Immigrant Bengalis

One That Ended Before Starting
Pronoy Chatterjee

He landed at the JFK airport of New York City and I was eagerly waiting at the upper observation deck  to receive him. I was anxious to see thathe had been cleared from the immigration and customs inspection. I saw him coming down through the aisle, dragging a big suitcase with a hand bag on his shoulder. I rushed down through the stairs to the exit door to receive him. Seeing me, he smiled and waved his hand; he looked very tired. I hugged him as he exited from the security line and asked, “How was the trip? You look tired. Aren’t you?”

“Yes, but it’s alright. Glad that I finally arrived at America, the dreamland for us. I am really so happy to see you. I am relieved of all my tensions that I carried with me since I started my journey,” he said.

His name was Santosh. He was an engineering graduate from Jadavpur University, with first division, ranking second in the class. When he was in high school, I tutored him for a while on math and science. He was intelligent and ambitious, someone who always tried to excel in his class.  When he finished engineering, I encouraged him to apply for the US immigration visa, the Green Card, in the early 1970s. I signed in as his financial guarantor to fulfill one of the prime requirements of the Green Card. 

On arriving in the United States, he first stayed with us at our house in New Jersey where I lived with my wife and our six year-old daughter. Every morning, I dropped him at the Suburban Bus station on Route 18 in East Brunswick where he would catch the bus to go to New York City for job hunting. At the end of the day, he would come back and wait at the station for me to pick him up on my way  home from work, which sometimes did run as late as eight or nine o’clock in the evening.

After several months of doing odd jobs at retail stores and clothing distribution centers, when he finally found a better job, not quite up to his expectation but close to it, as a manufacturing draftsman, he thought it would be convenient for him to stay in the city rather than commuting everyday from East Brunswick. I was not happy to see him going away from us and living alone in the city, but realizing that it would be beneficial for him to live in the proximity of  potential job locations, I agreed, but on condition that he would come every weekend to stay with us and return to the city on the following Monday. He promised me that he would do  so without fail.

After talking to a few of my friends, I learned that there was a place, called “Clinton Arms Hotel,” in Manhattan where many Bengalis were residing at the time. They were from different walks of life; however, a substantial number were engineers from Kolkata with sound backgrounds, but many were doing odd jobs with minimal wages.  The individual  who gave me the information also cautioned that the location was not that great, lots of crimes happened in the area and the place was infested with rats and known as a hang-out for drug addicts.

I first hesitated to put him in that crime prone area of Manhattan, but then on second thought, I decided to place him where there was a cluster of Bengali engineers who had the same mission as his. They would support each other and he would be better informed of the job market and other necessary things to navigate his life.

I drove him to the place and had him registered at the front desk with one month’s rent in advance and by signing a contract on a monthly basis. It was a Jewish middle-aged man who was at the desk and he was extremely cordial and helpful. He assigned him a room on the third floor, gave a key and showed the way to the elevator.

We hauled his suitcase, some bedding stuff, and food for a week that my wife had carefully packed in a plastic container. We got into the elevator and pressed the button for the third floor. The elevator door closed with a screeching noise and then with a jerk it started its flight up. After exiting from the elevator, as we were approaching the designated room, I saw two rats swiftly crisscross the hallway. I was shocked and startled, but Santosh didn’t show any emotion. As soon as we opened the door of the room, a bunch of cockroaches of different sizes shuttled at the floor and then disappeared.

I asked Santosh, “Can you stay here or shall we go back home? I guess, you can still commute and continue your job.” But, he declined and said, “It’s alright; if others in my situation can stay here, then why not me? Don’t worry about me.”  

I said, “That’s true, I am sure you will be alright.” After staying with him for an hour unpacking and arranging his stuff, I left.

While driving back to New Jersey, all throughout I was thinking of him and the condition under which I left him there. I was feeling guilty of dropping him there, but on the other hand, I felt kind of satisfied that I had left him at the right place where he would have the needed support in pursuing his career.

