Immigrant Bengalis

A Choice I Was Forced To Make

Shyamal Sarkar

The boiling frog story: When a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out; but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceivethe danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to significant changes that occur gradually. (Source: Wikipedia)

I decided to start a business because of my heart attack in 1985.

It might sound paradoxical but it was true. It was not that I didn’t have a decent job before starting the business. As a matter of fact, I considered the job I had then  as a dream job for me.

Traditional wisdom is to quit a business after a heart attack. Business stress could be fatal.

Indeed I was aware of that danger; nevertheless I decided to start a new business and quit a good and steady job.

I did not have any prior business experience, neither had I any seed money to start one; rather, I had to borrow money from friends and take a second mortgage on my home. On top of that, I had a young family with a two year old toddler. Still I made that decision. I didn’t have any other choice left before me.

Generally speaking, Bengalis are not business minded; rather they dislike doing business, and I was not an exception. In the matrimonial circuit, a Bengali woman would like to marry a non-businessman more than an equally educated business person! The stereotypical perception has been that  businessmen are less romantic; they are more into making money than spending time with their wives. I am not sure what my wife, Ruby, would have done, had I been in business before our marriage!

When I told her that I wanted to quit my job and start a business, she must have thought that I had started developing insanity along with the recent heart problems. Nevertheless, she went along with my decision. Perhaps she thought that fighting with an insane person would have been just a waste of time.

The trend of “working for someone else” started with the “Babu culture”  within the middle class Bengalis during the Renaissance Period of the British subjugation in Bengal. However, the great Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy, a patriot, a leading scientist and an academician, started a  business, Bengal Chemical, with all his available capital of 800 rupees which he had received by selling his ancestral property. Although he won a scholarship to study in London University and earned his D. Sc. from there -- and subsequently became a Chemistry Professor at Presidency College -- still he had decided to start a business of making chemicals, in the era when England had achieved a very high level of industrialization. He and some of his students, against great odds, made Bengal Chemical a pioneering business in India. The rest was  history.

I also started a small business in New York with a small capital  – and I survived somehow.


“A little rebellion is a good thing.”  – Thomas Jefferson

My background was neither from a Babu-Culture nor from a traditional Bengali business community. Rather, our family was one of the thousands of displaced families from East Bengal, living in a quasi-slum area in the eastern part of Calcutta. My father had a small restaurant serving lower income Bengali clientele with everyday Bengali rice and fish meals. As teenagers, I and my friendswere idealistic and day-dreamers like most teenagers. I grew up in a family and a surrounding having a strong sense of antipathy to the established order. We had lived among the poor refugee families and seen their everyday drudgery to secure their basic needs. After experiencing a painful life style in the slum, we became resentful and subconsciously rebellious; anything that had a little smell of anti-establishment, anti-traditional nature had our support.

Perhaps, that was the reason Mohamed Ali became our instant hero, not just for being a champion boxer but for his courage and zeal of anti-Vietnam war stand which we all thought was an unjust war too. For that reason, I had participated in a protest rally during the visit of the US Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, to Calcutta in the midst of the Vietnam War.

The area we grew up in was the natural brewing ground for anti-establishment and counter culture. We did not need explanations from experts about inequalities of social structure due to the uneven distribution of wealth – we had seen unfair discrimination everyday; we did not need much persuasion to label businessmen and rich people as the “class enemies”. This anti-business attitude had been engraved in my mind since my young age; making money more than the need was an obscene idea for me. How on earth a person with that kind of mindset could start a business? – I wondered as I thought of starting a business of my own.


“You cannot change what you are, only what you do.” ― Philip Pullman

 The decision to start a business had something to do with my sales job with the pharmaceutical company, Upjohn. It was a fact that I was dying to get this job in 1980 when I was making just above the minimum wage working as a pharmacy intern in uptown New York City; I knew that the job with Upjohn would pay me more, would give me job security, health insurance, pensions, 401(K) and other benefits. Besides a decent salary, I would have an expense account, a lucrative incentive plan – and get a new car in every two year period.

The foremost reason to get employed with Upjohn was the “feel good factor”; I badly needed the reputation of a well-knownemployer. Until then, I couldn’t brag about the name of my employer and feel good about it.

Finally, I got my desired job in December 1980; coincidentally Ruby arrived in New York at the same time. When many of my friends and classmates were doing odd jobs, I was flown two times for the job interviews with Upjohn which had not happened in my life earlier.


“Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” ― George Bernard Shaw

I did not have any idea how a giant corporation could spend so much money for doing business. It was a jaw-dropping experience for me to see the affluence and extravaganza of Upjohn; it was a sweet surprise when the company paid the expenses for Ruby to fly and stay with me during my one month training period in Buffalo, New York.

I was more surprised when I saw the enormous size and grandeur of the company in Kalamazoo, Michigan, when I went there for another month-long training. Kalamazoo was an Upjohn town, like Auburn Hills is for Chrysler, with 20,000 Upjohn employees. The global headquarters building was huge and ostentatious. Our training center was near the Upjohn’s state of the art research center. That research center invented many blockbuster drugs.

