Friday, February 10, 2006

Good luck Brian, where ever you are

I lived with a number of housemates in my first three-four years in the States. And it’s mostly been a fine experience, living with people from various cultures and backgrounds. Most of them were very friendly, some became good friends, some were strange or even disturbing, but the experience has always been enriching.

About two and a half years ago, I was living in this four-bedroom apartment with three other guys. One of them was Brian.

The first time I met him was when he moved in. He looked like the typical white, American graduate student, and greeted me with a cheery “hi”. But even after a short conversation with him, I knew he was far from typical.

He spoke with a “neutralized” accent…..a strange mixture of clipped New England, new world and old world! And over the months he stayed here, I got to know him much better, and found that he’d done in his short life more than most of us would do in many lifetimes.

He’d enlisted the marines after high school, in an impulsive moment (“I was young and didn’t know any better”, were the words he used). This surprised me significantly. Brian was just around five feet eight inches tall, skinny, ate organic food, and only bought fair-trade coffee and organic dark chocolate (good times, those). As un-marine as I could imagine a marine could be. And serving in the marines had enabled him to see much of the world. In some casual conversation, we steered from Darjeeling to Nepal to ghurkas, and he stunned me by saying that he’d served as liason on assignment in Haiti with a UN Peacekeeping force Ghurka regiment contingent (I don’t remember if it was the Ghurka regiment from the Indian army or the British army). And as proof, rummaged through his closet, and pulled out a magnificent ceremonial khukri, the famed and feared Ghurka blade. I lusted at it, remembering the time when I wanted to buy a cheap souvenir in Darjeeling for my mantelpiece.

It was a gift from a Ghurka officer in appreciation of his efficient work.

“And I was just a lowly private, while he was a major with his own orderly!”, was Brian’s modest response to my admiration.

Brian figured out that after a few years of service, the US Army would pay for a college education, so he took the first opportunity he got to go back to college. And there (I never got to know the exact details of how) he got interested in …..Persian!

So, after many years, here he was, a senior masters student in farsi! I gasped when I learnt this. And not only had he spent years studying the language, but now he was a fluent (almost accent less) speaker, and the teaching assistant for introductory Persian. He’d even been to Tehran for many months!

I learnt much about the country from him, and it’s customs and culture (yup, an Indian learning about Persia, a country with centuries of historic links with India, from an American). Many of his friends were Persian, and they would come over. And I learnt another unexpected fact. Iranians love good wines (yeah, yeah, they’re Moslem). I learnt that the (my now favorite) wine, Shiraz, probably originated from the Shiraz region in Iran. And I learnt that the best way to bribe a revolutionary guard (if you were caught dodging curfew) would be with a bottle of good French wine!

While talking about mountains and our fondness for hiking, he asked me about the Himalayas. I told him I’d seen Kanchenjunga, but hadn’t really climbed any thing at those heights. He casually mentioned that he’d spent six months in Morocco and Algeria, ostensibly learning Arabic, but mostly climbing the Atlas mountains! Apparently, learning Arabic was much, much harder than learning Farsi (contrary to popular imagination, the languages are not related one little bit), but Casablanca was a great place to hang out in.

Brian’s tastes in movies were as (if not more) eclectic than my own. It didn’t matter what language the movie was in, or what era it was from. I’d sometimes catch him practicing his French while watching a French classic. As I would dig in to a Hindi movie, he’d join me to often watch it. He was terribly excited when I re-watched Mughal-e-azam. “I can learn this language, it’s not very different from Farsi!” he exclaimed.

I told him even if he learnt to speak in refined Urdu, he’d be hard pressed to find a group large enough to fluently converse in it. And that instantly lead in to a discussion of Urdu’s development, and finally ended in how Sanskrit and Old-Persian were very closely related, and how modern Persian evolved from old-Persian (while I clutched feebly at my crippled Sanskrit).

One fine day, Brian came home, and told me he’d be leaving at the end of the quarter.

“Where to?” I asked.

Tajikistan, he replied, with a poker face.

“Are you serious? Tajikistan? Why on earth?” was my instant query.

And then I learnt that the Tajik language is directly derived from Persian, and is still very close to Farsi (and is not of Turkic origin, as I had mistakenly assumed, just because Uzbek is Turkic). Outside of Persia, Tajikistan is the best place in the world to study Persian.

