Immigrant Bengalis

In the mid-seventies when I lived in California, a senior colleague at work, Booker Morey, during his farewell address, said something that stayed with me ever since. Commenting on his work at the current company, he assured us: one can never run away from one's past, so his experience will always stay with him regardless of where he is and what he does in the future. Perhaps because of that truth, when more recent memories fail, certain events from the distant past remain so crystal clear that I can revisit them as if they are being played back before my eyes in living colors. -- A Marxist would say that the objective conditions were not right for my coming to America for what we used to say, higher studies. Yet I remember this curious twenty-seven year old amateur fortune teller looking at my palm and advising me not to show it to anyone else. Years before my eventual departure to the U.S. he told me that he would not be surprised if my first job was in a foreign land. I had a good hand, he said, even though I knew well that providence did not deal me a good hand. In the words of the old matchmaker Yente in the Fiddler on the Roof, I had no money, and no family background!

The Bengalis are fond of saying, when it is written, who can vitiate it?  So, despite all odds, it did happen.  When I was a student in the venerable University College of Science and Technology at Rajabazar, Kolkata, I discovered that some of my erstwhile buddies had been planning to travel to the United States for higher studies, usually connoting earning a  PhD. One of them, a close friend, divulged this subterranean activity to me in some detail, and eventually made me aware of the process that one had to follow step by step.  Each of these steps cost money, not much  in today’s parlance, nonetheless it meant I had to improve my finance in order to afford the expenses for making applications and taking certain U.S. administered tests.  So, after my  MTech, I decided to park myself for a while with a world-renowned physical chemist at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science at Jadavpur as a CSIR research scholar.  This gentleman in the first interview told me that I came with favorable recommendations, but asked me two interesting questions.  The first one had to do with the division I had obtained in my school leaving examination.  Satisfied with my grade, he opined that he never probed much  into the college grades, a solid foundation such as one would glean from the results of high school leaving examination was all that mattered.  In Bengali street language in those days, this would translate into whether my “fundas were clear”.  The other question had to do with the ability to play bridge.  I had my initiation with “auction bridge” already but feared theoretical questions on the game.  He observed that anyone who had the intelligence to play bridge reasonably well also had the potential to become a world-class researcher.  After many years in the U.S., I have gathered some skill in contract bridge, but the level of competence, as would be derived from this professor’s hypothesis, would not, and sure enough did not make me a world-class anything.  But I have become an American in any case.

I was at the Jadavpur research institute for a year and half.  Luckily most of the enterprising buddies from the Science College were by then safely in the U.S. universities. As I would relate later, this fact was the single most enabler of my travel to America.  I started the process of going through the necessary steps without spending much intellectual capital; I was just following the process outlined by my close friend.  In the preparation department, I was less like Don Quixote, and more like the mythical Bengali character Nidhiram Sardar, who was planning to wage a war without a sword or a shield.

This was a time of great turmoil in West Bengal.  The colleges all over the state were infested with Marxist students of the Chinese following, and some were openly involved in creating violence, which became much more deadly just a year later.  Being naturally a part of the leftist thought process, I invested much time in this politics, and at one time wished to become a member.  Of several barriers to my desire for higher studies, the first was a total resource deficiency.  The political leaning was the second.  The second barrier was dissolved luckily by political events.  The now infamous Naxalbari movement was on-going during my last few years in India.  The resultant breakup of the Marxist movement in India and the subsequent mindless violence that this movement unleashed in West Bengal demoralized me to a great extent.  The pernicious lies that this movement engendered at the time quickly became evident to me.  I still vividly remember the secret lecture I went to attend at an awareness meeting of the Naxalbari rebellion in our neighborhood.  The lecturer was none other than the famed director-actor Utpal Dutta.  His was a spirited account of the success of the rebellion and how revolution was around the corner.  All that he said was complete rubbish, as later events revealed.  I lost all respect for his political views.  Only his prowess as an actor I could still admire.  By the time I was focusing on a journey to the U.S., the Marxist ghost had been dislodged from my shoulder.

