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Friday, September 25, 2015

The America Jon Stewart Forgot

The America Jon Stewart Forgot

Every day at work for the last three years, while I ate my lunch, I would watch Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. He’s what I want to be: a bridge between laughter and reflection, between awareness and action, between the wisdom of adulthood and youth’s naïve optimism. And yet because Jon Stewart holds America to such high standards (standards America should perhaps hold itself to more often), his brand of parody emphasises America’s shortcomings. Watching Jon Stewart, Bill Maher and other comedians has jaundiced my view of this great country.

I’ve been in America for exactly a month and my friends always ask me “so how is Yale?”

Yale is everything you’d imagine: unequivocally, unapologetically Ivy League. It is grand: the gym looks like a cathedral and the resources available are staggering. Do you want to bring in a guest speaker to augment with group work? Here’s $1,000. Do you want to spend the summer in Ukraine working on energy policy? Here’s a blank cheque. But that’s not what captivates me about this place. On 55 Hillhouse Avenue (that Hemingway and Dickens called the ‘most beautiful street in America’) sit a group of young people who fill me with more inspiration than all the regal courtyards we walk through every day. They are my classmates at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and the best thing about Yale (and my life right now) is that I get to sit with them.

They are the America Jon Stewart forgot. They are 30 men and women from around the world who have good in their hearts and steel in their veins. I am hesitant to say “we” because I am still figuring out my place within this tribe. My biggest goal and erstwhile challenge is to shut up. Shut up and listen. What I love about my class – and particularly the Americans who anchor it – is their will to go out into the world and improve things. It is something that as a journalist, you come to admire – as a writer I am at best an advocate, at worst an armchair activist. But my classmates left Ohio and New Jersey and Texas with that same naïve optimism (that Jon ought to recapture) and built things.

My classmates are the America you don’t see in the news: the America that wants to be an international force because it feels it has a duty to ameliorate. An America self-aware and confident enough in its virtues that it ventures back into Iraq and Afghanistan and Benin and Rwanda simply because it feels it has the capability to amend. They are army officers supremely cognizant of their misadventures and fearless enough to go back and fix things; fearless enough not to give up. They are the Peace Corps volunteers who build schools and hospitals and help young atheists become more tolerant of the religious. “Libya? I’ll go there. Kosovo? I’ll go there. You can stay in London and go to warehouse parties or continue working for your dad’s company in Bombay. Enjoy your weekend trip to Bangkok. I’m going to South Africa to work on an anti-AIDS project.”

The Americans I’ve met here have a profound, unerring will to learn about and improve the world. From my own limited experience, Europeans seem happy with enjoying their lives and finding the beauty in things (nothing wrong with that) while Asians want to secure prosperity for their families, their clans and their countries (in that order). But the Americans here, the ones that Jon pays scant credence to, are going to venture forth and do their best, armed with bags of money and hearts of gold. The international students in my class are no less impressive or loveable. The Russian, who has inserted himself into the lion’s star-spangled den, finds his proud nation repeatedly critiqued by the world’s most august historians and responds with a measured candour we should all aspire to. The Chinese approaches problems (and opinions) with the understated sincerity that has driven his economy’s logical resurgence.

You know when you see horrible news on TV? When you forfeit hope? These people stop you in your tracks. They will not stand for it. It is really quite incredible.

Everyone brings something unique to the table. You see someone struggling through economics lecture in the morning. But in the afternoon, he’s knee deep in Hannah Arendt while you’re still figuring out what “The Banality of Evil” actually means. It is sobering and intoxicating at the same time: we’ve all begun this journey together and we have no idea who or where we’ll be two years from now.

I’ve found myself changing too. Yale is a petri dish for studying one’s plunge into mediocrity. This is where learning to shut up comes in handy. As a result, I’ve had to push myself and challenge myself more than ever before; I naively thought that getting into grad school would be the toughest part (working full time while also studying for GREs and putting together solid applications) and then things would get easier. But grad school is harder. It’s a relentless avalanche of duties and here’s the problem: They are duties to yourself. If you slack, you lose. Not your parent, not your employer. The undergraduate zeal for finding the path of least resistance is quickly disappearing. Procrastination is the last vestibule of a crumbling empire. There are days when you do calculus for five hours and then come home to an hour of German homework and two hours of marking undergraduates’ homework. I find solace, on evenings of mental maelstrom, in America’s single greatest export bar none: Miles Davis. An hour of jazz and I’m ready to go again. Between Miles and Jon, I’m good.

