Immigrant Bengalis

It is Sunday morning around 11 am. I have to get ready. Being north of 80, I am a bit slow in the mornings, especially on a rather chilly Januarymorning. Dallas is generally warm, and even in the midst of winter, it doesn’t get too cold. But this winter has been rather unusual. We have already experienced a number of near-freezing mornings – and we still have two more months of winter left. My son, Sasvata, has to get ready as well. Every Sunday, with rare exceptions, he and I give Bangla lessons to kids. And today is not going to be an exception. I have 22 students this year, and two volunteers besides my son help me in this endeavor. I enjoy these Sunday classes. They are not easy at my age. In fact they have never been easy, even when I was younger. But I get so much of satisfaction and joy from teaching Bangla to kids three generations younger that I doubt I would stop teaching anytime soon.

I started teaching Bangla to children a few years after I returned to the US in 1987 to join Sasvata. My husband, Suhas, had died in 1985, the same year Sasvata graduated from Texas A&M University and joined General Dynamics. Sasvata kept urging me to come and stay with him in Dallas, and I finally decided to leave India, with my youngest son, Susruta, and come to the US for the second time – to play my “second innings” -- in the language of cricket.

I came to America for the first time back in 1959 to join my husband at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. He had arrived a year earlier to study Linguistics. He was a very good student and had received a US Government scholarship after finishing his Master’s degree from Calcutta University, and his travel costs were covered under a Fulbright travel grant. Although I was also a student of Linguistics at Calcutta University, we knew that I would not get scholarship or travel grant of any kind. Almost immediately after his arrival at Yale, Suhas had started looking for ways to bring me to the US. Soon he succeeded in arranging a research assistantship for me at Hartford Seminary Foundation. Two linguists from this institution used to visit Yale, and Suhas got to know them well. One of them agreed to take me as a research assistant. However, I would not receive any compensation but would not have to pay any tuition either. That was a pretty good deal for us. So, in the summer of 1959, I arrived in the US, and at the beginning of the academic year, I enrolled in the Hartford Seminary.

A flood of memories come rolling in as I think of the days preceding my flight to the US and the flight experience. My elder sister gifted me the air fare and my father got me a ticket on a Pan Am flight from Calcutta. My brothers teased me constantly about my ability (inability, actually) to speak English. I was raised in Bhagalpur, Bihar, and my Bengali was bad enough, and speaking in English was beyond me. I was confused and nervous, so with tears in my eyes and fear (and some excitement) in my heart, I got on the plane. As soon as the plane took off, the stewardess brought me my dinner tray. I recognized the chicken curry, the bread, some vegetables that looked boiled and tasteless, and a round object very similar to sandesh in appearance. I wasn’t hungry, so I decided to eat just the bread and the sweet, the sandesh. The bread was quite good but when I bit into the sandesh, I was in for a most unpleasant surprise. The round object had a weird, soft texture and a very strange smell. In a most non-lady-like manner, I had to spit out what I later learned was a piece of cheese. Disgusted, I left the rest of the dinner tray untouched.

Much to my surprise, soon the captain appeared by my side and knelt down to gently inquire if anything was wrong with my dinner. I shook my head in a helpless gesture, unable to articulate my problem. He seemed to understand, and went on to say in a very understanding way, “Madam, you have to travel a long distance, so you must eat something. What can I get for you?” After some hesitation I said that bread, boiled eggs, banana and ice cream would be fine. The captain left with a reassuring smile – and my food problems were taken care of for the remainder of the flight.

The flight held many other surprises for me. We stopped at several airports, and we had to disembark and embark again after short stays in transit lounges. But in Frankfurt, I had to face something that I had never handled before: a running escalator. I saw the moving stairwell and was totally flabbergasted. After much trepidation, I jumped onto this strange contraption -- and to my great relief, I managed to keep my balance and not make a fool of myself.

The next stop was London, and there I had a most frustrating and frightful experience. After some walking I got to the transit lounge, and there I spotted a man walking away with my old, tatty suitcase in hand. I knew it was my suitcase because it said in big letters, “Sipra Chatterjee via London”. I followed him, thinking that I was expected to do so. Soon I found myself in a huge – and totally empty – hall, and as I was looking around, I lost sight of the man with my suitcase. I figured that he had gone for a cup of tea or to the bath room and would be back in a minute, so I decided to sit down and wait for him. When he did not return after almost an hour, I began to get worried and a bit scared, and decided to re-trace my path and find somebody to talk to. As soon as I entered the transit lounge, a lady grabbed my hand and started running, literary dragging me behind her. She deposited me at the gate where quite a commotion was going on because a passenger had gone missing! The commotion subsided after my arrival, and the airplane pulled out of the gate as soon as I found my seat. For the rest of the flight I kept worrying about my suitcase in the hands of that strange man.

