Immigrant Bengalis

Last week as I was driving my son, Raphael back home from college for the Christmas holidays, I remarked that we were lucky to be living in a time that scientists have created a vaccine that offers us protection from the Corona virus. I told him that when my father was a child, the Spanish Flu had raced across the globe and killed 50 million people. In fact, I recalled, the daughter of one of our tenants in Calcutta, Poonam, had contracted polio and lost the use of her arms and legs. She had missed Salk’s polio vaccine by just a year or two.

Raphael listened to my recollections for a while, then asked me, “What is the luckiest thing that happened to you, Dad?”

I did not have to think about it. I told Raphael, “You are the luckiest thing that happened to me.”

I was indeed blessed with a child, my one and only, at a time of life when many people look forward with savory anticipation to their social security options.

“No, Dad, not like that. I mean, real lucky things, like seeing Bob Dylan in concert, rafting down the Rio Grande or winning the lottery or…”

I realized Raphael at his age could never understand the enormity of the gift of a child into my life. I smiled and said, “Let me think about it.”

It is not a far stretch for immigrants like us from Bengal to see each day of our lives in the United States as a lucky gift. It is true we did not come to the US as a result of displacement from war or famine. We are that exclusive group of immigrants who came here as graduate students or were young professionals from India looking to better ourselves. We came here when the US opened her doors and invited people with technical and scientific knowhow. Some of those immigrants later fetched spouses from home who were just as qualified as their husbands.

But there are stories of luck, and they are very subtle indeed.

When I was an undergraduate at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, I would see Mesbah Uddin Ahmed, a Ph. D student from Bangladesh -- carrying enormous stacks of cards in his arms -- walking late at night towards the computer center. He carried those stacks with utmost caution, as if he was carrying the gifts from the Gods. He could not be drawn into a conversation or other distractions when he was on his lofty mission.

My curiosity got the better of me. Seeing Mesbah at the University Center one afternoon, I asked him, “What are those cards you carry late at night?”

A smile crossed his lips. With an all-knowing smile across his face he replied, “Those are computer cards I punch and feed into our computer for my research project.”

He looked at me hoping he hear a gasp, or at least some words of praise. I did not know what to think or say.

Mesbah leaned closer towards me. In a hushed tone he added, “Our computer is in communication with a mainframe computer at MIT in Boston. Can you believe, I am running my project, my research project, on a mainframe at MIT?”

I figured this was my cue to respond with a kind word or two. I faked a look of utmost surprise and admiration and said, “Bah, really?”

Mesbah sank into his chair and looked enormously satisfied. He whispered, “I am the luckiest guy in the world. Can you imagine? I am a graduate student from Dacca University, and I am running my project on a mainframe at MIT.”

At that moment, had I asked Mesbah to pay for our second round of coffee I am sure he would have paid willingly but I had to leave. But I do remember his look and words. Mesbah added, “I am the luckiest guy in the world, ha, ha. The luckiest guy.”

Fortune does smile in many ways.

The truth be known, if your elevator does not reach the top floor and you could still be admitted to Texas Tech. The campus is enormous and the football stadium easily rivals the Eden Gardens’s on the Maidan. Scantily clad young Texas beauties sun themselves for hours on the lawns in preparation for fraternity parties. On bright, sunlit afternoons, T-38 fighter trainer jets flying in tight formations roar across the wide sky. But our ‘home boys’ did not glance at the beauties on the lawn nor look up at the screaming jets in the skies above. They punched computer cards late into the night.

One did.

Avinash was in great spirits when I ran into him at the University Center. “What’s up, Avi?” I asked cheerfully.

He leaned towards me and looked around to make sure nobody could overhear us. I thought, one of those bikini clad beauties from the lawn must have got to him. I anticipated some colorful details. Avi said, “I went to Reese Air Force Base.”

This is what is called a ‘googly’ in the Eden Gardens. The ‘leg spin’ turns out to be an ‘off spin’ and you are bowled out. I had rehearsed my line before with Mesbah, so I threw out with confidence, “Bah, really?”

“You see,” he continued, “all these pilots in smart uniforms strutting around on our campus. You never see the enlisted men here, those who service their planes. I wondered, how many enlisted men does it take to keep one of those planes flying.”

By now I knew I was treading deep waters and I could go under quite easily.

“I want to optimize the workflow in the repair hangers at the Reese Air Force base. It is called scheduling and sequencing.”

I was not getting it but I knew I was safe. I threw out, “Hmm, I have heard about it.”

It worked. Avi was now flying across the sunlit skies above Texas. “My Ph. D guide, Dr. Panwalkar, contacted the Air Force base. They took us there and we toured the entire engineering facility. They revealed to us their workflow with minute details. Can you imagine, the colonel who was in charge shared with me all the Air Force documents? Me, a graduate student from India.”

