Dr Suresh Venkita, our Group Medical Director, a senior cardiologist and an avid writer, has yet again shared this lovely story from his desk.



‘’Can I come in Professor?’’

I looked up from my desk at my office at the Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was a professor of psychology, specialized in migration. A young Asian student was standing at the door, possibly second generation North Korean-American. His parents must have gone through hell during their passage from that country to the US.

“I came to see you about my project report, Sir.’’

Absentmindedly I picked it up, handed over and said “Well done, I have given to you an A”.

He did not respond. He was looking at the bottle on my table which I had just toppled as I was picking up his submission.

“Is there a message in that bottle?” he asked.

I looked at the bottle, set it upright, did not respond but walked over to the window and looked down at the Harvard Square. I could see John Harvard’s statue from there, his toes shining from the traditional rubbing given to it by innumerable students, on entering the portals of that ivy league university. It is not widely known that John Harvard’s contribution to the founding of the university was about 800 dollars, valuable though it was at that time!

‘’ How did I and that bottle ever reach here?” I wondered.

“Sir?” insisted the young man.

‘‘Take that message out and read it out to me’’ I said softly.

He fished it out and read, clear as a bell.

“Life is an exam where the syllabus is unknown and question papers are not set”.

He pressed on’’ How did you find it, Sir? ‘’

I picked the bottle again, opened it and put my ear to it. Just as from a shell put to your ear, you can hear waves from a bottle which has been at sea a long time. But I heard a lot more than just waves. I heard shouts in desperation and cascading sobs. I heard the pangs of hunger and rumbles of frustration.

I heard threats of death and pleas for mercy. Most of all I heard my sister scream in fear, the eruption of a volcano of anger and the gush of the lava of violence that rose from me, a boy of just ten, in response to that.

Recoiling from that assault from the past on my senses I quickly put the bottle down on the table.

The answer to his question had kept me grounded all my life. In a flash, once again I could feel the searing pain of a great hunger in my belly, the sand paper in the mouth sensation of a parched tongue, the gratefulness to god when sudden rain hit my cheeks like needles but tasted like nectar in my mouth, the crash of the waves that deafened my ears, the rocking of the boat that made me throw up time and again, the wetness of its floor that made my feet soggy and sore with ulcers and the sinking of the heart when I saw the anxiety and fear in my parents and sister’ eyes as our boat began to sink.

‘’ It also fetched up on the beach along with me when I was washed up alone on a beach somewhere along the coast of a Malaysian island in in 1978”

‘‘What took you there?”

‘‘I don’t know. I guess we lost our home, lost our village and country and lost our way across the water;

we were the boat people, we were fleeing Vietnam”

‘‘This message?’’

‘’I reached for the bottle, I was thirsty and hungry, I was hoping to find some food, or a drink, but I found this’’.

“You kept it? ‘’he persisted.

‘‘Yes, in a way it kept me. It found me a home, a country, my way across the world, and it brought me here”

He hesitated and then blurted out’’ Can a have it? Or just keep it for a few days?”

‘’ You are from North Korea, aren’t you? It could help you, just like it did to me. It was my talisman.

Come, let us take a walk down Cambridge Street and find a cup of coffee, and while we are at it, I shall tell you about the boat people’’

It was getting cold; autumn had come to Cambridge. It would soon be freezing and the sidewalks would be buried in snow. That seemed a long way from the steamy heat of a Vietnamese after noon hovering over the rice paddy fields.

I picked up our conversation “We fled Vietnam by boat after the war, during 1978. I was 10. My sister was older, at 15. Our parents woke us up one night and whispered- We are leaving home’’

‘Why did you have to leave home?” asked my relentlessly inquisitive student. I am sure he must have asked that question to his parents who fled North Korea. May be they did not tell him. Maybe he was too young to understand. Lines from the poem ‘Home’ by Warsan Shire, a British-Somali poet, came wafting into my mind:

no one leaves home unless

home is the mouth of a shark

you only run for the border

when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you

breath bloody in their throats

you only leave home

when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you

fire under feet

hot blood in your belly

it’s not something you ever thought of doing

until the blade burnt threats into

your neck

and even then you carried the anthem under

your breath

We had bundled up a few things and left home, I not knowing why. Much later I came to know that the number of boat people leaving Vietnam and arriving safely in another country totaled almost 800,000

between 1975 and 1995.

My inquisitor queried again: ‘’ By boat? Across the high seas? What chances did you have of survival and reaching a shore?’’

Words of Shire again popped up in my mind:

You have to understand,

that no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land

I want to go home

but home is the mouth of a shark

home is the barrel of the gun

and no one would leave home

unless home chased you to the shore

‘‘Why did you have to leave Vietnam’’ persisted my visitor.

