2016 New England Choice Awards: An Evening of Gratitude and Inspiration
(Photographs courtesy of Dyuti Majumdar)
Kavita’s note: This is not coverage that I normally do as a journalist, because my son Gautam Narula was one of the recipients. What I am sharing here is a personal reflection.
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 co-found a humanitarian initiative, "A Leg to Stand On". 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.
|Dr. Vijay Kumar
||Dr. Dinesh Patel
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 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.
|Desh and Jayashree Deshpande
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.”
Jothi Raghavan is someone whose aura exudes, humility, goodness and warmth. To hear students and those who know her, speak highly of her both as mentor, guru and accomplished exponent of the classical arts, only confirmed my first impression of her. Her joy at what she experienced that day is evident in the lines she sent me. She is spiritually elevated. I know that for sure from our offline interactions.
“I am honored and humbled to be the recipient of this year’s New England choice award for arts and culture. It was a delight to see Deshpandes receiving the lifetime achievement award . They are such an inspiration to the community and lead by example . The event was meticulously planned and executed. It was both grand and intimate. Manju Seth and the entire team had gone that extra mile to make sure that event flowed flawlessly . It was great fun meeting so many of my friends from the past whom I had not seen in decades . It almost felt like a wedding in the family. Great job Manju and Upendra and INE team. Look forward to many more such joyous events.”
For Gouri Bannerji of Saheli, I am sure these 2 decades have been gratifying years of coming together with other like-minded people to help South Asian lives heal and educating the community about taboo topics. She shared these thoughts with me.
“In 2016 September Saheli Support and Friendship for South Asian Women celebrated its twentieth year of service to the South Asian community of Boston. The New England Choice Award was icing on our cake as it reaffirmed that the community believes that Saheli is doing important and necessary work and in the right way. Since receiving the award, many leaders from the Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Nepali community have called to congratulate us and many young women from these communities have expressed interest in working as volunteers for Saheli.”
“Saheli’s growth over the past twenty years has been steady, slow and deliberate as its committed leaders, volunteers and supporters wished it to be. Breaking the silence about domestic abuse and violence in a still very patriarchal culture, where most men have more power than women, has been challenging. Board members have persevered by being attentive to the needs of women, children and families and using resources very carefully. Raising funds to sustain the four part time staff members and pay rent for a small office has been an uphill battle, but we have been blessed by generous donations from our friends, supporters and family. The NECA award has reinvigorated us with the belief that even though the work is hard and resources are very limited, Saheli’s work is extremely important for the women and children who depend on us to be their friends, advocates and champions.”
Puran Dang has many firsts to his name. What fascinated Gautam was the fact that Pandit Nehru, one of Gautam’s heroes, gave the commencement address when Puran ji graduated among the first batch from IIT Kharagpur. The story of his life as a child of partition also resonated with me because my father is the same age as Puran ji and went through similar experiences. Manju has a special fondness for him. “He believed in me when I was not really known and had come up to me and told me, ’You will win Woman of the year.’ And since then he has always had words of encouragement for me.”
What touched me most was when Puran ji said that when he looked around he only saw friends and well-wishers in the audience. He sent me an email appreciating the stellar job done at the awards, apart from some very kind words about Gautam.
“India New England News and INE media did a great job in honoring the Indian American Community by holding this grand event. In my opinion, it not only brought 400+ members of our community together but also generated a wave of inspiration among all the people. Our community has done very well overall in various spheres but to honor those who excelled becomes a model for the younger generation to emulate and even achieve more.”
“Another thing which impressed me was there were 400 happy faces, jubilant and excited. This event created an atmosphere of Hope on every face and that made me very happy for the future. I am told that this event created such a sense of euphoria that the organizers are already getting nominations for next year.”
“If community is the subject this event achieved a very high grade and has inspired lot of people.”
Amar Sawhney was honored for entrepreneurship and impressed Gautam when he read how many patents (120) Amar had to his name, and how being rejected by 30 companies for a job did not deter Amar from turning into a highly successful serial entrepreneur. Amar said to me in another inspiring conversation that he was thrilled that the Indian community was no longer a stereotyped entity as before.
“The one thing I took away from the NECA awards is that we have a very rich and enduring group of people in a community that has developed a spectrum of capabilities. I was very heartened to see the community mature in the arts, sciences, finance, literature and a variety of different kinds of perspectives. And the awards were not given to just the usual stereotypical things that we are trying to look at in the community. It gave me great pleasure to see that today we are a vibrant, multi- dimensional community and it was a personal eye-opener for me to see how much, kids like your son are doing and how people are involved in so many different pursuits. That was to me, very heartening.”
