(Note: This is a story I wrote for India Abroad that appeared in the Oct. 5, 2007 issue. There’s nothing filmi about it, though a young life suddenly cut short has been depicted often enough on screen. But I wanted to post this story here, in the hope that more people will learn about Navroze Mody’s life, and to counterbalance all that’s been written about his violent death.)
In 1987, I worked at the Argentine Embassy’s trade office in midtown Manhattan. It was my first proper job while starting college, and it was fun. Most of the handful of staff there were very young, and we were always laughing.
I would come in from Long Island and catch the E train at Penn Station to the stop under the Citicorp building at Lexington Avenue and 53rd street. I often noticed an intriguing-looking young guy, in a sharp suit and aviator-frame eyeglasses – it was the Eighties – who would get on one stop after me every day. He stood out because he was completely bald, years before it was in vogue for men to shave their heads, and I assumed he must have been undergoing cancer treatment. He looked about 30 years old, and he was Indian.
He would occasionally be with someone he knew, chatting in a British accent. We both got off at the same stop and headed in different directions. I even commented to Alfredo, a co-worker, about this unusual guy I kept seeing on the subway, leading him to pester me often with ” ¿Cómo está tu hindue? Did you speak to him today?” I’d blush, saying “No way! I’m not approaching some total stranger on the subway.” And we’d leave it at that. I never imagined that I would try to track him down 20 years later.
I left in August 1987 and moved to Madrid to attend school. When home for a Christmas visit, I saw something on TV one night that stopped me in my tracks. Maury Povich was on his news show talking about a young man named Navroze Mody who was beaten to death in front of a restaurant in New Jersey. He said there had been attacks on other Indians in the area and a group called the Dotbusters had sent a letter to the Jersey Journal newspaper some time before Mody’s death. In it, they wrote: ”We will go to any extreme to get Indians to move out.” When I saw the victim’s picture on the screen, I recognized it right away. Navroze Mody was my guy from the E train. The report said he was beaten so badly – shattered eyeball, severed spinal cord – that he lapsed into a coma and died four days after his attack.
I felt a wave of sadness and regret, even wondering briefly – as fantastically illogical as it sounds – if I might have delayed the flow of the events had I ever spoken to him.
Fifteen years later, I was back working in the city, living on Long Island, and wiped out from commuting almost four hours a day. I moved to Jersey City, New Jersey to be closer to Manhattan. Shortly after the move, while looking up a story online one day, I came across a mention of Navroze Mody in an article. As memories from 1987 came back, I searched for more information on him, and learned that the place Navroze moved to 15 years ago was my newly adopted home.
Incredulous, I learned his murder took place just a few miles away in upscale Hoboken, a once strongly Italian working-class enclave that was birthplace to Frank Sinatra and Joe Pantoliano of The Sopranos. Navroze had been out with a friend, William J. Crawford. They ate dinner at a Mexican restaurant that’s still there, called East L.A., then moved on to the now disappeared Gold Cost Café for a few drinks. As they walked to Crawford’s car parked at Ninth Street and Willow Avenue, they encountered a group of teenage Hispanic boys.
Accounts on what happened next vary. In some places, the story goes that the kids followed him and Crawford, taunting Navroze about his baldness. As he turned around, he saw one of the group about to tap him on the head, and either he did, or did not, assume a karate stance (he held a black belt in karate), and the attack began. The four teenagers, between 14 and 16 years old, came at him from all sides. Navroze was hit with bricks and fists, he fell, got up, was hit again and again, and when he fell to the ground a second time, his head hit the curb.
At nearby St. Mary’s hospital he lapsed into a coma and died four days later, just shy of his 30th birthday. The four teenagers – Ralph Gonzalez, Luis Padilla, and brothers Daniel and William Acevedo – were arrested shortly after the attack. Though all four were charged with murder, three were eventually convicted of aggravated assault and sentenced to 10 years at a youth center. The fourth was convicted of simple assault, a crime punishable by a maximum of six months in jail.
Navroze had convinced his mother and father to move to New Jersey to be with him. He bought a house in the area known as Jersey City Heights and they arrived in April 1987. Five months later their son was gone. Bereft at his death, the Modys’ sole focus became the trials of their son’s attackers. Four years later, disappointed by the light sentences the teenagers received, and by the fact that the court declared the attack was not racially motivated, Jamshid and his wife, Khorshed, packed up again and left.
