Some of the most memorable and inspirational people are those that walk among us every day.
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"I Have Never Felt that Money Equals Happiness or is a True Measure of Success"
By Kavita Chhibber
Last Christmas when 22 year old Indivar Dutta-Gupta was visiting his parents, his mom Indrani said to him as he was leaving - "Be good." Indivar replied - "I try but it�s a daily struggle." The same kind of thoughtfulness and maturity seems to be the hallmark of this young man in anything he chooses to do.
Indivar's parents Anjan and Indrani, left a pretty comfortable life in India and struggled for a few years before they made it to their current super successful life as entrepreneurs owning their own companies.
Indivar who was very young when they came here, still remembers those times when his folks had very little. "My memories are really random - living in this apartment with bare minimal comforts, and my parents encouraging me to speak English, my pre-school teacher evidently telling my mom that I wasn�t very independent because I told her if I was hungry I will tell my mom, instead of making a sandwich myself! I remember how in spite of this being a major change in their lives, the determination with which my parents handled all the adversities has created the path to where I�m today."
(Indivar with father Anjan and mother Indrani Dutta-Gupta)
Indivar laughingly recalls that his parent�s favorite pastime, was to bundle the kids in their car and go look at beautiful houses. "There were times when my father would deliver pizza to an affluent neighborhood and he would look at a beautiful house and I�m sure plan having something similar-well he has it now, but I don�t think he has forgotten what it took him to get there, and the fact that life is full of endless possibilities if you are willing to give it your best shot."
Indivar says, in spite of the tough times he only remembers a happy childhood, and friendly neighbors. As a young child Indivar was often paired off with handicapped kids. "His compassion and kindness were evident from early childhood, but poor guy would be perpetually stuck indoors until I had to go and protest to the teacher to give him a break," says Indrani. His parents never pushed him like Indian parents often do to excel in academics, or choose a particular career though his mom would talk about her own hard work and academic success to egg the kids on. "I lost interest in math fairly early even though I liked both math and science and I know neither my older sister nor I are going to inherit my father�s thriving IT business. I know in their hearts they hope one of us will, but neither my sister nor I are really enthused by the world of IT."
He also says his parents were far more liberal than the parents of his other friends. "We were never forced to go to the temple or learn 'Indian' things. We were also given the freedom to accompany our friends to their house of worship." Indivar later took Bengali classes on his own at the University of Chicago, and says that he is enjoying reading Bengali literature in the original language. "I guess the only thing Indian I get subjected to is my folks dragging me each time to this Indian restaurant in Atlanta each time I visit it," says Indivar with a laugh.
On a serious note however he says the many trips to India, perhaps left a deeper impact on him than he realized. � The poverty is very hard to handle each time I go there. I realize then that how luck plays a part in charting your course in life-that I was born in this particular family that decided to come abroad and I am who I�m today because of that. Had they lived on in India, I wonder what I would have done. Also how lucky I�m to be born to this family and not another less privileged one. I think perhaps it made me more compassionate of the underdog in any sphere of life-be it the poor, or the minority ethnic groups or anyone else who has faced any kind of discrimination.�
For Indivar certain incidents that happened in High school, pushed him into Politics. "Until then all I knew was that my folks liked Michael Dukakis. I think it was about my eleventh grade year when the state of Georgia began requiring character education and the county board of education decided to implement this requirement partly by making every teacher post a list of 27 character traits that are desirable, including �Respect for the Creator." That troubled me and several of my friends and pushed me a bit into politics.
(Indivar with parents Anjan and Indrani Dutta-Gupta and sister Amrita.)
