Immigrant Bengalis

An Immigrant Woman’s First Job
Bakul Banerjee

“Congratulations, Dr. Banerjee.” My thesis advisor, Dr. Marsh, stood up and enthusiastically shook my hand. His eyes brightened behind his smallish old-fashioned spectacles. I stopped by his office in Olin Hall, the new location of the Geophysics Department of the Johns Hopkins University. Two days earlier, I defended my Ph.D. thesis.

“My friends are saying that the Department can issue a temporary certificate of completion before I will get the formal certificate during the commencement of the following year. What should I do to get it?” I asked.

“Of course! However, you have to give me one of your pictures for the Department’s bulletin board for graduates before I can give you your temporary diploma,” he said.

Oh, no! Another new requirement that I didn’t expect. For anybody else, it might be a reasonable request, but it wasn’t for me. Mentally, I scanned my stash of pictures at home. I do not have a single portrait suitable for that purpose.

I had stopped in front of two large photo frames near the entrance of the building many times. Black and white portraits of men in suits were interspersed with a handful of pictures of women with nice hair and make-up. I thought Dr. Marsh was kidding, but he was not. Did he think it would be easy for me to get a picture suitable for that frame?

I received three degrees with decent rankings without having an opportunity to attend graduation ceremonies. I didn’t care, but I needed that temporary certificate to apply for a job.

“I don’t have any picture suitable for that frame,” I told him, frustrated.

“You will find one. Your husband has that expensive Nikon camera,” he replied with a knowing smile. My spouse liked to show off his five-hundred-dollar camera to everybody. Among my acquaintances, he had the most expensive one.

I left his office immediately because I was about to burst into tears. Soon after my marriage, I promised never to cry in front of anybody. Tears rolled down my checks in the security of my old car, thinking about how hard I worked to earn this degree. Now, this challenge about a picture?

*** *** ***

In my early twenties, I studied Mathematics hoping to earn a Ph.D. after winning one of the most prestigious fellowships in India to research esoteric branches of Mathematics, like Von Neuman Algebra and Algebraic Geometry. Later, I decided to apply to foreign universities in the US and Japan. That was when I decided to get my passport. When I received the Japanese government fellowship, my parents became worried. They decided that I must get married before I could leave the country. I married a handsome Bengali man as arranged by my parents. Declining the Japanese fellowship in Mathematics, I arrived in Baltimore. On top of the usual dowry my parents paid to my husband’s family, I paid for my one-way plane ticket out of my savings from the previous fellowship.

I had applied to Johns Hopkins University before arriving in Baltimore. Soon, I was accepted into the Ph. D program there. The university awarded me a full tuition fellowship and a research grant from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), Maryland. My husband took my paycheck, and I commuted to the school from home while cooking, cleaning, and hosting friends and family members who arrived from India for extended periods.

What a thrill it was to work with the massive amount of satellite data collected by scientists and engineers working for the Geodynamics Project! Who knew that predicting hidden bumps caused by colliding or dislocating tectonic plates inside the earth could be so thrilling? I often thought about the blessings of Mother Earth for letting me listen to her heartbeats using giant computers. The state-of-the-art computers used to launch and control NASA space flights were accessible to me as a part of my research toolbox. My head was already filled with the necessary knowledge of mathematics, physics, and programming, thanks to my two alma maters, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, and Presidency College, Kolkata. At the same time, I also held a part-time adjunct teaching position at another university to practice teaching.

After four and a half years, I completed my Ph. D. work, achieving one of my two dreams. The second dream was to have children who could be my lifelong friends.

Before receiving the degree, NASA offered me a permanent scientific position with the project at GFSC. However, I had to wait a few months for my US Citizenship. I needed a copy of my diploma for temporary job-hunting.

*** *** ***

 I had no current portraits except for a couple of bridal photos. At home, I dug through hundreds of photographs of strangers. A few of them included my image in group settings. For the next two weeks, I tried but failed to convince my husband to take a portrait of me with his Nikon. I also noticed an advertisement for a photo studio and thought of going there but didn’t have enough cash. I didn’t have access to my fellowship money. I didn’t know much about the new country during those early years, but I understood that if my husband decided not to take my picture, it would be useless to insist. I missed the Agfa Click III camera, one of the first cameras made in India, that my father gave me when I was in college. Finally, I found a single copy of my seven-year-old black and white passport picture taken by a roadside photographer in Kolkata. In retrospect, I believe he captured my essential character well.

When I gave my advisor the passport photo, he noticed my anguish.

“I am sure you wouldn’t have given me this photo unless I kept your diploma hostage,” he said, smiling at me. His eyes behind his tiny, old-fashioned glasses expressed amusement. Along with pictures of past graduates of the Department, a severe-looking saree-clad portrait of Bakul found its proud and permanent place on the wall of Olin Hall. I understood that my professor was right.

*** *** ***

I brought my first-born daughter home a few months before graduation, fulfilling my second dream. As I bent over to lay her in a borrowed playpen, I promised myself that my second child would sleep in a proper crib. To make that happen, I had to find a paying job. It wasn’t easy to do thesis work while maintaining an active social life for my popular spouse. It was more challenging with the newborn. She was about seven months old when I graduated.