Initially, he used to come to our house by bus every weekend and then go back to Manhattan on Monday early in the morning, taking the bus from the East Brunswick bus station. I would drop him there and then go straight to my work at Milltown. He maintained this routine for the first few months. During that period he continued to advance in his career and finally got a full time job as a structural engineer at a multinational corporation. I was happy that everything had worked out so nicely. He had been a bright student at Jadavpur, I thought he deserved a good job and I was damn sure that he would continue to advance in his career.

However, as time passed, I noticed that he started to skip weekends in coming to our house. I thought it was normal that he would want to spend time with his friends during the weekends rather than visit us. Then I noticed that whenever I tried to contact him on the phone, which was a common public phone in  the hallway, if anyone received the call and informed him, he would come and say hello and then hearing my voice he would hang up the phone. I was at a loss about how to connect with him. When I failed on several attempts to connect with him, I decided to go to Clinton Arms and talk to him face to face.

It was a summer night, raining heavily. I told my wife  that I would go to New York to see what was going on with him. She said, “Are you crazy, at this time of the hour under heavy rain you are planning to go to New York?” I said, “It’s okay, I know how to take care of the situation. You don’t have to worry about me.” I left to get into my car with an umbrella in my hand.

I parked my car at the Port Authority Parking deck, took the subway from there and then walked on the street holding the umbrella on my head. Finally, I arrived at an intersection which was a few blocks from the Clinton Arms Hotel. It was still raining, but not as heavily as before. With the umbrella over my head, I continued walking a few blocks to get to the hotel. At every other step, I turned my head to watch the men who were drinking from their bottles covered in brown bags while standing in the dark corners or dozing by sitting at the door steps. I remained alert and vigilant while walking through a dimly lighted sidewalk.

I came to the hotel and asked about Santosh at the front desk. The clerk, who was also dozing, woke up, examined his key rack and said that he should be in his room, because his key was not there.  I proceeded towards the elevator.  

Not being totally sure whether he was in or out, I knocked on the door of his room a few times. After waiting there for fifteen minutes, I saw that he cracked the door opening partially and stared at me. I asked him to open the door so that I could get in, but he shut it immediately. I waited there for a few more minutes and then knocked again a couple of times. Finally he opened the door and asked me to get in.

I sat on a chair next to his bed and noticed that scrap papers and plastic cups were scattered all around and a couple of incense sticks were burning and spewing smoke with mystic aroma. He climbed on his bed and sat with folded legs, clutching his knees tightly at the chest by encircling his arms around them. He then started to sway his body sideways, back and forth, gazing at a poster hanging on the wall. He hardly looked at me or engaged in any conversation.

I asked, “Are you continuing the job?” He didn’t answer.

After repeatedly asking the same thing he opened a suitcase and showed me a letter, where his boss first praised his performance and then expressed surprise on why he was not responding to his letter. He gave him seven days to respond to his final termination notice and that was two weeks ago.

I asked, “Did you go back to work or respond to his letter?”

He said, “No, I don’t like it and I don’t want to talk about it” He started to sway sideways again.

I looked around his room and noticed a long kitchen knife on the table on a piece of paper and the door of the room was shut. I became extra cautious. I told him to go to the kitchen and make a cup of tea for me. He quickly got up and went out, I guess to get out of my sight and for avoiding any further queries about his action. When he left, I hid the knife inside a drawer.   

He brought tea for me in a paper cup; I drank and left without any further talk. I only told him that he should come and visit us on the following weekend. He said that he would.

He did come to New Jersey, but not on the following weekend, about three weeks later. He called me from the East Brunswick bus stop and I immediately drove down to pick him up. This time he looked happy and engaged in some light conversations with me for a few minutes. While driving back home though his mood suddenly changed and he became serious.

He looked aimlessly on all sides. When I asked, what was it that was bothering him, he replied, “I am watching if Subhas Bose is still following me here in New Jersey. Last few days he followed me everywhere in Manhattan and that’s why I came here, to escape from him.”

I asked, “Who is he? Is he your friend? Do I know him?”

