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A Capital Student : Education: Vishnu S. Menon, 18, winner of the Presidential Scholar award, will tour Washington and meet dignitaries.

June 17, 1993|DOUG SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEVERLY HILLS — For fun he reads Salman Rushdie. His favorite sport is badminton. And in his five years at Harvard-Westlake School, he's been an annual standout in the NFL--the National Forensic League.

In fact, Vishnu S. Menon, the 18-year-old son of an Indian immigrant who became the chairman of Capitol Records, had such a heady schedule of debating competition this spring that he almost neglected to complete his application for the Presidential Scholar award, the nation's highest honor for a high school student.

It asked a lot of introspective stuff about his personal background, his experiences and the people who influenced his life.

Menon dashed it off at the last minute, in longhand.

"I was writing it down as quickly as the ink would flow," he said.

With the aplomb of those who file income taxes at midnight, he deposited the letter in the postbox near his Trousdale Estates home in Beverly Hills, just in the nick of time.

"Finally, the last day, the mail pickup was 5:50. I got to the box at 5:40."

Fortunately the postman made his rounds that day, because the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars selected Menon as one of the 141 students in America who will visit Washington for five days starting Saturday, to meet their senators and a Supreme Court justice and receive a medallion from President Clinton.

The award, which carries no cash prize, is intended to identify the nation's most distinguished high school seniors in academic achievement, leadership, character and involvement in school and community activities.

Keeping things in perspective, the trip to Washington won't be the biggest trip that Menon has ever taken. He's visited his grandmother in Madras, India, every summer for as long as he can remember. The family takes the plane one way, stopping in several countries en route; then, instead of doubling back, they continues on, touring the other half of the globe on the return.

Menon thinks his cultural breadth may have impressed the judges.

"I think I gave them a good insight into my bicultural heritage. I've traveled a lot, especially to India. Yet I'm an American first, that's always been an important influence on my identity. So I'm able to straddle two cultures, balancing the best of both worlds."

Menon's biculturalism can be as charming as his boyish smile. He said he loves Indian authors, such as Rushdie, because they offer a different perspective than he generally gets in his usual studies of Western civilization and U.S. history. But he equally enjoys the literary pillars of colonialism.

"I like Rudyard Kipling," Menon said. "There is a lot of condescension--sort of white man's burden. There are a lot of things that wouldn't be politically and socially correct today. It's still sort of a fun thing to read."

A native of Los Angeles, Menon speaks an elegant blend of English reflecting many influences. His father, Bhaskar, who became an international business consultant after leaving EMI Records Worldwide three years ago, was educated at Oxford. His mother, Sumi, also a native of India, studied at the University of Texas. The couple met in India before they immigrated 20 years ago.

Their common language is English, because they don't understand each other's native languages, Konkani and Malayalam. The latter, their son points out, is a palindrome, a word spelled the same way backward as forward.

Though he learned Latin at Harvard-Westlake--and named Latin teacher John Corsello as his most influential teacher--Vishnu Menon has yet to master any Indian language. That's because even his grandmother in Madras speaks English, and the Tamil language of her region wouldn't have helped at all on his extensive journeys across the subcontinent.

"Every region I go to, they speak a different tongue," he said. "If I was to learn Tamil and go to another region, it would be useless."

Menon said he hopes to spend a year as an exchange student in India at some point, and is thinking he might learn Hindi, which is widely spoken throughout the country, so he can "get a different perspective on life in India than I have traveling with my family."

In the meantime, he starts at Stanford in the fall and will major in international relations. His goal is to become an international attorney specializing in South Asia.

"Commercially, it's becoming more of an important force," Menon said.

This summer he'll do some debating, teach debating in a workshop at Loyola Marymount University, go out some with his friends and read a lot of books.

But he doesn't know if he'll find time to squeeze in Vikram Seth's 1,349-page "A Suitable Boy," the gargantuan book that has thrilled the literary world with its epic examination of Indian society through a woman's search for a husband for her daughter.

"There are so many books I want to read before I go to college," he said.

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