Immigrant Bengalis


Summary of Chapters 1-18: 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. And I began to discover the many charms of the Greater Boston area, notably the Haymarket. Another pleasure was listening to National Public Radio (NPR) during my daily commute. NPR brought back memories of my childhood and young adult days when radio ran supreme in my cultural development.

Days and Nights in Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Fun Game of Cricket – Emperor of All Sports*

Rahul Ray

One thing I almost completely lost after coming to the USA was my love for the game of cricket.  I came to this country in the mid-70s when there was barely any communication with people back home, except for those very expensive phone calls for which you had to speak so loudly that you literally could be heard in the adjoining rooms in the apartment where I lived. Then there were those blue emblematic ‘airmail’ letters, which took almost a month to reach their destinations.  Daily Indian newspapers were unthinkable. Therefore, there was no real and practical avenue to learn about cricket matches played in the land I had left behind.  

There were plenty of sports events in the TV except cricket.  The venerable broadcast channels, namely ABC, CBS and NBC, the only channels available those days, would not even think of ‘touching on’ this esoteric game.  Once in a very long while, in some baseball events, a sportscaster would joke with his colleague about the peculiarity of the game of cricket that was so popular in the country across the pond.  They would mockingly speak about how cricket was such a slow game that it had to be played for five days!  Needless to say they had no knowledge that the game could be, and was, routinely played for shorter times.  There were also no cable channels that would broadcast live or previously recorded cricket matches even for a price.

It was a great loss for me.  I was an avid fitness and sports enthusiast from my early childhood days.  I grew up in Grove Lane, a narrow street in the southern part of Kolkata not far from Deshapriya Park and Dhakuria Lake, and went to school at Mitra Institution,
where sports were not a part of the academic curriculum, except for the annual sports event held at Harish Mukherji Park adjacent to the school.  From approximately an age of ten onwards, I would wake up early in the morning and routinely go to Deshapriya Park for running.  The term jogging was unheard of in those days.  I also went to the gymnasium of the famed Mr. Bishtu Ghosh (Bishtu Ghose-er aakhrra) for a few days, but body-building did not appeal to me.  Somehow it was an abomination for me to watch nearly naked men huffing and puffing in exercise gears.

I was also an active member of Sadhana Sangha, a ‘parrah’ or local club.  Annual Durga Pujo and Saraswati Pujo events were held by the club, as was and still is customary for local clubs, but unlike most local clubs, sports and other physical fitness programs were strongly encouraged among its members.  Harah-da was our local body builder, and in cultural events during Durga Pujo he would proudly display his pumped up ‘haat-er guli, payer masul’ (arm and leg muscles).  We laughed at his inability to pronounce muscle.  A tournament for carom, a relatively sedentary sport, was also held among club members.  Lalu-da, my friend Swapan’s elder brother, was a champion carom-player, and I was right on his heels. 

I don’t exactly remember the year or the venue, but the Olympics were on.  There was no TV and no radio broadcast those days, and we could see pictures of the athletes and events and learn about medals won by various athletes and countries only in daily newspapers.  Somehow, pole-vault caught the fancy of me and a few of my Sadhana Sangha friends.  There was a small grassy patch of land behind my friend Dhruba’s house.  We planted two tall bamboo sticks on two sides and hammered long nails on them uniformly so that we could loosely attach a horizontal cross bar, also made of a bamboo stick, which could be knocked out of place with a touch.  We also had another long bamboo stick to use as a ‘jumping pole’. 

Thus we decided to try our hands at pole vaulting.  All of us did quite well in clearing the ‘bar’ when it was three or four feet above the ground.  But, any higher positioning of the cross bar became problematic.  At some point the bar was set roughly six feet above the ground.  All my friends failed to clear the height, and then came my turn.  With the jumping pole in my hand, I came running towards the bar, sprung skywards with the bending of the pole, and cleared the bar to a roaring cheer.  But I came down like a heavy log, falling flat on the ground on my stomach.  It must had been very painful, but I had no sensation, because I was unconscious.  I woke up after a few minutes with my friends sprinkling water on my face.  I was fine afterwards.  But, we decided not to tell anything about the incident to our parents.  However, this incident put an end to my aspiration to be a champion pole-vaulter!  

I played cricket with my friends in our goli (narrow lane) on Sundays and Hartal (general strike) days with stacked up bricks as wickets, and a rubber ball with a layer of padding on it (we called it ‘cambis ball’, now I know that it was actually a tennis ball).  There was no ‘running between the wickets’, and the game was played only on one side.  We usually lined up our chappals (sandals) on the ‘umpire side’ to make a demarcation line from where a running bowler would launch his ball towards the batsman. 

We had our own Don Bradman, Rohan Kanhai and Gary Sobers among us.  But, I don’t remember having any Indian cricketer to be named after.  There were M.L. Jaisimha and Abbas Ali Baig, ace batsmen, and Polly Umrigar and Salim Durani, master all-rounders, but they were no match for the Brits, the West Indians and the Aussies.  We were happy with our little make-believe ‘test matches’, and even broke a few distant window-panes with our sixers.  However, we always dreamed of playing ‘real cricket’ with real cricket gears, like those blood red cricket balls with a sewn seam, bats made of willow trees grown in England, pads, gloves and guards to protect various body parts from murderous fast-moving balls.