He replied, “Aare Na, I never made him my friend. He is that guy, who formed Azad Hind Fouze to fight with the British. People call him Netaji. He is a vicious man, he chased me everywhere since I quit that damn job which was making me crazy. It was a job that was constantly pressuring me to meet deadlines on intricate and unsolvable projects. I quit it and that’s my decision, but what that has to do with Subhash Bose, I don’t know. I don’t know what to do, how to get rid of him. Even at night he opens the door and comes to my bedside and tries to shoot me with his revolver that he had stolen from a Britisher.”

Our conversation was abruptly ended at that point. I was even hesitating to bring him into our home. I didn’t know how he would interact with my wife and little daughter. I realized that he was not mentally sound. Then again, after some deep thinking, I decided to take him home and planned to stay with him all the time, even if that required taking time off from my work for the next few days. However, after staying with us for the weekend he returned to his hotel. 

A few days later, one of his friends in New Jersey who was his classmate at Jadavpur  University called me and hesitantly said that Santosh sent a couple of letters to his wife stating that he would come one day to rescue her from her current miserable state. His wife was in a shock and totally upset on receiving such rubbish letters from a person whom she hardly knew. She only met him briefly when her husband introduced him as his classmate at Jadavpur University. The husband too was puzzled by his action, but thinking that he was acting erratically, he didn’t do anything. Now, two days ago, he was seen at the front yard of their home when his wife was in the kitchen and he was at work. At that point they thought that I should know about it, because I was the only person in the area who knew Santosh. They mailed me those letters too, which when I read, I was astonished by its content and language. I told them, “If he comes again, call me immediately at my work and leave a message with my secretary, if I am not available at the time.”

I called the Indian Consulate General’s office at New York next day and described the situation and said, “He has no relatives here and he is an Indian citizen, so you must help him.  He could kill himself or harm somebody else. You must arrange for him to return to his family in India.” They didn’t want to listen to me at first, but when I brought up some legitimate legal points, they reluctantly agreed to send a representative to his hotel and talk to him.

Finally, Consulate Office made the arrangement with Air India for his travel to India with the necessary supervision. The Air India flight was up to Delhi and from there he was to be transferred under escort to another domestic flight to Kolkata, the final destination. I called his elder sister, a physician, who was practicing in Delhi at the time. Explaining his situation, I informed her of the flight schedule. I expected his sister would let me know his safe arrival, but she never called me back. I thought, since she didn’t call, everything was being taken care of and I wouldn’t have to worry anymore.

About a month later, I called his home phone at Kolkata, just to say hello to Santosh. His sister, who had been living in the same house, picked up the phone. From her I learned for the first time that Santosh didn’t reach Kolkata on the scheduled date. When he didn’t, his elder brother Ashutosh called the airline and learned that Santosh  disappeared with his carry-on bag as he landed at Delhi airport. His physician sister was at the airport but she didn’t see him and couldn’t get any definitive information from the airline staff. Ashutosh then went to Delhi and after days of running around, interviewing many people, police officers, airline staff and going from city to city following clues from people, he found him in a temple of Uttar Kashi with a group of Sadhus (monks). Somehow his brother persuaded him to return home and brought him back.

“Now he is in home,” his sister said. “But, most of the time he remains confined in his room with the door closed, day and night. He comes out only to go to the bathroom. He even eats his meals in his room.”

I asked, “Would you give him the phone so that I can talk to him?”

She said, “I will try, please hold on.” After a few minutes she came back to the phone and said, “I tried, but he said that he wouldn’t come to the phone because he was doing puja.”

I never called again. In time, his memory faded away from my mind. I didn’t know what the state of his mind was and I also thought it was not my business to follow up any more. However, I hoped that he would soon get back to his life, and quite likely, come back to the States again to pursue his dream and at that time he would definitely contact me.

