Readers Write In #580: The Imposter – The ramblings of a fundamentally uninteresting man

Posted on May 26, 2023


By Kanhu Kishore

   I want to tell you a story. A story probably worth telling, at least I think so. Some names are changed because well, it’s a story. So, let’s start. Yeah, let’s start. But where to start, I don’t know. I am in this situation where I feel shitty all the time. And I don’t know how I found myself in this situation. I guess, by telling you, I will finally discover how. Or, perhaps I won’t. I will never know the reason because I may not have all the pieces of the puzzle. And even if I do have all the pieces, and I manage to put it all together and get the answer I am looking for, will that bring me peace? Will the truth finally set me free? Knowing how something came about is intellectually satisfying, but is it enough? I don’t know. I guess we will find out.

   As I said before, I don’t know where I should begin from. Because I have been feeling shitty for a very long time. It’s been so long that I don’t even remember when I wasn’t feeling like this. Or maybe it has not been that long. Maybe I only feel that way because the mind usually retains recent memories. But I am sure it’s been some months at the very least if not years. Let me put it differently. Here is something you should know about feeling shitty. It’s like the feeling of being in love. You never know when it begins. And one day you just realize it. And even if you try to search through your recent memories you will find or identify moments where you felt this feeling but the magnitude is never less or more. It’s not like a linear graph always increasing, starting from zero. Cause if it were, you could have gone back to that day zero, that exact moment when this thing started. No, it’s more like a wiggly line, with minor ups and downs around a constant value.

  Okay, so back to the story. I will try to make it as chronological as I can but if the narration feels messed up then don’t mind. It’s not like you have much of a choice. Anyway, let’s begin.

   I think it was mid-march when the results of the GATE exam were announced. I was on a train heading back home from college. There was some holiday, I guess, for a week or something. A friend messaged me about the announcement of the results and to my surprise, I was in the top 10. But I didn’t feel happy. It felt like I didn’t deserve it. And it was just some pure dumb luck that I got this. And since I had to appear in interviews for admission into the PhD program, I was sure I would screw up these interviews and my secret would be out. Everybody will know I didn’t get into the top 10 because of my merits. I became worried. I started sweating. It was horrible. I couldn’t stay in one place. I was just pacing back and forth in that compartment. I felt like walls were closing on me. It felt like I was drowning and my hands were tied together. There was nothing I could do. Interviews were still a couple of months away. And I would prepare once I got home. But I wasn’t home. I was on this goddamn train which was refusing to go any faster. And no matter how many times I covered the length of the compartment, I wasn’t getting any closer to having some sort of peace of mind. I was only tiring myself out. And as I was getting more and more tired, I was feeling more and more rage inside me. It wasn’t directed towards anyone in particular. I was angry because of the hopelessness of the entire situation. Later I would realize I was also embarrassing myself. The other co-passengers were looking at me suspiciously. Someone, I guess even told me to sit down and I ignored him.

   You could say I was getting restless for no reason and so on. It might have sounded implausible. But it is what it is. And it’s true. I can’t explain why I felt those things. I just did. And these feelings stayed with me during the time I was preparing for the interview. They even motivated me to work harder. And I did get into a good institution. But this feeling of being inadequate and undeserving never went away.

     There are three kinds of students in a new PhD batch. First, come the geniuses. They have a very mature problem-solving approach. Professors love them. These geniuses are also the reasons why they love teaching. Many will admit that by teaching them, their understanding of the subject gets better. Students also love them. As the deadline for assignments gets closer, their demand gets higher. We all depend on them for our grades. In second place we have ordinary people. Their purpose of existence seems to be two-fold. Since they are reasonably good at studies, they make the geniuses stand out. They are there for the contrast. The second reason is they make the classroom seem packed so the professor won’t feel he/she is teaching an empty room. The third slot is reserved for the imposters. It’s hard to gauge the intelligence in them though you may see flashes of brilliance now and then. They have simply given up. They don’t care anymore about grades or anything for that matter. They don’t become the stuff of legends. No. They become cautionary tales that will be told for years to come. Theirs isn’t a story of courage and ambition. It’s a story of missed opportunities, laziness and lack of respect for your talents.