All of my impressions about America were colored by leftist politics of the Bengal variety, as we were constantly bombarded with how America was playing it rough all over the world and how the people of the country were amoral, and so on. Most of the technical books we were required to use in our graduate classes, however, were American and they were provided in affordable editions by the Japanese.  The majority of the practical inventions that positively affected the lives of the people of the world since the Second World War came from the United States. I wondered – were all these  coming from a degenerate people? We were roughly aware of all those American accomplishments, but ideology allowed us easy dismissal of all that.  Visual beauty of the country however was revealed in films that we could still see at the time in India.  I availed of the last opportunity to watch Sound of Music at the Elite cinema in Calcutta several months before my departure.  There was a short film about California before the movie began.  The panorama of parts of California with its many stupendous engineering feats was breathtaking to someone like me who was reading from the leftist literature about the rate at which murder, rape, and burglary was taking place all over the country and how the maniacal ruling class was killing and torturing innocent Vietnamese.

My friend who kindled in me the interest in trying to do what others were doing advised me to apply for financial assistance only to the so-called “second tier” universities, as the chances of success were better.  I wrote to the office of the United States Education Foundation in India in Calcutta.  This generated a prompt response from that agency, and my work began.  I wrote to Educational Testing Service in New Jersey for information on GRE (Graduate Record Examination)  and TOEFL (The Test of English as a Foreign Language) .  The excitement I displayed when the appropriate papers arrived was hard for my mother to understand.  Nothing really happened, but I somehow had the confidence, perhaps naively, that things will work out in the end.  At this point, dollars were needed to pay for the application fees.  This was kindly loaned to me by my friends who had arrived in the U.S. a year or two before I did.  As my GRE and TOEFL records were not exactly stellar, I waited and waited through several rejections until there was a ray of hope.  The University of Arizona in Tucson was interested in offering me a state-sponsored research assistantship if and only if a suitable American citizen was not available.  Prof. Don White, the Chairman of the department wrote that because of the Vietnam War draft policy the chances that the position would not be available to me were less than one in a hundred.  I did neither understand nor know what to do with a statistical offer like that.  But a senior research fellow at the Jadavpur institute, someone who had lived and worked in a pharmaceutical company for a few years in the U.S. assured me that it meant I could safely bank on getting the position.  This was summer and time was very short for a fall semester joining which was to begin with registration on September 3. Encouraged by this kind-hearted gentleman, I contacted Orchid Travels on Chowronghee Road.  On entering the office of Orchid Travels, I was pleasantly surprised to see the receptionist, a fashionable young lady whom I often used to see on board a bus (Number 33, I still remember) on my way to Tiljala for the  laboratories of Imperial Chemical Industries during my practical training tenure.  She  asked a very enterprising young man to help me with everything including passport and visa applications.  His name unfortunately has faded  from my memory  after all these years.  I will call him Sadananda.  Sadananda helped me fill the passport application form on the strength of the conditional offer from the University of Arizona.  As I was a refugee from East Pakistan, my inclination naturally was to mention that I was born in the Rungpur District which fell in that newly created country, Pakistan.  Sadananda made me understand that I won’t get my passport in time if I told the truth, because the Government of India had this policy of sending names to Pakistan for record verification, which might never come, as the two countries were not exactly on friendly terms.  So this lie transformed me into a Calcutta born citizen and spared me a lot of grief and worry. The passport was granted without delay or the need to bribe someone.

The next roadblock to overcome was obtaining an American visa which required a travel plan, which in turn required money for buying the air ticket.  Right after receiving the Arizona offer I started to secure the travel money from several sources all at the same time.  I applied to at least to two philanthropic organizations for some travel funds, on a suggestion from a classmate from my days at the Presidency College whom I met accidentally on a bus to Jadavpur.  This friend had secured some support that way and ended up in a university in Canada.  Another friend from the Jadavpur institute volunteered to try on my behalf from a friendly professor at the Science College.  I approached a few of my friends myself for small loans. Some of them were in the U.S. already.  Among a small circle of friends I would review the fund raising status two or three times a week.  Meanwhile I was waiting for the removal of the condition from my offer from Arizona in the form of the all-important I-20 form. The funny thing was that here I was wishing to travel to the United States for higher studies with a conditional offer with uncertainties on a travel plan  and questionable sources of money.  This was a classic multi-objective optimization issue, as an engineer would say.  But the solution came not from a mental exercise, but from providence, I believe.

