Immigrant Bengalis

Working in the media, I had grown quite accustomed to the company of beautiful women. High cheekbones and straight teeth were just asimportant as a degree in journalism to get in through the front door of the newsroom. However, when Tom Kirby, the News Director at KOCO-TV in Oklahoma City introduced me to Jane Jayreo, I felt a slight tinge. I could tell she was the real thing! Jane’s cool blue eyes, dignified smile and self assurance left me in awe.

It was more than good looks that brought Jane and me together. Tom had a special assignment for us. He asked us to take a child on an outing for the afternoon on a leisure boat on Lake Meredith.  My job was to make a ‘soft news feature’ of their trip.

We picked up the five year old African American girl from her foster home. We had been warned that she was a problem child who had been abandoned at birth by her mother. She was born with a harelip and dragged her feet noticeably when she walked. She had been shuffled between foster homes, each subsequent home finding her progressively unfit for family style living. She fought with everyone and even wetted her bed at night!

With a warm, embracing smiling, Jane took the child into her arms. The child responded as any other child would.  They played together all afternoon. At one point, Jane sang a nursery rhyme and taught the little girl to count on her tiny fingers. I kept out of their way and videotaped a mother and child ‘play date’ for the afternoon.

Early in the evening, the girl fell asleep in Jane’s arms. We dropped her off at the foster home. I stayed up all night and edited the footage.

On Thursday, we closed the evening news with a broadcast of, ‘Thursday’s Child’.

Friday mid-morning, Tom called Jane and me into his office. He informed us, the Department of Child Welfare was swamped with calls from families in our viewing area who wanted to adopt the African American girl with a harelip and a noticeable limp who wetted her bed. If ‘Thursday’s Child’ had ways to go, I left gratified that we had made her journey a little shorter.

 ‘Thursday’s Child’ became a weekly feature on our broadcast and a national model by which scores of abandoned children were adopted and found permanent homes. I felt honored to be of service for real change. This was ‘television’ I could believe in.

The tender hearts of Oklahoma were equally well matched by strong backs and fast running legs; better known as ‘Sooner Country’. Billy Sims was the star running back and the University of Oklahoma threatened Nebraska for the number one spot in the college football league. Sims would soon gain national attention with the Heisman Trophy for the year. This was the era when Howard Cosell and Monday night football were staple American lifestyle.  Oklahoma could not have enough football coverage on TV. Hardly a sports fan, I too was drawn into the mélange.

Saturday afternoon was the big game at Denver’s Mile High Stadium. Tom had a secret plan to air videos of the game during our six o’clock news broadcast. He chartered a Lear Jet to fly the video tape of the first half of the game back to Oklahoma City, in time for the news. Being my day off, I volunteered to fly to Denver in the Lear Jet and bring back the football footage.

Saturday morning, I asked Helen if she would like to go out for lunch at the new barbecue place at the airport. Not one to spend the day in the kitchen, she quickly got herself together and we drove to the airport. Seeing no barbeque place in the lounge area, Helen was quite disappointed. Casually I asked her, if I could take her somewhere else for lunch. She promptly agreed.

I walked up to the parked jet, opened the door and said, ‘Jump in Lady, we are going for a ride.’

Helen’s jaw fell to the tarmac. I have to admit it was a thrill for me too to be flying in a Lear Jet. We felt like kings, gliding across the skies on a magic carpet.

Soaring beyond the plains we were soon above the Rockies. The plane made a steep dive and the screaming jet landed at a small airport on a plateau in Boulder, Colorado. It was a crisp fall day.   Helen and I enjoyed a lovely lunch at the mall. When we went back to the airport, an animated crowd was gathered by the terminal. I asked an excited fellow in the crowd what the ruckus was about. He started to laugh.

“Can’t you see?” he chuckled. “Some idiot landed a Lear Jet on this field. This strip is meant for single engine Pipers and Cessnas. We are taking bets this guy is going to go into the mountains, trying to take off.”

I did have confidence in our ex-Navy pilot but even he too seemed a bit concerned. He taxied the jet to the very end of the runway. Keeping the brakes in place, he gunned the engines to full throttle. The roar from the engines was deafening; the plane vibrated, ready to fall apart. Then the pilot let go off the brakes.

The Lear Jet sprang forward like a race horse at the starting gate. We picked up speed. Almost near the end of the runway, the plane lifted gently off the ground. The pilot kept the plane level and we flew above the valley. I breathed a sigh of relief and then looking up, spotted the mountain looming ahead.