      I came to the institute with a lot of expectations. And they were realistic too. I didn’t think I would win a Nobel prize. No. I just wanted to perform decently in all aspects, be it exams or projects or actual research. That’s all. But when things got started, things got worse. Suddenly these ‘realistic’ expectations started sounding more and more fantastical. In the first year, we have compulsory coursework. And there was this assignment in one of these courses. I spent four days on this bloody assignment, and in the end, the answer that I got was nonsense. But another guy only spent an evening and got the correct answer. I was furious at myself. And to add to the injury, this wasn’t a one-off incident. In the weeks that followed, I would spend days on a problem only to find out that the answer I got was nonsensical. Eventually, I got tired of these continuous failures. But not doing the assignments wasn’t an option. Because performance in assignments played a major role in determining the final grades. And we have this system where at the end of the year, these final grades will determine whether you stay in the institute or not. And this fear of being kicked out of the institution haunted me day and night. I started getting more and more desperate. So to avoid that eventuality, I approached the aforementioned guy and started copying his assignments. But I wasn’t out of the woods just yet.

     Whenever a new assignment was given, the moment I would look at it, fear would set in. All kinds of probable scenarios would start playing in my head. One that was quite recurrent and particularly nasty was the following. It wasn’t always the same thing but it mostly stuck to a script. “Say the guy doesn’t manage to do the assignment, what’s gonna happen to me? In the worst-case scenario, I get kicked out. But what will I do after I’m out of here? What will my family say? I had to fight with them to get here. They wanted me to do a normal job but I wasn’t aiming for that. I have always found that boring and meaningless. This PhD is much more meaningful and has much more impact than anything else. This was what I told them. Now, they are gonna use this against me. A family doesn’t always consist of people who love you unconditionally. More often than not, it’s full of benign monsters. And it’s not just them that I am worried about. If I am out of here, can I apply again next year to another institution? What am I gonna tell them? Will I lie? Because telling them the truth might hamper my chances in the interview. And am I completely sure that these things won’t happen again? How many institutes will I keep changing? Does this mean I am not good enough for a PhD in the first place? Am I good enough for anything at all? I also have this educational loan that I had to take for my MSc studies. What am I gonna do about the instalments once the stipend is stopped? My family doesn’t have the resources to pay the instalments. If they did, I wouldn’t have to take the loan in the first place, right?  Sure I can offer tuition. But how much am I gonna earn and how long will it be before this loan is over? Am I gonna offer tuition my whole life? I also support my family through this stipend. That will also be stopped. What am I gonna do?” This wasn’t all. My mind would construct elaborate scenes of what could happen. It was nonstop. I would be imagining myself in these probable scenarios and trying to deal with them as if they were happening right now. One time I imagined myself punching a guy. I was getting angry at him for no reason. I saw the guy walking towards me and suddenly I was clenching my fist. But someone called or something and I didn’t punch him, thank god. But that feeling of being angry at him didn’t subside for a few days. I avoided talking to him during that time. And that wasn’t the only case. Many a time I was feeling emotions that weren’t either appropriate or correct for that particular situation. I was arguing with someone and suddenly I was thinking “Hey his lips are nice. Will he mind if I kiss him?” I am not gay, at least I don’t think so. But at that time I felt that. Suddenly I was having an identity crisis. Like I said before these things were nonstop. I was talking to myself all the time. I couldn’t even sleep. The moment I would try to sleep, my mind would start constructing even more bizarre scenarios. I have found myself crying in these scenarios. And not just in my room when I would be alone, but in classes too. Once a professor saw me wiping my tears and started asking what happened. I made some dumb excuses and got out. After that, I stopped going to class.

