Publisher: Abington House
Lohit Datta-Barua was born in Assam, northeast India, in the late 1940s. Both he and Assam have complicated histories which he so eloquently explains in this heartfelt and touching memoir. Up until 1826 Assam, which now sits to the northeast of the triangular-shaped Indian subcontinent, was an independent country called Kamrup when it was annexed by the Colonial British government into mainland India through the convenient and narrow Siliguri Corridor, a strip of land locals refer to as the “Chicken Neck.” This touched off a clash of many ethnic cultures with many Assamese traditions and customs becoming absorbed, watered down, or forgotten; all the usual tumult and oppression that occurred when predominately white European empires expanded and greedily exploited the countries and continents of “people of color.”
The Brahmaputra River, which originates high in the Himalayan mountains, flows through the entirety of Assam on through Bangladesh before venting into the Sea of Bengal Datta-Barua’s first name of Lohit is in fact what the Assamese call the Brahmaputra which is the world’s ninth largest river in terms of gallons per minute discharge, and 15th longest river in terms of distance travelled. For Lohit Datta-Barua, the Brahmaputra’s most telling statistic is its 125 foot average depth with a strong undercurrent, because both his parents, along with two sons and a daughter, committed suicide by plunging themselves into it. They had another son, a baby boy who would come to be named Lohit, after the river he survived for reasons unknown, delivered him to shore in that ill-fated canoe where he was found and ultimately delivered to his maternal grandparents. He would always hold an affinity for the river which he always spells with a capital R and refers to as “He.”. He explains these events just before drawing his book to a close:
I was that baby. Lohit Datta-Barua is the one who survived the passage of death down the Brahmaputra River. My biological father’s despair drove him to kill his own children and then himself. His wife and the mother of their children joined him in their inconceivably desperate deed. I can’t imagine, why did she go along with him? How could she possibly have joined him, to drown the children who came from her womb and then willingly plunge herself into the cold depths of the mighty River? Why didn’t she go with the children to her parental home?…
The baby’s maternal grandparents in Guwahati were located and the baby was taken there. Baba [grandfather] and Aai [grandmother] raised the infant as their own (p. 185).
There were reasons why his biological parents didn’t reach out to any of their relatives: shame, pride, and the knowledge that these relatives weren’t doing any better economically than they were. His father was well-educated and a respected school teacher and still he and his family were starving. Additionally, India’s caste system that narrowly defines social standing based on profession placed his clan at the lower notches of its multilayered stratification; not as low as the destitute “untouchables” relegated to cleaning the human wastes of everyone above them, but not nearly high enough to be remotely considered well-off. Datta-Barua sums up the real problem early on in his memoir:
Poverty is a terrible disease. Being poor is like being sick forever (p. 6).
Growing up, his grandparents kept the secret of his parents end from him, but secrets such as this, that border between delicious and macabre gossip, can rarely be kept, and the truth leaked out in the dribbles and drabs that he really didn’t want to hear. But, there was really no avoiding it, and later in life he faced and defeated his personal demon. His grandmother was exceedingly kind, and as generous as the family’s circumstances would allow her to be, and their rundown home that was always in need of repair was also always full of people. Relatives were not turned away, beggars received whatever scraps of food the family could spare, there was more than enough love to do around, and he came to learn the two basic tenets of human kindness: 1.) Children belong to those who love them. 2.) Good people are wherever you find them.
In the India of that time the man had the final (and only) say in everything while woman were completely subservient. They couldn’t vote, they were blamed if they couldn’t bear a son, and they were not allowed to remarry if widowed while men were allowed to. He began to see the injustices inherent in their society and felt extreme empathy for his mother’s repressed situation. Still, he saw his father as a good and honest hardworking man tasked with supporting a large and constantly extending family. A man that basically worked and worried himself to death during Lohit’s late teenage years.
He loved the girl next door and secretly wanted to marry her, knowing full well the hurdles he would have to clear because her family was a few notches higher than his own in the caste system. Yet he felt that she loved him too, and that their love would conquer all.