One by one all the possibilities and promises for financial grants and loans came to naught. There was merely a month left for departure and everything looked cloudy.  Suddenly, as if like manna from heaven, came a letter from a friend in California.  The envelope contained two checks. He requested me to buy for him a camera from Hong Kong on my way to the States, and offered the other check as a loan to use towards the purchase of the airplane ticket. I was instantly overcome with gratitude.  Tears welled up in my eyes for this unrequested generosity.  That precious 330 dollars was about half the ticket price in those days.  Suddenly two other checks came in and I had more than the sum I needed. 

The I-20 form came in with a request and a message. The message was simple and positive: Begin packing.  The request, however, was complicated and problematic. I was required to obtain “certificates of competence” from two U.S. citizens who  knew me in India.  For me, this request was impossible to satisfy.  I could perhaps muster certificates from a British citizen or two, but not from any American. I treated that request as a bureaucratic snafu, and approached my research guide at the Jadavpur institute for one of those certificates.  First he was a bit offended that I had been working on this venture to leave, wasting his precious research money.  Realizing that he really was not in a position to stop me, he asked if I were a life member of the institute.  Hearing the negative, he said bluntly that he won’t write a letter of recommendation unless I became a member by paying 300 Rupees, which was my monthly stipend from CSIR.  This was not easy but I managed to pay that immediately and this hurdle too was crossed.  Later in the U.S.,  after I had started classes in September, I was told that because I did not fulfill  the certification requirement, my enrollment was being questioned and remained subject to nullification.  In high school I was first in my class but my refugee stipend arrived at the school at the end of the calendar year; as a result for every examination, I was always the last one to be allowed in for taking the examination for lack of what they used to call the “admit card”. That routine public humiliation year after year flashed through my mind, and I panicked in front of the professor in charge of graduate studies.  He took umbrage at what I said and retorted: You guys should realize that the whole world does not come to an end when you come to the United States. He relaxed the requirement that the persons writing the reference letters had to know me in India but I must satisfy the citizenship requirement.  Some flurries of activities took place among the very few Bengalis there were in Tucson at the time, and some Indian Americans were kind enough to write the letters. 

Sadananda immediately went to work and made the airplane reservations, and we were off to the visa issue. The visa required a lung x-ray that the traveler was supposed to carry in a sealed envelope to be given to the immigration agent at the port of entry in the U.S.  The doctor in charge found a scar on one lung and wrote something that would definitely stop me from entering the U.S.  Though I had a sibling who survived an affliction of tuberculosis, I was checked and cleared a few years back.  Sadananda came to my rescue again.  He sent me to a buddy doctor of him, who provided a favorable interpretation.  On my entry to the U.S. at the Honolulu International airport an agent quizzed me on this x-ray.  I guess he did not have the heart to send me back.  He advised me to get in touch with immigration if I experienced any adverse health consequences.  Thanks to Sadananda, the visa hurdle was overcome.  I had the ticket but there was one final hurdle.  The then finance minister of India, Mr. Morarji Desai, had instituted the system of P-form, or permission form, which one had to obtain from the Reserve Bank of India.  I was slated to leave on August 31, and on August 29 I arrived at the Reserve Bank with the appropriate papers.  One Mr. Dwibedi looked at the papers and said that although I was admitted to a master’s degree program,  information on the duration of study was missing on the I-20 form and in the letters from the university.   I pleaded with him that the duration varied from  person to person because of the research issue.  Mr. Dwibedi did not want to understand that and asked me to send a wire to the university to get the duration of study and return later. Further protestation brought the worst in him and he brusquely asked me to leave the counter.  Quite despondent I went home. In the evening while I was reviewing the situation with local friends, luckily there was present that day an acquaintance whose uncle Mr. Ghosh was an officer at the Reserve Bank.  He advised me to go back and try to talk to him.  On August 30, the resourceful Sadananda took me to the General Post Office and posing as myself, called Mr. Ghosh at the Bank and related the ridiculousness of Mr. Dwibedi’s insistence. Mr. Ghosh asked me to get back to the Bank and ask for him.  I continued to get lucky.  Another beautiful coincidence awaited me: Mr. Ghosh was Mr. Dwibedi’s supervisor.  I went to the Dwibedi counter and told him that Mr. Ghosh had asked me to return with the same papers.  Very soon Mr. Dwibedi carried my papers to Mr. Ghosh’s office.  When he returned I could see a dark cloud  on his face.  He approved the P-form and along with that a permission to purchase the customary eight dollars for the passage. My flight was on the next day.  Sadananda who was always with me through this saga took me to his office and introduced me to his boss, a Mr. Sen.  Both Mr. Sen and Sadananda promised to pick me up from home for the airport. It must have been seven in the evening when I returned home.  A host of people, relatives and friends were waiting to see me off.  The next day, two cars arrived at the designated time and accompanied by my father, siblings and some close friends, I was off to the airport to catch my Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong and beyond.  Many more well-wishers showed up at the airport with flowers and gave me a tearful send-off.  We can never run away from our past, as Booker Morey told us later, and as the Bengali saying goes, when it is written, who can vitiate it? Seated in the airplane, I was overcome with mixed emotions.  Many thoughts were rapidly going through my mind. The most potent was the tears in my mother’s eyes.  She never discouraged me from going abroad, but I could tell the insecurity she felt because of my father’s retirement the previous week.  Before I left I had promised her to support the family from the moment I got  my first stipend dollars.  That  promise was never broken.

