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COLUMN ONE : Providing Northern Exposure : At 'the high temple of Arctic adventure,' your guide to the North Pole is . . . an Indian Tamil. Meet this self-sufficient Milton Friedman in mukluks.

August 31, 1992|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RESOLUTE, Canada — Bezal Jesudason keeps his table set for 15, here on remote Cornwallis Island high in the Canadian Arctic archipelago. He never knows who may be dropping in for dinner.

There were the New Agers from Winnipeg, on their way by sledge to the magnetic North Pole, where they hoped to beget a super-baby.

There was the Japanese film crew making a movie called "Antarctica"; because they were at the wrong end of the globe, they had to use stuffed penguins as props.

There was the moon-walking astronaut Neil Armstrong, who spent the afternoon building an igloo outside Jesudason's door, intent on spending the night in it.

And there was the physics professor from Hong Kong who wanted to do tai chi exercises at the magnetic North Pole, to see whether his arms generated an electrical current as they passed through the Earth's magnetic field.

All of these, and several hundred Arctic aficionados more or less like them, have traveled to this forbidding outpost near the top of the world because they grasp one of the reigning incongruities of northern life: If you want help traveling in the high Arctic, you can't do better than to buy it from a 51-year-old Indian from Madras, a sweltering 13 degrees of latitude off the Equator.

Jesudason, a Tamil, and his 44-year-old Canadian wife, Terry, are the proprietors of High Arctic International Explorer Services, a 10-room guest house and outfitting concern in Resolute. Their mom-and-pop business has cornered the market on North Pole expeditions.

And not only that: In a part of Canada where virtually everything is subsidized by the federal government, from airlifted apples to loan-guaranteed zinc mines, the Jesudasons have carved out their improbable niche with no help from the public finances.

On the contrary, Jesudason, who believes government interference in the north is crushing the region's indigenous spirit, comes across as a kind of Milton Friedman in mukluks, bubbling over with parables about the bumblings of Big Brother.

"I've been fighting with the government since Day One," he says. "One of my guests, from Scotland, told me, 'Bezal, you're the only guy I know who makes Margaret Thatcher look like a Communist.' I took it as a compliment, actually. I think people should be free to do what they want."

Bezal Jesudason (pronounced \o7 Bay-zuhl Jay-zoo-dah-sun) \f7 has himself been to the geographic North Pole half a dozen times, touching down on the ice cap in a skiplane. He has helped 16 surface expeditions conquer the Pole on their own, renting them gear and native guides and tracking their progress by radio.

He keeps a striped barber pole stashed in his garage for use as a flown-in photographic prop; he finds people want something in their North Pole photos besides the wall-to-wall sameness of snow and ice.

Each year, Jesudason helps still other Arctic travelers get to the magnetic North Pole, which is a great deal more accessible and can be reached in a few days by snowmobile. He says he doesn't miss India's hot weather at all: "Actually, I cannot stand the heat anymore."

In any given year, Jesudason and his wife accommodate about 300 travelers--about double the population of Resolute.

To better serve his clientele, he has learned to speak fluent Japanese, German, Inuktitut and a little Danish and Dutch--as well as English and the five languages of the Indian subcontinent that he already knew when he arrived in Canada.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has called his wooden house, appointed as it is with caribou antlers and whale jawbones, "the high temple of Arctic adventure."

How is it that an immigrant from the subtropical state of Tamil Nadu has come to thrive--physically, emotionally and economically--in this icy, impoverished realm of 24-hour-a-day winter darkness?

"We have an old saying in Tamil, 'Learn to live like a raven,' " Jesudason says. "I never used to know what it meant, but now I've seen ravens in Madras, and I've seen ravens on Ward Hunt Island (the most northerly island in the Canadian Arctic and the jumping-off point for most North Pole expeditions). I have seen that the raven is the only bird that lives anywhere in the world. Now I know what it means to be adaptable."

When Jesudason left India at 23, armed with degrees in chemistry and physics, he went first to Germany for graduate work in mechanical engineering. He then took some Indian emigre friends up on their suggestion that he come to Canada for the scenery.

To pay his way, he found a job tooling up tractors and diesel engines in Toronto, where he made friends with his fellow repairmen. He liked the city and planned to stay. Then some of his shop mates suddenly announced they were moving to the Arctic in pursuit of better pay.

"When they left, I felt very lonely," Jesudason recalls. "So I wrote, very halfheartedly, to the (government) department I knew they had written to. Three days later, I had an answer, despite the terrible Canadian postal service."

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