Immigrant Bengalis

Life as a Graduate Student in the Sixties

Debajyoti Chatterji.

It was a balmy Saturday afternoon in the late summer of 1968. Sikha and I were sitting on the concrete steps of our modest apartment building in West Lafayette, Indiana, enjoying the warm but gentle breeze and waiting for Bimal-da, Lily-di and their four year old daughter, Pia. Sikha was dressed in a red nylon sari with an abstract pattern, with her long, thick hair done in a braid, a red dot on her forehead and sindoor on the parting of her hair. We had gotten married in India earlier that summer, and she had been in the US for only about two weeks. She was getting used to her new surroundings, making new friends, and enjoying the idea of building her own nest in a new country. We did not have much to build the nest with but that was not really important to her or me. We were in love, we were together, and that’s all that mattered. 

I had arrived as a graduate student in the winter of 1967, and by the time Sikha joined me, I had mastered the rudiments of American college life and had settled down into a rhythmic routine. The university was huge, with over 30,000 students in the West Lafayette campus alone, 3000 or so being in the graduate school. Some 800 foreign students were enrolled in the university, mostly for master’s and PhD degrees in sciences and engineering. Indian students numbered about 200 while the number of Taiwanese students was slightly larger, around 220 (there were no students from mainland China at that time). There were at least thirty Indian professors on the faculty, many in the rank of “Distinguished Professors”. The “Bengali group” consisted of eight graduate students and four post-doctoral research fellows. Including the wives of the married post-docs, the Bengali community had seventeen members. -- As a graduate student, my typical day consisted of running to classes in various buildings, spending time in the departmental library, eating in the one of the many university dining halls, doing research in my lab, grading papers as a teaching assistant, and cooking and eating dinner in the evening with a group of Indian students in the apartment building where I lived at that time. When Sikha arrived, I was happy to share with her all the knowledge I had acquired about Indian student life in small-town America, from prices of various goods and services to how to cook rice, daal, dimer dalna, chicken curry and a couple of simple vegetable dishes. And I told her about Halloween, homecoming, thanksgiving – and about the Indiana winter, the one topic that caught her imagination most. 

We were waiting for Bimal-da and Lily-di because they were going to take us to Kroger, the nearest big supermarket. We didn’t have a car nor did we know how to drive. In my earlier days as a bachelor, I lived in an apartment building that was within walking distance to a grocery store, and being single, my weekly needs could be packed into one or two bags that I could carry myself. Now with the love nest of two people, our needs had escalated, and we were grateful to Bimal-da and his wife for offering us to drive us to Kroger every Saturday for our weekly shopping.

We kept waiting for Bimal-da’s blue Pontiac to turn the corner and come into view -- with the passenger side window rolled down and an overly enthusiastic Lily-di almost hanging out of the window and happily waving at us, with her usual greeting: “Aijey, Kemon achho tomra?” But an hour went by and no familiar Pontiac came into view. Sikha went inside and called Bimal-da’s home. No luck. Another half an hour went by and then another. Cell phones had not even been imagined at that time, and contacting people on the road were virtually impossible. – As we waited, the Sun went on its pre-planned trajectory and shadows began to get longer. Finally, over two hours late, Bimal-da and Lily-di arrived, their vehicle belching copious amounts of black fumes and making a loud racket. Lily-di got out without her usual effervescence, and Bimal-da had a drawn face, clearly upset about something. Pia, always playful and bubbly, also emerged from the car, sulking, apparently reacting to some admonition from her parents. No seat belts were required those days, so Pia did not need anybody’s help to jump out of the car.

Sikha and I looked at each other and instinctively decided to go at it gently. No need to rub it in, we figured. Soon we heard what had happened. Bimal Bagchi was a post doc in chemistry. As a result, he was financially better off than graduate students like us and could afford a relatively new car in good running order. Few graduate students could afford to buy cars, and those who could usually had to be content with old jalopies. Thus Bimal-da’s car was only about four years old with about 40,000 miles on the odometer, yet it had broken down – twice – en route to our home. First the muffler-tail pipe section had decided to detach itself from the rest of the vehicle – and then the battery had conked out at a stop light because of a finicky alternator. Bimal-da had to wait and wait to get help from AAA to re-energize the battery. The fate of the unfaithful muffler was not discussed. 

After Bimal-da and Lily-di calmed down, the five of us got in their blue Pontiac. I joined Bimal-da on the passenger side of the front vinyl bench seat that had a protective, see-through plastic cover. Sikha and Lily-di occupied the back seat with Pia and immediately got immersed in girl talk. It took us only about ten minutes to get to Kroger, and each family took a cart and went on its own expedition, armed with grocery lists and carefully chosen and clipped store coupons. Each family had two objectives in mind: procure the listed items at the best prices possible -- and maximize the haul of the S&H Green Stamps given out by the store. These stamps, and Yellow Stamps offered by a competitor, were the then-ubiquitous store loyalty rewards. Kroger and Smitty’s, the other supermarket in town, gave out “stamp books”, and we pasted the stamps we collected on the pages of these books. Once we filled up one or more books, we could trade these books for free gifts. It was good sport to keep a keen eye on what promotional products offered what bonus bounty of stamps, and even Sikha had taken on this sport with much gusto.