(Posted December 10, 2013)

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Comments from AS received on January 9, 2014: "Wonderful venture. Enjoyed reading the articles. Sometimes could relate them to us, making it a bit emotional too!"

Comments from SJ received on December 30, 2013 (shortened): "I read with interest your column, ‘An Improbable Immigrant’. I am touched that you mentioned my father, Professor Santi Ranjan Palit, the professor of Physical Chemistry at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science in your recollections. Reading between the lines and knowing my father well, I can assure you he thought very highly of you. 

Professor Palit was not a rigid academician of the conservative mould. Within the possibilities offered to him, he tried to inspire his students to rise above ‘rote’ learning and be creative in science. The two questions he asked you in your admission interview were reserved for students who he sensed had creative possibilities. He preferred students who possessed fundamental logic and clarity in their thinking (as indicated by their school leaving certificates) and those who were broad in their world view, engaging in activities like bridge, sang Tagore songs or played badminton or ping-pong. In fact, you may recall the table tennis table in the second floor foyer of the institute. That table was paid for and installed by Professor Palit, as he wished the students of IACS to compliment their cerebral activities of the day with sports. ..........

The modern and scientific mind set in India is not an accident but the work of many selfless professors. Following their completion of their Ph D program, me father would send his students for a short sojourn to the west. This exposure would help broaden the student’s horizon and allow him to save some funds, monies that would help the scholar transit into a reasonably comfortable middle class life in India. Professor Palit built up a fraternity of ‘life members’ of IACS as a cooperative for like-minded people of science. His insistence that you join the ranks before your departure for the US was an honor for you. It was also a safety net to fall back on, in case some help was needed in your future. I can assure you, he must have felt, you belong to that august group.

I trust this brief letter will allow you to have a greater insight into your past." 

Reply from the author received on January 11, 2014 (shortened): "Many thanks for your note in response to my article. .........Reading your note brought forth memories of life at IACS, especially of Prof. Palit's presence there.  He definitely forced us into activities that would boost capabilities and self confidence in his researchers. I remember the first time I gave a seminar in front of him, which he made a mandatory task for us all.  At the end he congratulated me, as he always did others as well, although I was scared stiff, and was reasonably unsatisfied with my performance.  He also used to give lectures on analytical thoughts.  I vividly remember one on mathematics.  I had not known he was a student of the great Meghnath Saha, but your mention of this fact puts the other attributes in clear perspective.  I was a moderate user of the famous table tennis set.  Once I was asked to play him.  This was an embarrassing defeat.  Very few among us were his equal in that game. 

One and a half years was a short time in any career, and since I commuted from the Hatibagan area and the bus ride was time consuming, I could never stay for evenings.  That is when much socializing used to take place.  I had friends among the local boarders but could never had the opportunity to know them beyond professional matters.  This may be why I knew relatively little of the beneficial things, as you mentioned, Prof. Pailt used to do for his students. But he was a towering figure in IACS and all of us knew about his professional accomplishments and respected him highly.  To me, he was an astonishingly creative teacher who could always be trusted with revealing valuable insights I did not get elsewhere (except perhaps from a math professor at Presidency).  My reference to him in my article was matter of fact, as the entire article was.  I did not try to play victim, or felt self-pity for my experience in attempting to escape dire poverty of finance and thoughts.  Succeeding to come to America was the ticket and I am glad that it worked in my favor. "

An Improbable Immigrant

Subhas K. Sikdar