Revisiting the Greatest Years

Revisiting the Greatest Years by Raghu Karnad

Delhi-based journalist Raghu Karnad '05 says "the only possible thing that could get me to take a week off" was this year's Alumni Weekend. Karnad reported on freedom of speech issues and political rights before joining Time Out Delhi as editor last year. In 2008, he received one of the European Commission's Lorenzo Natali Journalism Prizes for "Air, Water, Earth, and the Sins of the Powerful," an English print report on the survivors of the Union Carbide disaster and the ongoing contamination crisis in Bhopal. Write to him at rkarnad@alum.swarthmore.edu.

It's rarely a forgone decision that you will go to your college reunion, but in my case, it felt especially unlikely. I live in Delhi. I hadn't been back to Swarthmore since the morning after graduation and, in five years, my life had filled up with a new script that piled over my college memories. As with all of us, so much had happened since that June when economics professor Mark Kuperberg charged us with carrying forth the mission of the "reality-based community": other cities, the first day of work, the first apartment, Facebook, the bar where the waitstaff know your name, the thousandth day of work, renting the fourth apartment, other universities, and other, more unique encounters with travel, love, and political life. Some of us had even been in relationships with non-Swatties.

But choosing to live in New Delhi rather than New York City also meant that I had cannonballed pretty far out pretty quick. Delhi is a place where you usually receive an email two weeks before you hang out with a Swattie, or anyone who also remembers the catastrophic housing lottery at the end of Spring 2003. So I remembered Swat less and less frequently. Eventually - here comes a painfully appropriate analogy - my Facebook "Top News" rarely brought up the faces of even my most beloved from '05.

Bolstered by attendance from the younger classes, including a third of the Class of 2005, attendance at this year's reunion reached over 1,400.

None of this sat right with me. I had loved being at Swat, loved it with gushing energy. Because it seemed likely (and turned out to be true) that I'd be incapable of producing such unbalanced enthusiasm for a specific corner of the world again, I'd pre-appointed college as the greatest years of my life. In senior year, auditioning to be the class speaker at our graduation, I squeezed ahead of the funniest, the most insightful, and the most popular members of '05 by writing one grossly sentimental speech, comparing the Swat experience to a romance. It was chicken soup for the '05 soul and it took a couple of years to live down.

So how does it happen that you begin to forget the official "greatest years of your life?" This bothered me. It also sounded like a self-pitying proposition for a 27-year-old (I know - sorry, Class of '90). But there it was. At 27, for the first time, the possibility of certain kinds of loss (hair, waistline) were there to worry about. Now I worried about losing Swarthmore.

Alumni Council President Sabrina Martinez '92 addresses fellow alumni during Collection in the amphitheater.

So I got on a plane, perhaps doubled the carbon footprint of the '05 reunion, and was back in Swarthmore. If I'd worried about familiarity, I needn't have. The campus aromas, amplified by the dripping heat of June, acted as an overwhelmingly effective welcome committee: the fuming grass outside, the crisp, coffee-scented, conditioned air in Kohlberg, but above all, the tweaked, rubbery smell pervading Willets.

Other things rushed back. Dripping with perspiration before I reached Willets, I went to take a shower and instantly started scanning the stalls for which would be the least skanky - a vestigial instinct reactivated. I slid down the bannister at Sharples without injury. Walking with two friends, I was unable to become lost in the Crum.

Associate Professor of Music John Alston directs the annual performance of Mozart's Requiem.

Reuniting with campus was effortless, but the bigger reunion was far from it. Once you're there, it's hard to remember its object. To catch up with your closest circle? Much easier back in someone's apartment, in their real life. To catch up with the whole class? That meant a lot of conversation, and not much said. (Reunion is socially exhausting.) To enjoy the campus? That would make sense, except that in the course of the weekend, my view of campus bounced erratically from "lost paradise" to "eerily rejuvenated museum." To relive being a college senior for 48 hours? Sure, that's something we all very secretly hoped for. But despite the thump with which people fell back into old roles, well, playing Beirut with a keg of Natty Light just didn't sound like a genius plan.

Yet there was an hour or two in Paces when the place became packed, figures were up on the window sills getting down, nobody was talking much, and we nearly hammered 2005 back out of those sticky tiles. There was an hour, moving silently from one favorite McCabe station to another, when thrills I hadn't recalled in years ran through me (some intellectual, some related to cute students who worked the check out desk). And twice, just ghosting across campus at night out of Kohlberg and into Trotter, I gave the place a chance to tell me the stories it had held onto. There were many.

Classes ending in 0 and 5 gathered for this year's reunion with the Class of 2008.

Reunion wasn't about driving back down to '05 at all. The present was way too tenacious. It was about turning around to focus on where we had come, in the same frame, for once, as where we'd come from. I got to have a close friend's one-year-old son pick ice cubes out of a cooler and feed them into my mouth with heroic determination - a radical and rewarding 2010 moment.

When I left Swarthmore the first time, looking over my shoulder again and again, I believed I was losing something (the Greatest Years). Now I got to leave Swarthmore a second time, and - hey! - felt like I'd won something back.