Days and Nights in Cambridge, Massachussets
Death of a Dream: America the Eternal Mousetrap!
Summary of Chapters 1-20: 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 we began to discover the many charms of the Greater Boston area. 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 I also discovered the game of cricket in a land where this game is hardly played and even ridiculed. I was an avid cricket player in my younger days. Hence, ‘finding cricket’ in a most unexpected place was like traveling down the memory lane.
In chapters 21 and 22 I have described the plight of scientists in this country, including difficulty in finding jobs, uncertainty of funding vis-à-vis a dismal situation for scientists in India.
Since the early nineteen eighties, we lived in Walden Square Apartments, a rent-controlled high-rise building in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We chose that place out of necessity because my postdoctoral stipend and Swapna’s Research Scientist salary was barely enough to live a frugal yet reasonably comfortable life. However, unlike many of our neighbors in our building we were not economic refugees. We simply chose the life of semi-poverty in the pursuit of a brighter future, and often in our mind that future was in India. In those days, Indian science was taking a terrible beating. There was no money available, either from the government or industry to pursue scientific research, and young scientists left the country in droves for greener pastures, mostly in the US. Most of these people, like me, never returned to India. However, many of us dreamed of returning to our motherland to join Indian scientific community.
There was a strong reason why many Indians like me wanted, or at least believed to have wanted to return to India. Our family bond made us to think that someday we would leave a relatively comfortable life in America for a modest living in India, and take care of the family, particularly our aging parents. According to age-old Indian tradition, parents provide food and shelter for their children until boys stand on their own feet after settling into decent jobs, and girls are married off to grooms from respectable families. In return, children, particularly boys, take care of their parents in their golden age. It may sound like quid pro quo, and in reality, that is what it is. Yet this unwritten contract was and considered highly sacred even today. I remember an incident of many years where a friend of mine and I were coming home from college in Kolkata in a public bus. I made the mistake of voicing my opinion that parents take care of their children because they want protection at their old age. My friend was livid in anger at my comment, because to him this almost felt like bartering - how could a sacred parent-children relationship be held at such a low esteem!
Much has changed in India since then. She is no longer a miserably poor country. There is a palpable feeling of enhanced creature comfort and prosperity everywhere. This has also caused the demise of centuries-old family structure. A joint family system where many members, including distant relatives living under the same roof is long gone, as a victim of economic changes. Even nuclear families comprising parents and a low number of children are breaking up while children seek jobs at distant places, leaving aging parents to fend for themselves. Writers and poets have composed scores of stories and poems on the plight of these lonely parents. Even stage-plays on the same theme have garnered enormous popularity. This demonstrates support for this general feeling of the society that children must take care of their aging parents, no matter how illogical or impossible the situation may be. In essence, the tradition ruled then and rules now.
This was no different for Swapna and me. In other words, there was an unwritten contract that we should return ‘home’ after our ‘studies’ and settle down with our parents with whatever jobs we could muster.
It was my third year as a postdoc at MIT, and we were expecting our first child, when Dr. Bimal Bachhawat, a stalwart in Indian science, came to MIT to recruit young scientists who might consider returning to India with a job in one of the young national laboratories in the country. I threw my name in the hat.
I expected very little, if anything at all, from this endeavor, because number of job-openings were extremely small. In contrast, many people including several of my friends were eager to go back, either to satisfy family responsibilities, or simply feeling that it was a patriotic duty. There were also scientists who were unable to make the transition into a real academic position or an industrial job, caught in the vortex of perpetual postdoctoral-fellowship!
A few months passed by. Then, one day an envelope arrived in the mail, a bright tan-colored standard size envelope with an official seal of one of the Indian government scientific institutions printed on it in black ink. I carefully opened the flap of the envelope to find a letter written on a somewhat yellowish white paper with the same seal printed at the top. The letter stated that the director of the stated Institution in Kolkata is offering me the position of a Junior Scientist. The language was stern and very official. At the bottom of the letter, official designation of the person was printed, and the Director of the said Institution signed right above that in blue ink. .
The unexpected happened, and I did not quite know what to do about it! ‘Punch’, the highly esteemed British magazine of yesteryears, once published a cartoon that depicted a lion-hunter in an African jungle. The cartoon displayed the hunter in a total shock when he turned a corner to find a lion with his mouth wide open. I vaguely remember the caption under the cartoon. It sarcastically read something like –“Do you know what you really want?”
