—a member of a low caste of south India
—one that is despised or rejected: outcast
I thought about the word “pariah” a lot following the week of the Boston bombings. That Friday, April 19, while the whole country was on a manhunt for Dzokhar Tsarnaev, I too sat in front of my computer all day, refreshing my screen constantly while scanning Google, Facebook and Twitter just in case another telling detail emerged on the young man. Where was the boy? What would the moment of his capture be like? And would this young malfeasant, a pariah now wanted for using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction, be caught alive?
The term pariah, a Tamil word, became popular during the British Raj. It’s borrowed from the name of the “Paraiyar” community that is representative of the depressed castes in India. The word “parai” means “drum” and “paraiyar” refers to a drumbeater and to a community whose livelihood rested in the beating of drums at marriages, funerals, village festivals and political events. The community was never perceived to be the lowest in the caste hierarchy; yet, over the centuries, the word pariah began to refer to the most marginalized of society and subsequently took on the meaning of outcast or misfit.
I considered how this word seemed to cast a shadow, albeit in different ways, over the lives of two young men in Massachusetts whose fates were predetermined by the close of the month.
In one instance, as the events unfolded, a bright young man turned out to be the most “wanted” and the most despised man in the country. In the first two weeks of April, just as the trees around Boston were changing color heralding the new season, this young man in his late teens was rapidly metamorphosing from good to bad.
In the other instance, for reasons of his own, a smart young man did not believe he was worthy enough to belong in society. While the trees were thawing out to greet the new season, just as the first birds were beginning to chirp around cherry blossoms at Boston Public Garden, this young man who had lost his faith in Providence was rapidly metamorphosing from life into death. Thus during that same week in April, we heard again of Sunil Tripathi, who had been missing since March 16th from Brown University in Rhode Island.
“The accomplished saxophonist with a keen interest in music” simply took himself out of it one evening by leaving his cell phone and his wallet in his room and walking out towards the river. He was known to be “a serious, thoughtful, intellectually curious student and a brilliant writer.” Yet, he couldn’t find that little plot of land in the universe that he could plow and call his own. He felt rejected—for reasons we do not understand and probably never will—and decided that he was a misfit, a pariah, someone whom no one wanted around anymore.
The Tripathi family in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, suffered endless heartache and anxiety in those weeks. In the strangest ways their life would be forever linked to the Boston bombings. As soon as the police released photographs of the two bombing suspects based on video surveillance cameras on Boylston Lane, Internet sleuths began to hunt for the wrongdoers. These callous “private investigators” lit a match on the Reddit site that set off a trail of fire on the resemblance between the missing Tripathi and the younger of the Boston bombers. Even though Reddit issued an apology right away, they only compounded the torment of the Tripathi family. Three days after Tsarnaev was caught, Sunil Tripathi’s body was fished out of Providence River.
I doubt many people around the country concentrated on work that week in April. Who in America had ever imagined a SWAT team in one’s backyard? Minutes before Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found on the boat at a backyard in Watertown, a friend called to talk to me about the innocence on the face of the boy who had sabotaged his engineering courses by engineering a course to kill.
“Did you see his face? Did you see the beauty and sweetness of that face?” Like my friend I found it impossible to believe that villainy could take on such an apparition of innocence. His smooth, unshaven face was thick and sweet, like whole milk boiled and sweetened with sugar and saffron. Who would believe that such a young man would cook up evil in a pressure cooker?
While my friend and I chatted about the bomber we thought about our own children who dangled at the cusp of youth and adulthood. In recent weeks I had weltered in annoyance when my son greeted me with his other face, the one that I had not seen, the one that may never pass muster at US immigration.
My boy, who once never left home without a clean-shaven face, had begun walking around his college campus with a three-week-old beard. He was no more the boy I had raised on milk and Nutella. The day I met him in school, I begged my young man to shave, at least for the sake of his social life if not for reasons of civility, while reminding him that he should be thankful I wasn’t asking hairy questions, such as those related to the state of his unexamined underarms.
The afternoon my friend and I talked, I pondered the innocence of all our young men—their vulnerability during teenage to new thoughts, values, ideologies and rationale.
We were forced to consider that indoctrination could come in the subtlest and in the most overt ways and that one’s blood, however pure, could curdle and run rancid with the methodical injection of venom.
I realized how my son, a freshman who was exactly Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s age and often wore his hat backwards and went everywhere with a black backpack, was opening himself to new thinking. He was living by different standards in college. I simply had to sit back and watch, helpless as every other parent who sends a child off to college and hopes for the best.