About a year and  half later, I went to Kolkata and I decided to go to their house at Beleghata, where his father had moved with his family from Benares. I went there and rang the door bell. His sister whom I had spoken on the phone leaned over the parapet and recognized me. She quickly came down, opened the door and received me. She ushered me to their Baithak-khana (living room) and offered to bring tea for me from inside. In a few minutes she brought tea and a plateful of snacks and sweets. She sat on a chair in front of me and asked about my family and myself.

After some small talk, I asked her, “How is Santosh? Is he home now or gone out to work?

She looked surprised and slowly answered after clearing her throat, “Oh! I guess no one informed you. I thought my Barda (elder brother) or Bardi(elder sister)  had told you. Santosh died a year ago, a few months after he came back home with Barda. I told you before when you called us at our phone that he was in Uttar Kashi where Borda located him and brought him back.”

“How did he die?”  I asked.

“He hanged himself.”

“In the house?”

“Yes.” She lowered her eyes to the floor. Tear drops rolled on to her cheeks. She quickly rubbed them off with her hand. Then she continued, “Do you want to know more?”

“Yes, I want to know everything.”

She continued, “He went out that day after continuously staying in the room for weeks. He came back home in the evening with a bundle of rope, a bunch of white sheets that he used to use for engineering drawings and a couple of pens and pencils. He left those in his room and for the first time in months he sat with us in the dining room to eat. He looked really happy. Then before he left after the supper, he told us not to call him in the morning because he had an important project to work on for the whole night. After working for the whole night he would be sleeping till late morning.

“Next day at late morning, when Boudi (sister in law) went to his room to wake him up and give a cup of tea, he didn’t open the door. After repeatedly knocking on the door when he still didn’t respond, Boudi started screaming and calling Barda. We all ran there, the door was broken down and we all gazed at the horrible scene; he was hanging from the ceiling using the same rope that he bought the night before. The rest you can figure out. We all looked at each other, shocked, bewildered and frozen at the spot.”

With a heavy sigh, she stopped. I remained quiet; didn’t ask anything further.

She also stayed quiet for a while and then continued, “Do you know another thing? He left a beautiful sketch on the floor, which had a complicated design with ropes knotted at various points. The sketch looked like the same rope structure that he attached to the ceiling to hang himself. The Government inspector who came to investigate the death took that sketch and the rope structure and submitted them to the Engineering College of Jadavpur to check if the sketch represented the actual structure that he used for hanging himself.”

She stopped again and asked me if I want another cup of tea. I told her. “No, please continue. Santosh was my most favorite of all students whom I had tutored at the time. I had such a high hope for him. I wanted him to get the best opportunity in building his career. It was I who encouraged him to come to the United States. I did not realize at the time that not everybody had the mental strength to cope with the changes in foreign soil and above all had the tenacity to sustain a lonely life. He was a bright student, but different from those who could adjust and cope with American work pressure. He had heard about the American dream and success stories and expressed his desire to come to America.  I didn’t have any second thought in sponsoring him and agreeing to be his financial guarantor for the immigration visa. Now in retrospect, I feel guilty of encouraging him to come to the United States. I didn’t realize that he was not mentally prepared to lead his life in  a new country.”

She said, “Don’t blame yourself, it was his destiny. But, you are right; he was bright. I saw Jadavpur University’s expert opinion on his sketch that he left on the floor.”

“What did it say? I asked.

“The report indicated that it was a unique structural design, with strands of ropes ending at strategically placed multiple knots that could withstand a load of ten times higher than any other rope design that had ever been disclosed in the art.”

She paused for a moment to catch her breath and then continued, “The most amazing thing is that my brother conceived that design, sketched it out and implemented with the material he brought home the same day, all in one night. His professor at the engineering college said that he would include that design in his course next year.”

We both stayed quiet. Finally, I broke the silence saying, “A bright future that ended before it bloomed.” She looked at me, smiled, but didn’t say anything. 

I came out of the house and then walked on the street aimlessly for an hour before taking a taxi cab to go to the Ramkrishna Mission’s International Guest House at Golpark, where I stayed during my visit to Kolkata. At that moment, I longed for a quiet environment away from everything. I returned to USA next week.

(Posted April 1, 2014)

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