Updated: Apr 1
This happened soon after I found the US$10 bill. (See the blog: Losing the fear of fear (the second incident)
I remember waking up cheerful the next morning. I also remember sitting by the dining table with my coffee in hand when I glanced at the answering machine. I then remembered that there was another call I had to make. The cheer was gone.
I am a little fuzzy about what exactly I did next but I remember pacing around thinking of options. I know I couldn’t avoid the warehouse situation and I would have to confront this situation somehow. For now, I needed to buy time to think. I called the warehouse and spoke to the owner. I requested time till the next morning to come see him. He reluctantly agreed.
I spent the rest of the day, watching TV and rehearsing what I had to say. No matter what argument I gave, I wasn’t convinced it would work. I prayed and I asked for divine intervention but nothing came my way. I then decided I had to tell it like I saw it. There were no options left.
I remember feeling the journey from NY to NJ being the longest one I had ever taken. I recall it made me sympathize with people heading to the gallows. I sat before the owner and there was another person I hadn’t seen before sitting in the room. The owner began by telling me how he respected my family (he had met my father and grand-father), how he had accepted late payments and generally how accommodating he had been. He added he had a business to run and needed his money now. While he spoke I was sizing him up and weighing his words vs all that he wasn’t saying. He seemed genuine, politically correct and not threatening in any manner. However, I had the telephone call at the back of my mind and I weighed this conversation in light of that. When he stopped and asked me to speak, I first said a silent prayer.
I talked about being abandoned in NY without money or any source of income. I was a student with the right intentions but ending up at the wrong end of the situation. I wanted to stay in NY, I wanted my education and I wanted to become something. I wasn’t ready to run and if I did run there was no money that anyone would see. My heart raced when I made the most damaging statement of all. I told him I came to see him with a possibility that I could never return. It would be possible I was never found and that I could be another one of those foreign immigrants who has disappeared within the US. I have a vague recollection of mentioning cement shoes and the bottom of the Hudson! But I added, I was here because I wanted to do the right thing. I wanted to help him get his money but that I couldn’t do it on my own. I told him that I had spent the last 3 weeks on a ration of a loaf of bread and a small jar of peanut butter per week. I didn’t mention the windfall since I was scared he might want a part of it. I told him the goods were old but sale-able, I could give him the name of a jobber who would buy it at a discount and hopefully most of the debt would be paid off. I told him I would hunt for a job and pay the rest of the debt on a weekly basis. I ended by saying, I was completely at his mercy and would accept my fate. My heart pounded in my chest, and I know I was sweating inside my shirt.
The owner went silent, sat back in his chair and took several deep breaths. He continued to stare at me without blinking. His face was dead pan and I was too scared to even read his expressions. I know I silently prayed really really hard. What seemed like a year, the owner asked me if I was serious the goods could be sold. I said yes, and I took out my diary where I had the phone number of the jobber. I gave it to him and said he could call him right away. What he said next, blew me away completely. He leaned forward and pointing his finger at me he said that I had one week, just one week to find myself a job. If I didn’t find one, I was to report to work for him! He would hire me as his warehouse manager and I could work for him as long as I wanted or till I found a job that I wanted. He said, he didn’t want me to sleep hungry ever again. He offered to give me money, but I couldn’t take it. I had a lump in my throat and tears threatened to spill over.
I don’t remember anything else of that day. I know I came back to my apartment to be overwhelmed once again. When I was emotionally calm, I remember asking myself what next? The prospect of working in a warehouse wasn’t particularly appealing, but the prospect of getting a job was suddenly very inviting. There was a serious problem though; I was on a student visa and the only place I could legally work was on-campus. I had done some tutoring in the past and it gave me minimum wages. That however wasn’t good enough to pay for my education or for living. I needed something else. I then thought of the one person who first believed in me, a professor in my grad school. I called him up and in a couple of days, I went to see him.
