In the past three posts I have mentioned Prasad Chavali, who arranged every aspect of my Indian itinerary, enlisting the support of many of his friends along the way.
Prasad grew up in Rajahmundry, not too far from Hyderabad where he now has his business. After completing his education in India in 1990 he decided to apply to graduate programs in the U.S. and the first to accept him was the Rapid City School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, South Dakota. Speaking only a few words of English he arrived there on December 30 to two feet of snow and a temperature of minus 20 degrees, slipped and fell on the ice and immediately called Arizona State, where he had also applied. They said he was welcome so he boarded a Greyhound bus, transferred seven times and ended up in Phoenix, his home to this day and where he became an American citizen in 2002.
He got two advanced degrees at ASU, the first in Combustion Engineering and the second in Management Information Technology. While there he worked many jobs, among them ushering at Sun Devil Stadium and at the on-campus McDonalds, where he went from assistant to the back-up deep fry guy to Manager in a matter of days. He also worked at the university’s Department of Disability Resources, where he trained by spending time in a wheelchair and wandering the campus without eyesight or hearing. It was at ASU where he met his wife Lesli in a story that would make a great Lifetime movie.
In 2008 Prasad and Lesli moved to Ponte Vedra and we worked together for a few years at PGA TOUR Experiences. They are back in Scottsdale now and he has 40 people working for him in Hyderabad, which he visits four times a year for three weeks at a time. His company is a technology solutions provider and he has a dozen or so clients. Last year he also started a Computer Programming Institute that is doing well. Prasad is a very smart guy and is finally having the success he deserves.
He flew in and met me in Hyderabad and we worked for a few days, and then headed to his hometown of Rajahmundry for a whirlwind 24 hours. That first afternoon we visited the house where he was born, places he lived, schools he attended, neighborhoods where he and his buddies hung out and the temples where they prayed, the stairs to the Godavari River where they went swimming and flirted with the girls … it was a intense three-hour look into the formative years of a friend and I was honored to be there.
I asked Prasad to tell me about a key moment in his life. His freshman year in high school he was the new kid and no one knew him, and they announced the class rank for the year and his friend R.K. was first, as always, and when they read Prasad’s name second his life was forever altered. “It changed my status immediately and was the first time I realized I might be capable of achieving something,” he told me, “so it was a very important moment for me. Also, in India girls didn’t go for the macho guys, the athletes, no one was even thinking about sex. They liked the smart guys because they wanted someone who could make a life for them.”
That night we spent some time with a group of guys from Prasad’s high school days, most notably our gracious host Hari, who oversees fire department services for the entire region. A couple of the guys tried valiantly to communicate with me in English but Prasad spent most of the night translating. We all had a few drinks, Hari brought in some food, and after dinner at the others’ urging a teacher named Murthy sang a beautiful, dramatic song about frustration, which was evident from the way he acted it out even though I had no idea about the words.
These guys went back and forth, the goal of each song to evoke a specific response — frustration, romance, havoc, anger, sympathy, pathos, vigor, fear, fantasy – and as they traded off the songs became more and more animated. I chimed in with some Beach Boys, and when that flopped I segued into a stirring rendition of Johnny B. Goode, at which point I lost them altogether. But hey, an A for effort. In any case it was an exceptional day, well away from temples and palaces and museums and dead center in the authentic heart of India.
After one more day back in Hyderabad Prasad and I flew north for the final five days of this Indian adventure in the Golden Triangle: New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. We started in Agra, arriving just before sunset at the Taj Mahal. We walked a long street lined with vendors and those pesky “walking merchants”, paid our fees ($15 for me, 40 cents for Prasad … they do that all over India), and entered the grounds.
Our guide gave us the lowdown. The Taj was built between 1632 and 1653 by the grief-stricken Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died during the birth of their 14th child. I’d seen many photos of the Taj Mahal, of course, and a few days earlier was sent a link to a beautiful 360-degree panorama of the Taj and surrounding area. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the impact when we walked through the entry arch and saw it in all its glory. It literally took my breath away. The sun was low over our left shoulders and gave the white marble a beautiful amber glow. The Mughal architectural style incorporates components of Indian, Persian, Ottoman, Islamic and Turkish styles of architecture, and it is stunning.
On the west side of the domed mausoleum is a huge mosque, and on the south side is an identical building that was constructed only for purposes of symmetry; it’s a guesthouse in which no one has ever stayed. The minarets at the four corners are tilted two degrees so that if they should become compromised during a typhoon, they will fall away from the mausoleum.
Not long after the completion of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan was deposed by his son and placed under house arrest at Agra Fort, just across the river. He died there, on an overlook where he would gaze at the Taj, the resting place of his beloved wife. He is buried next to her.
The next day we visited Agra Fort. Agra was actually the capital of India until 1638, and between 1565 and 1573 Akbar the Great built this fort to house the government and to protect it from potential attack. Only 25% of the fort is open to the public; the remainder serves as India’s Pentagon and is home to the military.
Akbar was great indeed. He had four wives and 360 concubines, which by our calculations gave him one night of rest per year. He is also credited with inventing the king size bed.
From Agra we drove west to Jaipur, an interesting city close to the desert that borders Pakistan. It’s drier, the trees are closer to the ground, and it’s reminiscent of the American southwest. We went immediately to the impressive fort there that includes a 27-kilometer long “great wall” protecting it and the surrounding area. We were entertained by a family of Gray Langur monkeys that followed us for a while.
And finally we returned to New Delhi, the nation’s capital. As you’d expect for the seat of government it is India’s nicest, greenest city, with trees and many parks, gated embassies and well-maintained government buildings. Our one full day there was Republic Day, one of India’s major holidays. We had hoped to see the Republic Day parade but couldn’t score tickets, so we took advantage of the light traffic and saw two wonderful sites: the Qutab Archeological complex of ruins, and the Lotus Temple. Qutab features the impressive Victory Tower, visible from all over this part of the city, and ruins of mosques and crypts.
The Lotus Temple was built by a new world religion called the Baha’i faith, which is dedicated to uniting “all races and peoples of the world in one universal Cause and one common Faith.” It’s an impressive building shaped like a lotus flower – it reminded Prasad of the Sydney Opera House – and with it being a holiday and with no fee to enter, people were checking their shoes and pouring in. They let about 200 people in at a time for five minutes of quiet reflection as people read or sang passages from a variety of religions; a young woman read The Lord’s Prayer, for example. The interior was very simple and lovely: no statues, no statements about any specific religion. It was a very calming place to spend a few moments.
And so tomorrow Prasad will fly back to Hyderabad and I will fly to Nepal and leave India behind. It’s been a very full and unforgettable three weeks, thanks to, among others, Kiran, Subbu, RK, Srini, Phani, Hari, Dr. Prakash and of course Prasad Chavali. He was a good friend before this trip and now he’s a friend I would trust with my life, and you can’t put a value on that.