As the door in the back of the courtroom opened, I watched the jurors file in. I looked at my three trial partners and my client before I fixed my face into its well-worn litigator mask, presenting a stoic, cool gaze forward. In a ten-week-long trial with thousands of government and defense exhibits, the jurors had deliberated for only two days. It was December 21, 2011—four days before Christmas. Maybe the jury just wanted this ordeal to be over. I felt optimistic as I watched the jurors. My trial team and I believed that our client Tarek was no terrorist.
Then, I saw a juror in the front row wipe her eyes with the crumpled white tissue in her hand. She cast her flushed face to the ground and angled her shoulders away from us. I could appreciate the pressure those jurors must have felt. But what did the tears mean?
The judge, who later would preside over the Boston Marathon bomber trial, took the bench, and the clerk stood up to read the verdict. I held my breath as he read each charge, count number, and verdict in a monotone voice without looking up from the papers in his hand. On all seven counts of terrorism-related offenses, the jury had found our client guilty.
I expected to hear a “Not” before every count, hoping that the clerk had misread his sheet. But I heard the verdict in single-syllable staccato rhythm, offset by the sound of a mouth pressed against cloth to suppress a low, throbbing moan. I turned around to see that beneath her silk hijab, Tarek’s mother’s face had gone ghostly white as she buried herself in her other son’s arms.
That was it. My client, a now convicted terrorist, faced life in prison for crimes I believed he did not commit. After twelve years of practicing law, I quit.
Nine months later, I found myself across the Charles River in ivy-covered libraries, as a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School.
“Divinity School? Well, that’s interesting,” my friends said, supportive but confused when I told them about my decision to leave the law and go back to school. My friends all knew me as raised Hindu but apathetic about religion.
I could not exactly say what drew me to Divinity School. Maybe it was walking past the bushes near the classrooms where I could hear sparrows singing to each other, maybe it was watching an orange-robed monk delivering books to the Andover Library on his bicycle, or maybe it was the reverential, loving silence in the chapel and meditation room. I felt a spiritual halo of acceptance around the campus, like wounded warriors who cared deeply about others gathered here. These people understood how caring could feel like a blessing and a curse, how guilt was a bedfellow of compassion.
As the winter snow buried the leaves in Harvard Yard, I convinced myself that there had to be a way to serve others and take care of myself too.
In my childhood home, my mother had washed out an old Smuckers jam jar and filled it with almonds. The jar sat on our kitchen counter. My parents told me that almonds were expensive in India, a delicacy they seldom enjoyed. Almonds were thought to make people smart, which mattered in India because education was notoriously competitive. The first thing my parents bought when they earned money in America was a giant bag of almonds as a talisman for success. At breakfast, my mom or dad would twist off the lid of that jar and pour almonds into the palm of their hand. They counted out seven and handed them to me. They did the same for my sister and my brother.
“Eat saat badaam, to make you smart,” they said.
In this small act, my parents showed me care. Those seven almonds made me feel strong and loved.
I told my professor and advisor Michael D. Jackson that I wanted to veer away from writing about criminal justice for a while to explore my personal history. A distinguished anthropologist and poet, an author of over twenty books, and a beloved professor at Harvard Divinity School, Michael loved the idea. I learned from him that while the canvas of my life was textured with my clients’ stories, many images lay buried underneath. I felt compelled to excavate my family’s past.
My work began with my parents, and of the two, I started with the one I knew the least about: my father. I knew that he had grown up a poor farmer in rural India and later became a prominent doctor in Houston, Texas. Until now, this single sentence stood alone in describing over six decades of his life.
My father had always been a quiet man. Every now and then in my youth, I woke up early to travel or study for some test and migrated down our carpeted stairs to see the shadow of my father sitting on our peach leather sofa, fully dressed in a suit and tie with his beeper fastened to his belt buckle. With his hair neatly parted to the side, his eyes closed, and his fingers interlocked and resting on his lap, he sat there before beginning the first of dozens of endoscopies all over Houston.
I never mistook my father’s reticence as dismissive or unapproachable. To the contrary, the same man let his three children dress him up as “Junior,” a boy who dressed like a girl, wore short pigtails tied off with pink rubber bands, and loved meeting friends at tea parties. That sounds strange. Let me clarify.