"There was also a movement in the State of Georgia to change the state flag, which had been altered to include the Battle Flag of the Confederacy in 1956, likely in response to the growing civil rights movement. As this was going on, somewhat behind the scenes, my school system decided to let each individual school decide whether or not it would continue to fly the Georgia flag or merely the US flag. The system established to determine my school�s decision gave equal weight to each of four very unequal groups: 1) students, 2) teachers, 3) Local School Advisory Committee (LSAC) and 4) the Parent, Teacher, Student Association (PTSA). As with most majoritarian decision-making, a tie would allow the status quo to stand. I was active among students and the LSAC in advocating the removal of the Georgia flag from our school property. The students voted about 3 to 2 to keep the flag up. The teachers voted about 17 to 1 to take the flag down. The LSAC voted about 3 to 1 to take the flag down. The final vote, but the PTSA, was a very close vote to keep the flag up and thus the flag stayed up. I brought up this incident in a scholarship interview with Vanderbilt University and received a very negative response from the scholarship committee, though a young law school alum stuck up for my stance. Either way, it was my most personal experience with disingenuous political argument since I nearly always heard claims about honoring our history�which apparently had not been important before 1956, and apparently flags are the place to honor the most troublesome parts of our history. Few who wanted the flag to remain as is proposed honoring any additional part of our history on the flag. Sadly the disagreement split on stark racial lines which are often not so exposed, even in the South."
His parents faced racial discrimination, but Indivar grew up not being aware of it, even though there were very few Indians in his school. It was much later that once when his father and he went for a hair cut, they realized waiting in the salon that they were being discriminated against.
Until High School, Indivar supported the death penalty. "One of my middle school friends had an uncle who had been given the death penalty. I am actually not sure if he was ultimately executed, but I think he was. Anyway, this friend was against the death penalty and she brought up her uncle�s story in an argument we had in class. At the time I was strongly in favor of the death penalty." Then, Todd Kokoszka, a teacher he respected deeply in High school challenged him to do more research and soul searching.
"My teacher�s prodding led me to more research and the realization that there were so many factors that were influential in someone being given the death penalty, that blacks are definitely at the receiving end and that there were many NGOS who were fighting against such injustice. It changed my views about the death penalty and today I�m against it. It led me to join my high school Amnesty International group, which was pretty much the largest organization in the world advocating the elimination of the death penalty. I realized also that I liked a lot of the people involved in it and how what they did deeply resonated with me. Since people usually described me as a leader I thought I could work towards inspiring others to join me. I opted for the University of Chicago for the same reason-that I liked the people who were headed there and they were also politically aligned with me."
A friend gave Indivar a copy of John Rawls's seminal work, Theory of Justice. "It opened my eyes even more to the fact that people don�t always deserve what they get in terms of social justice, and that it was very important for all of us to become active participants in securing social justice and preventing human rights violations because we never know when we may be at the receiving end. I became deeply involved with the American Civil Liberties Union along with the Human Rights Program at the University of Chicago."
Indivar credits the University of Chicago with enriching him in many ways. "The school is all about ideas. Its here that I realized that whatever political or other fundamental values you had, would either be further strengthened or fall by the sides. What I found fascinating was that I would have as passionate an argument with a Physics student about the way I interpreted a scene by Shakespeare as I would with a student of English Literature. I also realized after coming here, that in spite of all your so called accomplishments, you knew nothing and had learned nothing nor accomplished anything, and its not because it�s a competitive place-it�s the opposite. Things however change so much, that what didn�t seem like an opportunity becomes a huge one and what seems like a huge deal, really isn�t. I learnt a lot about the advantages of being in a higher socio-economic environment where by just being at this place, doors opened for you-if anything it made me humbler and also reinforced my belief that I had to help those who weren�t as privileged as I was."
Indivar has been an active participant handling both administrative and strategic human rights work and promoting economic and social rights, and went to Ghana as an intern with the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions.
Talking about his experiences in Ghana, Indivar says he presumptuously equated Ghana with India since both are third world nations and expected Ghana to be a calmer, poorer version of India.
(Indivar and friends in Ghana)
"After reaching there I realized that India is so much more vibrant and that things don�t seem as hopeless in terms of human rights and socio-economic progress in India as they seemed in Ghana. In Ghana things were so much slower, from the internet not being reliable, phone calls or e-mails going unanswered and people showing up so much later than expected. Things were tough, and trying, but even then you learn so much and find ways to help, and again there were ideas that we realized were not going to work there."
