Campus Life

A Boston holiday

A postdoc takes a holiday break from tradition

I spent my holidays this year at a place few people on campus saw during break. Some people went home, others went on vacation. I stayed in Cambridge and Boston.

I washed up on these shores in the not-so-distant past from a distant land called India, and as things would have it, I just could not find my way back home this year. Combine that with some stereotypical social ineptitude and maybe even a certain indifference to fellow members of the same species, and you would think I’m one who would not do much for the holidays. “Didn’t anyone invite you to Christmas dinner?” a recent acquaintance asked. I responded with forced laughter and a lame-sounding, “Well, most of my friends are out of town; it is nice still,” while thinking to myself, “Really, it isn’t that much of a disaster!”

Thus dawned Christmas Eve. The energy on campus had been seeping out for a few days as more and more people went home. By this time the Infinite Corridor had assumed the slightly preternatural air of an abandoned monastery, with only the occasional tourist clicking the mandatory photo of the MIT insignia before rushing with a shiver out from the spaces that seem so vast and cold without the people that give this place life.

At this point, despite my stoic nonchalance, the emptiness was beginning to bother even me. I was thinking of a faraway land, of the warmth of its sun. I was like Sam in TRON: Legacy describing the sun to Quorra in the darkness of the Grid: “It’s warm … radiant … beautiful.”

I wanted to get away. So I did an unusual thing: I went to a church and sang carols, which I am loathe to confess because of the cliches of academics having a left-of-center bent and admitting to nothing remotely religious. Yet in India, secularism is a different thing. It does not mean that you celebrate nothing, but rather that you celebrate everything.

Unlike Americans, who tend to be polarized about religion, Indians are allowed to be a bit more ambivalent. Irrespective of one’s faith, it was typical when I was young for one to know the carols and go to Park Street (a quarter of Calcutta with the last vestiges of Anglo–Indian culture) and appreciate the lights. I enjoy singing carols, and even without waxing rhapsodic about the epiphanies we experience while singing carols on Christmas Eve, I must say it makes me feel nice, warm, and fuzzy. And here, it makes me feel sort of related to the local culture.

Yet epiphanies do not limit themselves to designated places like churches, temples, magnificent valleys, or images of distant space captured by Hubble. The days before Christmas had seen a light perfunctory sprinkling of snow, almost like a delicate Christmas decoration, and some of this dusting was still scattered about the bushes in my neighbor’s yard. I was doing something as droll as putting out the garbage on Christmas Day when I heard a loud chirp from my side — there was a bright red cardinal sitting on the dry bushes, looking at me quite unapologetically. I do not know if it is unusual to see these birds at this time of year in Cambridge, but the vision of this bird among the snow seemed to me the very symbol of Christmas and made me as happy as caroling the previous evening had.

Then came the snow. Slow at first, but steady. For a person who has spent most of his life in the tropics, snow possesses a certain novelty. But I seem to love the snow beyond that. The first time it snowed, I put on my heavy black overcoat and went for a walk. Since then, I have discovered that the thing to do when it snows is to put up a Facebook status like “Snowpocalypse” or “Snowmaggedon.”

Come Monday, we had ample opportunity to recycle these terms that came into vogue last year. We received 20 inches of snow at once; it really seemed to set the holiday mood. Neighbors who hardly ever meet in everyday life shoveled their driveways and passed loud greetings to each other in a festive communal fashion. It was the kind of weather that causes you to shrug and say, “It’s New England,” and thus display the transatlantic version of the stiff upper lip. Yet snow as far down as South Carolina and Georgia sort of detracts from the undeniable coolness of New England. So I plodded down Hampshire Street with the air of a modern-day Robert Scott, leaving boot marks on the virgin snow, and it did not matter that Hampshire Street was not Antarctica, and thousands of people walk, run, plod, cycle, and drive down its length every day.

Then the days went fast. New Year’s Eve found me in New York City where half the known world goes to catch a distant glimpse of a huge ball. I did, too, and ultimately saw the fireworks from the 36th floor of a skyscraper with some friends, and their friends, and their friends, and so on. Everybody in New York seemed to ask me for directions — I attribute it to my long black overcoat and the fact that I naturally walk faster in New York City. And now here I am, rejuvenated from my holidays and braced for a happening year. Thank you, Boston.