Legacies I Defend Survivors to Keep My Grandfather’s Legacy Alive
If my grandfather could remain optimistic into his eighties, then how could I let myself become jaded in my twenties?
After a long day at work, I walked home from the office, covering my nose with a surgical mask to protect against the pollution that shrouded Kathmandu Valley in winters. I carefully crossed a major road, deftly navigating through fast-moving cars and scooters.
I sighed with relief upon reaching home, a room I rented in a four-story building. I cooked Maggi noodles and sat down to eat. It was my daily routine: an anxious walk home and a silent evening.
I attempted to video chat my husband, hoping for a strong internet connection.
“How are you doing?” he asked. Upon hearing the concern in his voice, I burst into tears.
The reality: I wasn’t doing great. I had come to Nepal as a lawyer for what had seemed like my dream job: a legal consultancy working to strengthen access to justice for excluded communities. Many things about it were amazing—I was doing policy work, traveling across the country, and speaking with grassroots organizations. But to do this, I’d left my husband back in New York.
“I feel so lonely here. I really miss you,” I responded. He nodded, before the lights flickered and the current went out.
I was having a difficult time settling in. Without knowing much Nepali , even hailing a tempo—a local minibus—or buying groceries was stressful. Plus, I was the only foreigner in my office. I missed many conversations and jokes, which were all in Nepali. As an Indian American woman, not having white skin meant I simply didn’t receive the same attention—or deference—as other Western foreigners or tourists. I knew it was my responsibility to learn Nepali, but that takes time, and as I did, I struggled.
For this job, I’d given up any semblance of stability. On my low salary, it would be impossible to save money, buy a house, or have a family. My husband and I had been married for a year, but spent more time apart than together as I traveled back and forth to Nepal.
Adding to this, my work had made me jaded. I’d witnessed just how challenging it was to bring change, how politics and egos came in the way. I questioned my role: As an outsider, should I even be in Nepal? Without knowing the local dynamics, I felt I wasn’t effective.
Perhaps I should have listened to my parents, I wondered. Maybe they were right all along.
Like many other immigrants, my South Indian parents loved me. All they wanted for me was a stable, easy life. I was expected to be a doctor, engineer, or investment banker—the respectable career paths for us Indian American children.
Fueled by youthful naivete, I took a different route. In college, I studied human rights and international development, and later, went to law school. I seized every opportunity to go abroad for work—even if it meant going to challenging places. I visited a women’s detention center in Kabul, interviewed survivors of domestic violence in Bangladesh, and worked with community justice centers in rural Sierra Leone.
And, after getting married back home in New Jersey, I had chosen to come to Nepal. My career seemed unusual and difficult for my family to accept. My parents questioned why I repeatedly traveled to difficult countries and tackled topics that were taboo in our community: rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence. They worried about me.
But now, years later, I too was tiring of the risk. I started to question my choices. Had any of this been worth it?
Maybe it was time to quit, to concede defeat.
I desperately needed to clear my head. The Dashain holiday, a festival celebrating goddess Durga, was coming up. Kathmandu would be deserted as locals returned to their ancestral villages and visit family.
“Come over,” my aunt exclaimed over the phone. “We’re waiting for you!”
It was the perfect time to visit my grandparents, who lived with my aunt and uncle in the Indian coastal town of Vishakapatnam, fondly dubbed “Vizag” by the locals.
As my flight landed in Vizag, I saw the winding coastline and palm trees dotting the roadside. It was October, but even then, blazingly hot and humid. I started sweating through my clothes.
At my uncle’s home, I felt a rush of emotion as I hugged my grandparents. They seemed older and more frail than ever. My grandfather, Tata, was gaunt, with a smattering of white hair. He walked slowly and weakly, wearing his signature dhoti and white undershirt. My grandmother, Ammamma, was in her green cotton sari and large glasses. She was stooped over, affected badly by osteoporosis. I felt broken seeing them, feeling their mortality flickering before my eyes.
I started to question my choices. Had any of this been worth it? Maybe it was time to quit, to concede defeat.
That week, I stood by the open windows and watched bright green parrots chirping as they flew from branch to branch. I drank coconut water and indulged in my aunt’s rich Andhra cooking. The sun’s warmth spread inside, reaching the parts of me that had felt frozen back in Nepal.
