S. Gupta was born in 1988 in the middle of a Texas snow storm. She graduated from Johns Hopkins with degrees in creative writing and psychology. She currently lives in Washington DC. Her work has previously appeared in The Talkin’ Blues Literary Magazine, and Midwest Literary Magazine.
When you are little you figure a blessing is a sort of cake. To receive it, you kneel down in front of your parents and they balance it on top of your head. As you rise you catch it and pop it into your mouth so that the last taste of home is a sweet one.
You know this because your father reads Indian folk tales to you. A lot of them are variations on the same theme: the hero goes out into the world to seek his fortune, but before that he had to seek his parents’ blessing. Mostly he gets it, but sometimes he doesn’t and then he has to resort to Drastic Action or leave home with a Heavy Heart.
You’re outraged to discover that no, in fact, a blessing is not a cake. A blessing means that your parents raise you up, kiss your forehead and say, “Go with God, my child.” You don’t understand. It’s not like words can stop you in your tracks.
“A blessing gives means your parents support your endeavors,” your father says. “A blessing can mean peace, courage.”
He would know. He was nine when he left home. His father was an engineer who hopped from city to city following blueprints to build canals and bridges, anything that would pay the bills. His mother taught her children mathematics at her knee, whacked them with a ruler when they made mistakes, and sent her children off to the best boarding school she could afford: military school where the students change clothes five times a day, run a few miles before breakfast and don’t cry for home.
Your father could not run, he came last in all the races, but in the classroom he left his classmates in the dust as he spun through mathematics, hammered away at physics until it became the lens he used to examine life, and found as he examined it, that he hated school.
But he had his parents blessing.
When he left for college, he did not have his parents blessing. He left to study physics in a place where only doctors and engineers could count on making any money, in a time where even those comfortably ensconced in the middle class worried about having enough food on the table. You’re mad, his parents told him. You’ll never be able to feed a family, they told him. You’ll starve on the streets, they told him.
I am mad, he said. I will not get married and raise a family, he said. I don’t need much money, he said. And then he trained himself to dream of a future spent living in a single room, eating very little. It was not difficult after military school where fifty boys would share one room and the occasional cockroach would be mixed into the canteen food.
As it happened, physics led him to America where he got married, gave it all up for business because he couldn’t support a wife on a researcher’s salary and then got it all back when he started his first company where he could write mathematical algorithms and found he liked it better than the political games professors, even physics professors, especially physics professors, play.
“I have found my life’s work,” he says to you when you are very young.
You have a life plan too. You are going to follow your father’s footsteps, placing your feet in the whirls and hollows he has left imprinted on the earth. First you will become a physicist. You will read his thesis, a thesis that very few people are capable of understanding, he tells you, and then you will ease your way into the company, help it lift off. It runs, it does well even, but he dreams of an empire. You will come, and it will be an empire.
Your first grade teacher is so impressed by your plans, and the stories your father tells her of how you conduct your own experiments, that she sets aside science text books for you to take home. You take them home and you and your father go through the experiments for about half an hour until you get bored.
In third grade you attempt to start your own company. You’ve got it planned out. Work out a profit proposal with your father. Your best friends are going to be your business partners. Announce the idea on the playground. They are full of ideas. Decide their ideas are stupid. The company flops.
You don’t particularly care because you’ve just discovered Sherlock Holmes and are reading your way through the complete works. Every week your mother takes you to the library and you wander in and out of the different sections pulling books from shelves, Nancy Drew, Louisa May Alcott, Tolkien.
“Junk,” your father cries. “Stop reading such junk. Read something worthwhile. Science. Math.”
Occasionally you ask the librarians for books on antelopes because antelopes are animals and animals are biology and biology is a science, but antelopes are so boring you switch to biographies and keep hitting the fiction. Read Sense and Sensibility and decide Marianne is a drip. Read Animal Farm without knowing anything about communism and decide power corrupts. Read Anna Karenina and decide men are evil. Race through your class assignments so you can read, cram homework into an hour so you can read, read through recesses, car rides, road trips, family reunions, dinner parties, read until your eyes hurt and your legs are cramped and the words on the page are more real than the sofa you’re sitting on.
Hit sixth grade. The homework starts getting serious. You can’t finish math homework while the teacher explains the lesson anymore. Slowly, so slowly, you don’t notice it, you start to lag behind. A little knot starts living in the pit of your stomach during tests and grows larger and more wretched with each test.
Read so you can forget about math. Read while you should be doing math. Read, read, read.
Occasionally write. In seventh grade a poet teaches your English class for a few days. Before she leaves she pulls your parents aside.
“You must be a writing family,” she says.
“Quite the opposite,” your father says. “I was terrible at the humanities.” He was. He likes to tell you about how he wrote one English paper in high school and turned it in year after year for a solid “B”. A “B” was good enough for English.
“Your daughter is talented,” she says.
He smiles. He is proud. Middle school is all about being proud of you, the poems you are getting published, the essays that the teachers talk about in the hallways, it is almost enough to make up for the fact that the math is getting worse each year. By eighth grade the math teacher is calling you in after class to ask you if there’s anything she can do to help improve your grades.
“You’re not stupid,” your father says. He says it often. He says instead, that he has failed you. He should have spent more time teaching you math when you were little, as his mother taught him. Instead he devoted his time to his company.
You nod and you think of all those wasted hours, the hours you spent reading about fictional people with fictional lives when you could have studied the curve of the universe, understood reality, and you want to throw up.
You have begun to panic about your future. The math isn’t working out, the writing is, but everyone knows writers don’t get jobs, and somehow you know already, that you will never be a writer. You were meant to travel other paths.
Take a deep breathe. High school is around the corner. In high school there will be real science class, and there you will learn, oh you will learn.