      One day I found out that if I die then the loan would automatically be cancelled because the loan was insured. After that day, my mind would start evaluating my surroundings to find the perfect way to commit suicide that would be painless. I imagined myself jumping off balconies, jumping into train tracks, and drowning in the sea that bordered our institution(I don’t know how to swim). I also talked to a chemistry guy about different types of poisonous substances in his lab. I specifically queried about the effectiveness of the poison and how one would go about smuggling it from his lab. He mostly laughed. He thought I was just weirdly curious. I also even searched for poisons online. But I mostly discarded all of the above options. There wasn’t any building that was tall enough that would mean a sure death and had a terrace that I could easily access. I am not gonna spend the rest of my life paralysed. That’s a situation worse than death. Smuggling poisons from the lab might result in me getting caught which will mean I am gonna get kicked out. Drowning in the sea might not help either as there are always students or guards near the sea who could try to save me. And as per the train thing, that’s a good option but then again there’s a chance I might end up getting paralysed. Since all these options didn’t work out, I bought a chef’s knife. I didn’t wanna cut my nerves. That’s a painful way to go. So I decided I would cut my neck. I held it against my neck and tried but couldn’t do it. Cause I got scared. So I thought let’s take a time out and make the last call to everyone I care about. So I first called Tina. I haven’t talked about her, have I? Okay, let me finish this and I will come back to her. Then I called Mom. I talked to her for half an hour about a lot of stuff. She didn’t doubt a thing. It’s amazing how you can camouflage even your lowest of moods with a few jokes. Towards the end of the call, she said that she had sent me the scanned version of the documents related to the insurance of the loan that I had asked her for. So after the call, I read the documents and it turned out that even if I committed suicide, my family would have to pay the loan back. So no point in dying. Afterwards, I threw that knife in the dustbin. But it didn’t mean that I started paying more attention to my studies and all. I hadn’t yet hit the rock bottom. I was still falling into what seemed like a bottomless pit.

   Coming to Tina as promised. Here I know the beginning. And sometimes when I think back, I think it’s like the cliched sentence ‘It was always meant to happen.’ One day, out of the blue, I got a message on my WhatsApp from a yet unknown number. It was asking for suitable references for the coming IIT-JAM exam. Yes, no greetings, no introductions, nothing. So I asked for its name. And it was Tina. She got my number from a friend. And I was kind of a topper, so she texted me. Since the exam was just two months away, we started talking almost daily. The conversations were mostly regarding her doubts. It was December 2017. The exam happened in Feb 2018. So after the exam, the real conversations, if you like, began. She started opening up. Also if I may add, loosening up. More about that later. She is the eldest of two sisters in her family. The younger one at that time was barely a couple of years old. Her father died a year ago in an accident. After that, they started living with her father’s brother’s family. I should have used ‘uncle’s’, never mind. The eldest son was a drunkard. Most days he would come home wasted. He would then start throwing tantrums. Some days it would be because of food, some days it would be because of something someone said some months ago, and mostly it was because his life sucked. Naturally, other family members would try to control the situation by restraining him or consoling him. And during these altercations sometimes Tina would get hurt, physically that is. I think the last part of the sentence was kind of redundant. Anyway. Once he threw a dish that hit her head. She was in the hospital for the next few days. But mostly it would be slaps followed by slurs about how she was an ungrateful parasite. She wasn’t ungrateful at all. She paid for her studies by offering tuition. She sometimes would contribute financially as much as she can. She would also help with house chores and so on. Then why was he claiming she was ungrateful? Because she rejected his advances. It wasn’t that he was a nuisance just when he was drunk. He was even more of a nuisance when he was sober. One time he tried to peep through a window while Tina was changing her clothes. Tina somehow managed to get out of that situation. Tina would be looking for opportunities to get out of the house whenever he would be present. So IIT wasn’t just some feather in her cap, it was an escape plan. And I, a distraction. With me, she would say all those things she would never say to anyone. She was really happy because I guess I provided her with space where she could be free, and safe, in her little world. I was also…… I wanna say happy but it will be a lie. Okay, what’s the word then? Okay, I was not sad. It felt…good. When I came home in June 2018, we met for the first time. I didn’t mention it before but she’s from my state. By that time JAM results were announced. And she got a great rank. She would eventually go on to do her MSc from IIT Kharagpur. She’s still there. She is killing there. She will be graduating this June. So yeah we met and we did a lot of things. We continued to do that for a long time whenever we would meet and also online. It was nice while it lasted. Ohh shit, that was a spoiler. Okay, that’s fine. So let’s continue our story after this short detour. Okay, where was I? Yes, the bottomless pit.

