JALANDHAR, India — A quiet stroll around the old neighborhood had been planned. But word spread quickly that U.S. Ambassador Richard Verma was returning to his family’s home in northern India after years in the United States.
By the time Verma, 46, arrived in the Basti Sheikh neighborhood, where he spent time as a child, the narrow lane leading to his grandmother’s house had been draped in colorful bunting. A costumed musician was loudly beating a drum. And in 105-
degree heat, hundreds of well-wishers leaned out from balconies, snapped photos and pushed forward to greet him, garlanding him with marigolds, pelting him with flower petals and offering sweets.
The low-key diplomat — a Bethesda lawyer — seemed a bit surprised by the ferocious outpouring of affection. “This is amazing,” he kept saying, shaking rose petals out of his hair.
Verma’s family left India before he was born. Like many other children of immigrant families from that era, he says he spent the early part of his life trying to assimilate into U.S. culture — hockey, Little League — and never dreamed of living in his parents’ native country.
But after more than two decades working in Washington — including as a foreign policy adviser to Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and as an assistant secretary of state during the Hillary Rodham Clinton era — the White House came calling last year. India beckoned, and with it, his family’s past.
Verma, his wife, Pinky, also a lawyer, their three children and Arlo the dog arrived in New Delhi in January, days before President Obama’s visit.
The president was coming to India to meet for the second time with the country’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi. The two leaders seemed determined to rejuvenate relations between India and the United States, which had stagnated under India’s last government, then soured in late 2013 when a junior Indian diplomat was arrested in New York on charges that she underpaid her domestic help.
The relationship between India and the United States “is in much better shape than it has been for some time. There is much more expectation about how we can take the relationship forward. In that sense, he has his job cut out for him,” said Shyam Saran, a former foreign secretary and Indian diplomat.
At the time of Verma’s appointment, there had been some grumbling among India’s diplomats, who had hoped for a high-
powered name. Meanwhile, in Washington, there was a debate about whether tapping the first Indian American for the post was something positive or negative.
“I’ll leave it for other people to judge if it’s a plus or a minus,” Verma said. “You do have to go back to ensuring you’re making the pick based on the qualifications of the person. I’ve had people underestimate me my whole life.”
Many now see his heritage as a plus, especially as Modi has reached out to the powerful Indian diaspora in the United States and elsewhere for investment and other support.
Verma arrived in the United States from Canada in 1971 at age 2 with his family — mother Savitri, a special-education teacher who died in 2011; his father, Kamal, a retired professor, now 84; and four siblings. They were the only Indian American family in gritty Johnstown, Pa., a city of steel mills.
“It was a very basic, hardworking community,” recalled Verma’s brother Rajiv, an insurance executive in New Jersey. Many of their friends, he said, already knew their futures lay in the steel industry. “Their only dilemma was were they going to work the night shift or the day shift.”
The adjustment was tough. Their mother cried every day for a week.
The family came to love the city. Verma’s best friends are still there, and his father only recently retired from teaching literature at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. But things were not easy at the beginning. Children could be mean, although Verma doesn’t like to talk about those experiences, except to say that’s one reason he became a lawyer.
“I know what it’s like to be different,” he said.
One of his most vivid memories is of watching his mother standing in her sari in the blowing and drifting snow, waiting to take a bus to her teaching job.
“Talk about unusual experience that toughens you up,” he said. “I’m sure she was scared, unnerved in some way, but she never showed it. She was always such a rock.”
Verma attended Lehigh University and studied law at American University. He earned a master’s degree in law from Georgetown University while serving in the Air Force.
A chance meeting with then-Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), led him to begin interning on Capitol Hill while still in college. Verma served as a foreign policy adviser to Reid from 2002 to 2007 and later as assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs.
Over the years, he began wanting to learn more about his family’s history in India.
“It’s funny. An interesting thing about assimilation in America is I think you probably spend half your time growing up trying to show everybody you’re just like they are, and you spend the other half trying to figure out where you came from and what you’re all about,” he said. “Growing up, the thought of coming back wasn’t high on the list of things I wanted to do. But as you get older, learning and discovering about this place was really important to me.”
And so, last week, that desire led him back to a two-story house in Jalandhar where most of his family had lived before migrating to the West in the 1960s. His mother and grandmother, also a teacher, settled here in 1947 after they fled the violence that erupted with India’s independence and the cleaving of the country that created Pakistan and left hundreds of thousands of Hindus and Muslims dead.
He spent the summer here as a boy of 6, brought by his mother to meet his grandmother. There was the iron swing in the hallway, the back room where he slept — still the same, he said — and the roof terrace where the whole neighborhood gathered on hot evenings to watch Bollywood movies on the one flickering black-and-white TV.
He was an American boy by then, neighbors and former playmates, some now in their 50s, told him. Every day his mother searched for familiar food he would eat. He couldn’t speak the local Punjabi language very well, so he and his friends communicated by hand signals when they played cricket. His strict grandmother told the neighborhood boys to be sure to take care of him.
Verma said he hopes to learn more about the journey of his mother and grandmother from others who fled what became Pakistan at the time of partition, and wants to bring his own family to see the old neighborhood.
“It was very moving to meet so many people who remembered my mother and my grandmother,” he said. “In some ways, it was like time had never passed.”