Judging by the look of the crew, I knew there was reason to be alarmed. Unless the Gods were smiling down at us, we would slam into the face of the Rockies in a few minutes.  The pilot brought up the nose of the jet just a tad. Ever so faintly but we climbed a bit. We cleared the mountain ridge by a hair’s breadth and flew on.

Working in the media had other perks too. The Bee Gees were coming into town. I went out to the airport to cover their arrival. A 707 with the Bee Gees insignia painted on the tail landed and taxied towards the general aviation building.

Hundreds of fans held up banners, blew party horns and waved flags to welcome the pop music icons. The police had to be vigilant to hold the fans behind the enclosure. As the techies and orchestra musicians climbed down the ladder to the jet, the applause from the fans egged them on. I kept rolling the video tape to take in the festivities.

One of the long haired techies in black leather pants got off the 707 and walked straight up to my lens. He held up his hands, covered the lens to my camera, interrupting my shooting.  I was frazzled.

“Hey. What’s going on, buddy?” I protested.

I moved aside and rolled tape again. The same guy put up his hands in front of the lens.

Apprehensive that I may be doing something wrong, I put down my camera and said, “Sorry.”

I was quite disappointed and looked helplessly around myself. I started to pack my gear.  A man in a three piece suit ran up to me and said, “Here they come. Get ready.”

“I can’t,” I said. “That guy stopped me from shooting.”

“Never mind him,” the man said and urged me on. 

I got the shots of the Bee Gees I needed but was left bewildered at my change of fortune. On looking back I have to smile in jest. I did not have the savvy at that time to know that the first techie was a part of the ‘publicity’ act. I was supposed to be interrupted, instigating me to being more determined to get the footage. The end result of my perseverance would insure that the Bee Gees footage would get greater coverage in the news. It was part of a game! I was just a skinny little boy from Calcutta; I had ways to go!

Before I left the airport, the suited man, (who was the publicity man for the Bee Gees) came over and handed me some free passes for the concert.

Working as a news photographer was not always fun and games. The daily grind of running from routine assignments like city council, local politics, and reporting on fires and accidents took the better part of a day. And then there was always the ‘Wild West’ element of being out west.

The police scanner called out a ‘hostage’ situation. A man with a rifle was holding a gun to the head of a child on the front yard of his house!

By the time I arrived at the scene, the police had cordoned off the area. Residents on several blocks had been evacuated. There was no way to get a picture of the hostage situation. In television news, the picture is critical for the story to hold interest on the airwaves.

Throwing caution to the wind I gave the police the slip and made my way into one of the now empty houses. Feeling quite surprised by my easy access to this vantage point, I climbed over the back fence to the next yard. This too worked in my favor. A few more back fences and I felt I could be close to the hostage drama. I crossed the next fence, stood up and raised the camera to my shoulder to look around.

Surprise! I was standing across the street from the man with the gun.

The man with the gun was equally surprised at seeing me. He pointed the gun away from the hostage, took a few steps in my direction and took aim at me.

Bruce had told me the day I was hired as a news photographer, “Try not to get shot.”

I wondered what Bruce would do if he were in my situation. I reasoned, Bruce would be his usual calm self and continue to roll the video tape. And that’s just what I did. If I am going to be shot and killed, I want to record the incident for the news!

But what I saw through my other eye was more dramatic. Two police officers moved stealthily into a vantage point behind the man. They lifted their guns to get the perpetrator in their sight. One of the officers shouted, “Drop your gun. We have you covered!”

The man was shaken up by the sudden change in his predicament. He lost his focus, his attention torn between myself and the officers. Like a bolt of lightning, one of the officers sprinted towards the hostage child, picked him up in his arms and ran for cover. The perpetrator looked helpless and deranged. He dropped his gun. The police pounced on him.

I drove back post haste to the news room. I yelled at the assignment editor across the newsroom, telling him I had the most dramatic footage that would rock the news as an opener. Everybody gathered at the editing booth.

We looked at my tape. It only showed a disoriented man pointing a gun to the camera. None of the drama that had taken place around him showed on the video.  The picture of the man on the tape could just as well be an advertisement in a gun magazine. I was left aghast. The interest in my video went from high speed to a screeching halt!

Late into the evening, I wondered what went wrong. I realized that a simple shot of a man with a gun had very little impact in the Wild West. If I was to make movies some day, I would have to bring out much more of the story than the single shot, made at a risk to my life.

