Immigrant Bengalis

I know scores of people from India who came to the US for higher studies in the late sixties and early seventies. Many of them stayed back and became immigrants. I have great respect for them. By and large, they have made valuable contributions to their adopted homeland. In 1969 when I completed high school in Calcutta, I was ‘high’ on rock ‘n roll and ‘studies’ were far from my mind. On the pretext that there were massive disruptions to our academic life, I asked my parents to get me a ticket to the US. They agreed readily. I suspect they wanted to keep me far away from the local political troubles that were drawing in young people into their folds.

The trip across the globe worked in ways I had not imagined. Isolated within the vast arid lands of West Texas, nurtured by very caring professors, I was drawn into the academic and artistic life. Seven wonderful years of adventure and growth flew by. With fiery resolve and burning desire, I found a niche for myself in the television industry as a photojournalist. I devoured the next seven years, working at various television stations across the US. Those were thrilling and happy days. Finally, as a staff cameraman at CBS TV in New York, I felt fully saturated from my New World experience. It was the fall of 1984. It was time to go home!

The old, rambling house in Calcutta suited my American wife, Helen, and me in every way. She was charmed by our quaint lifestyle. Cooks, gardeners, carpenters, housepainters and other helpers appeared at her calling. I chose two fields for my immersion back into the culture of my birth. Under the tutelage of Kumar Roy, I read Bangla books. And I took sarod lessons from Dhyanesh Khan.

Our friends were gracious, to say the least. Ritwick and Nandini invited us to their country cottage in Gobordanga.

‘Cottage’ is hardly the word to describe the establishment. A thousand rose bushes blossomed and lent color to the surroundings. The immaculate lawn glistened in the morning sun. A deer frolicked in a large enclosure. The caretaker caught two large ‘ruhi’ fish in the pond and brought them over to Nandini for inspection, before lunch was prepared.

The city life in Calcutta was not particularly attractive to me. Fortunately, my friend Rothin Banerjee arranged for me to stay at a colonial bungalow in Lavpur. This town had been the home of Tara Shankar Bandyopadhyay. In the quiet of this rural environment, I read, practiced the sarod and started my screenplay.

Early one morning, while it was still quite dark, lying in bed, I heard a man singing in the distance. I was mesmerized. It occurred to me, that this haunting, rural melody could be the musical motif for my film. I jumped out of bed, dressed hurriedly, and ran through the rice fields to find the singer.

I could not accurately place the direction from which the melody floated in. It seemed to be coming from several directions at the same time. I ran here and there but the singer kept eluding me. The song grew faint and soon the singer disappeared into the mist. I was left standing alone among the paddies.

Dawn was starting to break. I walked over to the Lavpur train station. The tea vendor was starting up his meager stall. He brought me piping hot tea in an earthen cup.

“Did you hear a man singing last night”? I asked him.

Quite casually he shook his head in the affirmative.

“Ah”, I thought. “I got it”.

“Do you know him?”, I asked politely.

Equally casual, he nodded to indicate, “No”.

“Listen close to me,” I told the man. I knew a few rupees could persuade this man to intercept the singer. I felt my problems were behind me now. I ordered another cup of tea and added a couple of biscuits for good measure.

As the man handed me my tea, he said, “The singer walks through the fields every night in the month of Kartik. It is called ‘tahool’.” I supposed it was a kind of sacred duty. He had heard the singer all his life.

I felt a heavy weight being lifted from my shoulders. I planned to make a recording of the mystical melody for my producers back in New York. I knew, they would simply eat up this phenomenal discovery of mine and jump on to commercial distribution.

As I was leaving the tea stall, the vendor smiled at me and added, “Yesterday was the last day of the month of Kartik. He will be back again next year. For sure, and you do not have to worry, I will catch him at that time.”

My commercial plans came crashing down. I realized I was not only in another place. This was another time where one could wait for a man for a year and not be worried!

I did complete the screenplay. It was called Kabhi Pas, Kabhi Dur (Sometimes Near, Sometimes Far). Victor Banerjee read the treatment and offered to act in the leading role, with no financial considerations. Word did get around and I found myself being invited by celebrities and literary figures to their homes.

I had only known Nirmal Kumar (Chakraborty) as an actor. I had seen him on screen decades earlier in "Lal Pathar." He was a producer now. His demure wife, Madhabi Mukherjee, welcomed us into their modest home in Jodhpur Park.

Perhaps not finding anything meaningful to say to me, she asked very politely, “Would you like a cup of tea?”

I am not a tea drinker. Not knowing what would be considered a proper answer, I stuttered, “If you make the tea yourself, I will certainly have a cup.”

Uttam and Saibal, my production assistants, were in the room with me. They were aghast at my arrogance and looked at each other with unease.

A maid brought in tea and sweets for Uttam and Saibal and laid the tray on the center table. Balancing a single cup of tea in her hands, avoiding my eyes, Madhabi Mukherjee extended her arms and graciously offered me a cup of tea.

It dawned on me, in another age, Amol had left Charu to go away to England to train as a barrister. In the age of TV serials, this was act two. Satya Jeet had returned home to accept a cup of tea from Madhabi Lata.

