The US judge who once made cigarettes in India

time:2023-06-04 11:49:08source:NBC News author:Press center9

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. BBC Hindi's Imran Qureshi tells the story of a man who went from making hand-rolled cigarettes in India to becoming an arbiter of justice.

Mr Pattel, 51, who is from the southern Indian state of Kerala, has been appointed a judge in the 240th Judicial District Court in Fort Bend County in Texas state.

He was sworn in on 1 January, five years after he became a US citizen - his journey, Mr 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".

Mr Pattel spent his childhood in grinding poverty. His parents were labourers who depended on meagre daily wages to feed their six children.

As a child, Mr 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 the BBC 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, Mr 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, Mr 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.

Mr 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 Mr 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," Mr Pattel says.

The relationship continued until Mr Uttupp's death.

"His brother Manuel even called me after the news broke that I had become a judge," Mr Pattel says.

Mr 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," Mr Appukuttan told the BBC.

Mr 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,'' Mr Pattel says.

The couple moved to Texas in 2007, where Mr Pattel worked in a grocery store for some time before realising that he could take the Bar exam in Texas. He then went on to get a degree in international law.

When Mr Pattel decided to run for the post of the judge with the Democratic Party, he had some unpleasant experiences - for instance, he was mocked for his Indian accent while campaigning, he says.

"But I was not hurt by it. Campaigns can be nasty sometimes. I think it doesn't matter how long you live here - what matters is how long you have served the community," he adds.

The American journey, he says, has been a rewarding one: "I became a citizen only in 2017 and now in 2022, I have won an election. I don't think this can happen in any other country."

His victory is also special for a personal reason.

While practising in Texas, Mr Pattel became very close to a senior lawyer, Glenden B Adams.

When Mr Adams died, his wife Rosalie Adams asked Mr Pattel to be a pallbearer.

On Wednesday, when he began his new role, "it was Rosalie Adams who put the robes on me at my private investiture in my courtroom".

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