For months now the many friends of Ramechandra Malekar have been fighting to keep him in jail. He has been offered parole, and refused it. He has been put on the Maryland governor's commutation list, and begged off of it. "He's just been an absolute model individual," says one of the people who has been fighting on his behalf, "and now it's the 13th hour."
What his friends fear is that Malekar will be deported to India as soon as he leaves the Hagerstown Correctional Training Facility. If that happens he may never be allowed back in the United States and his release is scheduled for today.
Malekar's life has changed dramatically - for the better - since he was convicted of manslaughter four years ago.At the time he was arrested for killing his employer, Lalita Khambadkone, he spoke no English and was completely illiterate.
In prison he learned to speak, read and write English. He picked up some typing and shorthand and carpentry skills. He made friends. "He got along with everybody," remembers a fellow inmate. "He treat a man the way he want to be treated. In the joint you run across a lot of people trying to project that image - Elliott Ness and Al Capone. He would just ignore people like that."
Some people might get rough with him, "But if they'd have hit Ram," his friend remembers, "they'd have had to fight the whole tier."
The prison food and clothing were better than anything he had known in his small Indian village or the streets of Bombay - and better, too, than the blanket on the floor and the meager rations he has said the Khambadkone family gave him when he was brought to Bethesda in 1973.
his excitement about his new life was contagious. When he was put onto the prison's work release and home release programs, many of the people he grew to know in the Hagerstown area became tremendously fond of him.
He worked at the State Police barracks, and was soon taken in - for the one weekend a month allowed - by one of the trooper's family. A year and a half ago he went to work 40 hours a week at the Foundation Country Club. "He's the best worker I've ever had," says Robert Charlesworth, the manager. He was completely trusted, even given a set of keys. Charlesworth says there have never been any regrets.
Irene MacTavish, the head housekeeper at the club, talks about the young man almost as if he were her child. (His age is uncertain, but he appears to be in his mid-20s.
"He grew up a lot in the year and a half that and a half that I had him," she said. She reminisced about his first ice cream cone, his first Christmas, his first pair of tennis shoes. "If you'd have given him a Cadillac he couldn't have been more pleased."
Malekar was apparently almost as popular with club guests as with his employers. More than 200 have signed a petition trying to keep him in the United States.
It was at the Foundation Head that Malekar met the girl he plans to marry.
He has known all along that one of the few means he might have of staying in this country would be marrying to an American citizen, and he told a friend that a couple of girls had offered to help him out, "but there is no feeling there," he had said.
Last September Rosie Wolff, who lives near Hagerstown, went to work at the Fountain Head's kitchen. Soon, she and Malekar started having lunch together, and on the days when he couldn't come to work, she visited him in prison.
By October, she says, they had fallen in love. "I think I did before he did - and I think everyone else knew before we did."
Soon, Rosie and Ramchandra were talking about marriage. They bought engagement rings and hoped for a wedding as soon as possible. However, prison officials told them that Malekar would be taken off work release if he tried to get married.
On December 9, 1977, he was taken off work release anyway. "Subject's attitude has deteriorated considerably over the past three weeks," said a memo written by Malekar's classification counselor, Joseph P. Sacchet. In view of the "excessive amount of pressure" he was under - fearing deportation and planning to get married - it was decided he should be returned to the more secure facilities of the Maryland Correctional Training Center.
Since then the Fountain Head's offices have become a kind of command post for efforts to keep Malekar from being deported. The people there make half-hearted attempts to go about their work, but in recent days have found themselves staring at the clock on the wall. They wait nervously for phone calls from the lawyers and prison officials and politicians who have promised to help.
One of their last hopes to save Malekar from deportation is that a congressman or senator will sign a "bill of relief" allowing him to stay. At this point, even if one is signed, it can't be filed until Congress reconvenes on Feb. 21, well after Melekar would have been deported.
So now his friend are fighting to keep him in this country for just a few more days - long enough for the hoped-for bill of relief, long enough, perhaps, for him to marry Rosie. "He's accumulated days off for good behavior," says Charlesworth. "If only we can get those taken away from him . . ."
When he is released, says Wallace Gray of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Baltibore, "we'll probably move him on out."
Late Saturday afternoon, as Rosie Wolff sat with her friends in the Fountain Head offices waiting for a phone call that didn't come, a reporter asked her what she would do if Malekar is deported.
"I don't even want to think about that" she said. She went back to reading a book on Indian cooking, drinking from a styrofoam coffee cup she'd decorated with flowers and the legend, "Rosie J. Wolff Loves Ramchandra Malekar." That morning the couple had talked about how many children they would have.
"When the right guy comes along, you get married," she told the reporter, "but you got to wait a long time for that. Now I found him, I just got to hold on to him."