was getting ready to go to middle school, I was lacing up my shoes to step on the tennis court. I was very passionate about tennis, and over a period of time, that became my life. I started my homeschooling in 7th grade when I delved into intense tennis competition. I became well-known in the area as a great tennis player and I was picking up many trophies. I was looked at like a hero by many because of my success and my unconventional lifestyle. Admiration from younger kids brought out my self-pride.

When I was featured in a French magazine after getting wins in France, my popularity with my tennis-involved peers proliferated. But, without realizing it, I was absorbed into a self-contained bubble. As I entered into my teenage years, I still maintained the same 6 hours a day of physical training and fierce competition. Time went by and as the competition got tougher, I had to work harder. Inversely, however, my results started on a downward skid. Additionally, pressure from my coach, Sebastian Rivera, to improve my tennis ranking put a lot of stress on me. It reached a certain point where I felt that the game of tennis, which had once given me enjoyment, had become a burden on me. Thoughts of missing out on adolescent fun started invading my brain and questions of “Am I doing the right thing in my life?” constantly occupied my mind.

One day, I went to practice as always. I was, however, completely out of focus. Through a build-up of events, my coach got extremely angry at me and started yelling, saying that I was wasting my dad’s money and both of our time. He kicked me out of the court. I threw my racquet bag and stormed off. I went home and flopped onto my bed and cried, super angry at myself. My self-contained bubble had burst. Isolated and confused, I felt like my last 8 years of labor fell apart in front of me. The tennis that had made me feel like I was walking on the clouds now put me in the depths of darkness.

Next Episode: Dollar a Day Life