     As I said, I couldn’t trust my mind. Sometimes I was reacting to things that weren’t even told. And sometimes I was reacting way more than necessary. The following incident happened around 3 months into my PhD. Our mid-semester exams were just finished and some of us were anxious. Surprisingly I didn’t do that badly. Anyway, I and a bunch of other classmates were discussing the mid-sem problems and how each of us had performed. At one point I said “Hope I don’t fail these exams. I need these marks to go beyond passing marks in the overall calculation.” One guy said, “Why are you being a bitch about marks. Enjoy. This is PhD. No one cares how much you get”. And that just set me off. I went on a rant: “ First of all, I am not being a bitch. And, hello it does matter. If you don’t get passing marks, you will be ousted from the institute. You may be rich enough to go anywhere, but I am not. And what is this bullshit with every prof and now you that no one cares how much you get? If this was the case, then why is there this elaborate scheme of this much percentage for assignments, this much for exams and so on? This is nothing but hypocrisy. They should come out in the open and say “Yes marks matter. We just tell you otherwise because we are hypocrites”. Take a bunch of A-grade hypocrites and put a wall around them, you can call that building an institution dedicated to academia. Anytime you ask them anything, the answer is “you think”. I couldn’t get the answer after thinking a lot, that’s why I am asking you, you idiot. Everyone thinks that they are good teachers if they can turn a simple shit into a complicated one. You are intelligent only if you can explain something in a way that only geniuses will understand. This is not modern art, you fuckers. If you ask, which book are you following, the answer will be “I don’t follow any book”. Why? It’s not like what you are doing is original. Just tell us the source you are ripping off from. NO. Bloody idiots.” I swear I could have punched him right there. In hindsight, he wasn’t completely wrong, just a bit cocky. Because of these incidents, I finally decided I would visit a shrink. Yes, this thing that we are having, the counselling isn’t the first time I am doing it. I have done it before. The previous one was appointed in the college. Fun fact: her office was always empty. I guess, no one wants to admit that they are screwed up here. So I easily got an appointment. There I told her everything up to that point. She said it might be just your anxiety getting the better of you. She told me to take a break and reassess my priorities in life and take things slow. And do yoga and blah blah blah. A few days after that there was a break because of the Durga puja. I went to my friend’s house in Hyderabad. There, for the first time in a long time, I felt happiness.

    You know why people get high, right? It’s the best option they have to escape. From everything. It numbs your mind. You don’t have to think anymore. No thinking, no worries. It’s escapism, yes, but part of it is survival too. Sometimes you gotta catch your breath before you can run again. Getting high is like catching that breath. For some, it can be getting involved in some sort of creative pursuit. For some, it can be sports or other physical activities. For people like me, it’s booze or weed or other substances that give us that high. But more often than not, and it’s true for people like me, we stop so much to catch our breath that we don’t wanna run anymore. I also didn’t wanna run anymore. I wanted to stop. I didn’t wanna reassess my priorities. I didn’t wanna do yoga or anything. Simply put, I wanted my mind to stop thinking. So when I went to my friend’s home, I didn’t tell him what I was going through. I just said, “Let’s drink our sorrows” and he obliged. We drank a lot. We were drinking all day long. And also puking as well sometime. And so the cycle continued. Sometimes some other friend would come and we would, for a change, smoke weed. But these are not the only ways to get high or make your mind numb. Another way is to tire yourself out. And we weren’t exactly gym freaks. So the next best option was to have sex. No, not with each other.  Also because it was my last day there and I was a virgin. So we hired an escort. She charged us a lot for one hour. I knew it would be expensive. Each of us got half an hour. I went last.

      A few weeks ago I was supposed to deliver a presentation in one of my courses. I was outside the room. When my turn came I went in. She was there. She was lying on the bed. She hadn’t put on her clothes yet. So without wasting any time, I climbed onto the stage. The audience looked at me expectantly. I guess it was their way of showing support. I started delivering my talk. I started nicely. I gently kissed her. We started the whole “foreplay” thing. But then something went wrong. Somebody asked a question and I just froze. It was not like I didn’t have the answer. I probably did. But that time I couldn’t think. I just couldn’t focus. I was just standing there looking at the floor half-naked. Seeing me like this, she got worried I think. Then somebody said okay let’s move on and I again went back to my talk. I hurried through the remaining talk. When I was finished I could see the disappointment on her face. I still had 10 minutes left. But instead of asking me questions which were the usual norm they just told me to pack it up. She got up from the bed and went to the bathroom to dress or take a bath or whatever and I got out of the room. When the instructor came out of the room, I said I was sorry that I didn’t know what happened and that I would do better next time. She was kind. She said and I quote “It’s okay. Sometimes it happens when you are doing it for the first time. Expectations get the better of you. Everybody improves.” Before leaving, the instructor said he would do another presentation next semester and I should try to do better then. I just nodded and gave her the fee and she left. I too left Hyderabad the next day. 

