OFFBEAT A young California-born Tamil, who after fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, has returned to his roots to learn his mother tongue
I t's not every day that you find a curd-rice-loving Tam-Brahm boy living in America — most easily imagined sitting in a cubicle and designing codes — seeking an adrenalin rush in the uncertainties of a warzone. At 28, when most people his age are still settling into their careers, Rishi Srinivasan has been there and done that — seven months in Iraq and six months in Afghanistan, battling insurgents and the Taliban as an officer in the Marine Corps. In Iraq he was stationed in Al Karmah, the most violent city in the country during the time he was there, from March to October 2007. As an infantry platoon commander, he led 42 Marines on daily patrols. In December 2009, after he became a Captain, San Francisco-born Rishi was sent to the poppy-growing Helmand province of Afghanistan, where he headed a specialised unit whose primary job was to call in air strikes.
Quitting the Corps
But last month, he quit the Marine Corps and came down to Chennai. He quit, he says, because he realised that “as you climb up the ladder, you spend more time moving the chess pieces, as opposed to leading from the front, which is what I would like to do.” But there's another factor — perhaps the real reason — that influenced his decision: family pressure. His parents, who had migrated to the U.S. in the 1970s, were not at all amused when Rishi told them he was applying for the Officer Candidate School in Virginia, where Marine officers are trained. “One of my friends — a white American — had joined the Marine Corps earlier on and that got me interested. I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to have a job that I felt was worthwhile and not just about making money, and which had an element of public service,” says Rishi, who got commissioned in 2005. But when he was sent to Iraq, his parents were “horrified, really horrified.” Ever since, the pressure had been on.
The Iraq and Afghanistan experiences are today saved in his laptop in the form of pictures and videos that he shares with me at his grandmother's home — he refers to her as ‘pathi', with a heavy American accent, of course — in Besant Nagar. There are pictures of vials of liquid adrenalin left behind by Taliban fighters (“they inject it to remain extra alert”), of sacks of poppy resin that were bound for opium-manufacturing units, of Rishi posing with his men and with Afghan policemen, and so on. Then there is a video of a gunfight: his men are engaging the Taliban from behind a mud wall while Rishi could be heard calling for an airstrike.
Did he ever hear people talking about Osama bin Laden? “No. Never. You must understand that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are two different people.” But did he ever hear whispers about Osama hiding in Afghanistan? “Those are people who have never travelled out of their villages. They have no idea what's going on outside their village. In any case, we were in southeast Afghanistan, while Osama was said to be hiding in the northeast, which was like another country,” says Rishi.
Osama is now out of America's way, so is a Marine's routine out of Rishi's.
Next month he leaves for Madurai, where he is going to spend a whole year learning Tamil. “I am on a grant from the Education Department. I want to be able to read and write Tamil. As of now, I speak very little Tamil,” smiles Rishi.
How did a vegetarian survive in Iraq and Afghanistan, that too in warzones? “It wasn't so difficult there. I would eat naan with some vegetables. It was more difficult when I was training to be a Marine. I would get completely washed out. So I started scooping out peanut butter from the fridge every night. It wasn't allowed though,” winks Rishi. “But I needed that extra protein.”
When I ask him about his strongest memories from his life in the warzones, he reflects: “The memories I would like to keep are of young enlisted Marines — here you are talking about people who never really left their hometowns — bonding with people in Iraq and putting on a good face for America.”
Rishi has one regret though: that he is never going to hold a job in which he will be responsible for the lives of people — be it fellow Marines or the population.
As I shake his hand and walk down the stairs, something from our conversation strikes me. He's just spoken about Afghan villagers who've never stepped out of their village all their lives, and of young Marines who'd never stepped out of their hometowns all their lives until they joined service. And where do such people hitherto restricted to their respective worlds meet? The warzone.