Part 14: Love and hearbreak

During the first summer at my American school, I accepted an internship in a professor’s laboratory. A nice gentleman with slightly receding hairline, the professor was in his forties. We all called him Roy, his first name. Initially it appeared disrespectful to me to call your teacher by his first name and not as Prof. Jenkins. But soon I got accustomed to this American custom. Kind and accommodating, I found an adult guardian in Roy. Rather Prof. Jenkins. Every now and then he brought his home-made cookies for us. And on Fridays, he would bring his 5 year old son, Harry with him. Harry would run around in his office and in the hallway around the laboratory. For me it was a nice welcome change.

There were several other students in the laboratory: a graduate student, two undergraduates and another intern. It was a mix of American and foreign students, like in any other American schools that I later came to know in this country. A melting pot of sort. The graduate student, Nasir, a young man with well trimmed beard and long hair, was from Iran. Studying engineering in the department, he became my de-facto supervisor in the laboratory. From his name I initially guessed that he would be a Muslim. Coming from a country where religion and caste controversy is embedded in the social fabric,
it was not an unusual mentality for me to carry. But I did not ask him about it,
lest it created any personal animosity. Then one day Nasir himself brought up the
subject. I felt that Nasir was also emotionally embroiled in this social
complexity. He was a Zoroastrian, he said, and he mentioned that in fear of
religious prosecution many of his relatives had then left Iran. And some
of them were living in India at that time. He thus had a soft spot for that
country. He requested that I call him dada, the way elder brothers are addressed in that part of world. And he made me feel safe and secure in his supervision.

Both the undergraduate students were typical American kids. One of them, Tom, was helping me and Nasir. Though tall and heavy, and looking bigger than his age, Tom was soft, vulnerable and immature. During our breaks we would talk about our homes and families. Tom’s parents got divorced when he was very young and Tom does not know his father much. He was raised by his single mother in his grand mother’s home. Till he was in the high school, Tom was the man of the house. Like his mother, his grand mother was
also divorced. After my arrival in America, my eastern upbringing took
some time to get accustomed to this uncomfortable family structure of this society.

Tom had this naïve simplicity that made me to like him a lot. The only friend he had, he once told me, was his dog: a brown German shepherd. On weekends, Tom worked extra hours in a grocery store near his home to make enough money to crop his dog’s ears. When I mentioned that I did not know what it meant, he described how a veterinarian would operate on the dog’s ear and how it would make the dog’s ear to stand straight. He was excited about the prospect of having his dog look grand in those upright ears. Though in my mind, then, the significance of the procedure and its successful outcome remained
nothing but a child’s fantasy and a total waste of money. “He is my buddy,” Tom would say. One afternoon, while having our lunch, he casually mentioned that the food he is having is the leftover that he shared with his dog from a bowl that moring.

“You share your food with your dog in the same bowl?” I nearly screamed in disgust.

“What’s wrong?” Tom asked me calmly. “He is clean. Besides I regularly take him to the vet.”

Coming new from India, where in most cases the astray dogs roam the streets and eat junk from dirty piles, I had to compose myself.  When he came to college, at
eighteen, Tom became independent and his own guardian. Though that’s the rule
in this country, Tom was not really ready for it. But away from home and being
naive, a nicer thing happened to him. He became an ardent Christian. He was
actively helping his fellow brothers and sisters to hold meetings in the nearby
church. Religion in the college campus was another thing that looked very new
to me. Every other day there would be someone actively trying to give me a free
Bible on my way to the class. And no! No donation was ever asked. As I spent a
year in the school, I became expert in guessing a man who may be looking at me
to unload his free Bible. And I would look for an alternate route away from
him. Often during lunch time, some one, a girl or a man, I would notice,
standing on College Avenue holding a banner proclaiming, “Jesus is my savior.” Or, “Jesus is coming back!”

Back in India I never had once anyone approached me to read anyone’s holy book. May be that was not needed or that I was not in the right place to encounter that. But, then I did not get into the cause and effect analysis of anything. I was just a silent spectator. Or I
thought I was. Often Tom would invite me to the Bible classes and religious discourses in the college campus. And though I have thanked him for his gracious invitations, I never went to any gathering. Not because I had any grand intellectual adherence to one faith or dislike for any other, it was more of my inherent laziness.

