Immigrant Bengalis

Destined for the US by Way of West Germany

Shyamal Ghosh

When I was a student at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, my goal was to graduate with a good academic record and build the foundation for a successful professional career. Little did I know at that time that in a few years after graduation, I would be permanently moving to the US with my family. Life does not travel on a straight line, and my career before coming to the US had proved that saying through several interesting turns. Along the way, I had gained many kinds of experience and gathered many memories of people and places.

From India to West Germany

As a mechanical engineering student at IIT, I had a keen interest in cranes and conveyors, and Prof Schulz, a visiting professor from West Germany, became my mentor. In my final year, he had suggested that I should go to West Germany after graduation for further training, as they were the best in this field. Following his advice, I had written to a number of firms in West Germany. Dr Ing Otto Guenter Meyer, president and owner of a crane manufacturing company in Peine, a small town located between Hanover and Braunschweig in North Germany, offered me a position. I was offered a teaching position in our department as well with an assurance to send me abroad at no cost to me. But teaching was not my cup of tea. I was not in a mindset to delay my trip.

So, a few days after my graduation in July,1960, I boarded the ship, SS Roma, from Mumbai for a two-week long voyage to Genoa, Italy. I had no idea at that time that exactly three years later, I would embark on the same ship to return to Mumbai.

SS Roma was a small ship, not a luxury liner. I got sick while crossing the choppy Indian Ocean. We reached Aden and then crossed the Suez Canal after a few more day. The food was not particularly remarkable except for the fact that the Australian rabbit meat was usually served at dinner time, with red table wine. Many Indians were on the boat. In Aden, foreign goods like camera, watches etc. were available. Some found out that most of those goods were fake, after the boat had sailed.

On August 1, I reached Genoa and boarded an overnight train for Hanover, West Germany. While crossing the Alps, the temperature at night dropped so low that I thought that I would freeze to death. The train was crowded. I was unable to get my new overcoat (purchased from Kolkata’s New Market just before my departure) out of my suitcase. The language barrier was also a problem. It was probably the worst night of my life. Fortunately, I survived and reached Hanover the next day.

Frauline Wendorf was waiting for me at the Hanover train station to take me to Peine -- my final destination and the location of my employer. She was the president’s secretary, a strong tall lady, about fifty years old. She picked up my two suitcases with ease and walked at a pace too fast for me. A large, plainly furnished room with an attached bath was kept for me, in a big old three-storied house. No cooking or girls were allowed in the house, I was informed by Frauline Wendorf.

Peine was a small town. Hardly anybody spoke English there. Dr Meyer and Ing Mueller, another German engineer in the office, were the only two who spoke English. Dr Meyer took me out for lunch the first day. Beer was on the table for drink. I was thirsty for water. Dr Meyer helped me to ask for leitungswasser, meaning “pipe (tap) water”, to quench my thirst. I had taken a German language course at IIT, but that was not good enough for daily communication in small-town Germany. My pocket dictionary was very helpful. I started the immersion process to learn German. I visited an inexpensive German restaurant for my evening meal. There was a large painting on the wall, showing German women washing clothes, with a caption, “Wasser fuer was Waschen”, meaning “water is for washing”. A glass of beer was less expensive than a glass of soda. Water was not served in restaurants. I had to stop visiting this inexpensive eatery, as someone told me that it served horse-meat, which was looked down upon as poor man’s food. As someone who had never tasted beef or pork, I had no way of knowing the difference between horse meat and beef.

Within a week or two of my arrival, Dr Meyer took me to the Peine Rotary Club. Rotarians spoke English, and one Rotarian jokingly asked me why cows roamed around on the streets of India. I was stunned. I could only counter with an equally stupid question: why Popes walked around on the streets in Rome. Later, someone suggested, again jokingly, that there were many war widows in the country and some of them could be sent to India for “Satidaha”. In return I asked him about taking some of our rapacious businessmen (Banias) for their unused gas chambers! In hindsight, I shudder at these childish and insensitive exchanges! I was only 22, and the year was 1960.