He listened to me patiently. I don’t know what he saw in me or what went through his mind. But he picked up his phone (there were no mobile phones then). He punched in a number. A minute or so later he asked to speak to someone. The name was that of a great designer (even in the ’80s). Today the designer is a global lifestyle brand. The professor spoke briefly and told him that he was sending a “bright, young boy, who needed money only to complete his studies.” He added that he would be personally obliged if the designer would consider giving the boy a job. There was the catch though, the boy didn’t have papers to work, he was on a student visa. When the call ended, the professor gave me his notes made during the call. It had the number of a person I was to contact and see. All through this conversation I sat like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car; stunned and still. I was listening, but my mind was numb. The professor kind of sensed that. What he said after that has never left me. He said, the country (US) was built by immigrants who had no place to go; sort of alluding to my own abandonment. He said he knew it was a risk to work without papers but the intention was noble. He wished me well and hoped things worked out for me. When I left his office, I believed I had just left the presence of God. Many years later when I returned to India the same professor was tasked with creating India’s first dedicated fashion institute, in New Delhi. He came to India and we spoke on the phone (I didn’t live in Delhi at the time). It’s ironical that he asked me to teach in this same institute but I didn’t see myself as going back to teaching of any sort and definitely NOT moving to Delhi!
In my office in NY when I first got the job…
I got the job, and I earned the money to pay for my education. True to my word, I called the warehouse owner and told him where I was working. He told me had sold the goods and when I offered to pay any balances, he asked me to “forget it.” He told me to keep in touch, especially if I ran into any sort of trouble; thankfully, I never did. The company went a step further and filed my paperwork with US immigration to make me legal. I left the country before the papers were approved but it ensured I wasn’t a violator for very long. This taught me compassion at the workplace too.
I also got a little fame; you can’t work in the fashion industry and not be swayed by its glamorous side. I was ‘spotted’ by a co-worker who thought I had modelling potential. I thought it was funny that someone would think that I could be a model. I tried my hand at it but my looks were too ethnic to take me places in the US in the 80s. I loved the attention I got and it got me some money too.
One of the few surviving photos of my modeling career…
I met a guy who became a good friend, Iqbal Singh Grewal, an immigrant from Delhi. He became my flat mate until I left NY. He helped me get a job at a restaurant to help me make some more money. I worked 5 days a week, attended college 4 nights a week and worked 3 nights at the Indian Cafe. It’s been years since I have seen him or been in touch with him. I have tried to find him but without any luck.
I came back to India and had went through many trying times. But the lessons I learnt helped me get through them all.
Here is what they are:
I forgot the fear of fear even though I acknowledge I have moments of anxiety (of situations).
I lived the life of hapless students and I understood what they go through. The conflict of career vs completing one’s education, is real, is painful and most of all is devastating. I almost gave up my studies because I had no money. Even to this day, I am sensitive on this issue.
I learnt there is no definitive in life. I didn’t start out with making a career in publishing, I wanted to be a textile technologist!
I learnt the difference of being tough in business and being (sufficiently) compassionate. The warehouse owner could have disbelieved me; I might not be walking this earth today.
I learnt that to help someone is more important than all other achievements in life. The professor acted in kindness but he changed my life forever. Just a few years ago, I came to know of his passing. I carry him in my heart even today.
I learnt that you can’t control life. You can try as much as you want (to control events) but that won’t change anything. After returning to India I saw the downside of life in my career many times but at no point did I stop trying. Money was to be tight again in my life, but I held on to my faith (the dollar bills). I learnt the true meaning of “Keep the faith…”. To me life remains a series of storms waiting to happen, one only needs the belief to ride each one of them.
The building where I worked… I asked a passerby to take this in 2012. He thought I was a stupid tourist!
I learnt the value of food on my plate. I never leave a single morsel on my plate even to this day. I cringe when I see people leave food simply because somewhere I haven’t forgotten how much I craved to have half a stomach of food. I don’t give begging children any money, but I do stop to buy them something to eat.
I learnt, most of all, that there is good in all of us. Sometimes though life makes us act like villains.
I learnt that life is uncertain at best. There is no greater certainty than this…