By Kavita Chhibber
(Editor’s note: This article is reproduced here with permission from Kavitachhibber.com. Ms. Chhibber is a former contributor to INDIA New England News and its sister publication IndUS Business Journal. Her son, Gautam Narula was one of the recipients of 2016 New England Choice Awards. Ms. Chhibber attended the awards gala and spoke with other recipients. What she is sharing here is her personal reflection. Awards photos by Dyuti Majumdar.)
October was a month of deep loss and a month of gratitude for my family. But that is not where the story begins.
The year was 2008, and my then 15 year old son Gautam decided to go with me to meet Troy Davis, a death row inmate whose case I was investigating as a journalist. Troy was almost executed before Gautam and I could even meet him that year. His execution was stopped literally 90 minutes before he was to be tied to a gurney. It was the start of a deep friendship between a poor black man from Savannah Georgia who had been incarcerated since 1989, and a young 15 year old Indian American boy from the suburbs. Troy pushed Gautam like no one had before – to excel, to think beyond his comfort zone, to understand that life teaches you real lessons, and it does not always work according to plans. Injustice is color blind, as underneath the color of our skin we are all essentially the same.
When Troy was finally executed on September 21, 2011, Gautam had just turned eighteen. I still remember the words he wrote in his eulogy: “On September 21, 2011, I was not strong enough to save Troy Davis from the people who wanted to kill him. But when I think about how much Troy taught me not only about the death penalty and human rights, but also about courage and strength, about human grace and dignity, about compassion and forgiveness, about unconditional love and loyalty, and when I look back at the person I was before I met Troy Davis and the person I am now, I can only be thankful that he was strong enough to save me.”
Troy’s execution in 2011 compelled my teenaged son, on a prestigious academic scholarship, to rethink life and finally leave school, for several reasons, but mostly because he had promised Troy that he would write his story. In writing his memoir, and walking his own path, with stumbles and successes along the way, I think in some ways Gautam found himself and hopefully his true calling.
I moved to Boston in January 2012, to be with my husband Ajit a few months after Troy’s execution and took a semi-hiatus from the world of journalism to continue my work in energy medicine and esoteric studies.
Troy was someone who had mentored children and adults alike so successfully behind bars, when so many of us live in the prisons of our minds, burning in the fires of envy, greed, and so many insecurities. He deserved a second chance at life, and after his death my own life had somehow taken on a different meaning. I also wanted to keep a low profile for some time as I found myself emotionally and physically exhausted in the aftermath.
It was perhaps a year later that I met Dr. Manju Sheth. If there is anyone in the New England area who has deeply moved me it is Manju. Over the past four years, I have seen her growing exponentially in her creative ideas, her execution of these and as a humanitarian. She is probably one of the most hard working people I know and someone who is very accountable and ethical in her dealings.
She heard about Gautam’s book from me and instantly said, “I would like to interview him as soon as the book comes out. I don’t know any kid who has gone on death row.” She did exactly that when she launched her Dream Catchers series, a few weeks after Gautam’s self-published book was quietly released on 21st September 2015, to mark Troy’s death anniversary. As Gautam said when he received the Youth Leadership award: Manju believed in him and his intent and the book way before anyone had really given the book a serious thought. The book did not have a big publishing house promoting it. It was not allowed entry for many prestigious book awards because many of these prohibit self-published books from being considered. The ones that did invariably acknowledged the book with citations and awards. The biggest one was the South East’s biggest award – Georgia Author of the Year.
It was on June 4th this year, when Gautam’s little book beat out President Carter’s autobiography (a New York Times best seller) that mainstream media attention really started. His father Naveen and his loving stepmother Genevieve were able to attend the banquet. And of course there was disbelief, but also sheer joy, that the little self-published Kickstarter-funded book had come this far.
