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Natasha retells moving Ali story

'His cry still shakes those waves'

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 12.06.16
Natasha Mundkur speaks at the memorial service for Muhammad Ali in Louisville, Kentucky, on Friday. (Reuters)

June 11: Natasha Mundkur last night told the world a story about a man who touched the heart of a young girl and helped her pick up the rocks that were thrown at her and throw them back.

Hours later, there was general consensus that one of the most moving eulogies at the memorial service for Muhammad Ali at his hometown in Louisville was delivered by the 19-year-old Kentuckian who traces her roots to India.

Initially reluctant to speak as she wanted the spotlight to remain on Ali, Natasha eventually retold the story to The Telegraph after the Muhammad Ali Center approved an interview.

The daughter of Indian Americans Siddharth and Bandana Mundkur, Natasha was one of a tiny group of handpicked individuals who paid tributes to Ali.

Natasha sobbed while delivering her four-minute address, prompting several rounds of applause, including by Ali's widow Lonnie, and bringing the audience to its feet when the young speaker concluded the eulogy.

In her address yesterday, the sophomore student at the University of Louisville shared through powerful yet measured prose her own battle against discrimination and the role a textbook character once played in priming her for life. Natasha chose her words with care, hinting at her personal experience but ensuring that the focus stayed firmly on Ali's contribution in making a difference.

"Let me tell you a story about a man. A man who refused to believe that reality was a limitation to achieve the impossible. A man who once reached out through the pages of a textbook and touched the heart of an eight-year-old girl, whose reflection of herself mirrored those who could not see beyond the colour of her skin. But instead of drawing on the pain from that distorted reality, she found strength just as this man did when he stood tall in the face of pelting rain and shouted: 'I am the disturbance in the sea of your complacency and I will never stop shaking your waves'."

Natasha then identified that girl and spoke of the indelible mark Ali had left on her.

"And his voice echoed through hers. Through mine. And she picked up the rocks that were thrown at her and she threw them back with a voice so powerful that it turned all the pain that she had faced in her life into strength and tenacity. And now that eight-year-old girl stands before you, telling you that Ali's cry still shakes those waves today."

That impression that Ali left on Natasha was from a time in the early 2000s, when the memories of the September 11, 2001, attacks were still fresh in the minds of most Americans, and the Louisville-born girl had moved with her parents for a while to Virginia.

It was in her rural Virginia neighbourhood, Natasha told this newspaper in an interview on Saturday, that she faced the full force of discrimination as a young girl.

"From the grocery shop to my school, I was made to feel different, that my family were outsiders," Natasha recalled over the telephone from her Louisville home. "The fact that we were different wasn't celebrated, it was held against us."

Natasha had by then already read about Ali in her school textbooks and was in particular drawn to the boxer because of their Louisville connection.

She had read more online about the positions Ali took against racism and discrimination.

Then, one day, the dam broke. "In class, as I got up, some students asked me to go back to my own country," Natasha said. "That's when I decided I had had enough."

She found out about the Ali Center, and once the family moved back to Louisville in 2012, joined the organisation, first as a part of their child programme and then as a mentor - a role she still performs.

As Natasha visited the Center in the days after Ali's passing on June 3, the organisation - a cultural hub that aims to assist children from diverse backgrounds interact, study, play and grow together - asked her if she would want to speak at the funeral.

"I had no second thoughts," she said today. "It's a privilege to represent the Muhammed Ali Center."

Befitting the occasion, she was quoted as saying before the event that "it's not Natasha's time to be in the spotlight, it's Muhammad's word to be spoken with the utmost truth".

In keeping with that spirit, Natasha spoke in detail to this newspaper only after the Muhammad Ali Center approved the interview.

A student of marketing, Natasha still volunteers at the Center in Louisville and spoke at the funeral as a representative of the organisation.

Natasha's brother Naethan is a budding scientist who through high school figured in publications of the Society for Science, a non-profit that works to popularise science within the American public.

Her father Siddharth holds a PhD and runs a firm called EtOH Tech Solutions, also based in Louisville.

This summer, Natasha is interning with the World Affairs Council of Kentucky and Indiana, according to her Facebook page. Ali's inspiration remains alive in her, she said at the service on Friday.

"So let me tell you a story about a man," Natasha said, returning to the theme with which she began her eulogy after thanking the Center. "His name is Muhammad Ali. He is the greatest of all time. He is from Louisville, Kentucky, and lives in each and every one of us. And his story is far from over."