Page 1

ADVERTISEMENT

Periodical

Friday, June 19, 2015 Vol. XLIV No.38

www.rediff.com (Nasdaq: REDF)

$1


M2

India Abroad June 19, 2015


PerioDiCAL

To subscribe 1-877-INDIA-ABROAD (1-877-463-4222) www.indiaabroad.com/subscribe

Friday, June 19, 2014 Vol. XLIV No.38

$1

www.rediff.com (Nasdaq: REDF)

International Weekly Newspaper

Chicago/Dallas

Los Angeles

NY/NJ/CT

New York

Vijay Seshadri

Manjul Bhargava PUBLISHER’S SPECIAL AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE

Pranav Shetty

Jay Verma

DOCTOR OF THE YEAR AWARD

Vivek Ranadivé BUSINESS VISIONARY OF THE YEAR

VIVEK MURTHY INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

Shelley and Donald Rubin FRIEND OF INDIA AWARD

Nina Davuluri Neha Gupta FACE OF THE FUTURE AWARD

Akhil Rekulapelli Ansun Sujoe Shubham Banerjee Sriram Hathwar SPECIAL AWARD FOR ACHIEVEMENT PARESH GANDHI

Presented by

ADVERTISEMENT


M4

India Abroad June 19, 2015


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M5

THE HEALER ‘I believe there is a great deal to be gained by pursuing a path of service in one’s career. Service is as much about action as it is about mindset.  Whether you are delivering health care, managing a hotel, working in a restaurant, or selling retail items, you can bring a spirit of service to the work you do.’ Vice Admiral Vivek H Murthy, Surgeon General of the United States of America, and the India Abroad Person of the Year, speaks to Aziz Haniffa.

Presented by

VIVEK H MURTHY

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 For being the highest-ranking Indian American in the Obama administration; for his dedication to public health; for being America’s Doctor.

PARESH GANDHI


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M6

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

The International Weekly Newspaper founded in 1970. Member, Audit Bureau of Circulation INDIA ABROAD (ISSN 0046 8932) is published every Friday by India Abroad Publications, Inc.* 42 Broadway, 18th floor, New York, NY 10004. Annual subscription in United States: $32. INTERNATIONAL: Digital edition ONLY outside US 1 Year $10, 2 Years $18 www.indiaabroad.com/us/subscribe.html Periodical postage paid, New York, NY and at additional mailing offices. Postmaster: Send address changes to: INDIA ABROAD, 42 Broadway 18th floor, New York, NY 10004 Copyright (c) 2006, India Abroad Publications, Inc. Ajit Balakrishnan Chairman and Publisher Nikhil Lakshman Editor-in-Chief Rajeev Bhambri Chief Operating Officer-US Media

THE EDITORIAL TEAM Aziz Haniffa, Editor Arthur J Pais, Editor, Features Vaihayasi Pande Daniel, Editorial Director, Features Monali Sarkar, News and Magazine Editor P Rajendran, Deputy Managing Editor Paresh Gandhi, Chief Photographer Ritu Jha, Special Correspondent Chaya Babu, Correspondent Parimal Mehta, System Manager Production: Dharmesh Chotalia, Production Supervisor David Richter, Production Controller, Editorial THE DESIGN TEAM Dominic Xavier, Creative Head Uttam Ghosh, Joint Creative Head Sanjay Sawant, Satish Bodas, Creative Directors Shailaja Nand Mishra, Senior Production Coordinator CONTACT EDITORIAL Call: 212-929-1727 Fax: 212-727-9730 E-mail: editorial@indiaabroad.com

THE BUSINESS TEAM DISPLAY ADVERTISING CONTACT THE DISPLAY ADVERTISING TEAM Toll free: 1-866-702-1950 Fax: 212-627-9503 E-mail:displayads@indiaabroad.com Geeta Singh Sales Executive CLASSIFIEDS WANT TO INSERT A CLASSIFIED/MATRIMONIAL AD? Call: 1-800-822-3532 Fax: 212-691-0873 E-mail: classified@indiaabroad.com Shahnaz Sheikh Classified Manager Sujatha Jilla Classified Assistant Manager CIRCULATION CONTACT THE CIRCULATION DEPARTMENT Call: 212-645-2369 Fax: 212-627-9503 E-mail: circulation@Indiaabroad.com Subscription toll free number: 1-877-INDIA-ABROAD (1-877-463-4222) Marketing & Business Development Anjali Maniam Associate Vice President, Marketing & Special Events THE INDIA BUSINESS TEAM Nikita Pai, Deputy Chief Manager. Call: 91-22-24449144, extension 320 REDIFF.COM EDITORIAL TEAM Saisuresh Sivaswamy, Senior Editorial Director. Sheela Bhatt, Senior Editorial Director, News Ivan Crasto, Editorial Director, Sports Shobha Warrier, Associate Editorial Director Prithviraj Hegde, Editor, News, Nandita Malik, Editor, Business Savera R Someshwar, Archana Masih, Syed Firdaus Ashraf, Managing Editors Rajesh Karkera, Joint Creative Head A Ganesh Nadar, Indrani Roy Mitra, Seema Pant, Ronjita Kulkarni, Swarupa Dutt, Associate Managing Editors Prasanna D Zore Deputy Managing Editor Rupali S Nimkar, Senior Assistant Managing Editor N V Reuben, Senior Art Director Uday Kuckian, Art Director Vipin Vijayan Chief News Editor Harish Kotian, Deputy Sports Editor Patcy Nair, Bikash Mohapatra, Chief Features Editors Abhishek Mande, Senior Associate Editor Gauri Ghadi, Senior Assistant Editor Sonil Dedhia, Principal Correspondent Mahipal Soni, Director, Operations (Editorial) Aslam Hunani, Joint Director, Operations (Editorial) Ashish Narsale, Associate Director, Operations (Editorial) Rajesh Alva, Manager, Operations (Editorial) Manisha Deshpande, Senior Visuals Coordinator Anant Salvi, Visuals Coordinator India Abroad Publications, Inc A subsidiary of Rediff.com India Ltd. Ajit Balakrishnan Chairman and Chief Executive Officer EDITORIAL & CORPORATE HEADQUARTERS 42 Broadway, 18th floor, New York, NY 10004 MAIN OFFICE: Call: 646-432-6000 Fax: 212-627-9503 Web site: indiaabroad.com

Vivek Murthy takes command as the 19th Surgeon General of the United States at a Commissioning and Change of Command ceremony in April. PARESH GANDHI

THE HEALER

D

ecember 15, 2014. That evening, at 6.14 pm, when United States Senator Jay Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia, cast his vote, it gave Dr Vivek Hallegere Murthy the 51st vote necessary to confirm him as the youngestever Surgeon General of the United States of America. It was a cliff-hanger of a vote — the final tally in the 37-year-old physician’s favor was 51 to 43. Not since the Indian-American community mobilized more than six years ago to push through the US-India civilian nuclear agreement in Congress has the community coalesced in such a concerted manner to demand an up or down vote by the Senate on President Obama’s nomination of Dr Murthy as the first Indian-American US Surgeon General, whose nomination had remained in limbo for over a year. This time around — unlike the nuke deal where the first generation in the community engaged in lobbying lawmakers to approve the US-India accord — the coalition that came together to press the Senate to confirm Murthy included not only this generation, but the second generation of desis and the mainstream community ranging from organized medicine to academics to Asian American groups to leading policy wonks who prevailed upon the Senate leadership in the nick of time — before they recessed for the year — to vote on the nomination, which they did 10 days before Christmas. The pro-Murthy coalition of forces mustered up the courage to defy the pro-gun lobby, the National Rifle Association that had threatened lawmakers not to vote for Murthy for his tweets decrying gun violence, following the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, which the NRA found offensive. As much as this coalition locked arms and walked lockstep in solidarity with Murthy calling for his confirmation, it was to the genial physician’s credit that he revealed unwavering grit and determination and fought for the position of American’s Doctor.

When things seemed almost hopeless, with lawmakers humming and hawing and making one excuse or another, and not bringing the nomination to a vote, and the White House talking about recalibrating its effort to push through the nomination, Murthy carried the fight to the opposition, meeting with Senators, community groups, and specialty organizations from the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin to the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, arguing why he was a perfect fit for the position. When he was confirmed, just before the Senate adjourned for the Christmas recess, the euphoria was palpable. Murthy and his supporters had taken on the seemingly invincible NRA and won, essentially by the power of their arguments. In addition to the intense and sustained lobbying by the Indian-American community, who flooded Senatorial offices with e-mails and phone calls in addition to meeting personally with several lawmakers, Murthy’s nomination was supported by over 100 public health and medical organizations including the American College of Physicians, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, the American Hospital Association, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association. Explaining why he did not request President Obama to pull his nomination when it lay in limbo for over a year and seemed highly unlikely to be taken up once the Republicans — who had regained the Senate in the November election — took control in January, Murthy said, “I was taught never to give up. I was taught to stand up for what I believe in,” and added, “I am also incredibly grateful for the support of President Obama and so many people and communities across the country who made my confirmation possible.” Dr Hallegere Murthy, speaking about why his son had refused to capitulate even when at one point it seemed hopeless, said, “More than the position, it was the cause, and this was very important to him. Whatever he said, it was the right cause for the community, not only for the 4M7 United States, but around the world.” “For saying the right thing, if someone has to


India Abroad June 19, 2015

M7


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M8

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M6 Vivek H Murthy be persecuted or punished, we cannot sit back and take it,” the senior Murthy said, and declared, “So that was the determination he had — to fight the wrongful action or the intent, rather than for the position.” Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois was the lone Republican who voted for Murthy, while three Democrats in conservative red states — apparently deathly afraid of the NRA, as are the GOP members beholden to it — Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitcamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana voted against the doctor. Also voting against Murthy was Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the founder and co-chair of the Senate India Caucus and other high profile Republicans like Senators John McCain — the first US lawmaker to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi — and Mitch McConnell, who took over from Senator Harry Reid as Senate Majority Leader in January. Preceding the vote, Senator Richard Durbin, the Illinois Democrat and the Majority Whip, took to the Senate floor and exhorted his colleagues not to capitulate to the pressure and the

threats from the NRA, which had warned that it would ‘score’ each and every Senator vis-à-vis their vote, essentially serving notice that if they voted for Murthy, they would be on its ‘hit-list’ in future political campaigns. ‘I know that the Indian-American community is very proud of Murthy’s accomplishments, as all of us should be,’ Senator Durbin said. ‘I hope my colleagues will join me in voting for this outstanding nominee to be our next Surgeon General. There’s a lot of work to do, and I can think

of no better doctor to do it.’ ‘Part of what is extraordinary,’ Senator Durbin said about Murthy — a Harvard and Yale-educated physician, then an attending physician at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor at the Harvard Medical School — ‘is that as well as treating his patients individually, he also thinks about the systemic issues affecting the health of his patients and strives to tackle those too.’ ‘He is a leading voice in public health, publishing his research on the participation of women and minorities in cancer clinical trials in top journals including Science, Journal of the American Medical Association and the Journal of the National Cancer Institute,’ Senator Durbin noted, adding ‘Murthy also co-founded and chairs Trial Networks, a software company that helps clinical researchers collaborate more effectively and efficiently with drug developers to speed up drug discovery.’ Senator Durbin said he was convinced that ‘Murthy understands 4M9 the importance of the national crises before

India Abroad Person of the Year

HONOR ROLL SWATI DANDEKAR (2002) Then Iowa Congresswoman SONAL SHAH (2003) Co-founder, Indicorps

MOHINI BHARDWAJ (2004) Captain, US Olympics Gymnastic Team & Olympic Silver Medalist BOBBY JINDAL (2005) Then United States Congressman INDRA NOOYI (2006) Chairman and CEO, PepsiCo MIRA NAIR (2007) Filmmaker

FAREED ZAKARIA (2008) Then Editor, Newsweek International & host, Fareed Zakaria GPS VENKATRAMAN RAMAKRISHNAN (2009) Nobel Laureate NIKKI HALEY (2010) Governor, South Carolina

PREET BHARARA (2011) US Attorney for the Southern District of New York AMI BERA (2012) US Congressman RAJ SHAH (2012) USAID Administrator

Vivek Murthy at an AAPI event. In addition to the intense and sustained lobbying by the Indian-American community, who flooded Senatorial offices with e-mails and phone calls in addition to meeting personally with several lawmakers, his nomination was supported by over 100 public health and medical organizations. PARESH GANDHI

SRI SRINIVASAN (2013) US Federal Judge


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M9

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M8 Vivek H Murthy him, and feels confident that his experiences, his training, and his tenacity have provided him the qualifications he needs to tackle these issues, and the many more he’s sure to face, head-on.’ ‘There’s a lot of work to do, and I can think of no better doctor to do it,’ he said. Murthy’s confirmation was hailed by antigun violence groups, with Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group co-founded by former US Congresswomen Gabby Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who was shot by a deranged gunman and nearly lost her life, and her husband, astronaut, Mark Kelly. Murthy’s confirmation was ‘long overdue,’ retired US Navy Captain Kelly, on behalf of the group, said in a statement. ‘Tonight, the United States Senate did the responsible thing: It stood up to the gun lobby, stood up for common sense, and voted to ensure that the United States has a qualified medical professional as its top doctor.’ Four months after he was confirmed by the Senate when Murthy was formally sworn in April 22 as US Surgeon General by Vice President Joe Biden at an elaborate ceremony with all of the pomp and pageantry replete with an honor guard and music ensemble, at Fort Myer in Virginia, there was plenty of reason to celebrate. Over 500 family, friends and supporters, including scores of Indian-American first and second generation community activists from across the country who prevailed on their respective Senators to confirm Murthy, were on hand for the investiture ceremony. There was a sense of triumph after the protracted and bruising battle with Biden remarking, ‘Thankfully, the people that held up the nomination don’t have to wait that long for a doctor’s appointment,’ which sent the audience into rapturous applause. Murthy in his remarks couldn’t resist the victory lap, when he said, ‘Even after being nominated for this job by a President I deeply admire, I almost didn’t get to be your Surgeon General,’ and then to loud cheers and whoops of joy accompanied by sustained applause, acknowledged, ‘Had it not been for so many of you in this room — and thousands of dedicated individuals that I have never even met — I would not be standing here. We got here by standing on principle.’ ‘But here’s the thing about standing on principle. You have to remain standing,’ he added. ‘After all, if my improbable journey to this podium demonstrates anything,’ Murthy said, ‘it’s that it took family and friends, teachers and coaches, employers and advocates, community leaders and elected officials to get us to this place. And that is the sort of coalition we must activate and expand in order to fulfill our mission.’ ‘Everyone in this arena — and those listening at home — are a part of the story we write next. Each of us has a part to play in building a stronger and healthier America,’ he added. If there is anyone in the community who is still unfamiliar with Murthy’s impeccable credentials and the gravitas he brings to the Office of Surgeon General, he graduated from Harvard magna cum laude in three years with a bachelor’s degree in bio-chemical sciences and then went

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has President Barack Obama’s attention at a discussion on the impacts of climate change on public health in Washington, DC in April. ANDREW HARRER-POOL/GETTY IMAGES

Much before becoming Surgeon General, Murthy had co-founded Epernicus Inc. He brings that experience as a techie to his new job. EPERNICUS.COM

on to receive an MD from the Yale School of Medicine and an MBA in health care management from the Yale School of Management. At the time he was nominated by President Obama, he was a practicing physician at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, as well as the hospitalist attending physician and instructor in medicine, Harvard Medical School.

Murthy was born in Huddersfield, United Kingdom, and was 3 years old when his family relocated to Miami, where his father set up a family practice. And who better to describe what he packed in just under four decades that would have taken others a lifetime and then some to achieve than Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell who at the inauguration gave Murthy the kind of endorsement one could only dream of. ‘Vivek,’ Burwell noted, ‘has built his career across sectors and across the world. Since he was a teenager, he has worked to bring health care to those who need it most and service his community.’ Burwell described him as ‘a visionary,’ and recalled how Murthy, ‘at the age of 18, founded Visions Worldwide with his sister, helping to promote HIV/AIDS education in the US and India.’ ‘He followed that up by founding the Swasthya Community Health Partnership to support rural health in India and help women there become health providers,’ the Secretary, HHS, added. ‘And that’s just before he graduated from college.’ He was, she pointed out, ‘an organizer — he founded Doctors for America and has helped promote access to quality, affordable care.’ So, is there any reason why Vice Admiral Vivek H Murthy, Surgeon General of the 4M10 United States, should not have been the India Abroad Person of the Year 2014, for doing us


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M10

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M9

you never for a moment gave a thought to requesting the President to pull your nomiVivek H Murthy nation, but fought hard for your confirmation, and, of course, there was the tons of support from several quarters, not the least all proud by being willing to fight and fight of which was the Indian-American commuhard and long for a position where he could nity. Why? tangibly manifest his desire to serve the I was taught never to give up — I was American people? taught to stand up for what I believe in. “He has a vision,” his mother Myetraie I am also incredibly grateful for the supMurthy said, “a bigger vision than the usual port of President Obama and so many peogoal of getting a good job and making a ple and communities across the country good living and stuff like that.” who made my confirmation possible. He has, she added, “a vision to do someAccording to your parents, friends and thing good for the people.” others, you’ve always been passionate about seva, beginning with the organization you It’s nearly six months since you were offifounded with your sister in your teen years cially confirmed as the first Indianto Visions Worldwide with Dr Nazleen American US Surgeon General. How has Bharwal and others, followed by, of course, the ride been thus far? Doctors for America. What has been the driving force behind this passion? My inspiration to serve came first from my parents. They dedicated themselves to serving patients, and their experiences became the window through which I realized how meaningful a career in health could be. They also poured countless hours into helping the community in other ways, including initiating and leading the effort to build a temple in Miami. As a young boy, I was sometimes frustrated by how much time they put into service because that meant I had to share my parents with so many other people. But as I got older, I realized how important their service was. When I was 17 my sister and I had an idea for building a program to address HIV/AIDS in India. My Vivek Murthy through the years. He speaks eloquently of the lessons of his upbringing parents were very encouraging — COURTESY: DR H MURTHY even though we were freshmen in college and they were worried about our studies. My parents have always led by example, and they have encouraged my sister and me to do the same. How much of an influence have your parents and others, both in your family and extended circle of friends and colleagues, had on both your professional career, as a physician and teacher at Harvard and also in your NGO work and public service? As I said in my swearing-in speech I am who I am because of my grandmother’s faith, my father’s strength, my mother’s love, my sister’s support and my fiancée’s unyielding belief in me. I just can’t begin to thank them enough for the sacrifices they have made during this journey. As I mentioned in my speech, the It has been an extraordinary journey. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve and am truly honored to be our nation’s Surgeon General. During these past few months, I have had the opportunity to meet people in small towns and big cities all across America, and they have shared with me their challenges and their ideas. Despite all the difficulties we face in terms of health, I am more encouraged than ever before by the energy and ideas I encounter across the country. It is this ingenuity that I believe will enable us to build a healthier and stronger nation. During the protracted Senate confirmation process, which took over a year, following your nomination by President Obama,

moment I decided to become a physician was when I was quite young and my father, who was a family practitioner in Miami, and my mother, who managed his clinic, woke my sister and me in the middle of the night and drove us to this trailer park where a patient who my father had been treating, who had been struggling with cancer, had passed away. My parents were so worried about his wife grieving alone and wanted to be there for her immediately after we heard the sad news. To them, they were not just patients, but friends. As I said in my speech, I will never forget seeing my mother in her sari holding Ruth as she cried on the front step of their home and even though their life paths were so different, yet at that moment they were family. As I said, not the kind of family that is chosen for you, but the kind you choose for yourself — all part of a community. And not only was that the moment I decided to become a physician, but learned from my father over those years and my mother who ran his clinic that being a doctor is not just about diagnosing and treating, but about building relationships and being part of a community. I can’t stress this enough — I would not be Surgeon General without my parents, sister, and my fiancée and all of my mentors, friends, and colleagues through the years. They are my most important anchors, and their countless sacrifices have made me the person I am today. Their generosity and humility continue to inspire me in the work that I do. How important do you believe public service is, particularly for an upwardly mobile and burgeoning community like the IndianAmerican community? How much are you impressed by this trend of your generation of Indian Americans — particularly by the numbers of them serving in the Obama administration, and previously in the Bush administration, and also in Congress, state and local legislatures, etc? I am thrilled to see more Indian Americans dedicating their lives to public service. The participation of minority communities in government is essential because in order to execute its role most effectively, the composition of our government must reflect the people it serves. Seeing more Latinos, African Americans, Asian-American/Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans run for office and serve in career and appointed positions in government gives me hope for the future. We need to continue to encourage public service engagement in all ethnic communities in our country. In this regard, I know like a 4M12 lot of your Indian-American public sector colleagues, you


India Abroad June 19, 2015

UJALA Foundation

congratulates India Abroad Award Winners Ujala is proud to contribute to the following organizations: Cornell University School of Engineering Drexel University School of Business Johns Hopkins School of Medicine The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Legal Aid of D.C. Philadelphia Zoo Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay And many more…

UJALA FOUNDATION “Investing in the future – youth, education, and health” RAJ L. GUPTA, Executive Director

M11


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M12

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M10 Vivek H Murthy may shy away from the label of role model. But what advice would you have for younger Indian Americans about the inherent value of public service and seva, if even only for a certain period of time in their professional and private sector careers, if not full-time? It can be tempting to think of seva as service to others. But it inevitably benefits the person performing the seva as well. My parents inspired my early service endeavors and those became extraordinary sources of personal growth. I learned new skills that helped me in my future work. I met inspiring people who pushed me to think about my life in a broader context. And I had the opportunity to see how gratifying it can be to contribute something positive to the lives of others. I believe there is a great deal to be gained by pursuing a path of service in one’s career. Lastly, service is as much about action as it is about mindset. Whether you are delivering health care, managing a hotel, working in a restaurant, or selling retail items, you can bring a spirit of service to the work you do. After you were officially confirmed in December, you virtually hit the ground running, traveling across the country to highlight the priorities of your agenda. Can you elaborate on your most important and urgent priorities? Besides fighting childhood obesity, tobacco use and endorsing strongly ACA, what are the other pressing objectives on your agenda that you would like the populace at large to be cognizant of? As I outlined in my speech, the key priorities besides

fighting for healthcare for all in the United States and also keeping up the fight against the rising tide of diabetes, heart disease and cancer and also the campaign to keep America tobacco-free and drug-free, others include the issues of mental illness, drug-abuse, urging vaccinations for preventable diseases and getting out the correct information, because the Surgeon General’s mandate is communicating the best available scientific information to the public regarding ways to improve personal and public health. Besides losing nearly half-a-million people to tobaccorelated disease, 42 million people in our country struggle with mental illness. Heroin and prescription drug abuse ravage towns across America. Diseases that are preventable with vaccine use, which we had thought had been contained or eliminated, have come back with a vengeance because of fear and misinformation. Also, as I said, health equity is a civil rights issue and it’s unacceptable that who you are, where you come from and whom you love plays too big a role in determining your health, as does being poor, which is too great a factor — which affects one in five children — in determining who is healthy and who is not. This is unacceptable in a great nation as ours. So, for all this, as I outlined in my swearing in speech, we have to eliminate the roadblocks that prevent us from achieving our best health. To this end we have to combat misinformation and give people the most accurate information so that they can make the best decisions for their own health. We have to move from a culture of treatment to prevention and changing behaviors that keep us from our best health. You are not only a physician but also a techie of sorts, hav-

From left,Vivek Murthy’s role as Surgeon General has taken him to Ebola-hit Liberia where he met Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and US Ambassador to Liberia Deborah R Malac to discuss efforts to help strengthen local health-care capacity. TWITTER.COM/SURGEON_GENERAL

ing started your own technology company. In this regard, how do you intend to bring this expertise and exponentially evolving technology developments as a catalyst to your work and in helping to foster your priorities? When used thoughtfully, technology can help us share knowledge and strengthen a sense of community and personal connection. As part of my goal to modernize the office of the Surgeon General, I am working to add new tools to our arsenal that will allow us to build bidirectional communication channels with the public. I also plan to work with entrepreneurs to explore how technology can help us create a prevention based society by addressing the social determinants of health. After your formal swearing in by Vice President Biden at the very elaborate ceremony at Fort Myer in April, you left the next week for Liberia. Can you describe your visit and your evaluation of the Ebola crisis and if you are confident that the Ebola virus has been effectively contained? In this context, what’s going to be your plan of action from your bully pulpit to keep the momentum going to eliminate this virus? It was an honor to go there to decommission the Monrovia Medical Unit, where healthcare workers infected in Liberia were cared for by the brave men and women of the Commissioned Corps of the US Public Health Service — part of what they do every day. More than 6,700 men and women in over 800 locations around the world. For nearly six months, these brave Americans treated health care workers who may have become infected with the Ebola virus while responding to the current outbreak. That was their mission at the Monrovia Medical Unit. I had the privilege of meeting members of ‘Team Four,’ the last team of Commissioned Corps officers to staff the MMU. I joined them in Monrovia as we transitioned equipment and resources from the MMU to the government of Liberia. I was also fortunate to have met Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and US Ambassador Deborah Malac. President Sirleaf told me about how having our public health officers stand up and manage the MMU was a critical signal to international relief workers that the US would care for them if they got sick. I heard this echoed by numerous international organizations as well and how our presence in Liberia bolstered global confidence in the effort and spurred a number of countries to send volunteers to assist with the Ebola response throughout West Africa. But our role in Liberia is about more than dealing with the crisis in front of us. It is also about building and expanding the capacity of Liberian health care workers, ensuring that they would not only be better equipped to fight Ebola, but that they would be able to address the health care needs of their people going forward. The MMU has become a ‘force multiplier,’ creating a positive dynamic that should benefit the region for years to come. Over the past six months, a rotation of four teams of Commissioned Corps officers were deployed away from their families and their homes to provide lifesaving care for people they’d never met before… Several officers told me it was a privilege for them to serve in this critical mission. On the last day of my trip, I joined President Sirleaf, Ambassador Malac and Commissioned Corps officers to hand over the resources of the MMU to the government of Liberia. This is not just about Ebola. It’s about the next epidemic and the one after that. I look forward to the ‘Magic Day’— as President Sirleaf calls it — when Liberia will be declared Ebola-free. n


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M13

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘He had a big vision and this is probably one step’

An emotional moment for the Murthy family at Vivek Murthy’s Commissioning and Change of Command ceremony as Vice President Joe Biden watches. Inset, when the VP kneeled down to speak with the new Surgeon General’s grandmother. PARESH GANDHI and TWITTER.COM/SURGEON_GENERAL

Myetraie Murthy Mother

I

am very happy. Of course, all of us are very happy, but mainly for him because he had this vision and it is beautiful to see this vision culminate into reality. I think Vivek and Rashmi’s inclination to public service is partly due to environment in the house. They would see everybody doing the same thing and it inspires them to do community work. And, besides, they were very compassionate by nature. So, that helps. With me, I never saw Vivek as a very quiet kid — he was not mischievous, but he was always full of energy and bounce and fun. He was very focused. As a young kid, when we used to come back from school — when I used to pick them up 4M15

‘Vivek was always very vibrant and affectionate with us’ Dr Hallegere Murthy Father

I

never thought it will come to this level of success, but I did know this is the land where the ability of the individual is recognized. Before I was at the University of Miami — and I was in England, and Canada and different parts of the world — if I had to ask a question in medical meetings, because I spoke differently, my accent is different, even to recognize the question I had to struggle. Here, when I was at the University of Miami, when I was in a meeting — one of the continuing education meetings — when I was asking the questions, my professor would recognize me and say, ‘Hey, Dr Murthy has some important issues to men-

tion, let us discuss that.’ That is when it first struck me that my views also have some value and respect, which I did not know in other countries. This is the land of opportunity not only for financial reasons, but it is also the land of opportunity for recognition for values, and this (Vivek’s nomination and confirmation) is one of the examples of how individual hard work and values of the individual has been given recognition. They don’t want to put the person’s ability away in the service of the community just because he belonged to some other country. Volunteering here and in India during trips back to the country initiated the opportunity for Vivek and Rashmi to see what kind of pleasure they can get through service.

In fact, my father used to do the same. During the rainy season he would do cultivation, and during the dry season — when there is no work in the land — he would go from village to village raising funds to build a students hostel. So, I knew the pleasure of doing that. I used to also do that in India. When I came here, I did similar social activities, children’s play activities, holiday activities — that kind of thing. Then I got involved with building a temple in Miami and through that the children got involved and enjoyed service. I used to organize, once a year, an event to feed the homeless. We would prepare about 1,500 lunches of about 2,000 calories (each). We would go there in morning and get all the volunteers — students, chil-

dren — to do everything from serving to washing the dishes. We gave them many opportunities to experience the joys of service. In addition to good grades, they had creative ideas, and we would support them. When they started an HIV/AIDS education program, we supported them. They were first doing it internally in Miami from school to school. When they thought of going outside, they thought it would be a good opportunity to go to India — they had heard the forecast that it would become the AIDS capital. We supported all of that through fundrais- 4M15 ing, motivating the community


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M14

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘He believes in the possibilities of what can be done’ Dr Alice Tzu-ying Chen Fiancée

V

ivek and I were at Yale for three years together, but we didn’t know each other then. I was doing my undergraduate degree in biology from 1997 to 2001 and he was in medical school. We have some friends in common and we might have been at the same parties together. But we basically didn’t know each other. We first met in 2008 (by then she had completed her medical degree from Cornell University and her internal medicine residency from University of California, Los Angeles) when Vivek had started the organization that became Doctors for America, and I signed a petition in support of the organization. He started it in Boston and I was in Los Angeles. We got to know each other in building DFA together. We started working together, and in this day and age with technology over e-mails and texts and Skype and phone calls, we got to know each other better and better over time. We had a long-distance relationship for six years. I am now the Executive Director of DFA for the last four years and run it from DC and I work from DC and LA, and we are mainly advocating on issues of concerns

for patients. I saw how genuine he was, and how much of a world vision he had to make the world better, and how he could get a whole room full of people excited about the possibilities of what they could do to make the world better for other people. I always found him believing in the possibilities of what could be done. He believes very much in what he says and he promoted that and people are attracted to that. When things were tough (during the year after his nomination by President Barack Obama and his confirmation by the Senate hung in limbo), I was amazed by his steely toughness and determination. When things were tough, we would think about what he could do as Surgeon General and how much work had to be done to help the health of the nation. Of course, he was lucky to have so many groups of people who came together to fight for the confirmation. n Dr Alice Chen is Executive Director, Doctors for America, which Dr Vivek H Murthy co-founded. She is also a practicing internal medicine hospitalist and Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. Chen and Murthy will wed August 21 in Sonoma, California. She spoke to Aziz Haniffa.

Vivek Murthy and Alice Chen got engaged in New Haven, Connecticut.

‘We were both reclusive together’

With just 13 months separating Rashmi Murthy and her brother Vivek, the siblings are as close as twins. COURTESY: DR H MURTHY

Dr Rashmi Murthy Sister

W

e’ve always had a great relationship; we’ve always felt close to each other. Vivek is not much younger, just 13 months. We had a great relationship growing up. We had the usual sibling fights, but I can’t count more than a year or two of discord. We really got along pretty well. We were in the same grade from 1st grade onwards. So, we were almost like twins. I guess we were both nerds, we were both reclusive together. Both of us were shy as kids... So, both of us, growing up, spent a lot of time together. For both of us, our parents had always lived with community service and we had always participated, either in temple activities, or my dad was always working with the temple to organize some feedings. So, we were always doing something that was socially service-oriented. One summer, we had gone to India and met a lady by the name of Dr Latha Jaganathan and she was doing some of work on her own to fight HIV/AIDS, by herself with one nurse. She would go into schools, and do a little education here and there. But it was a very small effort and we went with her and joined up with her one summer and then we

decided, from that year on, to try something different and get some funding and make it into a larger project. Our meeting with Dr Jaganathan was on a family trip, but after that everything was independent. Every summer, we would go to India and different schools in Bangalore, meet with the principals and convince them. We were in high school then — senior high. This was part of the same thing (the service oriented work they had been doing as kids). Today (with Vivek being sworn in as Surgeon General), it’s a mix of emotions. It’s hard to describe and hard to put into specific words. It’s surprising and surreal, but at the same time, not surprising that he is where he is. He has always been someone who has valued honesty, hard work, compassion in other people and has demonstrated the same in his life. Today, was just beyond words for us. We are immensely proud of him. And he’s not as serious as he looks sometimes — he has a very fun-loving, playful, mischievous side. I’ll just say that if he knows you well, and you are a friend of his — he’s good with nicknames — he’s probably already coined a nickname for you. n Dr Rashmi Murthy is a Florida-based family practice physician. She spoke to Aziz Haniffa.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M15

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘He can definitely contribute substantially to health and human services in the US’

Mother and son in a 1994 snapshot from the family album.

Tumaiya Settihalgere Uncle

H

e achieved this level of success through his hard work and dedication and selfless sacrifice. I remember, when he was at Yale University, he used to get some funding for summer activities, and on one occasion he went to India — Yale had sent him to do some research and they had given him some money. Although he was a student, he donated a substantial sum of that allowance to people in India to proDr Vivek Murthy takes a stand in a mote his vision and activicampaign against smoking. He has ties. That was the level of also begun a campaign for his selflessness when he was vaccinating children. a student at Yale. TWITTER.COM/SURGEON_GENERAL With regards to his human dynamics and relationships, I remember when he would come to New Jersey during some summers and breaks when he was a kid. On one occasion we were at a gym; it was his first day there and within minutes he developed a rapport with them. They shared information with him as if he was going to come back again. When we were ready to leave they were all sad to see him go. That was the level of his interactions. He is very much a people person. He is very simple. He can go to the lowest level of comfort — he doesn’t expect or need any comforts. Vivek was a very voracious and dedicated student. Even I wouldn’t study beyond 10 pm or 11 pm, but if there was an exam, he would study all night. He would prepare with focus and determination and without sleep. He is very determined. He has a lot of resilience and a lot of patience. He hardly loses patience. It (when Dr Murthy was sworn in as Surgeon General) was a touching monument to his hard work. I think he can definitely deliver and contribute substantially to health and human services in the US. Although he may be young (Dr Murthy is the youngest surgeon general in American history and it was a point that some critics had brought up), his commitment and dedication and maturity in conduct and action is what matters. He is the best. It’s a gift. He’s a very selfless guy, he will do his best. He has the qualifications, talent, commitment and perseverance and when you have that experience, age has no consequence. n Tumaiya Settihalgere, a New Jersey-based attorney, is the younger brother of Dr Vivek H Murthy’s dad. He spoke to Aziz Haniffa.

COURTESY: DR H MURTHY

3M13

Myetraie Murthy — he would basically finish his homework as fast as possible and then would do other things. We would play games together, do puzzles together, watch movies together. He was like every other kid. I had a feeling both my children would become physicians. I think it was partly their own nature and partly what they saw around the house (in terms of their father’s influence as a physician, who put the needs of patients first and would also make house calls). He had a vision, I could sense that from high school onwards. He had a bigger vision than the usual goal of getting a good job and making a good living and stuff like that. There was a time all his colleagues were making good amounts of money and he was not so focused

3M13

Dr Hallegere Murthy members to finance it. They would also do fundraising themselves. Vivek was always very vibrant and affectionate with us. But with others he was initially shy. I still remember in elementary school when I saw he was not interacting with children; I was actually concerned that he was standing by himself. But we did not make an issue out of it. We didn’t want him to be uncomfortable. But gradually, he became very popular in the school because he would have a lot of ideas and because of his ideas the children would flock around him and my daughter.

on that side. When I asked him about that that, he said, ‘I have a vision to do something good for the people at large, so that part comes secondary.’ (When the Senate did not take up Vivek Murthy’s nomination and debate his confirmation) they were pretty tough months. But the family as a whole, stayed together and supported him. And he is very goal-oriented — if he makes up his mind and he wants to achieve something, he tries his best to do that. I don’t know about this being the ultimate American Dream; he had a big vision and this is probably one step. Probably, this is the only country, where people have an opportunity to do something, and not be limited by many things that we are in other countries. n Myetraie Murthy has managed her husband's medical clinic from day one. She spoke to Aziz Haniffa.

I wouldn’t say it’s (Vivek becoming Surgeon General) the ultimate American Dream — but it’s a significant American Dream. I feel happy, excited and overwhelmed to see all the support from the people who have come to wish him well and participate in the occasion. More than the position, it was the cause, and this was very important for him. Whatever he had said (referring to Vivek Murthy’s remarks about gun control, which put his confirmation process at risk) it was the right cause for the community, not only for the United States but around the world. For saying the right thing, if someone has to be persecuted or punished, we cannot sit back and take it. So, that was the determination he had — to fight

the wrongful action or the intent, rather than for the position. (And taking on critics who believed his son was too young for the job) Maturity of mind and willingness to serve is a more important criteria than youth. You can be 70 years old without new ideas. Age does not dictate what abilities we have. It is the work and the performance and the history of the person, which should be given an opportunity. n Dr Hallegere Murthy is an alumnus of Mysore Medical College who came to the US in 1980, via England and Canada. He landed in Miami and never relocated, establishing his family practice and living there for the past three-and-a-half decades He spoke to Aziz Haniffa


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M16

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘The trajectory of my life changed when I met Vivek’ Mona Mangat Friend and fellow doctor with a vision

I

am the child of Indian immigrants. I grew up with tales of my parent’s arrival in this country with nothing but $10 in their pocket and a dream in their hearts. I grew up with a sense of what family means. I struggled with navigating a cultural war between Indian and American values. I inherently knew what expectations had been placed on me. I followed the path and by the time I met Vivek I had graduated from an accelerated BS/MD program, completed a residency and fellowship, married a fellow Indian American and had three beautiful children. I know my family was proud of me but there was a yearning in my heart; one that told me I could do more than what I was doing. I had a sense that my voice could make a difference in the world. Vivek and I grew up in similar circumstances — children of Indian immigrants making our way through this cultural mash up. Yet our paths diverged early on. While I

Shalini Pammal, Mentee, supporter and a leader at Doctors for America

D

was taking the path well-worn Vivek was creating a non-profit to help educate young Indians about HIV/AIDS. He didn’t stop there. His list of accomplishments is long — two more non-profits focused on global health, an MBA, and a tech start-up company. And now he is our first IndianAmerican Surgeon General. We met during the very early days of Doctors for America, a national organization of more than 16,000 physicians and medical students in all 50 states working together to improve the health of the nation. In DFA, I found a home and a vessel for my passion to actively make the world a better place. From the first time we met I knew that Vivek was destined for great things. I have a few very distinct memories of Vivek. Over five years ago he gave one of the first public speeches I’ve heard him give. I was moved to tears in ways that only Dr Martin Luther King, Jr and perhaps President John F Kennedy have moved me. His passion for people is conveyed in every speech he gives. The other memory is during a bus tour

we took through the southern United States. I will not easily forget Vivek (and DFA’s Executive Director Alice Chen) maneuvering a very large RV through the city streets of Tampa, Atlanta, Columbia, Charlotte and many smaller cities. Our 12day journey started at my home in Florida. My husband made a wonderful meal for the group of 15, 20 people and the night ended with Vivek helping us wash the dishes. While it is unusual for an Indian male to do dishes it is also unusual for a guest in your home to do them. This anecdote illustrates a humility that is a core value of his. It is seen in his parents and sister as well and serves as a testament to the wonderful family he was raised in. It has been said that ‘It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels (St Augustine).’ Vivek has accomplished more than most his age and has done so without arrogance and with great humility. Today, I serve as the board chairperson of DFA. The trajectory of my life changed when I met Vivek, and because of the organization he co-founded, DFA, I left the

well-worn path and stood beside Vivek and thousands of other doctors across the county as we learned that there is power in our collective voices. I have learned to see most challenges as opportunities. I rose to a position of leadership within DFA because he believed in me and saw qualities in me that I barely knew I had. I only wonder what path would I have chosen had I met Vivek 10 years earlier? I consider Vivek a mentor, a dear friend, a leader, a colleague and the brother I never had. He is Uncle Vivek to my children. My heart swells with pride as I watch the tremendous work he has begun to do as Surgeon General. He inspires a generation of Indian Americans to think about taking the path less traveled. I am honored to have worked with Vivek and know what a privilege it is to call him a friend. n Dr Mona Vishin Mangat has been active with Doctors for America, co-founded by Dr Vivek Murthy, since its inception and now serves as the Board Chair. She also practices allergy & immunology in Florida. She resides there with her husband and four children.

‘Remarkable ability to enable others’

His unshakable faith and perpetual optimism r Vivek Murthy garnered the attention of have inspired so many others in the health-care a nation in a historic confirmation field, including myself. process to be the 19th Surgeon General. Even when it seems that the challenges are too The entire nation heard the story of an great, Vivek shared with me that he believes in hope extraordinarily dedicated physician from humble as a sustaining force, to carry us forward into a roots, with stellar academic credentials and an brighter future. Despite formidable odds, I carried exceptional aptitude for coalition building. this same lesson with me to help build the moveHis countless accomplishments — from founding ment that fought for him to fulfill the position in a successful software technology company, to buildwhich he was always meant to serve — as America’s ing a national, grassroots medical organization — Top Doctor. portray Murthy as the brilliant leader, educator and I know he will work toward fulfilling his vision of innovator that he is. the great American community, with his skillful What I have found even more captivating in the ability to listen, innovate and unite others in a years I have known him are the myriad stories peoshared goal toward that end. I look forward to seeple have to share about Vivek as a mentor and ing so many others benefit from the depth of his friend. These personal stories formed the substance compassion and his dedication to the well-being of of a unique movement, comprised of medical and As president of Doctors for America Vivek Murthy was outspoken every American. public health professionals, progressive groups and His tenure as the 19th Surgeon General of the the South Asian Diaspora, to confirm the nation’s first about the health-care reform bill. DRSFORAMERICA United States will surely be one marked by extraordiIndian-American Surgeon General. nary impact — like the historic nomination that preceded it change and bring people into the folds of a movement. Nearly five years ago, I remember walking into the — and I am so humbled to support him as I move forward Following our first conversation, I quickly became Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston one evening to in my own work to create the equitable, value-based healthinvolved in Doctors for America, as a pre-medical advocate meet with Vivek. He was a pre-medical adviser for Harvard care system our nation deserves. n in various campaigns for affordable, quality health care. College undergraduates, and I was a bright-eyed college Vivek enabled me to discover a passion to heal an imperfect junior, yearning for mentorship. Shalini Pammal graduated with a Bachelor’s in Arts from health-care system that eventually led me to pursue a masAs I rattled on about my background, my professional Harvard College in 2013 and did her master’s at the Johns ter’s degree in health policy and management. interests, and everything in between, I distinctly remember Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, focusing on What I remember most about all our conversations is how sincerely Vivek listened to me. His profound ability to health policy and management. She has held leadership how invigorating his spirit and energy were in fueling my listen and to make everyone he interacts with feel heard roles in Doctors for America and the Stand with Vivek own dedication to public health and public service. Even struck me as one of his most admirable qualities. campaign to confirm Dr Vivek Murthy for Surgeon General. after long days in the hospital, Vivek would always make This quality is only surpassed by his remarkable ability to time to talk with me. enable others to find their own voice as advocates for


India Abroad June 19, 2015

M17


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M18

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘He invests in relationships as the currency of his success’ Dave Chokshi Mentee

‘I

was never supposed to be the guy giving speeches in rooms like this… (but) throughout my life, I was fortunate to have had teachers and mentors who were able to see something in me before I was able to see it in myself. And that has made all the difference.’ Dr Vivek Murthy spoke these words upon assuming command as the 19th Surgeon General of the United States. For those of us who know Vivek, it was typically humble — and the rest of his address channeled the sincerity and soaring vision that he pairs inimitably. Yet it also seemed, in a sense, inverted, because he’s precisely the guy we want giving those speeches, and there are so many of us he has taught and mentored. As my supervising physician when I was a resident, Vivek taught me how to know when to slow down within the frenetic pace of the hospital; to center myself to become a better doctor for my patients. As a co-founder of Doctors for America, he showed the simple power of direct advocacy, contributing to a movement that brought health care reform in the United States. And through a turbulent confirmation process, Vivek demonstrated grace and resolve, even when the odds were long. There are other things I have learned from Vivek, as much personal as professional. He invests in relationships as the currency of his success. He has an uncanny ability to know what makes you tick, and to speak to that part of you. And he has an insatiable curiosity about people’s stories, which makes him a great doctor and a generous friend. We live in an unprecedented time of change and opportunity in global health. Leaders must shape a public health vision around scientific advances and new ways to engage people and communities. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is that kind of leader. n Dr Dave Chokshi is Assistant Vice President, NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation. He is also Assistant Professor, Population Health and Medicine, NYU Langone Medicine Center. He trained in internal medicine at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, supervised by Dr Vivek Murthy. During his training, he did clinical work in Guatemala, Peru, Botswana, Ghana, and India.

Vivek Murthy, third from right, with family and friends when he graduated from Harvard. COURTESY: DR H MURTHY

‘Early on, I knew that Vivek was destined for greatness’ Akilesh Palanisamy Friend

V

ivek Murthy has been my best friend for the past 20 years. We have been fortunate to maintain a very close personal and professional relationship over this time. When we met in 1994 at Harvard University, I was struck by his warm personality, thoughtfulness and precocious wisdom. As we became roommates, I grew to love his kind and caring nature, his wit, and his sense of humor. His loyalty and devotion to his friends and family impressed me deeply. We worked together on problem sets, studied together, and would often stay up all night talking about every topic imaginable. Early on, I knew that Vivek was destined for greatness. His desire to make a difference, perseverance, and commitment to service were inspiring. He had a rare ability to combine lofty vision with practical attention to detail. His capacity to push himself and work tirelessly was incredible. I sincerely hoped that he would be able to achieve the goals that he had and fulfill his dreams. Over the years, I watched as Vivek built up exceptional credentials as a physician, public health expert and entrepreneur. I am so happy to see these culminate in his current position as Surgeon General. In terms of personal qualities, Vivek is truly exemplary in every way. Throughout the past two decades, I have deeply admired his integrity, intelligence and character. But what has always impressed me the most is his genuine compassion for others – even strangers. To illustrate, let me describe an incident that occurred

several years ago. The cable repairman was over fixing the television at Vivek’s apartment. It was almost 2 pm. Vivek and I had been busy all day and had skipped lunch. As is his habit, Vivek struck up a conversation with the technician, asking him how his day was going, etc. He found out that the technician was having a very busy day and had skipped lunch. Even though Vivek had not had lunch, he went to the kitchen and made a sandwich for the repairman. Naturally, the technician insisted that he could not accept it, but eventually, because of Vivek’s persistence, he did — and he was so grateful. To me, this small incident was revealing because it demonstrated Vivek’s kindness and compassion, and his willingness to put other people before himself. When nobody is watching and there is no secondary gain to be had, one’s true nature usually comes through. I have seen it so many times before, but never fail to be impressed by the depth of Vivek’s concern for others. I have never met someone with so much integrity and such a fierce desire to help others and genuinely work to make the world a better place. I cannot think of anyone who is more qualified to serve as our Surgeon General. I hope that he has a long and successful tenure in this position and know that he will have a significant impact on the health of our nation and our world. n Dr Akilesh Palanisamy is a family medicine and integrative medicine physician at Sutter Pacific Medical Foundation in California. Though he and Dr Vivek Murthy went to different medical schools after their time at Harvard University, they have remained the best of friends over the last two decades.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M19

THE GENIUS There’s something about Manjul Bhargava that endears him to people who meet him. And it is never just that he has won the Fields Medal, the top prize given to a mathematician, or a host of other honors. P Rajendran discovers why in this conversation with one of the finest mathematicians in a long time and winner of the India Abroad Publisher’s Special Award for Excellence.

Presented by

MANJUL

BHARGAVA

INDIA ABROAD PUBLISHER’S SPECIAL AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE 2014

For his unique brilliance; for being a mathematical genius; for winning one of the world’s most prized medals.

DOMINIC XAVIER


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M20

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

T

here’s something about Manjul Bhargava that endears him to people who meet him. It could be that he has solved a lot of very difficult problems in mathematics. Or that his work is marked by a breathtaking blend of experience and a child-like willingness to experiment. That he knows magic and music and tennis and used them in his classes. That he is willing to play undignified games like Assassins with students — the kind that gets him squirted in the eye by a dastardly teaching assistant. It could be that he is passionate about the historical achievements of India, the country his family hails from, while never being reduced to jingoism. Or that he is willing to do much to promote education there. Perchance it is that he is such an advocate of the pure sciences, and not just the products of its applications. Or it could just be that he is just a very decent man, instead of someone who could easily get away with arrogance and pomposity. Whatever it is that people find nice about Dr Bhargava, it is never just that he has won the Fields Medal, the top prize given to a mathematician, that he has won the Clay Research Award, the undergraduate-level Morgan Prize or a host of other honors. While Dr Bhargava is one of the finest mathematicians in a long time, there is clearly more to him that that. Born in Canada and brought up on Long Island, Dr Bhargava was restless as a child but changed Manjul Bhargava accepts the 2014 Fields Medal, the top prize given to a mathematician. markedly as he grew up. As his mother Mira ICM2014.ORG Bhargava put it, ‘He’s so mature, cool, collected, When conferred the prize by the International Congress sober, serene. His mischief transformed into a good sense of of the International Mathematical Union last year, Dr humor. So it’s just a different person…’ Bhargava — as he had promised the attending undergraduBut even when he was a child, Manjul was mathematicalate students — gave a talk that was easier to understand ly minded. Quick with shape-sorting, by three he had develthan the laudation describing what he did to deserve it. And Fermat’s famous Last Theorem) and mentor Peter Sarnak oped a finger-based complex counting system, the details of perhaps because it was held in Seoul — a math-friendly discouraged him from taking such a difficult problem as which he would not tell his mother, who is also a mathenation — so many of the grateful students mobbed him that Carl Gauss’s law from the early 17th century for the compomatician and teaches at Hofstra University. But he hated he had to inch his way through the delighted crowd under sition of binary quadratic forms. Realizing that the law, school and avoided classes, opting to sit in his mother’s the protection of a security detail, even leaving his family though algebraic in form, has a geometrical dimension, office and write stories instead. He has admitted that he behind, just so he could get back to his room. Dr Bhargava, who has this penchant for playing with toys, hated the way math was taught in school. And yet, her When he was merely popular a few years ago, according was fiddling with a 2x2x2 Rubik’s Cube and wondered what undergraduate students went to her ninth-grade son for to Professor Sarnak, ‘His students think he is the greatest would happen if he decided to see his problem in three help with their math problems. thing that walked this earth’ — it was about all right. But dimensions, working with numbers at the corners of the Throughout, he was strongly influenced by India, visiting global fame has come with its disadvantages. Rubik Cube. He also had the advantage of reading Gauss’s it often. His maternal grandfather Purushottam Lal Dr Bhargava was busy before winning the Fields Medal, original text, shorn of the complex dross that accreted Bhargava taught him Sanskrit while he studied the tabla which is given only every four years and often attracts more around it in the intervening centuries. under such experts as Prem Prakash Sharma and Ustad respect among academicians than the Nobel Prizes, selecOf course, being Manjul, he had also read in Sanskrit an Zakir Hussain. tion for the latter having possible political overtones too. ancestral version of the same idea, put together by matheMeanwhile, he also read Sanskrit treatises, among which But the immense prestige, his teaching assignments, his matician Brahmagupta of Ujjain, India, in the seventh cenhe found such ‘modern’ ideas as the Fibonacci sequence research work, his wish to use his fame to promote educatury AD. (the older, the Indian mathematician and grammarian who tion in the pure sciences, his obliging nature — and perhaps Whatever helped him, Manjul, still a graduate student, worked on it being Hemachandra, born circa 1088 BCE) or his desire to try and answer all his mails perhad an elegant solution to the problem, one that the combinatorial discoveries of one Pingala, who worked sonally — give him little time alone. addressed in a few lines what had taken the redoubtable on prosody a few centuries before the Common Era began). In a conversation with India Abroad, Manjul Gauss 20 pages to prove. The result was 14 new Gauss The tabla has been very useful to him when he wants to Bhargava discusses what his work means, his composition laws. teach students the mathematical possibilities latent in interests and his future plans. As Professor Sarnak described it, Princeton did not want musical beats. him to go — which is why, at 28, after having done a stint at More recently, he has been using clever magic tricks to How does it feel a year after winning the Fields Princeton’s own Institute of Advanced Study and at bring math alive for non-mathematical students while Medal, the highest award in math? Harvard, in 2003 he became what at the time was the uninever taking away from the rigor of the material. It’s been 10 months, but it sure doesn’t feel versity’s youngest professor. Though Manjul was a valedictorian at the Plainedge High like it. Time has flown by with so much going Dr Bhargava has worked on other theorems in number School in North Massapequa (1992), and won the Morgan on, so many events. These have certainly been theory, his approach mixing the abstruse with the fun and Prize while at Harvard (BA, 1996), it was his PhD thesis 4M21 the busiest and fastest 10 months I’ve ever novel, all of which made him a shoo-in for the Fields that took his mentors’ collective breath away. experienced. I really haven’t had much time to Medal, given only to mathematicians yet below 40. His adviser at Princeton Andrew Weil (who solved the

THE GENIUS


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M21

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M20 Manjul Bhargava think about it all! But it’s definitely a pleasant feeling. I feel very fortunate and privileged especially because so many opportunities to do good have opened up. Unlike others who ease up a bit after winning the Fields, we are told you are as fecund in output as ever. How do you make time for mathematics, popular lectures, musical performances, magic lessons, and your work on education? I guess the secret is that I really enjoy all of these things, so it doesn’t feel like work or ‘making time.’ On the other hand, it has been an unusually crazy and hectic year, so I am hoping it will calm down a little bit soon! You were recently in California, working with mathematician Terence Tao. What are you doing with him? What area are you working on now? Why is it important? We have a number of common interests in the relatively new subject of random matrices, an area that yields surprisingly accurate models for various phenomena across mathematics, chemistry, physics, neuroscience, and more. I was visiting him to talk about some of these remarkable phenomena as they relate to our work, and was simultaneously giving a lecture series about ‘values of integer polynomials’ at UCLA. Why is mathematics education so important to you, so much so that you take time off from your research to spend time on it? I find it very unfortunate that a beautiful and important subject like mathematics is often taught as a very boring, robotic subject in school, so I am passionate about bringing a change to this for the benefit of the children. In school, you hated mathematics classes, and yet you were helping your mother’s college students with their work. You even skipped a lot of school to spend some time in India. Given your experience, what would you advise young people taking terrible math classes to do, if they want to understand math without hating it, too. The way mathematics is taught in school surely needs to be changed. But given that things are as they are, there are many other ways to ignite students’ interests in mathematics. Many of the mathematicians that I know (myself included) got interested in mathematics not through school, but through sources outside school, such as maththemed summer programs or internships, math contests, math clubs, math-related games and puzzles, the books of Martin Gardner, and so on. Such approaches to mathematics allow children to see the fun, inspirational, artistic side of mathematics through activities other than school.

Professor Peter Sarnak, one of your mentors, advised you not to address a very difficult graduate thesis (generalizing Gauss’s law for binary quadratic forms), but you did it anyway — and succeeded. Are there some aspects of math that intimidate you? Of course — some problems seem so beyond what we are currently capable of doing that it is usually a good idea not to spend too much of one’s time on them! However, that was such a beautiful problem that I couldn’t resist. Fortunately, it ended well. It is good to take risks sometimes. In your early days at Princeton, were you intimidated having Andrew Wiles as your adviser, given that he solved Fermat’s Last Theorem? Absolutely — he was (and is) such a legend in the field! But he was also very nice and very caring, and so that put his students at ease very quickly. I always enjoyed talking to him and getting his advice on matters mathematical and otherwise, and still do. Is there any other career you would have considered if you had not been able to be a mathematician? I definitely thought about doing other things when I was growing up, including music, economics, physics, chemistry... and even mountain climbing (when I was a child)! But I somehow always came back to mathematics, as I think I realized that this was the common thread of all my interests.

Being a musician was what I considered most seriously. But it occurred to me at some point that if I became a musician full time, it would be hard to keep up mathematics, but if I went into academia and did mathematics, I could still keep up my other interests such as music. And that has turned out to be true, fortunately! Why do you encourage people to study mathematics using puzzles and providing real-life examples? Would it not be better to just wait for interested students who are willing to tough it out — such as those at the lecture you gave at Seoul? Some students never make it that far because they never see the creative, fun, and/or applicable side of mathematics, and they give up too soon. I feel it is important to reach people of all ages and levels and backgrounds — and to adjust one’s outreach and teaching accordingly — so that no one is left out and everyone is able to participate, relate to, and get interested in the subject. You have highlighted real achievements made by Indians in science and technology, particularly after you have become part of the Indian prime minister’s team. Why is that so important? Are there not enough people saying that Indians developed everything from zero to rocket science and brain surgery? This is something I 4M22 have always done and enjoyed doing, and not just

India Abroad Publisher’s Special Award for Excellence

HONOR ROLL VANITA GUPTA (2004) Lawyer

ANURAG KASHYAP, ALIYA DERI, SAMIR SUDHIR SHAH, RAJIV TARIGOPULA (2005) Spelling Bee Stars SUNITA WILLIAMS (2006) Astronaut

RENU KHATOR (2007) President and Chancellor, University of Houston

JHUMPA LAHIRI (2008) Pulitzer Prize winner and Novelist

MADHULIKA SIKKA (2009) Executive Producer, NPR RAJU NARISETTI (2009) Managing Editor, The Washington Post ABHIJAT JOSHI (2009) Screenwriter

SHEENA IYENGAR (2010) S T Lee Professor of Business in the Management Division, Columbia Business School SIDDHARTH MUKHERJEE (2010) Pulitzer Prize winner and Assistant Professor of Medicine, Columbia University VIJAY IYER (2010) Grammy-nominated jazz musician NEERA TANDEN (2011) President, Center for American Progress AMRIT SINGH (2012) Human Rights Lawyer

Manjul Bhargava in his early years as a professor at Princeton University. In recognition of his talent early in his career, India Abroad had honored him with the Face of the Future Award 2008, inset. COURTESY: THE BHARGAVAS AND PARESH GANDHI

ANURADHA BHAGWATI (2013) Founder and then Executive Director, Service Women's Action Network


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M22

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M21

Manjul Bhargava addresses a session at the Indian Science Congress in Mumbai. The mathematician, who received the Padma Shri this year, is inspiring many young Indians to pursue pure mathematics.