I always felt that I WANTED to go back to India until I received this job-offer. This terrible dilemma took away our sleep at night. On one hand, we promised our parents that we should return to India, and if possible, to Kolkata. Now I had a job offer from Kolkata! A situation, as perfect as one could expect!
On the other hand, we were just about to have our first child, born in America, an American citizen. We could bring up this child in the land of plenty, or choose the life of uncertainty for ourselves and for our yet to be born child! Furthermore, offer for the job was for me only. Swapna would have to become a homemaker after years of working as a scientist, and enjoying a career of her own!
This last notion provided us with the most satisfactory excuse for not returning, and the once much sought after appointment letter or what was perceived to be so went unanswered.
Our parents had no inkling that a sea change had taken place.
In the meantime, four years came and went by. My mother had come and gone twice, twice we visited our relatives in North Carolina, including once when we visited Disneyland in Orlando with our young son, Arjun. Swapna settled well at her research job in Massachusetts General Hospital. I was still struggling as a postdoc with a meager stipend, and was trying hard to come out of this ‘unending traineeship’ and find a ‘real job’ in academia. However, no real prospect was in sight, which pinned us down to where we were.
However, life at Walden Square started changing. Thakohari-da and Bani-di, our good friends at Walden Square, took an offer similar to mine and returned to India to settle down in a national scientific laboratory, Amit, our next-room neighbor, graduated, got married and moved to a different place. Others bought homes and moved away, and yet some others just simply vanished. Changing times gave us a notice that we also needed to move along.
Taking the decision about not to return to India was difficult, but it was trifle, compared to the difficulty to stay on. In many ways than one, it was like gambling! I came to the US on a student visa to do my Ph.D., followed by a Practical Training visa and then H-1 visa as a postdoctoral fellow. However, this could not continue indefinitely. In reality, I was running out of time to get further extension on my visa. The only way I could stay in the US was if MIT, my employer, agreed to sponsor me for a change in my visa status to a permanent residency. In other words, I could stay in the US indefinitely if I could obtain the proverbial ‘green card’.
Soon I learned that obtaining a green card was not an easy task by any means. First, my boss at MIT had to agree to provide me employment for a prolonged time, and he must have funds to pay for my salary. Then, this arrangement had to be agreeable to the ultimate sponsor, MIT. It also mandated that my sponsor create a position that would uniquely fit my background and experience. In other words, job-description must be such that I am the only person who would uniquely fit the position. Thereby it would prove to the State Department that such a move would not displace a qualified American citizen. Understandably, this took my sleep away! How could I find such a sponsor who would agree to do all these!
Finally, one day I gathered up courage and sheepishly went to my supervisor at MIT. To my utter surprise, he was remarkably receptive to the idea. He asked for my future plans, and agreed to make a commitment to hire me for a supervisory position in his laboratory for the next three years. I was beside myself in joy, but it was only the first hurdle, because MIT had to agree to such an arrangement.
Little did I knew that my supervisor was going through an uncertain period of tenure at MIT. As I heard from my supervisor, in the first meeting, chairman of our department flatly declined to do anything. However, my boss pressed on. This also meant more nail-biting time for me!
I vividly remember that summer afternoon. I was taking a break from my work, sitting in a nook between Buildings 16 and 18 contemplating about my future. Then suddenly my supervisor appeared with his hand stretched for a shake, “The chairman agreed to go forward!”
That was the beginning, and after numerous anxiety-ridden days, MIT filed for permanent residency status on my behalf. After that, it became a game of waiting and bidding time. Finally, after about six months my application came through. I became a permanent resident of the US, and Swapna joined the rank as a spouse. This was a momentous change in our life, because now we could think and behave like free birds! Some years ago, Swapna and I went to a scientific meeting at Merano in Northern Italy. Our newborn son, Arjun, only about three months old then was with us. We flew to Munich, Germany and took a bus trip through Austrian Alps to Merano. Passport control people stopped the bus at Austria-Italy border where they refused to allow Swapna and me, holding Indian passports to go through. However, they stated in broken English, “Bambino can go”, because he had an American passport. This is the glory of an American passport even today! Julia, our co-worker who was also in the bus fought hard for us and the border control people ultimately let all of us go after several hours of negotiation!
