[This post can be read independently. But if you are interested, the story starts here: http://a-weekend-in-chicago.blogspot.in/2017/01/1.html]
Ptom had been shopping for his groceries at Jim and Soo Jung’s organic food mart for a while now and had developed a good rapport with them over time. Soo Jung was overseeing the billing and checkout area when we arrived and waved out to Ptom as we entered. Although she had been in the US for over two decades now she still carried a fairly distinguishable South Korean accent. But you’ll have to imagine that part since I can’t type it in.
Soo Jung: Hey Amartya, good to see you. Jim and I were just talking about you last night and were wondering if you and Sonali will be going to the fest.
Ptom: Most definitely. We are headed there after lunch today and plan to stay till fairly late in the evening. We’ll be going tomorrow as well. Our friends from West Lafayette are visiting us for the weekend and we’ll be attending the fest together. What about you and Jim? Are you both going to be there?
Soo Jung: Yeah, we plan on closing early today so that we can catch some of the music.
Ptom: That’s great! Maybe we’ll run into each other there. Let me introduce you to our friends. This here is Shriram. And that is Ilan. And he is Brij. Guys, this is Soo Jung. She and her husband Jim own this store.
There was a round of hellos and she welcomed us to the store.
Ptom: Say is Jim around? Would definitely be good to say hello to him as well.
Soo Jung: He’s in the office going over inventory and accounts. He’ll be happy to see you too. Why don’t you pick up your groceries and leave them here with me. I’ll have them bagged and get the bill prepared while you guys chat.
Ptom: That’ll be great! Thanks! Ok, see you soon then.
Soo Jung: Certainly. Have a good one.
Soo Jung turned to assist a customer who was searching for something as we pulled a cart for ourselves and started walking through the aisles and picking up stuff we needed (and some) for the next two days.
I’ll come to sharing a bit about Jim and Soo Jung’s lives shortly but before that let me dwell on something else for a minute.
Jim was an American while Soo Jung originally hailed from South Korea. But this marriage was not a case of Soo Jung wanting to marry an American or Jim looking for an Asian wife. It just so happened, as you shall see presently, that they gravitated towards each other and found fulfilment and happiness together. This was no different from Ptom, who is a Bengali, marrying Sonali who, if my memory serves me right, is from Madhya Pradesh. Or Prosh, a Tamilian, marrying Monideepa, a Bengali. Or Lan marrying Susan. All these people simply married those they wanted to be with. There was no pretence about it, no biases in the mindset that led to these choices.
This is very different from something I’ve been observing for a while.
I think there are several people who still run after the “white man” or the “white woman” and while I have nothing against either white men or women (I have many a Caucasian friend), I think this is plain shallowness. Not too far behind are fairness creams promising you freedom from your dark skinned self. This is just such plain rubbish that one often doesn’t know how to react when confronted with people who actually buy into it. Did you know that Draupadi from the Mahabharata, a legendary beauty, was dark hued? Hence her other name Krishna. Krishna himself was dark complexioned. Even today you will find very very beautiful and handsome women and men who are dark in complexion. Someone’s level of fairness or darkness has this much to do with their attractiveness: Zero. Yet millions continue to buy into this twisted outlook towards aesthetics and beauty. And we call ourselves an “intelligent” species.
Then there is the other side: white people seeking companions who are “exotic”. It gets worse: I’ve met people who are attracted to accents in which people from different parts of the world speak. Not what they may bring with them in terms of different cultural outlooks, different perspectives towards life shaped by a different flow of experiences, different value systems, but accents in which they speak! Imagine that! I don’t know about you but I’m left absolutely aghast whenever I encounter such mindsets.
What I care about above all other considerations is authenticity: whether it be about being in a relationship with someone or anything else for that matter. Authenticity, straightforwardness, a mature and dignified outlook towards life, depth of character and personality, these are the traits we need to nurture and be guided by. Not skin colour, fairness creams, exoticity and accents!
Although I was meeting Jim and Soo Jung for the first time on this trip, we met several times in the years to come and a spirit of camaraderie and friendship slowly consolidated amongst us. Their story is worth telling.
Jim grew up in a foster home. He didn’t know or remember who his parents were and some of his earliest memories were of playing Cops and Robbers with his foster home brothers and sisters (as he liked to call them). Those were troubled times for him and his friends. It can be difficult to find focus and direction in life as it is and doing so with a sense of uncertainty at the back of one’s mind along with difficult to answer questions regarding belongingness and one’s place in society and purpose of life can be especially daunting. Jim talked about some of his brothers having run away from the foster home. He managed to track down a couple of them later in life but never found out what happened to some others. There were occasional run-ins with the law. Some would drift towards drugs and would need to be coaxed back into normalcy. Jim himself slipped up on this count on one occasion and when I asked him what saved him from losing himself, this is what he said:
“I would’ve been a goner, Brij, if not for one thing and one thing only: a few people who actually cared about us kids at the home and wanted us to turn out well in life. While some of the people who ran the home were no good themselves and only made our sense of isolation and despair more acute, there were a few who actually cared for us, tried to connect with us sincerely and without pretence, treated us with dignity and spared no effort in keeping our focus on the possibility of living a normal life in society when we grew up. Then there were also some people who didn’t work at the home but used to visit us regularly. Some of them who could made monetary contributions to the home, some gave stuff like books and CDs, some used to just hang out with us, tell us about their lives, try to answer questions we had about stuff like what kind of jobs we could try and get when we were old enough to go out and try and make it on our own, about college and what kind of stuff we could study, etc. Some of these folks would also help out with understanding stuff we were studying in school at the time. It was these connections, this time that I spent with good well-meaning people, being able to talk with them, ask them questions that I had about so many different aspects of life, share a few laughs, that kept me hopeful and sane. This is one thing about life that I can tell you Brij: never underestimate the power of true friendships. Love and goodwill are very powerful things, very powerful. They can save others from despair, give them hope and strength to carry on. There’s a whole lot of stuff people take for granted. Where I’m coming from, one learns to value everything. And by everything I mean everything. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the roofs above our head, the water we drink, the air we breathe, the education we get, opportunities to contribute and make ourselves useful. Absolutely everything is a blessing and nothing is to be taken for granted. And the biggest blessing of them all is the goodness in people and the love we receive.”
I’ll come back to Jim and Soo Jung’s story in a bit. But right now I want to take inspiration from what Jim said above to place what I call a “Humanity Challenge” before you:
Can we, as a global community, resolve that not one, and I mean that : not even one, child grows up feeling an orphan, not one aged person has to spend his or her final years fending for themselves without anyone caring for them, not one disabled person has to be on the streets begging for money, not one person who is willing to contribute to the best of his or her abilities has to be without the basics of food, clothing, shelter and basic medical care (needless to say, without exploitation of any sort!). I want us to remove the word destitute from our languages. I want us to end this menace of inhumanity amongst us humans. Can we take this up as a challenge and not rest till we win?
One thing I can tell you upfront: The first thing we’ll need if we are to accept this challenge and win, and win we can, will be heart, the willingness to share what we have, the willingness to love and serve.
If we take this up, then I shall accept that we are an educated, civilized, enlightened society. Else, no.
I know that the first question that will arise in our minds the minute we accept this challenge will be: Ok, but how do we go about doing this?
Well, that certainly needs discussing too. I’m sure you will have your ideas to share just as I have mine…(I share some ideas in Chapters 12 and 14).
But for this moment: just thump your heart lightly and quietly if you are with me and whisper to yourself: “Yeah, I got heart…”. And start thinking: how would you go about participating in this challenge? What according to you are some strategies that can be adopted? What would be your game plan?