Introduction: A Fateful Day

Natwar Gandhi
04-08-2019

November 7, 2007, was supposed to be the most glorious day of my professional career. Born in a dirt-poor village near India’s west coast, I arrived in the U.S. with $7, studied hard, and worked harder to arrive at a moment when all of my struggles and accomplishments would be recognized, even honored.

That morning I put on a freshly ironed white shirt, my best suit and black shoes especially polished for the day. My wife, Nalini, put on her most beautiful saree and favorite jewelry that she had brought from India. Our two adult children were also well dressed. I planned to take my family and a few friends that evening to Washington’s historic Willard Hotel for a glittering event at which Governing Magazine was honoring me with its prestigious “Public Official of the Year” award, established to “recognize and celebrate exceptional public leadership.”

I was going to receive the award at a gala ceremony also honoring Christine Gregoire, governor of the state of Washington; Fabian Nunez, speaker of the California Assembly; William White, mayor of Houston, Texas; and William Bratton, chief of police of Los Angeles, California. I could hardly wait till evening, when I would be honored as a distinguished public servant among these luminaries.

The day failed to unfold as I had hoped.

Very early that morning, as I was polishing my shoes, FBI agents knocked on the door of Harriet Walters, a mid-level official in the District of Columbia’s tax office. They roused her from bed and arrested her on charges of masterminding a major embezzlement scheme. They accused her of conspiring to siphon off $50 million in tax receipts over the course of nearly 20 years—under the noses of the agency’s leaders, including myself. For the past decade, I had been Harriet Walters’s boss, first as tax commissioner for the District, then as its chief financial officer.

That afternoon the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia held a press conference to provide details about the investigation into the corruption. City leaders lined up behind him included Mayor Adrian Fenty and me, the city’s CFO. The ever-aggressive Washington media attacked the District’s young mayor and accused him of a lack of vigilant management. How could such embezzlement go undetected for so many years?

Ignoring protocol, I rushed to the microphones and faced the cameras.

“It’s not the mayor’s fault,” I said. “If anyone was responsible, it has to be me. I was in charge of the tax office.”

Under the District’s unique governance structure, the CFO controlled the entire financial administration, including its tax office. “I am the CFO. Therefore, I should be the one held responsible.”

Suddenly the bright lights and TV cameras turned on me, and I was hammered with rapid-fire questions from reporters. So much for the day that should have been my crowning achievement.

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Ever since I moved to Washington in 1976, I had dreamed of being the focus of a press conference. I had imagined the president appointing me to direct a major federal agency. I would stand there enjoying my 15 minutes of fame. Press photographers would click their cameras as I listened to endless encomiums coming my way.

This press conference on November 7, 2007, however, was not the one that I had imagined. It basically appeared to end my dreams. Nothing good could come of this attention. I was being branded as a negligent manager under whose eyes a mid-level bureaucrat had been able to commit major embezzlement. The next day, and for weeks to come, The Washington Post and other papers carried news of the scandal on their front pages. I was an object of derision. The Post skewered the city government in editorials and depicted me in a derisive political cartoon. The scandal made news for what seemed an eternity. What I had foreseen as my 15 minutes of fame instead became 15 months of infamy and agony.

During those dark days, it was a foregone conclusion that I was a dead man walking. Every day I arrived at the office expecting a new revelation about the ever-expanding scandal. The pressure on me was so great that some of my friends and well-wishers thought I might emotionally unravel, that I might just throw in the towel and leave the city.

I didn’t. I couldn’t. I persevered. In the end, it is nothing short of a miracle that I survived the scandal and remained the District’s CFO for six more years. I provided crucial financial leadership during the Great Recession, when the District was under severe financial duress along with most state and local governments.

How did I manage that?

First of all, it was a matter of professional pride. I was determined not to let the scandal define me. If it happened on my watch—which it did—I would do whatever it took to fix it. Second, I wanted to restore my reputation. When I had joined the District in 1997 as its tax commissioner, the tax office was mostly broken. Practically nothing worked. The city was insolvent—it had run out of cash. But after more than a decade under my watch, the District was financially stable, flush with cash, its reputation on Wall Street restored. I was not going to let this scandal be the last word on my tenure in the city.

People often ask how I survived such a professional calamity.

Simple. I have an immigrant’s survival instinct. I have been through worse in my life. From my earliest days, I swam against the tides of traditional Indian culture. No matter what they say, Indians generally worship money and material success. We are a smart, disciplined and shrewd people, but we can be crass.

We measure success by the size of one’s bank account, the number of rooms in one’s home, the make of one’s car. That’s why my father urged me to become a successful businessman in Mumbai—to make money, show it off and send it home to support the family.

“Make money, not poetry!” he would yell at me. I recoiled and rebelled.

Blame it on Abraham Lincoln. And Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson and Ralph Waldo Emerson. And above all Mahatma Gandhi. They were my heroes; I wanted to be like them.  