Tom Kirby’s vision of what the news should be touched a chord in the people in Oklahoma. We were soon ‘number one’ in the market share.  As we travelled in our news cars painted with our logo, ordinary people waved out to us. Tom had bigger plans. He reasoned, if we could fly around the state in helicopter with our logo, KOCO-TV would be soon be a household word. Advertising dollars was the name of the game.

Jim was a Vietnam veteran and a whiz with a Jet Ranger 2 helicopter. He had flown in and out of tight corners in the jungle,  picking up wounded GIs. Flying a News Copter was a breeze for him. For a skinny little boy from Calcutta, riding around in a chopper, crisscrossing the state was a dream come true.

Jim added color to the job. As we were flying back from an assignment, he shouted at me through the headset, “Are you hungry?”

I guess I was hungry and I nodded. The chopper made a sudden free fall. We leveled off close to the ground and landed right behind the Kentucky Fried Chicken. I was impressed!

A few more such incidents and I suspected Jim was plain showing off. I had to get back at him.

When there was flood in the Red River valley, the area was cut off.  Jim landed the chopper on a sand bank in the middle of surging rapids. I did get some exclusive footage of the flood damage. Jim attributed all this great news reporting work to the superiority of the American way. After all, we had the Bell Jet Ranger 2.

“Jim”, I said, leaning over and speaking in a hushed tone, “In India, reporters and photographers are assigned elephants to cover floods. Nothing can stop a pachyderm. The press takes their time and gets real in-depth reports.”

The mention of an elephant in the media somehow got to Jim. “Are you kidding?” he asked several times.

“Yep” I answered.

“You actually ride on elephants in India?” he asked again and again.

True. When my brother in law, Sri Dipankar Basu, was posted as an Executive Engineer at BHEL in Ranipur, near Hardwar, I saw a group of children being ferried across a flooded field on an elephant, on their way to school. I reasoned, the press would get the same facility, when called for. 

My natural inclination to making beautiful pictures put me on the front line of soft features. The women reporters at KOCO vied with each other to have me working with them for the day. They were assured of getting the ‘cover girl’ treatment in their close ups.

Demure to the very end, Jane too banked on that reputation of mine. We went out to Stillwater, Oklahoma one morning to do a feature on a blind, handicapped woman who was enrolled as a graduate student. The University had made a ‘barrier free’ apartment for her so the student could live and study, unassisted.

What I did not know at the time we set off to do the story was the fact that the woman was quite deformed since birth. While the medical condition had affected her body severely, she was not mentally retarded. It took some patience to follow her slurred words, but once her words were understood, she proved to be very sharp.

We shot the feature with ease. At one point, Jane wanted me to take a picture of both of the women standing together on the terrace of the apartment, surrounded by the buildings of the campus. One look though my camera view-finder and the apparent physical contrast between the two women glared back at me. Here was the ultimate ‘Beauty and the Beast’ picture.

I took Jane aside and whispered that the shot would be very distasteful on the broadcast. Jane just smiled and whispered back that she really wanted the shot. I obliged.

We drove back in silence together. Jane stared ahead and said, “That woman is my hero. It takes a lot of courage and hard work to be who she is.”

I could not agree more but kept my thoughts to myself. Jane continued. “It was easy for me. I just went up there, held a bouquet of roses and waved to the audience. The rest was just the luck of the draw.”

Jane Jayroe had been Miss America in 1967. Her plain Oklahoma ways had captivated the national imagination.  Rural America had found a champion. During her tenure, she had crisscrossed the country, a symbol of forgotten America. I was told, when Jane won the crown in Atlantic City, overnight, the farmers around Laverne, Oklahoma took their tractors out to the municipal airport and leveled the land. They extended the runway overnight so Jane could come back home in a Lear Jet.

She reached over and squeezed my hand ever so slightly. “I am proud to have my picture taken with her,” Jane said.

In her quiet and unassuming way, she taught me to look at ‘beauty’ in a more profound way.  We led the 6’clock news with the picture of Jane and the graduate student who defied all odds against her and went on to live a full life!

And then the unthinkable happened. Not only had the people of Iran deposed the American installed Shah from their land, but they had taken 52 hostages and refused to negotiate their release. They called the Americans ‘spies’ and paraded them on the street. America denied the charges and claimed the Revolutionary Guard was holding civilian employees in captivity against International norms of diplomacy. The picture of the blindfolded Americans went out on the front pages of newspapers all over the world.

An ABC reporter called Ted Koppel anchored a news show called Night Line, focusing on the Iran crisis. Americans were glued to their TV sets in the middle of the night. Doing our fair share, we went out to a small town in Oklahoma to do a feature on one of the hostages. Night Line carried our feature.