Death confronted him throughout his childhood, especially that of his severely handicapped older brother who died at age 18 because his family could not afford the medical care that he needed.
He knew that education was his only ticket out. So, he studied meticulously, kept his grades up, and was accepted in 1965 into the engineering program offered at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science which was associated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States. This entailed a train ride across India to the western end of the country close to the desert. Thus he began his long incredible journey.
For Datta-Barua this journey was never easy. He was always struggling, always working, always paying off a long list of debts that arose from having to borrow money from friends and acquaintances to keep his dream alive, always unsure if he would make it, but his indomitable and tenacious spirit always kept him going. He arrived in America to obtain his Master’s Degree in engineering at the University of Houston with seven dollars in his pocket. His American sponsors and an assortment of encouraging professors generously helped him to succeed.
Returning home to Guwahati during his second year, to say his goodbyes to his ailing mother certain to die of liver cancer, he worked up the nerve to ask the love of his life for her hand in marriage, but was repelled by her mother. Crestfallen and heartbroken and perhaps on unsteady emotional legs, he accepted an arranged marriage orchestrated by one of his older brothers before leaving. In a culture where divorce is not an option, they had no choice but to make it work and they did. Returning with his new bride back to school in the United States, they both acquired master’s degrees in engineering, found employment, slowly rose economically through a series of upgraded houses, and raised two daughters who they strove to allow to be American but made certain to expose to traditional Assamese culture during visits home to India. Their older daughter acquired a Ph.D. from Stanford while the youngest became a M.D. after attending Princeton.
Datta-Barua climbed the corporate ladder through a series of high-profile jobs amongst Houston’s thriving oil and gas industry. Sometimes circumstances forced him to move laterally in the job market, but he never went backwards. He adopted American culture and saw where individual opportunity was better here than in his homeland and eventually he and his wife became citizens. After stops and starts, he acquired his own Ph.D. He quickly came to learn that if you want something in America, then you have to ask for it, and he overcame his shyness and spoke up. However, once exposed to injustice in his homeland and knowing it for what it is, he saw things that were unfair in his new country and writes passionately about eradicating them. And he takes straight aim at the modern Indian government writing:
People in the United States and elsewhere hear about India’s growing economy, a booming middle class-which is a misnomer, because even if a rising middle class comprises 30 percent of the population, that leaves another 700 million people living on next to nothing, with little prospects of improving their abysmally low standard of living (p.176).
It isn’t just in India, as those comprising the lower half of it know full well that there are, in realty, two Americas. Both countries have much work to do.
Datta-Barua is a humanitarian who believes in simultaneously giving back and paying it forward. He works at food banks and runs marathon races for charity. He even climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, being sponsored by charitable pledges. He ran what he refers to as a “clean campaign” for an unpaid position on a Houston School Board coming in second, but remains unfazed and optimistic. You just have to root for a guy like that.
Immersed in the seventh decade of his extraordinary life he has been everywhere and done everything. His long journey has landed him on all of the world’s seven continents, and he has lived for extended periods in Angola and Colombia, and he shows no signs of slowing down.
At its core, this is a story of the triumph of the human spirit against seemingly impossible odds, but even more than that, it is a clarion call to those that have to consider the plight of those that have not and to reach out and help them. All proceeds of this book are dedicated to the support of orphanages back in Assam, and Datta-Barua has a special place in his heart for all of the world’s orphans, realizing just how close he came to being one himself. He states early on in his book:
An astounding 153 million children are growing up as orphans. Sixty-nine million children suffer from malnutrition, Sixty-one million children of primary-school age are out of school. Every day, more than 16,000 children die who are under the age of five. Children need our help. They need food, shelter, health care, education, and security. And they need parental love (p. 2).
This is a noteworthy and important book well worth purchasing if for no other reason than it unequivocally reaffirms that children belong to those that love them. The only disappointing aspect of this book is that some of the text is noticeably slanted which might turn readers off.