Germans, in general, were very friendly and jovial. One little girl, holding the hand of her mother in a grocery store, where I was also waiting on line, looked at me and asked her mother, “Warum onkel ist so dunkel?“ (Why is that uncle so dark?). The answer from mother was prompt: “Uncle had too much sun tan”. There was virtually no brown- skinned foreigner in the town. Many locals greeted me on the streets as if they knew me, but they all looked the same to me.

I worked in the workshop and got friendly with Frank, a good-natured welder of my age. One day he showed me his paycheck. He made four times my wages! With his prodding, I spoke with Herr Ing Wattenberg, the works manager. He agreed to see whether I could weld to his satisfaction. I was reasonably good in workshop practice at IIT. I passed and he increased my wage. A welder’s income was comparable to the starting salary of a Diplom Ingeniure (graduate engineer), if not more. Herr W. was almost twice my size. He used to like me as I could find errors in the drawings done by the designers. He used to take me to the drawing office and belittle them by pointing out their mistakes.

Dr and Frau Meyer used to take me out for theaters and cultural functions. They even invited me and some of my friends (Indian students from the nearby university) for a Christmas fancy dress party in their house. Some other senior staff and their families were also invited. I tried ballroom dancing for the first time, which prompted my joinin the dance school in Peine. By this time, I got myself transferred to the drawing office as I was comfortable communicating in German.

Once, I went to Hamburg with Dr Meyer in his gorgeous Mercedes -- to try out one of my designs, a rail clamp, for the Wharf Crane our company had built and installed for the Hamburg port. The rail clamp worked well. But I was embarrassed, because I had not put on my work clothes like my boss, Herr Ing Rothaus. instead. I wore my office outfit. I did not realize that, unlike in India, we had to do all the work ourselves. Fortunately, nobody complained about my outfit. I remember the date. It was August 13, 1961, the day Berlin Wall was erected.

In 1961, I moved from Peine to Nuremburg to work for the Kranbau division of M.A.N. AG. Dr Helmut Ernst was the director of Kranbau in M.A.N. AG, Nuremberg -- and an international authority on cranes and conveyors. As a student at IIT, I had read his book. In answer to my letter from IIT, he had asked me to contact him when I was in West Germany. With his blessing, I joined Kranbau in Nuremberg, in 1961, as a Diplom Ingeniure Konstrukteur (Design & Construction Engineer). M.A.N. was the world leader on any and every type of heavy hoisting equipment, under the leadership of Dr Ernst, Dr Eckinger and Ing Sedlmayer, the three technical stalwarts. I got the opportunity to participate in the design of some of the world’s largest machines. I also joined their Stress Analysis Group for a few months. Stress analysts were the engineers with the highest academic qualifications in M.A.N.

I came to know later that Dr Meyer of Peine had written a nice letter of reference to Dr Eckinger, my boss in Nuremberg. Dr and Frau Meyer even sent me tickets for travel to Peine from Nuremburg and arranged for a room, when I wished to visit the Hanover Fair next year. It was the largest engineering fair in the world, in which they had a stall. It was a great opportunity for me to attend a world-class industrial fair.

In Nuremburg, I lived as a paying guest in the house of an elderly German lady. It was within walking distance of my office. No cooking was allowed, just like in Peine. The room was heated by coal briquettes in a cast iron stove. I remember spending hours to thaw the frozen waterline in the washroom in the morning of Christmas. My brother, who was visiting me from London, had forgotten to let the water drip in the cold night.

We used to visit an Indian restaurant, Shiraz, the only one in Nuremberg at that time. An elderly couple with their attractive daughter were sitting at the next table. We were making comments in Bengali about the girl between us. After the dinner we found the family outside the restaurant. The gentleman approached us and introduced his family in flawless Bengali. He was a teacher in Darjeeling for a long time.

 During my stay in Nuremberg, I visited Berlin and travelled extensively all over Europe (except the countries in Eastern Europe under Soviet control). With good income as an engineer, life was enjoyable. I had a large number of German and Indian friends in Peine and
Nuremberg. Looking back on my years in West Germany, I now realize how important a role Peine (and Nuremburg) played in my life. I experienced Western culture for the first time in Peine. I experienced my first snow in Peine. I learnt German in Peine

The best quality German (Hoch Deutsch or High German) -- without accent -- is spoken around Peine/Hanover. In fact, after my return to India, I was listed in the German Consulate, Kolkata, as a fee-based translator, qualified to translate from German to English. My stay in Peine influenced my future years of life, personal and professional.