Shire certainly had the answer:

No one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear



run away from me now

I don’t know what I’ve become

but I know that anywhere

is safer than here.

We left Vietnam with 17 other people in a boat only 23 feet (7 mts) long to attempt the 300-mile (500 km) passage across the Gulf of Thailand to southern Thailand, Malaysia or Singapore.

We were soon in the lanes plied upon by the big cargo carriers, who steamed past us ignoring our cries and pleas for help. Every time they sailed past us thundering waves raised by their displacement tossed us high and brought us back crashing down, almost sinking with each wave. We were the orphans of the high seas.

The boats were not intended for navigating open waters. Our two outboard motors soon failed and we drifted without power and ran out of food and water.

We faced storms, diseases and starvation but somehow survived from one to another day.

But the worst predators were pirates. We managed to elude them several times but one day we failed.

Hungry, thirsty and exhausted after one more storm, we had dozed off and woke only when we heard thuds of footfalls on our floor, shouts and shoots. We woke to see a big boat looming at our side and several rough and rowdy men, Thai pirates, descending on to us. They screamed even more when, after slapping, kicking and slashing some of us, they found out that we have nothing valuable left to enrich their coffers. Cursing and kicking us they returned to their boat but the last man tuned back and grabbed my sister who was the only young woman on the boat.

She screamed; she turned white with fear and her hands turned blue from the pressure of his grip. I turned to look at my parents. Both were so exhausted and emaciated that they could not even raise hands in request or retaliation. He yanked her half out of our boat to his and that was when something snapped inside me. My pent-up frustration and anger came to boil in seconds; the pressure built up so fast I felt my heart and head would burst. I lunged at him. With a roar powered by all that rage, I threw my full body weight, that of a hardy boy raised on the farms of my village, into his belly. For a moment he was dazed, then crazed because my crash into him had made him let go of my sister’s hand, and then shocked to realize that he was being ejected out, falling between the two boats. I leaned over to see his fate and saw the fear in his eyes as his boat, bigger than ours, swung towards him in the tide, crushed him and dragged him under. Last thing I saw was the hate in his eyes. His people did not notice either him or me during their efforts to board and leave. I watched him sink like a squashed turtle. Something in me hardened and I was determined to survive this ordeal.

Between 200,000 and 400,000 boat people died at sea. My family also joined them, when, as we were reaching some coast line, the coast guard headed straight towards us and rammed us. All that I remember was drowning in stinging salt water.

I have no idea how I alone survived out of the 17 and got washed up ashore, along with a bottle with a message.

The rest of my immediate life was a blur in my memory. But I remember carrying that bottle everywhere with me; it was my family, it was my teacher and it was the shepherd who lead me through my adoption by an American family, my arrival at their home which was on wheels at a trailer-park in Florida, my tumultuous years at a community school hearing mostly Spanish, one day winning a scholarship to study at Duke and then an absolutely unbelievable opportunity materializing to study at Harvard, and then be invited to join its faculty on a tenure-track professorship.

At no time during these turbulent years the bottle left my side.

Being a migrant, it inspired me to take up study of mitigating the psychological trauma of forced migration in both ancient and modern history. I delved deeply into the exodus of the Jews to their promised land and then graduated through the horror and misery undergone by other populations, over the years, in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Far East, the catastrophic migration in recent times across the Mediterranean and the Pacific that unsettled hither to complacent and comfortable countries and finally to the plight of the most persecuted people of current times-the Rohingyas. Shunned by both the countries where they had a home at some time or other, they are being blamed for being dirty, poor, uneducated, unproductive yet proliferating in number. While I desperately search for solutions that someone in power over their lives would heed to they are being shot dead like stray dogs in the street.

“Sir” my inquisitor shook me out of the trance I had gone into.

‘‘Can I take the bottle?”

I took a deep breath to strengthen my resolve. Letting go was not easy.

“Yes, keep it with you as long as you wish. But every morning you wake to comfort and security, put that bottle to your ear and listen to the cry of people who lost everything they cherished in their life, not to the fury of nature, but to the horror of what we can do thoughtlessly to each other”.

Dr. Venkita S Suresh

Dr. Venkita S Suresh,
Group Medical Director and Dean of Studies,
DNB and other post-graduate training programs.


Write a comment
01-10-2021 10:06:10am

#1 Vasanthi

Very well written sir,bringing out such deep emotional turmoil that goes through those truly unfortunate souls, and to realize that we the fellow humans are the cause makes it even more sad...and to know,how lucky and blessed we are ....hope it all changes soon,but I quite know it's a hopeless thought as we now see hatred being fanned in all possible ways,and its only that fire which will eventually catch on,and burn the mankind ( unkind)

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