Every fall, Princeton raised her skirt for the corporate recruiters who came onto campus andas you say in Americashowed them some skin. The skin Princeton showed was good skin, of courseyoung, eloquent, and clever as can bebut even among all that skin, I knew in my senior year that I was something special. I was a perfect breast, if you willtan, succulent, seemingly defiant of gravityand I was confident of getting any job I wanted.
Except one: Underwood Samson & Company. You have not heard of them? They were a valuation firm. They told their clients how much businesses were worth, and they did so, it was said, with a precision that was uncanny. They were smalla boutique, really, employing a bare minimum of peopleand they paid well, offering the fresh graduate a base salary of over eighty thousand dollars. But more importantly, they gave one a robust set of skills and an exalted brand name, so exalted, in fact, that after two or three years there as an analyst, one was virtually guaranteed admission to Harvard Business School. Because of this, over a hundred members of the Princeton Class of 2001 sent their grades and résumés to Underwood Samson. Eight were selectednot for jobs, I should make clear, but for interviewsand one of them was me.
You seem worried. Do not be; this burly fellow is merely our waiter, and there is no need to reach under your jacket, I assume to grasp your wallet, as we will pay him later, when we are done. Would you prefer regular tea, with milk and sugar, or green tea, or perhaps their more fragrant specialty, Kashmiri tea? Excellent choice. I will have the same, and perhaps a plate of jalebis as well. There. He has gone. I must admit, he is a rather intimidating chap. But irreproachably polite: you would have been surprised by the sweetness of his speech, if only you understood Urdu.
Where were we? Ah yes, Underwood Samson. On the day of my interview, I was uncharacteristically nervous. They had sent a single interviewer, and he received us in a room at the Nassau Inn, an ordinary room, mind you, not a suite; they knew we were sufficiently impressed already. When my turn came, I entered and found a man physically not unlike yourself; he, too, had the look of a seasoned army officer. Changez? he said, and I nodded, for that is indeed my name. Come on in and take a seat. His name was Jim, he told me, and I had precisely fifty minutes to convince him to offer me a job. Sell yourself, he said. What makes you special? I began with my transcript, pointing out that I was on track to graduate summa cum laude, that I had, as I have mentioned, yet to receive a single B. Im sure youre smart, he said, but none of the people Im talking to today has any Bs. This, for me, was an unsettling revelation. I told him that I was tenacious, that after injuring my knee I had made it through physiotherapy in half the time the doctors expected, and while I could no longer play varsity soccer, I could once again run a mile in less than six minutes. Thats good, he said, and for the first time it seemed to me I had made something of an impression on him, when he added, but what else?
I fell silent. I am, as you can see, normally quite happy to chat, but in that moment I did not know what to say. I watched him watch me, trying to understand what he was looking for. He glanced down at my résumé, which was lying between us on the table, and then back up again. His eyes were cold, a pale blue, and judgmental, not in the way that word is normally used, but in the sense of being professionally appraising, like a jewelers when he inspects out of curiosity a diamond he intends neither to buy nor to sell. Finally, after some time had passedit could not have been more than a minute, but it felt longerhe said, Tell me something. Where are you from?
Copyright © 2007 by Mohsin Hamid
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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