From West Germany Back to India

 In 1963, I got the opportunity to return to India and yet remain connected to West Germany.

The Heavy Engineering Division of Hind Motors in India had a collaboration with M.A.N. to design and manufacture electric overhead travelling cranes. They were looking for an engineer in Uttarpara, West Bengal. As I had plans to return to India, this appeared like a golden opportunity. So, exactly three years after my arrival to Genoa in 1960, I took the same boat, SS Roma, to disembark in Mumbai in 1963 and proceed to Kolkata to join Hind Motors. I travelled from Mumbai to Kolkata by train and at Mecheda station, close to Kharagpur, I ordered and enjoyed the famous samosa and tea in an earthen cup.

I did well in HM, but a better opportunity came my way in 1965 when I was offered a desirable position as a Class I staff officer in Jessops & Co. Jessops had an order to design and build six large “welded box girder overhead cranes”, and I was hired to design those cranes. These types of structures had not been designed in India before. I was the first and the youngest engineering graduate from an Indian engineering college (others were from Glasgow, where Mr Clark, the chief Engineer was from) to get the position of a Class I staff officer in Jessops & Co. That was because of the training I had received at Kranbau in Dr Ernst’s group!

From India to the US

My life changed in 1967. I got married. It was an arranged marriage. My wife took charge of our lives.

In 1968, I applied to MIT for graduate studies and received a fellowship. However, the stipend was not enough to sustain myself, my wife and my young son, so I decided against going to MIT.

Around 1970, America had liberalized its visa system, and for the first time, was openly welcoming immigrants from countries like India, provided they were “highly qualified professionals”. Many of my friends were applying for immigrant visas and leaving India for the US. I had a cushy job at Jessops and was enjoying life in Kolkata but I knew I would do even better in America. I discussed the idea of moving to the US with my wife, and she supported it. To play safe, I applied to Jessops management and got two years’ unpaid leave approved by them for higher studies. The leave was extended later to three years.

Originally, I had planned to go to Los Gatos, CA, where my uncle, a lifelong employee of IBM, lived. But soon I realized that it would not be easy for me to look for a job from Los Gatos, specially without a car. I decided to live in NYC and look for a job, using the mass transit system.

One of my friends from IIT was doing his doctorate in Columbia University and was staying in the Clinton Arms Hotel, which was not too far from Columbia U. He knew that I was holding a good job in Kolkata, was married and had a one-year old son. As a well- wisher, he repeatedly discouraged me to travel to the USA, especially because the job situation was not encouraging at that time. He reluctantly booked a room for me in the same hotel, when I gave him my date of arrival in JFK and flight Information. I did not know about this place before. On January 31, 1970, I landed in JFK. My friend was there, waiting for me with his friend, who owned an old Volkswagen Beetle. I felt relieved. They brought me to the Clinton Arms Hotel.

Around 1970, Clinton Arms Hotel, at the corner of Broadway and 99th Street, was a popular place for members of the Bengali immigrant community who chose the New York area as their first landing point in America. This place was popular because of its convenient location and affordable price. It was a temporary place suitable for students, immigrants like us who were looking for jobs, and the less affluent Americans.

The rooms were plain and simple with basic and minimal furnishing. Steam heating was very noisy. On the hallway, there was a pay phone, common baths and a common kitchen with a refrigerator shared by all of us on the floor. I never cooked there. Arriving from Kolkata, the place did not appear uninhabitable to me. There were a number of lonely senior Americans as our neighbors.

Like many others in Clinton Arms, I had arrived in America without a job and with limited funds. My goal was to find a job soon. So, the very next day, in freezing rain, I walked up to 41st Street to look for a well-known employment agency. I walked because I was not familiar with and hesitant to use the NYC Transit system. It was a miserable day for me. When I enquired about the address, I was told that the building had been “torn down”. The trip was wasted, but I learnt a new phrase! Luckily, I could land a job in two weeks’ time. It was in a small consulting engineer’s office, in Huntington Village, Long Island. They needed a German-speaking design engineer. My experience in Germany helped once again!