After obtaining the green card we were rightfully relieved that now we could travel almost anywhere on the globe without being stopped at the airport. Additionally, we could enter the US without any hassle.
News about our obtaining green card did not sit well with our families. There was a feeling of abandonment on their part. Over the years, we made them to believe that we would return at an appropriate time after obtaining suitable jobs for both of us. Therefore, they interpreted our present move as our unwillingness to return to India. Swapna’s father, who wrote long letters to her routinely, stopped writing to her for a while; and my mother would not talk to us over the telephone. However, as the saying goes –time is the best healer. That grand old time came to our rescue, and our parents resigned to the idea that we were not returning to our families in India.
We joined millions of others who are unable to untangle themselves from the mousetrap that is the United States of America!
For quite a while, we had been meaning to move out of our apartment in Walden Square. Most of our old friends who lived there moved away. Moving out of that rent-controlled, roach-infested apartment was definitely a giant step forward for us. However, uncertainty about our visa status was an obstacle for such a move. Therefore, getting the green card lifted that concern.
However, the idea of moving to another apartment was not particularly palatable to us. We were encouraged by one of our postdoctoral friends who mustered sufficient courage, and, of course, money to buy a house in a Boston suburb. However, before long we realized that owning a piece of real estate with our meager means was nearly an impossible task. Our wise and monied friends advised us that in buying a property it is always ‘location, location, location’. However, real estate market was booming at that time, and it essentially priced us out of most towns around Boston. Then we chose a few not-so-expensive towns, but there was nothing in our reach. After each misadventure, our real estate agent would look at us with a mixture of pity and contempt and say ‘You guys don’t make enough.’ However, she would quickly add that something would most definitely come along.
After a long period of unsuccessful attempts, we were exhausted physically and mentally. Our idealism about returning to India faded away, yet we had the rude awakening that joining the American dream could be far away. During this time of uncertainty and despair, one Sunday morning in August our real estate agent called us to inform that there was nothing within our economic reach. However, she insisted that we should look at a condominium in Billerica, a town situated in the North of Boston. We were not ready to look at a condominium at that time, but she insisted that we could not lose anything by looking at it. Therefore, we went to see it. It was a nice and clean two-bedroom place. There was nothing special about it, but price was in a range that we could afford without stretching ourselves very thin. Even we could save some money after paying the mortgage. Thus, we made an offer that the owner accepted very promptly. Within a month, we were owner of a piece of real estate. We joined the American dream!
On a sunny autumn day, we were about to leave our home of past five plus years. Memories came rolling down. My grandparents paid a visit, my mother stayed with us a couple of times. Luminaries of Bangla music and literature, Shyamal Mitra, Sunil Gangapadhyay, Nabaneeta Debsen came and blessed our abode. We met so many of our good friends here. Now, it was time to move on!
For the last time I looked down from our tenth floor window. Rows and rows of cars stood still in the expansive parking lot below like any other day. A few were slumbering in and out of the lot via serpentine paths. I saw our neighbor Dimitria’s husband walking slowly with his head down and books in hand. George, the maintenance-man was squirreling around as usually in his overall and red baseball cap. From our tenth floor window, they looked like midgets. I looked away at the railway yard on the other side of the commuter rail line that ran outside the perimeter of our apartment complex. Huge roller-like metal objects basked in the sun like any other day. Children were playing in a nearby park. I almost could hear their chatter.
We took the elevator down for the last time to the parking lot. A rental van, packed with our earthly belongings was ready. Suddenly I got a whiff wafting in the air, or, did I? It was the smell of the interior of a new car. At the end of his stay at Walden Square our good friend, Thakohari-da bought a new car. It was his proud announcement to the world that he made it! Many a days I saw him standing in the parking lot with one hand resting on his new car, and a cigarette on the other. He would puff his cigarette and make rings in the air to celebrate his achievement. Whenever I came near, he would open the door of the car almost with a bow and a smile on his face. I would dutifully draw the new-car smell lustily through my nostrils, the smell of prosperity!
I started the engine of our rental van, took the smell in for the last time and drove away.
(Published August 1, 2018)
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