At the time of his death, the area of Hudson County that Navroze lived in had experienced years of economic decline. At the same time, people began to emigrate there from India slowly and steadily since the late 1960s, particularly from Gujurat. They bought dilapidated properties, worked hard, fixed them up, and a whole strip of Indian stores and businesses eventually came to line one long avenue.
That road, Newark Avenue, is neither wide nor straight. On weekends, it can take 10 minutes to drive down a stretch that should only take about a minute. Cars are double-parked, others stop suddenly to drop off or pick up women in saris or salwars. Given the length of the avenue, no one crosses at the corner where the traffic lights are. People just wait until a car blocks traffic, which is often, and they dash, or frequently stroll, to the other side. Sometimes I see a young Jersey City cop in his traffic control three-wheeler and I have to smile; this guy is fighting a losing battle.
Helene Stapinski – whose salty 2001 memoir Five-Finger Discount revealed her family’s colorful and sometimes crooked past, as well as that of Jersey City – remembers one young Indian boy who arrived at her grammar school, Our Lady of Czestochowa, in “˜76 or ’77 when he was around 12. “He was so exotic to us,” she recalls. “His name was Suneet and he wore his long hair up under a white handkerchief on top of his head. He was really smart and had big, beautiful brown eyes, but he was so abused by the boys in the school. Kids are so mean. They called him “˜hankie head’ and by the time he got to eighth grade, he cut his hair and started drinking and hanging out, trying to be accepted. After elementary school, my family moved to the Heights and if Suneet had it rough at Our Lady of Czestochowa, which was downtown Jersey City and more of a melting pot, he would have been killed up in the Heights. It was the most racist part of town.” Helene observes lately, things seem to be changing for the better, and reasons that the artists as well as the investment bankers who’ve moved here tend to be more tolerant.
But who exactly was Navroze Mody? Local papers from September 1987 and the four years after give a thumbnail sketch of him as a 30-year-old banker, and aside from one story about his distraught 73-year-old father, Jamshid, most were about the trials and the Indian community’s reaction.
Many classmates from Navroze’s MBA program at the University of Chicago knew that he had died, but were horrified to later learn about his violent end in Hoboken. Doug Green wrote in an email: “It is just so incomprehensible. If that gang of thugs had even given him a minute to talk, he’d surely have disarmed them with his charm and personality, and they’d have let him go on his way. I remember how he used to joke about his baldness and it always put people at ease when they first met him, because of his unusual looks, it was always a relief to know that he dealt with it so well. In fact, his persona fit his appearance so well that many of the ladies I knew felt he was quite attractive in an exotic Yul Brennerish way, and he exuded a certain charisma, which was, I’m sure, one reason that he was such a popular person in school.”
Martin Kupferberg recounted an incident that happened a year or so before the fatal beating. He wrote to me: “Navroze and I met a couple of times for drinks. One of those nights we went to a movie in Queens. After leaving the movie we were hassled by some kids. It was really directed at Navroze, calling him “˜Kojak,’ referring to his lack of hair. He seemed to want to confront them, but I told him we should keep moving. I always thought if I had not been there that night, it might have been worse.”
Grant Bergman, who did an internship in San Francisco along with Navroze, recalls a camping trip to the Stanislaus River in the Sierras: “He was a little different looking, with not a single hair anywhere: on his head, including eyebrows and lashes and, as he volunteered, anywhere else. This wasn’t something I would have ever asked about, but as we were driving around along the river that weekend, he volunteered an explanation. I heard about how, in his teens, he just started losing his hair all over due to a genetic form of alopecia. I got the impression when it first occurred it was pretty upsetting, but he was talking about it rather matter-of-factly. Then he wrapped up with “˜And you know what? Birds love it!’ You have to hear that last bit in his British accent, delivered rather gleefully. And indeed, he was very outgoing and popular with a few women on campus. I remember him as gregarious, fun-loving, easy to get along with, and sharp. Frankly those characteristics came across much more saliently than did his ethnicity.”
