Lost In Translation?

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Around midnight on Oct. 27, Sudeep Das and his wife Napur were watching an Indian film in their Plainsboro, N.J., apartment when there was a knock on the door. Four local police officers stood outside with some questions to ask the corporate executive. Das claims the officers wanted to see his car, but when he ventured outside to show it to them, he felt handcuffs bite into his wrists. "What's going on?" he asked. The officers politely declined to answer. Instead they asked Das if he had recently reserved a ticket for the shuttle bus from Plainsboro to J.F.K. airport in New York City. Das said he had booked a ride earlier that evening. They asked how he had spelled his name for the reservation clerk. Das said he spelled it: "D as in David, A as in America, S as in Sam."

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According to an employee of the company that took the reservation, Airporter, based in Princeton, N.J., that is not what Das said. After hanging up with Das, an Airporter clerk went immediately to her supervisor and said she had just spoken with a man with a Middle Eastern accent who had spelled out his name "D as in destruction, A as in America, S as in Sam." "She couldn't believe somebody was using those words over the phone," says Hamilton Township, N.J., police lieutenant Michael Cane. Das was charged with one count each of disorderly conduct and harassment. Bond was set at $25,000. After Das spent five hours in jail, attorneys for his company, which has its headquarters in Atlanta, arranged to post bail. (As a condition of being interviewed, Das refused to give his company's name for fear that his arrest would cause the firm embarrassment.)

Das has been in the U.S. eight months. His accent sounds vaguely British, with the lilting tones characteristic of his native India. He insists that there is no way he could have mangled his pronunciation of David so profoundly that it could have been heard as destruction. Police have refused to name the reservationist or provide a copy of their report on Das, claiming that it is their policy to withhold such information. The CEO of Airporter, Alan Glickman, says the reservationist is a "valued employee in good standing." When Das goes before a judge on Dec. 18, facing the possibility of six months' jail time for each charge, it will be the clerk's word against his.