Immigrant Bengalis

(Posted February 1, 2016)

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Comments received on Feb 6, 2016 from Tultul M:

"The picture of Haymarket painted by Rahul Ray is simply fascinating. People like me who reside in India believe that America is a place of beauty and luxury. A rustic market like Haymarket is hard to imagine!  But the reality is that it exists! The vivid description of the buyers and sellers and their little talks made the article very realistic. The image of the "Italian professor" (the butcher) in spotless white, whispering, "Want some meat? Chicken, goat, cheap!" will linger in my memory! -- The poem too with its rustic flavor is enjoyable." 

Comments received on Feb 8, 2016 from Subhas N:

"I read Rahul Ray's article on Haymarket with interest. Rahul has taken the time to deaw a very interesting picture of the boisterous Haymarket. I had spent countless mornings shopping at Haymarket in Boston; thus Rahul's article brought back pleasant memories to my mind. Keep up the good work, Rahul!"

Comments received on Feb 2, 2016 from Pronoy C: 

"Good collection, enjoyed reading them all. Liked Rahul's article very much. It is well composed and entertaining."

Comments received on Feb 3, 2016 from Bibekananda R: 

"I have thoroughly enjoyed the story of Haymarket in Boson excellently presented by Rahul as it has a pleasant earthen touch. The rustic flavor in the midst of Boston city reminds me of Nepalgunj haat which is very near my residence in the outskirts of Kolkata. Only difference is that the vendors at Nepalgunj haat are very sober and kind to the buyers as they consider the latter to represent Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth."

Comments received on March 1, 2016 from Sumantra G: 

"Rahul Ray’s vignette of the centuries old Boston Haymarket of the eighties vividly captures the times, the weather, the mosaic of different communities that define America and the joys, disappointments and discoveries that a first generation immigrant student encounters. Rahul’s powers of observation, his capturing of the sights, sounds and smells and his sense of humor make this short piece particularly endearing and nostalgic as well. The sale of fruits and vegetables by number counts as opposed to weight evokes memories of the bazaars in Calcutta of the sixties: the ubiquitous calls of টাকায়ে তিনটে আম নিয়ে যান etc." 

Haymarket in winter, 1984                                                          

White apron grinned broadly
Cheek to cheek
Rapid Sicilian fire
Blue eyes sparkled
‘Neath professorial glasses
“Chicken, goat, cheap!”
To anyone in his earshot.

He had a way
An attention-grabber-
One may say 
Butcher, save a knife
White smock spotless
An oxymoron
A caricature
In slaughterhouse five!

Buyers of greens
Fruits and meat
Moved shack to shack in goose-step
“Feeling” their purchases cheap
In gloved hand
‘Don’t touch, mother’
Roared the vendor
With every misstep. 

Flurries turned to large flakes
Piercing the scant body part
Like spears
Skull caps
Coats dirtied by snow and slush
Huddled -
Soaking up heat
From the body next.

In 93 nearby
Cars coughed and groaned in unison
Like leeches - licking 18 wheelers
Time soared in a rage for a poor few
Anxious Logan flew light years.

Snow fell heavy and blinding
Wipers pulsated
Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock
Philip Glass in slow-mo
Melody truncated. 

Huddled men and women in Treblinka
Moved slowly head down
A pack of sheep or two
White trash, Negro, yellow and brown
Carrots, potatoes and onion-green 
Peeked through heavy bags
Will gas kill them too?

All seemed surreal
‘Cept Herr Professor in spotless white coat
From the lair he was perched
Would crane his neck low, and
Chicken, goat, cheap!”

These are the images of Haymarket that are permanently imprinted in my mind.

Summary of Chapters 1-16: In the early eighties I came to Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a post-doctoral trainee at MIT after completing my Ph.D. at the Washington State University in Pullman, a campus town in the middle of nowhere but close enough to be impacted significantly by the eruption of Mount Saint Helens, a sleeping volcano in the Western part of the state. In Cambridge my wife, Swapna, and I lived in a rent-controlled high-rise building for people with meager income. There we lived among people of color, and surprisingly in the midst of a large number of Bengali post-doctoral trainees and students. Life was hard, but not without its charms. Moving to Cambridge/Boston was like re-joining the rich cultural life that we had left behind in Kolkata. We were fortunate to be able to nurture our cultural interests and linkages and make ourselves happy. We also made many friends, particularly with Swapna joining the Massachusetts General Hospital. Through these friendships, we slowly but surely started taking baby steps to join the American mainstream.

Days and Nights in Cambridge, Massachusetts:
"Chicken, Goat, Cheap" -- Haymarket Memories

Rahul Ray

During my first year in Cambridge as a postdoctoral fellow at MIT, I had absolutely no time to do anything or think about anything other thandoing research in the laboratory of my mentor.  Only deviation from this routine was going for grocery shopping, which I did once a week while driving back from work in the evening.  In some months, even such an absolute necessity was a drag on our pocket book.  Therefore, we were overjoyed when friends from our apartment complex informed us that we could get greens, fruits, fish, chicken and even goat meat in the nearby Haymarket in Boston at a significantly lower price.   

Sunday mornings were the only opening from my work.  Therefore, we reserved one Sunday morning to go shopping at Haymarket, the historic open-air market in Boston.  This Haymarket is not to be confused with the Hay Market Square in Chicago where, on May 4th, 1886, a labor rally was fire-bombed -- resulting in several deaths and the hanging of labor-leaders. This incident led to the observance of international worker’s day on May 1 every year.  

