by Siddhartha Som
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I first met Sujit when we were in tenth grade. He had transferred from another school and would come and ask me dumb questions. At first I was annoyed, but I gradually got used to him. “Siddhartha, no smart student ever spoke to me as kindly as you do.” I decided he was just trying to cut into my small circle of friends, all of whom disliked him. Some of them said I only wanted to include him as my personal “coolie.” In fact, I never had that intention – he himself would volunteer to do my errands. I insisted he did not have to do anything special to please me, but he routinely told me how much he enjoyed doing for me. He brought food from his home that the others would not even look at. I felt bad and ate some of it to show my gratitude, but I told him not to overdue it so he did not place an added burden on his family.
Despite resistance from other members, I was able to bring him onto our class cricket team. He had quality pace in his bowling but was erratic and inaccurate. I showed him how to take off some pace and concentrate more on good line and length and attack the stumps. He was a good student of cricket and practiced my advice. He started playing for a local team as well in order to get more practice. As the season progressed, he got better and better. He never became my primary bowler, but he slowly became an excellent rotation bowler. Whenever my primary bowlers were unable to break a stalemate, I used to introduce him to manage the run rate and he did that very well.
As he got better in the field, our relationshiop also improved and he became more comfortable with the other players. In one match my usual strategy was not working and I could feel the game was getting away from us. I handed the ball to Sujit and told him I believed in him. In the very first over he was able to break the stalemate, and we eventually won the match. That evening he asked why I chose him to strike at that critical moment. I told him, “I know how hungry you are to prove yourself. I know what true motivation can accomplish.”
One day he asked if I would like to meet his sister. “My parents adore you. I know how happy they will be if you both get to know each other better. In fact, someday she can make an excellent wife for you. She is not dumb like me. She is very sweet, very kind, and she has an excellent sense of humor.” He always spoke that way. I explained to him why it wouldn't be fair for me to get involved with her, because after graduation I planned to go to America and possibly settle there. I wanted to keep all my my options open and not get tied down with anyone here. He never brought up the topic again, pretended as if it had never happened.
We all thought Sujit hung around us just to get some help with his studies. In fact, he never asked for any. We knew he was weak in English, but we did not know how bad he was. One day before the final exam he started taking about his preparation for the English second paper which contained a large essay part. He was so afraid of writing essays that he decided to memorize three of them in advance, one of which was called "Cows." While others laughed, I felt I had let him down. He saw me as his mentor, but I had not been looking after him properly. I told him that nobody would ask him to write an essay about cows.
After the exams, I asked how he did. He said he did well in the essay, writing about "The Influence of Rivers." Someone else aked how he had been able to pull it off. Sujit answered, “You see, I started the essay by saying that one afternoon we visited the banks of the river. There we saw a cow, and then the rest was easy.” Happily, no one laughed. We all knew how bad our educational system was and how little our teachers cared about the back bench.
He didn’t do well in the finals, but after his parents promised to provide special tutoring for him, the school principal allowed him to be promoted to senior year. But Sujit must have known he would never make it through the final Board exam. Before the Board we had to go through two pre-qualifying tests. He failed both. One day he told me point blank he was quitting school. I knew he would have to stay back a year and get more intensified tutoring to qualify for next year’s Board exam, but his decision to quit school altogether troubled me more than I could have anticipated. I tried to talk him out of quitting. I even spoke to his father. But he quit anyway.
Afterwards, he started avoiding me. I visited him at home, but his attitude was very different. He wanted to be left alone. Later, when I was in college and later graduate school, I sometimes met him at bus stops, in the market or in temple, but he each time he found an excuse to avoid me. I came to learn that he had taken over one of his father’s retail stores. I was happy for that, because I knew he was a good learner and would do well in business. Before leaving India, I visited his house once more to say goodbye. He was not there, but his parents told me he was settling down well in his business.
It was ten years before I returned to my home country. I planned to spend the first week in Calcutta, then move on to Bombay to take care of some personal business. During the drive from the airport, I kept asking my brother about friends and relatives I had not keep in touch with. Most of my schoolmates had resetlled in the US or Canada, but I had never heard anything from them about Sujit. My brother said he knew nothing about him.
Because of jetlag I was very tired and, after a short conversation with my parents, I went to bed. The next morning my father woke me early because, he said, an old friend was waiting to see me. As soon as I appeared, Sujit's eyes lit up and a big smile was all over his face. He told my brother to cancel the cab he had ordered. He, Sujit, was taking a week off from his business to drive me around in his own car. When I objected he insisted he would accept nothing less and promised to return shortly. Meanwhile, my father insisted that I visit my relatives before idoing anything else. I did not want to make him unhappy, so I agreed.