Upjohn was one of the leading pharmaceutical companies in US with many innovative product lines. I came back to New York after completion of my month-long training,  pumped up with a tremendous amount of pride and excitement which were needed for my sales job. The company paid for my move to an apartment in my work area in Rockland County of New York. Before that, Ruby and I were living frugally in a one-bedroom apartment in Queens. An 18-wheeler moving truck of the Pan America Van Lines left almost empty because the volume of the thrifty size furniture from our one-bedroom apartment could not fill more than one tenth of the huge truck space. However, I did not forget to bring a small bookshelf in the truck which I had picked up from the side walk of Queens; this book shelf was with me for another 25 years and did not let me forget where I came from.


“Mankind is not a circle with a single center but an ellipse with two focal points of which facts are one, ideas the other.”  –Victor Hugo

Pharmaceutical Sales was not a new profession for me; I had worked for another well-known British company, Burroughs Wellcomein India for 4 years as medical representative before coming to the US. That experience helped me to get the job in Upjohn. I was very happy - I got my dream job. I disposed of my dilapidated $500-worth Toyota Corolla of 1974 vintage because I got a new full size car, Chrysler LeBaron, from the company. My earnings went up, as well as my savings. Ruby and I went for a vacation in Florida in October 1981 which we could not afford before.  We flew to Jacksonville and drove all over Florida, up to Key West. We have visited the Florida Keys many times thereafter; still today, I can visualize the many lagoons we saw on our way to Key West, all with different shades of turquoise color. It was just wonderful.

My performance with company improved in the following years. I  received many salary increments and incentives. Upjohn agreed to pay for the tuition for my MBA study and a Dale Carnegie course. We had our first child in 1982. My parents came to visit us. We bought a small townhouse. The following year we all went to India to visit. All of these happened in a twelve month period.

The trajectory of my career was ascending steadily.

1984 was the best year for me in Upjohn; I became the top sales performer in the region. I was given the best performance award, gifts, top salesperson certificate and cash incentives.

Upjohn had built a resort for business deals and entertainment for foreign guests. The resort had individual cottages, several gourmet food restaurants, a golf course, a heated indoor swimming pool, horseback riding trails in the forest across the rolling hills and many creeks beyond the sprawling meadow of the resort center. This kind of lavish treatment I had never experienced, even expected. I had a chance to swing golf clubs there for the first time. Naturally the balls were flying all over the trees and bunkers. It was a total fun-filled week which an immigrant like me had never dreamed in his life. 

Only the top performers of the nation were invited to Upjohn’s Brooke Resort  for an extraordinary annual  get together  and retreat. I was extremely proud to be one of the best in the nation that year.

At the end of the December of 1984, we took another vacation in an exotic place -- the Hawaiian Islands. The place was just as picturesque as I had seen in postcards; the green hills of fjords, the cloudless blue skies; the ocean wind of Hawaii were simply intoxicating.


“The straight line, a respectable optical illusion which ruins many a man.” ― Victor Hugo (Les Misérables)

After coming back from Honolulu, the unexpected thing happened which changed my life. When we are young and having the Midas touch, we feel ourselves invincible; I was having that kind of feeling until I was hit by a thunderbolt, almost. On a cold night of January 1985, I went to Nyack Hospital with chest pain and I was admitted immediately. Next morning, doctors gave me the news which everyone hates to hear: “ You had a heart attack".

I was in a state of denial. I said to myself, “There must be some mistake. I cannot have this problem -- I am not even 35 years old, I do not have a family history of heart problem.” Though it was true that I smoked 3 or 4 cigarettes a day, like millions of casual smokers,  but that could not be the compelling reason to have an attack! It was very hard for me to accept that I had a serious heart problem.

I was proven wrong, the angiogram confirmed that two of the three main arteries of my heart had blockages; I was labeled a designated heart patient! My whole life scenario in front my eyes just shattered, I became literally a broken-hearted, disabled man. I felt more disabled when I went on a disability leave; I began to experience some sort of fear almost on a constant basis; I was anxious as well as depressed. I sat in front of the TV but did not watch anything on the TV; I was listless and was pondering day and night about my health condition and my family's future.

I was trying to reassure myself, “I have to learn how to cope with the new reality and survive, at least for a couple of years more, until my daughter understands everything.” She was not even three year old!

I told myself, “I must find the truth; there is a cause behind every effect. What was the cause of the attack? Unless I find the cause of the effect, I will be doing the same mistake again!”

It took over two months for me to sort out the root cause of the problem. When I discovered it, I was surprised and sad. It was my job; the same sales job which I loved to do so much and which had been proving very well so far for me.

I knew very well the nature of a salesman’s job: it is very competitive and full of stress. Pharmaceutical Sales is unique. Doctors are not the buyers of the medicines and the salesperson cannot see the end-users, the patients, to market his medicines directly. The surprising part was, I did not realize that I was having anxiety tensions in my subconscious mind, 24x7, even in the weekends, at social gatherings, even during vacations. Often the hidden nature of anxiety does not show the classical symptoms of heart damage but anxiety and stress can gradually damage the heart. I was an ignorant victim of that kind of anxiety.