When I arrived in New York, after clearing passport control, I joined the other passengers in a long line to get my luggage. One by one all my co-passengers left with their bags but no such luck for me. But I wasn’t going anywhere without my beloved suitcase! Finally, a Customs officer explained to me that I had to exit the area and talk to the airline people I had difficulty in understanding all he said but realized that I had to exit without my suitcase. As soon as I exited the Customs hall I saw Suhas – and burst out crying. “My suitcase didn’t come,” is how I greeted my husband after one year of separation! -- After much running around and several phone calls, Suhas learned that my bag was in London because of my big label said “via London”. Pan Am told us that they would deliver the suitcase in New Haven, CT, at Suhas’s apartment. But we were heading for Ann Arbor, MI, the next day where Suhas was scheduled to attend a conference! To Pan Am’s credit, my suitcase was delivered at the International House in Ann Arbor where we were staying for the conference.

Thinking of our days in the Hartford area, I remember a number of amusing facts and experiences. Mind you, this was in the 1959-1960 time period. Americans, at least those I came in contact with, had virtually no idea of India and Indians. They rarely saw Indians. I used to wear sari, and sometimes people stopped me and asked, “Are you from Hollywood?” Suhas often got invited to give talks about India, and we enjoyed these opportunities to mingle with the local people. Usually he received honorariums, typically $50, which was a nice sum back in those days. But some of the questions asked by audience members at these sessions were amusing, even insulting. Here are a few examples: Do elephants roam your streets besides cows and goats? Can you see tigers in your hometown? We also attended presentations by other speakers, and one particular slide show sticks in my mind. He had just returned from India, and he showed the photograph of a poor woman cooking on a clay pot over a coal-fired unoon. The speaker remarked, “This is a typical Bengali woman”. Of course we got into an argument with that speaker. – We saw very few Indians in the Hartford area. There was a Sikh family, and occasionally, a few Indian students from New York came up to our area for one reason or another.

While in Hartford, Suhas ran into Edward Dimock, Jr. whom Suhas and I had met at Calcutta University a couple of years back while taking classes under Prof Sukumar Sen, the highly regarded Khaira Professor of Linguistics and Phonetics. An alumnus of Yale, Edward Dimock had just completed his thesis on Shri Chaityanya and Vaisnavism at the Harvard Divinity School, and he was in Calcutta during one of his numerous trips to India (he went to India once or twice a year every year for over 40 years). In time Prof Dimock became internationally famous as an authority on Bengali language and literature and founded the South Asia Center for Language and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. While at Calcutta University, I saw Dr. Dimock several times but spoke with him rarely because of my English inadequacy but Suhas got to know him well. In Hartford, Suhas and Dimock renewed their acquaintance, and Dimock invited Suhas to join him as a research associate in the University of Chicago. This was an invitation Suhas could not refuse because Prof Dimock had already become well known for his research on Bengali and Indian languages and literature. Suhas felt excited and so did I, so we packed our bags and headed for Chicago in 1961.

Our years at the University of Chicago were memorable for many reasons. Suhas loved his work with Prof Dimock and the other colleagues. In fact they co-authored a book, “Introduction to Bengali, Part 1: A Basic Course in Spoken Bengali with Emphasis upon Speaking and Understanding” (Published from The South Asia Language Center, University of Chicago – by East West Center Press, Honolulu, 1965). According to many students and critics, this is the first and the most authoritative book on learning Bengali language (see reader comments on Suhas went on to publish several other books and research papers later in his life but his book on “teaching Bangla” was his personal favorite. And some fifty years later I still clutch this book to my chest as I head for my Sunday Bangla classes. – I have a soft corner for Chicago for another reason: my two sons were born there.

After Suhas finished his PhD, we returned to India in 1963 because he was promised a good position at Calcutta University. But that promise was not kept, and Suhas found himself without any job whatsoever. He was devastated. He had resigned from his position at the University of Chicago, and being a proud man, he could not go back there. In hindsight I wish we had done just that because for some time we had to struggle hard to make ends meet. We moved to a village, tended a vegetable garden, bought a couple of cows -- and sold milk and vegetables to survive. When Dimock heard of our situation, he insisted that Suhas take a temporary position in the offices of the American Institute of Indian Studies in Calcutta. Finally, a year or so later, Suhas was appointed a Lecturer in Linguistics at Calcutta University. Unfortunately his career at Calcutta University was not at all satisfying, and in 1980, he moved to Visva Bharati University as Professor of Linguistics. He returned to Calcutta University as the Khaira Professor in 1984 but died in 1985 at the age of 56.