Yale is a bigger catalyst for self-improvement than any “90-day weight loss program” or stupidly titled paperback. Every junction pushes you to dig deeper and find something within yourself you didn’t know you had. I wrote a book review the other day that, I think, is some of my best writing. Why? I had spent a week reading the most compelling memoir I’ve come across: William J Shirer’s “Nightmare Years”. For me, reading a 600 page novel used to be a once-a-year event; my first month at Yale requires that I fill my mind with the words of genii every week. 600 pages worth. I can feel myself getting smarter, I just hope I don’t try to act smarter too.

Today I attended a classical music recital out of my own volition – something I’d never have done a few years (or months) ago.

As the pipes of the grand organ tower above you in Woolsey Hall, you suddenly understand the immortal power of a symphony orchestra. The double basses rumble in the deep, like clouds of war gathering ominously in the horizon, tempered only by the playful violins chirping feminine messages of defiant happiness. And when the brass section bellows into earshot, you feel the energy in the room suddenly pick up. It’s a gravity that wasn’t there before – a gravity that only live music can emote out of thin air. It’s the ultimate team sport. It is raw, ethereal compulsion, summoned at the fingertips of musicians who have mastered their craft. Yale had opened my mind to experiencing the beauty of this sonic drama. I was happy I went. The tickets were free (because of course they were free) but I had overcome the inertia that had stymied my intellectual curiosity in the past. In one month, Yale has changed me.

If I were to leave you with one message it would be this: try to find your tribe. My parents, in the last ten years, seem to have found theirs and they are happier for it. I think I have found a community where I can just shut up and absorb the ideas that optimism and rigour churn out. I hope you are, at whatever level, able to find yours. I hope you’re able to find a group of people who have similar ideas about finding (and creating) and happiness. It is like being part of a team. It is comforting and motivating in equal measure: you know your peers will keep you honest and vault you to creativity when need be.

Look at me: the temerity to lecture Jon Stewart on America! Take a plunge into naïveté with me and you may also find a better version of yourself. “How is Yale?” Yale is good man, Yale is good.


Vijay Bhat said...

Superb! Was missing this Shravan ... so glad you have surfaced.

The only thing that really matters in life is "to rise beyond oneself to touch something far beyond oneself."

Looks like Yale/America/your course are the perfect platform to do just that.

It is so important to shut up & listen, but America/ Americans also teach you to stand up and speak out ...

Enjoy & blossom!

Kumar Subramaniam said...

Hi Shravan,
I came here through Vijay's FB post and loved reading this piece. Thought it's a very interesting and well written perspective - like many of your earlier posts.
Guess it sometimes takes an outside view to bring out this point and you've done that well, with a sharp but loving eye.
Wish you all best; keep growing (and writing).

Susheel Nair said...

This article is such a reader's delight! And to know a fellow Bill Maher and Jon Stewart fan so young and eloquent in his expression of a new experience, when most your age is justified being a Taylor Swift or a Bieber fan, is simply reassuring. More than anything, it restores faith in us pre-millennials, who are watching helplessly by the sidelines, the painful mutation of the English language into a grotesque smart-phone era Frankenstein.

You write well but you express more beautifully and I'd have said this even if I'd never known your parents. It's not merely Yale that's bringing the best from within you, but the garden in which you were nurtured and primed so lovingly that has seeded this fragrance. Keep up the spirit of listening, someday you'd hear all of humanity's single voice and share with us in your own fragrance. Looking forward.


Blue said...

Shravan, I know your Dad pretty well - not in terms of hours spent together (less than 20, incidentally), but the
way I know some of my favourite authors - through their thinking. He hired me at my second job, and in all my
arrogance, I decided to take up the offer mainly because he satisfied my demanding intellectual criteria of a boss
In those days - questions can sometimes be far more revealing than answers. Unfortunately, he moved offices
immediately after, but many, many years later when I reconnected with him through sheer random luck in a deserted
mall, I discovered another quality - reinforced when I read his book soon after. Humaneness is a word that's both
clumsy as well as narcissistic in its relative ranking of our species, but it will do for now to describe this second
attribute. I don't know you except through some of your writing that he's shared, but it's good to see that the old
genes have been both intelligent and hard-working in carrying across enough of the right stuff in their generational

Bethany said...

Welcome to the melting are marinating in American soup. Hooray!
As for shutting up, as long as you continue to blog, we're OK with your decision. :-)

I'm 20 miles away, and son Elliot is at Wiggin and Dana, 265 Church if you need an American Auntie or a lawyer, we stand at the ready.

Enjoy the tribal drums. I am so happy for you.