ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Kulmeet Singh’s plan to travel to rural India with a “bunch of first-, second-, third-generation Punjabis” and find ways to make a difference was a perfect reflection of his background.
Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out the way he expected.
“It was the romantic notion of living in a village in the middle of nowhere, in 130-degree temperatures,” he said. “We were the quintessential ugly Americans. It was hilarious.” Singh’s background: He was born in Connecticut to Indian parents who worked for the Peace Corps just after it was founded, and he was raised in the Sikh tradition, which emphasizes service to community.
That led him, in his late 20s, to India, where he could “kill two birds with one stone:” do service work while learning about his Punjabi roots.
There was no Peace Corps in India at the time, so Singh formed his own miniature version, complete with about 10 others who were planners, teachers, engineers and other professionals.
One of the most humbling moments came when villagers asked for help with a festival “that has been happening for hundreds of years” in which the village serves a free meal to 200,000 people in the surrounding area, Singh said.
His group’s project planners enthusiastically jumped in to organize: “Where’s the food going to come from? And where’s the raw material going to come from? Where’s it going to be cooked? And who’s going to do the cooking?”
Nice try, but it turned out that all the villagers wanted was a little manual labor.
“They thought we were nuts, and so … we just helped,” Singh said. “The raw materials showed up; the people to cook showed up. It wasn’t planned. They didn’t need any of our crazy management or project planning or any of that. It was humbling.”
Singh has since found other ways to help people. He touts his startup, Twistle, as a way to “be a voice for the patients.” Based in Albuquerque, it offers a health care messaging platform for patients to get information and for doctors to oversee their care.
With a portion of proceeds from an earlier venture, Singh also has started a foundation in India that places low-income children “of high capability” in a rigorous academic program and provides medical care, food and mentoring. It’s run by his 87-year-old father.
“We try to get them into … the best colleges in India,” he said. About $2,500 is invested in each youth, who earn an average of $25,000 a year after graduating. The youths, in turn, are encouraged to donate a tenth of their subsequent earnings – not to the foundation necessarily but “to play a role in their own communities, however they want.”
“And we’ve been doing this awhile,” he says. “We have some good results so far.”
How did you get to Albuquerque?
I’m an accidental tourist. I built my last company in Chicago. I sold it to (a company) in suburban Boston and was living and working in Boston. I got married late in life, in my early 40s, and my parents, with an odd twist of circumstances, had decided they were going to live in Albuquerque. The weather, at least in May and June, is very similar to Punjab. My sister and her kids also moved here – “we’ll be closer to Mom and Dad.” Well, we got here, and Mom and Dad said, “Well, we think we’re going to spend more and more of our time in India.”
I’ll be honest with you, Albuquerque grew on me. The fact that I’m in one of the poorest states in the union, and I have an opportunity maybe to make a difference here. It’s a hard problem, by the way, because we don’t have resources here. I don’t really have a lot of support.”
What do you do in your spare time?
I like to be a hands-on father. I have three girls, 7, 5 and 1½. I like to be home to put them to sleep. I read to them, I sing to them. We’re raising them with Punjabi as a first language, so it’s music in our language. And I’m a terrible singer. I actually have no sense of rhythm, and I don’t know what damage I’m doing to my kids
I’m a screenwriter. But I struggle with that because it’s a hard problem to tell a complicated story on the screen. How do you make the character complex, and not good-vs.-bad and good triumphs?
What have you written?
I have two in the works. The first one is … a fish-out-of-water story about how 11 Americans show up in a village in India and well, … you have to take some license, but it is autobiographical. It’s funny, but it’s also tragic. The other one is about our experience as Americans.
Can you be more specific?
I had grown up contrasting India with America, and America always won in my eyes because of the Declaration of Independence and because of the free press and because of the idealism I saw in Americans – Thomas Paine and Federalist Papers. These were the things I had read and I could quote. I saw the incredible experiment that America was … and I identified with that nobility, if you will. Pockmarked as it was. And I could contrast that with the lack of rights for minorities in India and the ugliness of the caste system. I had a simple narrative: America, good, India, bad. Then 9/11 happened. Our government, someone said, “Ah, the Constitution … it’s just a piece of paper.” And all this jumping on the bandwagon. … That’s when I realized that the greatness of this country, or any country for that matter, anyone’s greatness is shown only when it’s tested and when it was tested, we flunked.
After 9/11, there was fear of people who looked different. Did you experience that?
Oh, yeah, yeah, we did. My family, friends, my community. But I want to be very careful not to overstate it. What we experienced is nothing compared to what African-Americans and Hispanics and poor people in this country experience. I don’t want to be self-indulgent in calling that prejudice out. I want it to be put in perspective. And in some ways, I actually want my kids to experience it. It’s good. It makes you aware.
What is on your bucket list?
Finishing a screenplay, making a movie out of it. Starting a school. Learning to shoot. I have been to a gun range, but I would like to be much better at it. I think I would like to go get a master’s or Ph.D. in philosophy, history or English. Oh, and when we got married, our honeymoon was supposed to be a Mongolian car rally from London to Ulaanbaatar … it goes on for weeks or months. We bought into it and we were supposed to do it, and my wife got pregnant. So the day my youngest goes to college, we’re going to do that.
Are there any foods you can’t live without?
Oh, I couldn’t live without Punjabi. It’s just simple dal and roti. When I die and they dissect me … they will find my innards lined with yellow dal.
I don’t think I have any. I’m extraordinarily fortunate. I am grateful beyond words for what I have. I hope I don’t make the same mistake over and over again. I make new mistakes, but there have been mistakes I’ve made where I’ve been unkind and unpleasant – memorably so for myself and for the person who has been on the receiving end. And oftentimes it’s the people closest to me. So I would say those are things, if I could do something, is I would take back those moments.