Immigrant Bengalis

Days and Nights in Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Goodbye to Wazzu and Mount St. Helens

Rahul Ray

Summary of Chapters 1-7: In the early eighties I came to Cambridge, Massachusetts as a post-doctoral trainee at MIT after completing my the Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. 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.


In Cambridge we were forced to live frugally with my paltry post-doc stipend, and the only luxury we could pamper ourselves with was an automobile.  We could ill afford a car, and it came as a gift from my physician uncle in North Carolina.

In the winter of 1981 we concluded our five-year stint in Pullman and boarded an Amtrak train from Spokane, Washington to Fayetteville, North Carolina to visit my uncle and aunt on our way to Boston, Massachusetts.  It was mid-January, and our train traveled through the spectacular Colorado Rockies and the frozen prairie in the Western and mid-Western states.  We were completely taken aback by the vast expanse of frozen lakes dotted with small huts and people ice-fishing in sub-zero temperature.  We changed trains in Chicago, and finally reached Fayetteville, NC after almost three days of continuous train-ride.    

My uncle and aunt were very happy to see us.  After a week’s rest we were to catch a train to Boston, when my uncle suggested that we drive to Boston in this mid 1970- model AMC Hornet station wagon.  He insisted that the car was sitting idle in their garage, and it would be nice to give it a home.  After much deliberation we decided to take the car.  It was a clean little station wagon with yellow and tan exterior, chrome moldings and a nice leather-look interior.  It was most definitely much better than the late 60-s Chevy Impala that I had bought for $150 and sold at a $50 profit before leaving Pullman. 

Pullman is a tiny place in the eastern part of Washington State among rolling hills and wheat fields of the Columbia river basin.  The name of the town was somewhat of an enigma among the many Native American names of nearby cities and towns such as Puyallup, Spokane, Walla Walla, etc.  Later I learned that the name came from ‘Pullman coaches’ of the railroad that once ran through the area.  Pullman is the home of the Washington State University, fondly called Wazzu by the locals.  Besides the sprawling campus, there was a three-block downtown with a smattering of local stores, a McDonald’s and a taco joint. That was all!  Pullman in those days was truly a campus town.

The legal drinking limit in the state of Washington was higher than in the neighboring state of Idaho.  Therefore, the only recreation for the students was to drive ten miles south to Moscow, Idaho.  Moscow is the home of the University of Idaho, and a much larger town with a couple of watering holes and a dance bar.  By the third year as a graduate student, I obtained a learner’s permit and bought a very old Studebaker sedan.  I lived in a dorm and took all my meals in university cafeterias, and had no use for a car except possibly driving to Moscow once in a while.  But, coming from a middle-income no-car family in India, just owning a car was the biggest thrill of my life. However, my car-savvy friends advised me against taking it to highways.  They felt that it might not pass the rigor of highway driving, even a short trip to Moscow. But, such a prognosis rang hollow in my ears. ‘My car has an engine, four wheels, and it starts right up upon cranking the ignition switch.  What else could I expect from an automobile!?’ I argued. 

One Saturday evening I hit the stretch of the Pullman-Moscow highway to go to a watering hole with a friend in the passenger seat.  The car drove just fine even at a high speed.  I never felt so free in my life! The evening went wonderfully well.  But driving back, perhaps I was a bit tipsy and did not notice the blue rotating light on the top of a squad car behind me, or perhaps I did not know the meaning of such a signal and kept on driving. Finally, at the insistence of my friend I stopped the car.  

“Do you know why I stopped you?”  The cop asked.

“No.”  I replied somewhat arrogantly.

“I smell alcohol. Can you come out of the car please?”  The policeman was stern. 

It was before the breathalyzer days, and he made me ‘walk the line’.  Fortunately I passed the ‘alcohol test’.

“You were speeding.  I have been chasing you for more than a mile before you stopped.”

“No, I stopped as soon as I saw your light.”  I was adamant.  

“No sir, please do not argue with me. I will have to give you a ticket.”

The cop gave me a ticket for speeding and drove away, but I cranked and cranked and cranked the ignition switch and the car wouldn’t start, and soon it went stone dead.  That night we walked almost a mile to get back to our dorm rooms.  Next day I arranged for towing my car to a nearby garage. The mechanic in the garage declared that the car was not worth fixing. Therefore, somewhat reluctantly, I left the car in the garage – to be used as a source of spare parts, I was told. Thus, my encounter with the first automobile I owned ended in a total loss.  However, that speeding ticket issue remained alive for a bit longer.

I told Debesh-da, one year senior to me in Science College, Kolkata and also my fellow graduate student in the chemistry department at Wazzu about my speeding ticket.  He promptly declared that I must challenge it.  I did so dutifully because although a year ahead of me, he had truly joined Americana with his American girlfriend and a brand new automobile.  His opinion had to be valued with utmost esteem.

Shortly afterward I received an official notice to appear in front of a judge at the Small Claims Court in downtown Pullman. I went there dutifully on the specified date and time.  But the caseload with the judge was pretty heavy and I had to wait quite a while for my case to be called. Thus, I sat there and watched various cases brought in front of the judge. Some were pretty interesting.  In one case a woman was accused of shoplifting a carton of cigarettes.  She pleaded that she was trying to leave the store to get money from home to pay for her purchase.  Her argument fell flat with the judge.  In another case a young man dressed up as a girl and went into the ladies locker room in the campus gym.  But soon he became very remorseful, went to campus police and confessed his misdeed. 

