Background: After receiving his PhD from Calcutta University, Pronoy Chatterjee came to New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1963 on a NationalAcademy of Sciences fellowship to work at the Southern Regional Research Laboratory of the US Department of Agriculture. Two years later he moved to New Jersey where he has lived ever since. He has not only enjoyed a successful academic and industrial career but also has contributed to the formation and growth of several Bengali organizations in many different ways, most notably in literary and cultural spheres. In New Orleans he gained first hand experience with the southern racism of the early sixties, and in New Jersey he witnessed and shaped the formation of several Bengali cultural and religious organizations.
Early Experience in New Orleans: I arrived in New Orleans, LA, with my wife, Swapna, on August 23, 1963. New Orleans was burning at the time with black and white riots, daily bloodshed in the downtown area, and widespread hatred and madness everywhere. This was soon after the legendary "I have a dream" speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered in Washington, DC, standing at the foot of the Abraham Lincoln statue. Governor Wallace of Alabama made headlines in newspapers by blocking a black student from admission into an all-white school. President Kennedy had to send national guard troops in retaliation to Governor Wallace’s action and get the student admitted into the school. We all watched this momentous event on our black-and-white TV with rabbit-ear antenna (color TV was rare in the US at the time).
A few months later after our arrival, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas,Texas, by a white man, Lee Harvey Oswald. While Oswald was being transported from the jail to a prison, he was suddenly shot and killed by Jack Ruby, another white man. Such acts of violence continued for several years. This was the America during our two years in New Orleans.
The very first day I joined the Research Center in New Orleans, I was told that an apartment had been arranged for me in an exclusively white residential area. I was also asked to attend an orientation session to learn the "systems and customs of the region".
At the session the manager of the Human Resources Department politely explained the basics of racial segregation in the South and talked about the ongoing disturbances in the city. He also gave an overview of the demographical landscape of the city and cautioned me to be careful about moving around in the downtown area, particularly in the “colored” (black) neighborhood.
He further explained that on all public transportation, colored people would sit at the back and white folks would sit in the front, and that Swapna and I should sit in the front because we were foreigners. Then he told us that separate restrooms and water fountains were provided for coloreds and whites. He again emphasized that everywhere we should use facilities earmarked for whites.
Throughout our stay in New Orleans, we saw many examples of discrimination against black and colored people but we never faced any such discrimination ourselves, at least not openly in our presence. We lived in an all-white residential area, and our neighbors were quite friendly. However, some of them cautioned us not to invite any colored people into our apartment because that could have triggered hostility towards us in that racially segregated city. (I personally encountered racial prejudice for the first time two years later, when I moved to New Jersey, known as a liberal and progressive state. I was looking for an apartment in Princeton for a temporary stay before getting into the University Faculty Housing Complex. When I found an apartment, I was rejected outright by a landlord because of the color of my skin or my ethnic background.)
Ignorance and Misconceptions: In the sixties, many Americans in the South were quite ignorant about India. They believed that India was the land of an impoverished and primitive people where reptiles and animals were all around. Some even inquired if I had learned the art of snake charming and wondered how we could live in a country where tigers roamed around freely. While chatting with an Indonesian neighbor, as I mentioned such misconceptions, he remarked, “At least they know that India is a sovereign country. When they talk to me, they invariably ask, what part of India is called Indonesia.”
We also met a few people who didn’t know that there was a difference between American Indians and Asian Indians. I recall a funny incident while we were driving from Colorado to Wyoming. We stopped at the Grand Teton Mountain to enjoy a majestic view. A short, white American lady was standing next to us. She came closer to us, gazed at my wife’s sari and her breaded hair, and then asked, “Are you Indian?”
I said, “Yes, you are absolutely right.”
She then asked, "What tribe are you?”
I said, "What do you mean? We are Indians from India.”
She smiled and said, “I know, honey, but what Indian tribe are you?” -- and she kept on repeating the same question.
No matter how much I tried to explain that we were Indians from India, she kept on saying that she understood, but all she wanted to know was what (Indian) tribe we belonged to. I finally gave up trying to make her understand that India did not have American Indian tribes.
After the initial excitement of coming to a new country wore off and we settled down in New Orleans, I began to develop a sense of isolation and loneliness. I started to miss many things that I grew up with and took for granted as a part of my everyday life, such as Bengali songs, Bengali movies, pujas, Bengali gossips and addas, and meeting friends at tea shops. I started realizing that I missed my cultural roots. So when an invitation came in 1965 from Princeton University in New Jersey, I gladly decided to move.
Evolution of Bengali Communities in New Jersey: When we arrived in New Jersey in 1965, there were only a handful of Bengalis, and we did not organize any Indian religious or cultural events. We did not have any Indian businesses, retail stores, groceries or restaurants. To buy Indian spices, we had to go all the way to Manhattan, and there was only one store, named Kalustyan, where we often met other Bengalis from all over the tri-state area. We would occasionally run into some of our old friends from Kolkata, who had just arrived in this country.