As my father tried to nap on Sunday afternoons after being on call the night before, my brother, sister, and I tiptoed into his bedroom and retrieved my mom’s long nightgown, ribbons, and bangles from her closet. He lay supine while we hung the nightgown over his body, draping the geometric-patterned polyester fabric over his round belly as it rose and fell through quiet snores. We tied his hair into antenna-like pigtails and slipped shimmery Indian bangles on his wrist. Then, the three of us invented dialogue about “Junior” being so tired but needing to go to a tea party.
“Oh, I’m so sleepy, but yummy tea! I can’t wait to see Nancy and Guido. How I love a party!” I said, as my brother and sister alternately nodded and giggled.
My father half-slept through the skits and smiled on cue. When we left, he kept everything on and nodded back off to sleep. My dad, quiet as he was, loved playing with his kids and indulged every silly request we made of him.
What he did not do was regale us with stories about his past. I tried to fill in the gaps of who he was and where he came from with research, but I failed there too. I could find no traces of my father’s past in school or church records, photographs, or handwritten mementos. Even his birthday was a mystery because no one recorded the date. My grandmother guessed that my father was born sometime in late August because she remembered the village chanting, oil-burning candles, and festooned temples for Lord Krishna’s birth around then, a festive holiday called Janmashthami. Poor people leave no footprints of their lives.
The summer after my first year in Divinity School, I tried a different fact-gathering tactic. I handed my dad a digital recorder and instructed him to dictate his life story to me.
“How, like from beginning to end?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I told him.
“Any rules of what you want me to say?”
“No, just give me details.”
He sat down in the high-backed leather chair in his home office, pressed the red “Record” button, and told me his life story. Dictation, it seemed, came naturally to my father after over thirty years of doing it as a doctor. With neither approval nor disbelief hanging over him as he spoke, his narration sounded unencumbered. I transcribed the dictation into over a hundred pages of single-spaced notes. I listened to the recordings and knew that we needed to travel to see his past, that what he was describing to me was an unfinished story. Given my own departure from my law practice, I knew how living an unfinished story felt.
On that summer visit home, I noticed slight changes in both of my parents. I watched my mother walk slowly in her orthopedic shoes, shifting the weight in her swollen ankles from one step to the next. I saw a battery of pills in the kitchen cabinet—for high blood pressure and muscular pain. My father too moved half a step behind me, though he continued to walk ten miles with neighborhood friends in the humid fog of Houston mornings. He still practiced full-time as a gastroenterologist and was strong in his physical and mental acuity. But I began to worry that my time to draw stories out of them and travel down unpaved village roads could be shrinking.
I sat down with our hectic schedules and booked time to visit sites of my parents’ past. The two local trips to New York and rural Virginia were straightforward. But I also told them that it was imperative that we go to India—just the three of us. Traveling to three places in the span of nine months was challenging, to say the least. My father saw a hundred patients a week in his gastroenterology practice, while I managed a graduate school workload and had two young children who I had never traveled away from for more than a few days. We planned to spend two days in Jamaica, New York; three days in Big Stone Gap, Virginia; and nine days in India, which included nearly four days of just international travel. I scheduled five days in India to visit three places: my father’s birthplace, a city I had never even heard of before named Karmal; Panetha, the village in which he grew up; and Vadodara, the city where he attended college and medical school.
The first place I wanted to see was my father’s home when he moved from his quiet village to the big city of Vadodara. His dictated voice as he described this place told me what I had feared all along: that I didn’t know my father at all.
“One evening, I went alone to the farm and started thinking that I have no one to guide me about what I am supposed to do with my life. I had graduated from tenth and eleventh grade with honors, and my teacher asked me which college I wanted to go to. I went home upset because no one from my home was educated. No one could give me advice,” my father spoke into the recorder. “The principal of my school called me to his home for dinner and said he would be happy to help me find a college. I told him that my aunt lived in a big city called Vadodara. He said yes, they have an excellent school there, probably the best school in the country. I decided that I would go there for college.”
At 18, my father was finally ready to say goodbye to the dirt footpaths, banyan trees, and sugar cane fields of his quiet village. His mother had sold most of her jewelry over the years to finance my father’s education, a few rupees here and there to pay meager school fees and buy books. She and his two uncles secreted away what money they could as my dad set off to begin life in a city that buzzed with rickshaws, scooters, buses, cows, and elephants. Most of his family called my father selfish for going to school. As the eldest son, he bore a duty to work the family business of harvesting the banana, castor oil, and sugar cane fields, a laborious undertaking tied to the whims of the clouds. Seeking an education was a luxury reserved for the elite. My father was wasting his time, they said. “Once a farmer, always a farmer—you idiot.”