I spent the days reminiscing about childhood memories with my grandparents, telling them about my work in Nepal, and discussing Indian history. Tata handed me a magazine, asking me to read a recent article about Gandhi’s legacy.
“Tata, do you have any life advice for me?” I asked, unsure what the response might be. I wanted his wisdom at what felt like a crossroads in my life.
“Always do what you love in life,” he told me. “Make a positive contribution to the world through your work.”
I was touched. I was used to advice that emphasized the practical. But my grandfather, despite—or perhaps because of—his age, had retained his idealism. His words were just what I needed to inject newfound optimism into my dampened spirit.
When I was in middle school , my parents put me on a flight to Hyderabad, India, to stay with my grandparents for the summer. We had immigrated to New Jersey when I was six, and summers were reserved for long trips to India.
One of those summers, Tata created a kind of curriculum for me. An electrical engineer by training, he sometimes struck me as more a historian or social scientist—a fierce nationalist with deep pride in India’s independence movement. A voracious reader, he spent each day of his retirement poring over newspaper articles, books, and magazines, expanding his knowledge of global politics and Indian history. Whenever he came across interesting or useful articles, he’d clip them and file them away in his binder.
Growing up, I sent him letters describing my life in New Jersey. In return, I received thick envelopes filled to the brim with newspaper clippings about Indian culture, religion, and politics. Some were in Telugu, my mother tongue, which I had never learned to read.
“Ask your mother to explain this article to you,” Tata would say, his voice sounding small and distant over the phone. It might be about the history of a temple in Andhra Pradesh, or an analysis of the Gita and its applicability to daily life.
That summer in middle school, while I was visiting Hyderabad, he assigned me to read the biographies of India’s freedom fighters and poets: Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, and Sarojini Naidu.
“You need to learn about our country’s rich history,” he told me. “You read these biographies, then give me a report at the end. We’ll discuss.”
At first, I protested. It was supposed to be a vacation , after all. But with one stern look from Tata, I knew it was no use. After lunch, he told me about Gandhi, who was a lawyer before becoming “Mahatma.” We discussed satyagraha, Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance that gained India’s freedom from the British, and his all-encompassing search for truth.
My favorite part was hearing my grandparents’ own stories. Tata explained how Gandhi convinced the Indian people to hand-spin and produce khadi, their own thread and clothing. It was a form of economic protest against the British regime, which was exploiting Indians by selling them cloth—manufactured using cheap cotton from India—at very high prices. Gandhi believed that self-reliance and human dignity was crucial to our independence. Tata told me how he had bought cloth from Indians to support his countrymen rather than the British, playing his own small part in the resistance.
As the monsoon pounded down, Ammamma wrapped me in a shawl as we snacked on pomegranate seeds. She narrated her own childhood memories: how she and her classmates sang independence songs in Telugu, a language the British could not understand with ease.
Rabindranath Tagore’s biography and his melodic poetry captivated me too. But he was also an activist; he opposed British rule and used his voice to stand up for his values. Though knighted by the British, he renounced that honor in protest. I became intrigued by how Tagore melded his dual identities: writer and freedom fighter.
Tata also taught me about Sarojini Naidu, a political leader, feminist, and poet who fought alongside Gandhi in India’s freedom struggle.
“She was known as the nightingale of India for her poetry,” Tata explained. “She was arrested for civil disobedience, and became the first Indian woman to become President of the Indian National Congress.”
I was amazed by how she broke barriers as a woman. By telling me her story, my grandfather was showing me that, as an Indian American girl, there was nothing limiting me. Through history, Tata was encouraging me to think big.
Tata believed in passion, following his heart during a time when that was practically unheard of. He and his brothers were expected to go into the family business, running a chain of grocery stores. But Tata had a desire for something more; he decided to study engineering, the only brother to do so. Despite social expectations, he strayed from the set path to pursue his interests.
But passion had to be married with ethics for Tata. My grandmother told me how after his studies, Tata joined the Andhra Pradesh electricity board as an inspector. For his job, he had to travel throughout the state and conduct inspections. Everyone wanted to bribe him to allow them to pass inspections, but my grandfather refused, becoming known for his character. He believed in putting the values that had driven the freedom fighters into action.
Writing, too, was an inevitable outgrowth of that summer’s curriculum. After all, Tata loved telling me: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” He had faith in the ability of words to inspire and create movements that shift the tide.
Through history, Tata was encouraging me to think big.