Manjul Bhargava recently! It is an unfortunate fact that Indian history of science is often taught incorrectly, or at least incompletely, in school. As I grew up reading ancient Indian books — scientific and otherwise — due to the influence of my grandfather (Purshottam Lal Bhargava), the history of science in ancient India (and Asia more generally) became a wonderful tool for me to learn mathematics and science, and over the past few years has become a wonderful tool for me to teach! For example, I love explaining the origins of various mathematical concepts in ancient Indian poetry, and I have found that it gives a really wonderful way to teach and to get students excited. It is a nice way to showcase the inspiring connections between mathematics and other subjects, such as art, poetry, music, magic, and more. You are right that people ‘say’ things that mix up the real and proven facts with the fantastic and unproven claims, such as the invention of the zero in our place value system (real and proven) with ancient rocket science (fantastic and unproven). So, it is important to do more than just say and claim. It is important to explain, analyze, think, and most of all, read the original sources and understand what is actually there! Music is more than a tool to teach math for you. How does music affect you, given that you read more into it — and differently than other people? I do really like to analyze music — the frequencies that are used, how scales are constructed across different musical cultures of the world, and how rhythms are constructed and improvised upon! There is so much beautiful mathematics in these things. But most of the time when I listen to or play music, I don’t think I do it very differently than other people. At that moment, it is all about the art form and how much we are able to express and say and touch people through melody and rhythm. You have evinced a deep interest in the evidence-based history of mathematics. Why is history so important to you? I feel history is important because it teaches us how, when, where, and why various central concepts first arose, how people first conceived of them, and how they were first used. If one fast forwards a few hundred years, one finds that these fundamental concepts have often become wrapped in technical jargon and presented as part of some complicated theory or algorithm — and the essence and the basic understanding of the concept is lost. Learning the history and the origins of a concept allows one to go back to basics, so to speak, and to understand why the concept is central and fundamental. Going back to basics and understanding and playing around with the essence of a concept can often lead to real breakthroughs and new ways of thinking. This is indeed the way I have approached much of the research mathematics that I do. For example, I read Brahmagupta’s and Gauss’s original works to eventually make progress on composition of quadratic forms in my PhD thesis, and I read Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer’s original works to help make progress on the average ranks of elliptic curves. I don’t think I could have ever done these things without having first gone back to the basics, learned these questions from first principles, and seen why these things originally arose in history.

COURTESY: THE BHARGAVAS AND PRESS INFORMATION BUREAU

You have described your liking for poetry. What about the literary form do you find particularly fascinating? Who are the poets you really go for? I love how poetry is able to say so much more than prose, via ambiguous, double-meaning phrases, analogies, rhyme schemes, meter, word play, sound play, and more! I loved reading poetry growing up, in Sanskrit, Hindi, and English, both ancient and modern. Some of my favorites over the years include Kalidasa, Kabir, and Frost, but there have been many.

You have also spoken in India for the need to focus on pure sciences, not just their applications. How does it matter if someone in another country does the actual research — and, under the guidance of senior policymakers — you just engineer it and profit from it. That is a good question. The answer is that it is very hard for one to know about and understand the fundamental scientific research being done in the world if one is not intimately connected with it. Engineers and applied scientists have to be able to go and knock on their pure scientist neighbor’s door, when an application comes up, and ask ‘Is anything like this known?’ And then that pure scientist will ask his collaborator, and so on and so forth, until a connection is made. Making these connections across disciplines, pure and applied, often requires deep knowledge and creativity — it is almost never as simple as a straight look-up in a dictionary or encyclopedia. India’s needs are often quite different than those of the rest of the world, as India has its own unique problems that only exist in India and are not foremost in the minds of developed countries. That’s why it is important for India to have its own network of scientists and their repertoire of research, both pure and applied, so that they can all work together to make the fundamental creative breakthroughs and connections that will be needed to solve India’s problems in the decades to come. The family has been your mainstay, with many relatives even joining you at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Seoul. Given that many mathematicians and philosophers are solitary people, how does family nourish you? The solitary mathematician or philosopher is a prevalent stereotype, though I’m not sure to what extent it’s actually true! :) My family has always been so inspirational and supportive, and has always taken so much interest in what I do with such enthusiasm (like coming to the ICM in Seoul!). My family’s support has always been a major source of encouragement for me as well as a major source of strength. Also, much of what I’ve learned over the years is through my family, particularly my grandparents and my mother and uncle. How much time do you get to spend with your mother and other members of the family, given how much busier you have become? How do you spend time with family? I have always spent a lot of time with 4M28 family, especially when I was growing up, although over the last year or two it has


India Abroad June 19, 2015

STAY SMART Free Amenities Great Rates Convenient Locations Visit applecorehotels.com Call 1.800.567.7720

M23


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M24

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 Why should one study math? Math plays a role in all the technology around us. It’s very important to the advancement of our society. But, of course, pure mathematicians are not thinking about the applications when they’re doing their mathematics. I mean, in every single advance in technology that advances society mathematics is playing an increasingly central role. Of course, the next question would be: ‘Why should we not just only fund and encourage applied mathematics. Why do we think about just mathematics questions for their own sake?’ The answer there is that most of the applicable mathematics that has been discovered over the centuries was discovered not because the discoverer was thinking about the applications, but because they were just doing what they found most beautiful, most exciting, most promising. They could never have imagined the applications that it would eventually (result in). A large part of the mathematics that is eventually applied is found because of what the scientists found the most fundamental purely from a knowledge point of view, not because they were thinking of the applications. In fact, most likely, no one would have thought of that particular way of doing things if they were just thinking about the applications. That does not happen (only) in mathematics; that happens throughout the sciences. Lots of fundamental discoveries are made not when they were thinking about the applications, but just because they were so fundamental to science. MRIs (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) was discovered because people were doing space exploration. They wanted to know about our universe — and the side effect was this very important invention. Number theory… is fun and beautiful and has just fundamental questions about basic numbers that we use every day. Of course now, number theory plays such an important role in coding theory and cryptography and computers in general. It’s important for people to fund and for people to pursue not just science for applications sake but science for science’s sake. So when the government decides how to fund scientists in India — it’s happening in the US now as austerity increases — people look at the short term and say, ‘We need to fund just the applied sciences.’ But in the long term it’s very important to fund basic science because we really need to build a nice repertoire of basic science. What is the beauty of math — the kind that often lies in the eye of the mathematical beholder that eludes a great many others? We all know 2+2=4, so why do we need a proof to show the obvious? In school, mathematics is taught as, ‘Here’s an artificial-sounding problem and here are the steps that you should memo-

Math, through Manjul’s eyes Music, nature, poetry, math and Manjul Bhargava at the National Museum of Mathematics. P RAJENDRAN

rize that will allow you to solve it.’ There’s no indication of why these steps came into being, why they work, why they could be important to another problem. It’s just, ‘here’s the kind of problem, and here are the steps.’ You learn by rote to solve it, and I totally agree there’s nothing terribly beautiful about that. This is one reason why I didn’t particularly like mathematics class when I was growing up. I would do anything I could to get out of that mathematics class. That wasn’t the mathematics I enjoyed. Research mathematics is very different than the mathematics that we do in school. First of all, the problems come about because… of artistic reasons. They have an inherent beauty that you don’t (see). If people haven’t experienced that in school it’s very hard to explain. Research mathematicians’ problems come about for artistic reasons, because they’re beautiful or they come about because there’s a real-life application, which is also very beautiful and exciting. To go about solving it you don’t solve knowing someone solved it before. It’s not about rote memorization of some procedure that someone invented; it’s about applying creativity to come up with a new way of attacking the problem. It’s like solving a puzzle. It’s like putting together ideas, interacting with others, and bouncing ideas off one another it fits together in this way that exactly gives the answer to the problem. It’s kind of like when you’re doing a jigsaw puzzle. Everything comes together

until it makes a pretty picture in the end. That’s the kind of feeling you get in research mathematics... You never get to see that the way mathematics is taught in school, which is unfortunate. (In) research mathematics, the process feels much more similar to solving a jigsaw puzzle or the making of a painting or composing a musical piece. The feeling that you get is much more similar to (those). That’s the kind of feeling we should try to evoke when teaching mathematics in school. It’s going to take some effort (a pained chortle). Why is the focus not on application but on just learning? Does not that make math seem an ivory-tower exercise? I think it is important about people to think about it as a pure subject. Better not to think about it as ivory-tower exercise. Anybody can engage in it if they want to. I think it’s important that people do it even if it doesn’t seem immediately applicable. As I’ve said earlier, it’s important for people to think about it and build a repertoire of basic mathematics, of basic science, even if it’s not being used yet... You may not have the time to think about it at that point (when a problem arrives). When the need arises, the repertoire of basic science, basic mathematics should be there so that it can be tapped into. Even if that is not used yet. Even if you don’t have thousands. Mathematics throws up a great many possibilities, of which only a few reflect reality. Given that, is math limited in its ability to reflect fact?

I don’t think so. Mathematics can be used to describe all possible universes. Among them only one of them is the one we have. Usually experiments decide which one of those universes is ours. In many cases we’ve been able to — at least in classical physics — determine which universe is ours. Then there’s the whole next level, which is called String Theory. String Theory has also described possible universes. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have any experiments to decide which one of those universes is ours. No experiments yet, you mean... That’s more a limit not of the mathematics but (that we can’t) do experiments. There are experiments proposed that one day may be possible to do. But we’ve now reached the point where it’s a limit on the experimental abilities. But once we’re able to do those experiments, this will confirm one of those universes as being ours. So it’s not the math that’s limiting here. Would you go by the Popperian idea that math, while one of science’s main tools, is not a science by itself? Math has aspects of both art and science in it, depend on what you’re doing. There’s a whole new area of mathematics called experimental mathematics, where you do computer experiments to make predictions. Instead of about our universe, they’re about numbers. Prime numbers should have this property... These are things you can do lots of experiments on. Computers are so powerful. You can gather data the same way that the sciences gather data about the universe. There’s a lot of data that’s yet to be explained by theory. So part of mathematics is becoming just like an experimental science, where you do experiments, you gather data, and look through the theories to explain them, and then maybe even try to prove those theories. So in that sense there’s a whole area of mathematics that is very much like a science, that’s like an experimental science, not a theoretical science. n In this conversation last year Manjul Bhargava, the R Brandon Fradd Professor of Mathematics at Princeton University and winner of the 2014 Fields Medal, explained the beauty of math and why it is not an ivory-tower exercise. This was first published in India in New York. He spoke to P Rajendran.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M25

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 Mira Bhargava Mother

M

‘He has made it his mission to inspire and encourage the youth to take up math and pure sciences’

anjul is a very kind, generous, loving and compassionate person who has always placed everyone’s needs before his own and is forever eager to help anyone and everyone. He is as amazingly good with children and elders as he is with his peers. He is also a very happy and cheerful person who can bring a smile on anyone’s face with his charming manner and sweet sense of humor. One other personality trait that he has is his concern for the environment – he uses paper sparingly because producing paper means destroying trees. He meticulously finds every piece of recyclable material around him and makes sure it goes in the recycle bin, and is very conscious of his duties as a citizen. In particular, he makes every family member exercise his/her right to vote and fulfill his/her responsibility as a citizen of a democratic society. I mention the latter because of a small incident a few years ago. Manjul had gone to India to spend some months at IIT-Bombay. On the last day of his visit there he worked all day with colleagues until the time of his flight back to the US. I was waiting for him with dinner all ready, thinking he must be very tired and hungry after his hard last day in India and a 20-hour journey. The day happened to be the Presidential Election Day and as much as I wanted to go to vote that day I just couldn’t make it. Manjul arrived in the evening from the airport by taxi and I welcomed him at the door dreaming of serving him dinner right away. But he seemed extremely rushed, didn’t take one step inside the house, left his suitcase at the door and said, ‘Let’s go,’ and ran towards the car. I shouted ‘Where?’ And he shouted back, ‘To vote.’ I said, ‘The polls are closed,’ and he said, ‘There are still 15 minutes. Let’s hurry.’ I quickly put my shoes on and ran to the car and we made it there in time to cast our votes. But I kept wondering that while in India all this time, how did he ever manage to remember the day of voting and the exact times of the closing of polls back in New York! Being in the field of education and being well versed in its intricacies, he has been making arduous efforts to fulfill his grand visions and his keen desire to make education, particularly math education, available to those talented youth in India who do not have an opportunity and access to it. One small attempt he made at contributing to this cause was when he received the Clay Research Award. With the help of the Clay Institute he channeled the award he received from them to be given to the Ramanujan Mathematical Society for three years for giving scholarships to needy and deserving students in India to pursue graduate studies in mathematics. He is a great supporter of research in pure sciences and believes that the advances in pure sciences are important as they eventually find applications in engineering, medicine and other fields that benefit society. With this con-

Manjul and Mira Bhargava with Emory University mathematician Parimala Raman. COURTESY: THE BHARGAVAS

cern for the good of humankind and their future he has made it his mission to inspire and encourage the youth of India to take up math and pure sciences. The Fields Medal has been very helpful in this regard as it has provided him with a platform to spread this message to school children as well as college students who flocked by the thousands to listen to him speak at various educational institutes in India last winter. He plans many more such visits to inspire students and make them passionate about going into math and science for bringing India at par with other developed nations. But the Fields Medal has also come at a price. With more than 30,000 e-mails that Manjul has received by now and more coming in at an ever-increasing pace, he has struggled to even read them all, let alone respond to them. He wants to reply to all of them personally, but with this volume of e-mail he misses reading even some of the most urgent ones. There are invitations for speaking, visiting, awards, honorary degrees, commencement speeches, and more from around the world but many go unnoticed and unanswered until it is too late. Just recently I learned about a funny comment from the director of IIT-Madras who very persuasively invited Manjul some months ago to give a commencement speech and receive an honorary degree at their convocation this year. Manjul was initially very reluctant to accept as he was constantly traveling during that time but the director insisted on the grounds that this would inspire thousands

of young students who will be there on the occasion. That was something that touched Manjul and he agreed to make time to be there for one day. After that weeks passed and more e-mails kept coming from IIT-Madras to work out the logistics of his visit. But, of course, with hundreds of e-mails in his inbox coming in every day he missed reading them. Manjul finally found those e-mails and answered. The director responded with an opening line with good humor that he was so worried when he didn’t hear from Manjul after so many attempts to get in touch with him that he was just getting ready to contact the FBI! The most debilitating affect that the Fields Medal has had on him is that with so many people and so many institutions and organizations putting a demand on his time he has not been able to pursue what he loves to do most, which is his math research. Tons of his ideas in his head are waiting to be explored, but he is caught up in the race by everyone trying to get some time from him. He feels the pull from all sides and is virtually exhausted by the never ending travels and phone calls and e-mails that he is trying to keep up with all his might and yet unable to do so. I hope sometime soon this frenzy will slow down and he will be able to lead a normal life. As for family he has little time for us either these days. I teach and live in New York and he is in Princeton. So my contact with Manjul most of the days is only on the phone, which ends up being a very short call of two minutes, maybe three. There is so much I want to tell him, but that is the post Fields Medal life. It is more so this way because he is not just an American but an American with close ties to India and Indians and India Abroad, all of whom he loves so much and wants to contribute to them all. And really I don’t mind as I also want to do the same! n Mira Bhargava is Professor of Mathematics at Hofstra University. She responded by email to P Rajendran.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M26

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 Mark Mitton Magician and collaborator

Yamatarajabhanasalagam!

Manjul Bhargava is a magical creature. Yamatarajabhanasalagam is a magic word that was taught to Manjul as part of his Sanskrit training by his grandfather. After learning the language and many poems, this word allowed him to make sure that he was saying the poem as it was originally intended by its creator a long time ago. Then he played the rhythms of these poems on his tabla with his grandmother who played the sitar and sang. This was done over many years with playful joy and profound thoroughness. Manjul’s mother, a math professor in North America, worked with her parents back home on the best way to raise her son. Out of this challenge, wonder was born. What they created together was an extraordinary education for an extraordinary boy that allowed him to not only connect to the wisdom of his family, but to feel a direct connection to the wisdom of his culture contained in its language, poetry, music and philosophy. Twice a year, Manjul returned to Jaipur to study and play with his grandparents. Sanskrit poetry with his grandfather, and music with his grandmother. This was the foundation for Manjul to learn math, magic and develop a deep curiosity for the other aspects of this ancient knowledge that were either lost or at least not well understood . In the midst of this path, Manjul discovered magic in the world around him as a boy in Long Island, New York. At first quite literally at nursery school, his teacher, Uncle Frank, shoved a coin into his own forehead and then made it appear in the ear of his classmate. Manjul thought to himself this does not follow the normal patterns. On television, he saw the spectacular illusions of David Copperfield. At the library there was a table of old books and magazines including Scientific American on sale for ten cents each. There he discovered Martin Gardner’s mathematical games columns. Then he found Gardner’s books like The Incredible Dr Matrix. He learned math tricks like finding the cube root of sixdigit numbers and multiplying any three-digit number by any other three-digit number. Then he played with the 15puzzle. The 15 pieces on a four-by-four grid allows one to slide the pieces all around, they are scrambled, and the challenge is to slide the 15 pieces back in order. Next, after the 15-puzzle, was the much more complex challenge: The Rubik’s Cube, but in time, he mastered this as well. In Gardner’s description of Dr Matrix, Manjul found a way to think about the symmetry of the cube. It was a beautiful idea that he would later discover was not quite true, but by then, he had embraced a way of thinking that allowed him to look for this beauty. Manjul’s love of poetry kept growing and his grandfather pointed out that by knowing the poetry, he had already learned some fascinating aspects of math. By the age of eight, he stacked oranges according to the multi-dimensional patterns from the poetry. He started experimenting with objects in space to represent the rhythms and relationships from the poetry. The stack of oranges resulted in an

A magical class with Manjul Bhargava. COURTESY: THE BHARGAVAS

Manjul can be quite the wizard for students and colleagues alike. COURTESY: MARK MITTON

insight into a mathematical theorem. Poetry had become Manjul’s passion and inspiration which influenced many aspects of his life.... Music… Math… Magic. And the way he approached things. The boy graduated from high school early at 14, and went on to Harvard where real magic happened in one week in his junior year. One of his professors was Persi Diaconis, the mathematician and statistician... and master magician who did something that felt quite right to Manjul. Professor Diaconis would use cards, dice, coins and other props to not only do magic, but also to think about and play with ideas of math and statistics. This made him feel right at home because this was the way that Manjul used poetry. When Persi Diaconis found out about Manjul’s passion, he asked his student if he knew anything about the magic

word yamatarajabhanasalagam, and how it was related to De Bruijn sequences. Manjul started expressing the ancient knowledge that was simply an integrated part of him. Now Persi was thrilled and showed him a card trick that he had created using this sequence. The math, magic and poetry were starting to mix at a new level. Next, Persi brought his colleague Barry Mazur to hear Manjul’s insights, and the three of them worked and played with the possibilities to push the boundaries of math. That week was astounding. It was extraordinary, but in a way, it has become a regular occurrence. The first time I presented in Manjul’s Math and Magic freshman seminar class at Princeton, I was part of a team with the mathematician John Conway and the young twin artists, Ryan and Trevor Oakes. We met the whole class for dinner, then had a three-hour class, and everyone stayed over for a half hour. Once we started, it was hard to stop. There was math, magic, art, puzzles, music, poetry and more. It felt like a party or an art happening, more than a class. We were all working with coins, paper and pipe cleaners, and the ideas, techniques and secrets were flowing. Manjul was like the calm captain who accepts waves of any size, which allowed us all to enjoy our dynamic voyage. His calm comes from a profound place, because his inner world is vast, yet he is a keen observer and communicator. Among Manjul’s gifts and passions is the ability to express math as an art as only a master craftsman can. He hopes to help transform math education and even the way we think of mathematics. Seeing him in action suggests that he might have found the right combination of art, poetry and magic to make such a lasting transformation for mathematics. If you enter a class taught by Manjul Bhargava, you can see him embrace the gifts of his students as he stretches them most gently as he was taught by his mother, her parents and many great teachers along that boy’s path. Now the boy is a great master and teacher, but if you spend any time with him you realize that he is still a student and a guardian of knowledge and a way of education from another time that is real magic. So learn the secret magic word... yamatarajabhanasalagam and enter Manjul’s magical world. n Mark Mitton has performed in Europe and Asia, at the Olympic Games, in war-torn Liberia, and in hospital wards around New York City.As a magic and special effects consultant, he has made Will Smith appear in the middle of Times Square, directed an opening circus for Aerosmith, and created special effects for Tony Shalhoub, Stanley Tucci, John Travolta and John Lithgow. He responded by email to P Rajendran.


India Abroad June 19, 2015

M27


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M28

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M22 Manjul Bhargava become much harder given that I am always on the road! But I do get to see many of them when I travel — sometimes they join me on tour stops, or I try to arrange tour stops in cities where they are. Hopefully, as things calm down a bit again, I will get to see more of them again! You have done fantastic work — and been, correctly enough, rewarded for it. Do you know examples of other thinkers — not necessarily mathematicians — who have broken new ground and yet perhaps not received their due? I think there are many. Often it is only the last stroke of the hammer on the nail that is recognized, and so we sometimes forget the many thinkers who laid the foundations. Others are not recognized for political or other reasons, while for still other thinkers, their work is not appreciated in their own time and its importance only gets recognized later. But by and large, the scientific community is a merit-based one, especially in today’s world, and most important work gets appreciated and recognized by the community, even if not by the publicat-large. Do you have any plans to write a book on popular mathematics for the lay public? Yes, definitely! Probably not very soon, but that is definitely in the plans. What are your future plans? I plan to continue to do what I’ve been doing — teaching, research, visiting scientific institutes, writing, music, and magic — but, in addition, I also hope to use the new opportunities presented to me to do something for education around the world, and in particular in North America and India. This has definitely become one of my core passions.n

SPECIAL AWARDS ISSUE EDITOR: MONALI SARKAR DESIGNED BY DOMINIC XAVIER

Manjul Bhargava and Rohan Murthy after the former addressed students on the wonders and values of mathematics in Bengauluru in January this year. MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

‘He carries his accomplishments so lightly on his shoulders’ Rohan Murty Friend and collaborator

I

have known Manjul well for a couple of years now. I am fortunate to call him a friend. I count myself among one of his many admirers. Manjul and I share a passion for India’s intellectual history. It is through this that I have gotten to know him well. Manjul has an incredible passion and emotional attachment to India, its history, culture, and people. He wears his identity — of being ethnically Indian with so much pride that I think he ends up setting an example of how you choose to root yourself, your culture, and your family is as relevant as where you are born, if not more. His pride in India and its culture manifests itself with how he interacts with India both professionally and personally. On the professional front he has several collaborators and connections with other mathematicians in India. He visits India a couple of times a year to visit various institutes across the country and talks to their students. He serves as the chairman of the new GYAAN initiative, which aims to encourage

scientists of repute to spend time in India with faculty of students. He also serves on the advisory boards of a couple of institutes in India. Manjul and I often discuss what we can do to add value to students, institutions, and faculty in India and in all our discussions he is tremendously enthusiastic and is willing to pull out all the stops. In every single transaction or discussion, the common invariant is this — Manjul keeps thinking of what he can do to add value to India and actually does it. I believe his passion for India comes from the same place his mathematics comes from — from a place far deep within him. He has inherited this passion from two important influences in his life — his mother (who too is a mathematician with deep roots in India) and his late grandfather (who was a Sanskrit scholar at Rajasthan university). Hence, to Manjul there are no pretensions of being ethnically Indian and having been born abroad. He is very clear. He is culturally Indian and he very proud of it. We often discuss India’s intellectual contributions to mankind and what is clear is that Manjul draws tremendous pride and strength from what this great civilization once produced and consequently this gives him the confi-

dence and belief that it can be one of the great civilizations of history once again. I believe this sort of pride — rooted in fact and history — is a lesson for many young Indians to realize that we all come from a land of genuine accomplishments and draw strength in our potential future. On a very personal level, Manjul emulates the best traits of some of the most accomplished and secure people I have met — he makes everybody around him feel good. He carries his accomplishments so lightly on his shoulders that it is easy to often lose him in a crowd and even when you find him you’d think you are talking to a shy undergraduate student! There is nobody too big or small for him. He listens to you carefully and makes you feel heard. I have witnessed this with him repeatedly over the past couple of years when I see him interact with people from different walks of society and ages in India. n Rohan Murty is a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and the driving force behind the Murty Classical Library of India, the launch of which was attended by Dr Manjul Bhargava. He responded by email to P Rajendran.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M29

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘Manjul has the Midas touch in mathematics’ Benedict Gross Professor

I

met Manjul when he was an undergraduate at Harvard.

He roomed with two other exceptional mathematicians, Kiran Kedlaya and Lenny Ng, and they became best friends. Manjul and I share a lot of interests besides mathematics — like playing music, Tetris, and tennis, and over the years we have also become good friends. Manjul has the Midas touch in mathematics — anything he touches turns into gold. His thesis, which gives a reformulation of Gauss’s famous composition law for binary quadratic forms, was exceptionally beautiful. What was more important was that he was able to put this result into a larger context, and found many generalizations of it, parametrizing cubic, quartic and quintic rings. This was the work of a master, but the passage from this work to the study of the Selmer groups of elliptic curves (jointly with his student Arul Shankar) was a real stroke of genius. When Manjul first told me about his results, they were so striking and original that I had a hard time understanding exactly what he had done. Since then there have been generalizations to curves of higher genus and the theory appears as a natural continuation of his previous work. n

‘Manjul is committed to popularizing contributions from India in mathematics’

Benedict Gross is George Vasmer Leverett Professor of Mathematics at the Department of Mathematics, Harvard University. He was Manjul Bhargava’s professor at Harvard and delivered the laudation for Dr Bhargava when he received the Fields Medal. He responded by email to P Rajendran.

‘Manjul is important to making our department one of the best in the world’ Peter Sarnak, Colleague and mentor

I

can confirm that Manjul has not changed in any noticeable way after having received the Fields Medal. He continues to produce new and exciting research. He is laid back and positive about everything, just as he was before. Probably the most apparent change is that he is traveling to lecture and visit places around the world. He used to do that before but it appears now to be quite a bit

more. He hasn’t let this affect his research, but we do see him a little less in Princeton. He is of course one of the stars in our department and as such and because of many other things that he does, he is important to making our department one of the best in the world. n Peter Sarnak is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Mathematics at Princeton University. He responded by email to P Rajendran.

Manjul Bhargava, back row, second from left, as a student at Princeton. MATH.PRINCETON.EDU

Spenta Wadia Theoretical physicist

M

anjul Bhargava, while visiting the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research a few years ago, walked into my office and said that he would like to be associated with TIFR’s upcoming International Center for Theoretical Sciences in Bangalore. I was a bit taken aback by this very young and brilliant mathematician who wanted to be involved with ICTS, which is a new initiative in Indian science. Since then he has been working closely with the Center as a member of its

International Advisory Board and is an active participant in its activities and especially in growing a math unit at the ICTS with the theme ‘mathematics beyond boundaries.’ Manjul has an accurate knowledge of the history of mathematics. He has deep roots in India and he is very committed to popularizing the great civilizational contributions from India in mathematics, and also spreading far and wide, especially to young students, the message that mathematics pervades all the sciences, and it is a legacy of humanity across geographical and cultural

boundaries. Given his achievement and unique talent as an expositor of ideas of mathematics, Manjul is to lead the government of India’s GIAN initiative that plans to invite mathematicians and scientists to India on short-term teaching visits. He himself will teach at IIT-Kharagpur and IIT-Bombay. n Spenta Wadia is Distinguished Professor at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, and the first director of the International Center for Theoretical Science. He responded by email to P Rajendran.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M30

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 ‘I was alternately amazed by his brilliance and his kindness’ Shreyas Lakhtakia

Student

I

Manjul Bhargava was the rock star at the International Congress of Mathematics last year. ICM2014.ORG

‘He is using his credibility to change the way math is taught’ Aryaman Jalota Student

I

first met Professor Bhargava when I was on a visit to the United States in primary school. He knows my father (musician Anup Jalota) well, and we played video games together at the time. Fate placed me in his class, Mathematics of Magic Tricks and Games, at Princeton University this spring. His class was by far the best I have taken, and shows how dedicated Professor Bhargava is to his cause: Changing the way mathematics is taught.

Instead of a typical problem-solution oriented class, he taught us various theorems through magic tricks, usually card tricks, to show us that mathematics is a beautiful and artistic subject. He encouraged creativity by making us come up with our own variations to the wellknown tricks he taught in class. The two qualities of Professor Bhargava that I admire most are his humility and nobility. Despite having won the Fields Medal, he is a very approachable and accessible professor. He responded enthusiastically whenever I sought assistance from him outside of class, and even

made time for a meal with me. Perhaps the most admirable trait of his, however, is use of his newfound eminence. He is using his recently attained authority and credibility to change the way mathematics is taught at Princeton and in India. This shows that Professor Bhargava is not only a great mathematician and professor, but also a noble human being at heart. n Aryaman Jalota is an undergraduate student at Princeton University. He responded by email to P Rajendran.

’d first heard of Professor Manjul Bhargava as a high-schooler in India, where he was a popular name among my math club friends. So when I noticed a full week into spring semester classes that he was teaching a seminar on the Mathematics of Magic Tricks and Games, I was eager to take the class, and was welcomed into the class by him, despite being a full week behind. This was my introduction to his kindness and gentle persuasion — something so remarkable, yet rare, even in a worldrenowned faculty and professors. From that moment forth, the seminar was equal parts fascinating mathematics and a chance to work closely with someone who was clearly among the world’s leading number theorists, and somehow an even better person. Over the course of the semester, I was alternately amazed by his brilliance and his kindness, patience and incredible humility. The course itself was excellent, and extremely interesting. We covered card tricks, shuffles, rope tricks, classical music, but also prime numbers, modular arithmetic and counting. It was a great match between theory and applications — and such entertaining ones at that! Professor Bhargava also organized for excellent visitors from magicians to mathematicians, that made for a very wholesome class experience. He organized a class trip to the Museum of Magic in New York, on which we were also joined by an alum from the class from a few years ago. Such is his dedication to students that he’s been in touch with students from years ago. The amount of interest he took in the class and in all of us is made clear by his open dinner invitation to us to join him, each week before class. Two years on, while I might not be able to demonstrate the sequence behind the shuffling trick I learnt, or the mathematics behind it, I will never forget how inspired I left the classroom each Monday night. Shreyas Lakhtakia is a student at Princeton University. He responded by email to P Rajendran.


India Abroad June 19, 2015

M31


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M32

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

Fellow Fields Medal winners listen to Manjul Bhargava, second from left. ICM2014.ORG

‘Manjul has an extraordinary vision of the future of mathematics’ Andrew Granville Mathematician

M

anjul Bhargava has an extraordinary vision of the future of mathematics. Coming from a profound understanding of the tools of 200 years ago, Manjul applies the latest ideas in algebra and geometry to gain extraordinary insight. Not only to questions posed today, but to questions that have been around for all of those 200 years. He has developed his own way to think about some of the hardest questions today, yet grounded very much in the richness of ideas past, so that his approaches are at once easier, while being more penetrating than almost anyone else’s. Dealing with Manjul is a delight. He is very generous with his colleagues, and kind in his dealings. Many people who think as fast and as deeply as

Manjul, show their disappointment when us mere mortals try to explain our ideas, but Manjul humbly tries to find the strength in what you say so that you go away enriched, encouraged and on track. He has the most extraordinary track record with doctoral students, better than many who have been in the top flight for twice as long as him. Also, now that women are increasingly playing an important role in mathematics, quite a few of the emerging female stars of the subject worked on their first deep research project under the guidance of Manjul Bhargava. Andrew Granville is Professor of Mathematics, University of Montreal. He is one of the organizers of a conference in Montreal last year on Dr Manjul Bhargava’s mathematicalwork. He responded by email to P Rajendran.

‘Manjul’s mathematical work is stunningly original and revolutionary’ Henri Darmon Mathematician

I

ndeed, I have known Manjul for quite some time. If my recollections are correct, I first met him 20 years ago, in 1995, at a mathematics conference (his mother was there too, and she introduced him to me: she had done a postdoc at McGill in previous years, and had kept closed ties with some of my colleagues there, notably Jim Lambek who was also close to Manjul’s family). Regarding Manjul’s mathematical work, I can only repeat what you will hear from many other sources I am sure: It is stunningly original and revolutionary. One of Manjul’s strengths is the way in which he is able to bring a completely fresh perspective to the questions he considers, and completely reinvent subjects that had been intensely studied since the times of Gauss. Manjul’s work and mathematical style brings to my mind the following quote of Grothendieck (another mathematical giant who passed away recently):

Le petit enfant découvre le monde comme il respire — le flux et le reflux de sa respiration lui font accueillir le monde en son être délicat, et le font se projeter dans le monde qui l’accueille. L’adulte aussi découvre, en ces rares instants où il a oublié ses peurs et son savoir, quand il regarde les choses ou lui-même avec des yeux grands ouverts, avides de connaître, des yeux neufs — des yeux d’enfant. (The small child discovers the world while it breathes — the ebb and flow of its breathing bring the world into its delicate self, and projects it back into the world, which is its host. The adult also engages in discovery, in those rare moments where he forgets his fears and his knowledge, when he looks at the things or him, with eyes wide open, eager to discover with new eyes — the eyes of a child.) n Henri Darmon is James McGill Professor of Mathematics, McGill University. He is one of the organizers of a conference in Montreal last year on Dr Manjul Bhargava’s mathematical work. He responded by email to P Rajendran.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M33

THE BARD FROM BROOKLYN ‘It is not necessary that one has to have a traumatic life to be an artist. That is a romantic model of artistry. I never really bought the romantic model of an artist and never will. One of the things that protected me was being an immigrant and being an Indian. I didn’t feel I had the freedom to kind of live a wild life.’ Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Vijay Seshadri, winner of the Publisher’s Special Award for Excellence, speaks to Arthur J Pais.

Presented by

VIJAY

SESHADRI

PUBLISHER’S SPECIAL AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE 2014 For his compelling verse; for a voice that sears the soul; for being a poet extraordinaire.

PARESH GANDHI


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M34

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

After college, the first thing Vijay Seshadri tried to do was write a novel. It proved to be unsuccessful, not necessarily because he couldn’t write a novel but because, he has said, his ‘life was so crazy in those days.’ COURTESY: THE SESHADRIS

‘M

om, don’t worry, I will be No 1.’ Vijay Seshadri’s promise to his mother — who was worried when he chose to study literature — had been taking shape for a long time. He became a popular lecturer at Sarah Lawrence College; his poems were published in The New Yorker. His poem Disappearances, which ran on the back cover of The New Yorker in the aftermath of 9/11 made him controversial and noteworthy in an instant. Written before terror struck the Twin Towers, it echoed the tragedy of 9/11 and included the chaos surrounding the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963. Alice Quinn, then poetry editor of The New Yorker, wrote an article in which she quoted a passage from the poem: This is you at the doorway, unobserved, while your aunts and uncles keen over the body. This is your first river, your first planetarium, your first Popsicle.

THE BARD FROM BROOKLYN The cold and brilliant day in six-color prints — but the people on the screen are black and white. Your friend’s mother is saying, Hush, children! Don’t you understand history is being made? You do, and you still do. Made and made again. When the Pulitzer Prize came in 2014, it vindicated the promise Seshadri had made to his mother: ‘I will be No. 1.’ “He was reading a lot, especially poetry, since 7,” says mother Champaka Lakshmi Seshadri. In a previous interview to India Abroad, Vijay Seshadri explained his devotion to reading in his own

words: “I read almost everything that was put in front of me as a child. Even when I was in the 5th grade, I was kind of famous as a reader. When we were living in Columbus, Ohio, I remember I was given a certificate for having read the most number of books in elementary school.” In junior high, he discovered the almanac, which had the list of the Nobel Prize winners. He would remember those names and check out their books. At 14, he was reading Kafka. Part of the reason he became a precocious reader was because he felt socially isolated as a child growing up in America he told India Abroad in that interview. He had skipped a couple of grades and was two years younger than everybody in his class. The feeling of being chronologically isolated made him rely on himself. “These days, children 4M35 who are in the condition that I was in then,


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M35

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M34 Vijay Seshadri have all these other resources that come from the computer and the Internet: Games, video games. In those days, no one watched TV much. Reading was the great sort of repository of excessive mental energy. I loved it.” Seshadri’s parents (his father was a chemistry professor at Ohio State) expected him to study science, but he slowly discovered his love for poetry and his interest in fiction. On graduating from college, the first thing he tried to do was write a novel. It proved to be unsuccessful, not necessarily because he couldn’t write a novel but because his ‘life was so crazy in those days.’ And crazy it was! Talking about his journey into poetry, he told India Abroad after winning the Pulitzer that after college in Oberlin, Ohio, he worked as a truck driver, as a floor refinisher, as a bicycle messenger, and did various jobs in the Bay area. He and his friends were all artists, surviving in any way they could in order to pursue art. It was a time that was very exciting, also emotionally dramatic. In retrospect, he felt that if he had been a little more stable, he Vijay Seshadri is considered a brilliant teacher and a mesmerizing lecturer. might have continued to write fiction. It was COURTESY: THE SESHADRIS only when he was about 25, that he rediscovon, he would give advice on literature and explain books to characters in the play. ered poetry. her and so we grew up in an intellectual household. The couple moved to their present apartment in the fall At one point, Seshadri even thought of staying in the fishThey were reading Victorian literature in India at that of 1986 when he was doing his PhD at Columbia. They diding industry where he had worked and had been very time. He was telling her to read Thomas Hardy, and talking n’t have much money and he is still amazed how they surhappy, but the love for poetry beckoned harder. about George Meredith and they went to a lot of plays in vived at that time. He then moved to the ‘spectacularly beautiful’ Oregon Kannada, in Tamil (in India). But he was recommending Their son Nicholas was born in 1992 and was named coast and was ‘steeped in the beauty of the landscape, the her to read English and American authors. To read John after Susan’s father. Seshadri conceded that since his son weather and the incredible power of the ocean’. It was an Dos Passos’s trilogy, for example. was going to have an Indian last name, he thought his first experience that somehow felt divine but overwhelmed as he Those were the kind of books he was telling her to read, name should come from his wife’s tradition. was by the love of literature, he decided to apply to college and also contemporary writers. The milieu I grew up in was In February 2015, part of the family’s tradition was lost on the East Coast, he continued in his conversation with an intellectual one and it was pretty influential. Of course, when his 90 plus young father Kalkunte Srinivasa Seshadri India Abroad last year. the influences of a father are so deep and profound. died in Pittsburgh. He then undertook another journey — boarding a bus In his case, it was very much an ocean of the purity of When news of the Pulitzer had arrived, the first call that that took him from Newport on the central Oregon coast to wealth of the mind as opposed to any other values having to Vijay Seshadri made was to his parents. He would have Portland, where he transferred to another Greyhound bus, do with being rich or famous or anything like that. been filled with regret and, it wouldn’t nearly have been as spending three days across the country and arriving at the My father was very much a part of the history of the sweet if his father had not lived to see that day. ‘Daddy, you Port Authority (bus station) in New York City on a swelterIndian Republic in some ways. The same as the history of and I did this,’ he told Professor K S Seshadri on the phone. ing day. his life because he was born right around the time of the He wrote about his father in The Long Meadow and feels He went to some friends’ place in Brooklyn, showered Independence and Quit India movement. Of course, you he now has to write about his mother and tell her story. and went to Columbia the following day to register. can take the actual birth of the Indian Republic rather than At 85, his mother, who was once hailed as the best Indian New York came as an incredible shock, he reminisced to its political birth in 1947 to the years of the early 1920s. cook in America, is wheelchair bound and doesn’t really India Abroad last year. This was the New York when trains He was a part of that Independence generation which cook any more. were covered with graffiti and Bryant Park was Needle really made modern India, especially in the But she taught her son how to cook; and on the days he’s Park. He thought it was a really vital and interesting city, commitment to science and technology. All visiting — which he does a lot since she is sick — the but also a dangerous one. those values were very, very, significant in his Pulitzer Prize-winning poet cooks for her. “They hadn’t cleaned it up in the way that they did,” life. Your father Professor Kalkunte Srinivasa Seshadri died in Seshadri told India Abroad last year, “And to suddenly wind When he died, I arranged the funeral in February 2015 after a long illness. Let’s talk about the influup in this milieu! It was quite a shock but wonderful! I’m Pittsburgh and we used a church in the neighence your father had on you and your thoughts on his death. glad that I came because New York is really a place for the borhood for his funeral. There were a lot of My father was a real intellectual of that generation of young.” Americans because they had many American Indian intellectuals. He was a scientist, but he was also “It is a city of intellectuals,” he continued. “Even the peofriends and there were a lot of Indians because very interested in literature. And he was an avid play-goer. ple in finance here tend to be more intellectual. The New they had a large number of Indian friends. I was looking at some of the letters he wrote to my mothYork intellectual is a kind of fabled creature.” It was an open casket. We cremated him the er when he came here to get his PhD in the 1950s. They are In the fall of 1984, Vijay Seshadri met his wife Suzanne. next day and I started the service by playing filled with advice to her to read this book or that For their first date they watched the Samuel Beckett play 4M38 the Indian national anthem. Everybody stood book. They are very, very, touching and he would comment Endgame and later, named their cats ‘Nagg’ and ‘Nell’ after


M36

Response feature

India Abroad June 19, 2015

From a single car to a fleet of limos and tour buses SMALL BUSINESS Sponsored Feature Raj Uppal is a New Jersey-based successful limousine business owner. But he started in the mid-1990s in a small way and built his business from there. Uppal talked about the challenges to the limousine business and how he differentiates his operations from new car companies like Uber.

What is your limousine company called? I have not one but five companies, including Corporate Limousine Service Inc, Uniworld Limo and Transportation. The companies are in based in New Jersey, New York and California. When did you start? I started my first company in 1994. So when you started then what were the challenges you faced? Before I started the business, I was a business analyst. I used to work for a dental product company in Newark, New Jersey. I started my limousine company with one car. At that time there weren’t any issues. My credit was perfectly fine and the bank funding was also easier. I started with just one car but at one point I had 165 of them. I was one of the largest limousine operators in the country at the time. Right now I have some cars that I own. Sometimes I also rely on some owner-operator cars. My company is not like the TLC-run (Taxi and Limousine Commission-run) radio cars, where most of the drivers own their cars. I hire the drivers and pay them myself. I have my corporate contacts – at places like MTV, Time Warner, Merill Lynch and also at Indian film production

Former business analyst Raj Uppal runs flourishing taxi services in some of the country’s toughest markets and distribution companies. Right now you have all the success, but when you started with one car, what was the scenario like then? Was the competition different? There were not too many limousine companies at the time. Yes, there were car service companies. And I was the first Indian to start a limousine company but there were Indian drivers who used to drive their TLC-operated cars. What are the regulations you have to follow to run your company? We have to get licensing from the townships. And then you have to get insurance for $1.5 million. That’s insurance for the passengers. I suppose if you have collision insurance, too? Yes. in New Jersey it is very easy to operate a taxi business in, as it is only state in the country where we don’t pay sales tax when we buy a car. There are a lot of rules and regulations in New York, though. But now I know enough and I also own some buses. Are these tour buses? Yes, though for my buses I have to pay a total of $5 million in insurance. I have limousine and coach buses. I do tours for groups that come from India. Are most of your drivers from South Asia? Very few of my drivers are Indian. Maybe only 5 percent of my drivers are from India. The rest are Hispanics and African Americans. I like to be professional. I don’t mind

hiring Indian drivers if they are good. We check all their background and criminal record. Are you facing some stiff competition from companies like Uber, Lyft? Yes, because their prices are lower and because any driver can work with Uber. It hasn’t affected my business too much yet because I have a strong client base that has been with me for a long time. Also, Uber is in a different business. They only have cars. They don’t have limos, vans or buses. Therefore, I ensure I keep the business at the higher end. I have other big clients though – like Louis Vuitton. Right now Calvin Klein is in one of my cars in Los Angeles.

The finer points of setting up your taxi business

Putting together a taxi business involves high startup costs but, with some work, it can be quite a lucrative business. But do consider the competition. As Raj Uppal, the taxi firm owner interviewed above, said, there is competition coming from Uber, Lyft and other firms, many of which can undercut you quite sharply. Even if you are in an area that they haven’t come to, do consider if you can get past the shaky startup phase so you can hope to take them on. Before testing out your novel ideas, do check out where the taxis in your city are most active. Check how many are traveling empty – and if there are zones where potential customers usually wait. Locate the places that customers wait most fruitlessly. There may be places that the other taxi drivers do not want to go. Explore every avenue, not because it may lead to profit but to gain a better understanding of what you are getting into. Ah yes, do ensure you have a commercial driver’s license. Even if you are planning to employ other drivers, it is a good idea to be able to take over in a pinch. Do check if your town has licencing rules and other regulations for taxis. In places like New York City, there are also ‘medallion’ costs to keep in mind (it reached $1.3 million in April 2013 but now, thanks to new competition, it can go as low as $700,000).

Buy cars that are already modified to be used as taxis, but make sure they are not so old that you will be spending more on maintenance than you need to. Among the other things you need to consider before hitting the road are the insurance and office costs in your area. Depending on where you are, these can vary significantly. And remember that you need to have enough room to house at least a modest fleet until it outgrows the space. Save well before the fact to reduce the loans you take. Make sure you hire drivers with clean records and, ideally, who are are tolerant, patient and reliable. The last is a particularly useful quality. Check references from other taxi firms they have worked at. Make sure you make your rules clear and then stick by them. These include rules about when they come in, how long before their shift they can drink, and how you will deal with stealing. If you operate in a small town, ensure that you market your service properly. Advertise in local papers but also make sure the ads also show up in large supermarket flyers, at bus stations and airports. Ensure proper communication and the safety of your drivers – who do one of the most dangerous jobs in the world – by providing them with radios and possibly emergency buttons. There are always more things to say, but for now, just go and hit the road.


India Abroad June 19, 2015

Response feature

Tips to build a positive brand reputation

achieve this on a consistent basis, you are able to create customer loyalty, credibility, and deliver your message clearly. If for some reason your brand's reputation has been tarnished — even the slightest bit — you're at risk of losing current and potential customers. But, if your reputation remains intact, you have the possibility to earn lifelong customers and fans. But, before you can preserve your brand's reputation, you need to build one up. And here are five tips on how to establish a positive brand reputation. Be yourself

Whether it's online or offline your brand is a professional business. It needs to answer the following questions: Who are you? What do you do? How do you want others to perceive you? But, how can you answer these questions? The best way is by understanding the definition of brand, which according to the American Marketing Association is a ‘name, term, sign, symbol, or design, or a combination of them intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of other sellers.’ When you

M37

Engage with influencers and the community

Once you have your brand defined, it's time to get out there and engage with influencers and your specific community. Social media expert John Rampton says, ‘Use social media to converse with industry leaders, such as asking questions, adding your input, sharing their content, or signing up for their newsfeeds. This type of networking will continue to improve your credibility and expertise.’ The same could be said about joining communities specific to your niche. You're not there to make a sales pitch, but rather participate in discussions that build relationships. The idea is to create a contact base that could lead to further possibilities. Create compelling and quality content

You know your brand and are networking with like-minded individuals online, now what? You want to create content that is engaging your audience. This will continue to prove that you're an expert and it should get you recognition. Remember,

you need to create quality content that your audience will find useful, entertaining, or informative and would be something that they want to share. Protect yourself

Make sure you monitor what people are saying about you online, using tools from Brandwatch, Hootsuite, Klout, TweetReach, or Social Mention. You can also use Google Alerts to check out what's being said about your brand. By keeping up on what's being said about you online, you can prevent hijackers from tarnishing your good name. Keep in mind that no matter how much you monitor and try to prevent any negative comments, there will always be someone who has something bad to say about your brand. That's just a fact. So, how will you react? That's why you need to have a crisis plan in place prior to a storm of negativity. It's just better safe than sorry. Don't neglect your offline reputation as well

While there's a big emphasis on protecting and building a positive online brand reputation, you can't forget the fact that there's an offline world. This means that

you have to keep your customers and fan base happy. Not only will this lead to loyalty or eventually brand advocates, but word-of-mouth referrals or testimonials are great for business. For example, 50% of purchase decisions are influenced by word-of-mouth. Make your customers happy by offering an outstanding customer experience and they will gladly tell everyone who listens about how awesome your brand is. If you notice that there's been a trend of negativity going around, you might have to examine what's the cause. If not, your brand will be facing a serious reputation problem both online and offline. Information courtesy wellsfargoworks.com


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M38

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M36

Vijay Seshadri at home in Brooklyn, the New York City borough he settled in after working as a truck driver, a floor refinisher, a bicycle messenger, and spending five years in the fishing industry among other jobs.

Vijay Seshadri up and people found it very, very, moving. I thought this would an appropriate tribute to my father. He was a very much a Western man, a scientist, but very much an Indian person of the period of Indian Independence and the formation of the Republic. The next day, we did all the rituals we had to and I cremated him as the eldest son is supposed to do. Of course, we couldn’t do that much! Then there was a ritual two weeks after, which I performed. The oneyear ritual, which we will be very, very, careful about. They were both very orthodox, even though my father was pretty much left wing and he was not interested in religion. But with my mother, it would have been very bad if we hadn’t done what we had to do, in that regard. For the family and for the other Indian families, they felt it was very important that we do these things. I wrote a tribute to my father for my second book Long Meadow. I just wrote it for that book alone. I didn’t publish it. But it’s in my second volume of The Long Meadow. I think it’s a great, great, piece about him. You can get a real sense of how unusual he was, by reading it. What did you call your father? Appa or Dad? I called him Dad. I used to call him Appa when I was very little. How old was your dad? Your mother? My dad was 90, almost 91. My mother just turned 85. She is wheelchair bound and has a host of problems from diabetes to congestive heart failure. I have a person living there full time, but my sister and I do everything else: We handle her medication, take care of her bills. We have to shop for the family. I have to take her to her doctor’s appointments. Basically, I’m living there and commuting to New York for classes. I’m here this week because it’s graduation week. Is your mother, Champaka Lakshmi Seshadri, resigned to her health? My mother is wheelchair bound. She doesn’t really cook any more. She taught me how to cook. So I cook for her when I am there. She is not resigned to her health issues. Since she’s got congestive heart failure, she can’t really move very well any more. She’s old to the extent one can be resigned to dying. So, that’s what’s happening to her. It’s very sad to see. I think she had ambitions. She did get a degree. But she got married and there wasn’t really scope for her to continue. This was in India right after the Second World War — and, especially in the south in traditional communities. She always thought she could have had a career and she didn’t have one. But that’s true of so many women of her generation. They just wound up being housewives. You talked about how your mother grew up reading poetry, William Wordsworth, right? Well, my mother’s family was also very literary. My grand-

PARESH GANDHI

father was the chief engineer for the then Mysore state (now Karnataka), but he was also a Sanskrit scholar. He was quite famous for that. That family also had a lot of music and they were much more religious; my mother knows all the stories of the Ramayana, she knows all the myths and stuff like that; she understands all of the rituals. They were very punctilious in keeping an orthodox household and she was definitely — it’s not so much that she was interested in poetry specifically — but she’s a natural artist, the way she cooked. Indian women of that generation, of course, learned handicrafts. My mother is a fantastic seamstress. She used to make all my sister’s clothes when my sister was growing up. She knits beautiful things, and she’s a champion quilter. Later in life she took up quilting and she won all these blue ribbons at local county fairs for quilting. We have a lot of blue ribbons around the house. I have about half a dozen of her quilts and they’re just beautiful. She was very, very artistic and I think I just got my sensibilities from her (if you know that term). She was always

considered to be the best Indian cook in America. She’s very, very, artistic in her cooking and it’s very, very complicated, south Indian cooking. Her father was wealthy enough, so he would have her cook and he would hire Udipis (cooks) to cook for him. She learned all the Iyengar dishes from the Udipi cooks. Her handicrafts and cooking became part of suburban America. My parents came here so early that they didn’t have the benefit of an Indian community to reinforce cultural practices. They were pretty much isolated and adapted to the world around them. You are very much a product of the rebellious 1960s. Many of the writers of that period were self destructive. How did you stay different from those writers? First of all, it is not necessarily that one has to have a traumatic life in order to be an artist. That is a romantic model of artistry. That’s not really played out in history when one understands history. Artists are emotional and they tend to be a little more reckless and adventurous than other people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to be self destructive. Of course, there is a tremendous history of artists to have had productive and normal social lives who made great art. I never really bought the romantic model of an artist and never will be. I grew up in the ‘60s and identified with some of those writers to a certain extent. Certainly Gary Snyder was an important writer for me. But I never saw them as models for my life. One of the things that protected me was being an immigrant and being an Indian. I simply didn’t feel I had the freedom to kind of live a wild life. I led a pretty adventurous life: I worked five years in the commercial fishing industry on the northwest coast and I hitchhiked across America many times. But even when I did those things, I was always pretty stable and I cared for adventure. I didn’t care for drugs or I wasn’t interested in self destruction or anything like that. So when I came back to New York, it was inevitable — the sobriety an immigrant’s life will provide an immigrant because you are a stranger in a strange land and you can’t really take risks with your life that other people are willing to take. You should have a degree of care and concern about your sanity. I certainly have friends, people who are close to me, who have gone down those destructive paths. But I never followed any of them. Good for you, good for us, and good for the writing world! Yeah! 4M39 What are some of the significant things that have happened to you after the Pulitzer Prize?


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M39

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M38 Vijay Seshadri I’m reading and giving a lecture at Oxford soon. That’s very recent. I gave the key note address at the Jaipur Literary Festival. I also went to Bombay and read there. In America, I’ve given about 30 readings in the past nine months or so. I’ve gone all over the country and the most recent thing that happened is the American Academy of Arts and Letters giving me one of their awards. They are the most elite literary institution in the country. That’s quite an honor. A lot of good things have happened. I was on the PBS News Hour. I was interviewed for the largest English language Chinese cable TV network in the world. Other than that, it’s just been giving readings in academic institutions. It’s been a lot of fun. A lot of people may not know your knowledge of prose, your knowledge of French, your knowledge of Urdu poetry. I was actually in a PhD program at Columbia and I studied Urdu and Persian. I lived in Lahore. I was supposed to be there for a year, but I left after half a year because I really wanted to go back to America. I didn’t want to pursue a PhD, I didn’t want to write the dissertation when I was there. But I learnt a lot of Urdu and, of course, French and Spanish, those are just languages I know from the time I was a child. I read a lot of European poetry. I don’t read much in Spanish. But I read in French. And that’s just sort of my American background. It’s great. Those are the languages I took when I was in high school and I continue pursuing and enjoying them.

Below, Vijay Seshadri at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year. Right, Seshadri’s wife Suzanne Khuri, second row second from right, in the audience at JLF. CHANDRA MOHAN ALORIA

I’m getting more interested in Urdu poetry again. I studied it quite a while ago and I got a really good sense of the classical Urdu tradition. I was very interested in it at that time. I’m sure it came when I was in New York, basically I had to survive and take care of my family. I had a kid and I had to work all the time. I was thinking, I’m going to go back and work on my Urdu, but I never really had the time. Now I feel I do have the time and it might be very interesting. Those translations have really been well received, not only by Americans, but by also Urdu scholars, Fran Pritchett for one. She taught me at Columbia. She said they were the best translations into English she had seen. That sort of got me interested in maybe doing a book of them, which is still a project on the back burner. The Jaipur Literary Festival. Was it the first time you attended? It was, and it was amazing! About 250,000 to 300,000 people come to it. They have panels and so on. It’s so crowded! It’s a real mela. But, it’s very, very, well managed

and it was just fascinating to see young India and the interest people take in everything. The energy is just wonderful! I was dazzled by it. Did you wear Indian clothes? I wore Western clothes. It’s an English language festival. They had some vernacular stuff, but not that much. But they cut across a broad range of interests. Some of the political panels were fascinating. There would be rock star kind of people who would show up like Shashi Tharoor and V S Naipaul. To see Naipaul in his old age…. Compare the experience of attending and talking at literary festivals or at Oxford to that of being in the classroom. This is a very different kind of excitement. Isn’t it? Yes, it is. I think the one thing extends to the other. If you learn how to speak to students, I think it’s very easy to scale up to speak to large audiences and I was very grateful for my experience as a lecturer in the classroom. When I wound up as I did in Jaipur, facing an audience of 1,000 people — it’s very unusual for a poet to be in an auditorium where there are a thousand people sitting there waiting to hear you. That’s kind of shocking. I think I handled it okay simply because it’s not that different from talking to a classroom of 30 people in a lecture hall. The experience for me was great! An incredible Indian energy in Jaipur! For me it was not that different from giving talks and readings in America. What was different was what was on the other side — which was India with all of its incredible talent and energy and vitality. I was very happy to be there! What kind of audience will there be at Oxford apart from the students there? I think it will be academic students. I’m going to give a lecture at Wadham College. I’ll give a reading I don’t quite know where and 4M40 then I’ll conduct a workshop. I presume it will be just the kind of audience one would


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M40

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M39

Vijay Seshadri, right, accepts the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 from Lee C Bollinger, president, Columbia University. His father, pictured below, saw him win the Pulitzer Prize before he passed away. The poet said,‘It would have been very sad if I had won the Pulitzer and he had been gone. I would have been filled with regret.’