The irony was that I was aware of the harmful effects of anxiety; I had to study anxiety for selling Upjohn products, Xanax, an anxiolytic medication and Halcion, for insomnia. I had to learn the disease-states of anxiety, depression and insomnia and their psychosomatic effects on human body. Several scientific papers had already reported that the amount of secretion of catecholamine, a chemical in our brain, is directly related to the probability of heart attack; and stress and anxiety caused the elevation of catecholamine secretion.

 I did not have any doubt that the subconscious stresses I had been encountering during my sales job had caused my heart attack. That was the Eureka moment for me – I found the answer that I had been looking for so long.

Then came the most difficult part of self-examination:, “Now that I have the answer, what do I do next? Quit the job or not?” I was weighing what to do:  “Stay with the job and enjoy a financially comfortable life or give up the job and take a risky path.” There was a dilemma between the comfort  of the and  the fear of the unknown.

After many sleepless nights, I decided not to go back to the same job which had created the problem in the first place. I kept telling myself: I must not make the same mistake again. I cannot be an ostrich with its head in the sand any more. I was lucky that I was able to go to hospital and survive; I might not be lucky the next time. I must not be damned again. I did not know what I would do next, but I became sure not to go back to pharmaceutical sales any more.

It was heartbreaking for me to resign from my dream job at Upjohn. I had worked very hard to build my customer base and establish a loyal clientele. I had created tremendous goodwill and credibility with the doctors after I had earned reputation and recognition in the company as one of the top performers, I was probably in line to get a promotion in the company. Besides the free car, health insurance, 401(K), the pension, and paid vacation, the most important issue was the “feel good factor” - all of those would go away in the blink of an eye.

Finally, in the spring of 1985 I submitted my resignation. My managers were surprised; and my colleagues thought that I was not making the right choice by quitting the job because I would not have any health insurance. My father was unhappy too, but I said to myself, “What I have to do, I have to do.  A frog has to jump out from the boiling water to survive.” 

“Taking a new step, uttering a new word, are what people fear most.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment)

I had received my pharmacy license in 1981. I knew Akhtar Hossain, a pharmacist; we had worked together during my internship period. He had started a retail business at that time.

He told me that he was happier owning a pharmacy rather working for a chain drug company; he also told me “if I make a bad business decision, I could lose money and that is not desirable; however I can live with that loss and I do not owe an answer to anyone. I live in peace”.

It was “Bingo” for me. That was the answer I was looking for: “Accept the mistakes and learn; enjoy the small rewards after hard work”. I started looking for a small business which I could afford.

One day, I found an advertisement in New York Times for the sale of a pharmacy in the Bronx. What a coincidence it was! The broker involved, Donald Poszick, was one of my past employers. I had worked as a pharmacy intern under Don. He negotiated with the seller of the pharmacy for me which was very helpful for a first time ignorant buyer.

Ruby had been all along with me on my decision of quitting Upjohn, and she did not have any qualms against borrowing money from bank, friends and giving personal guarantees to the seller. In July of 1985. I signed the contract to buy a small neighborhood pharmacy in a rundown area of South Bronx. Coincidentally, on that night, our second child, Ricky, was born.


“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” ― Alan Wilson Watts

We had started a new journey; I was learning everyday how to stay in business, like the way a fledgling learns to fly and a new baby learns to take the first wobbly steps. Ruby and I had to do the same with our new business and with the newborn. Luckily, both of them survived.

When I look back now, I think, perhaps I had overextended by starting a new venture without prior experience, with the burden of a huge loan plus having a family of two very young children. I didn’t have any other options left in front of me. I learned to survive in a hard way.

“All you need is ignorance and confidence and the success is sure” – Mark Twain

Sometimes ignorance can be a blessing. It was proven to be right for me. It has been 28 years since I was in the hospital with a heart attack; since then I have managed actively several  businesses of different types and traveled extensively for business and leisure. I find that changing the career path has become a panacea for me. 

Before leaving Upjohn, I had one satisfaction; I did not have to quit the sales profession prematurely. I had proven to myself that I could do the job, being a brown colored foreigner, who did not have US schooling, barely spoke fluent English, had a Bengali accent, and of course was not a handsome man. I was at the top in the sales profession and I had received  due recognition.

Sometimes, I do miss that phase of my life with Upjohn. I do miss that “feel good factor” which I did not have owning a small mom and pop drug store in the South Bronx.

(Posted October 23, 2013)

Comments from PKC on Oct 26, 2013: "Liked all the articles but mostly Asit Ray's and Shyamal Sarkar's. Sumit Roy reviewed and critiqued Toronto Banga Sammelan well. Satya Jeet's writing is also good."

Comments from SR, Nov 11, 2013: "Enjoyed reading the story, Shyamal. Good story, boldly and honestly told. I went over the same rapids, bruised about the same, more or less. But I decided to stay the course, so different regrets. Write more."

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