But my father needed to find a way out of poverty, whatever his odds of success. He slipped on his sandals and packed the three sets of clothes he owned and a steel container of daal and rice into a frayed khaki-colored knapsack. He and his uncle rode a bullock cart from their village to the holy Narmada River, crossed the river by boat, and then rode a bus to the big university city of Vadodara, where my father was determined to study medicine.
My dad expected his aunt to let him stay with her in Vadodara. She had married a well-to-do owner of a manufacturing plant and lived in a spacious flat near the university. She had no children of her own. But when he and his uncle arrived, in the summer of 1965, the aunt refused to help. Her brother pleaded with her. She persisted that would not let my father live with her but conceded that the room below her flat was empty. She said that my dad could sleep there, as long as he performed household chores for her in addition to paying rent. He washed dirtied steel containers after meals, scrubbed and hand-dried laundry, and swept the floors of her flat with a bundle of rigid reeds. In other words, he worked for them like a servant. My dad turned his cotton bag into his sofa and bed. His aunt refused to help him obtain water for drinking or laundry, so my father collected water from the pipe next to the bathroom.
My father described his living conditions to me in dictation:
The room size was 4 feet by 6 feet, with a very tiny window and no light from outside. Day and night, you have to run the lamp to see the room. It was located just across from the toilet, and underneath, there was a big gutter going through the room. The next-door neighbors were from Mumbai, and they worked in the business of selling fish. The fish smelled horrible, and being a vegetarian, I could not take the smell. I tried to explain this to my uncle, and he said you have to get used to it because there is no other place to stay.
I knew when I read this that whatever research I had done was hollow because though I could hear my father’s voice and visualize this room, I could not feel what he was feeling. The oral history, my dad’s drawings of the room, and my Internet research left this episode flat. I could not imagine what I would see and feel in India.
Six months later, in December of 2013, I followed my dad down a dirt road in Vadodara to see his first college residence. “It’s here, this way,” he pointed. As I walked around the dirt, misshapen rocks, and garbage on the street, I felt my mouth twist into a grimace like a wrung out washcloth. Pipes hung off the exterior walls of buildings. Bright cotton pants and shirts turned inside out surrendered themselves to the sun over wires tacked to the walls. Women wearing thin, polyester saris stepped out of their front doors. Their children, dressed in mismatched swatches of fabric, hugged their mothers’ knees from the side, their eyes agape. I smiled at them, embarrassed that our visit had drawn such attention.
In this narrow alley off a busy main road, my father stopped at a grimy window about a foot off the ground. The room bore a single opening to the outside world, roughly two feet by two feet in size. A box fan blocked the aperture, as did three rows of rusted bars with a divider in the middle. I imagined the sun could hardly reach inside that room. What I did see was a tiny footprint of floor space above a gutter.
We visited my dad’s home with his old college friend, Meena Auntie, who was wealthy and would later change my father’s life with her family’s generosity to him. But she never knew he had lived like this. “I never told your mom about this place. I never brought my friends from school here either,” my dad told me.
That day, he walked down the alley with his left hand crooked behind his back and his right hand gesturing to the building and the tiny windows of his home. He looked up at me every now and again but described the place like he was telling me about a medical procedure—factually, clinically, serenely. He paused at the end, his eyes moist but smiling. “Well, this is my story,” he said in Gujarati. I laughed, he laughed—what else were we supposed to do with that nervous energy? But I felt a starburst sensation in my chest as we stood there, like how I felt when I waited for the verdict in Tarek’s trial. Seeing his past hurt even if I was standing in a time machine and knew about his happier future. But there he was, smiling. “No fun, Dad,” was the stupid thing I said to him in English as we walked away.
That night, I remembered my own first day of college. My parents, my sister, my brother, and I drove down steamy Interstate 10 from Houston to San Antonio in a red and yellow Chevy Suburban crammed with boxes. My mom and dad helped me choose between the red rose floral bedding and the pink peony set. They bought me matching towels from Target and a translucent white shower caddy. I folded one smart new outfit after another into suitcases. My parents reassured me that the rain that day was good luck for the first day of college. After they dropped their eldest daughter in a three-story red brick dorm to live on her own for the first time, they cheered themselves up with large vanilla milkshakes at the McDonald’s off the W.W. White Road freeway exit. They stopped at that W.W. White Road McDonald’s for milkshakes every time they left San Antonio for the four years I lived there. Not one aspect of my move to college resembled my dad’s experience.