Vijay Seshadri encounter if one went to an American university. This is the first time I’ll be going to Oxford. It’s the first time I’ll be going to England, in fact. What are some of the books you wish you had read by now and those you have not? The books that I wish I had read and I haven’t read? I haven’t finished all of Dickens yet. I haven’t read The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Barnaby Rudge. I’m saving those. I would like to have read much more in the Bhagavata Purana because I would like to familiarize myself much more with Indian myth. There is such a vast body of Indian myth that I haven’t read. There are a lot of French books that I haven’t read that I keep saying I’m going to get around to. They’re on one of the shelves here. French writers like Benjamin Constant. I’ve never really read more than a smidgen of a writer like Voltaire. I know a lot about him, but I haven’t actually read much of him. I’m interested in finding out about him and a lot of pre19th century French poetry. There are no books that I regretted reading. When I was younger I would read a lot of science fiction. A lot of those books are silly and I probably shouldn’t have read them, but they were a weird form of entertainment. The thing about my reading habits is, I think, I not only read the best work, I read everything. I read the dictionary, for example, Webster’s International. It’s on a stand in my living room. I just go up to it and stand there and read words and I find it fascinating! I just love it! I am such an inveterate and habitual reader and there’s probably nothing at all that I didn’t get things out of, by reading it. Because it’s almost a physical engagement with language. You know this experience because you are a writer too. Do you still have a fascination with the sea? Sure! I do. There are so many trips I would like to take. I would like to go to Antarctica, to explore the Arctic. I don’t know if I ever will. I’m not driven… because my curiosity was satisfied. I spent five years in the fishing industry and went all over the north Pacific on boats and stuff. My curiosity was pretty much satisfied. There are places I would like to go. Of course, I love the ocean and looking at it and being near it and surrounded by water. It’s a great pleasure for me. Did your ocean adventures make your parents nervous? My parents were pretty confused. But they were very non invasive people, very gentle. They didn’t really know what I was doing. They were very enlightened in feeling that I should be allowed to do what I wanted to do. They were very unusual people; not just as Indians, but as human beings. They would be unusual in any circumstances. They created one child who was a poet and another one who became a social worker who then moved to Spain and lives there. They produced two very different children. What was it like going to church on Sunday when you were a boy? This essay you can find on the Threepenny Review Web site. Our neighbors would take us to church and my parents

PULITZER.ORG and COURTESY: THE SESHADRIS

would let them take me. We used to go to a Protestant church; every once and a while I would go to a Catholic church because our neighbors on the other side were Catholics, French Canadian. My parents were fine with that. They were so enlightened. They were such modern people. They were really so much a product of a really enlightened segment of the Indian Independence movement. My father was very left wing and my mother was too; they were anti-imperialists, and socialists and all those things. Those high-minded people that India produced at one time… and, hopefully is still producing. These people wanted to take me to church and they said the kid’s got to learn about this society. Let him go to church. They did not have any hostility towards Christianity or anything like that. They had the deep, deep, Brahminical attitude that all this is illusion, anyway. Did you lose interest in going to church at a certain age? I’ve been very deeply steeped in Christianity. I’ve had many friends who were very Christian. My first girlfriend dropped out of college to go to Bible college. I’m sort of a Christian fellow traveler in a way that I admire the doctrine and the myth tremendously. Suzanne (his wife) is Christian, her father is a Lebanese Christian and her mother is a Quaker from Philadelphia. When Nicholas was growing up, we would take him to church once in a while because we felt we had to introduce him to some religious tradition so he would have that option if he wanted it. We never made much of it. We’re just very modern secular people like everybody of our generation. I believe it is private, to ourselves. We do not have any communal manifestation to extend to any community. Although I don’t think faith necessarily has to. What are you working on now? I’m writing poems. I’m in the middle of writing a couple

of essays and a lecture. I’m writing the other half… there’s a non-fiction narrative in the book that won the Pulitzer Prize which is about my experience on the Bering Sea. I’m also writing about my mother. I wrote about my father in The Long Meadow. Now I feel I have to write about my mother and tell her story. When I get those down, I’m going to put all of these different prose pieces together and re-fashion them into a unified narrative and publish a memoir. Basically I’m writing what I usually write: Essays, poems and prose sporadically. I’ve been sort of slowed down by all these family things that have happened and the fact that I’ve been so busy running around the country giving readings. But now I feel I can circumvent to get a lot of work done in the next year or so. I have a sabbatical in the fall. This is the first time I’m not going to teach. You described your parents as enlightened people. What have you taken most from them that has shaped you as a teacher and as a poet? What I’ve taken from my mother is technical. She is a perfectionist and does everything in great detail. This really taught me to take pains and take care with your own work. Aesthetically, I’ve taken most from her. In terms of character, what I’ve gotten is the tremendous capacity for labor and courage from both of them. My father especially. It was very courageous of him to have come here when he did. Both of them came at a time when there were no Indians here and had to fend for their lives all by themselves. They were very, very, dutiful, hard working and completely committed to their dharma. They definitely gave me a sense of what it means to be disciplined and dutiful in the world. I’m very grateful for that as an example. They provided a lot of order for my sister and myself. They had struggles, their lives were difficult, much more difficult than our lives were. When they were in India, their lives were difficult. There was a lot of tragedy in my mother’s family; and there was a lot of poverty in my father’s because his father died when he was very young. They had to overcome tremendous barriers. So I honor and revere them. Now, that my father is gone and my mother’s so old and sick. It’s just heartbreaking for me to think about them and how much they gave me. It is so great that my father got to see when I won the Pulitzer Prize. It made him so happy. When I won, I called him up immediately and said, ‘Daddy you and I did this.’ It would have been very sad if I had won the Pulitzer and he had been gone. I would have been filled with regret and it wouldn’t nearly have been as sweet as it was, especially because we had a hard life here. We were strangers in this society. It wasn’t easy for either my sister or myself growing up in that kind of racialized set-up. I think my parents were very hurt about how difficult our lives were growing up in school where we were so different from everyone. I could see that they felt this kind of triumph. n


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M41

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘I knew in my heart of hearts that he would get the Pulitzer one day’

Vijay Seshadri and Suzanne Khuri with their son Nicholas. PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY: THE SESHADRIS

‘We had lots of common interests’ Suzanne Khuri Learning specialist, actress, wife

F

rom my perspective, Vijay and I come from similar backgrounds. We both had fathers who came here to pursue science. My father is Lebanese; his is from south India. They both came here to get PhDs. Their focus was on science and the language of science and not (I’m speaking for my father) so much defining himself by nationality but by his interests, sort of an international. I was born in Philadelphia. My mother is American. But I went to Lebanon when I was a baby and I lived there off and on for a few years. I came back permanently to this country around the time that Vijay came to America, not the same year but the same age. When we met he was a graduate student at Columbia (University). He was in the writing program and we met in New York City. We had lots of common interests. We had a similar sense of humor, we liked to take walks in the park, we had similar ways of observing people. We didn’t raise our child in any religion. We celebrated Christmas, but his (Vijay’s) parents celebrate Christmas too. They don’t do it in the religious sense; a lot of people who live in this country just get their kids presents at Christmas time. They have a pine tree that they put up. Christmas here is such a secular thing really. I don’t really define myself as a Christian. My mother is a Quaker. For them you have your communication with God; there’s no intercession of a priest or anything. And my grandfather in Lebanon was originally Melchite Catholic but then he converted to Presbyterianism, not because he really cared about the creed but he wanted to go to a different school. He didn’t like the Jesuit school he was going to. He ran away from the school because every time he asked a question he’d get slaps or something worse. So, he found another school, a Protestant school. He liked it better. Then he went to college which was then called the Syrian Orthodox College. He would walk to college everyday from the mountains because he came from a family in

What kind of childhood did I have? From the religious standpoint, we went to church on holidays, but it never was a big factor guess growing up with in my life. I guess the key thing my many different identities, parents stressed on was my educawith many different backtion and wanted to make sure I grounds and cultures, it’s was exposed heavily to literature comforting to see someone and the arts and music growing like my father who came from up... India but moved to Canada when Some of the key things would be lessons that there are a lot of challenges in life and no matter how down you get and how much adversity you encounter in life, you cannot let it flatten you and you cannot let it get in the way. You should have broader objectives. The other thing would be pure, unbridled self confidence and assuredness in my ability to do and achieve whatever I want. I’ll say that my relationship with my father is a very good combination of child and brother. I am the only child. So there’s definitely natural to have a brotherly relationship with my parents growing up. As a matter of fact, my dad is a Vijay and Nicholas Seshadri at the friend, but he’s also a parent Pulitzer ceremony last year. who teaches me lessons. I knew in my heart of hearts that he was 4, and then came to he would get the Pulitzer Prize one America at age 5, is very much an day. I believe he’s one of the most American citizen and is very much talented poets of his generation. integrated into American culture. And, not because he is my father It was very comforting for me but because other great artists have to see that despite a racial backsaid it for a long time. But, obviground in some ways that differously, at the end of the day, he’s my entiated me from my peers and blood, so I believe in him, no matother kids it is possible to inteter what. grate and be a part of America in I was actually away from home the way my father was able to when the news came. So, I went when he was a kid. out and had dinner and beers with I guess growing up in New some of my close friends at college. York, a fairly liberal culture, this But then, when I got back to New wasn’t as big of an issue but York, we did a celebratory dinner growing up with a last name like and watched the ceremony at Seshadri is something that conColumbia. n fused people. People have asked from where it comes, what it Nicholas Seshadri spoke to means; how to pronounce it I Arthur J Pais. think is the biggest issue. Nicholas Seshadri Son

I the Lebanese mountains. So, my grandfather was not religious. He became a mathematician. He was a little suspicious of religion, especially in Lebanon. My grandmother was Syrian Orthodox and she was very religious. She used to light candles and go in a huge procession on Palm Sunday where the children go on the shoulders of their male relatives all dressed up with huge candles. (After the Pulitzer) our life has not been that different except that Vijay is traveling more. Nicky (our son) and I took a week off to go with him to the Jaipur Literature Festival. That’s generally what I can do: Take a week off during the school year to go away. There are certain events I go to. I certainly went to the Pulitzer ceremony; I went for a weekend to Florida because very few of his events fall on a weekend... He went to the Miami Book Fair or whatever they call it. The big thing Nicky and I did was the Jaipur Literature Festival. Vijay gave the keynote address. It really was a lot of fun. I loved it. It is so pluralistic and everybody goes and it’s free and just the range of things there from puppetry to Scandinavian detective novels to books about beekeeping to politics, both internal to India and international. I just found it really exciting. I liked it a lot. The variety of people. People who are very practical, people who are very intellectual, people who were poets, people who were puppeteers and didn’t speak a word of English, but were fantastic. This one guy (I forgot his name) was obsessed with tigers; I bought his book. I haven’t read it yet. He has devoted his life protecting the tigers and writing about tigers. And my son would just go to these random events and come back and say, “Oh I met these Swedish detective writers. I didn’t even know there were all these detective novels.” So he started reading Swedish crime novels. n Suzanne Khuri is a learning specialist who combines her teaching skills with her acting skills to work with kids who need to learn in different ways. She spoke to Arthur J Pais.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M42

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

His father’s portrait Painted in Vijay Seshadri’s words

W

e were strange — doubly strange, because Indians are strange even in India, having been exiled from time and history by an overdeveloped, supersaturated civilization, and strange also because no one remotely resembling us had ever before lived where we lived. But I was the only person in my family beset and burdened by this strangeness. My parents were absorbed in the details of our material and spiritual survival — my mother, gregarious and active, was busy with her intense domestic arrangements; my father was either working on his spectra or bivouacked with the Army of the Potomac. But I was transfixed by our image reflected in the order that surrounded us. It was painful to look, but I couldn’t tear myself away, and became trapped by what I saw us as in the mirror of our benign, distant, Protestant Midwestern world. I was like Shakespeare’s liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass, and eventually had to ooze my way free through the cracks formed in that glass by the earthquakes of the nineteen-sixties. This confused us as a family, forced us to expend psychic resources we had always carefully husbanded, and made us all unhappy, especially my father, who had wanted me to climb up, climb up to his impossible level of concretion and discipline. I didn’t come back to the Civil War for a long time. But then, slowly, peculiarly compelled, I did, watching the documentaries on public television and browsing in the history shelves of libraries and bookstores. I kept this resurrected interest secret from my father for years. One Thanksgiving in the mid-nineteenThe generations: Vijay Seshadri, center, with his parents and son. nineties, though, when I thought I was PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY: THE SESHADRIS safe, I mentioned that I’d recently read Shelby Foote’s account of Gettysburg, and was surprised at changes that no one could have encompassed, not even how clearly I could visualize the battle, and see it unfold Lincoln. Look at how right he was about the Mexican war. hour by hour. He didn’t say much at the time. His response Look at how he wrote those memoirs while he was dying of was delayed, and when it came it was calculated and mascancer, in order to provide for his wife. That alone was sive. Three weeks later he sent me a Christmas present, a enough to wipe away the blemishes of his Administration. first edition of the two volumes of the Personal Memoirs of Grant was always impressive. His only fault was that he was too trusting. Grant, my father said, had requited himU S Grant. When I called to thank him, I told him that self. Grant, my father insisted before we hung up, was an Gertrude Stein had had a high appreciation of the memunderestimated man. n oirs. He said that was good, and that he might read Stein (he never did). And then, with both of us recognizing that Vijay Seshadri’s father taught chemistry at Ohio State the long interregnum had finally ended, that we were stuck University. The author captured his relationship with his with each other, we got into it about Grant. Grant was fine father — through road trips to Civil War landmarks — in this until he became President, I said, but what a terrible poetic essay titled The Nature of the Chemical Bond, which President. The corruption! The railroads! This agitated was part of his book The Long Meadow. him. It wasn’t Grant’s fault, he couldn’t be held responsible Excerpted with the author’s kind permission. for his corrupt companions. The Civil War had brought

Vijay Seshadri as a child in Bengaluru, where he was born.

‘Mom, don’t worry. I will be No 1’ Champaka Lakshmi Seshadri Mother

H

e always wanted to be a poet. We (her husband and her) were very worried about that. It is difficult to be a poet and be No 1. Both of us shared a passion for poetry, especially Wordsworth. He would say, “Mom, don’t worry. I will be No 1” (she laughs). When he was young he traveled a lot. But there’s nothing we could do. I used to worry until he came home. My husband encouraged him to read a lot. He was always reading. When he was 7 years old, he read all top poets. From India, we went to Ottawa, Canada, first. Two years later we came to America. Vijay was 6 when we came to America. My daughter was born in Canada. He is a very good friend to his sister. He is always very kind to her and other people. I taught him cooking. Now, he cooks for me. He cooks some of the south Indian dishes. n Champaka Lakshmi Seshadri, 85, home bound in Pittsburgh, spoke to Arthur J Pais.


M43

India Abroad June 19, 2015

If you’re planning a trip to India,

THINK FAST! Think Air India’s daily non-stop service to Delhi and Mumbai. Only Air India offers daily non-stops to India from both Metro New York airports (JFK and Newark), plus daily non-stop service from Chicago. And from our state-of-the-art Delhi hub, you can make seamless, same-terminal connections to other major cities across India. All of our non-stop flights have Economy, Executive and First Class service, and feature our award-winning in-flight hospitality. For information, contact your travel advisor or call 1-800-223-7776.

www.airindia.in

THE INTELLIGENT CHOICE TO INDIA


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M44

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘Anybody can feel the tenderness in his poetry’ Those who know him well consider Vijay Seshadri not only a brilliant writer, but also a kind of philosopher and mentor. COURTESY: THE SESHADRIS

Alice Quinn Publisher and editor

W

e started publishing Vijay Seshadri in The New Yorker pretty soon after I got there, probably in ’90 or ‘91. I got there yard (he grew up in Ohio) and as he goes into the house, really, brilliant person. in 1987. I remember reading poems of his mother says, ‘Children, history is being made.’ The And he’s a brilliant teacher. He is a mesmerizing lecturhis in an anthology called Thirty Under poem reflects the perspective that he had painted on that er. Thirty. There was a poem called My Esmarelda and the historical moment in the years since. Did he tell you the story of the poem called The opening lines are: And we needed that perspective after 9/11. And so we Disappearances? It was after 9/11. Everybody was still in Some people like each other and are therefore like each put the poem on the back page of The New Yorker. But he emotional crisis. other, had to accept changing the title because it was a very intiViji (Vijay) had sent us a poem which we had accepted. but I like you and therefore I’m mate poem, a poem very intimate with crisis and it was It’s in the Long Meadows. It was called Flying Saucer. I so original a burden on my time supremely valuable at that moment. But the title Flying read that poem and I said, ‘Viji, we need that poem right And I remember thinking Wow! This man’s mind is so Saucer was too distant. And he had to really think about now and we’re going to put it on the back page of The New interesting. His head is always pivoting. He is a very, very, that. Yorker and we cannot put that title on.’ original thinker. Flying Saucer answers his global, universal, Indian perThe poem is about his being a child. In 1963, when It was such an arresting poem that I was moved to be in spective and the disappearances were emphasized in the Kennedy was assassinated, the children are playing in the touch with him and to welcome work of his. All the three loss of 9/11 and the loss of 1963. It was a great gift editors (of The New Yorker) with whom I worked — to us and to the American readership of The New Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown and David Remnick — Yorker that he allowed that change in the title. loved his work. I think he understood immediately the imporIt is rarer than we think that we encounter a contance of changing the title. And the poem became temporary poet who knows the whole tradition of a very important one. poetry in English, who has thought about it and felt At the luncheon at the American Academy of about it. From Jonathan Swift and Wordsworth, Arts and Letters, May 20, when we honored him, from Herbert and Hopkins to Auden to Bishop to Viji said he thought that D H Lawrence’s The John Ashbery, Vijay understands it all. When you Rainbow is the best novel in the English language. read his poems, the streambed of that is providing areas. May 20, 2015, at the luncheon That’s a comment to send you running back to your fresh springs of perspective and conviction to every3 Sections is a book full of nimof the American Academy of Arts library and that’s so typical of his authoritative and thing he writes. ble acrobatics in the verse line and Letters, Vijay Seshadri was amusing conversational style. Did you read the middle section of his new book and marvelously satisfying narrahonored with an award in literaHe has such a commanding intellect and anyabout salmon fishing? Do you remember how it tive. It goes from short, cryptoture and the following citation: body can feel the tenderness in the poetry. If you ends? They are in jail and it’s a kind of life-or-death surreal lyrics through a middle read The Long Meadow, you’ll see sweetness storm and he says, ‘Wait a second, I’m an Indian. section about the salmon fishing VIJAY SESHADRI towards his dog. It is absolutely transcendent. n What am I doing here?’ That is the classic Indian culture of the Pacific Northwest, Arts and Letters Award in perspective on life. to an end section of one long Literature Alice Quinn is Executive Director of the Poetry But it’s a mystical perspective and he has that; at poem about the nature/essence Society of America and an adjunct professor at the same time as a writer, he is a reckoner with a of being. Vijay Seshadri is a poet of deep Columbia University's graduate School of the Arts. kind of unappeasable truth and uncomfortable realiA profound accomplishment by talent and high achievement. He She was poetry editor at The New Yorker from 1987 ties about human nature and about our state as we a profound and accomplished thinks big and he thinks small, to 2007 and at Alfred A Knopf, from 1976 to 1986. have determined it through neglect of our planet and poet. and writes beautifully in both She spoke to Arthur J Pais. through lack of historical attention. He is a really,

‘A profound and accomplished poet’


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M45

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 Clockwise from top,Vijay Seshadri’s remarkable debut collection of 1996, his James Laughlin Award-winning second collection The Long Meadow of 2004, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning third collection in 2013.

We are meant to be dislocated. We are meant to be baffled. I am, by contrast to Vijay, an embarrassingly predictable personality, hopelessly Midwestern, and not known to shock or surprise. Perhaps this is one reason why Vijay and I work well together. But I will always have this on him: On April 14, 2014, the Pulitzer Prizes were announced through the media, and with most of us connected more or less continuously to some stream of news and communication (see Vijay’s poem New Media), the announcement of 3 Sections winning the prize for poetry hit the Graywolf office in a cluster of bursts, as if detonated on every screen. After the immediate celebratory moment, I called Vijay at home, assuming he already had the news. Our conversation went something like this:

Jeff Shotts Publisher and editor

G

raywolf Press has been Vijay Seshadri’s publisher from his remarkable debut collection, Wild Kingdom, in 1996, through his James Laughlin Award-winning second collection, The Long Meadow, in 2004, and to his Pulitzer Prize-winning third collection, 3 Sections, in 2013. As his editor on the most recent two of those three collections, I have suggested to Vijay that he doesn’t have to put nearly a decade between each book, as I’m sure his many readers would appreciate. But to no avail. We’ll have to wait in suspense — a state of anticipation and uncertainty his poems seem to delight in, crafted as they are toward a wry and astute ambivalence about our place in the world, at any given moment. 3 Sections, for instance, is not divided into three sections, at least not obviously so. The confounding of expectations is this poet’s deliberate challenge to his reader and to himself as a writer. In an interview conducted by Jeet Thayil in Poets & Writers magazine, Seshadri observes, ‘Nobody deals with the deepest existential response, which is bafflement.’ That state of unknowing, of mystery, of profound uncertainty is rendered in Seshadri’s poetry in masterful, meticulous, and ambitious new ways. In Personal Essay, perhaps the greatest long poem of its kind since John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Seshadri writes, ‘I’m suddenly — what’s the word? — bemused./I’m bemused because I think I’m not what I think I am—/whatever I think I am—’ Whatever else he is, or thinks he is, Seshadri is a virtuosic poet. At one moment, poems careen, sometimes for pages, at the speed of thought. In another moment, a brief poem is crafted in quatrains with unexpected rhyme. In The Long Meadow and 3 Sections, poems written in lines eventually give way to long prose essays on the poet’s own identity and history — whether in the

Decentering, baffling, yet exhilarating family car being dragged to yet another Civil War battlefield, or on a fishing boat getting tremendously seasick on the North Pacific. The array across a Seshadri collection is

exhilarating, with its own kind of suspense. The result is a decentering experience for the reader, one that catches us up but that we can’t quite catch up to — the swerve of consciousness itself.

Seshadri: Hello? Shotts: Vijay! It’s Jeff from Graywolf! Huge congratulations! Seshadri: Hey, Jeff. Thanks. (beat) For what? Shotts: You won the Pulitzer Prize! Seshadri: (beat) What? No. No. You’re joking. Me? No way. Shotts: Yes, you did. You won the Pulitzer Prize. Congratulations! Seshadri: (sound of clicking computer mouse) No. (long beat, sound of typing on keyboard, followed by sound of clicking computer mouse) Shotts: Yes. Seshadri: (bemused) You’ve got to be joking me. (beat, realization) Oh my god. Oh my god. (sound of hand not quite entirely covering the phone receiver) (muffled, to wife, Suzanne) I just won the Pulitzer Prize. (muffled but indecipherable voice of astonished Suzanne in the background) Oh my god. (sound of hand coming off of phone receiver) You’re not joking me. Shotts: I’m not joking you. Seshadri: Oh my god. Shotts: Congratulations, Vijay! So amazing! We’re just so incredibly honored, everyone here at Graywolf! Seshadri: Thank you. Thank you. (bafflement, at last, the deepest existential response) What does this mean? n Jeff Shotts is Publisher and Editor at Graywolf Press.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M46

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘He enjoys picking up an idea and taking it in unexpected directions’ Frances Pritchett Professor and friend

S

As grand as he is an author and by reputation,Vijay Seshadri gives of himself in an extraordinarily generous way to his students. COURTESY: THE SESHADRIS

‘He keeps us focused on more transcendent values Jerrilynn Dodds Colleague

I

can tell you that Vijay Seshadri, despite the fact that he’s world famous, works one-on-one with undergraduate students. And you have to understand, he will work with first year students, with beginning students, he’s a person of enormous sensitivity and enormous humanity. As grand as he is an author and by reputation, he gives of himself in an extraordinarily generous way to his students. I’ve known him for six years, since I became dean of Sarah Lawrence college. All the professors at Sarah Lawrence work every couple of years with first year students and they become not just their teachers but their ‘dons.’ The word ‘don’ at Sarah Lawrence does not mean exactly the same thing as it means in England. A don is somebody who helps guide a student through their four years and helps them understand the direction in which they’re going in life, not only the academic and creative direction but what they want to accomplish in their life. So, Vijay does this not only as a brilliant writer, but also as a kind of philosopher and mentor. We have a very famous writing program. It has created many famous, distinguished writers who have made a mark on the world through novels, through poetry, through non-

fiction writing. Vijay is a very important part of it. You know Vijay is not only a distinguished poet but also the head of our non-fiction writing program. He was chosen at the college to address the college at its first convocation. His address, which talked about the impact of the Sarah Lawrence experience on himself and on his students was extraordinarily erudite and moving at the same time. I’m constantly surprised by his humanity. You might meet him at a reading with a large number of very impressive people. A place where he is the center of attention. And, yet he will listen to everybody who addresses him and give them his full attention and answer them with understanding. He is quite extraordinary! He doesn’t recognize hierarchies rather than those created by virtue. I can just say as dean I feel so enormously privileged to have worked with him. He’s brought us glory, he’s brought us wisdom and he’s brought us his profound equanimity. He is wonderfully humorous, extraordinarily literary humor. He puts things in perspective. He rises above petty concerns. He keeps us focused on more transcendent values. Do you know his poem that was published just after 9/11? It’s one of the great American poems. And, it serves to redirect us in many ways. n Jerrilynn Dodds, Dean, Sarah Lawrence College, New York, spoke to Arthur J Pais.

ome people are not aware of the trans creations (translations) of the Urdu poems Vijay has trans created into English. Though the work is very limited and he has shared four of them, the work is significant. Vijay’s trans creations are much better than most people. His trans creations are done by a good poet and most people’s trans creations are trans creations done by people who are not good poets. You know what I mean by trans creations as opposed to translations, don’t you? Certainly, Vijay would agree that he’s not literally translating the verses, but he’s trying to capture the essence of them and reframe them in English. He has talked about doing others, but I think he’s just very busy with many things, including his elderly parents who haven’t been well. He was a good student — it was 25 years ago; I have no particular recollection — but it was clear that he was smart and sophisticated. I watched his growth and publications over the years in a general way. I’ve much more enjoyed his personal company. I’m friends with his wife Susanne and son Nicholas also. I enjoy his temperament and person-

ality. He’s got an original mind and he enjoys picking up an idea and embroidering it creatively and taking it in unexpected directions. Not many people are aware that he has this adventurous streak in him... in fact, when he gets annoyed, he sometimes says he wants to go back and be on a fishing boat again; that he really liked that part of his life very much. He has wonderful literary abilities; he really does have a gift of words, and I’ve always enjoyed seeing how he uses it. The poem that he published in The New Yorker, that came out right after September 11, that one you want to take note of... I remember at the time how moved by it I was and how unexpectedly appropriate it was because it came out right after September 11. It hadn’t been written with regard to the events of September 11 but it almost felt as though it had. It almost seemed to anticipate the 9/11 events. It almost seemed to anticipate the feelings of flying and vanishing that were associated with people leaping to their deaths from the towers. It was a very moving and melancholy but powerful poem. n Frances Pritchett is Professor Emerita of Modern Indic Languages, Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, Columbia University. She taught Vijay Seshadri several years ago and is today his friend. She spoke to Arthur J Pais.

“No, I wasn’t meant to love and be loved.” No, I wasn’t meant to love and be loved. If I’d lived longer, I would have waited longer.

not dead but perpetually dying.

Death would be fine, if I only died once.

I want my friends to heal me, succor me. Instead, I get analysis.

I would have liked a solitary death, not this lavish funeral, this grave anyone can visit.

Knowing you are faithless keeps me alive and hungry. Knowing you faithful would kill me with joy.

Conflagrations that would make stones drip blood are campfires compared to my anguish.

Delicate are you, and your vows are delicate, too, so easily do they break.

Two-headed, inescapable anguish!— Love’s anguish or the anguish of time.

You are a laconic marksman.You leave me

Another dark, severing, incommunicable night.

You are mystical, Ghalib, and, also, you speak beautifully. Are you a saint, or just drunk as usual? — Unpublished; provided to Columbia by the translator, Vijay Seshadri in May 2009 Shared with India Abroad by Frances Pritchett.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M47

ON THE FRONTLINES ‘We spend worldwide a lot of money on militaries and training exercises. But what’s going to be the greatest killer probably over the next 50 years — barring a world war — is infectious disease and we don’t pay attention to that as much.’ For the last five years, Dr Pranav Shetty has been among the first doctors to go knee deep into war-zones, areas hit by natural disasters and deadly epidemics, including Ebola. The winner of the first India Abroad Doctor of the Year Award shares his experience of striving to keep the world healthy with Aziz Haniffa.

Presented by

DR PRANAV SHETTY

INDIA ABROAD DOCTOR OF THE YEAR AWARD 2014 For dedication during a global crisis; for battling a deadly disease; for selfless service to humanity.

COURTESY: INTERNATIONAL MEDICAL CORPS.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M48

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

ON THE FRONTLINES

T

he Indian-American community — and the world for that matter — came to know of Dr Pranav Shetty’s selfless heroism only when he popped up on the White House radar, when we journalists received a release informing us that he would be among a select few invited to sit in First Lady Michelle Obama’s box during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address January 20. He created history by becoming the first Indian American to be accorded this special honor, specifically for leading the International Medical Corps team on the frontlines during the Ebola epidemic in Liberia. And when the President got to the part of his remarks where he recognized the selfless service of Ebola fighters and their lifesaving efforts in West Africa, the cameras panned toward Dr Shetty, 33, the Mangalore-born, Trinidad-raised, Virginia-based physician, and the IMC’s Global Emergency Health Coordinator, sitting in the First Lady’s Box. The IMC, a non-profit organization, that had been a critical partner in the international support efforts to fight the Ebola epidemic, had deployed him to Liberia in August 2014 to establish and oversee two Ebola treatment units. In addition, he managed teams of rapid responders that were deployed to Ebola hot spots in Liberia and a training center for local and international health-care workers. He had remained on the frontlines for four months. At the time, Dr Shetty had said in a statement: ‘The United States government has been a strong supporter of our work, and it was truly an honor to be recognized by the President and First Lady on behalf of tens of thousands of nurses, doctors, burial team workers, and others who are tirelessly working to save lives in West Africa. IMC is one of the few international organizations treating Ebola patients in West Africa, but we are also focused on building local health care capacity so medical professionals across the region can become their own first responders — to not only prevent and treat Ebola but also other illnesses.’ When India Abroad, immediately after he was accorded this unprecedented recognition, asked him what he would say to people who call guys like him ‘selfless heroes,’ Dr Shetty simply said, “That’s very kind of them to say so. But really, we are doing our function in the world. Any family physician in India, who is seeing patients day in and day out, they are also heroes and they are doing their best to make sure that the world is healthier and a better place and no different from us.” He viewed the entire experience as “a little surreal,” especially as he saw himself there as only a representative of the IMC and “the thousands of health workers and other people really working on the frontlines against Ebola.” “My position in IMC is Emergency Health Coordinator, so I represent the organization in these types of projects and for these types of events as well,” he had added. “It was quite a privilege to do so. I owe a lot to our heritage and upbringing in this regard. I am so proud to represent the entire community — both humanitarian as well as the Indian-American community.” But then this humility, keeping a low profile and flying under the radar shunning publicity, was quintessentially Pranav Shetty — as his parents, his sisters, his close friend Dr Aaron Skolnik, his colleagues and his boss at IMC would later tell us.

Perhaps no recollection was more emotional than his father’s. Dr Manohar Shetty spoke of how at barely age nine, Pranav became the man of the house, when he moved with his mother Sujatha Shetty to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in August 1990 so that she could pursue an associate degree in nursing. The senior Dr Shetty had remained in Trinidad and Tobago, continuing his work there as a plastic surgeon and burns specialist till he was able to get a job in the US, and move to Pittsburgh two years later. Pranav Shetty’s twin sisters, Meghana and Shivana, explained how he was their hero much before he became a hot-shot physician rushing off to war zones, disaster areas and epidemic-ridden regions of the world, further elucidating the soul of his character and why humanitarian work perhaps was his calling. As the initial health technical lead for IMC’s major emergency response operations worldwide, Dr Shetty is often one of the first to deploy to the affected area in the aftermath of a disaster or crisis. In that earlier interview with India Abroad, asked why he picked the IMC and the risks that went with it over a cushy job in the US (not difficult considering he had a medical degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, had completed his residency in emergency medicine at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, had completed a fellowship in Global Health and International Emergency Medicine at the University of Maryland, had received his Masters of Public Health from the University of Maryland and a Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience from the University of Pittsburgh) he had said, “I strongly believed in its mission. I believed in what the International Medical Corps did around the world as did other such humanitarian agencies. I really believe for those of us who work in this field — a lot of us who work for the International Medical Corps as well as other organizations — we believe in a sense of service behind it. It’s really a pleasure to be able to work

The IMC deployed Pranav Shetty to Liberia in August 2014 to establish and oversee two Ebola treatment units. In addition, he managed teams of rapid responders that deployed to Ebola hot spots in Liberia and a training center for local and international health-care workers COURTESY: INTERNATIONAL MEDICAL CORPS

here and alongside the colleagues we see in the field, who are making, as you mentioned, some of the sacrifices, to be able to do the type of work that we do.” “Every humanitarian emergency has risks,” he had added. “Any time we respond to any type of emergency situation those risks are inherent, and we need to manage those risks in every deployment. But it’s a tradition here (to work in these danger zones) that that’s what we are called to do. For myself, personally, and for the International Medical Corps, there wasn’t any question because we saw the need that was there on the ground and we had a capacity to respond and that’s what we did.” Before Liberia, in his nearly five years with the non-profit organization, Dr Shetty had already been knee deep in the war-zones of Libya and Iraq, tending to Syrian refugees in Jordan, taking care of the displaced in Sudan, or treating patients in the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. And soon after returning from Liberia, he was off to West Africa again to establish IMC’s first Ebola treatment center in Guinea. And when India Abroad spoke to him in May, Dr Shetty was in Nepal where he had rushed following the devastating earthquake April 25 and where he was scheduled to remain until June tending to the injured and the sick in 4M49 remote villages and helping to put together the infrastructure to prevent an outbreak of infec-


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M49

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M48 Dr Pranav Shetty tious diseases, particularly in a country where cholera is endemic. Dr Shetty takes the conversation forward from that first conversation in January. The last time we spoke was in January, just after you created history by becoming the first Indian American to sit in the First Lady’s box during a President’s State of the Union. You were being honored for being part of the selfless fighters against the Ebola virus in Liberia. Almost immediately after this recognition, you were heading out to Guinea to establish the International Medical Corps’ first Ebola treatment center there. What’s the latest status of the Ebola epidemic now in West Africa? In Liberia, they’ve declared Ebola free. That’s where I actually spent most of my time. So, that’s very reassuring. But the issue is that in West Africa, the borders are very porous, so, you can’t actually take stock that it’s really Ebola free until it is wiped from the region. So, it’s one of those instances of cautious optimism in terms of how things will go. The numbers have certainly gone down, but at the end of the day, this type of epidemic, especially, is one of scale, both in terms of numbers and in terms of geographic spread, as well as the difficulties that have been experienced really in terms

of finding all the cases. We know that this will continue for some time. In Sierra Leone, it has come down and in Guinea it’s kind of smoldering along. So, we’ll get to zero at some point, but we’ve got to keep up the attention and keep up the level of resources being put to work because the issue is that it started with one case, and until you find that last case, there’s always the risk of a resurgence. On top of it, it’s the fact that it’s not an imported Ebola from Central Africa, DROC (the Democratic Republic of Congo), Uganda, Sudan, or some of these regions. It’s in the animal population. So, we know that it’s not a matter of if it will recur, but when and whether we will be prepared to deal with it the next time — it could be one year, it could be 10 years. These things are very difficult to predict. When we also spoke last, the media had gotten around to giving the Ebola virus the attention it probably deserved but the epidemic was already well on its way in terms of a crisis. There was paranoia and fear psychosis in the US, especially following the death of some US residents and doctors who had returned after being in contact with Ebola patients in West Africa. The Fox News of the world and some US lawmakers were screaming that flights and personnel from Liberia and other parts of West Africa be banned from entering or reentering the US. The Obama administration then dispatched troops to build up the infrastruc-

ture and training facilities, etc, but was it a little too late because by the time these sophisticated centers were set up the virus the outbreak had largely faded and these clinics were empty. Are you glad that at least the infrastructure is set up now to deal with the virus if it breaks out again in Liberia? The lessons learned going forward is one that epidemics need to be respected — it’s the first time Ebola got on a plane and that really opened the world’s eyes to really, the global nature of diseases and that’s why it’s not a localized problem. In 1976, Ebola was some kind of a Central African issue at that time. But now, it’s a world issue and the world’s problem. So, we need to be prepared as kind of a global community to deal with it. As you mentioned, even though it has been thought that the humanitarian response was slow to start out, the fact of the matter is that it did start up and it went up and it went up as quickly as it could. When you are talking about the entire scope of humanitarian intervention, it’s the kind of machine that needs to be started up and revved up and it sort of takes some time to get to where it’s really, really effective. It got there. You really can’t argue with the result. It’s not just the treatment centers. It was the social mobilization; it was the buy-in from the communities; it was the state of burials; it was the fact that people were engaged and involved and preventive in their action and that was brought under

control in Liberia. So, we hope those lessons will not be lost and that the infrastructure and all the training — thousands of health-workers trained by the various organizations in West Africa — ensures that we will be better prepared for the next one. But, we need to make sure that all the systems and all the training doesn’t go to waste through inaction and kind of inattention over the next several years. (The IMC currently operates four Ebola treatment centers in West Africa — two in Liberia and two in Sierra Leone — providing not only isolation and health care but also psychosocial support, which is a critical element in recovery. To expand the pool of health workers capable of managing and working in Ebola treatment centers across the region, IMC, led by the likes of Dr Shetty, provides hands-on, in-depth training to locals as well as organizations.) So, what you are saying is that in a sense, even though it has been contained, it has not been totally eliminated? That’s the idea. When you have a disease, which has an animal reservoir in that, it lives in the animal population and doesn’t make animals sick. Although it has never been strictly proven that the natural animal reservoir are bats and it doesn’t make bats sick, but whenever there is an interaction between a bat and a human it can spill over to the human population — if this is the theory, and we are not helping to eliminate all the (infected) bats, it’s something that is always going to be a persistent risk... So because of this idea that it’s in the animal population and can constantly at any time spill over, that is a reality that we have to deal with and prepare for. During your stints in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and other West African countries, what were some of the high points vis-à-vis your humanitarian efforts. Also, what were the absolute lows, considering the sheer size and scale of this battle? It’s really difficult to think of it in terms of the population, like, oh, there are a lot of cases and that’s a low point and the cases have gone down and that is a definite high point. It’s a different emotional reaction after that. The IMC treated a number of patients at the Ebola treatment centers and, of course, when you have people brushing their teeth in the morning and dead in the afternoon, it’s a real low. But we accept. Not necessarily

Top row second from left, Dr Pranav Shetty in First Lady Michelle Obama’s box, front row second from right, prior to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech January 20. ROB CARR/GETTY IMAGES

4M50


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M50

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M49 Dr Pranav Shetty accept, but we understand that we are not able to save everybody — that is a stark reality and there’s really nothing that’s going to change for them. But we’ve learnt a lot and we’ve got better just like everybody else in terms of patient care. But when people are dying, you have a sense of being almost powerless sometimes over what you can do, and that’s a low. But you try to reassure yourself that we tried our best and it was what it was. Then there’s the point when you start questioning yourself as to what it is you are doing there — what’s your purpose. Of course, when people survive and things like that — that’s great. But I believe the really high point for me is that you understand that this is a public health concern. It’s definitely a personal issue for every patient, and you realize that every person that we treated — even if they died — because we were able to isolate them and treat them, we may have prevented two, four, six more cases within the family, within the household, or within the community. That’s something to take solace in even when patients die, which they will. I mean, nobody goes treating Ebola thinking that no patients will die, but the fact that when you question yourself as to what was the purpose, you realize that because you isolated this father now, the child will survive or the wife will survive, for example. For me, it’s different ways of approaching patient care and medicine and that’s to realize that this is a disease that has a huge impact on people’s loved ones, and by your action or the action of your organization, the NGO community, the global community, the local Liberian health workers, we really prevented multiple other infections and multiple other deaths. For me, that’s the impact that we have. That we’ve really been able to prevent those kinds of potentialities by providing treatment to one person, whether or not you are able to save that one person, is something to take away. Your loved ones obviously worry every time you go off to these war zones or disaster areas or Ebola virus-like epidemic areas. How do you reconcile their fears, not just where you are concerned, but that all these loved ones are constantly tense whenever you go out on one of these assignments? A couple of things. One, is, I have a very understanding and trusting family. My parents have been very supportive, and not necessarily now but throughout anything I’ve done. They’ve certainly made a number of sacrifices in their lives to allow for myself and my sisters to have the opportunities that we have to choose our own paths. So, that’s from my side, one of the greatest gifts that they could have and have given us. Nora (his wife), obviously, I mean, is the most patient person on the planet. Most others would not be as understanding as she’s been in everything we’ve done… Nora’s moved to many different places because of things that I’ve done or we’ve done together, and I think she’s the only person you’ll find that would be so understanding and accepting of such a lifestyle. I moved her to Jordan for over a year and… she’s so flexible and loving and understanding, which is why she did what she did. Secondly, for me, this is not that I volunteer — this is actually what I do. This is my career, so I am aware of the risks. I am careful about what I do. I don’t try to put myself in harm’s way. Certainly, there’s a dangerous context obviously in everything we do, but then, so is downtown Baltimore. So, you have your wits about you and use common sense. This is my career and I have built it around understand-

ing, both from the programmatic side, what we can do, with the resources we have and also to do it safely and effectively with impartiality and neutrality and things like this, because any risk I pose to myself is a great detriment both for me, and of course, to my family, to everybody, and that’s why we are measured and calculated definitely in where we go and what we do and things like this. We have to be cognizant of that. We do that through our organization and do that in a way that creates the environment for us to be safe and work effectively. So, I guess I look at it a little bit differently. I am fairly comfortable, but that’s just from experience and also from the mindset of how we operate here and wherever that is. Nepal is obviously not a dangerous context, but Libya, Iraq and places like that can be, and we are definitely aware of the environment and aware of what results our actions may have. Nora, she knows that and it’s not that I am running off with no support structure and things like that, and I believe that also provides some sort of reassurance. I hope it does. It’s interesting since you brought up Nepal as compared to other dangerous zones and areas that you’ve gone to because Nora brought up the point that when you were in Liberia, even though there were all these fears and paranoia about the Ebola virus, you were in control of what you were doing, in terms of safety protocols and what you had to do and wear etc, and not take undue risks. But in Nepal, in the aftermath of the earthquake with all of the after-shocks, she argued that you maybe in a building and if there were to be an aftershock, you would have no control at all? Yes, definitely. But in the work we do, any building we reside in, we have an engineer look at it before we live in it — that can be a hotel, it could be a house, it doesn’t matter. When there was this second earthquake in Nepal May 12, and after that, we actually slept in the fields for a couple of days before we evaluated as to what’s the right step to take.

Pranav Shetty treats a young man injured as Super Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) made landfall in Guiuan, the Philippines, in 2013. COURTESY: INTERNATIONAL MEDICAL CORPS

But, you are right, there is certainly a degree of risk we have no control over but we have to mitigate that to the greatest extent possible and be prepared to act quickly for ourselves and our colleagues to be safe. We take the steps necessary to be able to protect ourselves and show responsibility both to ourselves and to our families and to the organization. But you’ll never get rid of risk — that’s impossible to do that wherever you are — but you do the best you can per your experience and your ability to mitigate that to the greatest extent possible in what we do. In the past few weeks that you’ve been in Nepal, has the situation stabilized somewhat? Yes, the situation has stabilized. It’s really an infrastructure issue now as the reconstruction and rehabilitation is largely the focus now. So, we are really looking for support in the rebuilding at this stage. The International Medical Corps is focusing on these remote areas, which are often times the hardest to reach and some of the ones that are the most neglected. How about the thousands who were injured? Have they been taken care of now? In an earthquake, usually the immediate effect are obviously deaths and injuries but at this time, in terms of injuries, that’s been taken care of. The things we worry about now is that the monsoon season is coming soon at a time when naturally infectious diseases come up. In situations, where there is a lot of crowding and population displacement and lack of a good 4M51 health system and a public health system, especially in terms of nutrition, food security,


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M51

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M50

Pranav Shetty leads a mobile medical unit in the Gorkha District in Nepal, the epicenter of the first earthquake in April.

Dr Pranav Shetty and water and sanitation, we worry about outbreaks of different infectious diseases. There’s a lot of focus being put on that as well in terms of surveillance, and putting into place procedures to respond to that if that is the case. We always need to be prepared. Some of the things that I am most concerned about in these settings is the spread of diseases like measles — that is very contagious — and diseases like cholera, because it would be in the water supply and spreads very quickly. Cholera is endemic in Nepal and you have epidemics every several years. So, this situation, which is in a setting that doesn’t allow for proper hygiene, needs a lot of attention. The appropriate measures are in place to deal with it when and if it occurs. Everybody is working as hard as they can to get the public health measures — sanitation, the water supply, nutrition and all of these things — in place so that we can avoid it. Prevention is definitely the easiest and the most cost-effective manner of dealing with disease but we need to be preparing to respond with the treatment. It has been quite amazing that we’ve gone so far without anything major occurring and we have to keep up the focus and the attention and make sure that adequate resources are allotted to continuing that kind of preventive measures to ensure nothing like that occurs in the near future. In terms of the rebuilding of homes in these remote villages — many of which I believe collapsed — what’s the situation? They are generally rather strong houses but — held together by mud and water and a mixture of cement — they were completely razed to the ground in these villages. In terms of rebuilding them, the issue is that it’s very difficult to get supplies into these areas, and we fly in by helicopter; otherwise it’s a two-day walk to these villages. There are no actual roads that are traversable by a vehicle to get there. The reconstruction is very difficult because the access is very limited. People who want to reconstruct have to physically carry stuff and this access challenge is one of the hardest things to get around, particularly for things like shelter, which requires a lot of commodities as you know and are heavy to bring in. So, help in this area should be a priority by the international community. How conspicuous is the presence of Indian doctors, nurses, and other health-care workers and personnel? India immediately sent out teams here, and we have definitely heard from the Nepali population that the Indian Army has been doing a lot of logistics work and a lot of health work. Also, in hospitals, there are contingents of Indian volunteers, who are assisting, especially in the specialized functions because even though the staff were there, the need exceeded the current capacity in terms of not only a skills set, but also the clinical capacity to deal with the patients.

COURTESY: INTERNATIONAL MEDICAL CORPS

Also, the addition of a lot of Indian physicians, nurses, specially in the specialized fields like orthopedic surgery, trauma surgery, has helped a lot and you heard that time and time again, about the impact that the clinicians had as well as the huge logistical support given by the Indian military. Every time you go to the airport, you see the Indian Army’s helicopters there, flying and transporting people to these remote locations. That support is very visible and much appreciated. Finally, what’s your prognosis for the future of the Ebola virus and what are the strategies that have to be institutionalized, particularly by the US and the international community? One, Ebola is not necessarily a disease to be feared, but it is a disease to be respected. And it’s a hard lesson that we learnt. This was the first time that we’ve seen it in this context by the fact that it got on a plane and ended up in Texas.

So, it was really an eye-opener for the US public health system, for the world, and it took so many resources to get behind it. That, to me, that’s the greatest lesson: Look what happened when we were a little bit late and then we waited and we didn’t pay attention. It’s not necessarily for Ebola, but we are in an age when — because of globalization and because of climate change and in interactions between humans and animals and the crowding of animals in certain countries because of x, y, z economic reasons — we can’t necessarily predict what’s going to happen with infectious diseases. We see Avian flu, and swine flu, H1N1, SARS, Ebola, things like this and it seems (to spread) more rapidly now than in the past. We are learning about these viruses... But we see that we as a world are fairly unprepared to deal with something like this, especially on a grand scale. Could we have imagined some virus which has the fatality of Ebola, upwards of 50 percent... can spread in this way? We have to understand that if we are slow with a virus like Ebola, where I could stand with no protection one meter away from a patient — and I have many times and have had a conversation across a one-meter barrier with nothing in between — what would you imagine if there was a virus that was much more contagious? Ebola is infectious, but it is not contagious; it’s not that easily transmitted. So, it’s not easy to catch the disease if you take the proper precautions and are not exposed. So, what should be known in the US or any sort of global public health body, is how do we take the lessons learnt here with Ebola, which garnered the world’s attention and really put that to the world’s preparedness to what’s going to be the next virus, and there’s going to be one — there is no doubt about that. It’s just what and when and if we don’t prepare ourselves to respond early or be able to be able to respond internally in the US, for example, because it will get on a plane and it will go to different places, then all these lessons are for nothing. The potential is there for a virus that’s much more deadly than Ebola. I mean Ebola, relatively speaking, there were not even 12,000 deaths — it’s not on a scale that actually could have been. For me, that’s what we should walk away with. How do we actually not forget about this and translate this to something that we really act on? We spend worldwide a lot of money on militaries and training exercises and getting prepared for that. But really what’s going to be the greatest killer probably over the next 50 years — barring a world war — is infectious disease and we don’t pay attention to that as much, and maybe, we really should. n


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M52

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘He’s a realized soul’

Pranav was very inspired by his grandfather, who was also a physician.

Sujatha Shetty Mother

F

rom a very young age, he’s been very intuitive to others’ needs, and the only reason I am saying it is because my cousins always used to make note of it. Like, if they were playing and if one of the kids fell, he (a cousin) would say how before his wife could run to help her daughter, Pranav was already there soothing her. I believe it was my father, also a physician, who was influential in shaping Pranav’s personality in terms of going beyond the call of duty to help others and be caring. My father was a very giving sort of doctor and man. Pranav Shetty with his parents Sujatha and Manohar. My mom died when I was about two years PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY: MANOHAR SHETTY old and my father had to raise the three of us, two siblings and I, under the age of six, and he never remarried. He raised us, and I believe it made an influence on Pranav because he has seen and heard from me about my father and his patience and I believe it really affected him and had a deep influence on him. I believe it made a difference to Pranav, although I didn’t see it till later. To tell you the truth, as a parent, it’s hard to see your child go to these places (war or epidemic zones or areas struck by natural calamities) — it worries us because you know, we brought him here (to the US) to have a better life. One thing Pranav said to me when I questioned him made me never ever question his decision to go to these places. Once, I think, he was in medical school then, and had gone to volunteer in Guatemala. There was no contact with him. I think, he was working in a Mayan village and going in a boat and they had no phone access and I was really, really concerned at that time. Manohar Shetty So, I said, ‘Pranav, this is very dangerous because I think there are Father rebels and things like that and what if something happens?’ He said to me, ‘Mom, if anything is to happen to me, it will happen to me, wherever f course, we are immensely proud over I am. I could be walking down the street in Los Angeles (he was a student the humanitarian work Pranav is doing then at UCLA) and I could get shot over there as I am here.’ So, that was all over the world, particularly in counthe last time I ever told him. tries where the need is so great, but at Now we just pray and say, keep him safe and whatever will be, will be. I the same time, we have all of the concerns and fears guess, in a way it goes back to karma, which we people from South Asia of parents, when he goes off to some of these very believe in so much. Here he was reinforcing this concept of karma, that dangerous areas. you will go when it’s your destined time to go. Initially, we were very, very tense, and every time Of course, we always worry about him, but we just pray. We don’t say, we would be looking at BBC news, world news, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that,’ because as my brother calls him, ‘He’s a realabout what’s happening in the countries and areas ized soul.’ he was in. But now, we have sort of got used to it My brother said, ‘Don’t try to stop him because you cannot. It’s someand resigned to it. thing he feels he’s got to do.’ n We talked to him and he said there is a danger everywhere. He didn’t want us to think about it and Sujatha Shetty graduated from the University of Madras with a bacheworry. Now — actually, I don’t know how my wife lor’s degree in English Literature. When Pranav was nine months old, she feels about it — but I, kind of, don’t think too much accompanied her husband, a physician, to Trinidad and Tobago, where he about it. got a job as a plastic surgeon. Only thing is, whenever he gets a chance, when Then, when Pranav was 9, she moved with him to Fort Lauderdale, he gets a connection — WiFi or something — he’ll Florida, while her husband remained in Trinidad, and went to school and write e-mails or call us. But most times, communigot herself an associate degree in nursing. cations is bad, but then, somehow, somewhere, he She now works part-time as a nurse in a private hospital in Pittsburgh, gets into some WiFi area and he communicates Pennsylvania, where she lives with her husband and one of their twin quickly, saying he’s safe — it’s always a short comdaughters, Shivana. The other daughter Meghana is majoring in medical munication. technology at Clarion University in Pennsylvania. The other day, he made it a point to call his mothShe spoke to Aziz Haniffa. er for Mother’s Day.

‘What we take for granted, is now a luxury for him’

O

A lot of people are surprised because he’s an ER physician and say he could have made money and been very comfortable, but he tried it for six months or so and he said, it’s not his cup of tea. He is now living in tents and sleeping wherever he can. He was in South Sudan two years ago, and there are no structures there, nothing, and his wife one day called him and said, somebody from International Medical Corps is going to see you there in South Sudan and what do you want from here and he said, ‘Send a pillow. Here we don’t have pillows, so send a pillow.’ After he came back during his tour there to the United States, he said, the first luxury was going and sitting in the airport — in the air-conditioned lounge for half-an-hour. He said that was the best feeling. So, what we take for granted, is now a luxury for him. We thought that after a year or so, he would get into a structured life of most physicians in the US. We thought maybe, one year, two years, but now he’s already going on in five years, although at the back of our minds, we are so very, very proud of what he is doing and have deep respect for him. But, like I said before, we as parents, we worry. I must tell you when I was in Trinidad and my wife and Pranav were in Florida, and he was just eight, Pranav had to become the man of the house suddenly. At eight years, he had to go to the grocery store — my wife was studying (to get an associate degree in nursing). He would wake up to the alarm by himself, get his bicycle, go to school, come back and makes his own microwave dinner and when the children (twin sisters, Meghana and Shivana, who are 12 years younger than him) were born, he used to also take care of him. We used to have a part-time baby sitter, but he used to come, change their dia4M54 pers, feed them. He practically raised them. My wife would come back and


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M53

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘For him, it’s a lot about not being complacent in life’

es up to the situation, he’s able to provide me with more information with what’s going on. So, I feel kind of relaxed a little bit. met Pranav 11 years ago. We But with Ebola, this was one of were introduced by mutual the first emergencies where his friends when I was a sophosafety was relatively within his own more during my undergraducontrol, because he’s often going ate days at the University of into war zones. For example, in Pittsburgh and Pranav was in his Nepal right now, there are a lot of first year of medical school. after-shocks, so if he’s in a building We started dating a couple of and it collapses, all these things are months after we met and I found outside his control. But with Ebola, Pranav to be very ambitious, very he was the person tasked with dedicated. He has great family valtraining all the doctors and nurses ues, and that aligns very strongly to stay safe and to wear the equipwith the same values that I grew ment properly and that type of up with. We dated for quite some thing. So, it’s in his best interest time and ended up getting married and in the best interests of others in 2010. to be trained in all of this. I moved with Pranav wherever He was the key person to uphold he moved from his residency to his all these standards. So, I began to fellowship, so I’ve had a varied feel a lot better after a couple of background — I’ve worked in weeks he opened the first United museums, education and museum Nations agency — that if he put all research and then recently when the safety protocols in place, the Pranav was stationed in Jordan for likelihood of you actually catching a while, with Syrian refugees. I Ebola was quite low. decided to go and join him and I think he grew up knowing that that’s when I transitioned into the as a lot of immigrants to America, humanitarian response, working his parents made a lot of sacrifices with International Medical Corps for him to be able to succeed. So monitoring their projects. But that the sacrifices he makes daily — was just a short-term response. where sometimes he may not have Now that we are expecting our running water, or has to sleep in a first child — on July 4 — so I’ve tent, these types of things that most returned to domestic work and people may not want to do — I currently work for a charter school Pranav and Nora Shetty in Jordan. She moved wherever he moved from his residency to his think he just takes them in his system in Washington, DC, stride and that it is normal to be researching and managing data. fellowship, to places like Jordan when he was stationed to work with Syrian refugees. PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY: NORA SHETTY giving up these things to be able It has been difficult (Pranav’s to improve the lives of yourself long forays into these often dangerand the people around you. ous areas for humanitarian service). It has not always He also strongly believes you should be challenging been his goal. His goal, when I met him, was to find a yourself. I feel that when he was practicing medicine specialty he enjoys in medicine and probably be havhere, he didn’t feel that as much…working in emering either a private practice or doing shift work. Then gency rooms, he certainly was helping a lot of people, he chose emergency medicine and he was working in but he didn’t feel that he was constantly learning and emergency rooms for a couple of years. the ability to go abroad and makes all these contacts, He seemed to have a strong interest and it seems you have to learn all the different cultural things, you like he’s well suited to a career in humanitarian have to learn a lot of other medical systems in each response. I think not everyone has the ability to country and the governments and all that stuff — a remain calm in those types of situations to make the very large learning curve in his career that he has choquick decisions that are needed. Pranav’s strength is sen. So, for him, it’s a lot about not being complacent that he doesn’t become emotionally affected… and is in life, always pushing yourself and trying to do better. able to have a clear head and do what needs to be So, it’s not necessarily coming from a place of — done. solely a place of — I want to do the most good, (but I certainly wish he would be in safe locations. I also that) I want to help people and that’s the end result. feel that he along with his colleagues have the ability So, it’s wonderful. to really, truly, provide life-saving services to thouI knew the moment the Nepal earthquake happened, sands of people, so I am very supportive of going. I The Shettys lives in Virginia, though Pranav still that he was going to rush off and as soon as the airport have trusted him and the organization he works for to try as considers Pittsburgh home. He did his high school opened, he was going to get in. So, it’s part of our life now. much as possible to protect his security. there before attending the University of Pittsburgh, It’s unfortunate when he misses family events or other Unlike natural disasters (Pranav was in Nepal in the where he met Nora. They are expecting their first plans we have made, but that’s part of our lifestyle today. n aftermath of the massive earthquake when his interview child and this photograph was shot at her Bayake, the was conducted) when he’s usually going 24, 48 hours foltraditional baby shower. Nora Shetty nee Webber is majoring in art history and lowing the disaster and when the media is also going, durpsychology at the University of Pittsburgh. She also has a ing the Ebola crisis he was in Liberia at a time when the master’s in education degree from George Washington international community was really waking up to this situaEbola and passed away. Also, nurses and a lot of people. University, in Washington, DC. tion. There was a clear idea about what was going on There certainly was an element of fear to that, but I think, She spoke to Aziz Haniffa. beyond the fact that a lot of African doctors had caught usually when he gets to a place and the media sort of catch-

Nora Shetty Wife

I


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M54

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘My brother is my hero’ Shivana Shetty Sister

M

y brother has always encouraged me. He is my hero. One, because he is helpful to people — he helped with Ebola in Africa, is helping the injured people in Nepal, he has helped people who were hurt in wars and hurricanes. And secondly, because he is helpful to animals. He rescued our dog Fifi and his dog Dosa from animal shelters, so they can have a better life. He deserves this award because he is good — to both people and animals. Shivana Shetty hopes to be a vet helper. She spoke to Aziz Haniffa.

3M52 Manohar Shetty do other things and study, so, he had to step up to the plate and become and adult quickly. I must tell you also that when my wife and Pranav were in Florida and staying in an apartment complex, he had strongly defended another boy called Anan — a Hyderabadi boy — living in the same complex who was being bullied. He would always stand up for Anan. There was another boy, who had suffered a deformity after a vaccination, who was being shunned, and later I would come to know from that boy’s mother that Pranav was always looking out for him too and would also help him with his homework. It (Pranav taking on responsibility) became so spontaneous that I even forgot that he was a small boy. We were treating him like an adult and talking to him like an adult, and now, I realize that I missed the interaction with him as a child during that period. Dr Manohar Shetty is a psychiatrist in Pittsburgh, where he immigrated to after practicing plastic and burns surgery in Trinidad and Tobago for over a decade after leaving India, where he was trained in surgery. Born and raised in Mangalore, he did his medical degree at the Stanley Medical College in Madras and post graduate work in surgery at the Kasturba Medical College. He spoke to Aziz Haniffa.

A milestone documented.

PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY: MANOHAR SHETTY

Pranav Shetty’s sisters dote on him.

‘My earliest recollections are of Pranav taking care of us’ Meghana Shetty Sister

M

y earliest recollections are of Pranav bringing Shivu and me home from the baby-sitter’s everyday after school and taking care of us until mom and dad came home. Only as a teenager — of the same age — did I realize how much responsibility he showed because I am sure he would have loved to hang out with his friends instead. From what mom has told us, he had taken care of us from the time we were just a few weeks old, when she had to attend classes/events at her college and dad was still working abroad. Also, when my brother was younger, many of our relatives and friends called

him a role model because he had won many awards for his scholastic successes, both in school and college. As he grew older, people began to commend him for his humanitarian work that has taken him around the world to places of great suffering — both natural and manmade. In the many places he has worked, he has managed with the most meager of basic necessities, especially in South Sudan. When mom, who was worried about his well-being, asked him to pick a ‘safer’ place to work, he said that although he had the choice to leave, the people who lived there did not have this choice and would continue to live in those very conditions as would generations after them. So, he said, for him to endure those conditions for whatever limited time he was there,

was ‘no big deal.’ Reading about his work with refugees of wars, Ebola patients, and hurricane and earthquake victims makes me proud to say he is my brother. As an adult, I now realize what a special human being my brother is — a caring and dedicated physician whose work embodies the oath taken by all physicians on their graduation from medical school that ‘I solemnly pledge to consecrate my life to the service of humanity.’ I love my brother with all my heart and pray he will always stay safe to continue his work with the less fortunate in the world. Meghana Shetty is one of Dr Pranav Shetty’s sisters, is a student at Clarion University, Pennsylvania. She spoke to Aziz Haniffa


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M55

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 Rabih Torbay Colleague

I

‘Pranav will go anywhere to help out’

was the first person to meet him about four years ago when he presented himself for an interview. What struck me about Pranav was his passion and dedication to humanitarian relief work. Here was this doctor with a master’s in public health working at a hospital in emergency medicine, who came to me and wanted to volunteer and intern with us at headquarters here, free of charge. You don’t see that in many people and that showed me his sense of dedication that you hardly see in many other people these days. It also showed me the level of passion and flexibility that he has because I asked him what is it you want to do, and he said, ‘Whatever you want me to do — this is what I am interested in, and I am willing to do whatever the agency wants from me.’ International Medical Corps works in 35 countries around the world and in some of the neediest areas. Pranav is one of the people who will go anywhere to help out — from Libya to help with the injured on the war front, where it was very dangerous, to South Sudan and Jordan with the Syrian refugees and now in Nepal (after the earthquake). Of course, he was in Liberia and other countries in West Africa helping out with the Ebola response, both in terms of treating patients and training local doctors and nurses. It’s been a combination of wars, natural disasters, and epidemics. And anytime we asked him he would not hesitate. As a matter of fact, a lot of Pranav Shetty, center, at the IMC clinic in Misrata, Libya, treats patients injured in the battle raging a few miles away in 2011. His times, he would come and volunteer, colleagues at IMC are in awe of his willingness to go anywhere to help out: from war fronts to epidemic and other disaster zones. even before we asked. At International Medical Corps, there COURTESY: INTERNATIONAL MEDICAL CORPS are a lot of people who are passionate and real humanitarians who want to Rabih Torbay is Senior Vice President, International working for us, Pranav is very special in that he’s very help, but what makes Pranav different is the fact that he Operations, International Medical Corps. He oversees IMC’s modest, he’s very easy going and you hardly ever hear him had a very cushy job here in the US — had a very comfortglobal programs, including the Ebola response, in 31 councomplain about anything and he goes about doing the able living in the US — but decided to put it aside and fultries on four continents and its staff and volunteers, includwork. And the work that he does, is just as close to perfecfill his passion for helping others, which is something that ing Dr Pranav Shetty. tion as it could get. you don’t see very often. He spoke to Aziz Haniffa. Although we have close to 10,000 people worldwide

‘It’s breathtaking to watch him work’ Farrah Ghazi Zughni Colleague

I

have been with International Medical Corps for two-and-a-half years, and for the first two years, I worked with Pranav in Jordan helping Syrian refugees and then working on the Ebola crisis with Pranav. IMC began responding to the Syria crisis in January 2012, working in the

camps and other refugee centers. Seriously, and I am not exaggerating here, he probably is one of my favorite people. He was my boss for the first two years and he’s just an incredible human being. He would always have his colleagues’s backs and he would always ensure our safety and security, in addition to being just one wonderful and humble human being.

When you work on the field, there are certain kinds of personalities you run into over and over again. There is the adventurist, the risk-taker, who is willing to go into dangerous places or uncomfortable places and put themselves on the line, and they bring in new programming and they make a big difference in the lives of beneficiaries. And, then, there is the communications person, very good at engaging with sub-

partners, donors. Then we have the detailed, accountant kind of people who spend hours on spread-sheets and writing reports — just the little minutiae — to make sure everything is on board, and that’s super-challenging because we have to make sure that someone will come in, and make sure that everything is in the right place. Pranav, is the only person whom I’ve ever met who excels in everyone of these

4M56


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M56

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 Aaron Skolnik Friend

W

‘He wanted to make sure that he was fulfilled in his practice’

e became kind of study buddies as it were, and he and I and another guy named Joe Whetstone, who went on to become a radiologist, after class were constantly spending time at the coffee shop, or spent the day at Pranav’s house — Pranav and Joe were roommates for a while — and would settle down for three or four hours of study and then punctuated the studies by watching The Simpsons. Pranav was quite the opposite of the expression that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. He has always been the kind of guy to keep a low profile, never someone who sought a lot of recognition for his efforts in medical school, but he was always there, always doing the right thing, even if nobody noticed. That was one of the most desirable qualities and one of the greatest qualities of his — that he always tries to do the right thing... it doesn’t really matter to him whether or not anyone is watching. I remember around the time we were choosing specialties, we actually applied for the same residency programs and we went on a tour of the United States together, where we interviewed at all these places together. But when it came to actually choosing specialties, I Pranav Shetty and Aaron Skolnik on a pre med school trip. COURTESY: AARON SKOLNIK remember Pranav saying, I really didn’t like anything in particular too much, so let me choose a specialty where I make trained to do — take care of people who had pretty much sure I don’t have to do too much of any one particular thing anything wrong with them at any time, at any station of life but where my interest is always captured. For that reason and I think, he found that after trying that, that it was a he chose emergency medicine. really good fit for him. Pranav has very little interest in any luxuries, or accouI don’t think of him as a risk taker. I don’t think of him as trements, or anything that goes with the traditional status a particularly adventurous guy. He was never a sort of of being a physician in the United States. I believe he wantextreme sport kind of guy. He simply puts his head down ed to make sure that he was fulfilled in his practice and I and gets the job done and he manages to take a break at got the sense from him that he was frustrated by American the middle of it and get some fun in as well. medical practice in the US and going abroad was a way for It’s not so much seeking adventure, but a little bit carehim to be free in sense, and be able to practice medicine free. There’s a job to be done and one that he’s set his mind unencumbered by all these things of insurance, payroll, to, he’s just going to move forward and he’s going to achieve hospital groups, and politics, and to do what he was really

3M55 Farrah Ghazi Zughni facets. It’s almost breathtaking to watch him work, because he’s one of those people, who in the middle of the night if there’s an issue with one of our hospitals, gets up and drives out there and he makes things happen. If there’s no car, there’s no means, Pranav always finds a way. It’s amazing when you consider the hours he puts in

and the other responsibilities he has. My job in Jordan was my first time working in this kind of field. It was very new and very stressful and I know that a lot of the strengths I have today is because I was trained under Pranav. As someone who worked with him, this man’s patience is endless. Everyone grew to depend on Pranav at some level because he excelled in all of these qualities, and so, whatever you were doing, you’d want him to run your plan or proposal by Pranav

because you know it was going to come out so much better. I am not even talking about the impact he had on people — at the hospitals, the patients. When he walks into a hospital, people light up, people depend on him and you could see the trust is there. It’s not just the patients — it’s all the staff, the sub-partners, it’s our donors. Everyone, really believes in him and trusts him and he was really the core of our team because he was able to manage all these

what he needs to achieve and if there’s some risk involved, that particularly doesn’t bother him. One of the main reasons he became such a close friend of mine — both study and non-study friends — was because he never allows these things to cause him a lot of internal stress. He’s got a great sense of humor — a very dry sense of humor — and he’s able to laugh at some of these things, particularly in medical practice, which can otherwise be a tremendous frustration or a psychological obstacle that can’t be overcome. He’s able to shrug some of these things off and say that one thing about this is it’s pretty funny and maybe that’s what allows him to do the kind of work that he does. Pranav is pretty shy, reserved, but really funny and brilliant once you got to know him. (Speaking of Pranav being shy initially), I would like to take some credit for bringing Nora (his wife) and him together. In the first year of medical school Pranav and I went on a trip and he mentioned that he might have some romantic interest in Nora. I said, Pranav, you have to go for this. I’ve met the girl, she’s fantastic, and you really need to go and ask her out and see what could happen. Then several months later, when we were on a trip to Italy for spring break together, Pranav said, I want to let you know that I did ask her out and we’ve been seeing each other and it’s going really, really well, He kept it from us till he knew it was more or less a sure thing. n

Dr Aaron Skolnik completed medical school at the University of Pittsburgh, and then did residency in emergency medicine at Brigham and Women’s/ Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, and works clinically in the ICU as a medical toxicologist and is the Assistant Medical Director of the Banner Poison & Drug Information Center. He and Dr Pranav Shetty have been friends since their medical school days at the University of Pittsburgh. He spoke with Aziz Haniffa.

things and yet somehow he is one of the most humble people I’ve ever met. I know, if he was listening to me talking about him, he would turn red, be embarrassed, and be denying all of it. But, that’s just the way he is, and makes him an incredible person to be around. n Farrah Ghazi Zughni is an Ebola response desk officer at the International Medical Corps. She also served with the Syria Emergency Response Team. She spoke to Aziz Haniffa.

Pranav Shetty trains an ambulance team transporting some of the first patients to the Bong County, Liberia, Ebola treatment unit managed by the IMC. COURTESY: INTERNATIONAL MEDICAL CORPS


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M57

THE FIGHTER ‘My laboratory is actually the world around us… For me, the greatest satisfaction in life comes from service to others, not to serving my bank account. ‘ Dr Jay Varma, who has been at the forefront of fighting infectious diseases around the world, including Ebola in New York City, and the winner of the first India Abroad Doctor of the Year Award, discusses the challenges of keeping the world infection-free with P Rajendran.

Presented by

JAY VARMA

INDIA ABROAD DOCTOR OF THE YEAR AWARD 2014 For dedication during a global crisis; for battling a deadly disease; for selfless service to humanity.

CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M58

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

D

r Jay Varma, Deputy Commissioner for Disease Control at New York City’s Health Department, prefers spending time in the field. That is why the winner of the first India Abroad Doctor of the Year won’t be in New York on the night of the Awards ceremony, June 12. Dr Varma is away in Sierra Leone, working on Ebola in that African nation. Likely breathing through plastic in a hot body suit, examining pathogen-laded body fluids, while his wife Dr Melissa Varma, who has ‘dedicated her career to the care of children from diverse economic and cultural backgrounds,’ accepts the Award for him. But that is Dr Varma. An epidemiologist for 15 years, one who has worked in parts of the world bubbling with novel and drug-resistant strains of pathogens, Dr Varma has also helped conduct research that transformed the way health authorities address the deadly combination of tuberculosis and HIV, and helping the Chinese plan their response to outbreaks of influenza and a new tick-borne virus, and built systems to understand the causes of respiratory infections and detect food-borne outbreaks. Perhaps his best Dr House moments involve the detection of the cause of an E coli outbreak in Ohio and botulism in the Republic of Georgia in the former Soviet Union. Dr Varma’s parents, Ravi and Vijaya, were natives of Thripunithara and Ernakulam, neighboring areas in Cochin. Vijaya née Kezhupillil, who inspires Dr Varma to this day, came to the United States in 1963 to study organic chemistry at Purdue University. Her work with her thesis adviser Herbert Brown was what won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. His father Ravi finished his PhD in Pune, India, and joined his wife in the US, where they were married in December 1964. Dr Varma grew up in Belle Mead, New Jersey, just outside Princeton where his father worked at Squibb (now Bristol-Myers Squibb) as a chemist and his mother did post-graduate chemistry work at Princeton University before taking a job with the Exxon Corporation. But his mother did not have it easy. Diagnosed with lupus in her 30s, she died in August 1989, one month before Jay Varma went away to study at Harvard, but she gained her son’s eternal admiration for the way she kept working at home and office, pushing through tremendous pain with enviable grit. Dr Varma says he would never have been an itinerant doctor if his work had been just intellectually rewarding or socially meaningful, but not both. “Whether I’m in Africa or working in different countries in Asia, or working in New York City, that is my laboratory — where I get the opportunity to say how do we close the gap between what we already know and what we need to actually do.” While scientific curiosity is important for Dr Varma, he is primarily driven by the practical consideration of saving lives and preventing disease. “We all breathe the same air. We all need reliable food, sanitation, and shelter,” he says. And if he had his way, there would be a stable and sturdy public health system for everybody everywhere. Speaking to India Abroad on a bad telephone line from Sierra Leone (and keeping an eye on the clock because

THE FIGHTER

An epidemiologist for 15 years, Dr Jay Varma, left, has worked in parts of the world bubbling with novel and drugresistant strains of pathogens. He has also helped conduct research that transformed the way health authorities address the deadly combination of tuberculosis and HIV. COURTESY: JAY VARMA

there was a meeting he had to attend immediately after the call), Dr Varma described aspects of his personal and professional life and why he does what he does. We’d like to know something about your background — about where your family comes from, what your parents did, where did you grow up here. My father grew up in Tripunithara, Kerala, and my mother in Ernakulam, India. My mother’s maiden name was Kezhupillil. My mother moved to the US in 1963 to begin her PhD studies in organic chemistry at Purdue University. Her thesis adviser was Herbert Brown, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry for work that my mother worked with him on. My father Ravi obtained his PhD in organic chemistry, then moved to Indiana to join my mother. They were married in the US in December 1964. After my father finished his PhD in Pune, India, she and my father moved to Boston, where my father did post-graduate chemistry work at Harvard and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. My brother (Deep Varma) was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1967. He went on to graduate from Harvard in 1989, get his medical degree at the University of Pittsburgh, do a psychiatry residency and child psychiatry residency also at the University of Pittsburgh, and then marry and have a child (Kiran Varma), while practicing in Madison, Wisconsin. He, unfortunately, died on July 11, 2009 in a scuba diving accident on Lake Michigan. His son

and ex-wife live in Madison, Wisconsin. I was born in 1971 in Boston, and my parents moved in 1972 to Belle Mead, New Jersey (just outside Princeton). My father took a job with Squibb (now Bristol-Myers Squibb) as a chemist synthesizing new drugs. My mother did post-graduate chemistry work at Princeton, then eventually took a job with Exxon Corporation. My mother was diagnosed with lupus while in her 30s, then eventually died in August 1989, one month before I went away to college. My father moved a few years later to take a job with the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland (which is part of the NIH — National Institutes of Health), before retiring in 2001 and returning to India. He re-married in the late 1990s, and his wife and he currently live in Tripunithara, Kerala, India. What were the defining moments of your childhood — things that defined you personally and may have influenced you to take up a career in medicine? My parents, as with most Indian parents, wanted their children to be doctors. While I was always good at science, my real interest was history, politics, public policy, and writing. My favorite classes were world and US history, and most of my high school and college time was taken up working on newspapers. I was the edi- 4M60 tor-in-chief of my high school newspaper (one


India Abroad June 19, 2015

M59


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M60

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M58

Jay Varma of the few high school papers that was published weekly), and I was the Sports Editor of The Harvard Crimson, the daily newspaper for Harvard. While in college, I majored in ‘History and Science,’ a major unique to Harvard that focuses on the history of science and the role that scientific thought played in government policies, culture, and society over time. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the role of eugenics in determining US immigration policy (Varma JK Eugenics and immigration restriction: lessons for tomorrow. JAMA. 1996 Mar 6;275(9):734– 737), a thesis that was graded summa cum laude. This academic experience got my intensely interested in public health, how medical doctors can impact the health and welfare of large populations. Could you tell us some of the people that influenced you – and how? My most powerful memories of childhood involve my mother. Ill with lupus for most of my childhood, my mother taught me:

1. The paramount importance of education and learning in becoming a productive member of society. 2. How to persevere through adversity. My mother continued to work and produce important accomplishments at work, despite being horribly ill. Eventually, I remember my father having to demand that she stop working and focus on her own health. 3. The importance of personal responsibility. With my mother ill for most of my life, I learned to become as self-reliant as possible, sometimes this was out of guilt because I did not want to give my mother more to do and other times it was out of necessity, because she was not able to do as much as she would have liked. I attribute any success I have had in life to her love for me and the lessons she taught me. Could you tell us something about your wife and kids? How do they manage when you’re away, given the attendant dangers in some of the places you visit? I met my wife in the first week of medical school. We were immediately captivated by each other. In addition to physical attraction, we immediately bonded because of a shared sense of humor and core values.

Melissa has consistently inspired me with her intelligence, humor, compassion, courage, adventurous spirit, and moral conviction. Our children are Asha (age 15), Sophie (age 13), and Tejas (age 10 — will be 11 when the awards ceremony is held). They are all wonderfully adventurous, kind, funny, and compassionate people, traits they most certainly got from their mother! After degrees from Harvard, UCSD, what made you decide against a comfortable private practice and opt for a position at the CDC that called for more work, less independence and a salary at least a third less than the average physician gets? When I arrived at UCSD for medical school, I met Dr Richard Besser, who had recently started working at UCSD as a professor in pediatrics. He told me about the infectious diseases work he had done with CDC, including the Epidemic Intelligence Service program. I immediately decided that was the career I wanted: intellectually rewarding and socially meaningful. My work compensates me enough that I can pay for my children to live in sufficient comfort. For me, the greatest satisfaction in life comes from service to others, not to serving my bank account.

Jay Varma with his wife Melissa and their children, from right, Asha, Tejas and Sophie.Varma says,“My work compensates me enough that I can pay for my children to live in sufficient comfort. For me, the greatest satisfaction in life comes from service to others, not to serving my bank account.” COURTESY: JAY VARMA

Spending each day making a meaningful contribution to the betterment of society is more important than making more money. Why did you decide to focus on infectious diseases? Was that choice influenced by personal factors or academic ones? In infectious diseases, we deal with the host, the pathogen, and the environment. In chronic diseases, we mostly just think in terms of the host and the environment. While both are challenging, infectious diseases are particularly challenging because we have very little control over how the pathogen will evolve, how it will adapt to its environment, its potential hosts in the animal or insect world, and, as a result, the control efforts are more challenging. I like a challenge, a problem to be solved, and I particularly like it when I’m one step behind the solution trying to catch up. What primarily do you find interesting about your work? Is it curiosity about the bewildering variety of evolutionary strategies pathogens use, the need to help other humans, or something else altogether? My work is fascinating, because it is both intellectually rewarding and socially meaningful. If it is one but not the other, I don’t think I would do it. It is intellectually rewarding, because public health requires understanding of and adapting programs to science, culture, sociology, economics, and human behavior. What is exciting for me has two aspects. One is that we really have no control over this pathogen. It is always trying to get away from us, escape from us in some way. It’s trying to develop resistance or to develop some new way of infecting you. Part of the challenge is the intellectual challenge. The other part is the social aspect of it – that to cure a disease you have to understand the society in which that disease exists. Human diseases are driven as much by the organism as the way we as a society invest in certain things. Poverty is an incredible driver of disease. Environmental change is a driver of disease. Urbanization is a driver of disease. So I think it is a combination of an intellectual challenge: having to solve a problem that is constantly changing – the organism, the bug – but also how that pathogen interacts with so many different parts of society. Poverty also drives disease, you said. Do you mean that poverty causes stress and affects immunity to disease, or that it is embedded in an environment where sanitation and other similar issues come into play? The most obvious way that poverty works is by increasing the opportunities that you will be exposed to bacteria because there are sanitation issues, because of crowding, pollution. 4M61 These are the obvious ways


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M61

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M60 Jay Varma that poverty drives infectious diseases. But we also see that poverty can be incredibly stressful to people and that people who have less social or financial stability in their lives are more susceptible to certain diseases. I think there probably is a biological mechanism by which some people are susceptible to diseases because they live in much more stressful circumstances. We don’t know what that is, but we do know that it is a very real phenomenon. But isn’t there evidence that stress does compromise your immune system because the release of the hormone cortisol at such a high rate, that your body is just trying to catch up with repairs? The problem I have with medics and others in science often try to invoke what we know about the biochemistry of the body to explain a theory. When we clearly are not at a point where we can engineer the human body or fully understand the reactions that go on. While it’s possible to invoke a biochemical explanation, I don’t think we fully understand that. You mean that the zeitgeist – the currently fashionable idea – can drive the way we think about medicine without addressing the whole story? One of the challenges I have when we look at health problems is that there is a gap between what we know and don’t know. And then there’s a gap between what we know and what we actually do – what we implement. For me, (the important question is about) the gap between what we already know and what we do. We know that some things are causing people to become ill. We know the causes and we have a very good idea how to solve them but how we implement (our ideas) is where there’s this huge gap. That is the reason I ended up doing the work that I do. I could have chosen a career where I was in a laboratory and trying to figure out what is it we don’t know and how can we know. My laboratory is actually the world around us. Whether I’m in Africa right now or working in different countries in Asia or working in New York City, that is my laboratory – where I get the opportunity to say how do we close the gap between what we already know and what we need to actually do. Could you tell us about working on TB in Thailand? What were the challenges, given the language and educational barriers, red tape, the possible lack of resources, and the fact that TB is often resistant to antibiotics? I lived in Bangkok, Thailand, from 2003 to 2008, working as CDC’s Southeast Asia regional adviser for TB control. I conducted most of my work in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, three countries that are at various stages of development. What I enjoyed most about my work was helping each of these countries work toward reducing deaths from TB, particularly in people with HIV infection. Working with partners at the national and province level, I was able to help them demonstrate and then implement new strategies to diagnose and treat both diseases. The challenge is usually not what to do, but how to do it; finding a way to implement evidence-based programs in different societies, with different resources and political systems. What were the rewards? What you have in those countries is that there is a tremendous desire by many people to (get) their country up to a higher level of development, where the economy is

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Dr Craig Spencer, right, after the latter was declared free of the Ebola virus, which he got from working with Ebola patients in Guinea. Jay Varma was the ‘incident commander’ for Ebola in New York. Health workers carry the body of an Ebola victim for burial at a cemetery in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in December 2014.Varma is now in the country to aid Ebola response to get to zero cases. BAZ RATNER/REUTERS AND LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS

functioning better, where the health of people is better. In Asia, they look at Singapore and South Korea and, across the ocean, they look at the United States, and they aspire to that. I found that the work I was doing in those countries even though you were faced with substantial challenges – there is a bureaucracy, there are political issues, there are all sorts of problems — I found that actually to be part of the fun and the challenge. As I said, the gap between what we know and what we can actually do is very great. And the solutions vary depending upon the culture, the resources available, the political will. I found working in these difficult environ-

ments to actually be part of the excitement. Sometimes you want to bang your head against the wall and say why is it so difficult (laughing). But you realize that is the same problem in the United States. We are a fairly resource-rich country, but there are very practical problems we still have not solved. So one of the things I like about working in other countries is that I could look at (the problems) objectively and say what I think the solution is. But (also understand) why some problems developed the way that they did and

4M62


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M62

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M61 Jay Varma then try to answer them (after) understanding that. I spent a lot of time working in very rural and poor areas of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. What we were trying to do was to show one of the reasons many people were dying of tuberculosis was because they also had an HIV infection. The programs to control these diseases are structured in what we call a vertical way. Somebody comes in and decides to fund a program and it works very much in a zone – a zone with its own doctors. Often people don’t see and understand that their patients are suffering from other problems, and the problems that are contributing to why their program is having trouble. So I spent a lot of time working in poor areas, working with people to review and analyze their data, and then try to collect this information, to show them how, if they could strengthen the way that they diagnosed and treat HIV, they could also address their tuberculosis problem. I also worked on an important research study. We were very concerned that people with HIV were not being diagnosed with tuberculosis soon enough because the signs and symptoms of the disease can be very different. I worked very closely with people in Bangkok, people in two areas of Cambodia, and in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to design a very large research study where we collected data on close to 2,000 people with HIV infection. We did a very large analysis to try to understand what are the factors that predict why one person has tuberculosis and another person does not. The results of this study helped us show that if you want

to diagnose tuberculosis in somebody with HIV – and tuberculosis is the leading cause of death in people with HIV – you have to use a different approach that you would use normally. You have to ask about different symptoms and do different studies. Because I did this work very closely with people from the governments of those countries we were able to change the health policies in those countries to a new approach. That’s why I worked very quickly with the World Health Organization and was eventually able to use this research to help change the internationally recommended approach to how you diagnose tuberculosis in people with HIV. I also worked in a poor province in Cambodia called Banteay Meanchey (close to Angkor Wat, where the famous Hindu temples are located). The people were very affected by the war in Cambodia, but they were very committed to trying to do something to improve their (conditions) there. Can you describe any patients there that affected you a lot? What was very striking to me was when I would travel to Cambodia, and you would walk into a health center. And the health center there would really be just a small wooden structure, some type of wooden shack. When you walk in, there would be a series of beds — maybe 10 or 20 — all made simply of wood. There would be people lying on all these beds who were emaciated and frail and really had no nursing care. And the people I would talk to would explain to you how they became ill. Often they would tell you extraordinary stories about how a family member — often it would be a woman telling you about her husband who had also died of tuberculosis and HIV — and how (she) also had tuberculosis. That experience of seeing it was really a question of geog-

Jay Varma, third from right, testifies at a Health Hearing on HPV in New York City in January. WILLIAM ALATRISTE FOR THE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL

raphy that they were dying there. Had they been sick in the United States, or in Western Europe, they would have been treated, their husband would still be alive, their children would not be orphaned, and they would not be in a situation in which there were very few resources to make them healthy. For me, those images, those experiences of having been in these hospitals myself, is always a very important driving factor. Often when we study the epidemiology… we look at tables, we look at numbers, but it’s really the experience (in the field) that makes a difference. That’s what makes it real, I guess. Yeah, it makes you want to continue the work that you’re doing, but harder. One of the challenges I face in my job is that when you get to a level when you are very high up you don’t get enough time outside the office, working with the people, talking to people, listening to people, who are most impacted by the decisions that you make. I feel that it is a weakness in me that as I’ve gotten higher up in my career, I don’t spend enough time on a daily basis going and listening to the people who are most heavily impacted by the work that I do. Now it feels like it’s very easy to keep myself busy managing large projects and making decisions, but not to see and experience things that make you passionate about it. Despite the language barriers, was it comparatively easier working in China, given the better medical training and infrastructure there? My work in China was different than in other countries, because the technical knowledge and resources are at a higher level than in many other countries. Nevertheless, the work was very rewarding, because there remain many large public health problems, which require innovative solutions to fit into the Chinese context. While in China, I worked closely with the Chinese government on its response to outbreaks for influenza and a new tick-borne virus, helped build new systems to understand causes of respiratory infections and detect food-borne outbreaks, and provided assistance to the national government on policies related to vaccinations and disease detection. What were some of the most interesting experiences you’ve had overall – whether in these countries or outside? My most memorable experiences have involved fighting off outbreaks of infectious diseases in different communities. 1. In 2001, I spent 4 weeks in Ohio working on E coli outbreak at a county fair. My initial study found that people who attended a dance held in a barn on the last night of the fair had the highest risk of getting sick. But I could not understand why. I visited the barn and took samples of sawdust from the floor and swabbed the walls and ceiling and found that the entire building was contaminated with E coli. I discovered that a cow exhibit had been held in the barn earlier in the week, that feces from the cows had contaminated the sawdust, that surfaces of the building were contaminat4M63 ed by sawdust flying around the barn, and that E coli could


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M63

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M62

how that affects your work? Jay Varma It’s part of the challenge. You work with an organism that will change over time. (Despite) everything that live for months on the ceiling and you do to control it, it will try to surwalls of the building. vive. I worked on tuberculosis, HIV, 2. From 2002 to 2003, I helped sexually transmitted bacteria like control botulism in the Republic of gonorrhea, and on salmonella, Georgia. It’s an ancient culture in chigella — many different infections which home canning of food is all of which are trying desperately to prized. But unsafe canning can lead escape our use of antibiotics. to a lethal infection called botulism There are two areas of work. One that paralyzes the muscles and stops is how we humans get antibiotics in you from breathing. ourselves. The other big problem For two years, I visited health that continues to not be addressed facilities, observed people can food very well is antibiotics used in aniin their homes and conducted mals and the environment. research to show how changes in We use a tremendous amount of canning practices could control the antibiotics in producing food — for disease. the feeding of chickens, for example, You have expressed concern about and now with the farming in fish the need for better disease detection and aquaculture. And this actually in China. One of the world’s top over time is going to continue to creeconomies, it has been the cradle for ate new problems for us, because quite a few newly identified diseases, antibiotic resistance does not just including avian flu and SARS. stay in animals. Is it happening in the poor rural What we’ve seen with all these areas or also in the cities? infectious diseases, any (antibiotics) The cities have the same dynamics Among his many contributions to tackling infectious diseases is the tremendous amount of work in the environment and other animals that the United States and other coun- he put into containing the spread of drug-resistant TB in countries like Thailand and China. will eventually get into humans. tries have, which is that you have many COURTESY: JAY VARMA For me, the biggest challenge has people living in close proximity to each been in tuberculosis. It is a disease that we medical system and a corresponding faith in People will start to see diseases emerging other at many different levels of income. have a very effective treatment for. Since alternatives that are not evidence-based. in India. There’s more infrastructure and Most of the diseases that cause major epithe 1960s we’ve had antibiotics we can use. Given that situation, do you think there’s a development to integrate the Indian econodemics originate in animals and then Unfortunately, there has not been very chance of evidence-based medicine catching my with the rest of the world. Once that spread to humans. The contact between much research into developing new drugs on? happens, you will start to see this (the humans and animals in China is much to treat this disease. It’s an excellent question. India has the emergence of new diseases in India) happen more intense than it is in Europe or the Now we face the very real threat of havadvantage — compared to other countries, more and more. United States. ing people with tuberculosis that can’t be China for example — because of language. The same is true in other parts of Africa Far more people like to buy from a live cured at all. Because English is the international lanas (parts of it) develop more, and you have market — where the animal is killed fresh I saw this first hand when I was in guage of scientific and medical communithis close and immediate connection (with for you to go home and cook. Thailand. We had a very large outbreak of cation and because Indians study English surrounding areas) you will see this hapAnd there’s the rapid urbanization. Cities drug-resistant tuberculosis that occurred in from a very early age, (it is) a tremendous pen. and towns are being built in areas that a refugee camp in the center of Thailand. I advantage that India has that other counEbola is a perfect example. Over the past were wild and underdeveloped. Because was the lead investigator for this outbreak. tries do not. It’s hard to underestimate that 30 years (outbreaks) have occurred in areas there are so many people, and there are so The outbreak was only recognized when advantage because you have immediate that were small, out of the way villages. The many opportunities for interaction between some of the refugees were resettled in the access to information from around the outbreaks burned out because the people humans and animals the opportunity for a United States and were then diagnosed world. were not (connected) to a large population. disease to jump from animal to human is with drug-resistant tuberculosis in the US. The other thing that separates India, and This outbreak (in 2014) occurred in a much greater. They had not been diagnosed in the will make India even a greater country in border area — where people cross borders And because China now has so much of a refugee camp. the future, is an open democratic society. very easily — and once it got into an urban direct link with the rest of the world, I did a tremendous amount of work trySo (there is) the opportunity to have critical setting it became possible for it to then because so many products are made in ing to figure out how this bacteria was debates — that sometimes hampers develspread through three countries and impact China that there are so many flights that go being spread from person to person in the opment — but also creates the opportunity the United States, Europe and many places into and out of so many different areas of refugee camp so that we could treat it in for people to be creative and then to eventhat did not think they would see this disthe country, that you have that opportunity the refugees, both to improve their health, tually adopt evidence-based strategies. ease. for a disease to jump from animal to but also to prevent it being I do think those things (the current situaThe combination of population density, human, and for a human to go on an airexported to the United States. tion) will change over time. Once the infracontact with animals, and the connection plane and travel with that disease. In China, we saw there were structure for the country becomes greater, to the rest of the world is really what is surIt is said sanitation has saved more lives. very high rates of tuberculosis and more people escape poverty, they will prising, which (explains the) epidemics of Given the combination of a higher populaamong people working in hosdemand better services, they will demand infectious diseases we’re seeing every year. tion density, and weaker health and sanitapitals. One of the areas I was better health care, and they will eventually SARS, H1N1 influenza, MERS — the tion systems, is India more at risk than trying to work on was trying to get to the point where they will question recent respiratory virus — and now Ebola China? get people to be concerned their doctors and request more appropriate are all examples of diseases that originate The challenge in India is very great. I about infection control in hostreatment. primarily in animals, spread to humans would say that once India’s economy pitals because the reason Despite some recent promise, antibiotic through some type of contact, and then becomes as closely integrated with the rest health care workers are getting resistance seems to be a growing problem, a spread rapidly to humans because there’s of the world as China is, you will start to 4M64 sick is because patients are point highlighted to us by people like Arjun traffic and movement. see the same types of problems (from coming in with tuberculosis Srinivasan of the CDC. Could you discuss In India, there is a lot of distrust in the India).


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M64

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M63 Jay Varma that is not being recognized. Particularly if they have drug-resistant tuberculosis they will get treated with some antibiotics and they will continue to go to the hospital and continue to cough. So it will be spread through contact in health care facilities. I’ve had a lot of experience working in areas where this type of drug resistance really threatens the success of our public health programs. In the United States, to treat one drug-resistant person with tuberculosis is extremely expensive. It costs anywhere near 100,000 dollars to cure somebody of drug-resistant tuberculosis, whereas it would cost far less to treat somebody with regular tuberculosis. So it’s become a very big problem in many of the areas I work in. How did the move to the New York City health department from the CDC come about? At the time I was in China, there used to be a limit to the time you can spend overseas for the CDC. They wanted you to go back to their headquarters in Atlanta for a few years and then you could go overseas again. I was reaching that limit. At that time, it was eight years. I was looking at opportunities. I didn’t have a great desire to go back to Atlanta — I was in China at that time — because I wanted to have the opportunity to see and experience new problems and opportunities. I felt that if I returned to the headquarters facility I might not get some new and exciting opportunities because you’re in a much bigger bureaucracy. I saw a job advertisement for the job that I have now — as deputy commissioner of the health department — and I was able to discuss with the commissioner of health at the time, Dr Tom Farley, and he was interested in hiring me. New York is such a diverse city that my experience in working in other countries would be very applicable to the work (in the city). Number two, New York City has always been at the forefront of innovation in public health. At the time, this was a real golden opportunity because the mayor of the city at the time — Michael Bloomberg — was a unique person. He’s the only person that has a school of public health named after him who is also a very powerful political figure. This was a great opportunity to work in a city where there were exciting health problems, where there was a tremendous enthusiasm and interest in working out problems, and there’s a long tradition of immigration. Could you tell us something about how you got involved with the effort to fight Ebola? In my job I am responsible for all infectious disease control issues for the City of New York. We are very aware how close New York is to the rest of the world. If a disease is going to be imported into the United States we can predict quite reliably that it might end up in New York City. We began planning very on how we would manage a case if it came to New York City. So it was very natural for me to be in that position (leading the effort against a potential Ebola threat). Is there something about Ebola you find particularly vicious and/or interesting? Like all infectious diseases, Ebola finds a way to exploit

Jay Varma has chosen to work with the New York City health department as the city has always been at the forefront of innovation in public health. COURTESY: JAY VARMA

our weaknesses — whether it’s the human immune system, our health services, our trust in government and each other. In the US, only four people developed Ebola, two who were exposed in Africa and two who were exposed at one hospital in Texas. Primarily what we experienced, and had to control, was an epidemic of Ebola fear — distrust of science and scientific experts, conspiratorial thinking, and lack of faith in government’s ability to keep people safe. We worked so hard to control Ebola in New York City both during our preparations and in our response to one case, because we knew how important it was to reassure people that there would be no outbreak in the US. When a disease has such a high fatality rate, we knew there was no margin of error for mistakes to occur in New York City. In Africa, you are seeing an epidemic of disease that has killed thousands of people, but you also see it propagated by fear — distrust of modern medicine, conspiratorial thinking, lack of faith in government. The epidemiology is fascinating and disturbing. Unfortunately, the same problems we encounter everywhere of marginalized groups lacking faith in government services (often for good reason) are amplified here and exploited by an opportunistic, lethal pathogen. Unstable housing, migrant labor, sex work, local government politics, drug use, untreated mental illness, and poverty have combined with lack of trust in the health system and fear of quarantine to keep the case load from reaching zero. There are lots of important science questions that need to be answered, but the most important question is not scien-

tific, but practical: How do we help build a resilient public health system, one that collects basic health statistics, monitors for epidemics, and controls epidemics effectively. We all breathe the same air. We all need reliable food, sanitation, and shelter. Epidemics anywhere can become epidemics everywhere. The work we do in Sierra Leone is as important as the work we do in America. In your view, what about Ebola caused such world panic in a way that other infectious diseases that claim more lives do not? The high death rate, the graphic way in which people die, its origins in a seemingly far-off and mysterious land. Given that you are at the operational end of things, how do you keep abreast of all the new literature on the subject of infectious diseases? Do you ever begin to feel overwhelmed? It is very difficult to keep up with the science, especially because I cover so many infectious diseases. I used to be very dedicated about reading medical journals... but it has become much more (difficult) to do so. Over time I think I’ve become much more efficient at getting the important points out of a research article or a scientific discussion. You have to train your mind to do that. But it’s very difficult. What are your future plans? I don’t know for sure. We will be in New York for two more years because my oldest daughter Asha definitely wants to finish her high school here (at the Bronx School of Science). I do miss international work, so there’s a possibility we may move and take another position internationally. But we haven’t decided what the future holds. Hopefully, it will be something interesting. n


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M65

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘He enriches the family’ Dr Melissa Varma Wife and classmate

J

ay intensely dedicates himself to all aspects of his life. He is one of the few people I know who truly cares about everything. He has been successful in his career because he has a strong desire to make a difference in the world by improving public health. He has been an amazing husband, supporting and encouraging me in my work and in daily life. He always finds ways to make life better and easier for me. I am reminded daily of how much he cares for all of us by all the little things he does. I have been fortunate to have such an amazing friend for the past 22 years. Asha, Sophie and Tejas say he parents with an iron fist, but that is because he wants them to work as hard as he did and to become successful in life. They feel he is an encyclopedia

of knowledge and teaches them something new every day. He keeps them entertained by kicking the soccer ball, playing horse on the basketball court or reading a story to them. When they were younger he would captivate them with his imaginary tales of Princesses Asha and Sophie and Prince Tejas. He enriches the family with his Indian heritage by ensuring we travel regularly to Kerala to visit his family. And while traveling, he is always reading the Mahabharata and Ramayana to us, teaching us about Indian culture. His relatives are important to him. Fortunately, we have been able to develop a special relationship with all of them despite the distance. n Dr Melissa Varma has dedicated her career to the care of children from diverse economic and cultural backgrounds. She responded by email to P Rajendran.

Left, Jay and Melissa Varma on their wedding day in Kerala. Right and below, Jay and Melissa’s family time. COURTESY: JAY VARMA and RAVI VARMA

Presented by


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M66

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘He is self-motivated, brave, self-driven’ Ravi Varma Father

A

ll of Jay’s formative years were spent in New Brunswick (New Jersey). Our family spent some beautiful years in this community with very nice neighbors, lots of sprawling lawns all around for the children to play in. Both Deep (Jay’s elder brother) and Jay had their early education at the local Montgomery County school. We used to read a lot to the children. Deep was extremely studious and bright, Jay was on the high average side. Both used to help us in our large yard with our intensive gardening of vegetables gardens. In 1977, after training at Princeton University, (His mother) Vijaya (VJ) joined Exxon, Rahway, New Jersey, as a research worker. Even as a young boy, Jay was more affectionate and concerned about his parents, brother and others. Both Deep and Jay went to the well-known Lawrenceville School (suburban Princeton) from the 8th grade. While his brother broke all academic records, Jay gradually blossomed and evolved so much that he became the student hard-frame computer manager and editor of the school newspaper during the last two years of his schooling. For summer jobs, Deep and Jay worked at the Princeton YMCA in camps for children of many ages, cutting lawns or painting for the township. Helping me cut our lawn and yard on weekends was also one of their activities which they did willfully. In mid-1978, VJ fell ill during a trip to Tucson, Arizona, forcing us to take the next flight home. She was diagnosed with SLE (lupus), a debilitating disease. Both VJ and I read a lot about it and knew that she had at best 5 to 10 years more to live. She continued her work, in spite of the doctors’ and my repeated advice to the contrary, just to Left, Jay dressed up for a school competition in 1981. give the best education to the children before she died. Right, with his father Ravi and son Tejas. Finally, after much pressure from me, she took COURTESY: RAVI VARMA and JAY VARMA disability from work in mid-1986. Those years a federal government job at the National Cancer Institute, were the hardest for all of us in the family, especially for Rockville, Maryland, and re-married in 1995. Deep and Jay, with VJ having to be hospitalized from days Both our children got married. I retired from my job in to weeks for treatments over the next 10 years. late 2001 and relocated to spend my retirement years in I was always concerned how this would affect the children Kerala with our elder kith and kin. psychologically. When asked in their later high school years It was during one of his many visits to Rockville and our about the children’s birthdays I used to say that every day is chats that Jay expressed his inclination to join the PHS their birthday; all of us (would) go out and eat together. after completing his requirements for a licensed MD. His Years went by, with the quality of life in the family declinreal professional life began after he joined the PHS. ing gradually. Deep graduated magna cum laude from Jay always has been gentle and genial. He has borne a lot Harvard, and Jay graduated from Lawrenceville of grief during his formative years. Both Deep and Jay School cum laude as valedictorian of the school that year. never became attracted to drugs or alcohol. Jay is still a teeTheir mother died on July 31, 1989. Deep had secured totaler. His friends have spoken often to me of his good and a one-year extension from medical school at UCSF to be lovable qualities, one of the few reasons why he was the with his mother. He spent one year at McLean Hospital, valedictorian when he completed his MD at UCSD. Cambridge, Massachusetts, while Jay joined Harvard as an He has repeatedly told me that he had a nuclear family undergraduate. In September 1990 I moved to

Standing from left, Jay Varma with brother Deep and father Ravi at Deep’s wedding in 1998. Seated from left, Jay Varma’s wife Melissa, sisterin-law Lavanya and stepmother Rema. COURTESY: RAVI VARMA

when he was young and he does not want his children to be so nuclear. Melissa seems to agree. That is why they have three children. Whenever they visit India, they bring the children along and want the children to spend most time with the children of his cousins and relatives. Sometimes he has very strong views, with which I do not always agree. As Harry Reasoner of CBS said once — growing older (and experienced) one often starts questioning the validity of one’s convictions. I wish to point out two incidents that live in my mind. Incident 1: Jay was the editor of the school newspaper. A competitive girl student wrote a long article that was not published because the pages were limited. The girl led a demonstration to protest that. Instead of arguing, Jay discussed the matter with the relatively new and respected headmaster and followed his advice. Things cooled off very soon. Incident 2: A few days after his mother’s death or a year later (I don’t remember when), I was sleeping home alone. Jay came home around midnight begging me not to get angry. He described what happened. I consoled him telling him that everything would be okay, that he had done the right thing, and we would get a lawyer. Jay had left in the family van for an outing with some of his friends from the Princeton area. Later, they bought a few cans of beer. Jay offered to drive and they assembled at a small lower school in Princeton. His friends knew that Jay did not drink even beer. The police soon arrived, the boys ran helter-skelter, everyone was arrested and taken to the police station. Several weeks later, everyone assembled in court with lawyers. Jay was the first one released. All his friends said he was innocent. He came home and told me that the lawyers exchanged a lot of harsh words and he was then let go. Jay majored in history and science at Harvard since he was not certain if he should study law or the sciences. This incident seems to be the one where he sort of made up his mind not to pursue law! Jay has accomplished a good deal. He is self-motivated, brave, self-driven, liked by his friends and a good planner. His stepmother joins me in congratulating Jay for being selected for the India Abroad Doctor of the Year Award. n Ravi Varma retired to Kerala, India in 2001. He lives in Tripunithara. He responded by email to P Rajendran.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M67

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘A strong leader with a steady hand’ Tom Rousakis Friend and classmate

F

rom the first days of Harvard to the present, Jay has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to justice, a drive for excellence, and a level of wisdom beyond his years. That he has focused his convictions on protecting public health, both in the US and abroad, and been a strong leader with a steady hand during times of crisis in New York, comes as no surprise to those who have known him the longest. Nor is it a surprise that Jay has achieved success while being a caring husband, father and friend. While some of Jay’s convictions have taken him far, some like his taste in music can be ridiculous. I recall many arguments during freshman year when Jay would insist that the only band worth listening to was Led Zeppelin and that anything newer was a just a weak copy. He came around eventually and is now an expert in all new music and still goes to shows while the rest of are still stuck in the past. n Tom Rousakis is Senior Managing Director, Ernst & Young Infrastructure Advisors, LLC. He responded by email to P Rajendran.

Jay Varma’s friends consider him deeply knowledgeable about American sports (Read: Celtics) rock music (Led Zeppelin) movies (Spinal Tap), obscure culture (virtually everything). COURTESY: JAY VARMA

Jacob Silverman Friend and classmate

J

aya Kumar Varma: Passionate, articulate, incisive, insightful. Intensely witty, intensely smart.... intensely loud... :) Adventurous, independent, selfless, loyal. Loving and caring about all. I first met Jay over 25 years ago during our first week of freshman year at Harvard. Little did we know that we had grown up only a town away from each other — it was fate that we met at college. We became instant and life-long friends and roommates for our sophomore through senior years. His intensity was immediately evident when we played a pick-up basketball tourney in our dorm room and he nearly shattered the backboard! I knew at that moment that I was in the presence of both a great intellect, and a fanatical Celtics fan. Jay appeared to be an assimilated, fully American young man — deeply knowledgeable about American sports (Read: Celtics) rock music (Led Zeppelin) movies (Spinal Tap), obscure culture (virtually everything). Yet he was and remains deeply connected to his Indian heritage. This is evident in so much of his life, from simple observances, to references to his family in India, to food — a lot of food. Jay has been our cultural tour guide through the world of Indian cuisine. I could ask for no more lively or worthy a guide.

‘The world is better because of Jay and his work’ Nor could my family ask for more caring and wonderful friends in Melissa, Asha, Sophie and Tejas. Seeing my three sons play soccer and share Rolling Stones covers with Tejas is one my great joys. From those early days in college, it was clear that Jay would have a profound impact on me and our roommates. Over the years it became clear that Jay would also have such an impact

on this great city and on the world — on their safety and their generational betterment. The world is better because of Jay and his work, and I am better for his friendship. n Jacob Silverman is President of Duff & Phelps, valuation and corporate finance advisers. He responded by email to P Rajendran.

‘Fortunate to have a first row seat to watch Jay grow’ Dr Ajay Ananda Friend

I

met Jay in the fall of 1993, and he has been a close friend ever since. I consider myself fortunate to have a first row seat to watch him grow and mature from exceptional medical student, to first-rate doctor, to loving husband, and now devoted father. All the while, he has had a keen

capacity to balance his family life while pursuing a professionally fulfilling and altruistic career. In a materialistic world, it is rare when the most capable among us pursue careers geared to academic excellence and the service of others. In high school, Jay was at the very top among the most prestigious prep schools in the US. From there he attended Harvard where

he also excelled. From there, he was a stellar student in medical school, where he was once again in the top percentile, both in grades and in performance on his medical boards. He then pursued a career in academic medicine traveling to many underserved areas working on global solutions to endemic medical problems. He currently is in one of the least savory places on

earth, Sierra Leone, assisting in the eradication of the Ebola virus. With some people this would merely be a list of career achievements. In regard to Jay, this is a true reflection of his inner character. n Dr Ajay Ananda is a neurosurgeon based in Los Angeles. He responded by email to P Rajendran.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M68

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘One of the brightest stars in the field of public health’

‘I’ve know him to be always inspiring’ Dr Andrew D Beros Friend

I

have known Jay since beginning medical school with him in 1993. Throughout the years of our friendship I have know him to be always knowledgeable, inspiring, equitable, motivated and bright. He and I were cofounders of a student-run clinic in medical school, which gave students the opportunity to begin practicing medicine and engaging the community before even receiving our medical degrees. Jay was also our class valedictorian and succinctly conveyed the motivations and feelings of a large group of graduating students in a way that made us all feel special and unique as individuals while touching on the salient points that affected us all during our rigorous years in medical school. Jay has continually fostered an atmosphere of intellectual curiosity, service to our community, challenging and thoughtful discourse and kind and empathetic concern for his fellow citizens. I know he has carried these qualities forward into his post-graduate years and beyond. His many outstanding qualities have served him and others admirably and have propelled him to a position of respect and authority while maintaining a profound sense of service and humility. Dr Andrew D Beros is a surgeon based in San Diego, California. He responded by email to P Rajendran.

Dr Richard Besser, Mentor

I

first met Jay when he was a medical student at the University of California, San Diego. I was his adviser on one of his research projects. I remember having long conversations with Jay hoping that he would pursue a career in public health. He clearly had a desire to have an impact on the health of people everywhere. I’ve worked with hundreds of students at all levels and Jay is clearly one of the smartest I have encountered. Over the past 20 years, Jay has had an incredible career; he is one of the brightest stars in the field of public health. He is one of the rare public health leaders who has had big impact at the city, national, and international levels. Last fall during the national fear around Ebola, when I was looking for a public health leader to join me on camera (at ABC) to answer questions from the public, I chose Jay. We spoke to an audience of more than 10 million people, and Jay hit just the right tone. He has a tremendous ability to speak clearly and plainly about complex health issues during a time of crisis. I am sure that Jay will continue to lead in public health and I can’t wait to see what he does next. n

Dr Richard Besser is Chief Health and Medical Editor, ABC News. He responded by email to P Rajendran.

Jay Varma discusses Ebola on ABC News. COURTESY: JAY VARMA

‘Jay is a rare breed’ Dr Manoj V Waikar Classmate and colleague.

I

have known Jay for 22 years as a med school classmate and very good friend. I also had the added experience of working very closely with him on our med student newspaper. I have also known his wife for 22 years as she too is a med school classmate. I quickly recognized that Jay was a rare breed. He possesses a truly unique combination of high levels of both intelligence and compassion. He is a true believer in the notion that it is possible to make the world a better place for all. Furthermore, he manages to live a life where it is a foregone conclusion that service to the greater good is his life’s work, yet he expects nothing pretentious or ceremonial in return and he casts no judgment on or shows resent-

ment for those of us who choose a different path. In other words his ego is nowhere to be found in his already remarkable career and list of achievements. In addition to intelligence and compassion Jay demonstrates a remarkable ability to get things done. When he encounters an arena which may be foreign to him, he is not afraid to ask questions and learn quickly whatever he needs to know. This last quality in particular is in my opinion a predictor of success within the Indian Diaspora. Jay is definitely an exemplary member of such a diverse and accomplished group. n Dr Manoj Waikar is a psychiatrist based in Los Gatos, California. He responded by email to P Rajendran.

‘Jay is the model for a competent, action-oriented expert’ Dr Thomas A Farle, Former boss

I

hired Dr Jay Varma to lead our division to prevent infectious diseases. He dealt with drug-resistant tuberculosis, a ricin incident, HIV, other sexually transmitted diseases, immunizations, and countless disease outbreaks. He is the model for a competent, action-oriented expert. New York City under his leadership is in good hands. n Dr Thomas Farley is a former health commissioner of New York City, and CEO of Public Good Projects, a nonprofit that uses the mass media to change health culture. He responded by email to P Rajendran.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M69

THERE SHE IS, THE NEW MISS AMERICA When Nina Davuluri took the Miss America 2014 crown, a title that by definition hailed her as a central figure of nationalism, she broke through a rigid barrier. She changed history. Since then her horizons have only broadened. Chaya Babu finds out there is no stopping the winner of the India Abroad Face of the Future Award.

Presented by

NINA

DAVULURI

INDIA ABROAD FACE OF THE FUTURE AWARD 2014 For breaking stereotypes; for achieving a spectacular victory; and for going where no Indian American has gone before.

MICHAEL LOCCISANO/GETTY IMAGES


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M70

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

W

hen we think of the ‘allAmerican girl,’ what comes to mind? Perhaps iconic images of Marilyn Monroe or even little Shirley Temple. Or fast forwarding to this millennium, present-day pop sensations such as Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift, both frequently labeled America’s sweethearts. What do all of these have in common? The blonde, blue-eyed standard of beauty rarely goes unchecked in mainstream cultural spaces in America. The characters mentioned never had their darling good looks questioned or the authenticity of their belongingness challenged — they were meant to be in the spotlight, to be admired and adored as our country’s ideal of perfect American-ness. When Nina Davuluri took the Miss America 2014 crown, a title that by definition hailed her as a central figure of nationalism out of 53 women, each representing a different state, she broke through a rigid barrier. She changed history. Known in high school amidst a sea of white as ‘the little Indian girl who did the little Indian dance,’ the New York-born Davuluri was suddenly thrust into a position known and held dear by millions of Americans, one no Indian-American woman had stepped into before. “Every single one of us could have done the job,” she said of the 53 contestants. “It’s just a matter of how the cards fall that night.” Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean her win wasn’t significant. On the other side of the world, in Andhra Pradesh, little girls at the school run by Davuluri’s grandmother basked in the glory and pride of such a victory: A woman who looks like them was called Miss America for the first time. Until 1940, rule #7 of the qualifying criteria that must be met in order to enter the pageant stated that ‘contestants must be of good health and of the white race.’ To meet this, aspiring Miss Americas had to trace their ancestry back through generations. For Davuluri, she’s the first generation in her family born on American soil — no digging is needed to figure that one out. The rules have changed, and so have the times. But not everyone is up to speed. Upon her tear-filled acceptance of her crown and sash on the stage in Atlantic City that fall night, the Twittersphere erupted with vitriol. The disapproval at the judges’ choice was strong, and the hatred expressed swift. The insults ranged from racist slurs that mistook her as Arab, jokes about ties to terrorist groups, mere shock that an Indian woman could win, and more. ‘This is Miss America… Not Miss Foreign Country,’ one Twitter user wrote. But, and perhaps as expected, Davuluri maintained her poise and was unruffled. When she spoke about it later, she stressed the overwhelming positivity she received

THERE SHE IS, THE NEW MISS AMERICA

India Abroad Face of the Future Award

HONOR ROLL MANJUL BHARGAVA (2008) R Brandon Fradd Professor of Mathematics, Princeton University; then one of the youngest professors at Princeton

PRIYAMVADA NATARAJAN (2009) Theoretical Astrophysicist and Professor, Department of Astronomy and Physics, Yale University NAVEEN SELVADURAI (2010) Co-founder, Foursquare

SHWETAK PATEL (2011) MacArthur Fellow and Associate Professor, Computer Science and Engineering and Electrical Engineering, University of Washington, RAJ CHETTY (2012) MacArthur Fellow and William Henry Bloomberg Professor of Economics, Harvard University

MANU PRAKASH (2013) Inventor, Assistant Professor of Bioengineering at Stanford University, and founder of the Prakash Lab

Nina Davuluri in the moment that she created history as the first Indian-American Miss America. LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS

from the majority of those who reacted to her win. She chose to rise above the other responses, but she was also prepared. She recalled advice she had gotten as she prepared for the pageant, practicing diligently for her talent, a Bollywood dance — many friends and acquaintances warned that she would never win unless she changed her talent to something more easily digestible, something more American. She refused. Joking about how learning a Bollywood routine as a classically-trained Bharata Natyam dancer is like asking a ballerina to bust out some hip hop moves, Davuluri explained that she was resolute in sticking to a talent that reflected her ori- 4M71 gins and her identity.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M71

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M70 Nina Davuluri There was no doubt in her mind that she was going to show the judges and the audience this part of herself. And it was clearly the right choice. In fact, her platform in running for the title revolved around her Indian-American heritage: Celebrating Diversity through Cultural Competency. “This wasn’t something that I just woke up as Miss America and said, ‘Okay, I’m going to promote diversity now!’” Davuluri said. “It’s something that I had been working with my own organization on for six years, and essentially promoting that idea of cultural competency and battling stereotypes my entire life, from the time that I was very young, growing up second generation Asian American.” Since winning, she has been carrying this message and promoting it all over the US, logging over 250,000 miles over the past year-and-a-half. Davuluri has spoken mostly at colleges and universities, talking to students and other young people about the importance of inclusion and working through ignorance and lack of understanding about cultural differences. This has been the highlight of her travels. Simultaneously she has been promoting a second platform, and that is the importance of STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) education, in particular among girls. As the first Miss America to have a background in a STEM-related field — she graduated from University of Michigan — Davuluri is passionate about encouraging other young women to pursue a path that is often closed to them simply through silence and lack of opportunities offered to them. She has a partnership with the Department of Education and the Department of Energy, through which she works alongside technology companies and middle schools and high schools to position girls well for a future in STEM fields. This, on top of her work with the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals and a number of other non-profits based both in the United States and India such as Girl Rising, has kept Davuluri busy. That’s not to say that it stopped her from a PR tour in India and playing host at Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Madison Square Garden reception this past September, immediately after she completed her official Miss America Duties. She doesn’t stop. And she won’t. Her win has opened doors she could never have imagined. She has already broadened her horizons from just a year ago. Her plans are shifting and taking shape as we speak. She shares what brought her to where she is and where she’s going next. What has the last year-and-a-half been like?

Nina Davuluri ran for Miss America on the platform of Celebrating Diversity Through Cultural Competency. From choosing Bollywood dancing as her talent at the pageant to logging over 250,000 miles over the past year-and-a-half promoting that message, she has lived her convictions. LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS

It’s been surreal. It’s hard to condense a year and a half into a short interview but I can touch on a couple of highlights from the time I won to what I’m doing now. Obviously the night I won, I should say your life changes in a matter of two minutes when your name is announced. For me, even though it felt like my life changed overnight, this was something I had been working for essentially for about six years now. It had been a goal of mine for quite some time.

That being said, right after winning, you’re immediately whisked off to a press conference, you have about 20 minutes with your family and friends, and then you’re basically asked to pack all of your belongings into two suitcases, and you hit the road. So, over the past year, during my year of service, which is what we call it — I will always say that everyone wants to win Miss America, but not everyone wants the job of Miss America. They’re actually two very separate things.