Indivar was appointed to Amnesty International USA's Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Advisory Group and represented the Midwest on their National Campus Advisory Council. He was also a Truman scholar, an honor given to about 80 out of 600-700 top notch nominees. With his usual humility Indivar says that most nominees he met were outstanding super achievers. "Let me say I�m yet to see a successful person who has not had his or her slice of luck. I honestly feel that I was lucky and I�m not trying to be modest. It is a pretty thorough and exhausting process. I�m also happy to mention that usually Georgia gets one Truman scholar but the year I won it they had three."
(Indivar receives the Truman award)
Indivar was involved in developing food stamp outreach initiatives to improve access for D.C. residents to the Food Stamp Program, and in expanding this work into neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland to target underserved immigrant populations through Manna Food Center. He says that initiatives like this and doing hands on work, was a huge eye opener on how the other half lives, and how each policy affects people differently. "Geographically each region and its people brings unique challenges and you have to understand the individual needs of each state and a group of people to address issues through policy making more successfully."
Having worked with the Democratic Party at the grass roots level, Indivar says that while the Party faces challenges, things aren�t as dismal as they are being made out to be. "I think John Kerry ran a pretty good campaign. He proved the pundits who are always right, wrong by losing by such a narrow margin. I also feel that there are many more younger Americans including Indian Americans who care about politics and want to get involved and make a difference."
"Our parents came here with only one purpose-to make a better life for themselves and their children. Unlike us they never had the opportunity. So I�m very confident that this new phenomenon is here to stay."
"I also feel that many Indian parents are opening up to their kids doing other things than becoming doctors, lawyers and engineers. The other day my mom was complaining that there are no good Indian American actors and I said hmm so how would you feel if your son became an actor? For my mom my having dropped out of math was bad enough, having been such a super achiever herself-I saw the look of dismay on her face and said-see now you know why there aren�t any good young Indian actors here! I think even they have had to ease up."
Indivar is pretty laid back and his father Anjan attributes that very trait as the cause of his success. "My son can say in a line what every one else is trying to say in fifty. He is a great listener, a very difficult trait to master, and better still, ready to change his stance if he sees a lot of merit in it. Its tough for a democrat to usually do that. I see it more in my Republican friends."
In response to his father�s comment, Indivar says,"I have always felt that there is no need to be disrespectful to some one who�s ideology may be different from yours. At the same time I should be prepared to defend my views without petty attacks. I have also learnt that people change and you must give them that leeway. I was for the death penalty and now I�m against it. I see so much thrown at me each day that has forced me to re think or change my view point, so I don�t want to be unnecessarily judgmental. I have also seen gentle persuasion work much better than aggression. For example I read up on the plight of animals being slaughtered and their suffering that I turned vegetarian. A couple of my close friends argued with me to change my mind, but I didn�t judge them - after all this was how I too had been for 18 years. Through constant discussions done respectfully I managed to get them to see my point of view ands today both of them adhere to a pre-dominantly vegetarian diet."
"Of course there are people you are not likely to change overnight but if you are disrespectful you don�t even stand a chance."
Currently Indivar works at the Center for American Progress (www.americanprogress.org) on their new poverty initiative (http://www.americanprogress.org/site/pp.asp?c=biJRJ8OVF&b=1408631). Indivar says that interning at the Chicago office of U.S. Senator Richard J. Durbin (D-IL), and working with Freedman Consulting, LLC consulting on various political campaigns and a global hunger project, along with his other work has made him even more committed to working for the underprivileged.
"My parents have taught me the value of money, and I appreciate the good things it brings, but let me just say that I happen to have found other things and not a fat pay check, to enrich me. I refuse to judge my success by the money I make. If I can make a difference in even one person�s life, I will consider myself successful, in the highest possible way."
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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these columns are solely those of the interviewee(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the editor/publisher.
All Material © Copyright Kavita Chhibber.
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