It was his second week in America, and Suresh Razdan was bewildered, lonely and longing for somebody to connect. He felt his stomach rumbling and making weird noises and realized it was way past lunchtime. In spite of bringing his lunch of chapatis and vegetables in his tin lunch box, he felt ashamed to open it and eat it in the cafeteria. Two days ago when he had done just that and ate with his fingers, a loud raucous laughter greeted him. He timidly looked in the direction of the laughter, and saw teenagers who looked Indian but acted very different. They seemed to be very hostile and spat out a new word "FOB" with utter contempt. He cringed as he thought about it and sought the shades of an isolated tree with huge roots that reminded him of home.
He was about to finish his lunch, when a pretty teenager with bouncing hair and smiling eyes stooped down and asked hesitantly, 'May I... ?'
'Sure, if you want,' he said with a little derision assuming that she was one of those who had mocked him.
She sat down and said, 'Don't mind that group. They are quite harmless. I was one of them not too long ago. But now I have an identity, or rather I know where I come from and where I want to go.'
He looked at her skeptically and thought, 'Now, here is another problem. I don't know what she's up to.' Then aloud he said, 'Good, good. I've got to go now.'
She laughed shrilly. He looked upset and got up to leave.
'Wait,' she said, and held out her hand, 'My name is Bina.' Her manner was friendly and she appeared kind. He relaxed.
'I'm Suresh Razdan,' he replied.
'Kashmiri?' she asked.
'Originally, yes. But we live in Delhi now,' he said wistfully.
She saw his face fall and changed the topic. 'Don't bother about those ABCD's. They call every new comer a FOB. It makes them feel that they are somewhat better, giving them a false sense of identity, sort of like "Us" versus "Them". By the way, I'm half Kashmiri. My dad's name is Asutosh Mattoo.'
'And your mother?'
'My mom's an African American,' she replied.
There was silence. Suresh did not relate to mixed marriages and was at a loss as to how to accept this communication. Then he remembered what his mother had said, 'look at a person's inside not outside.' And Bina seemed to have a good heart. He smiled and she smiled back at him. There was a moment of silence.
'Oops, I forgot. I have an American History class, gotta go. Bye! Catch you later,' she said. She gathered her papers and ran.
Suresh looked at her receding figure, then picked up his tote bag and walked to his Electronics class carefully avoiding the ABCD's.
He learnt about the acronym ABCD (which stood for 'American Born Confused Desi') and FOB ('Fresh off the boat') from desi papers and web sites.
'They have an ache to belong somewhere and cannot articulate what they want,' he told Bina when he met her for lunch under the old tree. 'I was like that at one time... ' and his voice trailed off, filling his eyes with a thin mist as he felt the pangs of separation from his beloved Kashmir.
'What do you mean?' she asked, 'You can't be that lost?'
'It was a lot worse... I felt lost and hungry,' he replied patiently, 'at least these ABCD's have money. We were refugees in our own land -- desperate, bewildered, angry, lashing out at everyone. Nobody cared. We didn't belong anywhere in a country that is psychologically fragmented into groups by language, caste, or religion. We are Kashmiris and our agony bothered no one in any part of India. And so we languished for years hoping for relief.' Suresh looked upset and his fair face turned red. Bina patted his hand.
Sensing her silent empathy, he spoke to her about his dear home in Srinagar and an idyllic childhood spent in luxury with 2 Mercedes and a huge house surrounded by 12 acres of land.