Basically once you win, you’re traveling from one city to the next; I was usually in one place no longer than 48 hours at a time, and I still am I would say. I’m going from one place right to the next, living out of hotels, suitcases, airplanes. It gets quite exhausting. There are so many times when I’m like, ‘Wait, what’s my room number? What city am I in?’ But it’s very interesting because every day is so different: I do so many different events and appearances that I never would have been exposed to otherwise. But there’s kind of a main focus that I’ve really had during my year. The first, of course, was my platform, and that’s ‘Celebrating Diversity Through Cultural Competency.’ Like I said, this wasn’t something that I just woke up as Miss America and said, ‘Okay, I’m going to promote diversity now!’ It’s something that I had been working with my own organization on for six years — essentially promoting that idea of cultural competency and battling stereotypes my entire life, from the time that I was very young, growing up second generation Asian American. So that was my primary message. I’ve been on this incredible tour and logged over 250,000 miles over the past year-and-a-half promoting that message, mostly at colleges and universities, which is my favorite thing to do — usually to South Asian groups, multicultural offices, diversity and inclusion efforts that will bring me in to be their keynote, especially now with May being Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and March is Women’s History Month. So there’s a significant college arena I’ve been able to speak in and share my story with. Aside from that, I also promote Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. That’s something that every Miss America does, and it’s something that I worked very closely with prior to stepping into the role and something that I continue to do now. My second platform, I would say, is probably STEM education. I myself have a STEM degree and was the first Miss America to have a degree in a STEM-related field since we started taking on this platform of STEM, so I have a partnership with the Department of Education and the Department of Energy, working alongside tech companies and middle schools and high schools to really position girls to go into STEM. So those are kind of the main things that I’ve been working with. As I transitioned to becoming a former Miss America, I like to put it as, you get your life back, and I get to be Nina Davuluri again, which is also very exciting. Right after I finished my duties in September, of course, I hosted the reception at 4M72 Madison Square Garden for


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M72

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M71 Nina Davuluri Prime Minister Modi, which was an incredible honor. I also traveled to India and did a PR media tour there in December and January, and then came back and continued my travels and promoting my platform. I also partnered with quite a few NGOs and non-profits based in the US and India... I’m really exploring this uncharted territory in the niche that I have between the US market and the India market. That’s just some of it, and it’s kept me very busy, but I love doing it and I’m very excited to see where it will take me. You mentioned being able to go back to being just Nina — what are the differences there between Nina who is Miss America and Nina who is just Nina? Being Miss America was wonderful. It’s an incredible year of so many opportunities — obviously it changes your life in so many ways that I can’t even articulate. But I think what I’m most proud of is that it’s given me a voice. It’s given me a voice beyond my year, beyond my time as Miss America... I think what’s most important is that I encourage every young woman who is competing in this organization to think beyond this title because it lasts for one year. I’ve seen some of my predecessors who unfortunately haven’t gotten past that, and I’ve seen ones who have gone on to do incredibly successful things. I also see young women who never reach the title of Miss America go on to do incredible things with the organization as well. So for me, although my year was great, I think the year after is so much better, because you really get to capitalize on the network you created during that entire first year. You really get to focus more on the work that you want to do personally. Of course, with any organization, as a spokesperson, you’re basically the face for the organization and you have certain obligations that you have to fulfill. Now I have the chance to work on what I myself as Nina would like to do. Although the title of Miss America will always be there and will always follow me and I’m grateful for that, I’m looking forward to sharing a different side of me that perhaps I wasn’t necessarily able to do before. We look forward to seeing that! I’d love to rewind a little and talk about how you got started in pageants. Where did this desire come from, and when? I started competing in the (Miss America) teen program. I started when I was 16, and that was the first time I even entered the pageant world. One of my friends had said, ‘Hey I’m doing this, and I think you should do it too.’ I was always involved in my community, and I had a talent and I loved performing, I grew up a dancer, so for me that was always the easy part. I felt like I communicated well, at least in my mind. So I entered the teen program, and through that I earned $25,000 in scholarship money. I was Miss Michigan Teen and first runner up at Miss America teen, which is the toughest spot, because you’re so close yet so far. After that, I took about a five-year hiatus from the Miss America organization and I went to college. I knew that (the Miss America competition) was something that I always wanted to do, but I think when you enter college

Nina Davuluri at the White House with the Obamas, above, and co-hosting the reception for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Madison Square Garden, left. She is exploring this uncharted territory in the niche that she has between the US market and the India market. FACEBOOK.COM/NINADAVULURI and PARESH GANDHI

you kind of realize that you really have to prioritize where you want to go with your career and balance your time well. I didn’t necessarily see at the time how the Miss America organization would be a fit with everything else I was doing and everything else that I had on my plate. After I graduated, it was kind of one those things where I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to always wonder, what if?’ It was something I had always been interested in, and I really genuinely thought that I could never be Miss America because of my background and my ethnicity — I felt like that was certainly a barrier. Part of the reason I began competing was, of course, the scholarship money. I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school, and my parents were generous enough to pay for a portion of my education, but I knew that I had to fund a significant other portion of that. So yes, the scholarship

aspect was definitely a part of it, but I think I also knew that, should I be able to win this title or have this job, it would forever change who Miss America was and the face of this organization. We’ve reached out to a whole new demographic of women, and I would say really that that was the impetus behind entering... I really wanted to change who ‘the girl next door’ was. What was your early life and upbringing like, in terms of how your background and your culture impacted your feelings on beauty, inclusion, American-ness and being able to fit into something like the Miss America tradition? I guess I’ll start with my childhood. I think I always knew that I was different from my peers; young children know when they are. It’s something that we inherently understand. For me, I grew up in a very small town in Oklahoma — small, predominantly white, conservative town. Well, I was born in Syracuse, New York. My grandparents raised me in India for two years; my first spoken language was Telugu. Then I came back to Syracuse, and then my family moved to Oklahoma when I was four. So most of my memories are starting at that time and elementary school, and people asking me questions like if I was going to have an arranged marriage or what the red dot meant, do you worship cows, and the list goes on and on and on. Many of these remarks aren’t meant to be malicious, but really are just due to ignorance. So I think I found myself con4M74 stantly correcting those stereotypes and trying to address them. But there were also times


M73

India Abroad June 19, 2015

Services Provided At New York Branch Acceptance of CD Remittances International Wire Transfers Opening, Advising & Negotiating LCs Opening Checking Account & Extending Trade Finance Bank of India New York:

San Francisco Agency:

New York Branch (Member FDIC) 277, Park Avenue, New York NY 10172 Tel: (646) 720-0398 /0407 Email: boiny@usa.net Web: www.boiusa.com

555, California Street Suite 4646, San Francisco, CA 94104 Tel: (415) 956-6326 Email: boisfa@aol.com

Relationship byoand banking


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M74

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

From left, Nina Davuluri as Miss Michigan, Miss Syracuse, and Miss New York — the long road to becoming Miss America. INSTAGRAM.COM/REALNINAD AND CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS

3M72 Nina Davuluri when I just felt really embarrassed about my culture, especially in middle school. My family moved to Michigan when I was 10. I think middle school is the worst time for everyone, because you’re just trying to fit in, be accepted, find your place, and just going through so many changes about who you are. For me, I would always just be embarrassed to bring people to my house. It would be difficult for me to talk to them about my religion and why I didn’t go to church on Sundays. Finally I just realized through that process that if you’re not able to talk about those things, then people won’t ever understand what your background is, and you can’t expect them to know about every single ethnicity and culture and religion if you’re not willing to educate. That’s kind of the basis for where this ‘Cultural Competency’ theme started — it’s not about agreeing with everyone’s beliefs because that’s not realistic or even ideal; it’s really about finding an understanding and being able to communicate in an open, honest, respectful manner. That’s primarily the message that I try to send, in terms of my upbringing as well, because yes, you’re going to find yourself in situations where you have to address those stereotypes, and I think that’s one of the most important things we can do. What was your home life like? Did you parents instill a strong sense of ‘Indian-ness’ in your home? Yes! I grew up in a very Indian household, and I can honestly say I loved it. I’m so thankful for my parents instilling that cultural value because I can’t imagine not dancing. I grew up a classically trained Bharata Natyam dancer, and every summer, my mom, my sister and I would always travel back to India and have a dance teacher come to our place so we could learn. My mom’s family still lives there actually; my grandmother and aunt are still there, and I just saw them this past Christmas. I remember that I would wake up screaming, ‘I don’t want to dance today!’ And my mom would say, ‘Well we

already paid the dance master so you have to go.’ I listened to my mom and I went to dance class and I’m so appreciative of that because it ended up being a way for me to express myself that I could never have even imagined. Especially, like I said, going back to middle school and high school. I think one of my proudest moments that I’ve ever had is from then, and it’s one I share with young people a lot. Every year my school had a talent show, and I think everyone knew me as: Nina, the little Indian girl who performed the little Indian dance (laughing). But it was a way for me to break through stereotypes and connect with my peers because the response I got was so positive. People would ask, ‘What does this costume mean?’ ‘What does this gesture mean?’ ‘What does this song mean?’ It was something they had never seen before; I was one out of five Indians in my class, and that included my sister. And I remember that the year after, a group of girls did a traditional Chinese cultural dance. I think that really set the tone for people to say, ‘You know, I want to share part of my culture too.’ I’m very appreciative because I grew up with that value of learning how to be proud of where I come from. I think that takes time and sometimes you have to learn that from others as well. Were your parents supportive when you first got involved in pageants? My parents were always supportive, but not necessarily encouraging. I think that’s the best way I can put it. They never said no, and of course they also helped me financially with certain things. But I think there was always that question, that lingering layer, of ‘What happens if you don’t win?’ or ‘What is everyone else going to think?’ I think we see that quite a bit in our culture — where people are constantly comparing or thinking about what people will think, or what the aunties and uncles will say. Or at least that happened in my family. I remember competing for Miss New York, and my family didn’t tell anyone. I was second runner up my first year, and I remember thinking, ‘Great! I did well!’ This also goes back to my story of competing — I was second runner up

and I was watching Miss America, that year’s pageant, and as I watched Mallory Hagan, who was Miss New York that year, go on to win the title of Miss America representing the state of New York, I remember calling my mom hysterically. I said, ‘Mom, I will never win Miss America now. What are the chances that Miss New York will win two years in a row?’ It just didn’t seem very likely. I remember my mom said to me, ‘Nina, why don’t you first focus on winning Miss New York and then we can talk about Miss America.’ To hear that from her, to me, was very encouraging. I felt like that was the best thing she could have said at that time. My immediate family are the people who know me the best; they’ve been with me growing up and they understand my mentality. But I’m one of 17 cousins... and I’m also very close with my cousins. Only one of them came to support me during Miss America in Atlantic City. I think that speaks more volumes than family saying, ‘Oh you’re doing this and that’s great.’ Of course, they all jumped on the bandwagon after I won, and I still love them and have a great relationship with them, but there was still kind of that feeling of, ‘Well where was all of that support before?’ I still questioned that. What were some other reactions you got to competing? I remember talking to my sister, who’s my best friend. She actually just graduated from medical school this weekend (in May). We’re 4M76 very close in age, she’s 18th months older, and we’ll be living together in New York, which I’m


India Abroad June 19, 2015

M75


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M76

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M74 Nina Davuluri very excited about. She’s doing her residency there for urology, so this will be an exciting new chapter for both of us. She’s always been my go-to person, from ever since I can remember; I’ve always sought her advice. She said to me, ‘Why are you spending to much time on this? What are you really getting out of this?’ about Miss America — because it’s a really shot in the dark, it really is. I mean, one in 14,000 women compete for the title every year. And honestly, being Miss America when you’re in a group of 53 of the nation’s most talented, intelligent, driven young women… every single one of us could have done the job; it’s just a matter of how the cards fall that night. You never know. That being said, I remember talking to her and I said, ‘I sincerely believe that two to three years from now, Miss America will be someone who is ethnic.’ To me that wasn’t pulling the race card or saying, ‘Pick me, I’m brown!’ It was the fact that it felt so timely for this organization to finally reach out to a new demographic of young women and ultimately speak to that young girl who I know is watching like I was when I was six or seven years old, and for her to be able to say, ‘This year Miss America looks like me,’ or ‘This is a talent that I know how to do.’ That’s really what connects with people. Overall with competing, I didn’t receive any negative comments from contestants behind the scenes or anything like that. I never experienced that. The only time I did was when I won Miss New York — the year I won, I got some similar comments to when I won Miss America. People called me a terrorist and ridiculous things like that. When that happened, I sat down with my mom and sister and saying, ‘Why is this happening? I was born in New York, and I’ve always thought of myself as first and foremost American, and my platform is diversity.’ I think hindsight is 20/20 because if that hadn’t happened when I won Miss New York, I wouldn’t have been able to handle it the way I did when I won Miss America because I was very prepared for it. Also, I’ve said this countless times but it’s so true, for every negative response, I received hundreds if not thousands of words of encouragement. It came from younger generations really stepping up and speaking about this. The fact that I’ve been able to speak at 45 different colleges and universities over the past year and half is because there’s someone at those institutions suggesting that I come in and speak about this. I think this message really resonates with so many of us — not just Indian Americans, but people of different cultures trying to find this balance

Nina Davuluri, as Miss America, at a Charity Ride in New York City. A poignant angle of Nina Davuluri’s victory has been her skin tone, which in the Indian community here or back in India is not considered beautiful.‘At every single college and university I’ve spoken at, this topic always comes up with South Asian women,’ Nina says. Donald Bowers/Getty Images for Flywheel Sports

of assimilation and being true to their roots, of being upholding the values of their respective backgrounds but also being American. It’s so great that you have been able to be positive about those hurtful comments. Still, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what some of those reactions reveal. What did those reflect about us as a society and beauty ideals? I experienced a lot of very xenophobic comments. I think the point I really want to drive home, especially within this pageant world of beauty standards, is that we can redefine what an American is. I think everyone has an idea in their minds and the most important thing is being able to understand the beauty of our country and why hundreds of thousands of pioneers immigrate here every year is because of that American dream. Where has that gone? Why are people not understanding that this is a historical moment in a positive way? With that, I’d say that regardless of your race, your gender, your socioeconomic status, you can become anything you want to be so long as you work hard at it. That’s the ideal our country was founded on.

Of course I read my Twitter feed, and it is difficult. But I really have to say that the fact that so many people really championed me and there were blogs and stories and interviews I was able to do that I hope really reached out to people who might not have thought about this a certain way. When you won, there was the media response around xenophobia and American-ness as we’ve discussed, but there was also another conversation happening in the media, mostly in South Asian circles, around colorism. What were your feelings on this? Did the value of fair skin impact your life or your experiences? I love this question. Thank you for asking me about this. It’s such a poignant topic for me because it also resonates with so many of my peers. When I went the University of Michigan, I was very involved in the Indian community there, and that was really the first time I was immersed into ‘Brown Town’ because, like I said, I didn’t have a lot of Indian friends in high school. At every single college and university I’ve spoken at, this topic always comes up with South Asian women. Growing up here, I remember as a young child, my family saying, ‘Don’t go out in the

sun; you’re going to get too dark!’ Then I would go to school, and I would hear my teachers or classmates say, ‘Oh my goodness, you’re so tan’ and ‘You have such a beautiful skin tone!’ Here, in America, we have this billiondollar industry that is tanning salons and products, and abroad in many Asian countries, we have our own billion-dollar industry of fairness creams and bleaching products and all of that stuff. I think it’s this idea of wanting what you don’t have. I think when I learned about what you mentioned, all the blog posts and commentary highlighting this aspect of, ‘She never would have won Miss India if she were competing there,’ my reaction to that is, ‘Well, I never wanted to be Miss India.’ So many people are saying that it’s Americans who are breaking this beauty standard of what Indians think is ideal, and for young Indian girls to see someone who is so-called ‘successful’ in America and see that she is a 4M77 darker-skinned and has a darker complexion is huge.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M77

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M76 Nina Davuluri Of course when I was growing up, I heard people in India say, ‘You would be so much more beautiful if you were fairer.’ But I’ve been able to take on this role and say, ‘You know what? I’m proud.’ I’m proud to send this message to embrace your identity and be beautiful in who you are. I know it’s trite to say that beauty comes from the inside but it’s about that confidence, and it starts with one person saying it’s okay to be you. This is a conversation that I hope I will get to take further. It’s something that I love addressing. Especially within our age group, I feel it’s a very real issue. Who was that person for you who told you it’s okay to be you? I really think it had to have been my dad. Every single time, even to this day, from the time we were young, he would always say, ‘Be yourself.’ It’s something that both my sister and I constantly heard over and over. I think the confidence we have no stems inherently from that. That’s so important to have learned. With that, what advice do you have for young South Asian women in the US today, generally and not just related to beauty or even culture and ethnicity, I would say be yourself. I know that’s so clichéd, and it’s so much easier said than done. But you really have to know who you are, love who you are, and stand up for who you are. I think that comes with maturity. I think it comes with age. But I also think that comes with the people you surround yourself with. I think it’s important to take the initiative and go out and meet people who are positive and figure out your path and find your passion. I think once you find what you’re good and what you love, you are going to be successful because you’re happy doing what you want to do. Yes, we have so many pressures from our families and culturally, which I completely understand, but ultimately you have to do what’s best for you and only you yourself can really find that. And it brings me to my last question — I’ve heard that you wanted to be a doctor but no longer feel that’s for you, and that you had felt a little pressured to take that route. Can you talk about that? What lies ahead instead? I did feel some pressure to go into the medical field. I think a lot of us do. I did in my family because I come from a family of physicians — my dad is a physician, my uncle, my aunt, my cousins, my sister — and so for me, I think it was the only thing I grew up around. It was the only thing I really knew. Because of that, from the time I was young, it was always, ‘Well I’ll be a doctor!’ since that’s what I was exposed to. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy math and science because I did and it was something I was good at even though I also worked hard. But when I went to college, which I think of as a time of self-discovery, I just sort of followed this blind path without putting in the effort that I should have (to figure out what I wanted). So although yes I felt pressure, a certain part of that falls on me, where I should have also been looking into myself and asking, ‘Am I really happy with this? Or is this just what I’m supposed to do?’ Now, after graduating and being exposed to so many

Being Nina Davuluri: After her reign ended Nina has continued to remain on the path of being an advocate and speaker. Seen here with Girl Rising ambassadors Priyanka Chopra, left and Freida Pinto, second from right. Left, Nina is an icon for the next generation of Indian-American girls. Left, two of her nieces pose beside the Beyond Bollywood exhibit on her at the Smithsonian. FACEBOOK.COM/NINADAVULURIMNY

more things over the past year and a half, what I’m choosing to do is take the business route — especially because there’s such a political component to Miss America that people don’t realize. You’re lobbying for your platform; you’re working on legislation, and the issues I was working on are diversity, cultural competency, and STEM education, and I was really able to raise awareness. I would say that the biggest game-changer I had was more of this thing of filling a niche between Indians abroad here and Indians in India through things like the Modi

event. That’s when I really shifted focus. I knew I wanted to do my MBA and pursue a dual degree in public policy/international relations. I definitely see myself in the political arena. I think one of the most interesting stereotypes I’ve had to battle this whole year is, especially when going to India, people say, ‘So when are you going to be in a Bollywood movie?’ As much as I love Bollywood and respect it, it’s not something that I want to do. I’ve said that time and time again and people always give me this look of, ‘Well, what are you going to do?’ I feel like when you’re given this (Miss America) opportunity — and for me, coming from a family that’s been very focused on education and having developed the network that I have — it’s more important for me to be an advocate and speaker, which I’ve been doing. I’m continuing on that path and I love doing it. I’m excited to see the political track that I’ll be on once I get into school and after. That’s wonderful. We look forward to seeing that as well. Thanks. So that’s the future, and I’m continuing to travel through this next year as well. We have quite a few appearances throughout this year, and I’m very lucky and happy that that worked out how it did because when you’re a speaker and advocate, you never know. I’ll be applying for my dual degree for the fall of 2016; I’m looking to go back to school then. I’m excited to see where all of this will go. n


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M78

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

Be it in the promotion of STEM, left, or red carpet appearances, above, the Miss America organization considers Nina Davuluri one of ita most successful winners. Below, Nina Davuluri speaks at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund 25th Awards Gala. FLICKR.COM/PHOTOS/DEPARTMENTOFED and LARRY FRENCH/GETTY IMAGES

‘There couldn’t have been a more perfect representative for us’ Sam Haskell Executive Chairman and CEO, Miss America

F

irst and foremost, (Nina’s year of service) was the most incredible year that I can imagine — she was hardworking, innovative in her thought processes, did an incredible job for us promoting our STEM initiative — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Because of her own background and because she is so well-spoken, we put together one of our most successful college tours that we’ve ever had in working with the Department of Education and Secretary Arne Duncan, and in putting the importance of STEM out there, especially STEM for young women. Nina could not have been a more perfect representative for us in that; plus she’s so beautiful and elegant that on the red carpet events that we book her for, she gets lots of attention. She’s also probably one of the sweetest people I know. I really believe that the fact that Nina came from a background of diversity enhanced her year as Miss America. I think it brought great interest to our brand to have the first Indian-American Miss America, because she was so beautiful and so well-spoken, so intelligent, not only does she represent those of her heritage, but she set a new example for lots of other diverse people in the country to look at her as a role model.

However, I think the judges have to look at everything. It’s not just about what her platform was (‘Celebrating Diversity through Cultural Competency’); it’s not just about her being beautiful. What I’ve always felt about the woman who wins Miss America is she’s not the best at anything necessarily, but as

long as she is second or third best in everything, that’s who ends up with the most points and ends up getting the crown. And as I’m sure Nina would tell you, she came out of a very competitive class of contestants, and there were lots of interesting young women in her year. So for her to emerge as the victor in that very competitive group was really quite amazing. I think it had to do with the fact that she had a beautiful face and figure, she was very smart, she had a great platform, she had a great talent, and she was consistent in every phase of the competition. So it wasn’t just because of her platform; it was because of all the other areas of competition as well. Nina has also had one of the most successful post-year experiences of any of our Miss Americas lately because she has worked so hard and had made such great contacts and relationships during her year that a lot of the people who worked with her then wanted to continue working with her. She is continuing to speak at the college level: She spoke at Harvard this year, which was amazing, and we’re just so incredibly proud of her. Moving forward, we have put Nina on our foundation board. The Miss America Foundation Board administers our scholarships and comes forward with fundraising ideas and how we can further embrace pushing our brand out there in the education community. One of the things that is going to tie us together in the future is having her on the board. She is the first Miss America to join the board because I thought who better to represent us in those initiatives. So I brought it before the board and she was selected unanimously. I’m thrilled to be working with her in that capacity. n Sam Haskell has been involved in running the Miss America Organization for the past decade. He spoke to Chaya Babu.


India Abroad June 19, 2015

M79


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M80

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

Nina Davuluri with her mother. From hair to cards, Sheela Davuluri is always a big help to her daughter. INSTAGRAM/REALNINAD

‘She’s very balanced and down to earth’ Sheela Davuluri Mother

W

e were overwhelmed when Nina won. We were sitting there and it just happened and we were really happy for her. Initially after her win, there was a lot of press and a lot of phone calls and it was a little overwhelming. There was a time when we actually didn’t answer phone calls because sometimes it’s probably the best thing to do, but afterwards it settled down. It’s been a very busy year for Nina and after that too it’s been busy. It kind of made things busy for the family as well because there were so many events that we wanted to attend. We traveled a lot because of those and it just opened so many doors for Nina. We’re very happy for her, we’re trying to keep up with everything, trying to enjoy the whole experience and hoping that things will continue to be good. She was 16 when she first did a pageant. My older daughter Meena was in a pageant when we lived in a small town called St Joseph in Michigan. There used to be a pageant for all the small towns. It was like a mini Miss America. Each small town would have their queen and then all these small towns would have a big pageant and they would select another queen. Meena was Miss St Joseph when Nina was, I think, in 10th grade and my older daughter was a senior in high school. I think that’s probably why she had the idea because being a younger sibling she always tried to follow her older sister. She wanted to do pageants because of that and ended up doing the local Miss America Teen pageant. And after that she did state and then she went to the nationals as a teen.

The interest, I think, started because her sister and that’s what made her go into it. At the time she wasn’t old enough to do the small town pageant, so she went for this Miss America Teen pageant. When she wanted to go into it, of course she asked us and we didn’t want to say no because it was a fun thing for her sister and she was just wanting to do the same thing. But she was younger than her sister but we didn’t see anything for us to stop her. We were fine with it. We weren’t expecting it but were glad to see her win. Then she went to state, which was a little bit stressful at the time because she was still in high school and there were a lot of things she had to do as a teen for the state pageant and the national as well. It was a lot to juggle with school and other activities. It was very hard for her and for me, you know, just trying to coordinate everything. But overall, I think it worked out and we were extremely proud of how she did. She ended up being the first runner up to Miss America Teen. I guess, it all worked out the way it’s supposed to. We’re happy and I think that experience definitely helped her in the Miss America process. Nina is very driven. If she wants something, she can go after it and tries her best to make it happen. I don’t know if I’m biased if I say that (laughs), but I think she’s very balanced and down to earth. She knows what’s expected of her from the family and even when she was Miss America, she knew what the Miss America organization expected of her. She tries to stand by the rules and do the right thing. The thing that people wouldn’t know, what I would, is that she’s very driven, she’s very committed to doing what she needs to do and works hard. I think some of it is definitely family because parents are

always telling children how to do the right thing, to aim high, to work hard, all parents do that. She also gets a lot of it from her sister, who is a huge influence. She looks up to her and thankfully her sister is in the right direction. So that has always helped. After her first pageant when she was only 16, she became Miss Michigan Outstanding Teen, and first runner up to Miss America’s Outstanding Teen and from then on the Miss America organization has become a part of her journey. After she was done with college, she went back — and obviously won a lot of scholarships through the pageant — so they helped her a lot in college, they paid for it. She thought that was another good thing about this organization. It was not just a beauty pageant, she wanted to be in it for more than that because they would obviously support her education as well. She got into the process again and went into the Miss New York competition and you know the rest. The most challenging part was probably when she was only 16 and had a lot to handle as a teen because Miss Teen is a mini Miss America program. You’re supposed to do your talent, you’re supposed to speak in public, you’re supposed to do everything that a Miss America does but you’re not that old yet. So understanding all that, balancing school-related activities and being successful as a teen was, I think, her first challenge. The next challenge was to become a state rep because the first time she tried being Miss New York, she didn’t make it. And once, I think, in Michigan, there was a point where she actually had to work out and get her weight down in order to be fit for the competition. That was another challenge that she overcame, worked for it and finally made it as Miss New York. Other than any normal challenge that anyone would face when you participate in this kind of a competition, you have to be able to meet the challenge of public speaking, being good at your grades, your college and handling your personal platform. You have to work and develop your platform, speak about it and be 4M82 able to spread the word about your platform. That’s another challenge and she was able to


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M81

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 Meena Davuluri Sister

I

‘She’s been doing amazing things as just Nina Davuluri’

think my family was always really supportive of it (Nina participating in pageants) even when she did it in high school. It was actually something that brought our family closer because it was always something that we did together. If there was an event that she had, then we would all go together. And growing up we watched Miss America on TV every year. My mom, my sister and I would always watch it. It was cool that she got into Miss America then. I would say the thing that’s been different with her doing it at the Miss America level, as an adult, was that in the beginning they (parents) didn’t really understand it. It was kind of like ‘Why are you doing that? What’s the point when you can go on and go to school and get your job started?’ I think that was what they didn’t understand, and the opportunities that would be available through it weren’t fully understood. I can probably say that even I didn’t fully understand it. We’ve always been supportive — it was just that you never think that it can change your career literally. I think Nina is a very fortunate person in that she was a Miss America that had a very different background. She had a different market, and I think she knew what she wanted out of the year as soon as she won. She thought about it long term, and looked at different career options that came about. Seeing the stuff that she’s been able to do, in terms of the groups in DC that she works with, or a lot that she does with STEM education was something very The Davuluri sisters: Nina, left and Meena, right. Inset, a little different for my parents. Nina, left, with her akka Meena. To see that there is a way to have a really meaningINSTAGRAM/REALNINAD and NINA DAVULURI ful and impactful career in something that is not a knows about it. standard job, like a doctor or a lawyer or something like It’s been really exciting and really interesting watching that was new to them. It’s just a very unique opportunity her go through this journey. It’s kind of fun because I get to that she has. go along for the ride sometimes. I always say that I get the I think my sister will always say that she doesn’t think perks without having to do any of the work (laughs). that they fully understood the magnitude of it until she So many events that she’s done are very cool. She’s part of hosted the event when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Girl Rising, which highlights women’s empowerment and Modi came to Madison Square Garden and she was one of education in developing countries... They’re launching a the emcees. chapter in India, which is how Nina came on board with When my parents met Modi, I think that was when she Frieda Pinto for it. They did a pre-Oscar red carpet event in was like, “I think they finally think that I have a legit job!” LA back in February. We got walk the red carpet, meet the I think they did get it. They just never really had seen her lady in charge of Girl Rising who is incredibly wonderful. I in action. Even when she said that she’d met Obama and got to meet Freida Pinto. Nina got to meet Priyanka things like that... They’d seen videos, they’d seen pictures, Chopra; they were in the back having a conversation oneand she’d tell them about things, but this was the first time on-one. It was just a really fun experience, something I’d that they actually saw it. never done before and probably will never do again. That For them being Indian at the end of the day, I think that was probably my favorite thing that I got to do with her. was kind of a culmination of everything she had done. Whenever she has anything, it’s really fun to go along I think Indian parents always fear the unknown and they with her and it’s really great to see her talk. We all went to just want their kids to do better than they did. I think they Hawaii after the LA event. I got to see her talk there to a always get nervous when we stray off a path they’re familiar high school and its probably the first time I’ve seen her talk with. and it wasn’t something that I enjoyed just because it was Overall, it’s been an exciting experience. It’s just been realmy sister talking, but it was an actually great talk. ly incredible as an older sister to watch your sister grow so I had always encouraged her to start looking at something much, the experiences she’s had over the last year, the advooutside of medicine for as long as I could remember just cacy work that she’s been able to do. because I always thought that she was a really great speakSince giving up her title she’s been so, so busy, even er. Medicine (which Nina was pursuing earlier) is just this though she doesn’t have the official title of Miss America. ridiculously long and hard path, something that’s so comShe’s been doing amazing things as just Nina Davuluri and mon amongst Indian people that people forget that its 4 continues to find new pockets and expands her horizons in years of medical school, minimum three years of residency, these various areas that our family was never quite exposed if you’re doing a fellowship... you lose your 20s to school. I to because it’s not medicine, and an Indian family never

hated it and I wanted to do it. So I told her to look at different stuff, but she was like, ‘I think I want to do medicine.’ After she won, I remember she called me one day in October — she had just won in September — and I was on a really messed up sleep schedule because of my rotation. It was 2.30 in the morning when she called me. We were just talking about the past couple of months she had had and starting her reign as Miss America, and she was like, ‘I don’t think I want to do medicine.’ She has a platform and a voice where she has the ability to make change and I think that’s something she should absolutely use. So, I was really excited about the change. I think from then on we were like, ‘Moving forward, if you meet someone, make sure you’re thinking about how you can work with them and what you want to do.’ Hearing her talk about how she’s met someone interesting or has gotten involved in organizations like Girl Rising has been a really neat experience. And now that she has more of a plan, like wanting to get her MBA, the parents are set with it. I attribute a lot of our closeness to my mom... I remember when I was a kid, like maybe 7 or 8, if one of us would get mad or jealous at the other one over something, she was always like, ‘You guys are sisters. You’re the same person in the sense that anything that the other one achieves or accomplishes, anything good that happens to them, it’s like something good is happening to you.’ I remember so clearly when she said that. That really struck a chord... As we got into middle school and high school, Nina started opening up to me more about her personal life and things going on at school, and that’s when I started opening up to her. By the time we finished high school, we were really, really close. When she was a freshman and sophomore, I was a junior and senior. So we did a lot together. We danced together. We were on the tennis team together. We talked about everything... She was just basically like a best friend growing up. I always tease her because she never shows any emotion. Ever. She never cries. Every time we watch a movie, I’m the one that’s bawling, and she always makes fun of me. Even if it’s The Lion King, I just start bawling every time Mufasa dies. She’s like, “What’s wrong with you?” But when I left for college, she cried and I 4M82 was like, “Oh! You do have emotions!” (laughs).


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M82

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M80 Sheela Davuluri

The Davuluri girls with their grandparents. COURTESY: NINA DAVULURI

3M81

Meena Davuluri She’s not unemotional, but I’m probably over emotional about ridiculous things that don’t need to have emotions involved. I think she’s just much stronger with her emotions than I am, which will be funny for me as a physician working with cancer. We’ll see what happens there. I think that’s a great strength for my sister to have for her career; it helps her be a stronger speaker. We are very different. We’re always like, ‘Do you think we would be friends if we weren’t sisters?’ (laughs) We have honestly probably only been apart for four years of our life. She ended up coming to Michigan with me. We were both in the Indian American Student Association together. It was nice because both of our cirNina with her father. cles of friends actually knew each other. In the Greek scene we kind of knew the same INSTAGRAM/REALNINAD people, and then in the Indian scene we because suddenly none of the career stuff matknew the same people. tered any more. We got this relationship back of It just made it even easier to stay close and just being purely best friends, sisters. when I went to medical school and did my So it’s (winning Miss America) been really, MPH and she was still in college, we talked and really wonderful, even for our relationship. To every now and then I would go back and visit. have that and living together (the sisters are We’ve had our rough patches, like in any planning to live together in New York) is just friendship, like when she was trying to figure so exciting. I’m looking forward to it because out what she wanted to do before she won Miss we are very, very close, and I can come home America. I think I definitely took more of a and not do my dishes and she can’t yell at me parental role than I enjoyed because as a big sis(laughs). ter, you’re like, ‘Make sure you’re getting an I think Nina has reached an area where I can’t internship’ or ‘Look at what jobs you want to do’ even advise her on moving forward. She’s been a or ‘If you want to go to medical school, you need trailblazer... I’m excited to see how her thoughts to start studying for the MCAT.’ change and how she ends up moving forward Getting into medical school was a really big with everything that she’s cultivated. n struggle for me... I just didn’t want that to happen to her because it sucked so much for me. Meena Davuluri is a Resident at the MontefiThis sucks when you don’t want to talk about ore Medical Center, University Hospital for Albert your career but someone’s forcing you to talk Einstein College of Medicine, in New York City. about it. But we stayed close. She spoke to Chaya Babu. And then after she won it was awesome

do that as well. Other than that, she did have the support of the family. Although there were times when we felt that maybe now she should continue her studies and take the one year break. But when she won we knew obviously that her decision was better than ours. When she was little, she took ballet, jazz and tap dance classes. She loved taking dance classes. When we went to India in the summer, that’s when I would have her attend dance lessons. I think she was 4 at the time. There were times when she didn’t want to attend the dance class but I think overall she always loved dancing. When we went to India, she would have a lesson everyday and when we came back here, there would be a lesson once a week. She did the ballet, jazz, tap through high school and stopped doing it after that, but continued with her Indian dancing even in college. That’s how it all came together and she ended up doing the Indian dance at the Miss America competition. I was not sure if Bollywood would work or how it was going to work or how we wanted to present it. There were other people who advised her that maybe she should go with something else. She made her choice and picked the song for her state competition and choreographed it herself. She won Miss New York doing that dance. Then for Miss America, again people weren’t sure if that was going to be the right thing for the Miss America stage because it was going to be on TV, there was going to be a different way of judging and if the judges would be familiar enough to judge. But she just knew that that’s what she would do and picked out her song herself. She got trained by Nakul Dev. She flew to LA and he taught her and she came back and practiced on her own. In the end it was basically her choice and she knew that would work. We knew that if that’s what she wanted then that’s what she should do. I was shocked at how well she handled it (the racial backlash on twitter) because I couldn’t handle it as well as she did. As a parent it’s very disturbing when people start talking about your child. But of course when you pull yourself together, you know things happen and that people say

things because they don’t know the whole story. It’s easy to say something but the important thing is to move on and do what you’re supposed to do. I am very proud of how she handled it. I’m very impressed, if I may say so myself, with how she handled it. We weren’t even expecting it. I mean, she won, we were happy. Then all of a sudden this happens. It’s kind of a little chakra but sometimes you understand that people don’t know things and make these statements or comments. When you’re in the public eye these things happen and they never end. It never happened to us because we were never in that position, but now that she was in that position we started to understand how things can turn in that direction sometimes. I think the important thing is that she stays focused in the right direction and doesn’t let this pull her back. I think she has grown a lot (since the Miss America win). I see her confidence. I see her being very balanced. I see her being calm, poised and I am just pleasantly surprised at how much this experience has given and taught her, and made her a complete person. It’s the experience she gained in the last two years, meeting all these people, facing different kinds of situations, speaking in a number of schools and colleges and being able to answer a number of questions that you wouldn’t even expect. These have taught her a lot about how you balance your emotions, stay poised, calm and confident. I’m really, really proud of her because even as a mom, I didn’t see all the qualities she possessed till I actually saw it as an outsider when she was Miss America. (By) just watching the news, knowing things that she was doing as Miss America and after that, I mean, she just surprised me pleasantly how she’s handled the backlash, how she’s handled her activities, her family, her job and her PR. I’ve just known her as Nina and it’s lesson to me that there’s more to Nina... As a parent, you always try to tell your children what’s right and what’s wrong, no matter how old they get. But now I know that she can make the right decision. I’m very confident and I don’t hesitate to ask her for advice if I need anything. n Sheela Davuluri is a business intelligence analyst at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. She spoke to Chaya Babu.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M83

THE POWER OF ONE ‘I remember one time, a friend and I went around neighborhoods, on a very, very cold and rainy day. We decided to sell crafts to raise money. I don’t remember how many hours we were out, but we came back with $5. It was so disheartening. But over time I learned to persevere through.’ Neha Gupta, winner of the International Children’s Peace Prize and the India Abroad Face of the Future Award, tells Chaya Babu how she is making her big dreams come true.

Neha Gupta accepts the International Children’s Peace Prize from Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu. COURTESY: EMPOWER ORPHANS

Presented by

NEHA GUPTA

INDIA ABROAD FACE OF THE FUTURE AWARD 2014 For her inherent humanity; for her exemplary work with children; for changing lives.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M84

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

THE POWER OF ONE

W

hen nine-year-old Neha Gupta dug up buried old toys from her basement to hold a garage sale, the proceeds of which she used to buy books and clothing for orphaned children in India, winning the International Children’s Peace Prize was neither on her agenda nor her imagination. Giving to kids around the world and making them feel loved was her only hope. Kids, as she was too at the time, can be quite simple in that way. But Neha soon learned that giving is not always simple. She held onto what seemed like the unlikely passion of a passing fad, even to her parents, and built upon that afternoon’s suburban sidewalk sale, raising more money and donating to more kids over the years. But her classmates thought it weird, and rejection on neighbors’ doorsteps was hard for a little girl with big dreams. Still, a mix of grit, smarts, and a deep well of empathy propelled her forward — her charitable activity on trips to her parents’ hometown in India, Yamuna Nagar in Haryana, evolved into an official non-profit organization, Empower Orphans. She came up with the ideas for programs to serve the children, a group that expanded from orphans to underprivileged youth on the whole, and implemented them. “I saw that it wasn’t only orphans who were in disadvantaged circumstances,” Neha said. She rallied her peers to get them involved in fundraisers — she has raised a total of $1.7 million. She brought educational tools and medical resources to children who barely have a roof over their head. And then, at 18 years old, she was given the Children’s Peace Prize, the same recognition awarded to Malala Yousafzai a year before she won the Nobel Peace Prize. Since the early days, Neha and Empower Orphans have served 25,000 youth in both India and the US by giving them access to libraries, computer labs, and science centers, as well as setting up eye and dental health camps where they could see doctors and get medical exams. More recently, she has brought sewing schools into the repertoire of programming at EO, an initiative geared specifically toward young women in India, and one that has had significant results. “I realized that girls needed technical skills as well,” Neha said. “Sometimes they are forced to be dependent on their families’ incomes or are forced to be in the house and not allowed to go to school.” Neha spoke of the sewing centers with exuberance, explaining that through them, girls can support themselves and start their own businesses. Today, as a student at Pennsylvania State University, Neha is in the process of setting up a campus chapter and then taking her organization international, with hubs hopefully around the world soon. Her vision: youth-led chapters serving local youth in need. At the time Neha received the International Children’s Peace Prize, she was taking a semester off to recover after a head injury. During her freshman year, she had fallen on concrete, resulting in a concussion — her rehabilitation experience and working with doctors, who specialize in

Neha Gupta’s charitable activity on trips to her parents’ hometown in India evolved into her official non-profit organization Empower Orphans. COURTESY: EMPOWER ORPHANS

brain injuries and brain injury rehab, have increased the intensity of her desire to work in medicine. Her love for children drives her to pediatrics, but she’s also interested in the brain. Surprisingly, she’s able to manage her nonprofit, its expansion, her college course load, a range of extracurriculars, and a social life. Something about that indicates that she’ll have no problem becoming a doctor — possibly one in the public eye, like Dr Sanjay Gupta, who she says she looks up to tremendously. We’ll keep our eye out for her. But we probably won’t need to. You’ve been getting recognized in really big ways. Congratulations! How does it feel? It’s something I never expected when I started my work. When I first began, it was really focused on just helping the kids and doing whatever I could to support them. Now, getting all this external support, the support over the years, has really been so incredible — not for myself, but because I know that whenever word is getting out about Empower Orphans, or about me, it’s serving to spread the word about these kids who need 4M86 our help and to help collect


India Abroad June 19, 2015

M85


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M86

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M84 Neha Gupta funds. I never think about it in terms of myself when anything is in the news, but really just about the kids. The organization has grown to be wellknown today. But how did it begin? How did you decide at nine years old that you wanted to do something like this? From a very young age, civic involvement and engagement have been a part of my upbringing. When I was little, I used to visit my grandparents in India. I was born in New Zealand and I grew up in the United States, but my parents and I would always go back to India because that’s where they grew up. I used to love going and seeing my grandparents — they had this tradition that, if it was someone’s birthday in the family, in addition to celebrating at home they had to go to a local orphanage and spend a day with the kids. They would bring gifts and read to them, and it was my grandparents way of teaching their kids and grandkids that it was important to support others in the community and to give back. I used to love doing it because I got to play with other kids my age, but it was when I was nine that it all just really struck me. There was just something about that trip to see the orphans that caused me to place myself in their shoes and understand how different our lives were. Understanding that these kids didn’t have anybody to love or be loved by, that they were completely alone, that they didn’t have the money to get an education or go to school or receive any kind of medical care — those were things that I was just used to in the US, and three of those things — broke my heart. Because, what if that was me? How would I support myself? How would I carry out my life? What would I do? From that moment I knew I had to take action for these kids and I had to find my voice and raise it — but also that they could have one too. That’s when the idea behind Empower Orphans began. At that time in your early life, what do you think set you apart from other children who feel sad about the misfortune in the world? Young people have a lot of compassion, but it takes something else to take the extra step. The biggest things when I was little, and even now, was that I knew the difference between sympathy and empathy. I maybe didn’t know what the word ‘empathy’ really meant back then, when I was eight-nine years old, but I understood the concept behind it. It was a trait I just had and I think most people have. But it’s really putting that empathy into action. When I was young and I saw these kids, I felt awful. I would go every year until I was nine and see kids begging for food on the

Neha Gupta’s many contributions. COURTESY: EMPOWER ORPHANS

street and I felt so sad and I felt sympathetic, but it was at the orphanage when I could really understand it on a deeper level that I became empathetic. I began to feel their pain — it wasn’t only me feeling bad for them as much as it was kind of a shared bond between us. Putting that into action is what brought Empower Orphans here today. I really do think that everybody has that ability though to empathize. Is there a particularly poignant memory that stands out to you from that time? I was very young so a lot of it kind of blurs together into one, but out of everything I remember about India, I specifically remember the kids I would see — wherever I went. Driving in the car, at the orphanage, I always remember the kids who were my age or younger, living in tattered clothes, covered in dirt. I remember that image very specifically because it’s one thing to read about it but it’s so different to see it. Do you think your background played into your desire to do this work? Everybody in my family has just always worked hard for their passions and goals, and I guess I had that ingrained in me when I was little or I picked that up from them. I’ve always been someone who is a go-getter and who wants to set my mind to something and then achieve it. When I was little and I said I wanted to do this and then I came back to the US, I thought, ‘I’m going to this.’ I got all my toys from the basement, we had a garage sale, and I knew that it wasn’t just something that I was saying I wanted to do and then it would be done with; it was something I wanted to carry out and put into action. That’s a definitely a trait that I picked up from everybody in my family: working

hard, following your passion, and serving other people as well. I got that from my grandparents when they taught their kids and their grandkids that it’s important to give to others. That really shaped me as a person. My parents aren’t in the service sector per se, but they have always been such a big support for Empower Orphans, and they themselves have always had a passion for helping others. On my mom’s side, my great-greatgrandmother was very close to Gandhi. I gained a lot of inspiration from her. I read her biography when I was little. It always moved me how much she stood up for her rights in India and worked so closely with Gandhi to ensure that all Indian citizens had rights as well. I learned from her that your gender and age didn’t matter, but you could make a difference if you wanted to — not only for yourself but for other people. Outside of family, have you felt like you’ve been in a social space, either in the Indian community where you grew up or otherwise, that emphasized civic engagement and creating change? Having started this when I was nine, it’s been a journey to find those specific people. Growing up, people were of course supportive of Empower Orphans, but I really wanted to show my peers here how much kids overseas needed our help. That was definitely something I focused a lot on when I was little — just educating people within my community, specifically within my age group. Obviously most nine year olds are preoccupied with playing outside, playing with their dolls and cars, so that was an area I was very focused on.

Over the years, I have found so many people who are like-minded and want to change the world through their passion or specific focus. That has been mainly through school, through conferences, through a lot of different programs where young people are being honored. It’s really been an amazing journey. I’ve found a lot of people who I can work with in the future and collaborate with on Empower Orphans. You mentioned the garage sale. What were the other founding efforts? The first thing was the garage sale. As a kid, I wanted to sell my toys and raise money so that other kids could have toys. I knew that money was going to go to education, but I also thought, ‘I have these toys. I don’t need them. Other kids need them more. Let me sell them.’ My neighbor and I did a combined garage sale, and we raised almost $800, which was a pretty large sum for a garage sale. The success of that event made me want to keep going. I took that money to India the same year, and we bought books for the kids. They had a very small library but they expanded it. We bought sweaters, food, and more. It was Christmas time, so it was really a moment I will remember for the rest of my life. As a ten year old, it meant a lot to see my efforts make some kind of impact. At that moment I was hooked. I went back to the US again, and I started making my own crafts, and I would go door to door selling them and setting up stalls at craft fairs. I would tell people why I was doing this and try to raise money. Then we started applying for grants and fundraising in different ways; I started having the orphans make things and then I’d sell them in the US as well. It snowballed from there. We started getting recognition from organizations domestically, internationally, and I started receiving awards, which was such a humbling experience and such an honor. Of course, getting actual non-profit status as 501C-3, which I definitely had help with, was huge. As a kid it’s not easy to go through all that paperwork and understand it all. But I knew that this was not something that I just wanted to do as a small thing; I wanted to make it bigger; I wanted to get other people involved. It wasn’t just about helping other kids. It was about mobilizing other youth and getting them to help youth around the world. That’s something I’m focusing on right now as well: Setting up chapters across the country and around the world, and having them be youth-led. I think that’s a very powerful message. How does being youth-led 4M87 make a difference?


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M87

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 Neha Gupta with Malala Yousafzai, who won the International Children’s Peace Prize before her and went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. COURTESY: EMPOWER ORPHANS

3M86 Neha Gupta It makes a difference on both ends. Let’s say there’s an Indian village, and there are young people there, and youth from another country come to be with them. Those kids in the village — I’ve seen how much power that can have to have other kids your age come from a different country to help you, to spend time with you. It is very impactful. It works the other way around as well — knowing that they were able to have an impact on someone’s life who are their own age but in a different circumstance and different country. A big part of it is also educating people to look beyond their boundaries and to notice that while you’re going about your daily life, there are other kids your age who are wishing to be in your position. Both sides get something out this. Who was most helpful to you in those early stages? My parents certainly were a huge well of support. I would ask so many questions about, ‘How do I do this?’ and ‘How do I do that?’ and they would help me understand exactly what needed to be done, whether it was about gaining our non-profit legal status or anything to do with taxes. We would hire lawyers, accountants, we have a board of adults of various backgrounds who would give advice. I would ask a lot of adults for advice. I was a kid and I lacked that experience. So part of it was me just asking around to learn and networking as a little girl. In terms of all the different events and fundraising activities, I would ask my friends, ‘Hey do you want to help out with this?’ and I would always get a different group of friends every time. They were also a huge support in whatever I needed. What was that experience like as a child, fundraising and

Neha with her father Vikas after receiving a World of Children Award. FACEBOOK.COM/EMPOWERORPHANS

essentially asking people for money? It was hard. It was actually very difficult. It was not as easy as I had expected in the beginning. It’s just something I learned to cope with in the sense that I’d go around the neighborhood and people would immediately reject me and say, ‘No’ or ‘Not right now.’ It’s a fair response. But of course as a little girl trying to raise money for kids, it was hard. I just learned to push through it. I remember one time, a friend and I went around neighborhoods, and it was a very, very cold rainy day, but we decided to go around and sell crafts to raise money. I don’t remember how many hours we were out, but we came back with $5. It was so disheartening. But over time I really just learned to persevere through, and that every amount of money makes a large difference. It’s been about a decade since then. What is the biggest change from then to now? There are so many different ways that Empower Orphans has grown. Over the years, the number of media mentions and awards has definitely increased our visibility. I’m hoping to expand even more by starting these chapters. I’m starting one at Penn State right now. I’m very excited. People are applying for the executive board right now, which will work with the other student chapters in the country and around the world. Those chapters will focus on fundraising, project ideation and implementation. Penn State would be like a home base, and all the people within the organization would have a role and responsibility. It would be kind of a headquarters. We’ve expanded so much over the years in terms of how many projects we work on and how many children we

Neha’s mother Amruta hugs her as she receives the International Children’s Peace Prize at The Hague. Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi looks on. FACEBOOK.COM/EMPOWERORPHANS

impact, but now I’m really hoping to expand in terms of the number of youth volunteers that we have. How did you decide what areas to focus on? I always knew I wanted to work on education and healthcare. To me, those were important because they were two ways that children in poverty could escape the cycle they were in. When I was little, I started with that one library, and I realized the importance of education and literacy through that aspect of my work. I want to be a doctor when I grow up, so of course doing the health camps has been something that I’ve been focusing on over the last few years. We’ve done many different ones in Mumbai and Pune; we’ve done general wellness camps; we’ve done surgery for polio sufferers; we’ve done a lot of things. Here in the US, we’ve focused on helping underprivileged schools, we’ve helped kids in hospitals — thought we can’t support children in hospitals with their medical bills, but we can support them with other things. For example, a computer center for kids who are in-patient and they use computers and tablets to Skype with friends, catch up on their school work, talk to their teachers for a while. They get very lonely and isolated, so this is a way for them to feel connected to their world. It proved to be very successful. Patients started responding better to their treatments because of what we did. We’ve done a lot with a broad focus as long as it’s education and healthcare for helping 4M88 kids. We’ve been happy to do any type of project within this.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M88

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M87

Neha Gupta has helped organize medical camps for the underprivileged. She hopes to become a doctor so that she can have a more hands-on approach to their care later in life.

Neha Gupta What has been a moving moment for you in this work? There are a lot, but I’ll tell you about Meena. One reason I really liked our sewing center was because we were able to see results from it — we saw results from many projects because we watched kids benefit over the years, but Meena was a specific example of that. Her story really showcased how important technical skills are, or any skill that helps women be self-sufficient. Meena was about 18 when I met her. She was living with her dad, mom, and brother in a very small village. They had shared one room. Her father had just lost his job, and the family had no other source of income. Meena was naturally dependent on the family’s income, or lack thereof, and it was a day to day cycle of the parents telling the daughter that she couldn’t go to school. Meena, knowing that she could end up in a horrible position or be married off or find herself in dangerous circumstances, decided to come to our sewing center. We gave her a sewing machine, and we taught her all the skills to start her own business. The skills and the tools she gained transformed her life. She was able to open her own tailoring business and support her entire family. She did something for herself and made up for the money that her dad was unable to provide, she even brought in enough money to have electricity in the house for the first time. That helped her brother study for his electrician exam, and he passed, and started making money as well. To me, this was just incredible to see how much power one sewing machine could have and how powerful Meena could be to change her life and change the lives of others in her family. She not only received that help, but she came back to Empower Orphans and started mentoring other young women in the sewing center to be able to stand on their own feet and feed their destinies. That’s so wonderful. Before you had such telling stories of impact, what were people’s responses to you devoting so much of your time to this work? Everyone in my family has been extremely supportive of what I’m doing, what the future of Empower Orphans is, and it’s always heartwarming to see that because someone who is passionate about something, wants to be supported. When I was younger and I would tell people I was doing this, I didn’t always get positive reactions — especially when I would go to underprivileged schools in India, the principals would look at me weirdly and say, ‘You want to do this? Why?’ It’s definitely come a long way. The response from kids wasn’t exactly what I was expecting when I started. Adults were very supportive and understood. But my peers — it was hard for them understand. It’s hard to grasp poverty unless you see it up close. I felt that they would get it more if they did see it up close. But it was definitely very difficult at first because, though my friends were supportive, most kids my age looked down upon it. They would kind of make fun of me for it. I remember once in middle school, a company came to the school and did a presentation in which they gave money to Empower Orphans. That just led to the kids making fun of me. I’m sure you can imagine, in middle school, a girl who is trying to do this and all of the other kids saying, ‘What in the world is she doing?’ That was definitely tough. I would get embarrassed.

FACEBOOK.COM/EMPOWERORPHANS

Which is wrong. It wasn’t something to get embarrassed about, but they made me feel like I was doing something wrong or that I shouldn’t be doing it, that I couldn’t fit in if I kept doing it. It really got a lot better in high school though. I started a club; I wanted to try again and reach out to the students, and I thought, ‘Maybe there will be a different response this time.’ And there really was. It took some time, but kids were so different. They wanted to help. They wanted to do whatever they could. I remember a fundraising event that hundreds of kids were involved in, I heard kids talking about how excited they were for the event. That made me feel so great, to know they were happy about helping, and now it’s even more amazing to see kids in college doing much work for Empower Orphans. I also love to see kids think of Empower Orphans as theirs as well, to hear them say ‘we’ instead of ‘Neha.’ That means a lot. How did you push through those moments when you were only 12 or 13? I don’t know. I don’t remember it that much. There were definitely times when I was sad about it, but I just had to deal with it. I don’t think there was ever a time when I stopped doing Empower Orphans though. You have come so far in that regard. And it sounds like the support of your family has been tremendous. Is there anyone else you feel has helped you through influence or inspiration? I would say Sanjay Gupta. I’m not related to him in anyway (laughing) — people always ask me that. I’m not, but I

wish he was. He’s always been a big inspiration to me because one, he is in neurology, the brain is so interesting to me, and I’ve obviously been very interested in it lately. But also, two, he’s a public figure who talks about public health issues and tries to help people around the world. He covers every different aspect of what I love to do: Medicine, talking about health issues, discovering new things and reporting on them. He’s just incredible to me. I’ve never met him, but from everything I hear, he sounds like an incredible person. And I would definitely say my great-greatgrandmother is a big inspiration to me as well. I never met her either, but to have the power to stand up and defy the odds, defy rules about things that shouldn’t be done, but to do it in a way that’s peaceful, and to follow your heart and your passion, is so rare. She’s just very important to me in that way. Lastly, I would say my dad has been a huge influence in my life in so many different regards. He’s somebody who has always supported me, and he’s always my ‘go to’ with Empower Orphans. If I have a question or concern, he’s always the one to say something realistic or have another idea. After all of this, I of course want to know: How do you do it all? You’re a young woman in college, living life, trying to be a doctor, and you’re also running a non-profit. Tell us how you make that work? Good question (laughing). It took a while to understand how to manage my time. The best way I do it, honestly, is my calendar. I have to plan out my days with allotting specific amounts of time to Empower Orphans, my school work, my friends, with everything else, and I make sure to just balance it all. I know the importance of each of these things, and I have a lot of motivation to excel at all of these things. I know that Empower Orphans and school come first, but I do try to make as much time as I can with my friends because they are very important to me. That’s great. What else do you do for yourself? I do a lot for myself actually in between everything else. The biggest way I relax is with my friends. They’re like a family to me: They support me, whether it’s about Empower Orphans or something else. They’re really special. I find time to unwind as well. Whenever I can, I watch Friends, which is my favorite show. I used to play tennis as well and be into photography, but I haven’t done either of those in a while. I’d definitely love to take them back up. What’s next for you? What I see for myself is that I want to be a doctor and I know that I want to go into pediatrics because I love kids. I have not declared my major yet but there’s time. And for Empower Orphans, I hope to open up chapters globally after opening this current one at Penn State, I really just hope to expand it into a self-sufficient organization. I would still maintain it and be the director, but as a doctor, I want to take it along the same track as Doctors Without Borders, where we have doctors practicing in the US and traveling to developing world countries to do exactly what Doctors Without Borders does. n


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M89

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 Vikas Gupta Father

Neha Gupta’s parents began taking her to visit orphanages when she was one.

