I have always wondered about alumni reunions, you know. Particularly since I have never attended one in spite of having studied in 8 schools, one college, and two universities. To be honest, I have never felt the need to as I have been in touch with special friends from school/college/university. Besides, I have found many of my batchmates over the years, courtesy Facebook.
At least that is what I told myself. Whenever I heard people talking about attending read accounts of alumni meets, I always felt a twinge of envy.
I no longer feel that twinge as I finally attended my first alumni reunion the day before yesterday. It was not an alumni reunion of any of the schools/college/universities I have studied in; rather, it was of a place I had stayed in — the International Students House (ISH), London. The alumni reunion is special as ISH is probably the only organisation in the world, outside of an educational institution, to have an alumni association.
When I received the email invite a few weeks back, I instantly went into a rewind mode to the year spent at ISH in London.
ISH is a unique student residence, which offers an unmatchable social, cultural and recreational experience for its residents. Located in central London near Regent’s Park, it is currently home to about 600 students from all over the world. I was privileged to be offered a place to stay in ISH as part of the scholarship I received to study in London. ISH was literally a home away from home and the friends I made there were my new “family members”. That year in London, my first time abroad, was a life-changing one for me and ISH had a major role to play in that.
According to the ISH Annual Review of 2008-2009 (the year I was a resident at ISH), there were 545 residents from 107 countries that year. It was like a dream to interact with fellow residents from so many countries under one roof. My fellow residents were from countries I had only seen on the map—Malta, Belize, Surinam, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, Eritrea, Malawi, etc.. It was a standing joke among the residents that along with the degree we acquired from the university we were formally enrolled in, we also got a degree in international relations from ISH !
It was at ISH that I also discovered my international looks. Having been told that I had typical Indian looks all my life, it came as a shock to be mistaken for other nationalities as well—Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Native American, Peruvian, Ethiopian, and Brazilian. I was even asked once if I had gypsy blood !
The most striking thing about being a resident at ISH, for me at least, was the absence of hierarchy. Though the age group of the residents ranged from those in their late teens to people in their 50s, there was no concept of “junior”, “senior” or “super senior” as one encounters in colleges or universities, or for that matter even at work, in India. It took me a little while to get used to this, but once I did it was so liberating. It’s not like there were no rules at ISH, but they were never draconian or unreasonable, or even silly.
Staying in ISH also gave me the opportunity to not only experience and appreciate other cultures and traditions. It also brought me closer to my culture. For instance, I actually celebrated Diwali and Holi, my least favourite festivals, at ISH. For Holi, Anuradha (a fellow ISH resident) and I organised a Holi party in my room, complete with narrating the origins and significance of Holi to applying gulal to dancing to Holi songs to feasting on chakli and chivda. It was an unforgettable evening of togetherness, celebration, joy and camaraderie not only for Anuradha and me, but also for our friends from other countries.
Making the most of the programmes organised by the ISH Travel Club and Events Office was something that I rarely missed on. I also tried to volunteer in as many programmes as I could, the most memorable one being the Alumni Association’s London Reunion in 2009. Volunteering for this event gave me a chance to be a part of a conducted tour of the British Parliament as well as to visit lesser known heritage sites in the Kent region (Knole House and Ightam Mote) of England. Among skills learnt were how to set up a tent from scratch, how to assemble a barbecue with the help of a manual, and how to convert a black curtain cloth into a piano cover ! For the last task, my innate Indian jugaad skills came out in full force.
The London Alumni Reunion 2009 was the first time that I saw the bonding between the residents across decades and countries. Even though I was not a Goat (the ISH alumni association is known as Goats International and its alumni members Goats) at that time, I could very well imagine what it would be like to attend an alumni meet as a Goat.
Though I became a Goat the day I left ISH in September 2009, I had to wait for more than a year to participate in an alumni meet. So at 8.00 pm, Saturday, 22nd January 2011, I was at the Royal Bombay Yacht Club waiting to meet fellow Goats. The Club’s dark wood panelled interiors, antique lamps, and delicate wrought iron windows were just perfect to induce nostalgia. When I entered the room, the first person I saw Jilly Borowiecka, the ISH Alumni Relations Manager, and I knew then that I was really a Goat.
Twelve Goats attended the Mumbai alumni meet. The oldest was Dilip Dalal who was at ISH in 1960 and the youngest was Piyush Jain, who had left ISH as recently as June 2010 and had come all the way from Ahmedabad for the event. But the difference in years of residence at ISH and generations made no difference to us as we mingled and talked and chatted and laughed and reminisced. Then came the speeches and dinner and soon it was time to say goodbye.
I finally understood what an alumni meet does—it provides a sense of belonging. It could be to batch/class, a profession, an educational institution. In the case of ISH, it goes beyond all these as the Goats do not have any of the above in common. In fact, the Goats are from diverse disciplines such as performing arts, law, management, technology, media… And yet we were connected by ISH—the place we had called home at some point in our life.
An ISH alumni meet is, therefore, not just about belonging but also a celebration of this unique connection, a connection that makes me proud to be a Goat