Amidst the knapsack beds and the floral pillowcases, I realized how unprepared I was for the trip to India, even though I had planned it for months. I had conducted my research like it was a trial. I three-hole punched maps, highlighted and annotated articles, and handwritten notes into binders, subdivided by city. I read books about how to conduct field research. I expected to stroll through a living album of weathered photographs with my parents. I failed to consider how the moments in those two-dimensional memories would make us feel.
Why was my father not angry? Why did he not tell us about the hardships he endured? How could a person’s conviction be so strong as to tolerate living like this? How could he have given us a childhood so opposite of his own? It dawned on me that though my father never spoke to me about it, I learned about conviction and grit from him. He expressed no complaint, no blame, and no revenge around how he grew up. He believed just that strongly that he could will his way out of whatever obstacle lay in his path. He controlled his destiny, and with this feeling of control came a companion feeling of forgiveness.
I understood then what Tarek’s trial had depleted in me. After that verdict, I had stopped believing in my work as a public defender. I felt angry, the criminal justice system felt hopeless, and I felt like the pain of the work was an insurmountable obstacle.
But in India, I captured an image to display next to my despondency, an image of my father talking to his daughter on that dirt footpath, smiling.
Yet, my Divinity School experience still felt incomplete. I decided that it was time to visit Tarek in prison.
I emailed two of my trial partners, Janice and John, to see if they would join me. Spunky red-headed Janice who had spent over thirty years of her life defending the underserved and former Seventeen Magazine Asian Teen Hearththrob John who had as pure and lovely a soul as he did a face were my partners, my friends, and my family. Janice could not make the trip, but John agreed to come with me. We bought tickets to St. Louis, Missouri and met there that August. After long connecting flights, we drove for two hours to Marion, Illinois and checked into a decent Drury Inn hotel off the freeway. As we ate soggy scrambled eggs the next morning, we wondered how Tarek was doing since we last saw him two years ago.
“He’s going to hug you for a long time,” I advised John. Tarek would not touch me because his faith forbade it, and he had not had a “contact visit” with anyone for months because while attorneys could physically sit with inmates, family members visited through a thick glass wall. John would be his wellspring of affection.
We drove to the United States Penitentiary and checked in at the front desk with a chubby guard perched atop a high silver stool. We introduced ourselves and told him that we had traveled a long way to see our client. The guard looked up over his smudgy glasses and shared that he traveled a long way every day, as he lived with his mother in a town two hours away from Marion. “That’s nice that you live with your mother,” I commented, truly envious. I complimented the prison grounds as the most beautiful I had ever seen, green and neatly manicured as they were.
John and I then walked through security, and a different guard escorted us to the attorney meeting rooms where they would bring Tarek. A few minutes later, we saw him walk down the hallway. Tarek’s face lit up into an electric smile as he reached for the doorknob. As expected, he held John in a long, tight embrace. We stayed for about two hours and then said our goodbyes.
“I’m so glad we did this,” John said to me as we walked to the parking lot.
And then John and I had to see to our ritual, something we did when we last visited Tarek in a Massachusetts prison and in the intervening months while I was in Divinity School—we hunted down a McDonald’s before driving back to the airport. Diet Coke, Chicken McNuggets, and a Big Mac for John. Veggie Big Mac and lemonade for me. Two buckets of fries for us both. And then, after we ate all of that, we stood back in line for two hot fudge sundaes with peanuts. With cholesterol, oil, and sugar, ceremoniously consumed only on these special occasions, we celebrated friendship amidst the otherwise bleak profession we both inhabited, just as my parents had celebrated family amidst their sense of loss. The unbridled freedom and excess of it, under the ubiquitous, all-American golden arches, allowed us to exert some control over something that made us feel helpless.
No appeal saved Tarek. The United States Supreme Court denied review of his case two months after our visit. Tarek will serve out a 17.5-year sentence in a prison hundreds of miles away from his parents.
And as for me, I knew within days of my visit to Marion that I needed to resume my law practice. I fought that decision for a long time, unsure of whether I could handle the sadness of the work again. But I am my father’s daughter. Like him, I can acknowledge pain but also believe in goodness—in defendants, prosecutors, judges, law enforcement, and public defenders alike. I believed again that my little part-time law practice makes a difference, even when I lose.
Photographs provided by author.