Almost like magic our wish soon became true by the generosity of Mantu-da and Ashim-da, our local elder brothers and members of Sadhana Sangha. 

Mantu-da was a balding, thin and lanky six-foot man with a very dark complexion.  We could always find him at the parrah morh, in the confluence of our lane and Hazrah Road, often wearing a cream-colored sleeveless sweater with maroon and green-borders.  It was the hallmark apparel of a famous cricket club in the city.  He would also wear cream gabardine trousers with faint but visible red markings in front and back denoting where a cricket ball had been rubbed copiously, as had been the practice among bowlers.

Ashim-da, on the other hand was a stocky and fast -talking guy with a head full of curly and unruly black hair.  Like Mantu-da he also wore his cricket sweater and pants often as a badge of honor.  But he was a batsman and didn’t have ball-marks on his trousers.  He would also stand wearing his jersey at parrah morh, leaning against a wall with his legs crossed to attract favorable stare from local young females.  

Mantu-da and Ashim-da were our heroes, and they returned the favor by deciding to expose us to ‘real cricket’.  But in order to do that we had to have a fairly large playground and all the gears.  There was a plot of a sizable piece of land in our neighborhood that belonged to an affluent local businessman.  Annual Sadhana Sangha Durga and Saraswati Pujos were held there.  During the rest of the year, only a small part of this land was used as a gowal or cowshed for a local milkman, and the rest was empty.  Mantu-da and Ashim-da convinced the owner that playing cricket by local boys in his land would prevent it from being taken over by anti-socials.  They also convinced their own professional clubs to loan all the cricket gears. They could get a net as well so that the ball wouldn’t go outside our playing ground.

In no time all the boys and young men of various ages belonging to Sadhana Sangha started taking free cricket lessons from Mantu-da and Ashim-da.  Occasionally they brought an expert or two from their clubs to teach us how to hold a bat to have a maximum impact on the ‘hit’, or what are the grips for ‘in’ and ‘out’ swing of a ball.   With proper training, I became skilled in batting and keeping wickets.

Soon we started playing matches with teams from various localities in the city and its outskirts.  These were usually one-day matches with ‘tea breaks’ serving tea and cream cracker biscuits.  We couldn’t afford lunches, but we still spoke about playing ‘real cricket’.  The dreams were sown!  In one such match, played on the grounds of St. Thomas School, a missionary school in Tollygunge, I hit a century -- the first century of my cricket career!  Centuries were rare in local matches, and this display of my batting prowess was a very fitting feather in my cap.1 

In the following week, Ashim-da took me aside and asked me whether I would be interested in playing for the YMCA Club which was a professional cricket club playing in the second division of the Calcutta Cricket League (CCL).  I was more than happy to consent.  

It was a hard-to-imagine experience for a local kid to play in the lush green and professionally maintained ground of a club situated among other professional clubs in the Maidan area of the city.  During matches, players who were not on the field sat in pavilions, like test matches; there were lunch breaks with a menu of loaves of bread, mutton curry, slices of onions and cucumbers for salad, and a rosogolla to top it off as dessert.  There were oranges, biscuits and tea for ‘Tea breaks’.  How much closer could one get to test matches!

In the third league-match of my career, I was keeping wicket for my team.  It was a beautiful sunny day in December, and the game was played in an even-paced dulcet manner when I suddenly felt an itch on my leg.  I ignored it, but soon my whole body was itching.  I looked at my arms, they were swollen.  Soon the itch and uneasiness became unbearable.  At that point I spoke to the umpire and requested permission to leave the game.  He stared at me as if he was seeing a ghost!  I ran to the bathroom in the pavilion, and looked at myself in the mirror.  My face was swollen to at least twice its normal size, pushing my eyes deep into sockets and making them almost invisible.  My whole body was itching like crazy.  I called Badal, a friend and a teammate.  We ran through Maidan, walked across Chowringhee Road and rushed into Frank Ross Drug Store on the other side of the road.  The person at the counter apparently understood my problem and immediately gave me some allergy medicine which I took with some water and fell asleep in no time. 

I remained swollen several times my size for more than a week.  If I didn’t have the allergy medication from Frank Ross right away, I probably would have died of choking, I was told.  Thus ended my aspiration to become a professional cricketer. 

I made up for it by watching cricket matches of CCL (Calcutta cricket League) in Deshapriya Park and sometimes in Maidan.  It is impossible to explain to an uninitiated person the joy of watching a cricket game played in its regal style with all the players wearing white or cream-colored outfits, umpires wearing those cup-like hats with broad and wavy visors, the running of the pacers like wolves or the concentration and poise of the batsmen facing the bowlers.  These were not test matches between two national teams representing the best of the best of players, but enjoyment was still enormous.  I spent many autumn afternoons watching up-and-coming players like Raju Mukherji, Raja Mukherji, Subrata Guha, Dilip Doshi and others.  Several of them ended up playing for the Indian national team.  I also witnessed in sadness some other promising players who never made the national team. 