Sujit showed up right when he said he would and we began our journey. Since his car was not equipped with seatbelts, he would not let me sit in the front. For a while we chit-chatted about our kids, until we started to feel more comfortable with each other, like in the old days.
We followed the route laid out by my father and by evening had made a number of visits. Sujit insisted that I have dinner at his house. I never enjoyed going to other people’s houses, but in this case I simply could not say no. On the way there he dropped a bombshell: He said he had named his two kids after me – Siddhartha and Sujata. He went on to say, “Siddhartha, I admired you so much all my life that I could not think of more appropriate names for them.”
As he was pulling into his driveway, he told me he had made a number of cosmetic changes to the facade of the old family home, extending the second floor for his parents and replacing the old mango and guava trees in the backyard with a badminton court. Since his father's retirement Sujit had been running all the stores himself.
“I did not want to make the same mistakes for my kids as my parents made with me," he said, and as we sat down to dinner, he asked his son and daughter to speak to me in English. After we had conversed for a while he asked me how they were doing. I said, very well. “Siddhartha, I waited for this for so long,” he said with tears in his eyes.
Later he told me, “I needed God in my life, so I have joined a Gita reading society. I am not a very religious kind, but I needed a different way of life, a life that would help me keep my mind on God.” He said the age-old great Book had changed his life, his way of thinking and his view of all the other species. I told him I did not read the Gita, so I was not capable of carrying on a conversation about it. “Siddhartha, when you get a chance, please read this great book. People like you will get more out of this book than the rest of us. It will help you relate to God in a very meaningful way. I remember, you used to tell us we did not need an extra layer of religion between God and us. Today, I know the Gita is blessing me with similar teachings. No wonder this great book has been a shining light for the past five thousand years.
"I was so blessed to have a mentor like you. I always tell my children how you used to befriend those who were falling behind and needed a helping hand. Even in the cricket field, I saw how you demoted yourself to give others a better chance, while we all knew you were our best first-down batsman. And when we lost our opener, you would show up in your regular slot to anchor the innings. You were such a great captain, a great leader with a big heart.”
I was pretty uncomfortable with this line of talk, particularly in front of his family. I turned the topic back to our children and their schooling. His daughter Sujata said she wanted to be a doctor. “In this day and age I cannot believe that millions of people still die of TB. Doctors are unwilling to go to the villages, so people hardly get any meaningful treatment there. Once I become a doctor I will not only go to those villages, I will create a movement of awareness for others to follow.”
The boy was only four and was more playful. He said he wanted to be India’s cricket captain.
“My parents' being with us has been a tremendous help," Sujit said." Without them I don’t know how we would have raised Sujit and Siddhartha. Now that they are school age, my parents need their own life back. I am buying a condo for them in a retirement colony about thirty miles south of the city. This way we can still visit whenever we want, but they will be far enough away not to baby-sit anymore.”
His father said, “Siddhartha, I hope every Sujit has a Siddhartha as his mentor,” and broke down in tears. Then Sujit’s mother also started weeping. After so many years abroad, I was unused to this kind of emotional display. I told Sujit I was impressed by the way he was taking care of his parents. Then I confessed I had not done anything for my own parents since I had moved to the US.
But Sujit would have none of it. “That may be so, but I can bet that the people around you now are blessed. You have a way of motivating people and bringing out the best in everyone. Even if they don't say thank you, that will not deter you from your mission. It's just like what is happening in our politics. The politicians who can think are generally dishonest, while the honest ones are unable to think.
“Siddhartha, please do consider coming back to India one day. You will make an excellent people’s leader. Nobody has to do the thinking for you, and you will never forget the faceless.”
I was not used to this kind of praise. I told him that the sole purpose of my existence was to pay bills. As long as they are paid, I'm happy. But Sujit didn't want to hear that. He said, “Before it is too late, think of coming back to India. When you left India, I realize, you did not have many options. Now, with the US education under your belt, you will have many quality choices.”
It was getting late. My parents would be waiting anxiously for me. During the drive back home Sujit told me the next day we would be getting together with some old friends. At least that would be better than meeting more relatives.
He had arranged a luncheon at a South Indian restaurant, and I was very happy to see those old friends. Most of them were doing well. They told me the job market was not that bad anymore. They were not only able to get jobs, they were able to trade up to better deals as well. I had to fight with Sujit to pick up the tab.
