November 2nd, 2018
In 2004-2005, I was working in a bookstore near my college in New Delhi. Every day after classes, I would ride my motorbike and take over the shift at the store until almost midnight. During those shifts, I sold a lot of books and I read a lot of books. I also met a lot of new people. One of them was an American professor, Marie from Dallas, who strolled into the bookstore with her walking cane and her two wonderful kids. All three of them got immersed in the books, flipping pages, chatting with each other, and making their reading selections. I could tell they loved being in the bookstore. A few minutes passed by, and Marie and I also started talking about specific readings. I think we discussed Manju Kapur’s “Difficult Daughters” and that got us started. I don’t think I had such a long conversation with an American family before. We discussed many things: education, culture, readings, travels, and more. I had read that open, informed conversations build lifelong bonds. That’s what happened on that late evening in South Delhi’s New Friends Colony Community Center. Who could name it better! I have known Marie and her family since then. Through her, I met Sandy and her family. And then many more friends and families.
After college, I got a fellowship that allowed me to study anywhere in the world on a full ride. My choice to study in the US was strongly influenced by that curious, welcoming, and smiling American family who walked into the bookstore and spoke comfortably about the nuances of culture and social experiences. For a communication major, those things mattered a lot more. Three years later, I went to Appalachian Ohio to pursue a master’s degree in International Affairs. During college, I went to Dallas to celebrate Christmas with Marie. We bought the Christmas tree together, we went door-to-door singing Christmas carols with many friends in the neighborhood. Sandy lived almost next door. A few days later, Marie and her family had to travel while I still had a couple of days to stay in Dallas. So, I stayed with Sandy. That night of 2009 was the first night of Hanukkah. I devoured on latkes that Sandy made and served with sour cream. To have Sandy’s family around was deliciously amazing!
Fast forward three years: I picked up a career in public diplomacy. Fast forward five years: I founded a company on a simple idea of connecting people with people.
Spool back in Delhi in that bookstore: I got interested in another country whose people I had met, trusted, and enjoyed talking with.
That, to me, is the highest form of citizenship and patriotism: stuff you do and words you utter that gets people to look up to your country with a sense of positivity and trust. And you end up taking life decisions based on that positivity. No foreign policy can do it. No IMF can do it. It requires a human decency to appeal to another human decency. So, folks, go out and vote this November. Vote for someone who represents your decency, and who can walk into a bookstore in a foreign land and can make the bookseller fall in love with your nation. You deserve it. America needs it. More than ever.
Syed K Jamal is the CEO and Founder of Branta. He first came to the US as an international student before moving back to India. Since 2015, he has been living in the Seattle area with his wife, a 5-year old son, Ibru, and three cats who also came with him from India. Syed loves chai and storytelling, would love to host you for both. Email him at syed@goBranta.com.