It was not easy to commute to my new office in Huntington Village from the hotel. I had to take the subway from the 96th Street Station to the Penn Station, and there board the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) train to the Huntington Station after a transfer at Jamaica. I think, it is easier now. From the station I had to take a bus or a taxi to my office. J F Camellerie PE, the brilliant Maltese American owner, wanted me to join as soon as possible and booked a motel, for me, within walking distance from the office, for six weeks. The stay covered Monday thru Thursday only. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays I stayed in the Clinton Arms Hotel, paying the full weeks rent.

I moved to a rooming house (no kitchen) in Huntington Station after six weeks. So, my two months’ stay in Clinton Arms Hotel ended. I made many friends during my weekends in NYC. Many of them are still my friends. And most of them have done extremely well in life.

While staying in Huntington Station, I got my American driver’s license and bought my first car -- a new Ford Maverick at a price of $2000. In August 1971, I moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Hicksville, NY, just before my wife arrived with my son.

I started on my MS degree program, in management, in the evening. First at the Long Island University, because it was not too far, and then at the Brooklyn Polytechnic. I was working full time during the day. My wife took full charge on the home front to give me all the time I needed for work and study.

My job in the office was to read the German drawings of climbing tower cranes and design the support systems, suitable for NYC high rise buildings, revise the drawings and stress analyses, as needed, to comply with NYC codes, certify professionally, and get it approved by NY City Building Department, meeting with the engineers if needed.

There were hardly any Indian families nearby. Most of them were in New York, particularly in Queens. We were missing the social life, specially my wife, who gave some sitar recitals, one in Huntington library, with Badal Roy on tabla. So, we moved to a 16th floor apartment with a striking view of Manhattan skyline, in Lefrak City, Queens, NY, in August 1971. We felt at home with a large circle of Bengali immigrants like us. I changed my job again, and joined a Brooklyn consulting engineering firm. The new job required me to design, build and install a 10-ton capacity, special derrick, to be mounted on the roof of a high-rise building in Manhattan. But the derrick had to be so designed that it could be carried piece by piece to the roof top – using the building’s interior elevators! That required all the pieces to be less than 8 feet in length. And the entire job (including dismantling the old air conditioner and bringing it down to the ground level) had to be completed in three months. I was promised that I would get a raise if the job was done on time. To my great satisfaction, I got the raise.

My three-year leave of absence for higher education came to an end when I finished the MS degree program. I appeared for my last test on the last Friday of January, 1973. Next day I was on a flight to Kolkata, with my family, including a three-month old baby. My car and furniture were already sold.

The three years I had spent in New York were very productive and satisfying for me and my family. I had completed my MS in Management and earned my PE (Professional Engineer) license, gained valuable work experience in two US companies and traveled extensively in the US and made a whirlwind tour of Europe with my family.

Back to India for a Brief Period

I was back at Jessops in early February. Things were going smoothly, and I was happy with my work. But after several months, my life encountered a major turning point.

Jessops proposed to send me to the United Kingdom for a short trip. However, that offer had one condition attached: I had to agree to stay with the company for at least three years afterwards! I was not thrilled – and was wondering what to do. Just then I received a very nice letter from Howard Shapiro, my boss at the consulting engineering firm in Brooklyn. I had sent him a Christmas Card, and he was happy to have heard from me. Additionally, he had added that my job was still open for me, if I wanted to go back to the company!

This unexpected invitation to return to the US as a permanent employee opened a new door for me and my family. I did not hesitate to accept his invitation – and started preparations for returning to the US.

Return to the US – My New Home!

In April, 1974, I boarded an SAS flight from Kolkata to NYC, with my wife and two little (six and two years old then) boys. We stopped, for four days each, at Bangkok, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Honolulu, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago -- before arriving in NYC.

This time Prabir Roy was at the airport to pick us up. He helped us to find a nice apartment in Queens in just two days.

(Posted October 1, 2020)

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