I was quite aware of my cloistered life in this charmed existence. Literature and music can only occupy a part of the day. Life around me was nothing to write home about. The notorious ‘load shedding’ stopped work and aspirations to a grinding halt. Factories in and around Calcutta had shut down after long strikes. The local colleges would close at the whim of student agitators. The roads were clogged with traffic and mountains of trash lay uncollected at roadsides. One could feel a subtle tension in the air!

I had a way out of the misery for myself. As the summer months came around, I flew back to New York and took on freelance jobs as a catalogue photographer to finance my stay in India. Much as India was uncomfortable, I stayed focused on going back. If Satyajit Ray could make world class cinema in the leaky Tollygunge studios with ancient Arri 2C cameras, who am I to argue the situation?

Then someone in Calcutta popped the essential question. “What do you do?”

Directing a feature film is a big proposition, so I replied, “I am a high-end, commercial photographer for products on TV and print advertising.”

The person asking the question was Rita Bhimani. She had studied at Georgia Tech, returned to India and joined Indian Aluminum as Director of Public Relations. Rita had left the corporate world to start her own agency, Ritam Communication.

Rita had a PR and advertising contract from a wristwatch manufacturer. Their products needed to be introduced into eastern India. The spokesperson for the advertisement campaign was a test cricket player and his wife. Rita asked me to state my fees. I replied, “Rupees Five Thousand should cover my costs”.

Rita just stared at me, unable to speak. When she recovered, she said, “Satya Jeet, we pay five hundred rupees for a photographer to shoot a campaign. You are asking ten times that amount. Knowing you, you are not really interested in the money. I just want to see what five thousand rupees can buy me.”

The deal was on.

I prepared for the shoot, New York style. I scouted the location, testing the colors. I bothered our model, the test cricketer, and his wife and did some test shoots with them. I left Rita flabbergasted with my hyper- activity. I was not sure she was happy with my frightening pace.

I was very excited about my first commercial assignment in Calcutta. A couple of days before the shoot, my Dada looked at me across the breakfast table, his anger visibly shooting out of his eyes. Finally, he could not restrain himself any longer.

“You stayed abroad for all these years, but you never lost you primitive outlook.”

I was stunned. “What have I done?”? I asked timidly.

“Don’t deny it,” he roared back. “Do you think we are blind? We have seen it all.”

“What have you seen?” I shot back.

“You are bringing this primitive Hindu fundamentalism into this home. Our Baba never believed in that kind of crap! After Baba passed, we have never allowed Ma to wear the traditional widow’s whites. We have encouraged her to eat fish and she has finally relented. Now, you, you….. What is in your wardrobe (almirah)?

I finally put two and two together. “Dadabhai, calm down, calm down. The reams of white cloth I bought in Gariahat is not for anyone to wear. I will use them to build a light box for my shooting. It is called tent lighting.”

Dadabhai and Boudi looked lost. I asked them to accompany me to our driveway. I hung some of the white materials from the trees and showed them the lighting effect. The ‘tent’ was filled with milky, translucent light. It was a wonderland effect! I shot a couple of pictures of my nieces and promised them to show the results in a few days. Finally, peace was restored at home.

Color photography was being introduced at the popular level in India. I shot three rolls of Kodak film for Ritam. The results were at par with any glossy magazine in the west. I had managed to bring New York into creaky, laid-back Calcutta. Rita was ecstatic with the results!

Word got around and I started picking up clients. One still had to fight every step of the way.

I was left stranded on Lower Circular Road one afternoon as I could not find a taxi. I desperately needed to get to a client meeting. Keeping the big guy waiting was not an option.

Out of nowhere I heard someone calling out my name. I looked closely. My friend Ritwick was beckoning at me from the window of a taxi, parked some ways down the street.

I approached the taxi cautiously. A smiling Ritwick urged me to jump in. I looked into the taxi. There were about nine people in the taxi already.

“Don’t you think about it,” Ritwick said. “There is no other way. They have called a taxi strike.”

I did make it to my client meeting on time and won the assignment.

One aspect of Calcutta life bothered me to no end. People labored along without complaining. It seemed to me they had accepted this cesspool of an existence. Endless cups of tea and discussions over newspaper seemed to satisfy the lot.

I was rushing out one morning when the cook ran after me to the front gate. “Dada, dada,” she shouted.

Fearing a catastrophe, I stopped. “What?” I demanded.

A broad smile on her face, she asked sweetly, “Can you talk to your friend, Subroto Babu and get us a gas cylinder for the kitchen. We ran out two weeks ago. I have been lighting the coal stove. It fills the terrace with smoke in the morning. Your mother is not happy.”

Dadabhai confronted me at dinner. “Did you speak to your friend about the gas cylinder?”

I was aghast. I had to touch on my friend, Subroto Mukherjee, the Mayor of Calcutta just to get a gas cylinder!

Boudi was smiling. “Subroto seems like a nice man. Ask him. He can do this for you.”

While everyday life seemed out of whack, the literary life in Calcutta remained world class. I read amazing books. I attended plays at the Academy of Fine Arts. Shaoli Mitra put on a phenomenal one-woman play called ‘Nathabati Anathabat’. Kumar Roy revived Shudraka’s ‘Mricchakatika’. Arun Mukherjee left audiences spellbound with ‘Jagannath’.

