How do you recognize a man who mentored and supported you for years, even showing up to your high school graduation? Who was once your Dad’s best friend? Who provided the lone eulogy at your Mom’s funeral?
Nomal Dutta, or “Dutta Uncle” as I affectionately knew him, passed away yesterday and the world lost a truly special person. As I went for a run to process the news, I kept thinking about a line Vin Scully used in his final broadcast to describe his tremendous career that had reached its end: “Don’t be sad that it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
Dutta Uncle was a critical part of the Indian community that collaboratively raised me through my early years. With his shaded glasses and cherubic smile, he was one of the more distinguishable members of our tribe and his laugh was as memorable as any part of him. When I first met his wife Pronoti Auntie and him in their apartment in NYC, I was overwhelmed how truly genuine and accommodating they were. Two outsized personalities, quick with a smile and generous to a fault.
When Dutta Uncle move to New Jersey, the dynamic of our relationship changed completely and he became one of my closest elders (physically and emotionally), only a 15 minute drive away. We went to his house so many times that, as soon as I’d walk through the door, I’d skip the pleasantries and go straight to the family room and turn on the TV. It had become my home away from home during my early teenage years. I would park myself on the couch, await Pronoti Auntie’s insanely delicious food, and enjoy chatting with him before the adults moved over into the other room and I would just hang out eating food and watching sitcoms. But I got really excited during those Saturday afternoons when he would host cookouts. Let me tell you: the man could barbecue. Despite the fact that I’m a pretty big man, I don’t have very many epic eating stories in my life, but I can tell you that I once ate 12 pieces of his barbecued chicken–in one sitting. Usually, Indian mothers encourage you to eat even more, but even my Mom had to be thinking “damn Sandy, that’s enough.” I still don’t know how my 15-year-old frame handled all that poultry, but I imagine my semi-vegetarian daughter shrieking if she knew how many chickens gave their lives for her father’s weakness of this BBQ chicken. I don’t know what Dutta Uncle put in his marinade, but I’m willing to bet it’s been banned in several states for his addictive nature. My mouth is watering as I type this paragraph.
Dutta Uncle was a Yankee fan. Somehow, I was willing to forgive him. In all honesty, the rivalry of the Yankees and the Orioles only managed to make our relationship even more fun. It included a Saturday afternoon trip to the Bronx in 1986 where we watched our teams play one another at Yankee Stadium, with my favorite pitcher at the time (Mike Boddicker) pitching. It’s one thing for an uncle to take his nephew to a baseball game. It’s another one thing for that uncle to take him all the way from Jersey…going from car to bus to train in a 3-hour journey…each way…in the pouring rain…withstanding a two hour rain delay during the game. And he smiled and chatted the whole way through. My father never even did that for me. But then again, my father was never a Don Mattingly freak.
The dynamic changed again years later when he was responsible for getting me my first desk job, making calls on his behalf for the Prudential. I’m not gonna lie. I hated that job. That job makes every job I’ve had since more bearable. But, he showed faith in me and he trusted me. And I hoped that I could help him out, even though I admit that I was not very good at the job. Still, what I remember about that job is not the countless phone calls to people who had no interest in buying insurance. What I remember is us carpooling to the office in Eatontown, usually 30 minute drive from his house where we would meet up. A few days a week, we would go along that drive in his maroon Toyota Camry and chat. Sometimes, we would talk about the news (he always played CBS News Radio in the background). In other cases, he would give me some sort of fatherly advice. As I’ve learned over the years, you can never surround yourself with enough good people. I also feel I owe a debt of gratitude to anyone who impacted the way I raise my own daughters. I can safely say that Dutta Uncle’s nurturing manner and mentorship has influenced some of the ways that I have dealt with my own daughters. He had no children, but an endless supply of “nieces” and “nephews” that he treated as his own.
Eventually, I moved on to bigger and better desk jobs. By the time I had taken a full-time job after college, I would still occasionally go over to his house. In a lot of cases, the reason was his computer. Something about being an Electrical Engineering major made me tech-support for him. I can remember one time when my dad told me Dutta Uncle needed my help and, in those stupid moments of youth, I rolled my eyes as if to say “He should fix his own computer”. My dad shot one glance at me and I knew: I was simply servicing a debt they could never be repaid in full.
Distance can be unkind and I admit that our relationship lost steam over the last 20 years since I moved out to California. Our meetings were limited to weddings and funerals, including my Dad’s memorial service, which was the last time I got to see him. I never got a chance to say thank you or show my appreciation for all that he did for me. I’m hopeful that he recognized it on his own and and that he realized that, despite having no children of his own, he managed to achieve a far greater legacy than many people who have several kids but never make the effort or take the time the way he did for me. I am better for it. My kids are better for it. He will be missed.