It was summertime when we first ventured into Haymarket.  In our first encounter we, particularly Swapna, were thoroughly disappointed, because she barely could sleep the previous night in excitement, and this place looked, sounded and smelled exactly like any bazar in Kolkata.  This marketplace wrapped around a centuries-old brick building consisting of a handful of butcher shops, cheese vendors, a couple of pizza and grinder joints, a smoke shop, and a bank.  But the main business was conducted, and continues to be conducted till today, outside this building where local farmers and fish-mongers bring their produce in trucks to sell their wares at a significantly lower price than grocery stores. 

Haymarket is situated right off Interstate 93 and is adjacent to the historic Faneuil Hall, the seventeenth century marketplace and lecture hall where many leaders in the colonial times like Samuel Adams inspired the crowd against their British masters.  The parking lot for Haymarket used to be an open space from a bifurcation off the ramp from I-93.  But getting into that parking lot was always an arduous and time-consuming task, because the lot was always full and cars had to literally inch their way into the lot.  Therefore, in later excursions we made a policy of going there with at least two families.  At the bend in the ramp I would unload the ladies and a male friend, and then I would spend whatever time it took to park the car.

The entourage had to climb down an embankment into Union Street wrapping the main building.  They would approach from behind small, hut-like structures with plastic sheet for walls and canvas roofs where vendors spread veggies, fruits, fish and what not on large tables.  Union Street is a narrow lane where only a couple of persons could comfortably walk, yet these vendors lined the outer side of the street while stores in the main building lined the inside.  On market days the place would be flooded with people.  The vendors were mostly Italians and a few Portuguese, and the buyers were mostly not so well-to-do people from all over the globe living in the Boston area.  The crowd was so thick that the first few times we held hands for fear of getting lost.  And what a din! Vendors shouting filth in English with a thick Italian accent; black people speaking in various African languages; occasionally people speaking in Hindi; and even Bangla in Bangladeshi accent could be heard in a giant sound mix! 

For some unknown reason, fruits and some veggies were sold in counts instead of weight, and the price of each item was prominently marked and displayed.  However, nobody was allowed to negotiate the price or touch anything. Thus buyers were supposed to judge by what was displayed and make the purchase.  Almost without fail the quality of fruits and vegetables that everyone bought was much inferior to the displayed items.  But nobody could complain about it.  In everyone’s mind, the calculation that ran was that even if a few items were of inferior quality, or even outright rotten, the good ones should more than make up for the difference in price at a grocery store. 

On some days, a person ignorant of the unwritten rules of ‘no-touch, no negotiation’ would touch a fruit or vegetable, or try to negotiate the price.  All hell would break loose, and profanities would fly in torrents.  Typically the fight would be between a colored woman with halting English, and an Italian vendor with a thick Boston accent.  However, nothing would stop, even when the shouting match was at its peak.  The vendor would take her money and fill small brown paper bags with fruits and vegetables while shouting at the top of his lungs.  Swapna learned her lessons the very first day.  She didn’t know the rules of the game and was about to touch an eggplant for freshness when the vendor curtly brushed her hand off and shouted a profanity followed by a short speech - “I didn’t need a helper here”.     

The scenario in the fish market was somewhat different.  Most of the vendors were Portuguese who could barely speak English.  Here price-negotiation and selection of items were allowed, and we took full advantage of it.  The fishmongers knew that Indians (they didn’t know the difference between a vegetarian Indian and a flesh-eating Bengali Indian, or for that matter a Bangladeshi) liked shad.  Therefore, as soon as they saw us coming, they would start shouting: ‘Shad, two dollars; shad, two dollars.’  Immediately the ladies would shout back:  ‘No, no, one and a half, one and a half.’  After a brief shouting match the price would be settled at a dollar and seventy-five cents.  At this point, the ladies would lift the gill of the fish to check for freshness and select a few.  The fishmonger would take the money and drop the fish in the shopping bag that we carried along.  There was no cutting or cleaning; you bought as you saw them.

For some unknown reason, all the butcher shops were situated only on one side of the street, and were housed permanently inside the central brick building.  In front of one of these meat shops, there always stood a bespectacled man in a spot-less white butcher’s smock.  He was a moderately built man with characteristic Italian features and a Mediterranean tan.  With his glasses and serious demeanor, he looked more like a professor than a butcher.  As anyone came close to him, he would bare his teeth in an artificial grin, and almost whisper in a peculiar and monosyllabic monotone “Want some meat?”  In the cases where he realized that he was talking to an Indian, he would murmur in the same monotone “Want some goat meat?” knowing well that Indians loved goat meat over other kinds.  He was truly a fixture of the entire marketplace.  Many years later the Boston Globe, the venerable Boston newspaper, ran a half page article on him after his death.

Winter in Boston is long, hard and snowy.  But, vendors in Haymarket brought their wares even in the harshest weather, and there was no shortage of customers to buy their produce.  These vendors, with their hoodies pulled up over their head, would stand underneath the canvas roof while these huge space heaters that looked like cannons glowing red in the mouth would spit fiery warmth with a huge roar.  A light snowfall would start suddenly, which would then grow steady and blanket the area.  Customers, dressed in heavy jacket, skull cap and mitts would move slowly and carefully with their head down through snow and mud from one shop to another, holding in hands their purchases in bulging plastic bags.  Somehow this eerie backdrop would flash in my mind a long-forgotten movie scene where a huddled group of inmates of a concentration camp were led by Nazi guards to their death through a snowy field!