'The year was 1989, the month December, and I was ten years old,' Suresh recalled. 'We -- my mother, father and I -- were talking, laughing, reminiscing, and swinging on our porch when we suddenly heard gunshots. We ran inside but before we could close the door, five masked and armed men forced their way in and huddled us into a corner. Their eyes were red and my mother held me close. I was trembling. So was my mother. I closed my eyes and prayed hard. When I opened them again, I saw raw human greed. My mother had wrenched the expensive pearls from her neck and threw them on the floor. The bloodshot eyes of the masked men glittered and they were divided -- one of them lowered his rifle and went after the pearls; the others did not want to be left behind. So the five men were fighting to retrieve them, and in the melee we slipped away with only the clothes on our back. A few yards away, hiding behind a trench, I saw our house for the last time. My mother pulled me away as tears flooded my face. We ran in the moonless night as fast as possible, stayed hidden in the basement of our friend, Mr. Ganjoo. We disguised ourselves as shepherds, sold my mother's jewels, took the train and arrived as penniless refugees in Delhi. I never saw my home again,' he said sadly.
He paused. Then spoke rapidly as if wanting to finish up something he did not want to dwell on. 'What I mean to say is, I have gone through displacement, of losing my emotional moorings, of being lost, of belonging nowhere, and when I think of it I become hostile. The need to belong is oxygen for the soul. And when that has been denied by migration, whether by force or choice, life derails or crashes or destroys. It takes for ever to get back on track.'
Bina listened quietly to all his outpourings and nodded sympathetically. She wanted him to continue, but Suresh was silent and was lost in thought.
After sometime, he got up and said, 'Thank you for listening. In these times, everybody talks but nobody listens.' He appeared grateful.
'You can always talk to me,' she replied, extending her hand.
He took her hand and smiled. She returned his smile. And he remembered her warm smile throughout the class on Circuit Theory.
Many days passed. Suresh got busy with grad school and Bina was busy with her sophomore courses on International relations. During the semester break, she saw him again having lunch under the old tree.
'You like this place a lot, don't you?' she asked as she sat beside him.
'Yes, it reminds me of a huge banyan tree in the refugee camp in Delhi. One day, I had plush toilets in my home in Srinagar, the next day I'm standing in a long line to use the stinking hole that passes for toilets in these camps. Besides loads of mosquitoes, hot dry heat, sandstorms, watery food, there were approximately 300,000 of us huddled into the many camps. None of the papers talked about us. Politicians did not approach us. They did not want to offend the moslems and lose their secular credentials. But one day, these politicians who sit on their flimsy thrones will get their heads blown off by the same terrorists responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Kashmir, and then it will be too late even if they do wake up.'
Suresh clenched his fists and grit his teeth. Bina looked at his face inflamed with passion and decided that the time was right. Slowly, timidly, she brought out a flyer advertising a meeting of Kashmir pundits demanding an equivalent size of land to compensate for their loss in Kashmir.
'My father is very active in this. And now, I have also found my goal in obtaining justice for our people. Remember, at one time, I said that I have found my identity and this is it. We may not belong anywhere in India. But we now have our own home from where we were driven out. And that's where we will go because we belong there, the land is ours, it will always be ours, no matter what the politicians say or do,' she said, raising her right hand and bringing it down with a bang. There was a lot of defiance in that bang.
Suresh looked flabbergasted. He had not expected that a young girl, especially one who had such glistening teeth and sparkling eyes, could have so much rage bottled up inside her. At one time she had said, 'I was a lost teenager drifting to a nowhere land.'
He looked at her in a puzzled manner and frowned. She scanned his face wondering what he was up to.
'What's the matter?' she asked.
'Did you know that I was Kashmiri when you first approached me?' he asked, hoping desperately that she had approached him because she liked him rather than because she was in the recruitment business.
She thought for a while and replied, 'actually, I heard some one call you Mr. Razdan and also because some Kashmiris look like you -- very fair -- and so I made a wild guess.'
'Yeah, sure,' he said a little flustered.
'Aw, come on! You aren't going to hold that against me?' she said in her sweetest manner. 'After all I'm doing this for our community, for us.'
He softened a bit as she had mentioned 'us'.
'Hmmm... how did you get into all this?' he asked.
'One day,' she began, 'my father found me doing drugs with two American guys. But he did not scold or slap me. He just showed me pictures, pictures of loot, arson, rape, mutilations, killings, maiming of a beautiful people who were relentlessly hunted and destroyed by moslem terrorists. 'They are your brothers. They are your sisters. They are our people. Have a heart and help them,' he said.