The saying goes that absence makes the heart grow fonder. That was certainly the case for me. Absence of familiar cultural (and religious) activities that I thought was so vital to sustain social and intellectual life made me very unhappy. I was sad that there was no Bengali cultural organization, no Bengali musical event, nor any religious functions like Durga Puja, Saraswati Puja or Kali Puja. I realized how important it was for me to have that Bengali environment surrounding me. In the absence of it I could not feel at ease in the land that I was soon going to adopt as my home. I felt that I was incomplete and I was unhappy.
From the mid to late 60s, slowly the Bengali population in the New Jersey-New York area started to increase. When the Bengali population in central New Jersey reached a critical mass, a few of us decided to start a Bengali association to organize major religious events like Saraswati Puja (and Durga Puja and later, Kali Puja) and informal cultural get-togethers. In the tri-state area, the first publicly held puja, with the image of the Goddess made of Plaster of Paris, was the Saraswati Puja in 1970, held at Princeton University. Subsequently, other pujas were initiated by many other organizations in New Jersey and New York. In the early 70s, a number of other cultural activities were also launched, like handwritten magazines of CAB, NJPA and Kallol and movie shows and Bengali drama performances by local talents. That was the beginning of Bengali cultural activities in New Jersey. Such activities of course proliferated as the Bengali population began to expand more rapidly in the late 70s.
Literary activities received a lot of attention in the early days. I personally got involved in editing and publishing Bengali literary and news magazines from the early 70s, and I am still actively engaged in such efforts. These magazines not only helped the community nurture its literary heritage but also inspired many budding writers to sharpen their skills in creative writing.
Over the next forty five years, I have seen the birth and growth of many cultural and religious organizations in the tri-state area. Some of these organizations have become quite large and have embarked on many kinds of activities. They are clearly filling the cultural void that I had felt in my early days in the US. In New Jersey alone we now have several impressive brick-and-mortar facilities, built by Bengalis with funding by Bengalis, that offer an array of services to the community such as language classes, schools for performing arts and discourses on religious and philosophical matters. Their programs and activities are helping in what I call "cultural diffusion" between immigrant Bengalis on one hand and the mainstream American society on the other. We also have annual, nation-wide Bengali "culture fest" in the form of North American Bengali conference (known in Bengali as Banga Sammelan),and these mega-events draw thousands of Bengalis from all corners of the US (and from the Indian subcontinent as well). In recent years, Bengalis from Bangladesh have also established flourishing communities in the New York-New Jersey area, and they also organize similar large and small cultural events. Bengaiis (and other Indian communities) now have a clearly visible presence in America. One good example is the availability of Bengali language and literarture courses in several prominent American universities.
Some may view many of the cultural activities currently being pursued by Bengalis as "light entertainment" but I don't think so. I believe that all these efforts, taken together, provide an architecture for cultural diffusion across not just communities but also generations. A good example is the strong interest in theater, not just in Bengali language for the enjoyment of immigrant Bengalis but also in English that attract and involve young, second generation Bengali actors and writers. Original plays are being written and performed on stage by immigrant Bengalis and by their children, and these plays often reflect many social issues of interest to all Americans, Bengali and non-Bengali alike.
Looking ahead: As I look ahead, I see the future Bengali community consisting of two distinctly different types of "next generation" Bengalis: those who are born here and brought up by immigrant Bengali parents like Swapna and me, and those who arrive in the US as young men and women, seeking jobs or education and deciding to stay here permanently. The first type will probably be more interested in mainstream American way of life and less with their parents' ethnocentric cultural activities. The second type, however, would probably bring with them a strong interest in the type of Bengali culture they enjoyed while growing up in India. These new arrivals will keep alive the interest in traditional Bengali culture and heritage, and to meet their needs, our religious and cultural institutions and programs will continue. No doubt there will be some adjustments in what we would view in the future as "Bengali culture" because of the inevitable "cultural diffusion" that I mentioned before. Personally I would welcome such cross-fertilization of cultures.
Beyond cultural matters, there are a couple of areas that I think deserve some serious attention. Although most Bengalis in the US are enjoying good social life with family members and friends, there is a clear need to build strong "support networks" for the elderly. As the current generation of Bengali immigrants ages, there will be an increasing number of widows and widowers, and some will find themselves leading lonely and isolated life. We need to anticipate the needs of such elderly and lonely people and start building practical support systems and processes for them. Another area that concerns me is the lack of attention in Bengali communities to the issue of mental health. We do pay a lot of attention to our physical health and we routinely seek medical help when needed. However, the complexities of mental health issues are often not appreciated or are ignored totally, often with unhappy results. We need to be more educated about mental health problems and more open and constructive about timely and professional support
-- Edited by Debajyoti Chatterji
(Posted October 1, 2015)
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Evolution of Bengali Communities in North America
Personal Experiences and Views of Early Settlers
Pronoy Chatterjee (Spotswood, NJ)