One Indian classmate, Shekar Chitnis, invited Navroze to a party he threw for other Indian students. “It’s rather funny that he should be targeted as an Indian because he stayed very much away from Indians. Maybe he was shy.”
In 2002, fifteen years after the death of their youngest child, Jamshid and Khorshed Mody, 87 and 84 respectively, agreed to talk to me about Navroze and their own lives. Each on a different telephone in their house in California, they expressed surprise and then pleasure at someone calling to hear about their son.
Jamshid, or Jimi, and Khorshed were both born in Bombay (now Mumbai), and married in May 1947. They moved to England and opened what was then, in 1949, one of only three Indian restaurants in the U.K. Khorshed remembers “Jimi managed it while I worked in the kitchen and supervised the staff.” The restaurant was frequented by celebrities like the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret.
The Modys had two daughters – Diane and Perviz – born eight and five years before Navroze, who came along in 1957. Prompted by his wife, Jamshid told me about Navroze’s school: “He went to Haileybury, a very well-known secondary public school in England.” Though the school was only 20 miles from Central London in Hertfordshire, the campus sprawls across 500 leafy acres, and the buildings could double for the set of Brideshead Revisited. Navroze was part of a throng of 600 students at this boarding school and his parents said he excelled at his studies and also loved karate, soccer and field hockey.
I ask about the alopecia. Khorshed said “When he was 16 or 17, he had lovely curly hair. It started slowly. When he was young, just a small patch fell out. He only lost it after he was 20 or 21. He was very brave about it; I was more upset.” They took him to Harley Street specialists, but nothing could be done.
By the time Navroze graduated from high school, his parents moved to California to be close to their daughter, Diane, who had married and settled there. Navroze studied at the University of California at San Diego before transferring to Berkeley in 1981. Phil Ferrari, a photographer, met Navroze at the UCSD recreation center, and recalls: “We played some tennis, threw Frisbee at the beach, and went to parties to meet girls. We were fairly typical college students. We did travel a bit. I remember going to his parents’ house for some great Indian food. Later, I visited him in New York and he showed me around town, Little Italy and the like. We had the same sort of temperament and liked a lot of the same things, the same music. I remember Navroze turning me on to Supertramp. He always had a great sense of humor and was one of those guys you felt good being around. His philosophy was “˜Let’s have a good time; life’s for the living'”
The other friend, along with Philip Ferrari, who rounded out the trio was Reg Thibodeaux, fellow UCSD student. Reg recalled Navroze recounting his hair woes, having lost all of it once, but getting it to grow back with a cortisone treatment. But his doctor told him “You can’t keep this up because it’ll be hard on your liver” and Reg says he decided to let it all go, while his friend assured him: “Nav, it’s not what’s on your head that counts, but what’s in it.”
Reg remembers Navroze’s love of food, especially an affinity for exotic foods, saying “The weirder the better. One time at dinner his mother cooked one of his favorite foods. It had an odd texture to it but it was good. I asked him what it was, but he didn’t seem to hear me. Afterward he said “˜Oh, by the way, those were brains.'” On fishing trips, if any kind of fish they caught had roe in them, Navroze would want to put it aside and cook it specially.
With one girlfriend, Reg recalled with a laugh, Navroze bought her an Indian cookbook and marked the ones that were his favorite dishes. When Reg asked him about it, he said “Well, if I don’t highlight my favorite foods, I’m never gonna get them.” But Navroze himself enjoyed cooking, often escaping his roommates to come over and cook at Reg’s apartment.
Navroze transferred to UC Berkeley to complete his undergraduate degree and, according to Reg, because “He was pretty cosmopolitan and worldly and he wanted to go to a more international place, more prestigious, where he’d have a better chance of getting into business school. I drove him there in this little Alfa Romeo sports car I bought, and he loved that!”
It was up at Berkeley that Navroze was to meet two important people in his life. One was Jess Robbins, a Native American who had been adopted and grew up in Brooklyn. Navroze’s parents put me in touch with him, and after many emails back and forth about their time at Berkeley, Jess and I met up at JFK for a coffee while he was en route to India on business. In his emails, he touched on common themes heard from other friends of Navroze: “Except for food, music, wine and other recreational and cultural pursuits, I can’t say that Berkeley was ever a real serious time. Navroze and I had a French class together and I believe that is where we first met. The funny thing was we were both already fluent in French and we were only in that class to practice our scouting talents. He was a great cook and I remember many social dating occasions whereby food, social discourse and much laughter were all on the menu. Our studies came and went second only to our social calendar.”