But that came so much later. Manju and Gautam connected instantly and he was her second guest on Dream Catchers. The interview was done in one take; such was the comfort level between the two. Her husband Dipak was the first one to read the book and took the time out to tell Gautam how much he loved what he had read. This past September Gautam and I flew to Atlanta. The purpose of my trip was for work, but also to accompany him for a visit to Savannah about 250 miles away. We were to visit Troy’s grave as we did annually on his death anniversary on the 21st. Little did we to know that this would be the last time we would both see his dad Naveen as well. And it was as if Troy knew too. There was a major gas spill in Georgia affecting adjoining states, and due to majority of the gas stations being without gas, Naveen told us not to go to Savannah. I was feeling really sad about that but Gautam said, “Mom I will still mark the occasion by releasing the Kindle version of the book.”
His dad Naveen tested the Kindle version, okayed it and it was done. It was on that day, that I got a call from Manju that the 11 member jury had voted to give Gautam the Youth leadership award at NECA. I remembered tearing up and telling her, “I don’t think you know it is Troy’s death anniversary today. And that Gautam being recognized for Troy’s story is a sign from Troy, because I was feeling sad that we have to miss our trip to Savannah.”
When I showed Naveen the list of recipients, and the large number of IIT alumni that were being honored, he was even more thrilled about NECA than any other accolades Gautam had won to date for his book. Naveen was a proud IIT alumnus. He was a brilliant man with a formidable intellect and he always said to Gautam that he believed whatever he was today was because of the excellent education he received at IIT. And so to have his young 23-year old son honored on the same platform as these stalwarts who were pillars of the New England community was a matter of such pride and joy for him. He was leaving for India to spend time with his 83 year old mother and his ticket had already been booked by then or he would have come for sure, he said. His mother who I spoke with just yesterday said to me, “Naveen was so happy about the NECA awards. He told me about them and about the so many wonderful super achievers from IIT who were being honored and he was so happy that Gautam would hopefully have the opportunity to meet them and learn from them.”
Naveen’s wife was visiting her mother in France so we three ended up spending a lot of time together. He went with me on the 25th September to pick out clothes for Gautam to wear at the Awards on the 28th and we hung out, just the two of us talking, laughing and reminiscing that day. We were married for 18 years and remained the closest of friends and co-parents for 32 years.
Gautam and I returned to Boston on 27th September. On the morning of October 9th, we received the news that Naveen had passed away in his sleep. That day also happened to be Troy’s 48th birthday and the auspicious Ashtami on the Hindu calendar. That date will forever be etched in our memory.
I probably would not have attended the awards under these circumstances, but I came with my son because the intent behind these awards was so pure and genuine, and because they meant so much to his dad. Manju has organized many events successfully, even before I knew her. And I have gotten to see firsthand, the amount of hard work she puts in and the tremendous good will she has earned in the community because her events are always sold out.
I remember asking her, “I know this has been on your mind for a few years… but why NECA now? You already have your hands full!” And she said, “You know initially it was because each time when we would host Woman of the Year awards, we would get comments from men that we are forgetting them, both jokingly and seriously. I have been involved in the production of over 50 shows in the last 8 years, including several award shows, and have lived here in the New England area for many years. What I have noticed over the years is that the community has grown exponentially and so many Indian Americans are at the top, doing amazing work and leading by example. So what would be better than having an event that is by the community and for the community? I feel that the most important thing for me to do in an award show is not just to recognize people for their achievements but hope that they could be an inspiration for others.”
As we drove to the venue, I saw a glimpse of the ballroom from the street. Sheer elegance in red and gold to mark the upcoming Diwali weekend. The place was packed but every single detail was given meticulous attention (courtesy of Shobha Shastry from Alankar decorations, who deserves special mention.) Deejay Yogz and his team handled the audio engineering and music. The food was great, the auditorium beautifully decorated, and there were elegant boxes of sweets on each table to mark Diwali
The NECA Logo had the colors of the Indian flag and was understated elegance. Manju told me that one could see a temple, a citadel or a mosque in its shape-unity can exist in diversity, be it culture or faith. The event started with a performance by the talented Mouli Pal and her dancers, and followed by Mohan Subramaniam and Shilpa Ananth’s melodious voices. Stand up comedy by Jolly Bhatia was hilarious. I smiled to myself that Naveen would have loved it as he was a huge fan of the villain of yesteryears Ajeet.