“What about wars, and abductions and all that stuff?”, I asked.

“Oh, that stuff happens in all the countries around it. This place is totally safe”, replied Brian confidently, as I stared at him in disbelief (forgetting that he was a marine and had see war).

And so, Brian headed out to Tajikistan (leaving behind his movie collection with me for “safekeeping”).

It’s been two years now, and I haven’t heard from Brian since. I hope he’s ok, and is a master of the Persian language, and is back working for the US government. Or perhaps he met a beautiful Tajik village lass, and decided to settle down there.

Wherever you are Brian, good luck to you!


R.Nandakumar said...

let me join in wishing brian well.

and yes, superb post!

rads said...

Very nice piece of reading. Fascinating people the world is made of, and you sure are lucky to meet some of them when you stop and wonder how their minds work.

Anonymous said...

Hope for the best. There was one guy in my department who is a Turkish naval officer. When I came to Berkeley, he was not here. Was gone for two or three years, and he was back last year. Of course, cannot compare the two situations.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Encounters such as these is (are?) the stuff of life. Lovely read. I hope he's doing good as well.

Anonymous said...

And who but an American would have led such a life?

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
An excellent discription of a truly one-of-a-kind person.
That is one thing that makes graduate school an amazing experience: you get to meet so many fascinating people and really get to know them.

pippala leaf said...

Life is full of mysteries and surprises isn't it? Some people born with a single goal in their mind and some with multiple goals. Why is it so?'s a mystery too.

Govar said...

Out of the world stuff. Im hoping all the time to meet such interesting people in my life... too good to be true.

Sunil said...

Thanks Nandakumar.

Rads....yup....and universities (like Michael said) are fantastic for just this reason!
Vishnu...a post on that guy sometime?
Sujatha....i hope he's doing well too!
Srikanth....yes.....the freedom to follow your dreams is so much more here in America. Most of the country might be dull...but the interesting people are ...oh, so interesting!
Michael...yes indeed.
Madhu....that will remain one of life's mysteries.'s true...really!

santosh said...

Patrix, your a contributor to DesiPundit (am I wrong?). Isn't that free spirited enough :-)? I mean you are subverting print and news media, right? You are also doing what you love!!

Sunil said...

Patrix........indeed. Some of us are adventurers at heart......but know we can't go all the way! But DP's a start......may be, like Santosh might some day subvert print and news media!

Anonymous said...

This post was interesting and strangely, touching.

Sunil said...

anirudh.....glad you liked the post.

Patrix.....hehehe. But you better tread carefully. These desi rugs are rather treacherous.

Suhail said...

Let me join in wishing the best to Brian. And that is what I like abt the American grad-school system. If one is inclined s/he can learn absolutely anything they want and venture out into unchartered territories and get a taste of things. Most of us can just dream of such things. I've not done grad school here but when I hear such stories I just want to apply for some MS course and spend time learning random things without a thought of "making a career" out of it. Ofcourse this is not to say that Brian himself seems to possess that adventurous streak running in his veins which not many people have.
But what makes me mad is that not very many Americans utilise this opportunity. Is it simply a case of "ghar ki murgi daal barabar"? Or is there something more to it? If I am given such an opportunity, I'd never come out of univ until they kick me out :-) Wait, is it still possible...?
(ps: do you read old comments?)

Sunil said...

yes Suhail.....i read old comments.

And there's a reason why i'm still in university (and will stay in one as long as possible....with a post-doc, and then perhaps an assistant professorship or whatever.....any thing that'll keep me here). It's fun!

Suhail said...

Good for you Sunil
*insert Onida devil's envious looks here* :-)

I'll have more on this. Will write to you on email.

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Golden Boy said...

Hi there,
This article was an interesting read.... I am trying to learn Persian too...

Iran is a great country that kept its indeginous culture alive even after the Arabs conquered it and tried their best to quell the Persian Spirit of the common masses!

Even though Ahura Mazda is a thing of the past in Iran, the Sufi tradition is very much Persian in origin with great Persian writers, and Sufism does defy the version of Islam propogated by the Fanatics!

I love Iran, and I loved reading the article!

-Golden Boy