Gandhi was a rather a curious case. In his autobiography, he presents a self-deprecating portrait of himself. As a young boy he was afraid of darkness. He was not a particularly good student. He barely made it through his bar exam in London. He could not argue his first case in court because he was too timid. He failed as a lawyer in Mumbai and left to go to South Africa to see whether he could make a living there. Some years later when he appeared before the Indian National Congress to present a resolution, he could not speak in front of such a gathering. His autobiography is a rich catalogue of his weaknesses and failings, particularly in his early life. Reading it as an impressionable young boy, I wondered… If such a weakling could become the Mahatma, why not me?

While my more enterprising peers in Mumbai were immersed in commerce, I was steeped in American literature and biography. My eyes were set on people like Lincoln, who changed the world for the better, rather than on those who made millions from building and selling a better mousetrap.

My ambition was to be a man of consequence. As a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, I wanted to be more than just an academic. I wanted be like Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, a much-celebrated writer and public-policy intellectual, who was once President Kennedy's ambassador to India and a major player in the Democratic Party during the 1950s and ‘60s. At the General Accounting Office, I strived to have an impact on public policy. My aim was to make a positive difference in the world. I refused to be ignored.

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In the age of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” survival instincts have become a necessity for Asian immigrants, among many others. On February 22, 2017, a young Indian software engineer named Srinivas Kuchibhotla was having a drink after work at his favorite bar in a small town southwest of Kansas City, where he and his wife had made their home. A disgruntled former Navy man named Adam Purinton confronted him and his friend, shouted racist slurs and said “get out of my country” before shooting Kuchibhotla. A few weeks shy of his 33rd birthday, he died of his wounds. Later Purinton pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. India’s minister of external affairs tweeted: “I am shocked at the shooting incident in Kansas in which Srinivas Kuchibhotla has been killed. My heartfelt condolences to the bereaved family.” That was cold comfort to his mother, who said: “Now I want my younger son, Sai Kiran, and his family to come back for good. I will not allow them to go back.”

No doubt Kuchibhotla’s tragic death is a sign of the times. All of a sudden, a climate of fear has spread across immigrant communities, including among South Asians who have made this country their home. His widow, Sunayana Dumala, asked on her Facebook page: “Do we belong here? Is this the same country we dreamed of and is it still secure to raise our families and children here?”

I confronted that question in 1965 when I contemplated my prospects in the teeming streets of Mumbai. Like Kuchibhotla, I was itching for adventure. For me, an impoverished young man, the answer was clear: Go west, young man—go to America! I boarded an Air India flight in 1965 on a one-way ticket that took me across the oceans, not knowing when, if ever, I would return.

But why did I choose America? Why not elsewhere in the West? Millions of Indians have migrated to Canada, Great Britain, Australia and even to non-English-speaking countries of Europe. Some have even gone to Russia! Similarly, some Indians have also made their home in the burgeoning economies of East Asia or the Middle East. In an earlier era, they had gone to Africa to make their fortunes. 

I chose America because more than any other country it has the tradition of accepting and absorbing immigrants. It gives them a chance to remake their life and I got that chance for a life that would otherwise have been wasted in India. Here, at last, what matters is what I know and can do and not where I come from or how I look or what my hereditary lineage is.

For an immigrant with skills, America is heaven if you know what you want to do with your life and are willing to work at it. Only in America can an Asian immigrant like me become the chief financial officer of the nation’s capital. This nation’s generous people open their hearts and doors to immigrants like me and let them pursue their dreams. And that is why America is still the most favored destination for tens of millions around the world. The best and brightest as well as the tired and poor come to America, invited or not. Surveys show—and images from the evening news confirm—that people want to come here even when risking their lives.

My story is both cautionary and instructive, difficult yet uplifting. Ultimately, it is a harrowing tale of how to survive in India and succeed in America. It was an uncertain beginning, in some ways even more difficult than immigrants face today. In this winter of American discontent, when a presidential candidate rode into the White House based in part on his anti-immigrant rhetoric, it is rather quaint to say, as I do, “America is still the promised land for immigrants like me.” Especially when Indians and Asians have been targets of some of the worst violence against America’s newcomers.

In singing America’s glory, I am not ignoring what is bad and ugly here.  Like anyone I also see crime, drugs, social promiscuity, homelessness, profound economic inequality, racial discrimination and, above all, its toxic, special-interest-driven tribal politics that have debased the public square.  And, yes, I too feel the sting of discrimination—crank calls from crazies telling me to go back home. But where would I go? This is my home, now and forever!

Most Americans take their country for granted. I don’t. I know better. I am from the Old World, where America is still the place to go. When I hear people denigrating America, I am reminded of a poem by Ray Bradbury:

America

We are the dream that other people dream.
The land where other people land
When late at night, they think on flight
And, flying, here arrive
Where we fools dumbly thrive ourselves.

Refuse to see
We be what all the world would like to be.

How dumb! Newcomers cry, you are mad! They shout,
We’d sell our souls if we could be you.
How come you cannot see the way we see you?

You be the hoped-for thing a hopeless world would be.
You are the dream that other people dream.

I am a citizen now, and celebrate July 4th. But the day of my biggest celebration each year is October 10th. On that day in 1965, I landed in America. That is my Independence Day. Here’s how I found my way to America and achieved the American dream.

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features