Chanda Zaveri and David Ross take a walk down memory lane outside the Young Women’s Christian Association on Middleton Row where they had first met three decades ago. Picture by Sayantan Ghosh
David Ross was on assignment in the Philippines two weeks ago when Chanda Zaveri called in that familiar “bully” tone he knows he can’t ignore.
The 54-year-old American was soon hopping from an autorickshaw to a boat to a bus to a plane to reach Calcutta in 30 hours, retracing his steps to the city where a chance encounter three decades ago had scripted the first chapter of millionaire US-based entrepreneur Chanda’s inspirational success story.
Back in 1982, David was just another American tourist on a six-week trip to the city with wife Karin when they met the then teenaged Chanda at the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) on Middleton Row.
“I happened to be here on a study tour,” recalled David, only to be interrupted by Chanda. “No, he actually came here to rescue me!” she quipped.
For Chanda, whose extraordinary journey of struggle and success after being forced to give up studies and nearly married off at 17 was highlighted by Metro on Republic Day, David’s presence by her side at the same place three decades later was more than just a walk down memory lane.
She had called David from Calcutta just after her story went viral in her city of birth and beyond, asking him if he could join her for a few days.
He couldn’t refuse her, just as he didn’t when she had called him from the city in 1984 in entirely different circumstances.
“Oh! We meet regularly in the States but this was special. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to pull it off when Chanda called but I heard in her voice that yearning that I have learnt to tune in to over the years. She’s a bully,” laughed David, who made it to Calcutta from the Philippines on the morning of February 11.
Metro caught up with the foster siblings at the YWCA, where David recounted how he and his wife “spotted a young Indian girl staring at us” during their 1982 trip.
“And they just smiled back at me. You know, I have been asked many times in the recent past, how come I didn’t trust my family but trusted a stranger? Here’s David before you… one look at him and you will know,” said Chanda, the owner of a multi-million dollar cosmetics business based on her research on peptides.
David’s memories of the Chanda of three decades ago are of a friendly, helpful girl who, neither of them then knew, would soon become his responsibility.“We had a variety of health issues during our stay and I remember Chanda trying to prescribe things to Karin and we had no clue whether this person was actually helping or making things worse because Karin had diarrhoea and she got her to drink jal jeera!” David reminisced.
So what prompted David to take the risk of helping an Indian girl he had known for just four weeks migrate to the US in the face of strict immigration laws?
“She was our friend and we were happy to host her for a while but we had no idea what was going to happen. When she arrived (in the US), she looked shocked, depressed and really underweight. She had been hiding at Howrah station for a while after she had left home. The challenge began when her uncle in Canada refused to take her because Chanda’s mother had started a hunger strike back home. We couldn’t have sent her back to a situation that was going to be painful for her,” he said.
As it turned out, David’s parents-in-law decided to adopt Chanda and help her continue her education in the West Coast. A meeting with the two-time Nobel laureate Linus Pauling at the California Institute of Technology later became the defining moment of her career as a molecular biologist.
“We did not know until a few months after she came to us that Chanda was so gifted in science and math,” David recalled. “I thought to myself, ‘Here’s this woman who can’t even speak English and she just scored 800s in the GRE. What should we do with that?’ We felt she needed more education because she obviously had a brilliant, brilliant mind.”
David and Chanda still have a hearty laugh recalling some amusing moments of her initial years in the US. “My (foster) mom said one day, ‘Something is wrong. She doesn’t date. No, she needs to date somebody. Geral (Foglesong), can you take her out and help her find a date?’ And here I am thinking, ‘I just ran away from all this’,” Chanda said.
So off she went to a pub one night with her foster father and brother “to get inculturated”. Clutching her father’s hands, she was making her way past the bouncers when someone remarked from behind: “Oh! Sugar daddy?”
“I turned around and said ‘Yes, my dad is very sweet’ without understanding what he had meant!” Chanda recalled, chuckling at the thought.
It was the same girl who in a few years would look David in the eye and talk about a buying a multi-million dollar home atop a cliff in Palos Verdes. “My first reaction was, ‘Chanda, you don’t have the money!’ She got a little cross with me,” David said.
In a few months, she had moved into a beautiful home in Los Angeles overlooking the ocean .
David admits it is he who draws inspiration from Chanda today. “I feel a certain brother-sister pride and when I teach, I often use her as an example to inspire students... She is a princess now and her world is constantly spinning, so I take time out every two months to come and spend time with Chanda,” signed off David, who works as an educator and strategic planner for global entrepreneurial development in San Francisco.
Do you know of any pair of ‘siblings’ like Chanda Zaveri and David Ross? Tell [email protected]