The two friends from two different schools – Reg and Jess – now linked by their friendship with Navroze, became close as well, bound together by the fact that, as Reg says, “None of us were blond-haired, blue-eyed guys. Sometimes we’d be walking along and we’d see a Hispanic or Asian guy with a white girl and we’d always look at each other and laugh and say “˜Yeah! The Third World guy gets the girl!'”
At Berkeley, Navroze also met a young woman at a party who Jess Robbins described as “petite, brunette, with a pretty smile and musical laughter” – Dennine Bullard. She was a California native, studying at Berkeley, and she and Navroze became a couple, in a relationship that endured through grad school and relocation to New York. Still with the same musical laughter, her hair now a chic grey flip, I met Dennine in Greenwich Village one evening recently when she shared some memories of Navroze: “He was fairly gregarious, but also shy. He really liked his friends, and they were all just fun-loving guys. He taught me a lot about cooking. I think he was always interested in it, to a large extent because of his mother’s cooking. Parties and cooking were some of our main forms of entertainment in Berkeley.”
With raucous laughter she also recalls his enthusiastic fondness for dancing to reggae music, and more: “He was the most sensuous person I’ve ever known. He just loved experiencing life, whether it was food or the beach or fishing or camping or dancing or whatever. He loved the experience of it.”
Chicago to Jersey City
After Berkeley came the MBA in 1985 at the University of Chicago. “Navroze always knew that he wanted to be a manager,” Jimi says. “He got an offer from Citibank when he graduated and moved to NY. He was in charge of promotion of the credit card business and traveled a lot in the United States. He said he’d like us to come and live with me. He’d been apart from us for so long at boarding school. Although there were nice places elsewhere we liked, and that he liked, Jersey City was an easier commute for him, and he was the main consideration. What we did like was the house he found was brand new.”
Khorshed chimes in softly “Jersey City after California looked so”¦” and her voice trails off. “We would hear about some attacks on Indians, but we had no idea. Navroze told us it was very convenient for him to get to work.”
Navroze worked long hours during the week, sometimes coming home in a Town Car limo at 10.30 pm. To unwind on the weekends, Khorshed says, “He was very fond of fishing since he was a child, so we would go to parks where he could fish and we’d have a picnic. But we had too few months with him. We arrived in April and this happened in September. September 27 he was just back from a friend’s wedding in France and was going out with another friend. We were going to Atlantic City to see the casinos and he didn’t want to come. When we came home and he wasn’t back, we thought it strange of him not to leave a note saying he’d be late.”
William J. Crawford was a client of Navroze’s and was unhurt in the attack. Jimi continues: “We were at the hospital all the time. Family came from the UK and India. The whole Indian community was very supportive. The District Attorney was very nice, but the justice system was not good. Those boys killed our son brutally. He was beaten so badly his eyeball came out, and they got off scot free. It was very traumatic. So many nights I couldn’t sleep.” After Navroze’s death, Jimi took to wearing his son’s watch and gold signet ring that bore his initials.
Khorshed says softly, in a dull voice: “After Navroze’s death, a Zoroastrian priest came. There was a cremation and we scattered his ashes in the sea there since he was so fond of the water. We left when the trials ended. Three years ago we thought we’d like to go back to England and settled in Hastings, but the climate didn’t suit us. After two years we came back to California.”
During those years, the Modys would meet once a month with friends from the Zoroastrian community, and their daughters would visit them. The eldest, Diane, lives in the United States, less than 35 miles from where he brother lived and died. The middle child of the family, Perviz, has always lived in the UK.
Before hanging up, the Modys promised to send a few photographs of Navroze. “Thank you for your interest in our son,” Khorshed said in closing. Jamshed Mody died in 2006, at the age of 91.
I drove to Poplar Street, where Navroze and his parents lived those five months, and parked in front of their old house, now painted pale gray. Graffiti was fading on a white garage door. Next door, a flagpole bears a large American flag and a flimsy yellow ribbon tied at its base. There are thick bars on the windows of another house just a little further on. As I drive around the block to head home, a bunch of young guys lingered outside a mechanic’s garage, posing for each other and scowling at anyone who looks in their direction. I wondered how much worse this area could have been 16 years ago.