Then one evening, after we finished our work, Nasir asked me to go with him to a pizza place on College Avenue. It appeared pretty sudden to me. But I followed him to the Conti’s Italian Pizza place. When we arrived, I got a sense that this has been preplanned and I just happened to be there in Nasir’s insistence. And I think Nasir just wanted to have someone else with him. I say that, because another student was waiting for us in the restaurant.

“Hi Kumar,” Nasir introduced me. “This is Manik.”

“Hi Manik,” he shook my hand. “I am Kumar.”

A senior student from India, Kumar arrived in this college some years back but had since moved to another University near of Chicago in Illinois. It appeared little unusual to me that Kumar had yet to complete his degree and that he already had changed his college half way. Being from the same country, I wanted to ask him study related questions and also why he had moved to another school. But I was glad that I did not. Nasir seemed to talk with him in vague languages and he appeared extra vigilant to keep Kumar busy, giving me little chance to ask him any question. And their discussion also appeared bit serious. And then, when an opportunity arrived, Nasir, hidden away from Kumar, mischievously winked at me. “I’ll tell ya later,” he whispered with a sly smile.

And next day he told me the story: story of Kumar in Prof. Jenkins’ lab. Kumar came to this school a year earlier than Nasir and had then already joined Jenkins group by the time Nasir came to know him. I have already met Jenkins’s son, Harry, the sweet kid about 4 years old. I thought that was the only child he had. But I was not aware that he had a
daughter also, a daughter much older. Her name was Miranda, or Mary for short.
She was from Prof. Jenkins’ previous marriage I was told. But Mary was living
with his father and step mother at that time and Prof. Jenkins introduced her
to Kumar when he joined the research group. Like most foreign students, Kumar
was a very bright and hard working student and he would practically live in the
laboratory. He was liked by Prof. Jenkins.

Everyday, around three in the afternoon, Jenkins would pick Mary up from her school and leave her in the lab to do her homework. And then the professor would go to teach
his afternoon class. Sitting in the laboratory, next to Kumar, Mary would ask him
her science and math questions. And with time she confided to him of her
problems with her step mother at home. It was a perfect story: a teen age girl
with problems with her step mother at home and a young man alone half way
across the world from home. It did not take very long for them to fall in love.
And then Mary got pregnant. But she was only sixteen years old; not an adult
yet. And Kumar, not even halfway to his degree, was on the way to be the father
of his professor’s daughter’s child. “You can just imagine what happened next,”
Nasir pensively looked at me. “Guess what happened when Roy came to know about the pregnancy.” I felt I could touch his concern.

It was not a good story when Prof. Jenkins came to know of his teen age daughter’s pregnancy. And that with a student from a foreign country, a student from a different race, of different color and of different religion. Prof. Jenkins threw Kumar out of his research group and took him to the court on rape charges. Angry, he even made the school to throw him out of the college. And Kumar was on his way to be deported by the court. But
the kind judge looked at the whole thing in the proper context. Kumar told the
judge that he wanted to marry Miranda and wanted to raise the baby. But Roy was in no way ready for any compromise. Broken, Kumar applied and was accepted at this other school in Illinois. And that’s how he had ended up in Chicago. The baby, I was told, was given up for adoption right after the birth. And even Miranda was also not allowed to see the baby.

Often during some quarter breaks, Kumar would take a Greyhound bus and return to the town. Though he told everyone that it was because he wanted to keep in touch with his friends, people knew that it was more than that. Everyone felt that his visit was to get a glimpse of Miranda. He could not call or come close to her. The court had ordered him to stay away from her. He could be imprisoned if he was caught close to Miranda. But still Kumar came. He would stay away from the professor or his family. And he would only meet his friends, who were still in the campus town and would try to get some
information about his love.

It was in one of such visits that I saw him in the Hare Krishna temple at Ridge
Park. And it was during the Ratha Jatra ceremony. Lost in the big crowd that day he sat quietly alone on the floor, a place that I normally occupied. I did not know then that I would meet him again in a different setting at New Vridavan, a place high on the Appalachian hills of West Virginia.

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