I felt very bad. Something inside me stirred. Some dormant feelings surfaced. And that day, I vowed never to take drugs. For many days I wandered around, confused, upset, angry and hostile. There was this strong feeling in me that I have to somehow get help for them. I sent them money, clothes and food. But it was not enough. The relief they needed was much more than I had imagined. Clearly, I needed to involve more people and organizations. And for that to happen, I started looking for ways to bring out the untold story of the century, The Ethnic Cleansing of Kashmiri Hindus. So I started studying with a passion, the techniques of mass media, journalism and mass communications. And I hope to bring out a documentary as soon as possible.'
Suresh looked at her with awe and said in a mollified voice, 'Wow, wonderful! I'm with you one hundred percent. But how are you going to manage all this -- all this work?'
'Meaning?' she asked.
'I mean, you'll need some help, in organizing, in getting people together, soliciting funds, etc. Have you thought about how you will go about it?'
'Yeah, I have some vague idea, nothing concrete. Maybe I'll do a write-up on the community board. Or maybe distribute fliers. I know there are many Indians who want to help India, but don't know how to go about it. They may not necessarily be in high positions. They could be just working class people... What's the matter?' she stopped suddenly as she saw his reaction.
'Working class people? You mean Indians working in factories, assembly lines? You must be kidding. Probably, you may have to dig them out. Most of the Indians are highly placed, and highly educated.'
'That's what you think. But look again. Just the other day, I read about this remarkable Indian lady M, whose father worked in a factory. She organized all the cab drivers in New York City. Did you know that approximately 60 percent are from the subcontinent, of which over 35% are from India. And there are many, many more. Just because we don't talk about them doesn't mean they don't exist. I'm looking for people like M, not necessarily rich or highly placed, but with a social conscience -- different and heroic. I'm hoping some of them will respond to my appeals for help. Well! What do you say, still unconvinced?'
'Hmmm,' replied Suresh uncertainly.
'Just because they don't get acceptance in our status-oriented society, doesn't mean they can't deliver,' said Bina a little flustered.
'I guess it wouldn't hurt to try,' said Suresh.
There was a silence for some time. Then slowly, Suresh delved into his pocket and took out a small worn box and put it gently on the ground and caressed it, as if it was a great treasure. 'Open and look,' he said to Bina.
Bina opened it carefully, and took out an old, creased photograph. It showed a huge house with green gardens and fountains, two dogs, and a little boy holding his parents' hand.
Bina looked up at Suresh. His face looked as if he had parted with a piece of his heart.
'Keep it, it's for you,' he said and looked away from her trying very hard to hide his irrepressible and surging emotions.
'Can I use this for my documentary?' she asked. 'If it will help our people, use it,' he replied.
Exams were round the corner and Bina did not see Suresh for a month. He had to get his grades up in order to keep his student visa and his scholarship.
So Bina did the canvassing with the second-generation Indians and interested FOB's, and got them together in a concerted effort to disseminate information. A meeting was scheduled. A documentary was planned. Congressmen were invited. And the ball was set rolling.
Bina had planned to rent a big hall, but the fire insurance and other types of insurance added up to a whopping 8000 dollars. So the small group of Kashmiris settled for an auditorium in the college, and scheduled the meeting for the weekend after the Easter break. Flyers were sent out to all the important international organizations and to journalists from widely circulated newspapers and magazines.
On the day of the event, Bina arrived early along with her dedicated team and checked for everything including the sound of the mike, acoustics, stage lighting, the screen for the documentary, the snacks and the seating arrangements. When all was done, they waited nervously for the guests to arrive. Slowly around 5 p.m. they started arriving in twos and threes, and finally the hall was filled to capacity, and more and more people kept arriving. Bina kept looking for Suresh and when she did not see him, she was dejected.
