By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 25, 2006
S.R. Sidarth had built an impressive record of achievements for such a young man: straight-A student at one of Fairfax County's finest high schools, a tournament chess player, a quiz team captain, a sportswriter at his college newspaper, a Capitol Hill intern and an active member of the Hindu temple his parents helped establish in Maryland.
But for all his achievements, the moment that thrust him into the national spotlight this month came when Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) called him "macaca."
The remark stung the young man of Indian descent. What hurt more, Sidarth said, was when Allen gave him a sarcastic welcome to his own country, his birthplace even. It was too ironic, he thought. "I was born and raised in Fairfax County, and he's from California," said S.R. Sidarth, wearing khaki shorts, a yellow short-sleeve shirt and flip-flops a week after the incident during an interview at the campaign headquarters of Allen's opponent, Democrat James Webb.
The full name of the suddenly famous 20-year-old is Shekar Ramanuja Sidarth. Following Indian custom, he goes by his surname. To some of his friends, he is simply "Sid."
He returned this week to the University of Virginia, where he is a senior majoring in American government and computer engineering.
Before college, Sidarth lived a somewhat typical, but distinguished, Fairfax County life. He attended the elite Thomas Jefferson High School, where he had a 4.1 grade-point average and scored 1550 on his SATs. He was a member of the chess club and the Spanish Honor Society and participated in the quiz show "It's Academic." At 6 feet 4 inches tall, he also played defensive end, tight end, punter and kicker for the school's football team.
Sidarth was ambivalent about his sudden celebrity. He twiddled a pen as he talked about his life, at times barely raising his eyes from the office desk where he was sitting. "I was just doing my job, and I got sort of pulled into this," he said.
Sidarth said the Allen incident hasn't turned him off from politics, though he's ruled out becoming a politician himself. Right now he thinks it's more likely that he'll become an environmental lawyer.
Growing up, Sidarth was consumed by chess, testing his mettle against computers and in tournaments. As an 11-year-old, he paid attention when IBM's Deep Blue computer defeated Russian chess master Garry Kasparov in a legendary showdown between man and machine.
"I guess I was pretty introverted. I guess being an only child was part of that. I was on the computer a lot," Sidarth said.
At U-Va., he joined the Quizbowl team and the Cavalier Daily. He also worked part time at the library and spent a term in Barcelona last fall, studying Spanish law and politics.
The Webb campaign wasn't Sidarth's first venture into politics. In 2003, he contributed $2,000 to the presidential campaign of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), according to campaign finance records. The next summer, he was an intern in Lieberman's office.
His political interests follow family tradition. His great-grandfather accompanied Mahatma Gandhi to London for talks on political reform. His grandfather, R. Srinivasan, was secretary of the World Health Organization in the 1990s. His father, Shekar Narasimhan, aided some political campaigns, usually for Democrats but not always, Sidarth said.
Sidarth's father, a prosperous mortgage banker, came to the United States to study about 25 years ago. His mother, Charu, a teacher of Indian classical dance, followed later.
Both played important roles in the founding of Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Lanham, one of the largest Hindu temples in the country, said Narayanswami Subramanian, the temple's president. Shekar Narasimhan is a trustee emeritus, Charu Narasimhan chairs the board of trustees and Sidarth volunteers there.
"They've instilled in him all the values that are important to a Hindu: being honest, working hard," Subramanian said.
Ali Batouli, a senior biology major at Stanford University who befriended Sidarth in a 10th-grade calculus class, said Sidarth could solve complicated math problems in his head faster than anyone else. As a high school senior, Sidarth also seemed to know more than his Advanced Placement classmates about Virginia and United States government history, Batouli said.
Once, Batouli recalled, a roomful of Thomas Jefferson students were competing in an online academic contest against schools across the country. Sidarth answered most of the questions, helping the team to vanquish much of the competition.
"He basically knows a lot about a lot," Batouli, 20, said by telephone this week.
But Sidarth was not the kind to raise his hand a lot or show off, and he was interested in public service before any of his peers were, Batouli said. "On the weekends or something, I'd call him, and he'd be volunteering somewhere," Batouli said.
It was his volunteering that started the clock on his 15 minutes of fame.
On Aug. 7, Sidarth was given a digital camcorder, a copy of Webb's Republican opponent's schedule and orders to record Allen during his "Listening Tour" of Virginia. It is a routine campaign practice known as tracking, and both sides were doing it.
Sidarth set off in a dark green, 1996 Volvo 960 with a faded American flag decal in the rear window and a washed-out "God Bless America" sticker on the rear bumper.
At campaign stops, Sidarth said he and Allen's aides made small talk about the long trek, whether they had slept well and the name of the staffer from Allen's campaign who was doing what he was doing -- keeping an eye on the opponent.
At one stop, the senator had even walked up and shaken Sidarth's hand. Allen asked him his name and what company he was from, evidently thinking that Sidarth was a supporter, Sidarth said.
"I said, 'I'm following you around,' " Sidarth said. "And he understood that."
On Aug. 11, Sidarth followed Allen's bus into Breaks, Va., a town near the Kentucky border, for a GOP meet-and-greet. It was there that Allen segued into the riff directed at Sidarth.
"This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or whatever his name is, he's with my opponent," Allen said.
"Macaca'' is the scientific name of a genus of monkeys, and it is used as a slur in some cultures. Allen called Sidarth this week to apologize.
Sidarth said he knew right away that the word "macaca" was a put-down. He felt its sting.
"I had an idea of what he was getting at -- that he was injecting some sort of derogatory comment toward me that had a racial bent to it. I knew that it meant 'monkey' and it was used toward immigrants," Sidarth said. "I realized that I had been insulted."
But he kept filming. Allen kept going.
"He's following us around everywhere. And it's just great. We're going to places all over Virginia, and he's having it on film, and it's great to have you here, and you show it to your opponent because he's never been there and probably will never come so it's good for him to see what it's like out here in the real world," Allen said.
There were big whoops from the crowd, and laughter.
"So welcome, let's give a welcome to Macaca here! Welcome to America, and the real world of Virginia!"
Back at school in Charlottesville now, Sidarth has taken his new, unwanted fame with him.
Larry J. Sabato, an oft-quoted political pundit who teaches a small, popular seminar on campaigns and elections, said he asked students to write an essay as part of the admission process. Eighty people applied for the course, including Sidarth. His essay was just three words long -- but it was enough to clinch one of the 20 coveted spots in the class.
"I am Macaca," he wrote.
Staff writer Michael D. Shear and staff researcher Rena Kirsch contributed to this report.