I remember Gautam and I sat one day looking over the list of award recipients… and what an impressive list it was!
Some I had met or seen before, like Desh Deshpande and his wife Jayashree, who were the epitome of warmth and class. There was also Amar Sawhney who hailed from IIT Delhi. Naveen had told me to interview him because his story was so fascinating. I had also seen Puran Dang, who I had never met personally but whose warmth and energy was so contagious from whichever stage he spoke from. But with these few exceptions I really did not know much about the other recipients.
But here they were: Professor Vijay Kumar, a brilliant academician who had predicted the significance of online courses way back in 1985 (and who I had often seen singing on stage while bringing the house down with his humor and colorful dresses and caps!)
Dr. Dinesh Patel, who Manju called the role model for all physicians in the New England area. Dr. Patel came from a farming family, only the second in his family to attend college. He would go on to Harvard, and eventually start a humanitarian initiative, “A Leg to Stand On”, which has provided free surgery to 15,000 children. His story moved me deeply.
Venkat Srinivasan, who has churned out one successful company after another, but who stands out as the reticent Philanthropist, quietly giving away to so many causes.
Jothi Raghavan, an incredibly gifted exponent of classical dance who has taught so many – and it seems her lessons have extended way beyond the classical arts.The two organizations, Learnquest Academy that keeps the classical arts thriving and Saheli that helps heal victims of any kind of abuse in our community. To be nominated alongside such stellar company itself was a great honor for Gautam.
|Desh and Jayashree Deshpande|
Desh and Jayashree Deshpande received the lifetime achievement award that night. Both are so accomplished, and I have been asked for the past 6 or 7 years by a couple of common friends to interview them, for being such great role models. More than their professional accomplishments, I am moved by their humanitarian pursuits and thoughtfulness. I was very touched when Desh, after 2 weeks of whirlwind international and national travel, spoke to me as soon as he returned. Manju had said to me that she still remembers a comment that was made to her about the Deshpandes: They and their children do not carry the burden of their wealth or their success. The lesson that Jayashree was taught by her grandfather of focusing on simple living and high thinking is being emulated in great measure by the family.While that conversation will be posted separately, I asked Desh what the NECA Awards meant to him. “I think what they do is that ten years from now, they will become a part of the culture and the way the community comes together, identifies people who are doing good things and recognizes them. Communities are built by sharing their successes and the sorrow of each other and this is a ritual like the tribes used to come together and dance and celebrate the many things, like war victories and so on. This is a modern way of building a community.”
Venkat Srinivasan and his wife Pratima seem to be two of the real gems in the community. I saw so much compassion and warmth from Pratima in our interactions on email that I am really looking forward to spending some time with this multi-talented lady. Gautam, who is especially interested in artificial intelligence is busy reading Venkat’s book which he took with him to Atlanta earlier this month, and Venkat told me they had ordered Gautam’s. And that is how a connection is formed through sharing of life’s experiences for all of us who know how impactful the right words at the right time can be in one’s life.Venkat had this to say about the awards, “I thought it was a great event… it is remarkable to see how talented the community is… and in such diverse fields. While we always knew that, INE Multimedia really brought it to life with the event. I thought the brief video clips of each awardee added a very personal and warm touch to the function. Anu and Rama deserve a lot of kudos for their attention to detail including things like choosing the right background music for the person and the theme, making sure the right words of sound track were juxtaposed with the photos etc. Personally, I hope the spotlight on philanthropy brings it even more to the forefront of this wonderful community. I hope it serves to increase our efforts to give a hand up to those who need us. INE Multimedia [Upendra Mishra, Manju Sheth, and others] has done a remarkable service to the community with their Woman of the Year and now the Choice Awards events. These events really mobilize the community and create a sense of togetherness.”