Suppressing her emotions, she invited the chief guest, Mr. Ashwin Dhar to make a speech. His speech was followed by another speech by a congressman who was sympathetic towards India. Finally, just before the documentary started, Suresh rushed in. He was out of breath and took the seat reserved for him by Bina.
'Sorry,' he explained breathlessly, 'last minute work.'
Bina looked happy, almost buoyant to see him and the joy on her face was unmistakable. He was happy to see her happy, and waited eagerly for the documentary to start. Lights were dimmed and Suresh got the poignant shock of his life as the title of the documentary said, "Can Mr. Razdan go back to his home?"
The documentary portrayed the story of his life. The actors had a striking resemblance to his mother, father and the other people involved in his life. It began with pictures of his house. It showed his mother throwing pearls before the militants, and his family clawing out of Mr. Ganjoo's house dressed as shepherds. It depicted how his asthmatic father and determined mother made their way out of the teeming refugee camps into an indifferent world, how his mother's hard work and relentless striving for a better life gave him an education and finally a scholarship for him to come to America. The documentary raised many questions, and ended with a snapshot of many faces waiting and reminiscing with nostalgic reverence of a place where they had lived for centuries, a place that had once been their home.
After the meeting many people sought him and expressed their sympathy and offered to help with any problems. Many Indians had come and they were from all parts of India. Suresh felt a strange comfort and felt his burden was getting lighter as so many of his fellow countrymen came forward to be with him.
'This just shows that beneath every Indian there is a dormant love for India, which he either suppresses or feels ashamed of or rarely shows it. But sometimes the pent-up emotion gushes through,' thought Suresh.
He was grateful for that and he felt a strange sense of coming home, as if he belonged here with all these people, all these Indians connected by the idea of India -- an idea greater than the sum of its parts. It was a good feeling, as if he had just found water in a desert.
He was basking in the sudden glory of his life, when he felt someone standing close behind him. He turned and saw Bina. All his resentment towards her evaporated and he felt like holding her close.
She must have felt the soft winds of sentiment, for she looked away. She appeared confused and she opened her mouth to say something. But before she said anything, he clasped her hands in his and looked at her with eyes bright with unshed tears.
Suddenly, a participant came and informed in an excited voice, 'Bina, the meeting was a great success. There is talk of an anonymous Kashmiri carpet merchant who is going to donate thousands of dollars. Congrats! See you later,' and walked away.
'You have done a super job, Bina. Thanks for everything,' said Suresh.
'Thank me later,' replied Bina, 'after you have got back your house in Srinagar.'
He was still holding her hand and kept holding it struggling to say something.
'What is it, Suresh? Feel free to tell me,' she assured him.
'That house,' began Suresh, 'will also be yours, it... will be ours -- yours and mine.'
Bina's eyes widened like huge saucers as the meaning behind his words made their way into her mind.
'Yes, Bina,' Suresh pressed on finding courage all of a sudden, 'I want you to be with me always.'
Then, still hesitating, still unsure, he blurted out, 'Will you marry me?'
Bina waited for some time and Suresh looked at her anxiously.
Then she burst out with mocking laughter and mischievous eyes. 'Oh God!' she exclaimed, 'I was hoping for someone smart, someone handsome, someone with spunk and what not.'
'What?' he asked appearing upset.
'You are very different from me,' she said stalling for time, trying to think.
'But, I can change,' he said trying to convince her. 'Look, I can do anything for you. And I will. We can work together for our people for a better life for them, for us. What do you say?' he asked his face flushed with longing.
Something in Bina responded to his intense emotion. Her face colored. But she regained her composure, tossed her curls and was about to run. He shot his arm to catch her.
'Don't even think of running. You have no chance,' he said.
'Oh, Yeah! Watch me,' she said, suddenly bending down and then she ducked. 'You have a long way to go,' she taunted him and ran.
Provoked, he ran after her through the vast lawns and beyond the Architecture building and the huge Medical building and into the flower garden, where he finally caught her in his arms and lifted her up.