       It’s hard to give an exact description of what happened in the following month after I came back to Mumbai. It’s all kind of a haze. I tried hard to remember and I simply can not. I only remember bits and pieces. One thing that’s very clear in my head is the fight I had with Tina. This fight ended my relationship with her. The reason I remember it is that it happened two weeks ago. I will come to it. But anyway I will just say whatever I remember. When I came to Mumbai, I knew what I had to do. Get so high that no anxiety or worry ever reaches you. And I did that. I would get drunk and pass out in the night. I would wake up late in the morning. If there was something I needed to do, I would finish that. And come evening, I would again go buy the drinks and get drunk and pass out. And repeat. It went on for 10 days. I ran out of money. When the money ran out, I did the next best thing. There’s this online thing where you can meet women from across the globe. There’s another option on the site dedicated to women coming to meet men. Wait! That went without saying. Kind of redundant to spell that out. Whatever. I met Russians, Greeks and African Americans. Never found an Indian though. Maybe that’s a rule there in the algorithm to avoid making people from the same country meet. Or maybe most Indians found some other site. Was I the only Indian there? Anyway, moving on. There’s a premium membership but I was using the free feature. Anyway, I found some distractions there. The women I met on that site were there for that purpose. They were also looking for some escapism I guess. Some were looking for clients. How nice to find like-minded people. So there was no problem or hesitation. You know the moral code and all that. (I am shitty, not a monster. I am pretty sure you are judging me by now. But it is what it is.) Here’s what I understood about the moral code by the way. The display of morality requires an audience. And so do transgressions thereof. Does a lion roar when there is no one in the jungle to hear? So I continued and again it was a few days of distraction before I got tired. There’s so much the body can take. And the mind as well. All this while I was running away from my fear and anxieties but I never was able to outrun them. They were always able to keep up. It was like trying to outrun your shadow. This realization started as a whisper. And then it got louder. And I was angry. I failed at this too. I had spent the last 3 months trying not to think about facing my fears. And all of that was in vain. I had wasted those months. Now I am facing the final exams and I don’t know the first thing about what I should study. And more than that, is there enough time? This frustrated me. I was back at square one. I tried to make up for the lost time. I tried to redo the assignments that I had copied. I tried assessing my strengths and weaknesses. But I was on overdrive. I was neglecting Mom, Tina and everyone. Mom didn’t mind much. She thought I was busy preparing for the exam. But I had told Tina about my anxieties before and the failed efforts to commit suicide. So she worried that I might end up doing something this time. So she wanted to visit me. I said yes to that. And I am still not sure whether I should have done that or not.

     In total, she stayed for 3 days. The first day, we were just fooling around. We stayed in my room the whole day. On the first day, we watched a movie, fooled around, and played some games. At night, I told her everything that was happening with me except the online chatting and sleeping with the escort part, for obvious reasons. On the second day, we went for lunch. Then we visited the Siddhi Vinayak temple. She’s a bit religious. An embarrassing flaw in an otherwise perfect girl. And we also watched a movie in the theatre. Then comes the third day. I still remember it vividly. Her train was around 3 pm. And the CST is just 5 km away. We were in our room. So when it was around 2 pm, she said: “Wait outside for 5 minutes. Let me get dressed”.

“Why? It’s not like this is the first time,” I said.

“Yes. I know. But just wait outside, no? What’s the problem?”, she replied.

“No problem. I just wanna understand why.”

“There’s no why. I just want to get dressed and I want you to go outside. Can you do that?”


“Good. Then go.” She was getting irritated by now.

“But, what will happen if I stay here? It’s not like I haven’t seen you naked.”