Tom Kirby came up with a bright idea that he hoped would get us national attention. He asked one of the reporters to research the background of the hostages. The plan was, we could easily do news features on the people held hostage, if they were from the south west United States.

Our initial research revealed a fact that we had not anticipated. An overwhelming majority of hostages had listed the state of Virginia as their home address. The CIA had their headquarters in Virginia. It was not difficult to make the connection. We dropped the assignment like a pot of hot potatoes.

I was troubled by what our research revealed. I had spent the last decade immersed in the study of the liberal arts. I was well versed in the world of ideas and ideals. My first confrontation with real world events gave me a jolt that I had not expected. I had to have a second look at my personal involvement in media.

If that one event in Tehran was not enough, I got a phone call that took me by complete surprise. A television news producer from New York called me to ask if I would be interested in a foreign assignment. My interest was piqued.

“You do speak the language of the Afghani people, don’t you?” he asked.

“Why would I do that?” I replied, clueless to unfolding events.

“Because, I am told, you are from somewhere out there.  Russia has just invaded your country.”

Living in Oklahoma, it was not easy to get access to international news from independent sources. What we knew was fed to us from the three American networks. The shallow view of world events of the network executives in New York produced a broadcast that showed very little maturity and even less understanding.  Dan Rather from CBS traveled across the globe to stand on a hilltop on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Sporting a day or two of growth on his chin and wearing a safari jacket, he called the Mujahedin, ‘fighters of God’. According to Rather, they were fighting the evil that was communism. In less than a decade, the USSR would dissolve due to its own internal dynamics and the Mujahedin would transform itself into the Taliban.

Like many of my immigrant Bengali peers, I had been living the life of the American Apple Pie. For those of us from Bengal who excelled technically, the pie was served with an extra dollop of vanilla ice cream. In the land of the free, it was easy to forget that our immigration was intra-generational and many of us had been born into ideological, political and religious turmoil.  My grandparents were forced to leave their ancestral home in East Bengal when Hindus and Muslims slaughtered each other during the Partition, leaving a million dead in the streets of Calcutta and Dacca. The bulk of Bengali engineers in the US had left their homeland as the leftist government in Calcutta did not foster industrial development and opportunities were scant. My own exodus was prompted by a communist wave, the uprising in the town of Naxalbari being their symbol.  In the furor of events in the Muslim and Communist world, the vanilla ice cream on my apple pie began to melt. The hard brown crust that lay under the icing was showing; it was not possible for me to ignore the meltdown. I asked myself, what was the value of the information I disseminated to people every day, people who trusted me to define their view of the world?

Tom called me to his office and told me he was leaving Oklahoma and moving East to be closer to the center of the news. He asked me if I would like to join him. I replied with an enthusiastic, ‘Yes’. I put in for a week in Calcutta, to meet up again with Tom in New Haven, Connecticut. I had to get away.

Calcutta in 1979 seemed like a sleepy little town. B&W television was in the making.  If there was one element that could compare with capitals around the world, it was the vibrancy of the stage. My interest in all things media had been nurtured by our family’s interest in the stage. I had five days to spend in Calcutta; my father had arranged for us to see five plays on five nights.

As a teenager, I had never ventured to see the stages of North Calcutta. My father, who was born on Cornwallis Street, had chosen to start my exposure at the core. Girish Ghosh and Noti Benodini had walked the stage here. We were entertained with ‘Samrat O Sundori’. A poor commercial hack job, nevertheless I was delighted to see that the play had all the makings of a commercial stage. There were the good looking hero and heroine, the evil uncle who was a drunkard, a jester or two, and the ever popular cabaret dancer. There were sound and light effects and even an explosion on stage.

A visit to Calcutta could not be complete without an evening at Mukta Angan. They did not fail to live up to their reputation. What took my breath away was Kumar Roy’s staging of the ever popular play by Sudraka, the sweeping Mrcchakatika at the Academy of Fine Arts. We met Kumar Babu after the show; he asked me to come and see him when I came back to Calcutta on a more permanent basis.

After the five nights of plays, my father told me that if I were to return to Calcutta, I would have to choose to write between the five genres we just saw. As I sit and write this memoir, I have yet to figure out how my father knew I would come back to ‘writing’ as a vocation.

With ‘The Little Clay Cart’ in my heart, I boarded a 747 Jumbo Jet and headed for New York, eager to be a part of the world of media at its center.


(Posted October 1, 2014)

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Apple Pie to the Taliban
Sketches from “My Life in the Media” #6

Satya Jeet