HOUSTON: Last week, when Indian-origin lawyer Surendran K Pattel took the oath as a district judge in a US court, he made headlines back home because of his inspiring journey. Journalist Imran Qureshi tells the story of a man who went from making hand-rolled cigarettes in India to becoming an arbiter of justice.
He was sworn in on 1 January, five years after he became a US citizen – his journey, Pattel says, was all about “hard work, determination and a lot of struggle”, “but there were also a lot of people who supported and helped me at every stage of my life,” he says, saying that the list is topped by his mother, whom he calls “a symbol of sacrifice”.
Pattel spent his childhood in grinding poverty. His parents were laborers who depended on meagre daily wages to feed their six children.
As a child, Pattel would roll beedis traditional cigarettes made by wrapping raw tobacco in leaves – “so that we could have three meals a day”.
“My elder sister and I used to sit late into the night doing this,” he says.
As a teenager, he dropped out of school after not scoring well in his exams. He had almost accepted his lot in life when his eldest sister died, leaving behind a 15 month-old daughter.
“The case was determined to be a suicide but I felt that justice had not been done in the matter. It still haunts me,” he told media without giving more details about the incident.
The tragedy spurred him to redefine his future and he rejoined school and studied hard. When he was in a two-year, pre-degree course before going to college, Pattel often had to skip classes because he had to work too.
In his first year, he had to plead with his teachers after they asked him not to take the final exams due to low attendance.
“I didn’t want to tell them that I wasn’t going to class because of my financial situation because I didn’t want sympathy,” he says.
His teachers gave him another chance they only learnt later from his friends that he had no choice but to work.
When the results came out, Pattel surprised everyone by ranking second in his class.
He also decided that his future lay in law. “I never wanted to do anything else. I am so passionate about it,” he says.
Pattel’s financial situation continued to pose challenges but he was helped by the generosity of people he met along the way.
One of them was a Uttupp, who ran a hotel in Kerala.
“I told him if he did not give me a job, I would have to discontinue my education. He hired me as part of the housekeeping staff in the hotel,” Pattel says.
“His brother Manuel even called me after the news broke that I had become a judge,” Pattel says.
Pattel got a degree in political science in 1992 before studying law.
Four years later, he got a job with lawyer P Appukuttan and began working in the town of Hosdurg in Kerala’s Kasaragod district.
“He was so enthusiastic that I trusted him. I entrusted all kinds of civil matters to him because he was capable of doing it,” Appukuttan told media.
Pattel worked there for a decade until his wife, Subha, got a job at a hospital in India’s capital Delhi.
He decided to follow her because he “never wanted to come in the way of her career”.
In Delhi, he worked with a Supreme Court lawyer for a few months before his wife had to move again – this time to the US.
“Even though I wasn’t happy about leaving my profession behind, I followed her. Without her, I would not have been where I am today,” Pattel says. (Int’l Monitoring Desk)