“Arey. Okay, if you have already seen me then what will you get by seeing me naked again?”

“Joy of beauty is forever.”

“Stop it, please. I want to have some privacy. Can I have that please?” She thundered.

“NO. I will stay put here.” I replied.

“What do you mean ‘NO’? I am asking you to leave. So leave.”

“And I am telling you I won’t. Do what you want.”

“I can’t believe we are fighting over this. Why won’t you leave?”

“Give me a valid reason. And I will leave.”

“Okay”. She took a deep breath and then said: “You don’t have my consent to stay in this room. Is that valid enough?”

“What do you mean, I don’t have your consent? Who do you think you are?” I was irritated by now. I guess I was behaving like a monster at that time.

   She was in her nightwear. Short pants and a top. She had already packed her bag by then. She took her bag and stormed off. I followed her. I tried to ‘reason’ with her. The irony was lost on me. We were near the gate of our hostel when to stop her I held her by her arm. And she just turned and slapped me. I was frozen. After that slap, she screamed, “LEAVE ME”. The lion roared and a lot of people were in the jungle to hear it. Then after half an hour, she messaged, “It’s over. Do not try to contact me.” I just laid down on the bed the whole day. I didn’t eat. I didn’t do anything. I just stayed like that. That slap, that too in public, was humiliating. And like every other person, I started defending myself for the first few hours. But after that, it started dawning upon me. I had taken everyone in my life to be granted. I was so self-obsessed that I never bothered about her at all. First I cheated on her. Then I neglected her. And despite this (not that she knew about it), when she was with me, I violated her privacy. I truly had reached my rock bottom. Or so I think. It may be just a landing platform and if I roll over a little bit I will start falling again. I am stretching the metaphor a little bit now, ain’t I? Anyway, moving on. Then I started crying. Though I must admit I was not sure what I was more upset about. The fact that Tina had broken up with me or me being the man-child I was losing his toy. I knew it was too late. But I still had to salvage something. I knew she wouldn’t take me back. So that door was closed. But I still had my studies and my exams and also my loan. Funny how crippling financial situations can motivate you.    

    Remember the guy I talked about, the genius one? I asked him a few questions. He was very calm and explained to me to the best of his ability. Before leaving, I told him how bad I am at these assignments. How I can’t understand a single thing. How I had to rely on his solutions to understand. He said: “Don’t worry. What matters is that you finally understood. And even if you rely on my solutions, what’s the big deal about it?” All the anger and envy against him just melted. I still felt inferior but I wasn’t jealous. I also went to that instructor, the one from the presentation. He is the one who taught us this course and gave those assignments that accelerated my anxiety. I told him everything. He also said the same thing. What matters is understanding the problems at the end of the day. He also said: “Don’t worry if you are not good at this. That’s okay. Not every scientist masters every field. I am not good at a lot of things. That’s the reason why people collaborate. And I have heard you are pretty good at other courses. Just redo the assignments again. I will send the last one today. Do that too. And don’t worry. You won’t fail.” Fun fact, I managed to do the last assignment on my own. Then I found you and booked an appointment and here I am.

    In my BSc and MSc, I was a star. I was a genius. I didn’t score a lot because of the archaic way of the question papers and the way it was checked. But the teachers liked me. In my MSc, we had to do a project. And the guy who supervised my project was an asshole. He broke my confidence. I was rattled to my very core. He was a bad, horrible supervisor. I think he kind of was the reason behind all my anxieties. But the reason why I feel shitty isn’t him. It’s me. I should have sought counsel. I should have handled it better instead of running away from it. All the things I did, nobody forced me. It’s not a defence. And my anxieties are not justifications for what I did. But I can’t change my past. It is what it is. I can only influence my future.

   My mind is still overthinking. I still get cold feet when I see a new assignment or a problem. I still can’t talk to Tina. I am still drinking. Smoking too. I will probably hire an escort again. Yes, I am not a saint. Never was. But I still can be good at pretending to be a decent human being like everyone else. I can learn to respect other people’s privacy.  I will study and try to understand to the best of my ability. I may not succeed but I will keep on trying nevertheless. I am not looking for redemption. And I am way beyond asking for forgiveness. I am just looking for peace of mind. That’s all I want. The end.