W

hen I was growing up in India, my father would tell me if you want to celebrate a birthday or an anniversary or anything at home, first go to the orphanage or the leprosy center and give some gifts, or work over there — then come back in the evening and celebrate at home. I grew up with that, but for me, in a way, it was a chore. I was doing it not because I wanted to do it but because my father told me to do it. We went through years of doing that, I grew up with that concept and that was the end of it in a way. When we were in New Zealand where Neha was born, I was telling my wife about what my father used to do and she said, ‘That may have been a great idea. Next time we’re in India, we’ll take Neha to the orphanage’. So every year we would go to India, Neha would spend quite a bit of time at the orphanage. As far as I recall, she was one year old or so when she started going to the orphanage, just playing around with the kids. When she was three, we moved to the US but continued going to India. When she turned nine, she started talking to the kids instead of just playing with them and realized how much they didn’t have in terms of education or healthcare. At that point she said, ‘Oh, I’m going to come back next year and build you a library. I’m going to give you books and things...’ We thought this is just a nine year old getting excited and will not do anything. We came back to the US after our vacation and she immediately went down to the basement, collected all her toys, put out pamphlets in the neighborhood and did a huge garage sale. I think in that first garage sale itself, she collected 700, 800 dollars. By the time we went back for our vacation to Yamuna Nagar, about five hours from Delhi, she had collected about 5,000 dollars and built a library. She gave sandals and books and things to the kids. It was really encouraging, just to see the smile on a child’s face and that encouraged her to carry on forward. She was nine, we were not sure whether it was a passing fad or if it was going to continue. We said for whatever time it lasts, it’s a good idea, at least some people will get help. When she went back the first time with all the money and built the library, just seeing how appreciative the kids were and what an impact she could make on her own, that’s what triggered the whole thing. Otherwise, before that it was like I’m playing with the kids, I’m enjoying my time, they’re enjoying theirs. She would teach them English and naturally, they would laugh at her accent and everything. I mean, they had a good time but it wasn’t anything concrete. When she did her first project and was successful, that’s what kicked her into overdrive. It really took off when she was about 10-and-a-half, 11. At that point we said we need to formalize it into a non-profit. That’s when our assistance to her came into being where we had to start talking to lawyers about forming a non-profit

COURTESY: EMPOWER ORPHANS

‘A smile on a child’s face – is what encouraged her to carry on’ and the accounting of the organization. We helped in the background work but in terms of the project, in terms of fundraising, she comes up with those on her own. We’re definitely very surprised that it’s grown to such a large organization, the amount of money that she’s collected, the number of children she’s impacted and also the number of projects she’s conducted. I would not say that it’s because of my wife or me. It is Neha because of whom this work continues because actually, with the work that my wife and I do, we’re quite busy and if it was left to us, it would have fizzled out earlier on. She was a relatively shy girl as an eight or a nine year old. I feel she’s impacted 25,000 kids and done so much for them but I tell her that maybe she got more out of it than anyone else because her character, her whole personality has developed. She has become extremely confident. She can stand up in front of a thousand people and start talking about her cause. She’s passionate. In a way, all of that came about because of her work. If she hadn’t done it, she may have continued to be a shy girl and taken part in some activities on the periphery but not really lead such work. She’s devel-

oped a lot of leadership skills doing this work. She is an extremely compassionate person. Even if we go on a holiday somewhere else in the world, she’s always looking for an opportunity saying, ‘Yeah, maybe I can do some project in this place.’ For example, I went to Israel for work and she was like, ‘Oh dad, if you have some time, can you see if there are any orphanages where we can do something over there?’ Or if I go to Bangalore, she’s always giving me tasks to save kids. ‘Why don’t you go meet this orphanage? I’ve talked to them and maybe we can do something.’ She’s always trying to find ways to expand because it is just in her heart to continue on with the work because that’s the person she is. People’s reactions to her work have been really positive but there were a lot of negative responses also. There was, a time, where people would directly tell her, ‘Why do you want to do anything for kids halfway around the world when we have poverty over here?’ and these were not kids but adults telling her this. She was like, ‘Okay, I didn’t know about that but I will research it’ and she did research it and found out about underprivileged kids in the Philadelphia region. In fact, she opened up a library in Feltonville School over here where 92 percent of the kids, I think, are below the poverty line. Then, she opened up a computer center in her hospital, gave thousands and thousands of toys to hospitalized children. Till now, she’s given about 250 van loads of home goods to families in the Bucks County area. She continued to do a lot here also because she was able to turn that negativity into a positive. I was there when people were telling her that. It was during a craft fair where she had set up a stall to sell some of the things that she had made to raise funds. So naturally, as a father I was a bit upset and angry when people were telling her that. But she, in her way, calmed me down and said, ‘Let me deal with it’ and what she told them was pretty good, actually. What she basically said was thanks for letting me know because I wasn’t aware of the situation of the kids over here but if you give me your address and your phone number, I’m going to definitely do a project over here and I welcome you to come and join me to volunteer at this project. I think that was a good answer. A better one than I would have given because I would have just been angry. The challenging part, especially in middle school, was getting her peers to join in. Naturally kids are not interested in community work by and large, and especially when the 4M92 cause initially was to help kids in India. So it was always, ‘Oh that’s Neha’s thing’ and


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M90

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘As a woman and a mother, I’m enjoying the strength and confidence Neha has developed’ Amruta Gupta Mother

From seeing Neha Gupta facing bad times with friends as a child because they didn’t understand her work, her mother is now happy to see young adults come together to support Empower Orphans.

W

hen Neha first thought about doing what she does, I was a little cynical about the whole thing, thinking that this was a fad. We really did not envision that she would be persistent and she would continue to have the passion to really help these underprivileged children. So, to see her grow from that nine year old to a 19 year old who continues to exhibit passion, compassion, empathy, and has a goal in mind and focuses strength of body and mind to continue to pursue that goal even with obstacles in their way — it’s been very, very interesting journey to watch that. There have certainly been many highs and a lot of successes but there have been stumbles along the way as well, and it’s been interesting to see how she’s learned from those stumbles to become stronger for them. Neha knows her mind. She’s determined. And she’s not afraid to stand by her convictions. This is the pursuit of a goal. She knows her goal and she will stand by her conviction of getting to her goal. As an adult, we see many people who have goals; we pursue our goals in our careers and our personal lives and not always are we mindful of how our trajectory, from point A to point B, affects other people. What’s interesting to me, and I’m interested in seeing how this plays out as Neha becomes an adult, from a 19 year old to a 29 year old. All these years she’s never intentionally stepped on anybody’s toes. She’s been mindful of other people’s feelings. That’s the interesting combination of a pursuit of a goal and yet being mindful of other people. In the business world I don’t see it. I rarely see it. There either you get left by the side or you make it and sort of step on very many toes along the way. I honestly don’t know how she strikes that balance. I think it’s a lot of introspection on her part, probably, a child’s introspection, which is now maturing to say, ‘Let me put myself in somebody else’s shoes and see how they feel.’ How would I feel if somebody did that to me? Or giving the person the benefit of the doubt. I think she gets it from the collective environment not only in our overall immediate family but the broad family on both sides — Vikas’s grandfather, my father, my mother. On my side of the family, we’re very strong women. I think she gets a lot of strength from knowing that she’s following in the footsteps of her great-great-grandmother, great-grandmother, her mother. That blend of I need to do what I need to do and yet have the softest heart, I think it’s because of the overall environment that she belongs to. Living a whole continent away from India, it is very hard

FACEBOOK.COM/EMPOWERORPHANS

for people to imagine the true plight of these children. So in the best of times, it’s hard to raise money. When Neha was growing up, we were going through a recession; we went through two sets of recessions. So, it was quite challenging. There were many times when she was very dejected. She would go out into the neighborhood, try and raise money and have five bucks to show for three hours of walking about in the cold, in the snow or the rain. Or she would be told that charity begins at home and why should we help you. There would be tears. Many a time she had to face real issues. There were kids who couldn’t quite understand why Neha was doing what she was doing and so she had a hard time with that and kids can be kids, right? There were certainly times that were not good for her. I felt like she was going to give up and say it wasn’t worth it and that it was easier to fit in and be the average teenager — not to say that she didn’t have fun — but she didn’t. I had to be a mentor; I had to be a counsel, I had to be her mother; I had to be her friend. We would role play how to respond at times if somebody was mean, if somebody gave her an answer that was unacceptable. We would practice together; we would practice in front of the mirror. Sometimes I would cry with her. She’s come out of it as a much stronger person, somebody who has even stronger convictions. She’s got a group of young adults now who are committed to the cause and spend time with her and Empower Orphans. What a great

personal victory for her to be this lone ranger trying to accomplish something to having a network of young adults, not only here but all over the world who are pursuing the same cause. Her confidence has grown. I’m her mother but I have to say she’s not arrogant. She’s a really nice young woman. I would say I am probably her biggest critic too, but (I have to say)... She’s humble. Neha being recognized with the International Children’s Peace Prize was so, so magical. I wouldn’t say it was a culmination because she didn’t have a really long road to go but she was recognized and she deserved the recognition. But for me and some others it has been about seeing her grow up into a woman who has confidence, who knows what she wants to be and why. She wants to become a doctor not because every desi girl becomes a doctor but because she wants to help those in need and provide the sort of care that she got. She realized the value of good care and now after her own medical challenges, that conviction has become even stronger. As a woman and as a mother, I’m enjoying the strength and confidence that she’s developed. Did she tell you that she had a fall last October and she was concussed for a semester of freshman year? Since then, I feel that life doesn’t work out the way that we always want it to. Life happens to everybody. Somebody sooner, somebody later. But I would really, really like for her to realize her dreams and become a doctor specializing in kids and concussion rehab. If she is a doctor she will be able to help children in person, hands-on with their health care, enabling them to lead better lives. Now she has to go out and get doctors as volunteers or we have to pay for their services. If she’s a doctor, which is why she has always so wanted to be a doctor, she can support them. It’s a combination of pursuing your personal and professional goal and having it all together, and I really hope and pray that she is able to realize that. Amruta Gupta is Vice President of Consumer and Shopper Marketing of the Health Care Vertical for the Symphony IRI Group. She spoke to Chaya Babu.


India Abroad June 19, 2015

3URXG6XSSRUWHUVRI,QGLD$EURDG3HUVRQ2I7KH<HDU ,QGLD$EURDG3HUVRQ2I7KH<HDU 3URXG6XSSRUWHUVRI,QGLD$EURDG3HUVRQ2I7KH<HDU

M91


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M92

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M89 Vikas Gupta ‘She’s too good a person and too nice’. They just didn’t want to do anything with her cause at all. It was just trying to convince them to help out but her attitude has always been that I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing, irrespective of whether I get help or not. Things started changing when she went into high school where she started finding kids who were more like her. Now in university, it’s a totally different ball game where she says that she wants to open up a chapter and then at multiple universities in the US and then around the world. More than a hundred people came for her first meeting. It’s a different thing when people want to do this work even though in university people don’t have the time. But she’s finding like-minded people. As a profession, she wants to be a pediatrician and continue working with children but at the same time continue running her organization. What she always says is that she wants to take it along the line of Doctors Without Borders, where she’s has a medical team working in multiple parts of the world, helping children. My wife and I are extremely proud, not only of the awards that she’s got but the impact she’s made and also, just as a person. We’re proud that she has remained very humble. Through all this, in front of her friends, I’ve never seen her bragging. In fact, until she got the International Children’s Peace Prize, none of her friends even knew the amount of work that she’s done. She tries to keep her charity work separate from her friends, especially the awards, because she doesn’t want them to think that she’s a celebrity and start treating her differently. She wants them to only help out with her causes. n Vikas Gupta is a Senior Director at Oracle. He spoke to Chaya Babu.

Lisa Matthews Principal

W

‘Her heart is in the right place. Her goal is just to help’

hen Neha was in high school, she drove by a school that caught her attention. It was our old building, but it was no longer housing the school. She contacted us and said that she saw that school on the boulevard and thought it would be good to do something charitable for the students. So, we welcomed her to come in to our new building, the actual school, which is a little off the boulevard in Philadelphia. She originally came with some clothing, items that she had collected from her community, and our families were very happy. We gave them out at a back-toschool night. She first brought things like comforters and bed sheets, and then she wanted to do some more. We don’t have a school library in its traditional form, so she collected some books and donated them to the school — we were able to fill the library area with lots of books for students that they could check out and use during the course of the day. That’s the kind of heartfelt activity she did that helped our students and which they were very appreciative of. In the past, she also brought some toy items and then more recently she brought jackets and hats for the students as well as for some of our adults in the community. That, again, was very well-received. So Neha Gupta was recently at Feltonville Intermediate School donating hats and jackets, and we’re just happy to have her actually conboard games to the students. tribute, and she’s kept in touch over the FACEBOOK.COM/EMPOWERORPHANS years. Whenever she’s had an opportunity to an open heart and I think that’s good. I think In addition, teachers often use it as a donate something to the school, she’s found a she’s very humble and not seeking a lot of resource because if they want to get some way to do that. attention or praise. books for their class, they’ll go and take some We are in a struggling community, and the It stands out in particular because we don’t things out to bring back later, so that’s been school has a 100 percent free lunch program. really have a lot of people who have anything helpful in the sense of getting more books Our children are majority Latino: about a 65 to give. We don’t get a lot giving and a lot of into the hands of students. Neha probably percent Latino population and about 25 pervolunteerism or service. We just don’t get donated between 800 to 1,000 books, so it cent African American. The rest is made up of that. So to be able to have someone do that is was incredibly helpful Asian and Arabic students. And as I mengood and for it to be a child — I know she’s a Neha and I have developed a relationship. tioned, she was just driving down Roosevelt young lady now — but at the time, to have a From getting to know her, I think she’s just Boulevard, the lower parts of Boulevard, child who is willing to give to other children is very genuine. I think her heart is in the right which is a more rough part of the commuremarkable. place and her goal is just to help — that’s nity. Something moved her as she drove We had a chance to see her again maybe always good to see. down the Boulevard. So just putting that about two months ago with the jackets, so it There doesn’t appear to be any other in the frame of mind of a high school stuwas really nice to see her as this young motives behind it outside of just an opportudent says a lot about Neha. woman in college. But she still has the same nity to help and give. For instance, more I don’t know if the work she has done at our spirit, which is defined by that giving and carrecently, when she came and gave us jackets, school is necessarily measurable, quantifiably, ing. I think Neha will always keep us in mind. she said, “You know, if you need any more, but what I will say is that the students were It’s wonderful that she’s getting an opportunijust call. So when we ended up with some definitely happy at that point of time to ty to be recognized for her work. n more people who said, ‘Well, I would like one receive those books and the other things. of those jackets’, because they were really nice They decorated and put some curtains up Lisa Matthews is the Principal at Feltonville jackets and we called her, she said to just and chairs in the area where we put the Intermediate School, a grades 3 to 5 school in come. books, and we also use it for a computer lab. a low-income section of the School District of We sent someone and she just donated They made cozy places where students could Philadelphia. Neha first started working with more to our community here. So now, if you go and read. We also have an after-school the school about five years ago and has been walk around the community you see a lot of program, and the kids in that take advantage donating to the community there ever since. people with all the same jackets on (laughs). of that room as well because they’re seated She spoke to Chaya Babu. It was just wonderful to see how she has such there. And they use it.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M93

Presented by

VIVEK

RANADIVÉ

INDIA

ABROAD BUSINESS

VISIONARY OF THE YEAR 2014 For being a tech visionary; for being the first Indian American to own an NBA franchise; for being a trailblazing entrepreneur.

THE EMPIRE BUILDER Whether or not you’ve been lucky enough to cross paths with business tycoon Vivek Ranadivé, there’s a big chance that his work in the global tech arena and sports has touched your life. Simanta Roy Buck finds out how the winner of the inaugural India Abroad Business Visionary of the Year did it. COURTESY: VIVEK RANADIVÉS OFFICE


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M94

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

THE EMPIRE BUILDER

V

ivek Ranadivé’s mantra has consistently been to never be afraid to try something new — which is probably why he’s got quite the list of titles on his figurative business card: Entrepreneur, author, CEO, NBA majority owner, engineer, philanthropist, coach, elocutionist, and as he is known endearingly in Silicon Valley because of his revolutionary work in digitizing Wall Street in the 1980s, ‘Mr Real Time.’ Whether or not you’ve been lucky enough to cross paths with the business tycoon, there’s a big chance Ranadivé’s work in the global tech arena has touched your life. That’s because the California company he founded back in 1997, Tibco, has its hands in virtually every commercial and business sector in the world. There are railroad companies that use Tibco’s software to ensure on-time trains, shipping companies that utilize it to enable customers to track packages, and phone companies that employ it to ensure you don’t unsubscribe from their services. Ranadivé’s $4 billion enterprise has found a way to effectively harness big data and moving information, ensuring that all available and necessary pieces speak to each other in a way that optimizes performance — and, in a big way, a company’s bottom line. It’s the idea of The Information Bus — or ‘TIB,’ the prefix for Tibco. “I move more information on our backbone in a day than Twitter moves in a month,” says Ranadivé, who exited as the company’s CEO in 2014 and is now a director. “Before that, the world wasn’t on time. And our software helped to make the world on time.” This “in real-time” idea was first introduced with one of the 57-year-old entrepreneur’s biggest milestones of yore, the revamping of Wall Street. Before Ranadivé, the financial sector ran on batch-processing technology — where information was collected first over a period of time, and then financial decisions were made based on that potentially outdated data; it was a method hardly amenable to the continual changes that make Wall Street the volatile ecosystem that it is. He created the technology that, for the first time ever, integrated stock quotes, financial information, and finance news just as the information became available in real-time. Today, more than 4,000 organizations are reliant on Ranadivé’s trademark concept, including JP Morgan Chase, Delta Airlines, and even Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Service, all of which juggle lots of information flowing in from multiple sources. With all this in mind, it’s hard to believe that Ranadivé, whose net worth is now reported to be over $700 million, arrived to the United States at 17 with approximately $50 in his pocket and one semester’s worth of tuition. Ranadivé’s story really started in Bombay, when, inspired by the 1969 moon landing and a documentary about MIT, he decided he too wanted to be a part of the world that achieved great things. So, he applied and was admitted to MIT. For him, it seemed, that was the easy part. He then camped overnight outside the Reserve Bank of India in an effort to convince the office to allow him to exchange his rupees for American dollars, a prohibited action at the time. Again, Ranadivé resolutely surmounted that challenge. “I’m always thinking in terms of opportunities,” Ranadivé says. “Sure, there might be obstacles. That’s just an oppor-

Vivek Ranadivé, front center, at Nasdaq with his TIBCO team. Below with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Be it Wall Street, technology or basketball, people have always considered Ranadivé’s vision extraordinary. COURTESY: TIBCO.ORG and ED SZCZEPANSKI-USA TODAY SPORTS/REUTERS

tunity to try to find a way to come up with something new to get you around the obstacle.” The concept of this eternal, unwavering optimism no doubt plays a contributing factor in his accomplishments, though there’s a bit of humility in the formula, too. Conversations with Ranadivé are laidback and easy, and his cadence is slow and congenial. He seems quick to remember your name and say it often. “I’m not the smartest guy, so I’ve always believed in surrounding myself with people who are smarter than me,” Ranadivé, who has degrees from Harvard and MIT, says. He’s referring not only to his advisors, executives, engineers, and sales team at TIBCO, but also the leadership group with whom he shares ownership of the NBA basketball team, the Sacramento Kings. This delegation includes

Steve Chen, the cofounder of YouTube; retired NBA basketball guru Shaquille O’Neal; and QUALCOMM founder Paul Jacobs. Ranadivé, currently based in his beloved California, made history in 2013 when he bought the basketball team for a cool $348 million and became the first NBA majority owner of Indian descent. The deal also anchored the purple and silver team to the state’s capital, trumping a deal that would have moved it Seattle — and broken the collective heart of Sacramento. “It was clear that, without a sports team, the city would be decimated,” Ranadivé says. He cited ancient Rome, where coliseums historically centered cities. “Sacramento has no other sports team — it doesn’t have a football team, hockey team, basketball team, or college team.” As a lover of the game of basketball, he eventually thought, “Maybe I’m meant to do this.” But Ranadivé, though perennially a fitness buff, hadn’t held a basketball during his entire childhood in Bombay, perhaps unsurprisingly. His interest in the game started about 10 years ago, when he, in his own words, “foolishly” volunteered to coach his then 12-year-old daughter’s basketball team. He saw it as a way to spend more time with her. Though the girls on his team did not have the physical advantage some of the other teams in 4M95 the league had size-wise and Ranadivé didn’t have the experience of some of the other coach-


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M95

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M94 Vivek Ranadivé es, he applied his knowledge of numbers and equations to his coaching strategy. He had his girls pressure the offensive team the entire length of the basketball court — instead of half of the court, as is generally played. Though this “full-court press” style was a non-traditional method, Ranadivé wanted to up the chances of his team having possession of the ball as much as possible. It worked: The girls went on the national championship that year. The story is now immortalized in the first chapter of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath, a meditation on approaching and overcoming obstacles by thinking differently. So what do you get when you combine a tech-savvy entrepreneur with purple and silver? Perhaps the most technologically gifted NBA franchise in history. Ranadivé already has big plans for putting Sacramento on the world map as a futuristic ‘City 3.0’ of sorts, referring to a billion-dollar development effort to create a new basketball arena a few blocks from the capitol building that hopes to be “the world’s smartest building.” “There will be a gigabyte of data built into every seat,” Ranadivé said. Here’s the vision: Via your mobile phone, the arena will be able to communicate the best time you should leave home to minimize hitting traffic — and it will also help you find an open parking space once you’re there. The building will be a ‘ticketless, cashless experience’ where you won’t need to take out your smartphone when you walk through the gates, as the arena will utilize facial-recognition technology instead. All of this is deeply routed in channeling immense amounts of data. You see, big numbers don’t intimidate Ranadivé. That’s why he’s also got his sights set on bringing basketball to India, a country of 1.2 billion. The massive effort has already begun. “We’ve helped fund courts (in India); we’ve had clinics over there; we’ll keep sending players over there; we’ve sent our dancers over there,” Ranadivé said. The Kings broadcasted 20 games in India last season, and they have a team Web site completely in Hindi. He’s also banking on the game’s natural appeal and accessibility. “It’s a game that can be played indoors and outdoors, by one person or a few people, by girls and by boys, in rich countries and in poor countries, in cities and in villages — you don’t need a lot of space.” “I love cricket, but it kind of belongs to a past era where time moved slower, and you could spend six days playing a match and there were big fields everywhere,” Ranadivé says.

Vivek Ranadivé at MIT, a dream that began in India. COURTESY: VIVEK RANADIVÉS OFFICE

On the other hand, “Basketball is two hours of extreme action packed into it. If you play 20 minutes of basketball, you get a huge amount of exercise. You play two hours of cricket and you could still get no exercise.” The shift, Ranadivé says, won’t happen overnight, but he has got an ambitious plan to collaborate with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that would weave basketball into the country’s infrastructure by building arenas and making sports more culturally pervasive than it is now. Leave it to Ranadivé, who transformed a decade-old love affair with the game of basketball into an empire. I wonder if you could take us back in time a little bit and put us in the shoes of a very young Vivek Ranadivé. What were your hopes and dreams as a young boy in Bombay? The defining moment in my life happened when I was a little boy growing up in Bombay. It was the middle of the night, and I had my ear plastered to a little transistor radio, and I heard these words: ‘One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.’ I was listening, of course, to the Voice of America. They were broadcasting live the moon landing. I thought to myself, Wow, this is incredible. Who were these people who were able to take a man, put him in a box, and propel him 250,000 miles to land on a rock flawlessly the very first time? What brilliance, what courage, what vision has executed that? I said, I want to be one of them. That’s when I decided I want to study science and technology — and I that I would to try to find a way to get to America. There’s a very famous story that your father gave you the equivalent of $50 and

the first semester’s tuition before your arrival in the United States. What was going through your mind at that time? At the time, the Indian rupee was not a convertible currency. So, there was a limit to how much you could get. Even to get that tuition and the $50, I had to talk my way into the office of the head of the Reserve Bank of India to convince him to give me any kind of foreign exchange. I literally camped outside his office all day. So I guess there a theme. I wasn’t thinking, Wow, how am I going to manage? It was more like, This is great. I’m going to have my tuition paid for. Then I can go get loans from MIT, and I can work, and I can make my way. There’s still this sort of eternal optimism that I remember from the last time I interviewed you, about six months ago. I was trying to ask you, “What was difficult or challenging in your life?” And you kept saying, “I approach things more as an opportunity.” I’m just not a person who thinks in those ways. I’m always thinking in terms of opportunities. Sure, there might be obstacles. That’s just an opportunity to try to find a way to come up with something new to get you around the obstacle. So yeah, I continue to have the optimism of yore. When did you know you were here in the US for the long haul? Well, I had that defining moment when I was a little kid that I wanted to study technology. As I started working and when I came to California, that’s when I felt like this was just an amazing place. This is where I wanted to be. It just kind of happened. I don’t know that there was a point in time when I made a conscious decision that I was never going back. It was more that I fell in love with California as the state. It just evolved that way.

Your concept of real-time analytics changed the world, and now Tibco’s platform has its hands in almost every single industry. What gave you the inspiration and the idea to come up with real-time analytics? My own background had been as a hardware engineer. What I found was that the hardware was always on time and always on budget, and the software never seemed to get there. So, I wondered, Why isn’t software done like hardware? In hardware you have a bus, and you have these things called interrupts, which are real-time alerts. Almost all of the ideas I came up with in software were stolen from what I had learned in hardware. I applied hardware concepts and engineering to software, and that, as you mentioned, was a revolution. Before that the world wasn’t on time. And our software helped to make the world on time. I read that you said you could have solved the problems with America’s health-care system for a few million dollars. Is that true? Well, I felt that there’s many problems that involve connecting information; right now, a lot of the cost of health care is really in the back office and because of silos of information. I’m a big believer in integrating information and making it available: Getting information in the right place at the right time. If you put information in the right context, you can make the world a better place. That definitely applies to the health-care industry, which has massive silos of information costs associated with that. If you could connect all of that so that, if you walked into a hospital, the hospital was able to check into you and had all of your records and was able to connect everything, that would make a serious dent in the cost and the quality of the care. Can you talk about your kids? What do you think is the most important quality for them to have as they grow up? My daughter, Anjali (22), went to Yale. She’s a marine biologist and became a singer. She’s achieved quite a bit of success, and she has just started. I also have two sons. One’s in technology (Aneel, 31). The other was in technology and is back in school studying to be a doctor (Andre, 25). What I’ve always tried to impart to my kids is obviously to get the foundation of a great education, but really that you have to try to have a bigger purpose. So, my daughter is a singer, but she already has a charity cause where she donates her earnings. She’s trying to save the ocean; she’s trying to prevent the extinction of wolves and other creatures. So, get a great education and whatever you do, you work 4M96 hard and never give up, but


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M96

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M95 Vivek Ranadivé also have a bigger purpose. I think it’s really important first and foremost to be a good person and care about more than yourself and care about the world around you. It makes you happy and thus makes you more successful. I was talking to your cousin, Vaishali Dhote; she said the same thing about your philosophy. You met my favorite cousin of all. I call her Bunny! I haven’t heard the name Vaishali in a while (laughs_. Her dad was a doctor and opened a hospital, 40, 50 years ago, which catered to the people who didn’t have health care. This was way back, so there’s a long tradition about this. I know you’re a big Malcolm Gladwell fan. What’s it like to have Gladwell write about you and have that story about coaching your daughter’s basketball team now so famous? It’s beyond humbling. Obviously he’s one of the best-selling authors of our time and a global icon and just an amazing guy. One day, I woke up in the morning and looked down at my iPhone, and it said that Jimmy Fallon is following me on Twitter. I thought, Wow, how does Jimmy Fallon even know who I am? Then I found out that Malcolm had been on his late show. So that’s the story of how Fallon found out who I was (laughs). Malcolm is a brilliant guy. It’s always a treat and pleasure to spend time talking to him. It’s humbling, what else can I say? This year you joined President Obama and a host of other CEOs to India during Republic Day celebrations to discuss ways to increase bilateral trade between the two countries by 2020. Can you talk a bit about this and your plans? It was me and about half a dozen other CEOs: Ajay Banga from Mastercard, Bob Iger of Disney, Arne Sorenson of Marriott, Indra Nooyi of Pepsi, and so on. It was basically a three-day road trip with some amazing people. The goal was to increase trade between our countries 10-fold. So there was us, and there was also a delegation from the Indian side. We hit all the normal things like the need for infrastructure and the simplifying of regulations. One delegate said, ‘If you open a hotel in Singapore, it takes six permits. If you do it in India, it takes 106 permits.’ All of the things that we of Indian origin are used to hearing about: Simplifying bureaucracy, a more simplified tax code, and so on. Even at Tibco, I have thousands of engineers in India, but at home, they don’t have Internet access. And traffic is two hours each way, so no matter how good the programmers are, you still need the infrastructure, which is everything from water to roads to airports. We covered a wide range of subjects and we basically came up with an action plan for the things that India needs to do and what is it we can do to help facilitate that. I think it was a very productive meeting, and we came away excited about what the India-US relationship will look like in the future. You can imagine what a thrill it was for me, being of Indian origin, to sit there with the prime minister of the country of my origin, and the President of my new country, the United States (laughs). What do you think of Narendra Modi? I have the highest regard for him. I think that he’ll go

Vivek Ranadivé with his children — Anjali, a marine biologist and singer; Aneel, who is in technology; and Andre, who is back in school studying to be a doctor. COURTESY: VIVEK RANADIVÉS OFFICE

down as one of the great leaders of the 21st century. I think he’s a man that has a vision; he’s able to translate that vision into something that the common man can understand. He’s also action-oriented, and he’s got the charisma, the intellect, the vision, and the stalwart to see that vision through. I have great optimism for India and am very excited about him being our prime minister. I saw him at New York in September. He spoke at Madison Square Garden, where, by the way, my daughter sang. He got the treatment of a rock star. There were over 20,000 people that were just so excited to see him there. They had a VIP entrance for me, and I didn’t take it; I just took the regular entrance. I was in this massive crowd of people getting in, and everyone so was excited; I just felt the energy, the hope, and the optimism that all these people had. When I went into the arena in Madison Square Garden, he gave an absolutely inspirational speech. So for me as a person of Indian origin, it was incredibly exciting. Cricket is India’s sport, but your plan is to make basketball huge there, as well. Can you talk about your vision for the India-US relationship with basketball in mind? India wants to be a world power, and India’s knocking at that door. Sports has to be a part of it. You can’t be a world power and get no medals in the Olympics — maybe get one in hockey or one in shooting but not really be on the sports map. I see basketball as the sport of the 21st century, and I see basketball as a sport that can take off in India and provide yet another reason for India and the United States to be together. I see it as a sport that over the next 10 years will grow to be the second-most popular sport in India. Obviously, it will never surpass cricket as the national pastime, but if it’s the second-most popular, that’s a big deal. Actually I went to India with our new (NBA) commis-

sioner Adam Silver, and they’re investing heavily in India. We already taught a million boys and girls to bounce basketballs, and that number will go to 10 million. We have clinics we’re conducting, we sent coaches there, games are broadcast live in India. It’s going to take 10 years, but I see India emerging as a super power and basketball becoming a mainstream sport there. All of that is amazing. One of my hopes is that I’m able to take the Sacramento Kings to India. One of the things I said to Modi was that, ‘Look, you spoke at Madison Square Garden; there’s not a single arena like that in the entire country of India. It’s a country of a billion people, and you don’t have a single arena. Where I live in California, I can drive around the block, and there are probably five arenas like that, you know?’ So I think, even hosting a game there, it means that when you talk about the Smart Cities of the Future — an initiative that Modi has — an arena has to be a part of that. We also talked about the idea of creating an Indian tournament that I call Monsoon Madness (a bit like the March Madness concept in US College Basketball). The sport of kabaddi has taken off in India right now. That’s kind of a pre-colonial sport, and basketball is a post-colonial sport. I see a great future for basketball over there, and I think it goes along with everything else that Modi wants to achieve: Building cities, being a global power, cementing the relationship with America and American culture — all of these things go hand in hand. After this conversation, I’m going to have to go ahead and look up Monsoon Madness, because that sounds pretty interesting. 4M98 Right now it’s just in my mind, and there’s nothing out there yet. But I’ve been talking to


M97

India Abroad June 19, 2015

Eastern Inc. Eastern Air Air Couriers, Couriers, Inc. Fastz• Reliable Reliable •zEfficient Fast Efficient Cargo & Cargo &Courier CourierServices Service

WHEN SMILE ON ON THE THE FACE SINCE AA SMILE FACE OF OF

YOUR YOUR LOVED LOVED ONE ONE ISIS WORTH WORTH A A MILLION MILLION

TRUST EAC

Understanding and fulfilling personalized needs, EAC has remained dedicated towards providing the highest level of customer satisfaction Manifesting our competence in speedy deliveries, effective cost for the past 25 years. Manifesting our competence in speedy deliveries, control cost and control an interactive website, EAC has managed to bring the effective and an interactive website, EAC is surely bringing world a lot closer in the 26 years of our operation. the world a lot closer. Now, whether it is delivering a birthday gift to your dear sister, a time sensitive document to your business parnter or is a birthday time sensitive aNow, cargo whether shipment itacross the globe,gift, youacan trust EAC. document or a

cargo shipment across the globe, one can trust EAC.

Nothing is more important to us than putting a smile back on our We are passionate about putting a smile on our customers’ faces. customers' faces.

144 W 37th Street, 4th Floor, New York, NY 10018. Tel: 212 575 8300 / Fax: 212 575 8598 / 1-877-88-EACNY

144 W 37th Street, 4th Floor, New York, NY 10018. Tel: 212 575 8300 / Fax: 212 575 8598 / 1-877-88-EACNY

www.ShipEAC.com

www.ShipEAC.COM


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M98

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M96

Left, work is on at the Sacramento Kings stadium, which is set to open in 2016. Below, Ranadivé at a game with NBA legend Bill Russell.

Vivek Ranadivé the NBA and people in India like (Reliance Industries Chairman) Mukesh Ambani about creating a league and I dubbed it Monsoon Madness. It doesn’t exist yet; it’s just in my imagination. I hope that in the next couple of years you’ll be able to look it up and it’ll be for real (laughs). What has been the most rewarding thing about owning the Kings? It’s been an incredible privilege, and an incredible honor to be owner of the kings. We’re investing a billion dollars into the downtown (revitalization). We’re creating 12,000 jobs. We’re revitalizing the city and creating what I dubbed the City of the Future. We’re building the world’s smartest building, the world’s best arena. So, there’s a lot of great things that we’re doing that go beyond basketball. But one of the things to keep in mind is that the biggest misconception that one can have is that I own the Kings. This is true for sports teams in general: They’re really owned by the fans, by the community, by the city. I’m simply a steward for them. I think once you kind of digest that, then you can start to understand how to navigate the ownership. You think it belongs to you. It really doesn’t (laughs). I was in Chicago just a couple of days ago, and the Chicago Bulls had just fired their head coach — and that was like the headline story. Obama was speaking about it. I was like, Wow, we’ve got wars, droughts in California, and potential financial crises everywhere, and the headline that everyone cares about is that the Bulls fired their coach. So, that just tells you what a big deal sports has become for people, and really the team belongs to the city. What about the new stadium are you most excited about? It just got voted (by Sports Illustrated) as one of the 10 best buildings in the world. It’s the only building (on the list) in North America. I have this notion that the arena should have to check into you instead of you having to check into the arena. It’ll guide you to your parking spot, it’ll tell you how to get to your seat, it’ll tell you which is the shortest line to the bathroom, it’ll guide you to the food, it’ll be the world’s first indoor-outdoor arena. We can lift the doors up and have it be indoors and outdoors, which for a basketball arena has never been done. It’ll have more computing power and bandwidth going into seats than anyone’s ever had. It’ll be the world’s greenest building. It’ll be the most comfortable in terms of how the cooling happens. The acoustics will be the best. On many different dimensions we’re pushing the state of the art on what a building should be like.

COURTESY: TWITTER.COM/VIVEK/MEDIA and COURTESY: VIVEK RANADIVÉS OFFICE

I like to say that it’ll be first arena of the 21st century — and it will become the communal fireplace. It’ll be very intimate in terms of how the seating is structured. People will feel like they’re right on top of the action. Only 50 of the days will be games; 200 will be concerts. So the same will be true when you’re enjoying concerts: it’ll be very intimate. We’re very excited. It’ll be completed in record time: October 2016. It’ll be not just a sports arena but also a great arena for arts and music. Yeah, October 2016. That’s coming right up. I have to thank the state; the state really got right behind me. The governor, the city, the senate, the assembly, they

got together and passed the law SB 743 (a law designed to remove roadblocks to arena construction that could arise from other organizations), which makes it possible for me to get this arena done on time. Things get worse before they get better. By the time we open the arena, the Kings will be a contender; they’ll achieve to the highest level the next few years. I love the idea of Bollywood Night at the stadium. How did you come up with that idea? The Bollywood Night I started with the Golden State Warriors (another basketball team Ranadivé owned before buying the Sacramento franchise); we adapted that with the Kings, but then we expanded that. We had Sikh Night. There’s a big Sikh community around Sacramento. You can imagine what a sight it was to see 500 sardars in purple turbans and doing bhangra and listening to Punjabi music. We have games broadcast in India; we serve Indian food. So we have a large growing Indian fan base now. We’re the most watched team in India. We’ve incorporated a lot of Indian choreography and music into the dance routines. So, we’re building on Bollywood night to continue to shout out to Indian fans in the Sacramento area and beyond. What’s the most exciting thing you’re looking forward to in your projects or in your life in the years ahead? I see the next 15 years as ones where there will be unprecedented change. We’re truly going to make the world a better place. We’re going to eliminate many of the diseases that plague us now. I think we’re entering a new era, and I call it Civilization 3.0. Civilization 1.0 was about the agrarian revolution — the age of the artisans, people who farm, shopkeepers, and carpenters. Civilization 2.0 was the industrial revolution and age of the corporations and corporate efficiency. Now we’re entering the era where the world’s largest bookseller has no bookstores, and the world’s largest music seller has no music stores, and the world’s largest taxi company owns no cars, and the world’s largest hotel company owns no real estate. It’s kind of uncharted territory, so I think the next 15 years is going to be really exciting. I really hope that the work I’m doing with the Kings, City 3.0, working with (local universities), and thinking about Healthcare 3.0, hopefully I can have a small tiny role in shaping this new era — an era in which I think people’s lives will dramatically improve. n


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M99

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘Vivek is brilliant, tireless, passionate’ Raj Bhathal Co-owner of the Sacramento Kings

O

ur family has been in and around sports for some time. I first experienced the American love of sport when I came to this country in the early 1960s. That’s when I saw my first football game and fell in love with American

sports. My wife played on the golf and tennis teams at UCLA, so she shared my passion and helped nurture its growth. When we had children, attending games became a fun family activity for us. Marta and I are still active at the gym and share a love of golf. Alex (Bhathal’s son) stays fit, competing in triathlons and recently completed his first Boston Marathon. (Daughter) Lisa’s boys are now getting into sports, so we are keeping the passion alive for the next generation. In the 1990s, we co-founded the World League of American Football with the NFL. We owned the Orlando Thunder franchise and really enjoyed the experience and the business of sport. In the 2000s, we looked at several opportunities to purchase teams in football and basketball. Ultimately, we focused on basketball because we believe that the NBA has superior growth prospects domestically and abroad. We came very close to buying the New Orleans Hornets in 2012. When that deal didn’t go through, the league facilitated an introduction to Vivek, who was close to finalizing a deal to keep the Kings in Sacramento. Alex and I flew to San Francisco and had a great dinner with Vivek and his colleague Roger Craig. We knew by reputation that Vivek was brilliant and energetic, but I needed to make sure that he would be a good partner. One lesson I have learned is that business is about relationships with people, and partnerships are about capabilities and trust. After meeting Vivek, hearing his vision for the team, and understanding the economics of the deal it was almost a no-brainer to join the group. With the arena development, real estate, business operations, we have a very large and complex organization. Vivek does a great job as our group’s managing partner and chairman. I believe my best role is as a sounding board and facilitator on the business side of the operation. Additionally, as alternate governor, I assist Vivek in the Kings participation in NBA meetings. Building the new arena will spark a much-needed urban renewal in downtown Sacramento. It’s definitely one of the things that we are most passionate and excited about. The arena is going up so incredibly fast! By fall, the entire exterior structure will be built out, and we plan on opening the doors on schedule in October 2016. The adjacent mixed-use project is also on track. We’ve recently announced that we have signed Kimpton to manage the 250-room hotel next to the arena, and we are in the process of leasing out several restaurants and retail spaces. There are lot of exciting announcements coming soon! We have plans to expand our brand globally. I know from my family in India that there’s a huge latent demand for the sport. As India continues to develop, the interest in sports will expand and we are convinced that basketball will emerge as a top sport in the country. Our game is fast paced, athletic, and high scoring. These aspects of the game bode really well compared to soccer

Vivek Ranadivé flanked by US Congressman Ami Bera, left, and basketball player Sim Bhullar, right, before a game against the New Orleans Pelicans. Left, a Kings game. KYLE TERADA-USA TODAY SPORTS/REUTERS

and cricket. Even though basketball has a long way to go in India, we are making significant inroads. In November, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, Vivek, Vlade (Divac, former basketball player and now Kings official) and I toured the country and laid the groundwork for further development. It’s already gaining exposure and popularity. When we signed Sim Bhullar, we were bombarded with excited notes from fellow members of the Indian community. I think the most important thing we can do now is win more games and become a championship-caliber team. In all this, Vivek is brilliant, tireless, and passionate. I have no doubt that he will make our team successful on the court and financially. We couldn’t ask for a better leader for the ownership group. n Raj Bhathal is founder of Raj Manufacturing, a company that is now one of the largest swimwear companies in the nation, and vice chairman, Sacramento Kings. In 2013, the Bhathal family invested in the Sacramento Kings Basketball Holdings LLC and its affiliated entities, helping to secure the Kings’ future in Sacramento. He spoke to Simanta Roy Buck.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M100

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 Vaishali Dhote Cousin

Vivek Ranadivé with his grandmother in India. Below, Ranadivé with Sim Bhullar, the first Indianorigin player in the NBA, at the India Day Parade in New York last year. His ties with India still run deep.

O

ur fathers were brothers. We grew up together; our families were very close. Every time there were special holidays, like Diwali, all the families got together to spend a week together. We were the youngest in our respective families. We were always playing together, and it was really wonderful. We were three cousins, really. There was his father, my father, and they had a sister. So the youngest of each family was Vivek, myself, and another cousin, Ajay. We called ourselves The Three Musketeers. We always hung out together (laughs). Vivek’s father had a farm about two hours away from Bombay; the Three Musketeers would go there often. We rode bullock carts; we drove tractors... we had great fun doing that. We’d play with the animals on the farm. It was one big adventure, our lives. For Vivek, it still is. He does look at everything with a sense of wonder. It was always, We’re going to have a blast. Vivek was the natural leader, and we followed him around like little puppies. He was my hero from way back then. He wasn’t aggressive. He was shy, reticent. But he had a fantastic sense of humor, and his sense of timing was incredible. So in a perfectly normal conversation, he’d say something that had everyone in splits. Everything was an adventure to him, and I think his life today is still like that. His zest for life is wonderful. Every game we played, there was an element of mystery, there was an element of adventure. He was full of ideas. It was a lot of fun being with him. He was always focused on whatever he wanted to do. He was humble, he was soft, but he was very determined and focused on what he wanted. Back then, we were all too little to really see it, but he was very determined from the start. In those days, very few people went abroad to study. He was one of the few. His father said, ‘I’m going to pay a term’s fee, and you’re on your own after that.’ At 17, to do that is pretty brave and pretty incredible. But he had decided, and he was always like that. ‘No’ was not an option in his mindset. If he decided to do something, he would do it. But I don’t think we ever predicted that he’d be where he is today. In spite of being who is he, he is still so humble. If you sit down and have a conversation with him, he would never push the fact that he is who he is. You see the pride, you see the energy, you see the zest. Apart from being successful, which was very important to him, I think there’s this very strong desire to help people, or to better their lives. We were very privileged growing up in our families — not privileged in terms of financial privileges, but our families did an incredible amount for the community. Both his father and mine, in addition to being successful in their careers, did a tremendous amount for people. My father started a hospital for the underprivileged. His father worked for the fishing community. They dedicated their lives so easily and selflessly towards helping others. I think part of what he is doing right now comes from there.

PARESH GANDHI

really fell in love with it when his kids started playing. He wanted to be a part of everything they did. I haven’t seen a Sacramento Kings game, but the first game they played after he bought the team was telecast in Bombay. So we had a little party at home. My mom, who was 90 then, and my aunts, and all the family in (the area) got together and watched the game. I do hope that one day I can come and see a game in the new stadium. That’s a dream. It will be electrifying to see it. Vivek’s success fills me with immense joy, pride, wonder. But on one level, I’m not surprised. He was my hero from the time I was a baby. I expected nothing less from him. He’s worked very hard to get where he is. He deserves every bit of his success. Every time I read about him, I speak to him, it’s this sense of awe, wonder. And again, one of the nicest things about this is the success hasn’t changed him as a person. When I see him, he’s still that little boy with a glint in his eye, and that naughty little smile on his lips. We don’t meet as often as I’d like to. His life and family and everything is now in the US. But I hope that’s going to change, because he’s really trying to do a lot of things with India. He wants to bring basketball here... It’s hard with family scattered all over the world. But as family meet, those years or months just melt away and we can take up from where we left off, and that’s the nice part of our relationship really. The last time we met, we met after quite a while. Once we got over that initial joy of seeing each other, one of the first things he said is, “All’s not right with you. What is it?” I came out with what was bothering me. A part of me was probably expecting a shoulder to cry on, some sympathy. But he said, “Look, we’re fighters. If there’s a problem, fight. If there’s a problem, get off your butt and figure out how we’re going to fix it.” I think that has been his approach his entire life, because all of us have our share of ups and downs, and he always thought a step ahead. He’s always looking to grow in every way. I don’t think there are any limits to his dreams. He’s just so determined to find a solution to everything... That’s who he is. He can inspire everyone and bring out the best in them. n

‘Everything is an adventure to him’ He grew up seeing it as part of our everyday lives. When we went on holidays sometimes, it wasn’t just the family that went. It was, “OK, there’s this other person that we know, and they don’t get to go on vacation often, so why don’t you take them along?” I know there’s been times when we’ve crammed nine or 10 people in a car and driven somewhere for holiday. I’m sure that’s where his humility comes from. Vivek was very, very close to his mom. She was a very warm, very affectionate person. All of us loved her. And his dad taught him a lot of his values in life... We’ve always been a very close-knit family, and you see that today with his children. He’s so close to them. He’s so proud of them. It could be my memory failing me, but I don’t remember Vivek being a very sporty person. School didn’t, unfortunately, give us the opportunity to play a lot of sports. He

Vaishali Dhote, or as Vivek Ranadivé endearingly calls her,“Bunny,” is Ranadivé’s “favorite cousin.” She is an architect specializing in interior design based in Mumbai. She is three years younger than Ranadivé and shared a childhood with him in the midst of 1960s-1970s Bombay. She spoke to Simanta Roy Buck.


India Abroad June 19, 2015

M101


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M102

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 Vlade Divac Former Sacramento Kings player and now a Kings official

B

asketball is not just a passion, but a project for Vivek Ranadivé. He truly believes that it’s a great catalyst for change: Changing the community and changing the world. Before I joined the front office, I was traveling with the team as ambassador for China Global Games last summer. I was introduced to Vivek and his value to the organization. I was impressed with the mission to create the winning franchise and enhance the lives of those he touched. On my trip with him to India last fall, we talked about the idea of me joining the front office, and we decide to go forward with that during the All-Star Game in New York (in February). He was the guy who approached me and asked me to join the organization. I knew it would be a great relationship with Vivek and everyone in the organization. I’m so excited to be a part of it. I’m fascinated with how he envisions the NBA. He sees the business as a social network and an opportunity to connect and engage with the fans. It’s exciting for me and for everybody here in the organization. The NBA is involved obviously in Europe and in Asia, mostly in China. But here at the Kings, we are following Vivek’s lead. His NBA 3.0 philosophy sets the tone for everything that we do here. NBA 3.0 is driven by three things: Technology, globalization, and community. That really fits what we’re trying to do going forward. We’re nationally broadcasting games; obviously this season we televised in India, we went to China, and next season we will go to Mexico. There’s so much more innovation in the works. Vivek recently visited India with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. All of that puts it into perspective: Yes, we’d love to be known as an international organization. Basketball is a really true international sport. Basketball is played everywhere. When I joined the NBA in 1989, I was one of the first international players to join the NBA. Now 30 percent of the league is international, so it’s going in that direction. I didn’t speak English back then. But basketball gave me the opportunity to realize how the world is so small and how we are so close to each other. Yes, we have differences in our culture and our languages, but basically there’s not much difference between us all around the world. I’ll tell you from my experience, when I grew up, we wanted to watch NBA games on a daily basis but we couldn’t. We had an opportunity to watch maybe one or two games in a season — and maybe the AllStar Game. But now, with technology, every kid anywhere in the world can watch every single game any time they want. It shows

‘Every day you can learn something new from him’

Behind-the-scenes at a Kings Pre-Draft workout with Vivek Ranadivé, second from left, and Vlade Divac, left. Ranadivé says he is not the smartest guy, but believes in surrounding himself with people who are smarter than him. On the Kings team that means a delegation that includes people like NBA basketball gurus Vlade Divac and Shaquille O’Neal, inset. TWITTER.COM/VIVEK COURTESY: TWITTER.COM/SACRAMENTOKINGS

you right there that the NBA changed a lot in the last 20+ years. And, yes, we want to part of the huge family that lives in this world and who loves basketball.

Our owner came from India, which shows you right there that we have that source of a different culture, a different view of the world; me joining the organization now gives another perspective on international relationships. I love Vivek’s way of thinking. He is totally friendly. He’s fun and a very, very smart guy. His work in Silicon Valley shows you that he’s very bright. Every day you can learn something new from him. That’s going to make me a better person and somebody who can use those values and tools to help myself and help the organization I think we should all thank him for finding a way to keep the franchise here in Sacramento. I was a player here, and it was

very emotional for me to see a possibility that Kings could leave this town. He found a way to save this organization, which belongs to the fans. We want to create a winning organization that brings that excitement that we once had here, and we want to be a well-known international team so we can use that as a tool to connect people, because sports is all about that — connecting people. n Vlade Divac, from Serbia, was one of the first international basketball players to enter the NBA. In his 30-year career in a jersey, he once played for the Kings. Now, he’s part of their front office as Vice President of Basketball and Franchise Operations, under Vivek Ranadivé’s leadership. Ranadivé calls him his top basketball official. He spoke to Simanta Roy Buck.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M103

Presented by

SHELLEY and DONALD RUBIN

INDIA ABROAD FRIEND OF INDIA AWARD 2014 For their phenomenal contribution to Himalayan art; for their dedication to preserving cultures; for crafting an artistic haven in New York City.

KEEPERS OF A LOST ART ‘Collecting Tibetan and Indian art gave good karma and luck, and we became manic art collectors. We have never sold a piece of art. Selling a work of art is like selling one of your relatives, your children.’ Shelley and Donald Rubin, co-founders of the Rubin Museum of Art — the greatest collection of Himalayan Art in the Western world — and winners of the India Abroad Friend of India Award tell Aseem Chhabra that the beauty of art is not in collecting, but in sharing it. COURTESY: THE RUBINS


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M104

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

D

onald and Shelley Rubin’s art connections happened quite by accident. In 1974 the young couple was walking on Madison Avenue during the day when they came across a Tibetan thangka being sold at an art gallery. It was a White Tara. They were immediately drawn to the painting and decided to buy it even when they knew little about Asian and Tibetan art. Donald Rubin now believes that the painting brought him good luck. He later established a managed health care business MultiPlan, which brought him a lot of financial success. In the process Donald and Shelley started collecting more and more Indian and Tibetan art. “I think collecting Tibetan and Indian art gave me good karma and luck, and we became manic art collectors,” Donald says. Many years later, the Rubins were considering housing a large part of their collection in a museum space. In 1996, Donald was stuck in traffic in a taxi in Chelsea area of Manhattan when he saw a bankruptcy sign stuck on the door of the old Barneys building on 17th Street and 7th Avenue. The high-end clothing store was cutting back and shutting down some of its prime retail locations. Donald checked out the building and made an offer. Today the Rubin Museum of Art is situated at that location. The museum hosts a collection of Himalayan art — from Tibet, other parts of South Asia where a large Tibetan population lives in exile and art and photographs from India. Shelley recalls once meeting a man who gave her an explanation for their passion for Indian and Tibetan art. The man told her: “You didn’t find the collection. The collection found you. Because you are people who wanted to share it.” Most art collectors seek works by well-known painters at auctions and through dealers because they treat the paintings as investments. But Donald and Shelley Rubin had a much more instinctive and organic relationship to the art they started collecting in the 1970s. It was a natural emotional connection that still pulls them to Tibetan and Indian art. And their big mission is to share the art they have collected, especially with those who may have access to museums and galleries located in the fancy parts of Manhattan Over the years the Rubin Museum has hosted several remarkable exhibitions, including works from the couple’s private collection. In 2010, the museum organized a show called Goddess, Lion, Peasant, Priest: Modern and Contemporary Indian Art from the Collection of Shelley and Donald Rubin. It was surely the largest such showing of modern and contemporary Indian art at a museum in Manhattan. In 2006, the Rubin Museum of Art was the first New York arts institution to showcase historic works related to Sikhism. The show titled I See No Stranger: Early Sikh Art and Devotion was very well received. The Rubin Museum of Art’s current show Collecting Art: Buddhist Art of Kashmir and its Legacies gives viewers a chance to look at a face of the region in conflict that is rarely covered by the mainstream media. The Rubins sit on the Rubin Museum of Art board. But through their foundation they donate large sums of money

KEEPERS OF A LOST ART to other arts institutions in New York City, especially museums located outside Manhattan. While they have a lot of respect for museums like MoMA, the Met and Guggenheim, they strongly believe in bringing the arts closer to communities and ethnic minorities that may not be able to get to the trendy arts spaces of Manhattan. Donald’s Polish immigrant roots have largely shaped this vision. And hence over the years the Rubins have contributed to art museums in Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island. Their $500,000 donation to the Bronx Museum of Arts in March 2013 ensured free admission to the museum through 2015. In May 2013, they gave another $500,000 to the Queens Museum. The Queens Museum’s current show After Midnight: Indian Modernism to Contemporary India 1947/1997 includes some of the artworks from the Rubins’ private collection. As Shelley told India Abroad: “Donald and I are clear that everybody should have art and culture writ large in their lives and have it accessible so that it becomes a part of who they are as they grow up and when they are adults.” The Rubins love and friendship with the arts from India and its neighboring regions is a 40-year-old story that began when they were simply taking a walk on Madison Avenue. That love and friendship has become their passion, a second nature and a calling for them. There is a story told by many journalists, that you both

Donald, left, and Shelley Rubin, center right, host a do at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. COURTESY: THE RUBINS

were strolling on Madison Avenue, when you made your first art purchase. I would love to hear details about it – was it day or night, were you looking for art? Shelly: It was day time and at that time we lived on 78th Street and 2nd Avenue, and we happened to be taking a walk. No, we were not shopping for anything. And as that story you have heard so many times, at that time we had no money, so obviously we were not looking to buy something. I read that you both had $3,000 to your name. S: (She laughs) I don’t think the need to put numbers to everything. Donald: I think just meeting an Indian dealer was enough to make me rich. And you had never collected art before? S: I was a painter. I painted my whole life, I never sold anything. It was at the time when I met Donald that I had stopped working as an artist. And you had not traveled to South Asia or the Himalayan region? S: No, not then. Did you know where the art was from? Did the dealer tell you anything? S: Well, we knew it was Asian. I probably thought it was Indian. D: But at that time we didn’t have much money. I think collecting Tibetan and Indian art gave me good karma and luck, and we became manic art collectors. We have never sold a piece of art. This is what we do as an investment or to make a profit. We gave a lot to the museum and some to universities. But selling work of art is like selling one of your relatives, your children. I just can’t do it. I 4M105 am emotionally connected to the collection.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M105

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M104 Shelley and Donald Rubin How often do you revisit all your art? D: We have it at the museum. We do art shows on the floor below here. I have now started collecting a lot of Cuban art as well. How did that one painting lead to an interest in Himalayan art and then Indian art? S: When I met Donald, I had a couple of Chinese art pieces in my house. But they weren’t good. I think we both had an affinity for an Asian aesthetic. And we were drawn in to the White Tara. I kind of loved it. You don’t know how these things happen in life. We both responded. We took her home. We hung her in our home and loved her. There was another painting we had seen at the gallery. So later we went back and got that one next. And somewhere there we met Navin Jain who definitely increased our understanding and interest. When did you first visit the region? S: We went to Tibet when my daughter was 12 or 13. We went to India with Navin and his family a few years before that. D: And with Navin we saw his gallery as his larger art collection is at Sainik Farms in Delhi.

