Story Of Sujatha Baliga
Posted by Preeta Bansal on May 23, 2014
Sujatha Baliga was born and raised in Shippensburg, Pa., the youngest child of Indian immigrants. From as far back as Baliga can remember, she was sexually abused by her father. In her early teens, Baliga started dying her hair blue and cutting herself. She thought she hated herself because of her outcast status in her community, in which she was one of the few nonwhite children in her school. But then, at age 14, two years before her father died of a heart attack, she fully realized the cause of her misery: what her father had been doing was terribly wrong.
Despite the torments of her childhood, Baliga excelled in school. As an undergraduate at Harvard-Radcliffe, she was fairly certain she wanted to become a prosecutor and lock up child molesters. After college, she moved to New York and worked with battered women. When her boyfriend won a fellowship to start a school in Mumbai, she decided to follow him while waiting to hear if she had been accepted at law school.
Baliga had been in therapy in New York, but while in India she had what she calls “a total breakdown.” She remembers thinking, Oh, my God, I’ve got to fix myself before I start law school. She decided to take a train to Dharamsala, the Himalayan city that is home to a large Tibetan exile community. There she heard Tibetans recount “horrific stories of losing their loved ones as they were trying to escape the invading Chinese Army,” she told me. “Women getting raped, children made to kill their parents — unbelievably awful stuff. And I would ask them, ‘How are you even standing, let alone smiling?’ And everybody would say, ‘Forgiveness.’ And they’re like, ‘What are you so angry about?’ And I told them, and they’d say, ‘That’s actually pretty crazy.’ ” The family that operated the guesthouse where Baliga was staying told her that people often wrote to the Dalai Lama for advice and suggested she try it. Baliga wrote something like: “Anger is killing me, but it motivates my work. How do you work on behalf of oppressed and abused people without anger as the motivating force?”
She dropped the letter off at a booth by the front gate to the Dalai Lama’s compound and was told to come back in a week or so. When she did, instead of getting a letter, Baliga was invited to meet with the Dalai Lama, the winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, privately, for an hour.
He gave her two pieces of advice. The first was to meditate. She said she could do that. The second, she says, was “to align myself with my enemy; to consider opening my heart to them. I laughed out loud. I’m like: ‘I’m going to law school to lock those guys up! I’m not aligning myself with anybody.’ He pats me on the knee and says, ‘O.K., just meditate.’ ”
Baliga returned to the United States and signed up for an intensive 10-day meditation course. On the final day, she had a spontaneous experience, not unlike Andy Grosmaire’s at his daughter’s deathbed, of total forgiveness of her father. Sitting cross-legged on an easy chair in her home in Berkeley, Calif., last winter, she described the experience as a “complete relinquishment of anger, hatred and the desire for retribution and revenge.”
After law school at the University of Pennsylvania, Baliga clerked for a federal judge in Vermont. “That’s when I first saw restorative justice in action,” she says. The second part of the Dalai Lama’s prescription would be fulfilled after all.