Buying groceries in the sixties in a small Midwestern town was a novel experience for most Indian students for several reasons. You could not help but get impressed by the sheer size of the supermarkets and the variety and quantity of items on display. The cleanliness and the orderliness were something to behold. You could pick up any item, examine it every which way and then put it back on the shelf, without the ever-vigilant store-keeper keeping an eagle eye on you and frowning on your every move. The mechanization and the efficiency of the checkout counters were breathtaking to country bumpkins like Sikha and me who were used to modest, one-person stores -- and hand-counting and re-counting of all small change by store owners themselves. 

But there was an unhappy side to our supermarket expeditions as well. True, we could buy chicken for 10 cents a pound, an unbelievable bargain for us Indians at that time who paid much higher price for such luxury back home. True, we could get all kinds of winter produce like peas, cauliflower, cabbage or spinach even in the middle of a summer heat wave. Fruits were plentiful and fresh, milk came in bottles, and juices were available in myriad packages. And spotless, “all white” eggs were sold only by the dozen in designer crates! But we could not find spices like turmeric, cumin, coriander, cinnamon and cardamom, nor could we find tropical fruits like mango, guava, ata or jamrul, familiar vegetables like green chili, okra, patol or moolo, favorite daals like musur or moog, and many other ingredients that were essential to Bengali kitchen and cooking. And there were no Bengali sweets of any kind! – The fish counters were strange islands for us to explore. We had to read the name of a fish on display to divine its kind because most were already cleaned and cut into filets, masking their identity. When someone spotted a fish that resembledmourala, he relayed that precious information to all Bengalis in a flash, and virtually all of us flocked to the store before the evening was over. Come spring time, shad, a distant cousin of iilish, would grace some fish counters for only about ten days and then disappear for one full year. Indian grocery stores and Indian restaurants were unimaginable in the State of Indiana and probably in most other states in the country at that time.

Our trip to Kroger that Saturday afternoon went as planned. Our grocery filled four paper bags, and the bill amounted to about $22. For Bimal-da, the haul was a bit larger because they had a child to feed as well. And being senior members of the small Bengali community on campus, they often invited many of us to dinner. Interestingly, although our grocery bill that afternoon was smaller, Sikha had managed to snag more S&H Green Stamps than Lily-di, an impressive feat for a newcomer. Lily-di happily patted Sikha on the back and took some pride in having taught the art of stamp collecting well to her new apprentice.

Before dropping us off, Bimal-da had to get some gas for his car. Shopping for gas was a lot of fun because gas stations often engaged in price wars. Bimal-da wanted to stop by a gas station where the price was low (28 cents per gallon for “leaded regular” gas; no “unleaded” version available then) -- and a freebie (a packet of soaps) was being offered as an added incentive. Lily-di wanted to go to another station whether the reward for buying a tank of gas was a set of two glass tumblers. After a mild tug-of-war, Lily-di prevailed, and the thirsty blue Pontiac got a belly full of gas. The cars in those days were not just repair-prone with short life spans but also mighty inefficient. At about 13 miles to a gallon, Bimal-da’s car did not sip but gulp down gasoline.

If Saturday was our day for weekly grocery expedition, Friday evenings were our zealously protected time for dinner and adda, usually in Bimal-da’s apartment. We dared not to schedule anything for Friday nights, no matter what. Sometimes we gathered in the apartment of a Bangladeshi physicist, Dr. Binoy Nag and his wife, Minati. And as Sikha settled down, we hosted some of these addas in our cozy little studio apartment, provided by the university to married students, at an affordable rent of $60 per month. 

Our Friday get-togethers were no great culinary affairs. Unlike the lavish multi-course dinner parties routinely thrown by Bengalis these days (at least by Bengalis in New Jersey), our social gatherings involved simple meals: rice, either green split pea daal or yellow split pea daal (that was all the daal we could find in Kroger or Smitty’s), some kind of bhaja, and chicken curry or dimer dalna or may be a shrimp dish. If the hostess felt extraordinarily motivated for some reason, she would prepare a dessert like simair payesh or golap jam or even a very fancy delicacy like labanga latika (this became a “Sikha specialty” in later years). Everything had to be made from scratch. Since no Bengali man with an ounce of self-respect would be caught dead in a kitchen, the entire kitchen duty invariably fell on the slender shoulders of the Bengali wives. -- Unlike today, only a few of our Bengali friends drank alcohol. A few imbibed in beer, that’s all. In fact, I did not pick up a glass of alcohol in any form until around 1975, some eight years after landing in America.

Friday evenings were great fun for us. We all enjoyed the food, no matter how ordinary they were, because we were some 8,000 miles away from our home, and our host’s home became the closest thing to a desi paradise. Bimal-da was a mild-mannered man in his thirties, no more than 5 feet 2 inches tall, with a soft sense of humor. Lily-di was an experienced cook but her dishes were often rather rich. One evening Bimal-da remarked that the aloor dum made by Lily-di had too much oil. Lily-di replied in a perfunctory manner: “Oh, that happens. Lots of ingredients release oil during cooking”. Bimal-da smiled and gently added: “I did not know that aloo contained fat.” We all laughed and enjoyed the little banter.