After contacting a Zoroastrian association, I received an email and telephone number from a man named Homi Gandhi, a native of Baruch, Gujurat, and a resident of Glen Rock, New Jersey since 1982. When we spoke, I learned he was a friend of Diane Mody’s husband: “I didn’t know Navroze or his parents, but I learned later that it was at their restaurant, Jamshid, that I ate at when I was studying accounting in London years before. They made very good Dhansak, a typical Parsi dish of brown rice, lentils, meat and spices. It was a very well-known restaurant in Kensington, but it was pricey for someone on a student budget.”
He continues: “I was in Chicago on business when the news came from a friend, and that the family was going to have a funeral. Both the wake and funeral were held in Montclair. It was a very grim autumn afternoon. Because of the beating and injuries, the casket was closed. People were trying to decipher what happened. Had there been a fight? Was it because he was bald? Had he been mistaken for a Hare Krishna? I didn’t know much about the harassment in the area.”
Diane Mody, Navrose’s eldest sister, was born in London. The three children studied at the French Lycee there. She says “As a family, we were all quite keen on France. We used to go there on vacation.”
Jimi told how Navroze made friends with a family there and went back on holidays to work on their farm. It was one of the sons whose wedding Navroze attended the same September he was killed.
Diane says: “He was very happy at Citibank. He didn’t know this, but just before he died they had decided to offer him a promotion and his own office. I didn’t like Jersey City at all. I wasn’t keen on them moving there. I even found it a little scary to park my car there. But Navroze had high hopes and would say “˜I think it’s going to come up. And besides, it’s close to the city.’
Dennine moved out to New York some six months after Navroze. Of his settling in Jersey City she says: “He always chose what I considered the weirdest places. I moved to New York to live in New York. He was very frugal. He was not going to live in Manhattan because it was too expensive. So when he first moved, he was living in Rego Park. Not my idea of New York. So I stayed with him for a couple of months then I got an apartment in Manhattan.” In considering the whole relocation, Dennine says: “He was a California boy. Period. In my opinion, he was born to live in California. That was where he should have always been. I never thought about it until this minute but, you know, he loved being outdoors, he was very casual, New York was not.”
During the four years after Navroze’s death and the trials, Diane accompanied her parents to court. “It was awful. My parents talk about it more than I do. Maybe it’s better to talk about it” Dennine says: “I only went to the trial a handful of times. The opening day was such a circus. To me it was comical; it was so ridiculous in the court. For the introduction of all of the defendants, each had a lawyer so there were eight people at the table and they were all popping up and down and there was confusion over who was who. It really turned me off.”
Dennine admits to doubts about the racial nature of the crime: “I don’t know. Honestly I don’t think these people were smart enough to know where Navroze was from. It’s just crazy that they would know that. No one knew where he was from when they met him. I think they were just being aggressive little street kids. I think what happened, the turning point, was they threw a Coke can at him and it hit him in the head and that escalated things.”
The week after I first talked with the Modys an envelope arrived, spidery handwriting indicating name and address. I open it and see the face I used to see on the E train.
There was Navroze in one photograph, smiling on a sunny day, standing proud in his cap and gown and aviator frame sunglasses in Chicago. In the next picture, he stood in a stream somewhere in New Jersey, decked out in a beige fishing vest and khakis, holding up a fish he had just caught.
Jersey City today
Navroze was right. Jersey City has come up. Granted, there are still some dodgy areas in this city that sprawls out in many directions, but down by the Hudson River waterfront, Wall Street types have moved into the luxury high-rise apartments facing where the World Trade Center used to be. They come because of how much more apartment their dollars can buy here and for the PATH train which gets them to lower Manhattan in under fifteen minutes.
At the other end of the economic scale, as places like Williamsburg have gotten pricier, artists began arriving for the low rent to the downtown area.
Somewhere in the center, middle-class couples and families ventured in, buying brownstones and row houses and fixing them up, hoping that in addition to getting a nice place to live, they’ll see a return on their investments like Hobokenites once did.