I decided, “Bah, really” would not work here so I threw out, “I can’t believe it. Really?”

“Me, a graduate student from India. ‘Arre’, I am the luckiest guy in the world!”

My pursuits at that juncture of life were much more modest. Both Mesbah Uddin and Avinash were serious graduate students. I was an undergraduate teenager. I had come to the United States on a lark. My goal in the United States could be summed up in a few words: Coca cola, Impala cars and Elvis Presley.

In my defense I should mention that on a few occasions, I did have Coca Cola in India. My mother had decided ‘Nimbu Pani, (lemon water) Ghool (yogurt water) or Aam Pora (roasted mango) sherbet were the only acceptable drinks in her home. However, once in a great while, very begrudgingly, she gave my brother and me four annas to treat ourselves to a bottle of chilled Coca Cola. I hold fond memories of such fun filled, silly afternoons. As we took a gulp of the fizzy sweet water, it gave us a tingling sensation in our nose. We burped and belched through the rest of the afternoon.

The Impala was another highlight from my youth. The film star Biswajit drove in one such majestic chariot when he came to visit his relatives next door. Profullo Babu was not a lightweight either. He owned a vintage Studebaker, and his daughter Purobi Mukherjee was a well-known Tagore vocalist. But the presence of the grand car drew crowds around Profullo Babu’s house when Biswajit drove up in his lime green Impala.

The aspiration to ride the Impala ended the first evening I arrived in the United States. My Jamaibabu (brother-in-law), a modest man, picked me up from Amarillo airport in such a car and drove me home. Within a few days I gathered that Impala was a very pedestrian affair, nothing to write home about.

I don’t know how Elvis Presley had crept into my mind and took an exalted position in my ‘to do’ list. He was elusive! More than five years went by and not a sign of the King surfaced in my life. Then suddenly he appeared.

A small poster at the Student Union building of the University of Texas read, Elvis in Concert.

There was no time to waste. The $29 price included a round trip from Austin to San Antonio and the admission ticket. For a poor graduate student, that was doable. I was ready to fulfill my American Dream.

When Elvis walked on stage in the colosseum, a million flash bulbs popped and a deafening applause went up from the audience, turning the space into the center of a lightning storm. As the King hummed the first notes into the microphone, my jaw hit the ground. It was the richest, smoothest sound of the human voice I had ever heard!

One has to grow up and with great hesitation I did too. With a degree in Film Studies, I did not know how to go to Hollywood and get a job. So I settled for a job as a news photographer at a small television station in Texas.

The job of a news photographer turned out to be a lucky break that I had never anticipated. I was front row to life in America, a view that very few foreigners in the US are privy to. Day after day, night after night and weekends, I attended small meetings at the city hall, parades, elections, beauty pageants, rodeos, and accidents on the roads to shootouts in dark alleys. You name it; I was there.

My film studies propelled me through the job and soon I was receiving from job offers galore. Not being savvy about such professional matters I choose a television station in Oklahoma. Here too something unexpectedly lucky happened. The news department had a helicopter to cover news quickly across the large viewing area. For a boy from Calcutta, this possibility was beyond my expectations. Flying had been my dream that I had not dared to mention earlier.

The other photographers were quite reluctant to ride around in a helicopter all day. At that tender age I did not put two and two together and realize that many of them had been in combat in Vietnam. For them, the whirring sound of the helicopter brought back memories of gunfire and worse. They were lucky to have survived the painful ordeal of their youth. They were happy to live in peace and raise families. Without the competition, ‘India Boy’ transformed into helicopter boy!

Jim and I got along famously. A veteran of the Vietnam War, he was an ace pilot. He showed me how to fly downwind from an event, turn around and swoop in at an angle with the Bell Jet Ranger so I could get the footage I needed for the news. I held on to the door frame with one hand and kept my camera steady on my shoulder with the other. We breezed through and flew back quickly to our base. I too was becoming an ace in my own realm!

By the time I came to CBS Television in New York, my reputation had preceded me. I took on the most dangerous jobs and came home with beautiful, cinematic footage. My colleagues were in awe of my work. When the offer came to shoot some aerial footage over New Jersey, there was no question that I would be chosen.

In nearly all aspects of life, the level of operation in New York was a jump up beyond my experience in the Midwest. When I showed up at Teterboro Airport for the assignment, I was meet with a luxurious Sikorsky helicopter, a far cry from the second-hand Vietnam era whirlybird I had flown around in Oklahoma. I strapped myself into a soft bucket seat and flew off. We completed the mission smoothly.