In high school you load up on physics and chemistry and math. Your father looks through your textbooks each summer.
“You’re going to love these courses,” he says. This is the sort of thing he wishes he had when he was your age. “You should study over the summer,” he says.
You try. You sit with last year’s text book and the coming year’s text book and you tell yourself you’ll do two hours a day, but sooner or later you reach for your pile of library books and the calculus, the chemistry, the physics lies forgotten, and then the school year comes around and there again you’re taking home grades that steadily sink lower and lower.
Stay up late to finish problem sets, drink coffee on test days until you vibrate in your chair, start having nightmares about failing months before each exam. Write in your blog about how much you hate school. Get a small audience. Keep writing in your blog. Write. Write. Write.
“Be careful about your blog,” your father says. “You’re going to be someone running a company one day and you don’t want your blog to haunt you.”
In eleventh grade you take Calculus. In the hallway at school a parent stops you. Her son is in your Calculus class.
“I used to work for your father,” she says. “He’s a genius. I’m so excited that my son has the chance to be in class with you. He keeps telling me about there’s freshman in his class who is setting the curve. That’s you right? ”
Smile. Back away. Later in the day the Calc teacher hands out the mid-semester grades. She gives you your first fail.
That year your father makes a mathematical break through. His best friend is over at the time, and when your father shows him the math, he gasps and drags you over.
“Have you seen what your father has done?” he asks and graphs and formulas pour out of him and you shake your head and back away.
Your father shakes his head and smiles a little painfully, the smile of the perpetually isolated, “Stop. You’re not being fair to her. She hasn’t studied that. She can’t understand.”
“A pity,” his friend says. “Such a pity.”
“Physics is about seeing and understanding the world in its precise truth,” your father will say periodically. “It’s not like the humanities or the arts, where nothing is known, where nothing is precise and you can build nothing.”
You envy the scientists, the mathematicians of the world— people who are born seeing the truth, people who can slice through the multitudinous deceptions of ordinary mortals, and reveal the bleached bones of truth.
What would that be like?
You can not imagine it. You are not capable of it.
Tell your college counselor on whim you want to go to a place with a good English program.
The summer after you graduate from high school you run into that freshman, now sophomore, who was in your Calculus class and dazzled the teachers. “I don’t know what to do,” her mother says half laughing, half afraid as if this girl’s talent is bright enough to burn.
Your father writes down his telephone number, rattles off books and techniques, says, “You must call me if you need anything.” Later he shakes his head and smiles. Oh that girl, that girl, he sees his younger self in her eyes.
Then he tells you not to sign up for Calculus III in college.
“Don’t torture yourself unnecessarily,” he says.
Despite your best intentions you become a writing major in college. Spend three years dissecting books, ripping up your writing style and piecing it together again, learning that you know nothing. Hate the stuffy professors, hate the redundant syllabus, hate the pompous students, get high on Neruda and Eliot while you do your homework, fall asleep dreaming of libraries. Send your father all your stories. He reads them and tells you he’s not the best person to give you feedback: this is not his forte.
Then it’s your last year of college and you have to go job hunting.
No one will give you an interview.
“If you were an economics major or an engineering major you would have a job,” your father says. “They see writing major and toss your resume out. This is the price you pay for following your passion.”
“This is the price,” you say.
“It’s just the writing major,” he says.
“It’s just the writing major,” you say.
No one will give you an interview.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “You can always work for me.” His company is beginning take off, it is expanding, these days all he can speak of is the latest algorithm, how it is dynamite and unleashed it will change the world.
After seven months, the government offers to hire you. Your friends laugh. “Good luck accomplishing anything there,” they say. They had expected more from you.
You call your father.
“Come work with me,” he says. “We need you and we’re growing and we’re at an exciting place.”
“But what about this job?” you ask. “What do you think of it?”
“God, when I compare what’s going on at my company with a shitty little government job…oh, it’s frustrating.”
“It’s a shitty little job,” you say.
The job isn’t bad as far as shitty little jobs go. You get up, you go to work, then you come home and you write, you write, you write until you think you’ve used up all the words in the world, and then you fall asleep and get up and do it all over again the next day, and sometimes there isn’t enough time to write, and you think, maybe you could be a writer, only there’s never enough time, there’s never enough time and meanwhile all you have to write about is what happens inside the gray cubes of the government.
You can’t stay here forever. But you don’t want to go to business school, you don’t want to get another job that will take away even more of your writing time.
“I know at the moment writing is very important to you,” he says when you tell him this, “But think. Probably, you could do well, even pick up a few hundred every year, but is that enough to live on? To bet your life on? I know you. You wouldn’t be happy without the kind of success I have.”
The next day you go to work and your boss calls a staff meeting. You sit with excellent posture in your crisp white shirt and neat black skirt. You have a notebook full of questions and you ask them in a crisp little British accent. You think about how this isn’t bad, and how in ten years on a morning like this when a fresh breeze is blowing through the room and the air smells like sunlight you will still be wearing a crisp white shirt speaking in a crisp little British accent in some office somewhere. A good life.
You go back to your cube and pull out your assignment, only your head aches so you think perhaps you will sit for a while. And as you sit, you think, ah, you will go home, you will write. But what to write? And you imagine that you are a stranger, picking through your own stories, bidding on them, and you want to gouge out your eyeballs.
It is no use, you think. It is a hobby worth a few hundred a year.
You sip some caffeine to fill something in your chest that has gone hollow and funny and go back to work.
You know what a blessing is now. It is a stone compass, round and heavy that your parents slip into your hand when you are born. Pray that you have the strength to carry it, pray that you are able to follow the direction of the arrow easily and effortlessly so you will never discover how relentlessly it tugs you forward.