Target opened a store in 2004. Cafes and restaurants have sprung up downtown. In 2007, New York magazine declared Jersey City such a hot neighborhood, that if you hadn’t moved here already, you’re too late. Even Donald Trump is building two 50-storey luxury towers on the waterfront.
On a recent visit to a small French place I discovered four years ago, I thought about the former stranger I’d been pursuing all these years. I can picture Navroze, had he lived and stayed on here, relaxing at a nearby table with some friends after a lazy Sunday brunch, the asho farohar he always wore glinting on its chain. He’s smiling easily and comparing notes with Alice, the owner – in French, of course – about how she prepared the moules.
After laughing at Alfredo’s suggestion back in 1987, I do regret never having said “Hi” on one of those morning commutes; I missed knowing a lovely human being.
Navroze was much larger than being Indian or fitting into any particular classification. He was a person of the world. The thing about Nav was he could talk about a million different subjects and stood out because he had no hair. The minute he could get you in to a conversation, he could charm the pants off you.
We always thought we were the underdogs because we were not your typical tall American guys who always got all the girls, we would have to be more clever, a little bit more suave. The kind of women he attracted and were attracted to him, were the international types, people who had lived in a lot of different places and appreciated the kind of things that he did. He knew about cooking, about art, about a lot of different things. Women liked him.
In Berkeley, he was feeling more comfortable in his own skin. He transferred just when all his hair had fallen out, and people didn’t know him with hair, they only knew him how he was then. I think that gave him a fresh start, a catharsis. Our goals then were a lot like most: “˜Let’s just make a ton of money, retire early; we’ll take your boat or my plane and go wherever we want to.’ We all liked to travel. He spoke French, I spoke Spanish. Jess (Robbins) was the party. We all thought we’d be extremely successful and retire early and travel the world together.
Before he passed away, Navroze was saying “In a year or two we’re going to India together and see my family.” He had a big family. When he passed away all these people I’d never seen before flew in for that funeral. It was quite a big entourage.
He had always planned on taking care of his parents. In fact, before he got on the plane to go to France for that wedding, just before he got killed, he took out a huge life insurance policy in case his plane crashed, and he told me: “In case anything happens to me, my parents will be set.” He wanted his prents to be taken care of. There’s no consoling you when you lose your only son, but he provided for them even after he died, which is really amazing. I think Navroze had more philanthropic goals in minds as well. I think he had hoped to do well enough to give something back. He definitely thought more globally than I did.
In the beginning, after his death, you think you see the departed person in a crowd, sometimes I’d see a guy with a bald head and think it was him. That old adage “˜only the good die young’ definitely applies here. He was a really good guy. Whatever he had, he shared.
– Reginald Thibodeaux
A Fish Tale
Navroze enjoyed fishing. Not sure where he picked up his fondness for the sport but he had his own gear, which I recently inherited from his parents. One sunny day, we drove out to the northwest side of the Golden Gate bridge. There’s and old Army base up there, can’t remember the name. We hiked down to the sandy part of the beach, took off our shoes and cast out into the water past the surf line. Hours passed, with no luck.
Then, without notice, he hooked something exciting! As this marine predator approached the surf line, we saw a fish shadow several feet long. Fearing his catch would somehow get away, Navroze jumped into the water, through the crashing waves, to try and secure his beast. I followed, but only halfway, as he was managing just fine.
Anyway, turned out we hooked ourselves a Leopard Shark, maybe two feet in length. To us, it was a Great White! I think I helped him drag it onto the beach. Then, spontaneously, as only guys can, we had a victory dance around our wild and dangerous shark. Traditional male bonding, I guess, but mostly we were laughing at ourselves and how seriously we had fought off dangerous elements for a stupid fish.
Now that our victory was complete, we made plans to leave the beach and transport our big game back to civilization. I am not sure about this part, but we probably put the fish in the trunk of his Toyota and listened to the constant flopping all the way home. Back in the late 1970s, shark meat was not trendy, but Navroze was a great cook and wasn’t about to waste a perfectly good fish.
So we invited a mutual friend over to help us eat this fish that we called something else for that occasion. After it was sliced and spiced, no one but us brave hunters knew the difference. Adventures like these were normal for us – good feelings for a simpler time.
– Jess Robbins