I know sometimes this is hard to put down, but what was the attraction you had to the art and the region? S: We had met somebody along the way on this journey who said to us, ‘You didn’t find the collection. The collection found you. Because you are people who wanted to share it, as opposed to people who collect art, especially Tibetan art, often people in the Diaspora. They don’t want to know about it. They put it in drawers or flat files and don’t want to share it.’ And that stuck in my mind. It almost makes me tear up. For me that was always the best explanation. Because it seemed like magic and not quite understandable. D: In the same way as now I have a passion for Cuban art. This is my theory, when people are a little oppressed the art is better. When they are sitting in New York and there is a pier show – there may be 3,000 paintings on the wall. If I find one or two that I want in my apartment or my office, it would be a lucky day for me. S: The oppression is one thing, but a connection with culture and personal story of life, I think that is very important. Part of the thing that Donald is saying and reads in the global art market is what he sees as the lack of connection – a juicy connection to the past. I think that juicy connection is what we saw in Indian and Tibetan art. And we see

The street outside the Rubin Museum of Art draped in Himalayan colors and culture. FACEBOOK.COM/RUBINMUSEUM

that in Cuban art. The global art market is much more heady, much more intellectual, and sometimes terrible. But there is terrible art all through history, not just at the pier shows. I think what connected us to Indian and Tibetan art was that wonderful sense of life, color, culture, story and spirit. From Tibetan art when did the interest also move to Indian art? I see you had a show on Modern and Contemporary Indian art in 2010 called Goddess, Lion, Peasant, Priest. S: That happened in the last six years. D: I started buying from Navin. We used to spend much more time together. I think he gave me my education on Indian and Tibetan art. And you can’t put it in words. It’s the heart connection. When you go out at night, see the moon in the sky and the clouds passing by, you just feel it. It’s an emotional experience. And so really in some ways it doesn’t matter if you know who the artist is. In Tibetan art you actually do not know who the artist is. There are no signatures. S: We didn’t know in the beginning that (Francis Newton) Souza or (Maqbool Fida) Husain were important artists. But we learned. Which are your favorite pieces that you collect? S: It changes. We have this Biren De

India Abroad Friend of India Award

HONOR ROLL STROBE TALBOTT (2010) Diplomat and thinker

SUSANNE H RUDOLPH, LLOYD I RUDOLPH (2011) India Scholars MARSHALL BOUTON (2012) Scholar and diplomat SHELDON POLLOCK (2013) Sanskrit scholar JAMES IVORY (2013) Filmmaker and cultural ambassador for India

(Untitled: Red: Two White Figures in Black Dot, 1969) hanging in our apartment (she points to a painting in the Goddess, Lion, Peasant, Priest catalogue). In our house on Fire Island (Long Island) we have lots of Seema Kohli works. She has this strong feminine energy rising. I personally like her work. Many of these modern artists — like Husain and Souza are not alive. Are you looking at more contemporary artists like Seema Kohli then? S: We look at them as they come past us. We don’t seek them. I like to buy art that I can live with. So to buy art to put in storage is not my thing. When I see something I love, I think about where I am going to hang it. D: That’s why we bought the museum (he laughs). S: That’s right. D: In my business office, before I sold my company, I had nearly 500 works of art. S: We used to run art tours of our office. And it was all Tibetan art at that time? D: Yes, and some Indian. But what I like about Tibetan art is because it has the wrathful and the peaceful part of the human condition. (He points to a Buddhist Thangka hanging on the wall of the conference room where we were seated). In all our minds, our dreams, our fantasies, when we talk to shrinks, we see this — blood, people who are beheaded. Tibetan art really shows the 4M106 balance of the human condi-


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M106

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M105 Shelley and Donald Rubin tion. It gives you what’s really going on in the world. S: What Donald would do at MultiPlan (the PPO health provider he ran), he would take clients to one of these Tibetan paintings and he would give them his description. He would say ‘You see that skull over there? That’s the guy who didn’t negotiate straight with me.’ (They both laugh) He really had an idiosyncratic way of looking at the art and interpreting it in a modern context about the external and internal human condition. I also find it fascinating that your foundation has given money to the Queens Museum and the Bronx Museum of Art. You chose not to donate money and art to MoMA or the Met. Did you believe these museums in Manhattan needed less support than those in the other boroughs? S: Donald and I are clear that everybody should have art and culture writ large in their lives and have it accessible so that it becomes a part of who they are as they grow up and when they are adults. What’s happened is that the large museums, which are wonderful world class institutions, but they suck up most of the money and they serve very few people in comparison. There are people everywhere and in the five boroughs of New York who would never go to MoMA, to the Met or Guggenheim for all sorts of reasons. But there are so many wonderful local institutions. We support the Socrates Sculpture Park in Astoria, Queens. These are places that people engage with in their neighborhoods. We are rethinking and redirecting a part of our personal foundation into exploring how art and social change relate to each other; what access to art for all actually means; and how we can partner with other organizations and the City of New York to increase art’s access. Just as there are food desserts, there are art desserts. As there are less and less creative expression being explored in schools, institutions of all sorts have to pick up the slack. If they engage with the community then we need to support them. Have you thought of taking your art to India? D: If one of the major museums wanted to do a show with our art, we would be happy to take it there. All they have to do is to provide transportation and insurance. We don’t charge anything. We would be delighted. S: But we are not actively seeking that now. D: I went to Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. And I have shown my art there. The Modern and Contemporary Indian art show was first held there in 2010. We have the Cuba Libre show on at the Bronx Museum of the Art. S: The reason why we support Queens Museum is because there is so much ethnic diversity in that borough. The museum became a community activist, they hired a community organizer and sought ways to engage with the various communities. Do you remember any piece that you may not have been able to buy for any reason? Do you have any regrets? D: It happens all the time. I have regrets for a few minutes, maybe overnight, but then I move on. S: I sometimes look at catalogues of shows and I realize I miss things we gave to the museum. Is there a specific thing? No, but when I see the piece hanging in the museum I might miss it. But the Rubin Museum is also like your child, no? S: Yes, but it is not the same thing as having a painting hanging in my dining room or my bedroom. Oh, actually I do have a favorite piece. I have a bronze sculpture at home – a Tibetan Yama, that I jumped up and down and demanded that we do not give to the museum.

Above, the 17th Karmapa stopped at the Rubin Museum of Art in April. The museum is popular among spiritual leaders as well as political leaders like former President Jimmy Carter, pictured left with the Rubins, and President Barack Obama, and singers like Ricky Martin, pictured below. PHOTOGRAPHS: ARMEN ELLIOTT, LARRY DOWNING/REUTERS and COURTESY: THE RUBINS

It’s the God of Death. That piece of sculpture has been with us for many, many years. It lived on our mantle in our previous home. That sculpture did something to me. It is remarkable that you have brought so much interest in South Asian and Tibetan art to New York City. I know the Asia Society runs such programs sometimes, but no other museum here has run a Modern and Contemporary India exhibition. S: When we started the Rubin Museum there was virtually no interest in Asia. It seems extraordinary because it’s not that long ago. We bought the property (the old Barney’s building) in 1998. We were looking for a space before that and, of course, we were collecting much earlier than that, and everyone thought we were slightly off. D: They thought we were crazy. S: But we felt somehow that Asia was rising. If you opened your eyes a little bit you could see that Asia, especially India and China, were rising powers of the world and their art was not seen at all, even though it was incredibly

beautiful, well crafted and meaningful. And that the perspective of looking at this art from the Western eye that was going to change. We felt and maybe we helped it a little bit. You surely did. As much as you have gone to the outer boroughs, but still to situate a museum in the heart of Chelsea is a major endeavor. D: And when we got the space, this was one of the most decrepit, rundown in New York City. And now in the real estate perspective it is one of the most fast growing parts of the city. S: We were definitely an anchor in making it happen. n


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M107

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 Sreenath Sreenivasan, Chief Digital Officer, Metropolitan Museum of Art

L

ooking back at the winners of the India Abroad Friend of India Award, you see names from two important fields. There are diplomats/US government officials like Strobe Talbott and Marshall Bouton, who shaped America’s policy ties to India; and there are scholars like Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph, and Sheldon Pollock who have made the study of India their lives’ work. This year’s winners are not government officials nor are they professors who have studied India their entire lives. But together, they’ve done so much to help Americans understand India, its culture and its people. I got to know Shelley and Donald Rubin when they launched what I call their ‘$100 million love letter to the Indian subcontinent,’ the Rubin Museum of Art in downtown Manhattan. In a country where Indian culture was hard to find except by visiting Hindu temples or parts of certain big museums, here was someone building an entire museum of Himalayan art. They took the famous Barneys department store spiral staircase and reimagined it as the heart of a beautiful temple of art inspired by Buddhist tradition. It’s always been inspiring to hear how these two New Yorkers stumbled into this grand love for art and all things South Asian. A purchase of that first thanka when they could hardly afford anything else, blossomed into a gem at the heart of the city, a showcase of our culture and traditions. From my very first conversation, I knew these were folks who were different from other Indophiles I’d meet in New York. They didn’t come to their love of India and its neighbors by profession — or by the occasional Indian meal — but by what Donald calls ‘a heart connection’. Their love of India and South Asian art is palpable, genuine and contagious. They have done so much to showcase the region in their museum, including putting on the first major shows about Sikh and Jain art in New York City; hosting intellectual discussions and great, fun parties; offering Indians and others a gathering space and a place to call our own. It’s not just at the museum that you see their love of India, it’s also in their home, where masterpiece after masterpiece by legendary Indian artists line the walls. In my role at the Met, I spend a lot of time thinking about digital collections of art and how best to share the treasures of the Met with the world. Fact is that Shelley and Donald have been thinking about that — and doing those kind of projects long before many others. Watching them build online versions of their Himalayan art collection and how they nurtured the connection with their physical museum has played an important role in my own day-to-day work at the Met and also in my decision to enter in to the arts world. But it isn’t just being tremendous patrons of the arts that makes them worthy of the title ‘Friend of India.’ It’s that they have imbued their lives with Buddhist and Hindu ideals, manners and traditions. They have also helped countless good causes in their quest for social justice and making the world a better place. Among the many things to admire about the Rubins is that they have, to use a common phrase, ‘put their money where their mouths are.’ They have invested in start-ups in the region, they support social causes, they support museums here and in the region that are working to keep

The Rubins, authors of a $100 million love letter to India our history alive. In all this, they have consciously created self-sustaining initiatives and institutions — theirs is an impact that will be felt for generations. This is the legacy we acknowledge with the India Abroad award. On behalf of all Indians — wherever they may be — thank you, Donald and Shelley. Thank you. n Sreenath Sreenivasan is the Chief Digital Officer, Metropolitan Museum of Art and co-founder of the South Asian Journalists Association.

Donald Rubin with lamas. Below, Shelley Rubin enjoys the Indian festival of Holi. They didn’t come to their love of India and its neighbors by profession — or by the occasional Indian meal — but by what Donald calls ‘a heart connection’. COURTESY: THE RUBINS


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M108

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

A sanctuary of peace ‘I walked out of the museum feeling a deep sense of calmness within me. That is what the Rubin Museum does to its visitors. I cannot think of a more invigorating arts space in all of the city,’ says Aseem Chhabra.

S

unday afternoon was a perfect day to explore the Rubin Museum of Art. There was rain and a thunderstorm threatening to hit the city in a big way, and I needed a shelter over my head. The fact that I could also experience the serenity of Buddhist art in a quiet space was an added benefit. I have been to the RMA many times since it opened in October 2004 — for events hosted by local community organizations, including the South Asian Journalists Association and the Indo American Arts Council. I have been there for film screenings in the museum’s lovely basement auditorium space and even introduced some classic Indian movies. I have eaten in the museum’s café, and explored its bookstore. The art scene in New York City is cluttered with galleries and there are dozens of museums, but the RMA stands apart. One can never get enough of the RMA, and honestly I cannot think of a more invigorating arts space in all of city. In the center of the RMA is the six-story spiral staircase, part of the original Barneys clothing store building that stood there before the museum was built. The building was bought for reportedly $22 million by the founders of the RMA — Shelley and Donald Rubin — and converted into a museum to house their collection of Buddhist art from Tibet and other regions of South Asia, including India. The Rubins and their architects decided to keep the spiral staircase in the center of the new museum. On that Sunday I took the elevator to the sixth floor — the top floor of the museum. I prefer walking down the staircase, checking out the artwork on display, floor by floor. Currently the top floor has an amazing exhibition exploring masks from the

Himalayan region — Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, India, and even China and Japan. It is a stunning show — aptly titled Becoming Another: The Power of Masks and it emphasizes the fact that over cen-

The Rubin Museum of Art speaks to the young and the old. PHOTOGRAPHS: FACEBOOK.COM/RUBINMUSEUM

turies masks have given humans the ability to hide their true self and at least temporarily become something else — the embodiment of a god, deity, devil, another human, animal or bird. I spent a long time staring at these gorgeous pieces — some from the museum’s own collection, and the rest on loan from private collectors and other arts institutions. It is a terrific show, that will bring joy to all — especially children and teenagers. I walked one floor below and saw one more of the special exhibits of the season — Collecting Paradise: Buddhist Art of Kashmir and its Legacies. The show is a surprise, especially for those who learn about the Kashmir from the current headlines — a land torn by decades-old rivalry between India and Pakistan, terrorism and Hindu-Muslim strife. The RMA show gives a totally different perspective of Kashmir — a land that has a

deep Buddhist heritage. Few would know that Kashmir had a thriving culture of art and literature, and that traveling artists from other parts of the Indian subcontinent, especially those who practice Buddhism found patrons who encouraged them to explore their art in the region. The current show displays a rich array of Buddhist sculpture, paintings that may have similarities with works found in Tibet, but were developed and produced in Kashmir. The floors below house a part of the museum’s permanent collection. Masterworks: Jewels of the Collection showcases the exceptional quality and diversity of art from the Himalayan region. It is the reason why the RMA was opened in the first place — the museum’s founders felt they had to share their large personal collection with other New Yorkers and those visiting the city.

Then as I walked down the spiral staircase, I made a stop at my personal favorite section of the museum — a quiet corner called The Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room. This space is supposed to replicate Buddhist shrines one sees all over Asia. But its peaceful ambience is a reminder that while the museum itself is a shrine to art, this small area can be treated as a place of worship as well. I am not religious, but I found it most rewarding to sit on the floor for about half an hour looking at the numerous objects, with dim lights and flickering lamps. At times my mind wandered. At other times I felt I was in a meditative state. And then I also briefly checked my iPhone for messages. But it felt good. A short while later, I walked out of the museum feeling a deep sense of calm within me. That is what the Rubin Museum does to its visitors. n


M109

India Abroad June 19, 2015

Retirement Home In India

â&#x20AC;&#x153;The only way your parents should retire is To Retire in Style â&#x20AC;?

Beautiful view | Fully serviced | Hasslefree living

One Eighty USA, a global brand of retirement living, is now in India Aamoksh One Eighty Hospitality Pvt. Ltd. + 91 8800243555 +91 8800343555 kasauli@aamokshoneeighty.com India: www.aamoksh.com Global: www.oneeightytwist.com


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M110

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 In the center of the Rubin Museum of Art is the six-story spiral staircase, part of the original Barneys clothing store building that stood there before the museum was built.

The Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room is a shrine to the art and the faith. PHOTOGRAPHS: FACEBOOK.COM/RUBINMUSEUM and RAJESH KARKERA

A sanctuary of peace

The current show displays a rich array of Buddhist sculptures and paintings.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M111

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

Snapshots from different floors of the Rubin Museum of Art, ranging from its permanent collection, Masterworks: Jewels of the Collection, to a temporary one on masks. PHOTOGRAPHS: RAJESH KARKERA and FACEBOOK.COM/RUBINMUSEUM

A sanctuary of peace

Presented by


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M112

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘They are Indophiles in a big way’ Ravi Akhoury Friend and art collector

T

he Rubins’ passion for Tibetan and Indian art is unmatched. You are not going to find a most passionate collector as them. They started off with Tibetan Buddhist art. They built an amazing collection. Then, even before contemporary Indian art, Don got into Cuban art. I think at this point he is the The Rubins against the backdrop of the Himalayas. biggest collector of Cuban art anywhere. I don’t know if anybody has as big a collection as COURTESY: THE RUBINS his. Then he and Shelley also got into contemporary Tibet art. And then they have Indian contemporary art, which by itself is a phenomenal collection. I don’t know how many pieces they have, but it’s a very large collection. The Rubins, besides their passion for art collection, are just wonderful human beings. They do so much for the communities. They are very progressive liberal thinkers supporting all kinds of forward looking causes. And they donate not just to museums, but also to human rights causes and all kinds of other non-profits. Navin Kumar, I don’t know what triggered the Tibetan art passion because Friend and art dealer that was before my time, before I met them. From what I understand Don and Shelley, if they like something they he Rubins’ art collection is a become passionate about it and they collect it. What they tell world-class collection comme was that they were walking by a gallery, before they had a parable to any major muselot of money, and they saw some Tibetan art and said ‘Hey this um or collection. And yet, they colis something we can enjoy.’ lected the art on their own without So they started buying slowly. As their finances improved, any curators or advice from anythey became major and serious collectors. I think Cuban art one. Once the museum was foundwas again basically because of Don having a good eye. He just ed, the collection became more discovered that this was an area where there were some woncomprehensive and representative. derful artists, they did fine work and they needed support. Theirs is the largest collection The Indian art was just a follow through of the Tibetan art. dedicated to Buddhist and Tibetan It just flowed. They are Indophiles in a big way. They have art. They have also built a worldbeen to India many times. They enjoy the art, they love it and class collection of Indian modern they started buying it. art. And they believe in sharing and promoting — not promoting They had it in them. Somewhere, themselves, but promoting the art. They don’t need to promote and somehow, they were born with themselves since they are well known in the communities. an intuitive understanding of I have known them for a long time. Besides being on the Tibetan art and philosophy. Once board of the Rubin Museum of Art, we are also good friends, they were exposed to the art, they because I think they are wonderful human beings. n instantly fell in love with it. For example, Dante Alighieri’s Ravi Akhoury is a member of the board of trustees of the Inferno deeply resonated with Rubin Museum of Art, in addition to serving on the boards of them, and they were interested in several other organizations, including the American India the works of Carl Jung and psyFoundation. He has been in the investment management busichology more broadly. Thus, they ness since 1973. found similar resonance in the He spoke to Aseem Chhabra. Tibetan portrayal of wrathful

‘They have done a tremendous service to humanity’

T

deities and of Bardo Art. They also were interested in philosophy and metaphysics in a broader sense, so the idea of universal karmic order appealed to them in a highly chaotic world. Establishing the museum was a way for them to share some of their personal connection with the art and philosophy of the Himalayas. The moment we met, we instantly became friends. We spent a lot of time together discussing art, life, and philosophy, and traveled together to India and Nepal. Over the years, we have looked at a tremendous amount of art together. They had an incredible appetite to learn and acquire knowledge about the works. What I respected so much was that they had an incredible eye for art, and trusted their judgment. They have done a tremendous service to humanity by sharing a rich cultural tradition with the people of New York and of the world. The museum is iconic and now acts as a beacon for

Buddhism around the globe, and because of the emphasis on education, it could be comparable to Nalanda University. They founded the museum, they bought the building, they donated their collection, provided it a lifetime endowment, and created a vibrant ecosystem. In addition to educational programs, the museum has published major books with new scholarship, invites scholars from many disciples for lectures, and holds theater and music programs. n Navin Kumar runs the Navin Kumar Gallery on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Many years ago, he became acquainted with Shelley and Donald Rubin, because they were in the market looking to buy works of art. That relationship transformed into a strong friendship. The Rubins consider Kumar to be their guide to the world of Tibetan, Buddhist and Indian art. Aseem Chhabra interviewed him via e-mail.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M113

INNOVATOR. ENTREPRENEUR. PRODIGY. ‘I’m a normal guy at the end of the day, doing the things that everyone loves to do. I want to be an engineer or a surgeon. Inventing is just a hobby. This company will go forward and definitely will go on helping people.’ Shubham Banerjee, 13, winner of the India Abroad Special Award for Achievement, speaks to P Rajendran about his revolutionary Braille printer that has made him one of the world’s youngest entrepreneurs and will be a blessing for the blind.

Presented by

SHUBHAM BANERJEE

INDIA ABROAD SPECIAL AWARD FOR ACHIEVEMENT 2014 For his noble invention; for his commitment to the blind; for wowing us all with his ideas.

COURTESY: NEIL BANERJEE


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M114

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 India Abroad Special Award for Achievement

HONOR ROLL AADITH MOORTHY (2010) National Geographic Bee winner ANAMIKA VEERAMANI (2010) Scripps National Spelling Bee winner VIJAY BALSE (2010) Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions winner

KAMALJEET SINGH KALSI (2011) The first turbaned Sikh to serve in the US Army in almost 30 years and a recipient of the Bronze Star PRATIMA DHARM (2011) The First Hindu Chaplain of the US Army SUKANYA ROY (2011) Scripps National Spelling Bee winner Shubham Banerjee has caught the world’s attention with his innovation. COURTESY: NEIL BANERJEE

S

hubham Banerjee was just 12 and playing with the Lego Mindstorms platform when he realized that Braille printers cost between $1,400 and around $7,000. He also discovered that about 285 million blind people — 90 percent of them in the developing world — relied on these ungainly and expensive printers. So, the pre-teen came up with a model that should finally cost just $350. The idea was to take standard material and print it out in Braille for offline reading. Now 13, Shubham has set up Braigo Labs, with his mother Malini as the president and chief executive officer (since he is too young to hold the post himself — or to drink or drive, as the entrepreneur-inventor points out). Life for Shubham changed completely after he started Braigo and the interest it elicited was immense. He granted media interviews on the way back from school and was probably the youngest entrepreneur to get seed funding from Intel Capital. The Braigo story began in December 2012 when he saw a flyer in his home from an organization that worked with blind people. This set him wondering how those who were visually impaired read or wrote and was shocked to know that Braille printers cost over $ 2000. After some searching on Google, he wanted to build a Braille printer for his school fair and asked his father to buy home a Lego Mindstorms EV3 kit. It took him three weeks to build the first prototype. Initially working with $35,000 given to him by his parents, the funding from Intel gave him the much desired boost and helped him expand. He is presently working with Microsoft to integrate it with Windows to make it easily accessible to the visuallyimpaired and plans to launch it commercially in November.

INNOVATOR. ENTREPRENEUR. PRODIGY. Shubham juggles school work with his day job, having now moved to the Archbishop Mitty High School in San Diego, while also working through various models of his printer, having tested new versions on the Arduino chip, then Intel’s new Edison, and now on the next generation of the printer based on the Windows operating system. After deciding that his science exhibit was more than just a project but the basis for a viable company, Shubham got it vetted by Henry Wedler, one of his corporate advisers who is also a graduate student at the University of California, Davis and a winner of the President’s Champions of Change award for promoting science, technology, engineering and math for the disabled. Since Wedler is both blind and a researcher, he could assess it from both viewpoints — and he was impressed. In a recorded demonstration video, Wedler also pointed out that this invention makes it easier for people who can see to share information with people who cannot. He also suggested ways to improve the design to better suit the needs of the blind.

NITHIN TUMMA (2012) Intel Science Talent Search Winner RAHUL NAGVEKAR (2012) National Geographic Bee winner SNIGDHA NANDIPATI (2012) Scripps National Spelling Bee winner

ARVIND MAHANKALI (2013) Scripps National Spelling Bee winner SATHWIK KARNIK (2013) National Geographic Bee winner

When Shubham first developed the idea, schoolmates at the science exhibition were his first audience. The printer improved over repeated iterations, with the input device going from a series of buttons to a Microsoft Surface Pro now. The early models were clever and broke new ground, but the more recent ones will come to the market after Braigo Labs goes past what Shubham describes as the seed phase to the company’s growth phase. Edward Ross, director of Inventor Platforms at Intel, which is backing his project, told Associated Press that Shubham is ‘solving a real problem, and he wants to go off and disrupt an existing industry. And that’s really what it’s all about.’ Shubham relies on his father Niloy (Neil), a director at Braigo Labs who also works at Intel, for advice and help, but he has honed his skills 4M115 since his first efforts working with Lego Mindstorm, having over time plunged into the


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M115

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M114 Shubham Banerjee innards of a variety of printers, learned 3-D modeling and coding to come up with a new version, which promises even better functionality. He also speaks vaguely of yet-secret plans to upgrade the interface substantially to do more than just print Braille. The code and design for Braigo v1.0 will be open source, though — and the instructions were put up on makezine.com Among other honors, Shubham has won the US News 2015 Next Generation of STEM Leaders, Popular Science’s 2015 Invention Award, Open Silicon Valley’s 2014 Youth Innovator Award, the 2014 White House Maker Faire Choice Ribbon, and figured in Silicon Valley’s Business Journal’s ‘40 under 40’ and Reader’s Digest’s Best of America lists. After attending a Microsoft Student Tech Fair in New York last month, the company announced that work was on to incorporate Braigo drivers into the next iteration of its operating system, Windows 10. In the Microsoft statement, Shubham was quoted as saying that it would be particularly useful for the blind, particularly because Windows is used in banks, government institutions and libraries. Born in Hasselt, Belgium, Shubham, then 4, came with his family to San Jose, and then to Santa Clara. In a conversation with India Abroad, Shubham describes the story behind his revolutionary printer — and what makes him tick Were you always interested in science? I’m really a science guy. I love science, whether it’s biology, chemistry, physics. They’re really interesting. Math? Yeah, I like math a lot. Sometimes it can get a bit boring… but I guess it’s really useful. Geometry’s pretty fun but not the proofs. Algebra, yeah, it’s okay. Biology, I like the systems in the body, particularly the neural system. What about reading? I read when I get the chance to. I’ve been a little busy. I like adventure, fantasy, biographies. Recently, I read a biography (American Sniper) on Chris Kyle. Sports? I follow the San Francisco 49ers. I play either quarterback or wide receiver. My friends and I play just for fun. What influence has your family had on your work? They always taught me to do good to other people and be a good human being. That’s where my curiosity came in. We talk about world problems and what’s happening. They’re always influencing me to do well — well, not only me, but my sister (Anoushka) also. When you were 12 you learned blind peo-

decided) to form a company. People wanted to help and we said, why not? We can form a company and we can start selling these (printers). Tell us about the process involved in setting it up. Me and my dad got some inkjet printers and broke them apart. I looked inside. I saw the mechanism — the head moving, the ink cartridges. I was working with the Arduino (chip) and then decided not to take Arduino. Intel also wanted me to work with them with their new chip called Edison. So we went to their headquarters and we worked with a bunch of people. They helped us get the main prototype working. Who are the other people who helped you? We also worked at TechShop. That’s where I learned 3-D modeling with Shubham Banerjee was just 12, below right, and playing with the Lego Mindstorms Autodesk. It’s actually fun. platform when he ended up building the first Braigo model. He has since come a long Why’d you have to learn 3-D modelway, appearing on programs like the Queen Latifah Show, above, or just hanging out with ing? the Science Guy aka Bill Nye, below right. That’s basically to get the head design COURTESY: NEIL BANERJEE so we can put in the motors needed to make it work. What were the challenges in working on Braigo v2.0? Since we were working with a new chip, a lot of bugs were there. It wasn’t really powered – or we can use so much power we can blow the chip. It worked in the end. Are you still using pins in the printer? We’re using motors and we’re not completely piercing the paper. It’s like a blunt pin to deform the paper. Are you still using one pin here? That’s two, actually. It will make it faster. So why not have six? Or 10? That’s what we’re working on. This is just a prototype so once (we’re) in the final mechanism and modified that using one ple could read using Braille. How did your one, definitely, yeah. pin in Braigo v1. printer come about? Since Braille has six dots, having six What is the input for you to start convertI’ve been playing with blocks since I was motors will be a lot faster. ing text into Braille? two, and with Lego since I was five. I We use the Surface Pro. We can type in You’d choose letters — going up and thought Lego would be great, ‘cause chilwhatever we want inside the interface, and down… select the letters you want and dren love to play with it — it’s very low-cost you can click ‘Enter’ and it will start printthey’d automatically start printing. and it’s available everywhere. ing automatically. But that is cumbersome, right? Mindstorms is not quite a set of Lego So you can even scan pdfs and whole Yes, that is very cumbersome for a blind blocks, right? books and print it out? person. That’s where Braigo v2.0 comes in. Yeah, it’s a robotics kit. I played around Braigo Labs worked on that and we found What did your friends and teachers say for a while and got the hang of it. I hacked a free way of doing that. about Braigo v1? a banner printer that would print out letIs there a possibility of a Braille-based My teachers came and they didn’t expect ters and hacked that a whole bunch to screen or something like that? this out of me. They asked, ‘What? How did make a Braille printer. We have actually thought of that…. you build that?’ Even the principal came. What did you do that changed letters into What are the other things that interest All my friends were like, ‘That’s awesome. essentially six dots? you? Can I try that?’ They were really amazed. I made a specific (printer) head for it, and I’m a normal guy at the end of the day, Then we moved on to Synopsis (Outreach connected it to the motors. I had to do the doing the things that everyone loves to do Foundation) a bigger science fair, where code myself. I was working with the Lego — like playing video games, hanging out you could actually place and get prizes. A language — the drag-and-drop. I guess it with friends, studying… ton of judges came and checked out my took me some time to get the right model. I What are your future plans? project, and I actually got the first prize built a lot of models. I want to be an engineer or a surgeon. ($500) for the n+1 (level). What do you start changing to make such Inventing is just a hobby. This company When did you and your family decide to a printer work? will go forward and definitely will go on start a company? I know that if it can print it can make helping people. n Well, I guess, after I built Braigo v2.0, (we holes as well. So I took apart that whole


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M116

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

The life of a teenage entrepreneur

Shubham Banerjee was probably the youngest entrepreneur to get seed funding from Intel Capital. The announcement catapulted him into the corporate world. PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY: NEIL BANERJEE

Shubham at the Microsoft Student Tech Fair in New York City. He is now working with the Windows team at Microsoft to integrate Braigo drivers with Windows for easy deployment.“Our relationship with Microsoft will help Braigo achieve a seamless experience for a visually impaired person who wants to use a computer at home or at the office to print documents for offline reading,” Shubham said. “Also, think about the banks, the government institutions or even the libraries where Windows-based computers are widely used. They will all benefit from having a Braigo to provide accessibility services to their visually impaired customers.” People at Windows were excited to see where this 13 year old would take them ‘by the time he graduates high school!’

It wasn’t surprising to see Lego Group President Soren Torp Laursen with Shubham at the White House Maker Faire last year. Just a few months before that Lego made a public post about how Shubham had inspired them: ‘Inspired by Shubham Banerjee’s Braigo printer, we’re hosting the LEGO MINDSTORMS “Build 4 Good” competition... at Seattle’s EMP Museum, featuring some of Seattle’s most innovative companies including +Amazon.com, +Expedia, +HTC, +Nordstrom, Xbox, & +zulily.’


India Abroad June 19, 2015

M117


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M118

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 Just another Shubham kind of day: Johan C Verbeke, left, the Belgian ambassador to the United States, and his team spend time with the Belgium-born teen innovator PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY: NEIL BANERJEE

The life of a teenage entrepreneur

Shubham with Dr Simon J Clemett, a researcher from the NASA Johnson Space Center at ‘The workshop: Exploring science through your senses’ event in Cupertino, California. The event included a Braigo building workshop.

But when life is a roller coaster of ‘full time school+exams+TV interviews+travel+Braigo Demo+...’ a boy needs some R&R once in a while.

Above, Shubham uses the weekends for experimentation... That’s if he is not traveling, below.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M119

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘He is a shy and reserved person with a sense of humor’

‘Even though, he gets tired, he never shows it’

Malini Banerjee Mother

is very first science fair he participated in was in the 4th grade — the topic was ‘Playing video games increases your hand and eye coordination.’ He selected that topic because we would tell him that video games are not good for anyone :-) That was his idea to scientifically try and prove us wrong and we went along with it. He participated a lot in debate competitions on behalf of his school. Many experienced debaters like him do not wish to pair up with newcomers (since that weakens the team). In the very last debate competition before he finished middle school, he decided to take a first-time debater who was in the seventh grade on his team. He told the teacher he is fine to pair up with a newcomer since everybody needed a break and the opportunity. He lost the debate, but he was not sad. When he came home he said that someone needed to give a new person the opportunity to participate even if it means not winning the competition. This is an example of him thinking about others. Shubham has a lot of media obligations, especially to do news channel videos and interviews. Sometimes, if it’s a documentary, a shoot can go on for the whole day. Even though, he gets tired, he never shows it and finishes the work. That’s an example of his commitment and willingness to follow through. He shows the same commitment when he is traveling to other cities, sometimes taking a red-eye flight and showcasing his invention the whole day, and then taking a flight back. If you see the volume of media interviews he has given in the past year, you can imagine what he is capable of handling at such a young age. These are some of the things about Shubham that not many people understand — what a person has to go through, especially when he’s just 13. n

Niloy ‘Neil’ Banerjee Father, coach and mentor

H

S

hubham was born in Hasselt, Belgium. While my husband went to work I was a stay-at-home mom. We moved to the US when Shubham was four years old. We spend a lot of quality time together. Shubham has shown a lot of compassion since he was a child. He felt sad to see children on the streets in India when we went for vacation every year. Once I remember he gave his jacket away to a child on the street, when he was three years old. At home he used to play around a lot with kitchen utensils, especially with the pressure cooker, which he found very interesting to put the lid on and find the right angle to do it and take it off again. He used to do that a lot. As his fingers and building skills developed we bought him Lego blocks to improve his creative skills. He started making weird stuff after watching something on TV. He never followed any instructions given on leaflets that came in the Lego sets. He would always give away his creations to anybody who came at home for a visit. Probably those were the first signs of him being both compassionate and also creative in his own way. When he started to go to elementary school in Santa Clara all his elementary school teachers said he is a very nice and compassionate person, with nice behavior. All the younger kids in the community gravitated towards him and wanted to play with him. He exhibits that affectionate nature, especially with younger kids. That’s another sign about his ability to go to a level where he is able to make friends at all levels. He is a shy and reserved person with a sense of humor. At Braigo Labs he keeps all of us grounded, where he questions some actions of the team or where we deviate from the original idea of keeping costs low. He is still a 13 year old, and doesn’t know that much about business deals and how it

Shubham Banerjee with his mother Malini, father Neil and sister Anoushka. Inset, Shubham in kindergarten. COURTESY: NEIL BANERJEE

works. So we have a team of experienced individuals to guide him. He is non-intrusive and knows what he wants – so all of us are moving together towards that vision. He had a couple of discussions with some investors. And what I heard from his dad is he started his presentation saying that - ‘Whether you give me money or not, the product will be

launched.’ This shows his confidence. Also, what I hear from others a lot — including from reporters and producers of TV shows — is that he is very humble. He is not egotistical, nor does he engage in bad behavior. Also, in school he avoids discussions about what he is doing with Braigo. He tells me he wants to have a normal life and does not want to create a perception that he is better than anyone. When his friends asks him about any news article that comes out, he brushes it off saying that it’s not a big deal. He is not a brilliant straight A student. In other words – he is not bookish. As a teenager he has those days that every parent faces :-) but he has been persistent with what he wants to do. He has a flexible temperament. n Malini Banerjee is President and Chief Executive Officer, Braigo Labs, the company her son Shubham Banerjee founded. She spoke to P Rajendran.

Niloy ‘Neil’ Banerjee is Director of Integration and Validation at Intel Education division. He spoke to P Rajendran.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M120

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘He has touched so many lives at such an early stage’

‘Inventors have been attempting what he has done for many years’ Henry Wedler PhD student and advisor to Braigo

W Shubham Banerjee with his grandparents. COURTESY: NEIL BANERJEE

Mriganka Sekhar Banerjee Paternal grandfather

W

e are happy that Shubham has been able to touch so many lives at such an early age. Since we live in India and Shubham is away from us, we, as grandparents, miss both Shubham and Anoushka (our granddaughter) every day. As they are growing up, due to so many engagements, it is difficult for them to come and visit us in India often. The sudden news in the local newspaper and on television (about Shubham) was a very good surprise for us. All our neighbors come to us whenever there is a new break and give us those paper articles. It’s such a proud moment for us. My father Sanat Kumar Banerjee was head of department of chemistry at Ashutosh College in Calcutta University. He worked closely with world renowned Professor P C Roy. My brother, who died young due to a laboratory accident, was also involved in research on benzene; while my son (Shubham’s dad) is into electronics engineering. We are very happy that Shubham is continuing on a somewhat similar path of research and engineering. We don’t know what he will finally choose as his profession when he grows up. But he has started showing engineering creativity. When we were growing up, during our time we never had such a speed of technological development that the Internet has brought to all of us. Our world has become a smaller place and with that has brought information at our home. We are currently visiting Shubham here in the US and were pleasantly surprised to see how he is handling the media and having discussions about Braigo Labs. He seems to have suddenly matured beyond his age (in a good way). n Mriganka Sekhar Banerjee is a civil and structural engineer.

hen I first heard about Shubham Banerjee and the Braigo Braille printer through the vast media publicity he received, I thought I’d take a ‘shot in the dark’ and contact him via e-mail. I didn’t expect to hear back from Shubham and figured I wouldn’t be able to get to know him as a person. Much to my surprise, I received an e-mail in my inbox 30 minutes after I e-mailed him. Shubham’s e-mail said, ‘My parents told me that I should take a break from e-mail and work over spring break, but your e-mail and my Braigo project are just too

exciting and I couldn’t help but respond.’ With this, Shubham and I were in close contact over e-mail. Shubham surprised me again about two weeks later when he contacted me and asked if he could come with his dad and visit me in my laboratory in Davis. He and his dad came on a Sunday morning with the Braigo Lego Braille printer and demonstrated it to me. What I witnessed was a state-of-the-art, inexpensive, and perhaps most importantly a unique Braille printer which produced accurate Braille characters. I was immediately amazed and impressed by Shubham. What makes Shubham so wonderful as a person and an inventor is that he does amazing things without realizing the global

impact to the world of his contribution. Inventors have been attempting to do what Shubham has done with Braille embossers for many years and have not come up with nearly the product that Shubham has developed. Sometimes it takes a young fresh imagination and a will of iron to be truly innovative and this is the energy and quality that Shubham’s knowledge and passion as an inventor bring to Silicon Valley. I feel extremely lucky to have been able to get to know Shubham and to have him consider me a mentor and advisor. He innovated an extraordinarily impressive product and I have had the pleasure as a blind person to advise Shubham on what blind and visually impaired Braille readers want and need in Braille printers. We work together with sincere synergy and it is humbling to serve on his highly-coveted team of advisors. n Henry Wedler is a PhD student at the University of California, Davis. He has been honored by President Barack Obama as a Champion of Change for leading education and employment efforts in science, technology, engineering and math for Americans with disabilities. He is an advisor to Braigo Labs.

Shubham Banerjee and Henry Wedler. COURTESY: NEIL BANERJEE


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M121

Presented by

AKHIL

REKULAPELLI

INDIA ABROAD SPECIAL AWARD FOR ACHIEVEMENT 2014 For his skillful navigation of the atlas; for his calm confidence; for conquering the globe.

FOR HIM IT WAS THE JOURNEY. AND IT WAS ALSO THE WIN Akhil Rekulapelli is the winner of the National Geographic Bee 2014. He can rattle off statistics about sports teams despite a lack of interest in the actual sport. He’s a reader. He has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. And that’s just the beginning. Chaya Babu finds out more about the winner of the India Abroad Special Award for Achievement. COURTESY: THE REKULAPELLIS


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M122

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

W

hen Akhil Rekulapelli went to the National Geographic Bee in 2013 and placed fourth, he nearly gave up on his dream of victory, which was noted at the bottom of a to-do list hanging on his bedroom door. ‘Win the national bee,’ it read. His rank was a real blow, a moment of self doubt and diffidence that led the then 12 year old to question his ability to even make it to the Top 10 again the following year. And he almost didn’t. In 2014, nine kids got there with perfect scores, their names added to the final roster of contestants with one space left. But Akhil had to go through a tie-breaker round before winning his Top 10 spot. “I told him the order didn’t matter,” said his father Prasad Rekulapelli. “I said, ‘Okay, flip the order around. Take the zero away. It doesn’t matter, you made it.’” In fact, Akhil made it all the way. In the 26th National Geographic Bee in 2014, the eighth grader from Ashburn, Virginia, crossed that lingering to-do off his list. He left Washington, DC with $50,000 in college scholarship prize money, a lifetime membership to the National Geographic Society and a trip for two to the Galápagos Islands on an expedition aboard the Lindblad ship National Geographic Endeavour. The winning question? The discovery of a major shale oil deposit in the Vaca Muerta formation in 2010 has led to an expansion of oil drilling in the Neuquén province in what country? Answer: Argentina. Akhil called it with an easy composure that masked the jittery nerves of a kid on his last shot. He was, of course, able to name a plethora of other obscure geographic minutia — and no, not the obvious facts like country capitals but slightly tougher tidbits like the approximate diameter of the Earth at the equator. Ameya Mujumdar, who Akhil was up against at the very end, knew the exact number: 7,926 miles. Still Akhil’s years of hard work and, more importantly, his resilience in the face of failure triumphed. His parents instilled in him the value of the journey over the result, and Akhil’s dedication to his path of simply learning geography, a passion that began as early as 18 months when one of his favorite activities was a United States puzzle, led to his big win. In India, Akhil’s grandmother and aunt gave out sweets in their neighborhood as a way of honoring his accomplishment. At his school, Stone Hills Middle School, hundreds of kids signed a poster with a blown up photo of him. And at the county level, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors recognized him through approving official legislation: Resolution of Commendation for Akhil Rekulapelli. According to his mother Swapna Rojanala, the emphasis in their home was more on character than achievement. As parents, she and Prasad pushed Akhil toward happiness through balance and well-roundedness versus narrow metrics of success. In turn, he showed compassion and caring as a child as well as a precocious sensibility and manner of communicating his intellectual drive and extensive knowledge on unusual topics. “He’s a very curious kid,” his father said. “He likes to learn all the time. He enjoys it whenever he’s learning. Anything.

FOR HIM IT WAS THE JOURNEY. AND IT WAS ALSO THE WIN And he’ll go in-depth.” Akhil can rattle off statistics about sports teams despite his lack of interest in the actual sport. He’s a reader and a thinker, but also a good friend. He got his black belt in Tae Kwon Do and was told by a local politician that his public speaking abilities position him well for a career in politics. Akhil already has other plans. With biology as his other main focus, he is set on a career in medicine. His mother said she doesn’t see this changing despite the many years ahead of him, nor do they have an intention of influencing his desires one way or another. “He’s the one who plans his future,” his father added. “We just help lay the path to get there.” Can you tell me about how winning the bee felt and how things have been since then?

Akhil Rekulapelli, right, in a lovely moment of camaraderie during the National Geographic Bee 2014. COURTESY: THE REKULAPELLIS

It felt like a dream come true, something that I accomplished because I had been working at it for four long years and I was happy to finally get that far. When I was in fifth grade, I never even thought of making it to the Top 10 in the state bee. I never even thought of winning the state bee. That was something I was almost sure I was never going to do. So I’m really happy. And geography is something that I learned to love even more. When I won, it all came at one moment. When you watch it on TV, right after the person wins, everything just stops. But I had people swarming me for autographs and interviews, and I had to manage that. In the moment I wasn’t really thinking about it; I was just kind of in shock. Then once I got home, I realized how big of a deal this was. Sometimes when big things like that happen, people tend to think that you’re not going to spend as much time with them or something, but it was good that I got to stay in touch with my friends and also get to just enjoy the moment. I guess I got both sides — I got the normal standpoint, of being able to spend time with my family friends, and also the general feeling of having won something important. So, you had no expectation of winning. You must have felt really surprised. Yeah. When I was in seventh grade, my goal was just to make it to the top 10. But I knew in 4M124 eighth grade that my definite goal was to try to win it even though when I started, in fifth


India Abroad June 19, 2015

M123


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M124

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M122 Akhil Rekulapelli grade, I wasn’t exactly sure how far I could get. I knew it was a dream of mine and a goal that I had set in my mind. I was happy that I was able to accomplish it. I’m sure. It’s very exciting. Was that winning question hard for you? Well, the first time I heard about the shale oil formation, I wasn’t really sure about the specific formation. But once he said the province, I recalled it from my time studying and I was able to answer. I remember something else as challenging. When I was in the preliminary round, I was one of the people who had one wrong, so I had to go to a tie-breaker round. In that tie-breaker round, there were about eight people going for one last spot in the top 10. That was easily the most stressful moment of my journey because I had come that far and I didn’t want to falter at the tie-breaker. I really wanted to go and win the title, so the tie-breaker and trying to answer those questions under all that extreme pressure — because if you get a question wrong then you’re done — that was the hardest part. It was definitely that stress and trying to keep myself calm and collected that I remember as a challenge. What has been the most exciting part of all of this for you? The highlight has been meeting all these notable people and going on live television. And just accomplishing something that I knew I had been working on for such a long time. I finally felt like I had done something huge, and it was the joy of finally completing something that you have put so much time and energy and work into, and that after four years, all your work has culminated into one event that you’re able to come out on top in. That was definitely the biggest thing I took away from it and the thing I enjoyed the most. Aside from the tie-breaker, what was the toughest part about these competitions? Between seventh and eighth grade, after I placed fourth, I wasn’t exactly sure if I wanted to continue with the bee because I had eighth grade coming up and I felt like I had just didn’t want to really go through the whole process again. But I had been thinking about it for a while and then after letting a little bit of the school year pass, I realized that it was something that I truly had a passion for. And I knew I had a chance at making it all the way to the top. The passion and the love I had for geography made it feel like something was missing in my life when I wasn’t doing it. That period was a big challenge, but I was able to overcome it. I eventually made the right decision to continue with geography. It sounds like you have a deep connection to geography. How did your interest begin? When I was around one-and-a-half, I liked puzzles, and my parents got me a United States puzzle. I learned the states and the capitals by the time I was four after just putting the puzzle

From martial arts to soccer, tennis and rowing, Akhil Rekulapelli’s interests are diverse. COURTESY: THE REKULAPELLIS

together over and over again. Then I had a sort of hidden interest in geography. For example, if I was reading about cars or sports, my focus would be like, ‘Oh this team plays in this city,’ or ‘This car is from this country.’ It was something that was intertwined with my other interests, and eventually my interest in geography showed. Finally in fourth grade, I really wanted to do the geography bee; I learned at school that there was such a thing as a geography bee. But then I realized that that year, there wasn’t a bee at my school. The next year, in fifth grade, I won the school bee, and my parents thought, ‘Oh there might actually be something here, let’s see how he does.’ At that point, they still weren’t sure I was that serious about it; they thought it was something I was just reading a bit about. Then I went to the states bee and got six out of eight, so I missed the tie-breaker for the preliminaries by one. That’s when they started to realize that I was into geography. At about the beginning of sixth grade, I started to take it a little more seriously and tried to get further in the state bee. What was your study process like? If it was a typical weekday, then I would just go to school and finish my homework. But I’d finish my work for school as fast as I could and I really wouldn’t be paying much attention because I wanted to get to geography. I’d do that quickly and then I would maybe compile some facts or study whatever region I wanted to focus on for the day. Also the way I studied changed over the years. In fifth grade I had a really interesting teacher who enjoyed geography too, and sometimes between classes or even in the middle of class, I would kind of sneak in a geography book and read it a little bit, and I read it over and over again. That was all the information I got that year. Then in sixth grade, I still wasn’t very focused at that point, and I didn’t understand that you can’t just study for five minutes and then play for 15 minutes and then come back and study for another five minutes. I didn’t realize yet that you don’t get any good out of that. And unbeknownst to me at that point, I was kind of arrogant because I thought that I could easily win the state bee, but I didn’t make it to the top 10 that year. In seventh grade I started putting in more hours and as the state bee approached, I put even more hours. That’s when I began doing that thing where I finished my homework quickly so I could study geography. By the time nationals came around, I was studying a little bit at school, but not a lot. Once I came home it would be straight to studying and then in the evenings my parents would quiz me. Sometimes I’d give friends a book of questions to use to quiz me. 4M125 My sister also did a lot. She took a


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M125

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M124 Akhil Rekulapelli lot of her time out to help me. My teachers too. It was a community effort, I’d say. Who was most helpful to you? My parents and my sister, for devoting a lot of her time. She always says, ‘I used my whole entire winter break to quiz you.’ You seem to have learned quite a bit through this whole process. What did you learn most about yourself? I learned how to stay cool and collected. I learned how, whenever you’re in a dire situation, to take it a lot more calmly, and not be all frantic and rushing. I also learned about failure — just how to pick myself and keep going. And I used that a lot as motivation, especially from sixth to seventh grade. I feel like that summer after not winning the state bee, I realized how to use that as motivation and a way to push forward. I would think in my head, ‘If I want to win the state bee, I’m going to have to do this.’ (Failing) drove me. It was a driving force. Through that hard work and perseverance and never giving up because I learned so much through that first experience of failure in sixth grade, where I was devastated but I picked myself back up. I used that to put in hard work over that summer to help me, which, I’m sure, if I hadn’t done, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you in this interview now. Also, learning to stick with my passion. Like when I almost chose to not do it in eighth grade, but then I realized what my passion was and said, ‘This is something I actually love,’ I knew I had to try again. I feel lucky that I have something I love and something I can always do that allows me to embrace other cultures. Even though I’m learning about something, it’s fun for me. It’s something that’s really interesting and something that I feel I can make a difference with by learning about other cultures and appreciating other places and just knowing we’re so lucky to live in this country and to have all the opportunities we have here. This opportunity has enlightened me. I’ve learned so much about my own culture too and about India throughout my time in the geography bee. Another thing that’s interesting is that whenever I’m traveling, I can talk to people from that country about their home and their customs and how they live. Have you traveled to India much? Maybe three or four times. What do you take away most from those trips? I guess mostly being with my family. I love spending time with my family and seeing how they live and also the culture and how my dad was brought up — how different his life was compared to mine but also how interesting it was and how open it was too. Because over there, it’s a really open community and there’s just so many people and you know everybody on your block. You can just walk down and you know all the stores a few blocks away. Living here (Virginia), you always have to get in a car to go somewhere, but India, everything is close: Not only your family, but things like stores, temples, and other things. Where is your family from in India? Warangal. It’s in north central Telangana. Is that mainly where you’ve gone on your visits to India?

Akhil Rekulapelli with his sister and cousins in Costa Rica, top. He considers it the most interesting place he has been to so far. The geography buff has also been to places like Alaska, above left, and Mexico. PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY: THE REKULAPELLIS

Yes, Warangal, but also Hyderabad. Sometimes we go to other places, like once we went to Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur, those areas. What has been your favorite? Probably my family’s home because it’s where I can spend time with them. But if I think of the most interesting thing that I’ve gotten to see, even though it sounds kind of a cliché, the Taj

Mahal. I just really like the architecture. We tend to appreciate just the building where Shah Jahan put his wife, but I also like to appreciate the vast gardens surrounding it and the other structures. I think that’s something that’s really cool and not appreciated as much as it should be. Apart from that, as a geography lover, what is

4M128


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M126

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 Prasad Rekulapelli and Swapna Rojanala Parents Swapna: When he was a kid, he would do puzzles and he was excited about learning. But he’s a kid with many interests. After the puzzles, he moved on to cars, he loved cars. Prasad: There was a United States puzzle. He was 18 months old and would put it together Swapna: But his real interest — as far as really getting into geography — I don’t think we realized until about fourth grade. That’s when he said, ‘Mom, I want to try out for this geography competition.’ But the school didn’t have one, and he was very disappointed at the time. He kept asking his teacher, ‘Are they going to have one, are they going to have one?’ Then the following year, he was very much set on them holding one, and (they did) so he went for it. So I would say maybe when he was about 8 or 9 is when the interest developed more. The first year, when he wanted to get into it, it was completely new to us. He came home one day and said, ‘Mom, we’re going to have this competition in the classroom, and then they’re going to pick the top people to go to the schoolwide level.’ I said, ‘Okay, that’s nice Akhil, should I be there?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ So we went through that whole early process, we watched the school competition, he won, and I was so happy for him. Then he had to take a test to make it to the Top 100 in the state. The school got notified first that he made it to that 100, which meant he made it to the state competition. That was very surprising for us, because that was the first year he had done it and what he learned was from background knowledge. He just had one book to just kind of feel comfortable, but otherwise everything he had learned up to

‘We didn’t do much. At any given point, he knows more than us’ let’s go find somebody who can help. Because I said, ‘Akhil, I really don’t know geography, so I wouldn’t be a good geography coach for you.’ It’s one of those topics that there are not that many people out there are teaching or coaching kids on. But I felt that when there’s a coach for every field out there, why wouldn’t there be one for geography? I thought there has to be someone out there. So we searched and searched and finally we found Coach Kumar. And that’s how it all started for us. I think before that we were a little like, ‘Okay let’s see.’ But then we realized he was serious about it. He really wanted it — he wanted to get out there and he wanted to win something for himself. Because all along, I was getting him to try different things, especially group-related activities. I always thought team activities were good for him because he’s such a public person. He’s not a kid who will just sit and study. He loves to be in groups, and friends are very important to him. So I was always focused on things that I thought would be more suitable to his outgoing personality. I had never really thought about geography until he was in sixth grade. At least not seriously. He’s always been a kid in that way — he is into being with friends. He would come home and do his homework, but I’d have to say, ‘Akhil, you need to finish your homework before you go out to play.’ We never thought anything different about him because he was just a kid, and we felt that kids need to grow up but have time to play and enjoy themselves, because as they grow up they get more responsibility so this was a time for them to just have fun. I would put him in sports — he played baseball for five seasons and also soccer — and he did Tae Kwon Do. Prasad: He got a black belt. Swapna: We did all the things any normal parent would do. We just emphasized fun and friendship. Every birthday, it was just friends in the backyard. The more friends he has, the happier he is. He’s a very caring person. He’s always cared about people. Prasad: We contacted Coach Kumar Nandur but he wanted to speak to Akhil. He wanted to see if Akhil was truly interested in geography or not. He said, ‘I’m going to ask him five questions and then I’m going to talk to him,’ because he wanted to coach someone who is really passionate about it. So we set up a meeting (on the phone) and he asked Akhil questions, and he was surprised at Akhil’s knowledge for his age and his experience at that time. He agreed to coach Akhil, long dis4M127 tance, giving him study topics, and A recent family portrait of the Rekulapellis. Akhil would do more than what

that point was just background knowledge. This was when he was in fifth grade. We didn’t have maps, we didn’t have anything. But he would just pick a topic and he would learn about the geography of it — he was very interested in cars and sports, so he would go in-depth about cars, like where they were made, where their headquarters were. He would spit out all this information to us. We were like, ‘Wow!’ And we never thought it was anything more than just something he was into; we didn’t think he was going to make it to this (competitive) level. We took it as a kid thing. Then when he made it to the state competition, we were even more surprised. Prasad: At the state bee, out of these 100 kids, they have to eliminate 90 kids to get to the Top 10. So what they do is they ask eight questions and he missed two so he didn’t make that cut that year, in the fifth grade. Then in sixth grade, he studied kind of the same way, and we weren’t that involved, but he won the school level again and went to states, and he got seven questions right. So again he didn’t make it to the Top 10. We had hoped he would make it. But he missed that one question. Swapna: He was very disappointed. So we thought, okay

PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY: THE REKULAPELLIS


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M127

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M126 Prasad Rekulapelli and Swapna Rojanala Parents Coach Kumar asked. Swapna: Then he gave Akhil a test. He said, ‘If you do this in 30 days, I’ll take you in my circle.’ Akhil got in. They would email each other or we would call him every couple of weeks just to give him a status report. But it’s not like he was here with us, coming to our house or anything. If he said something, Akhil would follow basically. We’re hands off in the material sense of coaching him or testing him, things like that. How we helped him was if he said, ‘Mom, I need this resource, this book or this map,’ we would help him. Or when he won the school bee, we would reward him for his success. Prasad: He used to come and ask us to quiz him on certain material, and then we do that, like during dinner time. His sister Anika used to quiz him too. But beyond that, we didn’t do much. Because at any given point, he knows more than us (laughing). Swapna: Yes. Like, online there are so many books out there, and we bought some for him, but we thought, ‘How can we quiz him? We don’t know anything about this.’ All we can do is take his material, what he has and whatever is out there, and go off of that.” It’s been a year, so it’s hard to capture the feeling from that moment. We were just taking the whole thing as it came; we weren’t saying, ‘Oh you have to win’ or anything like that. Prasad: In this whole competition, or this saga that started three or four years ago, all we wanted was for Akhil to have an experience, to go through the journey. Whatever he learns is good for him. That’s the kind of attitude we had. And the year before his win, in 2013, his only goal was to meet Alex Trebek. Swapna: Yes, his goal was just to get to the Top 10 and meet Alex Trebek. That’s it. Prasad: Because he likes Jeopardy! — we all watch it together once in a while. So that was what he was really looking forward to; and we were happy that he made it to the Top 10. We were satisfied with whatever he achieved that year. Of course, we’re always happy with his achievements, but that was his goal and he met it. It had nothing to do with needing to win... It’s the small goals and what makes him happy that we care about. Swapna: (laughing) I think it was something he was excited about from the minute he knew he made it to nationals. He was like, ‘Mom, wouldn’t it be so cool if I got on stage to meet Alex Trebek?’ It doesn’t matter if I win or lose; I just want to meet him once. Prasad: And that was his last year of hosting the competition. Swapna: After 25 years! It was very exciting. The whole process in itself was very exciting, just going there and meeting all these kids who have similar interests and the whole atmosphere they set up. It encouraged fun and camaraderie. We just loved it. It was wonderful. Prasad: And while we weren’t there when Akhil met him, I think Alex is a very, very nice guy, and he made all of the kids feel so comfortable and so relaxed. He remembered each of the kids in the Top 10, what their hobbies are, and was just very engaging with them. Swapna: He’s a geography fanatic too I think. As far as Akhil’s other skills, he was in his elementary school’s gifted program. But he didn’t get in at first when he was in third grade and took the test. His teacher was very surprised. I really didn’t think that much about it because

It all started with cars, Akhil’s parents say. Akhil himself has said that his initial interest in geography manifested itself through this: ‘For example, if I was reading about cars, my focus would be like,‘This car is from this country.’ It was something that was intertwined’. PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY: THE REKULAPELLIS

we thought, he’ll go on without it. Then the teachers said, ‘You have to fight this because this is one child who should be in a gifted program. He needs to be in it. He’s really good. I’ve seen kids who don’t deserve to be in it getting in, and your son? He needs to be in it.’ Then we wrote a letter to the supervisor and went from there. But we never really thought about his giftedness or his intelligence. We always just thought about his happiness as a child. That’s what we focused on. Character development is what we focused on. And instilling positive values. Those are the things we thought that he should have as a child, because they’re ingrained during childhood, not when you get older. Prasad: I think he’s a very curious kid. He likes to learn all the time. He enjoys himself whenever he is learning — anything. And he will go in-depth. If I use the example of sports, he likes ice hockey. So he knows about each and every player, where they’re from, what they do, everything in detail. Or when it comes to places, he’ll know the origins of the name of place. He really explores the depths of things. He also likes baseball. Even though he doesn’t play baseball right now, he can give you baseball statistics from 30 years ago. He likes Babe Ruth and read all the books on him. He’s a big reader, and before bed, definitely, he has to read. It’s not just geography; random stuff also intrigues him and makes him want to learn. Sometimes when we go to parties, he will sit with the adults and he’ll be listening to the conversations until he decides to get involved and give some information he has. The adults are always really surprised that an 11 or 12 year old knows so many facts. Everybody is shocked at his knowledge. He’s very different — that’s for sure. He’s self-driven, selfmotivated, curious, but then also like I said, caring. We’ll

take credit for the character part more than his knowledge (laughing). Everything he does, that’s all him, but we’ll take credit for him being a good kid. He’s respectful, he’s honest, he loves people, he’s helpful. Prasad: Also, he can write very good speeches. He gave a five minutes speech at this year’s competition; he was invited to talk about what happens after the bee. Swapna: And he also gave a speech at the state competition. (Laughing) It’s funny because he wants to go into medicine — his next passion is biology and he can study the human body all day — but people were saying, ‘What do you want to go into medicine for? You’d make a good politician!’ Prasad: That’s what the County Board of Directors was saying. Because Akhil spoke when they honored him. They said, ‘Why medicine? Come to politics!’ Swapna: I don’t think he’ll get off that path from medicine. He’s already decided where he wants to go, what he wants to do. Prasad: If you had a chance to watch his speech after winning, he mentions something about it. Actually, he’s the one who plans his future, and we just help lay the path to get there. Because in these competitions, what we’ve seen is that if the kid is not interested, he can’t even win the school bee. It has to come from the kid. You can push them to a certain extent, but not winning at the national level. Swapna: You can’t win something like that without the internal drive and the passion for it. n Swapna Rojanala worked in information security, but quit that to spend more time with her children and help her husband with his medical practice. Prasad Rekulapelli is a physician specializing in pediatrics. They spoke to Chaya Babu.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M128

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘I like how Akhil always tries his hardest’ Anika Rekulapelli Sister

I

t was really exciting seeing Akhil win the bee. I liked it because I got to learn about geography also in the process. I like geography too, but I’m more on the math side right now. I might try geography this year though. I’m not sure yet if I’m interested in competing like Akhil did. I think (his winning) is a really big accomplishment because he’s been working for really long and I’m glad to see him win because his excellence paid off. I want to follow him and work as

hard as I can to accomplish something big. I helped him too. One time, over winter break, I was just sitting there the whole time and quizzing him for the school bee because it was right after winter break. It was really fun. I wanted to do it, even though my brother was fine if I didn’t want to do it because my parents would quiz him too. I like how Akhil always tries his hardest and always wants to be the best he can. He always tries again until he gets it perfect.

