In this week’s New Voices story, “Different” by Sinyda Bhanoo, Dr. Chandrasekharan’s life is thrown into disarray when a reporter from the local newspaper calls to ask questions about alleged misconduct on his part, involving his students and unpaid housework. Even worse, the university is opening an investigation into the allegations. Chand must understand, going back to when he was a graduate student himself, “Things were different then.”
Chand collected saliva into a ball in his mouth and pushed it through the gap between his two front teeth. The “incident” two years ago had been nothing, over before it started. John had said so himself. Just a student who had complained to the department about having to housesit without compensation. So much had happened in the last two years that Chand had forgotten about it. Since then, he had won one major federal grant, published four papers, presented at a half-a-dozen major conferences, and seen three former graduate students receive tenure at prestigious research universities.
For three decades, Chand gave his Indian graduate students his house keys when he and Raji left town. He told them to relax and use his spacious home as a place to rest and study, to use the hot tub in the back, and the grill, as long as they did not put beef on it. “Sleep in the guest bedroom,” he said. “Escape your dreary apartments.” It gave him pleasure to offer comforts that graduate student stipends could not afford. In his home, students could watch satellite channels like Zee TV and TV Asia and catch up on episodes of Koffee with Karan and Kaun Banega Crorepati. Before Skype and WhatsApp and FaceTime, some students made long distance phone calls from his landline. Chand never charged them for it. He treated them like family, because their own families were so far away.
He had been a graduate student once, in a small town in Montana, tens of thousands of miles away from Vellore, his hometown in South India. Things were different then. When he moved to America, he called his parents once every three months, and was careful to think through what to say before dialing. Back then, calls cost three dollars for the first minute and one dollar for every minute thereafter. He remembered the loneliness, the immense sorrow that came from going months without uttering a word of Tamil. There was no way for him to express certain thoughts, certain feelings, in the English language. He remembered the warmth he felt when the one Indian professor on campus, a Punjabi chemical engineer named Dr. Gupta, occasionally invited him to his home for dinner.
In the early days, there had been almost no age difference between Chand and his students. He was like their older brother. When male students arrived, if they had no apartment to live in, he offered them the couch and a sleeping bag for as long as they needed it. He drove them to campus and took them out to lunch. With female students he was courteous and helpful, but careful not to be too nice. He knew that lunch with an unmarried girl could easily be seen as something different than what he intended. When he turned twenty-eight, he flew to India and married Raji, his selection from a shortlist of potential brides his parents had ready for him. He selected Raji for her sturdy build, and her steady gaze. Unlike the others, she did not look away when he spoke to her.
After Raji joined him in Pullman, they threw dinner parties for Indian graduate students several times a year. She cooked vats of food and sent students home with full stomachs and generous leftovers. Ziploc bags and Tupperware containers full of cinnamon and clove infused pulao made with Basmati rice and korma, with coconut milk and ground cashew nuts. When a Hindu student and a Muslim student fell in love and failed to win the approval of their parents in India, he and Raji held a small wedding for them in their own backyard. The bride wore a strand of jasmine in her hair, made with flowers Raji ordered from Seattle.
Chand and Raji invited Indian graduate students over for all the holidays that Americans gather for, when foreigners don’t know what to do. Easter, Christmas, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving, which for years had been a festive, fusion meal in Chand and Raji’s house. Their older son, Mo, always made turkey with black pepper brine. Raji and Deepa, Mo’s wife, took care of the Indian food.