Travelling by a local train one day, I noticed an older man, his eyes closed, singing ‘bhajans’, as he swayed to the rhythm of our moving train. In no time a conversation got started and the man narrated the story of his Guru, Sri Chaitanya of Nadia. I was immediately taken with the idea and saw the possibly of making a feature film. It was the 500th birth anniversary of Nagar Nimai.

I jumped into the research. Not having even a working knowledge of Sanskrit, I hired a young man, Mukul, to go to the National library a couple of times a week and find me material related to Sri Chaitanya. I agreed to pay him six hundred rupees a month, a hefty sum by local standards.

The young man did excellent research and reported back to me, once a week. Over light snacks sent by my mother to my office around teatime, Mukul narrated the amazing life of the saint.

A couple of months into this process, as the cooler months ended, I prepared to fly back to New York for the summer. However, Mukul could not finish his Sri Chaitanya report. Week after week, he procrastinated. Finally, the truth was revealed to me.

Uttam told me, “Dada, you feed snacks from your home to Mukul every week. That food is a king’s treat for him. Why will he make a report and cut himself off from a weekly feast?”

I was horrified. “But I will hire him to assist me in writing the screenplay,” I replied.

“He does not believe that. He thinks you will disappear with his research and that will be the end for him. He got lucky just once when I brought him to you.”

I had heard enough from Mukul to cut him off and write my own screenplay on the life of Sri Chaitanya.

Returning to Calcutta in the fall, I picked up on my commercial assignments. I was engaged to make an Infocom on a real estate development that was projected to come up. Sensing an opportunity with my client, a Marwari Vaishnav, I pitched the Chaitanya film for consideration.

My client was visibly shaken by my modern rendering of the Saint. He called me back to his office in the evening. Over a sumptuous vegetarian meal, I narrated the full story of the film. The wheels were turning in his head. He could sense the commercial possibilities.

We spoke several times about the film. I readied my staff to take on our first feature film project. My modest production office started buzzing with activity.

As a formality, my client who was now committed to being the financier of the film invited us to a puja at his home. With the help of a Brahmin priest, an auspicious day for the inauguration (mahurat) for the film was being considered. My assistants and some fellow actors attended the puja and were treated to a sumptuous vegetarian meal.

We made a few false starts to the project. Such delays I assumed were normal in Calcutta. The office staff were getting fidgety. Finally, one evening, Uttam and Sanjiban showed up at my home. It was a pleasant surprise.

I offered the duo some light snacks, but they were hardly in a mood to touch the treats. After much hesitation, Sanjiban said, “The pigeon has flown.”

I could not make head or tail of what Sanjiban was trying to convey to me. Uttam broke it down into plain language.

“Dada, you took your heroine to the financier’s home. She has run away with him.”

“Run away where? Why?”

Sanjiban exploded. “Are you that dumb? All those American degrees and you know nothing about our industry.”

On hearing their tale, I had to admit I knew very little of the film industry in Calcutta. The usual method was to collect some funds from the financier before introducing the heroine to him. The few thousand rupees allowed the production to get under way. The financier took the heroine to his country cottage for a holiday. The arrangement with the heroine satisfied her too. Then the financier moved on. He was smart enough to not care for his share of profits from the film, if there was a profit to be made at all. The team now looked for another financier. The process would be repeated till the film got shot.

Sanjiban waxed eloquently. “Our problem is, you are so innocent. You introduced the heroine to the financier before we collected any money from him.”

I felt like dirt. I immediately decided that I would not let the cesspool suck me in.

Sanjiban must have spoken to my mother in my absence. A few days later, as she sat across the breakfast table from me, she began to speak very softly. “Bouma is in New York by herself. You must go and be with her.”

I understood her clearly. “You father came back from America to build a new nation, an independent India. That was a different age.”

Thomas Wolfe had written ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’. I had read the book as an undergraduate in West Texas many years earlier. I realized the profound depth of his observation. Our nostalgia causes us to view the past in an overly positive light. We tend to remember people and places from our upbringing in static terms.

My mother’s gentle words sank deep into me. No, this was not the Calcutta of my childhood. I cannot sink down to the present age and become a pimp!

I had to meet Ritwick and Nandini to say goodbye. At their home, I hesitated as I could not find the right words. Ritwick, an electrical engineer, kept blabbering about a new technology that was being introduced into India.

I sank back into the sofa and smiled. “Ritwick, I know about satellite technology. You will be able to see BBC and CNN right in your home. Calcuttans will be able to see for themselves, how people live their lives all over the world. Calcutta will wake up.”

Ritwick was excited about the possibility of seeing foreign films with adult subjects.

“And one more thing, Ritwick. Once the people of Calcutta see for themselves what the rest of the world is like, there will be no holding them back. This is 1989. In twenty-five to thirty years, in one generation hence, the whole country will be a different place.”

I left home for the second time.

(To Be Continued)

(Posted April 1, 2023)


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You Can’t Go Home Again

Satya Jeet