Later we met with some other friends over a dinner show. They all showed up with their spouses, and this was a more formal event than the luncheon, and because of the show I could not engage them very much in conversation. Still, it was fun, and just the fact that they all showed up for me was touching.
For the next three days we went sight-seeing. I had had no clue there were such beautiful sights to see. I had always been fascinated by old architecture, so he took me to the oldest church and some magnificent Hindu and Sikh temples and some mosques.
My flight from Calcutta to Bombay was at five p.m., and we decided to spend my last day together in the city. As usual, my parents were crying, and I couldn't help wondering if this was to be our final goodbye in this life.
During my college and university days, I had spent five years at the College Square, so I wanted to have lunch at our old hangout to see how things had changed over the years. We walked around the square for a while and saw that everything was the same. By then we were hungry, so we headed for the old eatery, a small place where everyone was smoking--something I can no longer endure. I think Sujit had a feeling I would not fit in there anyway, though he did not say anything outright. He took me to a much nicer place down the block, his wife’s favorite. It carried some domestic wines, one of which he was particularly fond. I was pleasantly surprised.
After the first glass, he became emotional. “I always wondered, for old time’s sake, if we could spend a few days together like this. I am so happy you came and decided to spend some time with me. I wish I had listened to you and continued my studies. I should have at least finished high school. Now my kids are growing up and I wonder how they will feel once they come to know I did not even finish that much schooling. I feel so ashamed.”
I said, “You should not worry about it. You are doing everything right for them. You are also quite successful in your business. See, you have grown the family business from two stores to six stores, and each one is profitable. That’s a phenomenal success. Just look at me. After graduating from one of the better US business schools, I am just a civil servant.”
"But you had a choice, and you are working for the next generation. In a foreign country, one rarely reaches one’s full potential as an immigrant. I know how smart you are. But you will have to face your share of frustration. When it comes to promotions, perhaps, an American, much lesser qualified than you are, might get it. I remember you once told me why Karl Marx was wrong: Marx saw everything in terms of economic classes. He underestimated the power of human culture.”
He looked at his watch and gave a great sigh. “Siddhartha, it is three o'clock. We should start for the airport soon. I don’t want to get caught in the peak- hour traffic. I feel so sad. Do you think we will meet again? Tell me a story – about the saddest or toughest thing you have faced so far over there.”
I thought for a moment and said, “I am not sure I faced anything especially sad, but I had to deal with some tough challenges in the beginning. When I finished school I did not have any money. In fact, I was down to my last few dollars. I was staying with a family friend in suburban DC. They were very nice. They did not ask for any money. The gentleman used to work for the federal government. He used a car pool. So we would start out quite early, around six-thirty in the morning. By seven-thirty we were in downtown Washington. Most employment agencies did not open until nine, so I would sit in a park till then.
"It was a very cold winter. The temperature in the morning used to be in the low teens. When I got too cold, I would go to a McDonald’s for a cup of hot chocolate. But I was running out of money fast, so instead of going to McDonald’s I started saving my remaining dollars to buy candy for the kids where I was staying. I had a pair of cheap gloves, but the kids started playing with them and soon there were holes in them. Since I was out on the street all day, the cold used to come through the holes and give me severe pain in the fingers.
"One day it was so cold my fingers started to bleed. The pain was so bad I started crying. A homeless man was passing by. He stopped and murmured something about my not belonging in this kind of climate and that it would kill me.
"Meanwhile, my father and grandfather were bombarding me with letters asking me to return to India. They thought I was wasting my life. One morning I was sitting in the park and my fingers started bleeding. But this time I did not feel any pain, and I realized it was all in my mind. My mind was weak. All I had to do was overcome my weak mind. Amazingly, after that, the bleeding stopped and the pain went away.”
After I had finished the story, Sujit thought for a moment, then said, “The irony is, your kids will never know what it takes to be an immigrant in America, the land of opportunities.”
At the boarding ramp, he broke down again and I had trouble keeping my own voice steady. I could not bear to look at him anymore, even as we parted.
All during the flight back to America I kept wishing I had helped him more when we were in school together instead of treating him as an object of fun. He could at least have finished high school. It had been my challenge from God, and I had completely misunderstood and failed it.
But then I thought about his son and daughter and how proud they would make him, And I thought about Sujit himself, how content he seemed with his lot, especially when I considered how little I had achieved by comparison. And I wondered who was the more fortunate man, after all, as the customs officer at JFK International pushed some forms at me and told me to fill them out.
(Siddartha Som is the Director of Valuation Modeling of a large public agency in NYC area. While his profession entails developing econometric models, his hobby is writing fiction. He lives in Queens, NY with his family.)