I had married Suhas in 1955, and he had encouraged me to join the MA degree program in Linguistics at Calcutta University. At first I found the courses dry and hard but with time, I developed a fondness for this study of “language form, language meaning and language in context”. Suhas loved this field, and in time, his love for this subject grew on me. He also loved teaching.

My interest in teaching began to develop soon after Suhas joined Calcutta University as a Lecturer. Somebody told me that a few Americans working for the Ford Foundation in Calcutta were looking for a private tutor to teach them Bengali. Armed with the book co-authored by Suhas, I took on the challenge of becoming a Bengali language instructor. These Americans were transient students, and my job was irregular and temporary. In 1968, I was hired by the Indian Statistical Institute for a six month period to give phonetic training to several teachers from Tripura who were pioneering the introduction of hearing aids to hearing-impaired students. Teaching then became a real job for me, and I began to develop a strong interest. Later a  longer-term opportunity came up in the form of a job to teach Bengali to hearing-impaired children at a local organization. This was a very satisfying assignment, and I stayed with this job until 1973 when I was asked to join the American Institute for Indian Studies (AIIS) to teach visiting Americans on a regular basis. That also turned out be a satisfying experience, and I worked at AIIS until I left for the US with my son, Susruta.

Before leaving India for my “second innings” in America, I went to see Prof. Sukumar Sen. He was the head of the Linguistics Department at Calcutta University when Suhas began his MA degree courses there (and who was responsible for attracting Suhas to study Linguistics in the first place). This was a visit to pay my respects to the famous professor and Suhas’s mentor – and to seek his blessings and advice. He wished me well and gave me two pieces of advice which I took to my heart: (a) Do something in America; do not stay idle; and (b) Help motivate and inspire young minds through what you do.

Those words made a deep impression on me, and after I settled down in Dallas with my sons and made friends within the Bengali community, I decided not to stay idle and to do something for the young children in the area. Quite naturally the idea of organizing a Bangla school came to mind. With encouragement from many people in the Dallas/Fort Worth Bengali community, I began the school in 1992 with five students. In a few months’ time the number of students rose to fifteen. At the beginning we did not have a dedicated space for our classes. Sometimes we used the Community Center in Plano, and sometimes we met in various local libraries. But the students (and their parents) did not mind that the school moved around a lot. In 1994, Dallas/Fort Worth Hindu Temple opened its doors for our Bangla school but no specific classroom could be allocated to us, so we met in the priest’s room or in the main prayer hall. Finally, around 2004, a dedicated classroom became available to us. Our temple has a section, named Vidya Vikash; its primary purpose is to teach Hindu religion and culture and Indian languages, and our Bangla school fits nicely within its scope.

My Bangla school has two main objectives. The first objective is to teach children how to read, write and speak Bengali. All our teachers emphasize speaking Bengali with correct accent and writing Bengali in correct sentence structure. Our second objective is to educate the children about Bengali literature and culture. We introduce them to famous Bengali authors through their poems, short stories, plays and novellas. I love it when, with great enthusiasm, the children work on a play for weeks and then perform on stage at local Durga Puja or Saraswati Puja to entertain adults and kids alike. One of my proudest moments was in 2008 when the kids performed the play, Bheem Badh (written by Narayan Gangopadhyay) at the Houston Durgabari and won audience accolades and several prizes. The children also publish short articles in Bengali in Utsab, the local community magazine.

I also get great satisfaction from the fact that several of my students continued to study Bangla for years after leaving my little school, even at post-graduate level. One studied Bengali language and literature at Columbia University, another at the University of Pennsylvania, and the third at the University of Texas at Austin.

My “second innings” has given me much to be thankful for. The “first innings” had many ups and downs for Suhas and me, but we carried our burdens together and we rejoiced at the successes we achieved. After he died, I was lonely, worried and unhappy. Coming to the US to live with my son, I found different kinds of challenges and different sources of satisfaction. In time my sons got married and grandchildren arrived. I was blessed to have been an integral part of not only my children’s but also my grandchildren’s lives. My eldest grandson just graduated from the University of Chicago, and he chose to go there partly because his grandfather was a researcher and a faculty member of that great university! And his father, my eldest son, is an enthusiastic partner of mine in our mission to “encourage and inspire” children to learn Bengali, using the book my husband lovingly wrote some fifty years ago. I am happy to see that we have carried the family torch forward for two generations. 

(Posted October 1, 2014)

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Carrying the Family Torch
By Sipra Chatterjee (as told to Debajyoti Chatterji)