When we landed back in Teterboro, as I was unstrapping myself from the soft bucket seat, something felt out of place. The seat shook from side to side. In fact, it was not even bolted down to the floor as it should have been. I had flown around in a helicopter without being attached to the frame of the aircraft. I was kept inside the helicopter by the centrifugal force as we did left turns and banks in flight, a move I had learnt from Jim and had passed on to the pilot in command. Had we taken a right turn, the centrifugal force in the opposite direction would have ejected me from the chopper in midair!

At that instant, the frightening possibility of what had transpired got to me. I did break a sweat!

Instead of shying away, my foolish heart propelled me to start flying lessons at Teterboro Airport. This was a lucky gift from America. For a few dollars, a skinny boy from Calcutta could learn to fly an airplane.

The flying club had a roster of colorful Cessna 150s and 152s. I choose a beauty with registration number N10049. Sunday mornings, I spread my wings and took in the sights from the Statue of Liberty in the New York Harbor up to the Tappan Zee Bridge, flying past the World Trade Center that reached higher than my flight level.

Flying was a thrill and it soothed me too. Every time I pushed up the throttle and raced down the runway, I felt a charge. Flying a small airplane is not rocket science but I also had to master very objective lessons. One morning, as I completed the pre-flight of my plane, I noticed a slight crack on the leading edge of the left wing. I did not feel good about my discovery.

I went back to the club house and asked for a different plane. Henry, the office manager replied that someone had bumped into my N10049 while parking another plane. They had looked into it: it was a very slight damage. They had patched up the wing with epoxy.

I had been flying at this club for quite some time and had seniority. I asked for and got another plane. Off I went to the wide blue yonder.

As I crossed the George Washington Bridge, I flew past whiffs of white clouds. I paid no mind to them, looking around, taking in the sights. Without much notice I found myself engulfed in clouds.

I do not have the words to describe what it feels like to be lost in clouds, especially for the first time. You cannot tell which side is up. You cannot tell if you are banked to the left or right. For all you know, you could be upside down, not knowing up or down.

Within a minute another frightening calamity reached out for me. The engine of the plane started to sputter, the clack-clack of the failing engine sounding my death cry. I wondered what it would be like to come crashing down into the cold waters of the Hudson.

My life did not flash before my eyes. I let the plane float on its own and gradually turned south. After a few minutes, and what seemed a lifetime, I came out of the clouds. The clacking sound of the engine faded away. Not wanting to take chances, I heeded straight to Teterboro and made a smooth landing.

“Henry,” I whispered when I had finally composed myself, “please ground that plane and have the mechanic check out the engine. It is about to fall to pieces.”

I was slightly irritated by Henry’s attitude. He showed no concern for my near-death experience. He said quite casually, “Check out the IFR (Instrument Flying Rules) chapter in the Kirshner book.”

Mad at Henry, I checked the Kirshner book. It stated in bold letters, the first time a novice pilot gets lost in the clouds, he loses spatial orientation and hears strange sounds. He thinks the engine is falling apart!”

I was not angry at Henry anymore.

No matter how much I integrated myself into American life, I was still ‘India Boy’ around the coffee machine. In jest, little pranks still happened. My colleagues knew I was taking flying lessons. Making sure I was within earshot, Charlie was spinning tall tales.

“Yea man. Johnny was on Route 46 near Hackensack when he saw this little plane swaying all over the place. He was trying to land at Teterboro. Close to the ground, one of the wings came off and bang! He went down.”

Others joined in. Johnny, a decorated Vietnam veteran and a medic was the hero of the day. As the story went, he stopped on the side of the highway and ran over, pulling the pilot out from the burning plane. I knew better: I would not fall for this one. I walked away.

Later that evening, as I was packing my equipment away in the locker room, I noticed a newspaper on the lunch table. There was a picture of a crashed Cessna. I looked closely. The call letters on the plane read N10049!

Over time, perhaps years, the screaming jets from my youth lost their hold on me. I outgrew the need for that adrenalin rush. “That was then, this is now,” I told myself.

On the streets of colorful New York, music floated to my ears. Innocent laughter and shared giggles among friends took me back to sunlit lawns where young girls sunned themselves through the afternoons. I would hear the click of high heels walking briskly across the pavement. I heard the clink of champagne glasses as I walked past the sidewalk cafes on Amsterdam Avenue. A lighter and much more cheerful person, I heard the sigh of a woman in love. I gave up flying. Teterboro faded from my memory.

I was blessed with a son, Raphael very late in life.

I am one heck of a lucky guy!

A Lucky Guy

Satya Jeet

(Posted January 1, 2022)

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