While I waited for my NASA appointment, I contacted consulting companies around the beltway catering to the Washington DC bureaucracy. With the help of my classmates, I found a consulting job with a company associated with the Office of Naval Research in Arlington, VA. I had to drive for fifty miles, navigating congested highways from Baltimore to reach the consulting group’s office in McLean, VA. Most days, I had to be on the road for over three and a half hours. Fortunately, I found a reliable babysitter nearby.

It was the time of the oil crisis under President Carter’s administration. Once lucrative jobs of exploration geophysicists dried up. I was still hopeful about getting the NASA job. A credible rumor about the Federal government hiring freeze was circulating. GSFC hurried up and issued the appointment letter to me before my citizenship came through. As the turmoil about the Iranian hostage crisis boiled over, Ronald Regan won the election. On January 20, 1981, I was at home waiting for the following consulting assignment and watched the inauguration ceremony with my infant daughter on my lap. As soon as the speech ended, the CBS news reporter announced that the new President had just signed his first executive order stopping further Federal hiring. Before joining the workforce, I learned about the loss of my first real job on television.

*** *** ***

Within a month, my husband had also lost his job as a research chemist in a company related to the steel industry. The labor market was declining rapidly during the fourth quarter of 1981. The percentage of unemployed was hovering around 8.8 percent. After engaging a headhunter for a substantial fee, he found a job in a tiny town in southern Ohio. The nearest major university where I could do post-graduate studies or find a job was 100 miles away. I could not find any job nearby. We had to move.

As we drove toward our new place, we were greeted by the monstrous, twisted steel structure of the Detroit Steel plant in Portsmouth, abandoned years ago because of the steady decline of the steel industry in the US. Whenever I approached it during twilight, I remembered the haunting cover picture of a factory on the paperback version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, Great Gatsby. As in that picture, I imagined a pair of sad eyes hovering above the ominous view of that factory. I had completed reading the novel just before leaving Baltimore.

Several neighborhood wives befriended me, extending helping hands whenever I needed them. When I showed them some of my embroidery and crochet work, they invited me to join the women’s auxiliary of the Scioto Memorial Hospital. They were getting ready for the upcoming Christmas bazaar. While making Christmas wreaths and ornaments, I learned that a new Uranium Enrichment plant using centrifuge technology was under construction about thirty miles away. It was adjacent to the older enrichment plant that used diffusion technology. They were actively hiring scientists and engineers. One of my friends asked her husband, who worked there, to get me an application package. He also agreed to be my local reference.

Late that night, I filled out the standard application form and the form documenting my life history for the government, which was more than twenty pages long.Thenm I double-checked everything three times, correcting several mistakes. In the morning, I buckled up my daughter in her car seat and drove to the post office in town to send it by certified mail. The child inside me kicked for the first time as I returned to the car.

One afternoon, four days before the scheduled surgery for the birth of my second daughter, the phone rang.
“Is this Dr. Banerjee?” It was a woman’s voice that I didn’t know.
“My husband is not at home now. May I take a message?” I replied.
“No. Is this Dr. Bakul Banerjee?”

“Yes. This is Bakul,” I replied.
“Great! I am calling from the HR department at the Uranium Enrichment Plant. Can you come for an interview later this week?” I gulped some extra air and started coughing.
“I am not sure. I am about to deliver my child any day now.” I held off, saying that I wasn’t feeling good.
“It will be great if you can come before delivery. It takes several months to vet foreign-born citizens for security clearance,” she insisted.

“May I call you back in ten minutes?” I replied, setting the phone down to think about what to do. Fortunately, since I would be in the hospital, I enrolled my daughter in the local daycare. She was scheduled to start there the next day. I wore sarees through both of my pregnancies. I knew a saree wouldn’t be allowed in the factory for safety. My husband wouldn’t agree to buy me a decent maternity outfit for the interview. I was wearing the only maternity polyester pants I owned because I was about to mop the floor. I had a slightly better top that I could still fit into. I didn’t even have to tell my husband about the interview. I was desperate.

“Yes, I can come,” I called the HR person back within ten minutes. I would drop off my daughter at the daycare around 9 am and head out to the sprawling campus of the plant. She gave me detailed driving instructions and access information for the secure facility.

“Don’t worry. We will watch out for you. See you tomorrow at 10 am.” She assured me. Strange hormones were percolating throughout my body to prepare me for childbirth. My mind was cloudy.

I remember noticing a big yellow cooking sauce stain on the pants’ right knee when I sat in the waiting room before the interview. With hormones raging through my body, I couldn’t remember anything else. I told my husband about the interview after returning home. My second daughter was born two days later.

After about seven months, I began my first real job, not researching, adjunct teaching, or consulting. I bought a decent Ricoh point-and-shoot camera to take many pictures of the girls.

(Posted October 1, 2023)

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Comments received from Raj Kumar M on November 2, 2023:

Bakul Banerjee's account is highly interesting... she appears to be an accomplished and brilliant lady.