We asked Aatmik to reflect upon his life and learning so far in terms of a colour.
A: I had a navy-blue childhood. Solid, serious, academic – the colour of my school blazer.
When I look back now I think I probably peaked in fifth grade. It sounds strange, but in elementary school I breezed through classes and topped tests. It was towards the end of middle school when work became more challenging that I gradually lost my motivation and settled into the role of a consistent procrastinator. I never lost the desire to expand my knowledge though, and the stability of my childhood provided the foundations I needed to grow personally and intellectually
E: The picture you’ve painted so far is of a linear, happily uneventful childhood in Delhi. No bumps in the road?
A: Well I guess… wait, actually…. No, it’s nothing. It’s just, when I think about the past few years there was one thing that stands out against the normality.
E: Hold up! That sounds like a story!
A: Hmm, it’s about a girl.
E: This is going to be interview gold Aatmik! The readers need to know what happened.
Aatmik looks embarrassed.
Essai refuses to change the subject.
A: Fine, okay, I’ll tell you the story.
It started when I was in 8th grade at a quizzing tournament.
E: Ahh just like all the best love stories do….
A: I was sitting with my team when I caught sight of a girl in the row in front. I think I almost fell in love with her straight away.
E: A Romeo and Juliet moment?
A: Not exactly, we didn’t get off to the best start! My team was playing pretty competitively, and we kept blocking hints from the quizmaster. This annoyed her, and then in the final round of the competition she challenged the quizmaster from the audience when he accepted my answer of ‘butterfly’ instead of ‘butterfly effect’!
E: So not a heady romantic whirlwind from the off...
A: I found it attractive that she was prepared to call me out on my bullshit – it’s not often people will do that. I knew I’d have to work hard to win her, so my 8th grade self got down to some dedicated social media ‘research’.
E: What was your plan?
A: I wrote rhyming riddles based on her pop-culture interests and posted them anonymously on her Ask.fm profile.
E: Wow. And they say romance is dead.. Maybe the millennials are just re-inventing it. Anyway, did the puzzles prove a success?
A: They definitely impressed her, and eventually I revealed my identity. We started talking on Facebook, and there was an instant connection between us. We had a lot in common, and eventually I managed to convince her that I wasn’t a pompous git (even though I might sometimes act like one) and we became an ‘official’ couple.
E: So it was happy ever after?
A: No, in short. Half a year later her family relocated to Pune, and although we tried to make it work long-distance, she broke up with me in April 2016.
E: That’s devastating! Were you able to move on?
A: It did take me a really long time to get over it. I think that heartbreak can be seen as analogous to a diminishing geometric series – over time it reduces but never disappears completely.
E: Aw thanks for sharing that story! So after this happened it seems like you threw yourself into as many distractions as possible – Debater, quizzer, policy researcher – schoolwork wasn’t enough of a challenge for you?
A: Participating in these extra-curriculars was more of a natural progression of my interests than a conscious choice to expand my activities list. I’ve always paid attention to the newspapers and current affairs, and I think I naturally gravitated towards the quiz team as a place where I could use all the facts and knowledge I’d been chasing throughout my early years. I shot up the ranks of the team pretty quickly, and soon was in a position to learn a lot from the 12th graders I suddenly had access to. With debating, it was more a case of channeling my natural love for a good argument.
E: So aside from getting into arguments for fun, how were your academic interests developing at this point?
A: Up until middle school, I (and my parents) had assumed that science was my ‘thing’ – I was even selected for the IIT track. But my heart was not in it, and when I stopped putting effort into my studies I realised that I wasn’t going to become a scientist, doctor, or engineer. In contrast, literature was becoming increasingly influential in my life. I’d moved on from my early diet of Harry Potter and Enid Blyton and begun to explore the Modernist Western canon – Asimov, Salman Rushdie, the Beat writers. Through these books, my knowledge of the wider world continued to expand, and I became especially interested in US politics. When I had to pick some APs I chose micro-economics, which I found fascinating, but I still didn’t have any clear idea of what direction I wanted to take my studies in the future.
E: The summer you first came to essai you were in 11th grade and you’d just published your own research paper. Tell us, how exactly does a high-school student turn an interest in economics into a fully-fledged academic report?
A: It started when I participated in a Model United Nations debate on drug policy. I had gotten really into the research, and came across the work of a Harvard professor who advocated the legalization of marijuana. I read a lot of his work, and decided to email him to ask if I could help him with his current projects. He was kind enough to send me his research notes and set me a small assignment related to his latest project. This encouraged me to start writing a research paper about African trade economics, inspired by another MUN conference I’d participated in. I tried emailing various professors to find a collaborator or co-author, but when I received no responses I just wrote the paper on my own.
E: Did this experience give you confidence when it came to write your college application essays?
A: Actually, despite the fact that I’d written a lot before, it was only when I started working with essai that I developed the confidence to put exactly what I wanted to say down on paper. Indian culture is very much oriented towards ‘taking the safe option’, which translates into students being afraid to write anything in their applications which might make them look bad or stand out from the crowd. At essai, I was given the support to find and develop my own ideas, and guided as to how I could make them work as essays. This meant that I was able to very quickly overcome my natural skepticism and begin to enjoy the whole application process.
E: That’s encouraging to hear. Do you think essai can do anything else to help students overcome this societal pressure to conform to a certain mould throughout their application?
A: I think that essai should start getting students to come in as early as possible – this would allow them to have a greater impact in overcoming any negative influences. Having conversations with students in Grade 9 or even younger would give them perspective about what they really need to do to get into college, and would give them the time to take up new hobbies or sports and really excel at them. It would also allow more time for their social projects to develop and grow in exciting directions.
E: You’ve put a lot of thought in to the direction essai should be taking in the future – but what about your future?
A: Haha.. when it comes to my own future I am very much a pragmatist. I am self-aware enough to recognize that I love good food, high culture, and good art, and so realistically, I’ll need to pursue a career that allows me to enjoy all of this. I do feel the pressure from my family and background to go into a ‘prestigious’ position, but above all else I want to be successful and happy in my career, so I’ll keep my options open and see what happens.
E: Do you see yourself staying in India long-term?
A: Again, I’ll be honest and admit that despite spending my whole life so far in Delhi, I’m not a fan of India. It’s hard to describe exactly why, but I do feel like I need to escape the crowds, chaos, dirt, and pollution.
E: You don’t feel any kind of guilt at leaving your ‘home’ country?
A: I don’t think I should feel guilty about wanting to live in a place which is more aligned to my personal and cultural interests. Maybe it’s something to do with the value of self-centeredness which the Indian education system seems to instill, but I don’t feel a sense of responsibility to stay in India, and I don't think many other people of my generation do either.
E: That’s interesting. I think a lot of other teens would agree with you about this point, and it certainly provides food for thought as we bring this interview to a close. Thank you so much for talking to us, Aatmik – we look forward to following up this interview when you come back and visit us from Princeton!