Anika Rekulapelli is the quintessential supportive little sister to brother Akhil. PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY: THE REKULAPELLIS

Anika Rekulapelli, 9, spoke to Chaya Babu.

3M125 Akhil Rekulapelli the most exciting place you’ve been? I don’t have a favorite place. I just have a lot of places I’ve been to and different reasons I like them. Probably my favorite city would be San Francisco because it’s nice and compact and I really like the views of the bay. The most interesting place I’ve been to is definitely Costa Rica. We got to hike on a lava flow, which was pretty cool. There was this sign, about a mile past where we were that said, ‘You’re really close to this volcano, go at your own risk.’ That made us feel really adventurous. Also the forests they had there — we went to the hanging bridges through the rain forest and got to see a variety of creatures, like snakes and leafcutter ants. We also went to Manuel Antonio, which is a national park on the Pacific coast. It’s amazing. It’s small but it has a lot of forest. We went to a mangrove forest and I got to eat a termite. It was just a beautiful country, and it was the right mix of ecology and tourism. It was the perfect balance. It was just beautiful in general. Of all the places you’ve learned about in

your study of geography, is there a place you’d like to go to most? I think Germany and Switzerland. The culture of those countries is just really interesting. It would nice to hike in the Alps; they have really beautiful waterfalls. I don’t know why, but Germany has always intrigued me. It’s a place I’ve always wanted to go to. Well I hope you can go! You know about so many places — how does your passion for geography play into some of your goals moving forward. Geography will definitely help me when I travel later on in life, but not only that. I’ve been interested in possibly doing Doctors Without Borders or traveling across the world and helping people in need. That’s something I’ve definitely thought about. I always intend to keep geography in my life, especially through travel because I really want to go to a lot of these places I’ve learned about. I want to appreciate those cultures firsthand. So, is it a dream of yours to become a doctor? Yeah. For a while I’ve been wanting to. I’ve always liked biology too because it’s like the map of the human body. It’s the geography of our body, so to speak. We think we have skin, we have organs, we have a brain, but I’ve always liked to learn

about those little things that make a big difference. The brain, especially, is really fascinating to me because there are so many areas and they’re all intertwined to work together, and though some specialize in different areas, sometimes two or three parts will specialize in the same area but just different facets. It’s fascinating. The brain is just really cool... So yes, one of my other passions is biology, and I want to see if I can pursue that later on. You’re also active in sports right... For fun, I play tennis, but for school, I do rowing. Our season just ended a couple of weeks ago. My other extracurriculars are the Biology Olympiad and Model UN, which is my biggest one. We go to conferences up and down the east coast and we debate about world issues and try to come up with solutions. That’s definitely one of the best activities I’ve been involved in. It’s really fun and really interesting. Wow, you do a lot. How do you balance it? At my school, clubs are kind of integrated into the school experience. Every other day we have this time for an hour and a half to go to two clubs each day. It allows us to have those other activities and balance them with sports and the other things we do, like science projects for a fair or some-

thing. It’s allowed me to expand not only outside of geography but also within it, like with Model UN. I’ve been able to experience and explore other subjects. Through all of this, who has been a strong influence on you to do everything you do? Definitely my parents. Not only do they quiz me, but they also really motivated me and whenever I was feeling down, they would pick me back up. They strongly encouraged me to do geography and go for my passions. Also my sister, because she helped a lot. I had a coach too, Coach Kumar. I would talk to him once every two or three weeks and we would just talk about strategies, how to stay relaxed, what topics (the bee) likes to focus on. You put so much into this bee. Where do you get our work ethic from? I think I get it from within, from myself, because rather than allowing other people to influence me, I always try to go with my own heart and where my passion leads me. I don’t want to follow the crowd. My parents drive me to work with those passions. They don’t force me to do other things; they want me to do what I like. That’s something that makes me feel like they’re my biggest role models and who have made such a big difference in my life and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. n


India Abroad June 19, 2015

M129


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M130

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 Kumar Nandur Coach

A

khil was one of the first to find me through my blog and from out of state. That was in October 2011. Plenty of people contact me, so I have a system to figure out who that internal wiring because not every kid is geographically wired. By talking to him and talking to his parents and hearing about what all he was doing for the geography bee, I knew that he definitely had that wiring. I gave him a couple of assignments to see if he could follow what I was asking him to do because the ability to do the assignments as asked within the stipulated deadlines tells me that they are disciplined as well. He was one of those kids who, if I gave him an assignment and told him to do it by Friday, he would finish it and send it to me by Wednesday or Thursday. He was on target. He was definitely interested. He also came with a significant background, in the sense that when someone comes to me, I check out their knowledge in terms of what kind of fundamentals they have. So when I spoke to him, he demonstrated a strong knowledge of those fundamentals, which once again gave me the indication that he was definitely material to go far in the competition. One thing that Akhil was very good at was following directions. He was very good at figuring things out. He was internally driven. I would talk to his parents often and ask, ‘How much help did you provide him to get this assignment done?’ and most often they’d say, ‘Coach, we didn’t do much; he did it himself.’ He was a self-driven kid who’s pretty independent in how he does things, finding answers, and putting them in context. For example, one of the assignments that I’d give him, in addition to the regular ones, was to watch Jeopardy! every day. It has a lot of geography questions, so he was supposed to make a list of all the geography questions that are on the show on a daily basis. He would send me a file of those questions and answers. That contributed to his growth in knowledge. When Akhil started, he went to the state competition. That was in 2012, about six months or so after we hooked up. He was in sixth grade I believe, and he missed some questions in the preliminary rounds, and he didn’t make it to the top 10. That really disheartened him. But I told him, ‘Failure is a part of long-term success,’ because some of the lessons people learn through failure are much more long lasting. I told him he still had time, he should take that as an experience, and build on it with more focus and dedication and hard work.

‘Akhil was internally driven’

Akhil when he first learned he made it to the state bee in 2010.

Akhil appears on Fox News in 2014. His coach considers the National Geographic Bee experience to have been a transformational experience for Akhil.

they cannot come back regardless of how they did (in qualifying rounds) since they received prizes that included scholarships… so it was lucky for Akhil that in 2013 he didn’t finish in the top three. After that he told me, ‘Coach, I don’t know if I should do this for one more year,’ and I said, ‘Why?’ He said that it was a lot of hard work and he was going to be in eight grade, which was critical for him because he was trying to get into a prestigious high school. ‘I don’t know whether I can commit enough time to be the national champion,’ he told me. I gave him a month to make up his mind, and he came back and said, ‘You know what, Coach, I’ve decided that since this is my last year of eligibility, I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.’ I said, ‘Well I’m going to give you everything I’ve got to make it happen.’ So on he went. And then he went on to be the national champion. The moment I heard he made the cut for the top 10, I knew he had a great chance, because I knew how hard he had worked and how focused he was — more so because he knew it was his last shot. And sure enough, with Alex Trebek being the host, he emerged victorious. I think the experience on the whole transformed Akhil into a young man full of confidence, and he now knows what he wants to do. He’s quite passionate about what he wants. But there’s a lot more focus, energy, and goals as to what he wants to achieve. Akhil knows what he wants and has a bright future. His head is in the right place. He’s compassionate. He goes out of his way to help people. He takes pride in spreading the word about geography. He’s become responsible about sharing his success with others. He has spoken about wanting to be a physician like his father, but I know that he will be successful with whatever he chooses to do with his commitment and focus and of course, one of the most important pieces in this whole equation, the parental support and guidance. His parents are fully behind him and they’re with him every step of the way. I think that whatever he does, he will do very well.

PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY: THE REKULAPELLIS

In 2013, a year later, he becomes the state champion in Virginia. He goes to nationals, he cracks the Top 10 of 54 contestants, but he finishes fourth. That kind of made him happy but it made him sad as well. It made him happy because he came

quite a long way from the previous year, but it made him sad because he fell short of the top spot. But luckily for him, he finished in the fourth place, and fourth place finisher does not get a scholarship — only the top three finishers get scholarships, so

Kumar Nandur is a speech pathologist by profession, and started geography ‘coaching’ with his own son. Soon it expanded to working with others around the country over the phone. He does this on a volunteer basis and sees it as a service he provides to the community. He spoke to Chaya Babu.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M131

Presented by

S - P - E - L - L - E - B - R - I - T- I - E - S !

HE HAS A WAY WITH WORDS Ansun Sujoe can get through the Scripps National Spelling Bee 2014 to be a co-champion. He can play the piano, guitar and bassoon. He is into robotics and math. And the winner of the India Abroad Special Award for Achievement leaves Chaya Babu fascinated by the texture of his interests.

Ansun Sujoe greets President Barack Obama as co-champ Sriram Hathwar looks on. COURTESY: THE SUJOES

ANSUN SUJOE

INDIA ABROAD SPECIAL AWARD FOR ACHIEVEMENT 2014 For their deft mastery of words; for their tremendous resolve; for strengthening an Indian-American tradition.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M132

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

“G

od has given him amazing memory power,” Angel Sujoe said of her son. “Our friends used to call him ‘mini computer.’” Such is the story of a 13-year-old (now 14) partly responsible for making the 87th Scripps National Spelling Bee exhaust its list of words, forcing a tie — the first in over 50 years. After correctly spelling ‘feuilleton,’ a section of a European newspaper, Ansun Sujoe was declared co-champion of the bee along with Sriram Hathwar. That’s not to say it wasn’t a close one. Ansun, looking snazzy in a red bowtie and black vest, missed a word: ‘antigropelos.’ Meaning: A type of waterproof leggings. But unlike any other scenario in a final tie-breaker round, he had room for this misstep. Sriram had just misspelled his word as well: ‘Corpsbruder,’ meaning a close friend. “Once it came down to the final pair of words, Sriram spelled his word right, so that meant for me that it was win or lose,” Ansun explained. “That was it. I was on the verge of it; I was right there. I just had to spell one more word and that would be it. It was definitely nerve-wracking. I knew that not only was I so close, but there were millions of people watching me. That was a lot of pressure on me. But I still maintained the ability to concentrate on the word and try to get it right.” His reflections on that moment are spot on with his overall nature. Loved ones and others closely acquainted with him speak of his quiet and calm character, a sense of focus and centeredness that leads him to be able to push forth in the face of difficulty. He was determined in his goal to win the bee, something he had set his mind to when he was in second grade, and steadily and resolutely climbed to achieve it. Still, while on the surface, Ansun might seem to fit the stereotype of the studious speller who can get through the national competition — one that fuels the idea of having no other life, and no texture to his interests — he proves that what meets the eye is not always what is. He is into robotics, math (he competed in the national competition MATHCOUNTS), music, and athletics. Simultaneously, his interactions with his peers reveal a kindness and humility rare for such a versatile and accomplished young individual. “He’s just the most unusual and interesting young man,” said Vicki Vaughn, the principal at Ansun’s school. She described his intense dedication and discipline to all of his endeavors, while emphasizing his modesty about his giftedness, a trait learned from his hardworking parents. His interest in spelling was born from a way with words but also, as his mother put it, a photographic memory. He began competing locally in third grade, when he finished as runner-up in Lone Star Elementary School’s Spelling Bee. After that, he won every school competition in which he’s participated, including Lone Star’s as a fourth grader, Parkwood Hill Intermediate’s Spelling Bees as a fifth and sixth grader, and Bethesda Christian School’s the following year. For three of the four years before his major victory, he advanced to the regional competition, placing third in 2011 and winning in 2013 and 2014 to advance to Nationals. In 2013, Ansun missed making the semifinals by just one point, so his championship win was a huge reward for years of hard work.

HE HAS A WAY WITH WORDS Moving forward, his focus has turned to his other passions. It’s been about a year since your big win. How has life been since then? At the bee itself, I was pretty shocked. I didn’t really know what to do, but I was so tired that I was kind of not in the moment that much. But right after, during all the interviews and stuff, I was kind of like, ‘Woah, this is a lot.’ I think it was a lot of strain on me. It was kind of tense, doing all those interviews. In fact, the interviews were more tense than the spelling bee itself because I wasn’t used to that kind of stuff. In the bee, I was kind of used to being on stage spelling, but in interviews I wasn’t used to saying all these things in front of a large crowd. So it was a quite a challenge for me, doing five interviews a day on all those famous shows, like The Today Show, Jimmy Kimmel, etc. After all of that passed, I started going back to normal with everything I had done before. Like being back at school and doing my extracurricular activities such as music — I play the piano, guitar, and bassoon. I’ve played the piano since I was in kindergarten, and I played the guitar and bassoon since I was in 6th grade. I’m pretty fond of music, and also I do some sports in my spare time. I haven’t played sports officially yet, but next year I’m joining the soc-

Ansun Sujoe spells a word during the 87th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee last year. He considered the bee a lesser challenge than what came after it. KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

cer team and I’m also pretty interested in basketball too. I do robotics as well... So, I have pretty diverse hobbies and I’ve been trying to make more time for them ever since I won the spelling bee. I now have more time to do other things that I wanted to do before but couldn’t because I was so tied up with spelling. But things have been going pretty well. Wow, you have a lot of different interests. And yet spelling was such a big commitment amidst all that. How did your passion for spelling begin? When I was very little, my mom was at home while my dad was at work, so my mom taught me a lot of subjects and spelling was in that too. At a young age, I had a strong interest in spelling, and when I was in second grade, I watched the finals in the National Spelling Bee. I was like, ‘I want to be a part of this,’ and I was really excited about it. I made it a goal to win the National Spelling Bee when I was in second grade. So, my mom was very helpful and gave me my introduction into spelling, but another thing that fostered my love for spelling is my talent for memory and my spelling abilities. God gave me that talent to memorize easily and recollect things, and spelling was a way to exercise that. 4M133 When do you think you learned that you had this incredible ability?


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M133

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M132 Ansun Sujoe My parents did a good job of bringing that out in me. When I was about five years old they were really helping me out and giving me exercises like quizzing me on easy spelling words. That sort of pushed me toward my interest in spelling, but also math and other subjects. Then, like I said, when I was in second grade and watching the National Bee, there were all these kids who were nailing words that I had never even heard before. I was pretty intrigued. So, I guess that drove me. With the spelling bee, you can start competing in third grade, so my parents helped me start preparing that year, and from then on I’ve been growing in my knowledge of spelling. That’s how I discovered I had a knack for it. Would you say it’s your passion for language or more your penchant for memorization that makes you good at spelling? At first, I was more memorizing things, but as I kept going, I realized it was all a part of a pattern in the English language and other languages. As I continued, it was more that passion for language. I was always searching root words and stuff like that, so I had a deep interest in learning the actual background of the language. But I still had to put in a lot of effort. Before the spelling bee, I would study for three to four hours a day maybe. What did your studying entail? I went through the dictionary looking for good words to learn. Obviously there are many words in the dictionary but not all of them are adequate — some are short, some are hyphenated, so I’d filter out the words I wanted to study and then I’d go in depth and analyze the words by looking into their roots and linking them to other words I know. That was basically my study time, which I’d do for anywhere from about an hour or so in my leisure time to about four hours during spelling season. That’s maybe in January or February because that’s when the area bee comes in, and things get a little harder then, especially in March when the

A J Calloway, right, interviews the 2014 Spelling Bee co-champions during their visit to 'Extra' in New York City days after their win. Ansun, left, says he found these rounds of television interviews more challenging than participating in the Bee. COURTESY: THE SUJOES

regional bee happens, and I start cracking the books for about three hours a day. Then for the National Bee, I probably study for about four hours a day, or as much time as I can get after school and after my homework. I was in 13 or 14 bees since third grade because first there’s the school level, then there’s the district level, and then after that we go to the regional level, and then finally the nationals. That’s intense. What kept you driven to be so focused over the years? I think it was the goal I had in mind. And a lot of encouragement from my parents and sister and from a lot of others. I think it was that encouragement that kept me going even if I lost — because I’ve lost a bunch of spelling bees. But still, I maintained my goal and I never gave up. I think (my goal to win the National Bee) was my driving force to study so hard. What did your family do to support you? My parents helped me by quizzing me on words when I was in fifth and sixth grade. But when I got to seventh grade, I started getting a little more independent in my studying. The most helpful and important part though I think were the words of support and positive encouragement my parents gave me. That was more significant in terms of what they did for me. And my sister is only nine, but she cheers me on.

They also instilled in me hard work and putting in a lot of effort into whatever I’m doing. They always taught me: whenever you do something, do it to the best of your ability. My determination and internal motivation come from the values they have given me. Are these the values you feel they exemplify in their own lives? Well, yes, because my mom and dad told me stories of when they were young, and of how they were studying in their high school and college years. In particular, when my mom was studying in college for exams and stuff, she was really dedicated to putting in long hours and she sacrificed fun and other activities... Also my dad had a lot of examples like that too, getting almost perfect scores in all his exams. Has your cultural upbringing influenced you in some way in your achieving this goal? Yes. Indians culturally value education a lot. They want to do their best academically through hard work and to strive in whatever they do. And for some reason, Indians are attracted to spelling — I don’t know why (laughing). But just because you’re Indian, that doesn’t mean you have to win. And just because you’re not Indian, it doesn’t mean you won’t win. Basically, yes, it is in my cultural upbringing and values that are instilled in me that really helped, and a lot of Indians share

that in common, where education is strongly emphasized. It’s a priority. They take it very seriously. That might be a valid reason for why a lot of Indians keep winning the bee. What have you learned from all the hard work you’ve done? What was the best takeaway? The spelling bee was more of a journey than just about the end point. It was all the steps I took to get to the title, rather than the title itself, that taught me a lot. I learned how to persevere, to not get down in the face of failure, to continue in my effort, and to study even if it means giving up other things — so I guess really the value of a work ethic. In the times when I didn’t win bees, it would feel like my work didn’t pay off or something, but I had to learn to push through when things seemed tough. That was the most challenging part, or a big lesson. In sixth grade, the year before I won, I only made it to the preliminary round. I missed the semi-finals by one point. That was hard. And through the national spelling bee, I got to meet new people with the same interests and it was really fun to talk to them and have people through 4M136 the whole experience to be


India Abroad June 19, 2015

ADVERTISMENT

M134


India Abroad June 19, 2015

M135


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M136

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M133 Ansun Sujoe with and share it all with. That was probably my favorite part. And some of us stay in touch. I keep in contact with a finalist from the 2014 spelling bee, Kate Miller, who lives in Abileen, Texas, and in fact she came to our house once last year. I’m also still in touch with Sriram (Hathwar, co-champion), and another speller, Lokesh. So I do have a lot of connections to the spelling bee still. That’s great that you’ve maintained those ties. How was it being head-to-head with Sriram in that last round? As the words kept decreasing and it came down to the final three (out of 25 in the tie-breaker round), I was like, ‘Ooh, there might be an opportunity to be co-champions! If we just hang in there, we could have a co-championship.’ Then once it came down to the final pair of words, Sriram spelled his word right, so that meant for me that it was win or lose. That was it. I was on the verge of it; I was right there. I just had to spell one more word and that would be it. It was definitely nerve-wracking. I knew that not only was I so close, but there were millions of people watching me. That was a lot of pressure on me. But I still maintained the ability to concentrate on the word and try to get it right. Earlier in the round, we both missed a word. When he missed his, and then I got mine, I was like, ‘Hm, I’m not sure I know this word. I’ve never gotten this word before.’ I guess I just tried it knowing that if I missed it I at least had another chance. So I tried but I got it wrong. Yeah, that was kind of nerve-wracking too. And then you went from a middle school kid learning trying to learn spelling bee words to being on national TV. That was a very big jump. I wasn’t used to all that. This was my first experience being in the center of so much attention, with millions of people rooting for you and then knowing who you are. It was a big change for me. I didn’t know how to react or what to do. But I think the best part of it was getting to meet many famous personalities. Who were you most excited to meet? I got to meet President Obama in the White House. We got to go as a family, my parents and my sister, and also Sriram’s family too got to go. It was a unique experience, being in the White House. Not everyone gets to do that; not everyone gets to walk in and see the President. We got to talk to him, and he gave us a signed autograph and a mini Constitution. And he gave us M&Ms. He was also very encouraging, and we asked to spell a word or two. The words we missed in the bee, we asked him. He was close! It was fun. The President was down to earth, humble, like a father kind of. It was a good experience. Well now you know you can spell better than our President! That’s true (laughing). Going back to all of your other activities, which you have a lot of, will you be focusing more on one of those moving forward? I’ve loved math from the start, but I had to put it aside to focus on spelling. So, I participated in this

Ansun Sujoe through the years. COURTESY: THE SUJOES

competition called MATHCOUNTS. It’s a nationwide math competition for the middle school level, and I started as a sixth grader but I was more into the spelling bee at the time. So in my chapter, I placed ninth, and I went to states but then I didn’t do so great there. Then in seventh grade, I went and did just a little better. But that was the year I won the spelling bee. So now, in eighth grade, I’ve had a lot of time to do math and my other interests, and at MATHCOUNTS I placed second in the chapter and then I did pretty well at states... I think math-related activities will take a little more precedence now. Also, next year I have the PSAT, so I’ll probably be concentrating on that, and high school generally. I’m going to try to get a good score on the PSAT, hopefully a perfect score, and I’ll try to get a scholarship. That’s my next focus. What are your dreams for the future beyond the next few years in high school? I don’t know what my long-term plans are, but I’ll probably pursue a career in engineering, like my dad. He does computer applications software and he’s a developer. Since I’m interested in math, engineering is pretty interesting for me. The summer college course I’m taking... is coming up in June, and I’m planning to do it in web development. So I have a pretty busy summer ahead. I’m excited for that and all the other opportunities that might come my way. n


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M137

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘Lucky and proud to experience Ansun’s achievements with him’

Sujoe Bose with his family. PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY: THE SUJOES

Ansun Sujoe’s interests range from spelling like a champ to robotics and music. Sujoe Bose Father

T

he main thing I remember feeling when Ansun won was, ‘Wow!’ Sometimes I think back to how it all played out, and I was actually ready to get him — like how the parents go and receive their children once a round is over and they’ve gotten out. I thought, ‘Okay, at some point he’s going to come down.’ I was just waiting there. Before he went to the competition, we were just casually talking. He woke up at 5 am on the day of the competition, and was practicing words and we were thinking, ‘Oh no, he’s going to be up until 10 or 10:30 at night.’ Because the competition started at 8 (pm). We told him, ‘Hey you’ll be having a long day today so you need to pace yourself.’ And he said, ‘It might be even longer than you think’ (laughing).

So we just kind of joked around about it. During the competition, I was wondering when he was going to come down, and I was waiting. Anyway, it was going on and the words were coming out, and at one point, they both misspelled and then it

kept going. And I remember thinking, ‘Okay, it looks like he’s just going for the kill.’ At the end, once the confetti started coming down, I literally was like, ‘What?!’ I was so surprised. It was awesome — and sort of unbelievable. Of course, it was God’s grace that he was able to keep his composure, and even though the words were confusing, I think he had heard the words, though he may not have been 100 percent sure of them, but still he kept his composure and he was able to recollect the spellings. There are a lot of factors that make the outcome: Which words you get, who gets out, etcetera. Each of these change the whole dynamic, so I feel it is God’s grace that, first of all, he was given the talent, and second, that he was able to put the effort in, and third, that the right things happened. So it was a combination of things. At the time I came to the US, I never thought about something like this. When I was just a bachelor here, I was in a completely different mindset. But I remember that when Sameer Mishra won the spelling bee (2008), it came in the paper. I was looking at it, and at my workplace too people were talking about it like, ‘Hey, it looks like this kid who’s of Indian origin just won the spelling bee.’ And I was like, ‘Okay yeah, there are people here and there who are geniuses’ (laughing). But it never really struck me that it could be a possibility for Ansun. It didn’t even cross my mind at that point. Also, grandparents always talk highly of their grandkids, and that’s especially the case with our parents. If we tell them something, they make it out to be ten times bigger. When Ansun was in sixth grade, he won the regional bee, and they said he won the national championship. Of course, they don’t know all the different levels here, and they have a very simple life, but their prayer was that he should win. So we had a lot of those blessings as well. All of his grandparents sent their blessings. We are very lucky and proud to experience Ansun’s achievements with him. n Sujoe Bose works in data and analytics at Sabre. He spoke to Chhaya Babu.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M138

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘As Indians, the cultural value we place on learning played a role’ Angel Sujoe Mother

I

f I start from Ansun’s childhood, that will speak volumes. I had the great opportunity to stay home with Ansun while my husband worked. It was a privilege to stay with my children, especially Ansun. From the time he was three years old, I was able to teach him concepts in math and other things at home. He started reading when he was four, and I found that out through sitting with him every Angel Sujoe celebrates Ansun’s National Spelling Bee victory. day. I could discern his strong points, what he ALEX WONG/GETTY IMAGES was good at, and I realized that math was a big strength for him, and he was very strong in his India even though we were poor. My husband’s family was memory power. much better off than mine — I was one of seven children God has given him amazing memory power. My husin my family. My parents were very ordinary. My mom band I wondered how, and our friends used to call him was a teacher and my father was an artist, we were a mid‘mini computer.’ Whenever there was a particular piece of dle class family but my father didn’t have much education. information, if we forgot it, like street names of our So he was very determined to give the best education to friends’ houses, even when he was small, he would always all seven of us, and we are all now doing things like engiremember it. We were amazed. neering, have masters in different areas, and Ansun has It was by God’s grace that we put that memory power in heard of how we studied even with circumstances like frethe right direction and nurtured it so he was able to take quent electricity outages. this path. My husband studied for engineering back in India and We came to know about the spelling bee when he was in here as well, and how he got into his program on a merit first grade. In second grade he set the goal that he wanted scholarship — things like that. So we tell the kids our own to be one among the national champions. I used to quiz experiences as bedtime stories. They love to hear it. They him from the children’s dictionary. I started with that. are very excited by our childhood and college experiences. Slowly we moved on to higher level words, and as things We impart these moral values through stories. progressed, my husband helped him a lot. But when they These days, everywhere you look there are distractions. were small, I just enjoyed every moment with them and I’m really thankful to have children like these and to see taught Ansun new concepts every day. It was an amazing Ansun have such focus. I’m really blessed and proud as a time. mother that he’s going in the right direction morally and I had Ansun’s sister when he was five-and-a-half. I had educationally. I’m just so happy and proud. plenty of time with him when nobody could disturb us. After the National Spelling Bee win, there were the We just had a great few years. That was really a great interviews here and there, but before that things were foundation that he got, and I do think, as Indians, the culreally hectic. There were a lot of sacrifices involved for tural value we place on learning and education for the Ansun. Of course, we used to have fun too, but it was a lot kids played a bit role. of work. For us too as parents. We can’t just go and enjoy We take education very seriously and work hard, but and leave the kids to study — whenever they sit and study, also Indians are famous for our memorization abilities. I we sit nearby as well so they’re able to concentrate. think all of this combined really helped him, and as parBefore the bee, things were very busy. During the coments, we also put in a lot of effort to support him. petition, it was very nerve-wracking. My husband didn’t Everything worked out and here we are, so blessed to see show that at all, but if you watched the finals, you can see what he has accomplished. that I was so nervous that I didn’t even look up. I was just We share our stories with Ansun about our lives back in

In Chicago, Ansun and his sister Hephzibah enjoy that top-of-the-world feeling. COURTESY: THE SUJOES

praying. We didn’t actually expect this since he missed the semifinals the previous year. We told him it was enough to just get to the semifinals and maybe even the finals. That would have been good for us. We said, ‘When you get to eighth grade, then we’ll think about the win. This year just try for the finals.’ So it was a real surprise for us. My husband and I were ready to go get him down whenever he was out — as the competition went on, one by one the children were coming down from the stage, and we were ready to get him at any time. We did not anticipate the outcome. And as the competition was narrowing down, I still didn’t think he was going to win. There were so many reactions in the end because of our mix of nerves and tiredness and excitement, but we were just really shocked. Throughout the experience, we usually just encouraged Ansun to try his best. ‘You need to put in your best effort, and God will do the rest.’ That’s what we tell the kids. From third grade onwards, he was trying. Then he went to the regionals in fourth grade. So whenever he fails to get to the next level, we just tell him, ‘Okay you did your best.’ That’s all we want. I didn’t even imagine that I’d come to America, but everything has worked out so wonderfully. I guess I came over here for a good reason. n Angel Sujoe started as a teacher in the local independent school district two years ago. Before that she stayed home with the kids and had worked as a lecturer in India. She spoke to Chaya Babu.


India Abroad June 19, 2015

M139


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M140

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 Vicki Vaughn Principal

A

‘A student drawn to challenging problems’

nsun’s parents enrolled him in Bethesda Christian School when he was going into the seventh grade, so I have known him for two years now. I actually knew him a little before he enrolled because his sister was already here in our school, and I think they waited a year or two before they were able to get him into our school, but I knew him as a does is individual — he pracsibling before he actually went to school here. tices his instruments, he plays Since then I’ve gotten to know him better, and the piano and the bassoon, by he’s just one of those diligent students yet extremehimself, and would study for the ly humble. One of the teachers described him as spelling bee by himself. the type of student that is drawn to challenging His parents set up some probproblems like a duck to the water. lems to help him with that, but He always is intrigued with the difficulty of a much of what he does on his classroom, and he always tends to rise to that chalown is in a solitary fashion. lenge. He’s just the most unusual and interesting Interacting with large groups is young man. not naturally what he’s drawn The family is very interested in education, so he to, but I saw him developing doesn’t spend his time like most teenagers — he that further as he did all those really does spend his time improving things about interviews. who he is, like he was studying for spelling for a He is very open to different number of years, and once that was behind him, things. When he came to our he focused on studying math. He entered a math school, he told us of two intercompetition and did well in that. He’s someone ests: Of course he told us about who is always interested in rising to challenging the spelling bee, but he was also work of any classroom or situation. involved with a program called When he came to this school, we already knew Ansun Sujoe, back row, center, is on the Bethesda Christian School MATHCOUNTS MATHCOUNTS, which is a he had set a goal to go the National Spelling Bee, team. In fact, his principal said, “Because of Ansun, we had a MATHCOUNTS team for nationwide program. So, and we knew that he had already gone and he was because of Ansun, we had a hoping that he would be the champion by his the first time.” Right, Ansun gets another win. MATHCOUNTS team for the eighth grade year. Again, he is very self-motivated, COURTESY: BETHESDACHRISTIANSCHOOL.ORG and THE SUJOES first time. so all of sudden I had a concern when I was He won the championship in DC, and he said, ‘Now this staff members and people in the community as well as stuwatching him... will give me time for robotics and maybe even sports.’ dents here watching it while it was going on. Then we had I started feeling guilty because he just came to our He has come back and been involved with the robotics a reception a few weeks after he came back because he was school, which has a lot of homework, and his old school team, which he’s a valuable member of, and it’s interesting out of the area for a while due to all the publicity. I really didn’t have the same academic expectations, so I thought, because his PE teacher has also said that between the sevappreciated the attitude of his classmates; they were high‘Oh my goodness, I hope we haven’t taken away from his enth and eighth grades his physical abilities have really fiving him and cheering him on... They were excited and ability to win this competition!’ begun to develop in a new way. They saw him take that to very supportive, and I find Ansun to be the same way. He’s Witnessing that experience at the National Spelling Bee the next level. very excited and very supportive of his peers. If somebody’s was probably the most exciting experience that I’ve had as He’s becoming a strong runner. It’s almost like whatever struggling or needs help, Ansun just steps right in and an educator for over 30 years. The whole format of the bee he puts his mind to, he’s going to develop that skill. helps. He fits in very well with the group even though his was wonderful, but just watching a young man who has Those were not things that he had had time for. He had abilities are exceptional. He just gets along with everybody such a humble heart go in and spell and use all of the skills not played sports before because of his practicing for the and is well received by both staff members and students he’s developed and all the practice that he had put in — to spelling bee, and now he has the opportunity to become alike. see him implement all of that to accomplish his goal a year more well-rounded by doing all these other activities. I think most people would see Ansun as initially a very early was thrilling. The Sujoe family is just wonderful as well. I got to spend reserved personality. He’s very attentive, very focused, very One of the things that’s just so obvious about Ansun is a few days with them in Washington, DC, so I got to know respectful, but for those who have an opportunity to get to that he is someone with true humility. He recognizes that them on another level there. They are committed to educaknow him, he has a terrific sense of humor and he’s able to his gifts and talents come from the lord and that he’s only tion, to allowing their kids to become the best that they find humor in the simple things in life. Those who have the polishing them and being a good steward over them. He can become, committed to developing a diverse set of skills chance to know him better see him in that light. really is a very, very humble young man. within their children. There are things that he can’t do as well as his classJust to see a person like that win is inspiriting for all of The one thing that’s interesting is that Ansun has this mates. He uses these as an opportunity to grow. us who were involved. self-discipline to put forth the effort to achieve. This is a For example when he came here he was playing the basHe did all of his studying outside of school. He would do family who — I’m not absolutely sure but I think — doesn’t soon, and he wasn’t as strong as our other bassoon players, his assignments — he’s very diligent, so he’d get his work have a TV in the house. They really focus on their kids but it didn’t take him long to see that other students were done — and he was so dedicated that he would then spend becoming strong in their natural abilities, so they’re very doing well, and he just set a new expectation for himself the extra time every evening studying spelling. He did that busy but not with the distractions of the world; they’re and he gave the other bassoon player a run for her money! in the summer before he came to our school. busy helping their kids grow and be their best selves. Overall I think other students feel accepted by him and He was just very committed to the goal, and he worked We have just been very pleased to have a young man with encouraged by him and they really enjoy his sense of at it tirelessly. Few are willing to pay the price of sacrificing us who is sincere and possesses humility, which is very humor. But you do have to get to know him to see that side to reach a goal like that. much a part of who he is, and to stand back and watch of him because of his reserved nature. I was asked at the championship if I was surprised that what he’s able to accomplish. n If you had seen him in all those interviews on national he won, but I’ve never known a student who was so deditelevision after he won, you would have seen that that’s cated to something. I really had confidence that he was Vicki Vaughn is Principal at Ansun Sujoe’s school, probably an area that does not come naturally to him. going to have the opportunity to win... Bethesda Christian School in Fort Worth, Texas. Even as he went through the interview process, I saw him It was also very exciting for his peers. We had a large She spoke to Chaya Babu. get a little better each time. So much of the work that he room at school where we televised the bee, and we had


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M141

Presented by

S - P - E - L - L - E - B - R - I - T- I - E - S !

HE LOVES WORDS, AND LANGUAGES ‘I always had an interest in language, especially because I spoke my native tongue, Kannada, first. After I went to day care, I obviously had to learn English and I didn’t know any at the time, so I really developed a sense of language and a love of words.’ Sriram Hathwar, co-winner at the Spelling Bee and winner of the India Abroad Special Award for Achievement, tells Chaya Babu that the coolest thing about winning was meeting the President.

Sriram Hathwar, right, lifts the Scripps National Spelling Bee 2014 with his co-champion Ansun Sujoe.

SRIRAM

HATHWAR

INDIA ABROAD SPECIAL AWARD FOR ACHIEVEMENT 2014 For their deft mastery of words; for their tremendous resolve; for strengthening an Indian-American tradition.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M142

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

HE LOVES WORDS, AND LANGUAGES

“S

he’s really good at the strategy and usually beats me,” said Sriram Hathwar, about playing Scrabble with his grandmother when she visits from India every few years. “Even though I might have the right word and I know what words I can make with my tiles, it’s always hard to find a place to put them down.” This, coming from the winner of a competition that requires contestants to know all the words in the dictionary — after all, any one could be picked at random on bee day — says something about the power of family. Sriram also credits his determination and conscientiousness to his parents, both doctors, who came from India and settled in New York. With words like ‘nocifensor’ and ‘sdrucciola’ showing up in the final round f the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee, when Sriram was in a tete-a-tete with Ansun Sujoe, anything could have happened. Moments later he emerged victorious, but with a co-champion. Little spellebrities, you could say. And then he was quoted repeatedly having the most noble response to such an outcome: ‘I think we both know that the competition is against the dictionary and not against each other,’ he told the media with confetti still streaming down around him. And he was as sincere as can be. A year later, Sriram continues to be modest about his accomplishment, speaking matter-offactly about his long stint as a Scripps competitor and having gone all the way to nationals on his first try, when he was just eight years old. As the youngest-ever participant in the National Spelling Bee, he came in 91st that year. He advanced steadily, knocking down each year a little better than the last, collecting the lessons of loss and putting them to use for learning. He proceeded to the national level every year except when he was in fourth and sixth grades, and finally came in third in 2013. The following year was his last shot. Since he was really just going for a personal best, second place would have been sufficient. But his eight-year marathon to the finish served him well. And he was the first spelling bee champion from upstate

Sriram Hathwar, right, on Jimmy Kimmel Live, one of the “cooler” moments that came with the Scripps National Spelling Bee win... ... But the coolest was when Sriram, center, and his co-champ Ansun Sujoe met the President. RANDY HOLMES/ABC VIA GETTY IMAGES and COURTESY: THE HATHWARS

New York since Tim Kneale won in 1976. Even without his veteran status with spelling bees, however, Sriram is well-seasoned in competitive academic endeavors. With math as a favorite subject at school, he entered MATHCOUNTS, a mathematics competition, and came in 27th in New York state, and he also went for the National Geographic Bee, coming in 6th in the state. Not bad for someone whose focus was on something else entirely. Since his major spelling win, he has won the Diamond Business Challenge along with Shreyas Parab, a speller friend he met through Scripps. “I think that camaraderie is one of the key parts of the spelling bee that I took with me,” Sriram said. Sharing his knowledge with others is one of his strengths, his mother Roopa said, something he feels compelled to do. Just last month, back at the national bee once again to see his younger brother Jairam compete, other parents were approaching her to say what a good kid Sriram is. He was there encouraging the contestants and making them feel special and optimistic. But even with his way with words, math abilities, entrepreneurial inclinations, and kind character, Sriram’s dreams for the future currently lie in medicine. Strangely enough, spelling is what gave him a peek into the world of ophthalmology, which he hopes to pursue, so clearly anything is possible for the young champ. How have things been for you since your big national win? The spelling bee granted me many opportunities, like allowing me to go 4M143 on Jimmy Kimmel Live and do a lot of cool interviews, and even meeting the


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M143

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M142

Sriram Hathwar President. But since then, I’ve been pretty busy because we went to India and high school is taking up my time. The spelling bee was an integral part of my life, but I think I’m just as busy now, after it. I was just on the tennis team this season, which just ended, so when we go to matches we get home around 8 or 9. Before I’d spend two to three hours a day spelling, so that’s about equal there. I also do debate club and we have a TED Ed club at our school, where we talk about TED talks, and I did something called Academic All Stars, in which we went to other schools to compete for trivia bowl questions. Those are the main things I did this year. I know you’ve participated in a range of competitions across subjects. How have your peers at school reacted to this and your win? I guess they see me as someone who is in a lot of academic competitions. But I also hope to be seen as a good friend. My classmates were elated to see me win the bee. A lot of people gave me cards. They were happy that I was able to do so well. A lot of your school activities have competitive elements as well. Is that something that you find exciting? I’ve always enjoyed competition, but I like learning more. I always liked going to Academic All Stars just so I could learn the new information that’s in the questions. That’s great. So did you get into spelling for the knowledge as well? How did your interest develop? I always had an interest in language, especially because I spoke my native tongue, Kannada, first. After I went to day care, I obviously had to learn English. But I didn’t know any at the time, so I really developed a sense of language and a love of words. As my parents exposed me to more words in English, I became really interested at that point. When I was in second grade, my mom approached my teacher to see whether I could just be a spectator to the mock competition at our school, not even participate. But slowly I realized that maybe I should try participating just to see how it would go. And then I won the school bee and the regional bee and I made it to the nationals in second grade. From that point on, I realized that

maybe I could try to pursue this even more. So the next year, with my mom coaching me, we went through some more word lists. And by going through them, I was actually able to make it to the semifinals in third grade. Each year, I got better and better in the nationals, and because of that progression, I was able to win last year. What was it like being so young and advancing so far in the bee? I think because I was so young, I was exposed at an earlier age to a lot of the pressure that a lot of kids are afraid of.

That was a bit of a let down because I thought I had prepared well, but I knew the next year that I would be able to do a lot better. I studied harder, so I did better. Each year I was motivated to keep going and try to actually win the trophy. Through those years, what was your mental process and approach to success? My mentality for the spelling bee was mainly to do my best. I knew I would be confident if I tried to expose myself to all the words in the dictionary. I would go through the dictionary and look at the words and try to think of ways that I could

Sriram Hathwar reacts after he spells a word in the semifinals of the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee contest. By then he had two years of competing behind him and was three years away from his big win. LARRY DOWNING/REUTERS

Since I experienced it so young, I don’t think it made me as nervous. As I grew up too, I felt more calm on stage. I think that helped a lot. Just participating at a young age was quite a cool experience and it makes me a bit unique. I was just a little kid, but I remember the feelings of being in awe while listening to the other spellers on stage and just watching others try to win the bee. It motivated me. I knew I was just trying to have fun at that point. I wasn’t too serious. But as I tried to progress, I became more serious about the bee. Each year I went to the nationals, I progressed, but in 2010 and 2012, I didn’t advance past the regional competition.

remember them. I did that to not feel nervous and feel confident that I had at least been exposed to all the words. That was my mentality in preparing. On stage, I knew that if I had a solid foundation by going through the curriculum, then if I got a word and I got it wrong, I shouldn’t let it bring me down too much. Having a strong work ethic drives me both in spelling and generally in life. My love for words really drove me to pursue spelling over other topics I was interested in. I get that work ethic from my parents, who obviously worked hard as students in India; that has been passed on to me so I try to work hard too and do my best.

Did you do anything else to study aside from go through the dictionary? Mainly my mother would quiz me from small lists that were provided by the bee. Knowing that I knew those words was helpful. My mom also worked with me in going through the dictionary and eventually I started to study it independently. As time progressed, I spent more time each day. But studying the dictionary was my primary method. However, it’s so much simple memorization as much as coming up with ways to learn and remember the words. For example, with roots, I knew I wouldn’t have to memorize the word, so it’s not that I would think less of the word necessarily as much as I knew I had to pay attention more to words that would stump me a bit more. So I would write down lists of the words that I thought might have taken me down. I would just keep writing those lists, and I guess it paid off. To go back, you attribute your love of language to the fact that you had to learn English as a second language when you were little. You may not recall, but do you have a passion for language overall? Is this something you’ll take forward in some way? I think my career in spelling is over. But there are a lot of questions that come from that. When it comes to a love of language generally, I think I do have that. I’m learning French at school and I always try to learn more outside of what they’re teaching in class. Exploring different languages allows me to understand the world better because if I understand a culture or a language, I understand more about the globe. In addition to developing a strong work ethic and perseverance by competing in the spelling bee, I’ve also developed a strong foundation of not only the English language, but many others. Also, because of being bilingual, that allowed me to develop my interest in language. Because I learned English second, I had a different interest in words, especially with my parents trying to teach me faster and more than what I might have picked up at day care. I attribute my interest to my parents in that way. It sounds like you learned a lot at such a young age. What have you learned most from being in the bees? I think the biggest aspect of 4M144 being involved in the bee is


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M144

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 3M143

Since getting glasses in kindergarten, Sriram Hathwar has been interested in how the eye operates and he may well choose opthalmology as a field of study.

Sriram Hathwar the camaraderie. Obviously we prepare a lot and very long for 51 weeks in the year, but once we get there during bee week, it’s just a time to have fun. You meet a lot of new spellers from different states, and I still keep contact with some of them. That camaraderie is one of the key parts of the spelling bee that I took with me. I did a business competition with my friend Shreyas Parab, who was a speller from Philadelphia last year. We actually created a business pitch for a spelling product. We’re still in the process of implementing it, but we just had to pitch the idea (for the competition). We went and presented our idea to the Diamond Business Challenge in Delaware, and we wound up winning. Wow! Congrats, that’s so exciting. Can you tell me more about the product? Well, it’s hypothetical at the moment. But we are trying to look into software developers. Basically it’s called Spell for Success, and we want it to be a software that allows spellers to create word lists from a large database that has all the word entries in there. All a user has to do is select the words they need to learn, because most spellers spend more time creating word lists than studying them. We wanted to eliminate that problem. Effectively they’d be able to access videos and lectures and make their own study quizzes, so it would help the speller by reducing a lot of time. I guess this idea stemmed from your own experience. Yes. We’d gone through the competition and the struggle to cover the curriculum. Shreyas approached me in November or December, and we discussed how feasible it was, how we could grow, and we even took some surveys, which we included in our business plan. When we made it past the preliminary competition, we were faced with competitors from Moldova, Tunisia, Tanzania, Kenya. They came to the event in Delaware and we all pitched our ideas to a panel of judges there, and since Shreyas and I were qualified to build such a product and our unique value proposition, that allowed us to win. I had no idea about this business competition. What a great way to use your spelling experience for another activity. Is business something you want to do in the future? I hadn’t thought about it too much before, but I have developed entrepreneurial interests after going through the competition. It’s actually part of the Young Entrepreneurs Academy, which is a business forum for students across the country. Just going to a couple of talks at the summit, which was held at the finals of the competition, has spurred some new interest in me. I was going to ask what a major challenge was with the bee, but you seem to have hit on this tedious list-making as a major one. During the bee itself, what tripped you up? Throughout the bee, I was always just thinking about doing my best and trying to think exclusively about the word I was given on stage. By using the technique of just thinking about a word solely, I think that allowed me to be more focused. As each word progressed, I obviously

COURTESY: THE HATHWARS

knew how many spellers were left in each round, but I really thought that it was my own competition to see how well I could do. It did come to a point where I had missed a word but the other speller, Ansun, also missed his word. So because we both faltered then, it was a kind of funny moment. I didn’t feel too bad anyway because I knew I had done better than the previous year, even if he had gotten it right. Then when I was back in, I knew it was a new opportunity and I was grateful that I was able to come back and have a chance to win with him. I remember our words of course. The word I missed was ‘corpsbruder’ and the word he missed was ‘antigropelos.’ The first word is just another term for a friend or a close comrade, and then the second is a type of waterproof leggings. I’m glad we were both reinstated because both of us missed first and then won it in the end. My final word was ‘stichomythia.’ When I received that word, I didn’t know it would be my winning word because it was just the beginning of the final round, so I just spelled it as if it was any normal word. But when I got it right and I heard that there was the potential to be cochampions, and then Ansun got his word right, I was happy that we could both win. Based on the fact that there have been only three other times in the history of the bee that there were co-champi-

ons, how did that feel to you? It’s a very unique part of the spelling bee. A lot of people have approached me and asked, ‘Do you think you would have liked to have won it alone?’ and I think it’s great that both of us were able to win. It shows that we were both deserving, and in a way, it makes for a better story because, since it’s such a rare occurrence, more people could become interested in the spelling bee and learn more about it. I also liked that I was able to spell more words because it came down to a championship word list with 25 words left, and once we had exhausted enough words that they could not pick a sole winner, the panel had to decide it as a draw. It was fun going through each word with Ansun so that we could kind of show how good we both are. After the win, what was the coolest part of sharing this with him? When we went on Kelly & Michael, we had to do a mini spelling competition against them — co-champions versus cohosts. That was fun. We won. On Jimmy Kimmel, it was the two of us against him. That was the best show we went on, I’d say. It was a bee in which we had to spell words that were completely mispronounced. They were pronounced in a very unique accent by one of the people on the show. So by just going through, and laughing along the way as the words were given to us, that was a fun time. Probably the coolest show I went on. But the coolest opportunity I was granted was going to meet the President. Also, since I said that I’m intersected in ophthalmology during the bee, the chief of the Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia had noticed this and invited me to the hospital to get a tour because it’s the best eye hospital in the world. It was great that I was able to go there and just see the place and all the equipment they have. Is that what you want to do in the future? Yes. I got glasses in kindergarten and I’ve been interested in how the eye operates and how it’s so responsible for our perception of the world. I had a lot of headaches and we realized my vision was changing, so I got glasses and I learned just how important the eye was to having a sense of what’s going on around you. I’ve always wanted to help people through medicine so once I developed an interest in the eye, I guess ophthalmology was a natural direction I wanted to go in. The chief of the Wills Eye Hospital recognizing that was a really cool opportunity. I actually got into scrubs and was able to see all the equipment used in cataract surgeries and even got a retinal scan. It was exciting to see all the technology used in the field. It was maybe preparing me for a path I might pursue. n


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M145

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014 Sriram Hathwar, center, celebrates his spelling bee victory with mother Roopa and brother Jairam.

Roopa Hathwar Mother

H

aving seen two of my sons through the Scripps National Spelling Bee, we are very proud of them, and we are happy to support them in whatever they try to pursue. Jairam saw his older brother work hard and win the trophy, and he just loved it; he felt really inspired to do this. We were elated and ecstatic when Sriram won the National Bee last year. It was a long time coming — it was a dream for Sriram to win the trophy some day and we were happy to see it come true. The wider response was overwhelming too. Everybody was so supportive in the whole town of Corning; they actually had a huge banner put up at the entrance of the city that said ‘Hometown Hero Sriram Hathwar.’ They kept it up for nearly for two months. And right after he won, the local community held a reception for him, and we had nearly 200 people show up to show their support. It was really heartwarming for us. Raising Sriram as a child, I knew that he had pretty good spelling and language skills, and so when he was in first grade, he saw the regional spelling bee at the local school and said, ‘Mom I would like to try it next year if I could.’ He was in Montessori at that time, and I approached his middle school teacher to see if she would take him on, just for him to watch the competition, so that in the coming years maybe he could compete. And so, being in Montessori, they could pretty much pursue whatever their interests were, so he would sit and watch the other students, like the fifth and sixth graders, try to do the spelling. He decided that he would try it out as well, and so in second grade he won the school level after beating out the fifth and sixth graders at his school, and then went on to the regional level, where he won as well, and went to the national level in the second grade. From then on, there was no turning back. He just kept going each year, and he did better each time he went to the nationals. Initially, we were not aware of the format and the system. But once he went to the national bee for the very first time, he realized that it took several attempts for most spellers before they won the trophy. He saw that he would also have to keep trying to get to the nationals for exposure and that having prior experience matters. So he tried to go from one level to another; he tried to get more word lists; eventually, he pretty much just went through the dictionary. There all the words are available, so there is no secret to this. So going through the dictionary is exactly what he did and I think that’s what helped him most. Sriram’s curiosity and eagerness to learn new stuff — and not necessarily only in spelling because he did excel in other subjects as well — is a key aspect of his success. He placed pretty good in the geography bee, winning his school level four or five years in a row, and he has done math competitions and science competitions. So basically a thirst for knowledge, any kind of knowledge, was the most important thing. He was also very happy to share his knowledge with all his friends, so I think that is a big part of him and his learning too. Sriram stayed driven and maintained a consistent

ALEX WONG/GETTY IMAGES

‘It was a dream for him to win the trophy some day’ involvement in spelling by being exposed to several different events and competitions for spelling, not just the Scripps Spelling Bee but also the local South Asian Spelling Bee and the North South Foundation’s, which happens in the summer months. Doing that kept him motivated over the summer, and then once school started, he was also into music and sports and excelled in all of those as well. I think it’s a combination of all of this and constantly learning new things — if you are in music you pick up new words there, if you are in sports you pick up more words there, all of which help in the spelling bee, so they’re all relevant to it. One thing I think of when it comes to Sriram’s exceptional spelling skills and knowledge is that he was pretty good with remembering Sanskrit verses, which I think really helped to enhance his memory ability. Also I recall that when he went to the nationals for the first time, he had gotten a perfect score in the written test to qualify, so from back then itself I knew that this kid had the potential and that if he pursued it, he could win the trophy. And he did it. In the beginning, as far as our role as a family, I initially would work with him. We would try to make word lists and I would quiz him after I came home from work. We would spend several hours each day starting in second grade, and

then pretty much until seventh grade when he became more independent. In eighth grade he was pretty much on his own: he tried to review the lists himself over and over again. But from second through seventh grade, I used to work with him as far as quizzing and trying to create word lists. Sriram is, of course, very independent and determined. These things don’t come by force at all. You cannot succeed at the spelling bee or for that matter any competition if you are not motivated or self-driven. Parents can only play a supportive role — the drive has to come from the child. We are definitely very happy and proud of both Sriram and Jairam, and we are happy that our younger one could go as far as his brother, this time being his first year on the national scene. He has a couple of more chances, and we will definitely work with him and support him in whatever way we can. In the end, it’s up to them to decide if they want to persevere to reach their goals. For the future and as far as profession goes, Sriram wants to pursue ophthalmology and he also had some success in the Diamond Challenge business competition. I don’t know if he is going to try to integrate both or pursue one over the other. Time will tell I suppose, but I think the key is passion and perseverance in whatever he chooses. Also important to note is that Sriram is just a good kid. Even most recently, when he went to the Scripps Spelling Bee last week (to see Jairam compete), I had several parents come up to ask me if I was Sriram’s mom and telling me what a sweet kid Sriram is. They felt that their kid was not known to anybody and still Sriram made them feel so special. He made sure to be attentive when they came and asked him for an autograph or phone number, and he told them, ‘Of course, I will do that for you,’ and he would sit and chat with them for a little while to make them feel good. So a lot of parents came up to me to tell me, ‘You have a wonderful child.’ We know he is a good human being, and it’s nice to hear that. There were several fourth and fifth graders who were first timers, and they were asking him how to prepare for the spelling bee, so he spent a lot of time advising them on how to get through it, what he did, what worked for him. That meant a lot to them I think. Sriram also is definitely very supportive of his younger brother’s accomplishments. He makes time for him as much as he can. Of course being brothers, they do have their moments, but for the most part they get along very well, and Sriram helped Jairam with the regional spelling bee, and then quizzed him on words on the road down to DC for the nationals. It’s a five-hour drive for us so here and there he would ask him how to spell a word and he would give little tidbits about the word, its roots, and other ways to remember it. Our younger one definitely looks up to him, and in fact, even on the day of the bee, he was like, ‘Wish me good luck, brother, because I know you are awesome and I wish I could do as well as you did.’ n Dr Roopa Hathwar is an Internal Medicine Physician at Arnot Ogden Medical Center in Corning, New York. She spoke to Chaya Babu.


India Abroad June 19, 2015 M146

Presented by

INDIA ABROAD PERSON OF THE YEAR 2014

‘I was very impressed with his maturity more than his win’ Dr Jagadeesh Hathwar Father

S

riram put a lot of effort into winning the spelling bee. He’s very intelligent and showed a lot of interest in achieving this goal; he practiced tirelessly and really took it as a challenge. And with god’s grace, he had a very good result. But either way, whether he had won or lost, whatever he was bestowed with, we would be happy with that. It’s really just good to see a young student taking on that much of a challenge. It took years for him to get as far as he did, so I am very happy that it all worked out for him. The thing that actually amazed me was that he did very well initially as a second grader. And then in the third grade he made it to the semifinals at the nationals. But I knew this kid was a champion in the fourth grade because that was the time when he didn’t even qualify to go from the regionals to the nationals. I thought, being in fourth grade, that was going to be big blow to him because he went to the nationals twice and to not make it there was a failure of sorts, but he really took that as a caterpillar, to propel himself to a higher level, and then he came back sixth in the nationals the next year, in fifth grade. But again he faced a setback when he was in sixth grade because he didn’t qualify to go to the nationals again. Then in seventh grade, he came in third. That is the heart of a champion, in my analysis. Anybody can handle success; it’s easy to handle

success. But it takes a champion to handle failure. He was a champion because he knew, better than anybody I know, even in my professional career, to cope with failure. He was already a champion in my book, but he showed me that he had the inner space to have resilience. That’s not the story you get from a lot of other champions. For most, the story is just moving forward, from 37 to 33 to 28 to 14 and then 5 and then number one — not a rollercoaster. It’s that rollercoaster that is harder to take. Sriram came out on top after the rollercoaster. I was very impressed with his maturity more than his win. That’s what I’m most proud of. He was never much of an emotional guy in the sense that he doesn’t get carried away. He knows when he has a role to play and a job to do while maintaining an inner space — he kept a distance between that role and himself, and that maturity and wisdom increased as he grew up. I was so happy to see that, to see him not get caught up in the rollercoaster. People get depressed, people get tired, people give up; but Sriram rose after that with his inner poise. He kept growing, and as parents that’s what you want to see in your kids. Because in life, not everything will be a success – they should know how to handle failure too. So to me, this kid is very strong that way, and it’s something even I need to learn from him. n Dr Jagadeesh Hathwar is a gastroenterologist at Guthrie Medical Group, a non-profit physician-led integrated health care delivery system. He spoke to Chaya Babu. COURTESY: THE HATHWARS

‘Sriram’s perseverance is what makes me want to be like him’ Jairam Hathwar Brother

S Jairam Hathwar is comforted by his brother Sriram and mother Roopa after he failed to spell “riegel” during the semi-final round of the 88th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee this year. JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS

riram and I are very close. We play basketball together and do a lot of other activities together. We would sometimes study spelling together if he had time; when he was studying for the bees, I watched him more than I helped him. He helped me if wasn’t busy with other things. What I look up to most in Sriram is that he never gives up. Even when he is trying for something for a long time, he doesn’t give up. He’s also smart, but his perseverance is what makes me want to be like him. I think we are more similar than

different. The fact that he doesn’t stop trying when he has a goal in mind is big reason I’m proud of him and want to follow in his footsteps. It was exciting to see him win the spelling bee. It was a happy moment, especially because he worked really hard and didn’t give up. It was fun being in the spelling bee myself, and I am happy with how I did but I am going to try again next year. It was almost less nerve-wracking to be in it competing than to watch Sriram be in it. When you’re on stage, and a word comes up, you know if you know it and are going to get it; when you’re watching someone else, you don’t

know if they know it or not. That part is really nerve-wracking. I never knew if he was going to get a word right, so I was really shocked and excited when he won. The advice Sriram gave me before the spelling bee was to just relax, try my best, and to also make sure to have fun. It was really helpful. Other kids at the bee also said he was encouraging and nice. I think Sriram will keep doing well. n Jairam Hathwar also competed in the Scripps National Spelling Bee this year and made it to the semi finals. He spoke to Chaya Babu.


India Abroad June 19, 2015

M147


India Abroad's Person of the Year Awards 2014  

Each year India Abroad hosts the India Abroad Person of the Year award ceremony to honor the finest Indian-American achievements of the prev...

India Abroad's Person of the Year Awards 2014  

Each year India Abroad hosts the India Abroad Person of the Year award ceremony to honor the finest Indian-American achievements of the prev...