Treasurer Deb Goldberg’s words were full of warmth as well. I think she is already an honorary Indian! “I am so honored to be here with all of you, and I am deeply humbled to be recognized along with so many distinguished leaders throughout the Indian community and New England,” said Goldberg, who was honored for outstanding leadership and public service. “I am but one of hundreds of people here tonight who could be recognized for service to the community.”
“You can feel the energy in the room. There are trailblazers here, from dozens of different fields, reconnecting with old friends and making new ones, across the arts, business, healthcare, youth leadership, and many other fields – all of which will greatly benefit our communities, our region, and our world. This event brings together luminaries who are renowned for catalyzing positive change in their respective industries, and who are sharing their success by creating more opportunities for others to excel.”
Harvard Pilgrim Health Care CEO Eric Schultz, is again a familiar face because of the support Harvard Pilgrim gives to the community in efforts to strengthen bonds and alliances.
|Treasurer Deb Goldberg
Everything was signature Manju. Her exclusive team of some amazingly talented people is her biggest asset. Manju highlights Upendra Mishra’s immeasurable influence on the success of the award show and her own path: “Upendra has equal contribution in this award show. He has been a believer in my dreams and it would have been impossible to execute the show without him and INE team. Our mutual respect and friendship have been the key to our success.”
|The INE team (L to R): Anupendra Sharma, Manju Sheth, Anu Chitrapu and Upendra Mishra.
Anu Chitrapu has been her partner in crime for many successful ventures and did a fantastic job of creating the videos. Her husband Ram Ramakrishnan and co emcee Anupendra Sharma ably supported the project. Anu said, “The 2016 NECA awards marked a significant milestone for the community in the New England area. Never before has the community witnessed an event like this where the recipients were recognized for their contributions. It was my honor to create short videos for each winner. Just the act of collecting materials for the video was inspiring in itself! It was amazing to learn about each of them and realize how much each individual has contributed and continues to contribute! The evening left the guests, the speakers and the organizers themselves in awe. Every one of us left the venue filled with pride and inspiration!”
People say two strong women cannot work together. “Anu and I are a prime example of that not being true," says Manju. “Mutual respect and leaving your ego at the door and working for the larger good are a great way to do well together.” Working with her small team of close and trustworthy friends of long standing, as well as other people who take pride in their work, are the key to these events being a success according to Manju.
That evening was such a celebration of the life of so many accomplished people, who as I discovered when I spoke to some of them a few days ago, also have their heart in the right place. To the awardees, success meant nurturing others to succeed. To them social responsibility wasn’t just about writing a check for a charity but getting their own feet wet, building bridges and inspiring others to do the same. It was also the first time I saw only positive energy, appreciation and such love emanating from every one of the 400 people.
Gautam was very humbled to be among such stars. He was better known in his state of Georgia for being a nationally ranked chess player and academic ace who was voted “ Most likely to succeed’ by his High School Peers. He had quietly moved to Boston in 2012 at 19 to write his book and to donate the proceeds to the Innocence Project.
Gautam Narula honored with the Youth Leadership Award.
And yet Boston has always been warm and welcoming to this former Southern boy, and he has loved being here even trying to reluctantly embrace the winter weather!
As he walked up to receive his award, the spontaneous standing ovation made me tear up. It was as if all the elders in the community had taken this young 23 year old, who had lost his father barely 19 days ago, under their protection and love. I felt like he had so many father figures, many of whom came to meet him afterwards to say words of appreciation and encouragement. But no one has nurtured and encouraged him as Manju has. I was very moved when she said to me “Gautam is the one person who left me in tears when he walked on stage. Being a mother of a teenager, you see so much going around you that worries you, but a young man like Gautam gives you hope and makes you believe, that even if there are ups and downs, everything will eventually be alright with the world because youngsters like him are there.”
One of my favorite sharing by Peggy Tabor Millin comes to mind “I was on a train on a rainy day. The train was slowing down to pull into a station. For some reason I became intent on watching the raindrops on the window. Two separate drops, pushed by the wind, merged into one for a moment and then divided again—each carrying with it a part of the other. Simply by that momentary touching, neither was what it had been before. And as each one went to touch other raindrops, it shared not only itself, but what it had gleaned from the other. I realized then that we never touch people so lightly that we do not leave a trace.”
It is true and if the intent is pure, if we help others succeed and rejoice in their success then everything will be alright. I am filled with deep gratitude at all the blessings my son received that night and continues to receive because he has a nurturing community that believes in him and his intent. If I took anything from the awards, it was that when we come together as people to love and honor each other, vibrations change and great things are achieved.
All Material © Copyright KavitaChhibber.com and respective photographers.
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