As I read their biographies, I observed how India’s freedom fighters used words to advance the cause. Sarojini Naidu was a poet. Rabindranath Tagore wrote poems, political essays, and the national anthems of India and Bangladesh. Gandhi spread his philosophy through prolific essays and his weekly paper, Young India . Inspired by these histories, I started writing poetry and essays. Tata encouraged my writing, submitting my pieces to a local newsletter.
Tata’s summer reading curriculum—an immersion into the world of activism, social change, and writing—was the first spark that inspired me to fashion a similar career. Perhaps, like Gandhi, Tagore, and Naidu, I could use writing to advocate for justice. Like my own grandfather, I could build a life founded on values and passion. Tata made me feel like the world was open to me, that my voice mattered.
As I grew older, this spark smoldered. I wanted to stay true to the values of honor, truth, and justice that I’d learned from my grandfather. And in law, I found a way to use writing to push for social change.
After that week in Vizag with my grandparents, I returned to Nepal. I felt rejuvenated, hearing Tata’s advice to follow my heart and to be a force for good. The trip brought back those childhood memories that had first inspired me to do social justice work.
With renewed energy, I tried to make the most of my time in Nepal. I wandered the streets, shopping in cute boutiques and getting a lehenga stitched for myself. I joined co-workers for a hike, struggling to catch up with the spry young Nepalis who had climbing in their blood. I took advantage of massages and views of the Himalayas.
Most of all, I learned. I listened to women’s rights and disability rights leaders. I walked with colleagues for hours to visit isolated communities at the India-Nepal border, learning about the villagers’ needs. I spent time with an anti-caste activist, who coincidentally, described how he was teaching his own daughter about Gandhi and how he had stood against untouchability. I felt like Tata had guided me here.
Still, I missed my husband and my parents. My visit with my grandparents reminded me that life was far too short to be spending far away from the people you love. After six months in Nepal, I decided to return to New York.
Taking inspiration from Tata’s words, I realized I couldn’t quit entirely. If I did, I would be letting him down. If he could remain optimistic into his eighties, then how could I let myself become jaded in my twenties?
I re-examined my assumptions about how I could contribute best. In Nepal, I would always be an outsider. But back home in the US, where I knew the language, the system, and the politics, I could use my legal skills to make concrete change. While still in Kathmandu, I started searching for a job and then, a few months later, I touched down in New York.
When I left the airport, I landed in my husband’s arms. He enveloped me in a comforting hug, and I reveled in his familiar touch. It felt right. Finally, I was home.
Soon after, I would start representing survivors of domestic violence, and work on efforts to change policy on women’s rights domestically. I would begin going to court and speaking with clients who experienced unimaginable domestic abuse and trauma every day. It would be tough and emotionally draining, but I would have to persist, to stay strong. I would have to do it for myself and for Tata.
Because, in April 2017, just a few days after I returned to New York, my mother called me with the news: Tata had passed away. I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. I wish I’d had more time with him. There was so much else I wanted to know about his life, so much more wisdom I wanted to hear.
In grieving for my loss of Tata, my last conversations with him in Vizag felt all the more precious. I found myself going over those final moments again and again, as if to sear them into my brain. In missing him, I decided to pick up a new biography of Gandhi. I wanted to learn once again about the freedom fighter that animated my grandfather’s thoughts for years.
Now, I was creating my own ‘freedom curriculum’ that I could turn to when I felt hopeless. Reading about Gandhi as an adult working in the social justice field gave me a completely new perspective. I saw how Gandhi put his body on the line by fasting as a form of protest. He ate nuts, spun his own clothes, and lived very simply. I finally understood what my grandfather was trying to instill in me all those years ago. Tata recognized the importance of this, of not chasing wealth and fame, but using moral authority to push for social change.
In reading this, I was forced to reckon with my values, and to think more critically about not just my work, but how I lived my life. And I was inspired to think about how Gandhi’s movement tactics could be applied to counter today’s assaults on women’s rights that left me feeling hopeless. I felt like even after Tata passed away, he continued to challenge me and push my thinking anew.
Today, Tata’s spirit continues to breathe fresh life into me. When I doubt my journey, I remind myself of his passion for justice, his small acts of resistance, and his deep faith in following one’s heart. And I turn to my new freedom curriculum, inspired by Tata, to give me a glimmer of hope, to keep me going at the darkest moments, to keep that fire in me, the one lit by Tata, burning.