Hearing the man’s confession the whole court burst into laughter.  Commotion could only be ended by a loud call to order by the crimson-faced judge. She decreed several months of public service for the accused.  My case was next in line. She lectured me sternly about obeying traffic rules and ordered me to pay the ticket in full.


During summer the Wazzu campus used to be a desolate place.  A popular joke among us was that one could only find foreign students and dogs in the streets of Pullman in summertime!  On one of those early summer days in 1980, Mount St. Helens, a dormant volcano some 300 miles west of Pullman, erupted.  Prior to that day there was a lot of talk on TV about rumblings heard inside the mountain, smoke spewing out of the mountaintop, and an impending volcanic eruption. But nothing serious happened till Sunday, May 18th.  It was an early afternoon and I had gone to my lab to work on some experiments.  I was working attentively when I received a frantic call from Swapna in my office that Mt. St. Helens had erupted and I must come home immediately.   

We lived in the second floor of an apartment, a short walk from the campus. While walking home I looked up at the western sky to find a very dark cloud rolling rapidly toward us.  It was like a rolling thunder without the noise.   Within a few short minutes the sky turned pitch black, much worse than a moonless night.  It felt like the doomsday was upon us, sending a chill down my spine.  I reached our apartment building in this darkness and among blaring police cars telling everyone to stay indoors. Suddenly I found that some white powdery stuff was coming down like rain from the sky with an eerie silence.  Before I could realize what was happening I was covered with white ash.  Soon I was stepping into inches of accumulating white ash on the street floor.  It was absolutely surreal!  Growing up in Kolkata I once heard that some religious people had decreed that the earth would cease to exist after a specified day due to a ‘Maha Pralay’.  The day came and went without an incident.  But that day in Pullman certainly felt like Armageddon was truly upon us.

Swapna was in tears when she received me covered with ash.  The TV in our living room was blurting out pictures and stories of erupting Mount St. Helens with molten lava rolling down its sides and ash blanketing hundreds of miles surrounding the mountain. When it all ended the next day, our area was blanketed with knee-deep ash.  On TV there were stories of people who lived in the mountain and couldn’t escape the wrath of nature.  Some people tried to escape the fury by car, but the ash-rain came faster, choked and killed their car engines.  The cars were buried in ash where they stopped.  Some passengers escaped by foot and some others perished. Yet some others refused to leave the mountain and were buried alive by the lava flow from the volcanic eruption.  Wazzu was closed for a week till all the ash was hosed away.  We heard a lot of rumor about the ruinous effect of the acidic nature of Mount St. Helen’s ash.  But it was later determined that the ash was actually good for the crop.  We kept a jar of Mount St. Helens’ ash for a long time as a memento of our experience.


Within a year of Mount St. Helens’ eruption we left Pullman for good to seek greener pastures in Massachusetts.  Boston was a very pleasant surprise for both of us.  Swapna and I had a quiet and peaceful life in Pullman, and the hustle and bustle of city life in Kolkata of our yesteryears was a distant memory. However, to our joy, those memories came back in droves when we moved to Boston.  Though Boston is not as densely populated, and not as big, noisy and dirty as Kolkata, her narrow cobblestone streets, open markets, colleges and universities, and above all her cosmopolitan cityscape with a café culture reminded us of our past life in Kolkata.  The swallows were back to Capistrano to roost!

There were many Indian students and faculty members in Pullman, but there was no Indian association or club.  Instead India Day was celebrated every year at the International Students Club.  On that day we wore showy Indian outfits, displayed Indian objets d’art that many of us had brought from India, and cooked Indian food for everyone to savor.  There were several Bengalis from India and a handful of Bangladeshis including the brother of Md. Ershad, the then Prime Minister of Bangladesh.  However, there was no Bengali Association or even talk about forming one.  

After coming to Boston we were beside ourselves with joy to find and acquaint ourselves with so many Indians and Bengalis!  MIT, where I worked, also had an active Indian association called Sangam, which regularly organized Indian programs.  Sangam provided a forum for socializing with other Indians living in the Boston-Cambridge area.  Soon we started frequenting Dudhwala’s Indian grocery store in North Cambridge.  We also learned about another grocery store in Belmont, and India Pavilion in Central Square, Cambridge, the first and the only Indian restaurant in Massachusetts at that time.  We arrived in Boston in January, and by late February we were invited to a celebration of Saraswati Puja, a typical Bengali festival organized by the local Bengali Association to worship the goddess of learning.  Word got around that Swapna was a disciple of Ms. Suchitra Mitra, the doyen of Rabindrasangeet, and she ended up singing a few songs of Tagore.  Within a few short months, we were deeply entrenched in the Indian and Bengali diaspora and its various cultural activities.  Incidentally, in two years Suchitradi was invited to perform in Boston.  In those days even highly ranked artists from India did not demand to stay in a hotel.  Thus, Suchitradi ended up staying with us in our Cambridge apartment. 

She stayed with us for almost a week, and we got a rare opportunity to ‘see’ the person behind the legend.  She woke up very early in the morning, and by the time we were awake we would find her sitting in our living room all fresh and bright after an early morning shower.  One late evening she asked Swapna for a pen and a writing-pad because she wanted to write a poem. Suchitra Mitra writing a poem! - Swapna was euphoric, and handed her our copy of Bichitra by Rabindranath Tagore.  Next morning we found that she had penned a delightful poem in the last blank page of the book.  That book has remained one of our prized possessions.

(Posted June 1, 2015)

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