My dream to be a cricketer was over, but my love for the game wasn’t.   For the first five years in the USA, during my graduate studentdays in Pullman, Washington, there was no time to play anything.  Although sometimes I talked about cricket with my Indian friends, lack of any real information about cricket back home put a damper on my enthusiasm for the sport that I once loved so dearly. 

We moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts in the early 80’s.  The Cambridge-Boston area was most definitely not as out-of-the-world place as Pullman was, but still there was hardly any Indian presence as a community.  There were only a handful of Indian grocery stores and restaurants, and Indians were not as prominent a presence or ubiquitous as they are today.   Our only practical link to India was still through those airmail letters which sometime brought stale months-old cricket news.  Therefore, my love for the game of cricket remained buried under deep waters. 

The time I came to the USA in the mid-seventies, cricket was played by a handful of countries in the world, including India.  During the 80’s several other countries including Bangladesh joined the world cricket consortium.  But I was oblivious to these new developments. Therefore, it came to me as a total surprise when Momin, a friend of mine from Bangladesh, invited me to join a game of cricket played exclusively by Bangladeshi cricket enthusiasts.

It was a Sunday morning in early June.  The weather was perfect; the sky was crystal clear blue and temperature was in the comfortable low 70s.  I arrived at a playing field in Cambridge next to the Charles River, where I was greeted by my Bangladeshi friend who introduced me to others.  Soon a young man with an air of authority and a clear Bangladeshi accent asked me politely.

“What are you, I mean which position do you play?”  He must be the captain, I thought.

“Well I am a batsman and I also keep wickets.  But you must consider that I haven’t played cricket for many years.”

“Oh, don’t worry, none of us are professionals here.  Besides it is very difficult to find a decent wicketkeeper.”

Thus began my attempt to get back to the game I left behind many years ago.  It wasn’t easy.  The age had taken its toll.  In my first attempt to squat behind the wickets ended in so much pain that I stood up immediately.  But, my wounded pride made me crouch again, pain also subsiding to some extent.

In the first few overs I let most of the balls go past me.  I tried to catch them, but I was too slow to get hold of those running balls.  It surely was embarrassing, because my friend Momin had told everyone that I played division league cricket in Kolkata, and I received admiration from them, as if I was Farukh Engineer, the legendary Indian wicketkeeper.  I was certainly letting him down. 

It was that wounded pride thing.  With a fresh ‘over’ starting, I drank some water, tightened by shoe laces, did a few quick sit-ups and crouched behind the wickets again.  I could see from my position the fast bowler was approaching the other side wickets after running a very long distance.  He came closer and released the ball.  It was an in-swing.  Suddenly the fundamentals of the game that I learned many years ago started unrolling in front of me like an old movie.  The batsman typically tried to use a back-foot position to hit the ball coming towards him with an inward arc.  It was copy-book cricket. The ball caught the edge of his bat and came towards me on my right flank, only a few inches above ground.  There was a deafening cry ‘catch’!  Like conditioned reflex I sprung to my right and caught the flying ball in my right hand before hitting the ground with a thud and falling flat on my back.  But the ball was still held in my raised right hand.  “How’s that” – a lion’s roar came out my mouth.  All I could hear was a loud outcry ‘Out’.  

The captain and others came running to me – “What a catch!  You don’t see this even in test matches.”  I nodded with a polite ‘Thank you.”

I successfully managed another behind-the-wicket catch before the inning was over.  It was an easy one, but my fate was sealed.  After the match everyone came to me to greet. Somehow my national pride as an Indian was aroused.  I drove back home after the game muttering ‘I haven’t lost it! I haven’t lost it!’ under my breath.  Silent tears rolled down my cheeks.2


* ‘Khelar raja cricket’ (Cricket, the King of Sports) and ‘Mawjar khela cricket’ (Cricket, the Fun Game) are the titles of two books, authored by Mr. Shantipriyo Chattopadhyay, that I received as prizes from Mitra Institution.  Many years later I met Mr. Chattopadhyay in his Jhamapukur Lane, Kolkata office, as the editor of Naba Kallol where I published a few of my fictions.

1During my visit to Kolkata several years ago, I met Bachhu-da, my old Sadhana Sangha elder and a fellow cricket enthusiast.  He pointed towards me and exclaimed to his young son who was standing nearby- “Look at this guy.  He scored a century in St. Thomas field many years ago!” 

2Last year I was at a gathering of Bangladeshi people.  One of my friends told me excitedly “Rahul-da, like last year we are sure to beat India in tomorrow’s game.”  I kept quiet. Memory of that game I played many years ago in Cambridge came back to me in a flash.  I felt my national pride welling up again. Fortunately, India handily beat Bangladesh in the matches to follow. 

(Posted August 1, 2016)

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