Dr. Nag was a bit older and taller than Bimal-da and carried a bit of a European air. He was generally soft-spoken and low-keyed, unless something got him excited. There were two other Bengali post docs, Utpal Bose and Ashok Banerjee. They were single, and so were the six or seven other Bengali graduate students. We called everybody by their last names but for some unknown reason, Bimal-da and Lily-di were addressed by their first names, with the honorific -da and -di added. Lily-di had a vivacious personality with a beaming smile and a ringing laugh. She was an enthusiastic participant in all our addas. Lily-di had a good figure, and she did not mind displaying her assets. She would often let her anchal fall for a few seconds – long enough for the young men to catch a glimpse of her ample cleavage. Minati-di, on the other hand, was a shy young woman with an East Bengali accent. Unlike Lily-di, she was an introvert in mixed company but Sikha used to tell me that in one-on-one conversations, she was very friendly and informal.

Our addas followed the best of Bengali adda traditions. No subject was off limit, and topics under discussion changed frequently and unpredictably. Political topics easily enjoyed the most-favored spot on our list of adda subjects. 1968 was a fateful year: Vietnam War was still raging with the My Lai massacre fresh in everyone’s memory, President Johnson had announced that he would not seek a second term, Martin Luther King was assassinated, Robert Kennedy was gunned down, and the American South was embroiled in bitter racism. We argued passionately about the imperialistic policies of the US, condemned the value systems of the money-hungry American society, and usually ended the adda by solemnly disavowing any interest in staying in the country and becoming Americans. Often the Bengali men got so loud that the women had to intervene to cool things off. 

The Bengali women engaged in a less political and more intimate and pleasant form of adda during the daytime when the men were at the university. None of the women drove cars, so the vehicle for their adda was the telephone. In our part of the country, very few phone subscribers were given the option to have “private lines”; almost every customer had to accept “party line” accounts. That meant that a subscriber shared his phone line with another subscriber – or as many as three more subscribers – who had equal rights to the phone line all the time. The Bengali women would usually pay no attention to such legalities or niceties, and once someone began a spirited conversation with a friend, the two would just hog up the line for hours. Poor party-line subscribers! They would try to break in to make their calls – and would succeed only if they were rudely persistent. When the men got home, they had to hear about the rude party-liners who had the audacity to cut in and ask for access to the phone line. But the Bengali men knew better. In order to reach our wives, we had to occasionally call the operator (yes, “the operator” was a real person -- and was immediately available to anyone lifting a handset without any cost whatsoever) and claim “emergency” so that she (the operators were universally female, how sexist!) would “cut in” and announce the “emergency call” from a husband who feigned to be in some kind of trouble!

The American phone system, party-line inconveniences notwithstanding, was absolutely first rate. In India, very few had the privilege of owning phones, and such privileges mattered little because the phone system rarely worked. Unfortunately, trying to make an “international call” to India from an American phone was a truly frustrating and sad experience. We had to place a “person to person” or “station to station” call request with the “international operator” and give her the name and the phone number of the party in India we wished to call. We were then given a 24-hour time window during which the requested call could materialize. Naturally we placed such call requests on Saturdays, and if we were lucky, the international operator would try to connect us to her Indian counterpart some time on Sunday. Then the torture would begin. Sikha would greet her sister in Jharia (near Dhanbad in Bihar) with an eager hello, and her sister would enthusiastically repeat the same greeting, and this would go on again and again – but to no avail. Her sister could not hear a word Sikha would say beyond the initial hello, and Sikha would not pick up any word her sister uttered after saying hello. After a few minutes of such fruitless hello-hello exchange, both parties would hang up but the lofty bill for the international call would still show up on our account. --Technically trained people know that the slowest step in a multi-step process controls the overall rate of the process. The snail-paced, dysfunctional Indian phone system surely taught that principle to all Indians living in the US in those days, whether they were technically trained or not.

What did we do when we desperately needed to contact our close relatives in India – and vice versa? We sent “cables” or international telegrams! That technology is as dead as a door knob today but in the sixties, it was a highly reliable and easily accessible form of telecommunication, even in remote villages and cities in India. Since the cost of telegrams depended on the number of letters and spaces used, “designing” understandable messages at the least cost had become an art form. Before sending a cable, we worked on many alternative versions of our planned message and then choose the final, lowest cost option. It was painful but fun. 

The Bengali wives wanted to find jobs, and various kinds of jobs were available, but their visa status prohibited them from “gainful employment”. A few non-Bengali wives ignored the legal restrictions and began working in a manufacturing company in town, happy to earn some money and avoid boredom at home. Unfortunately the US Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS) got wind of this unlawful practice and raided the company. They gave stern warning to all the Indian wives: Do not work again, and if you do, you would be deported back to India on the next available flight. 

Another noteworthy constraint on the Indian wives was the fear of unplanned pregnancy. Graduate students had a basic level of health insurance, thanks to university regulations. But the wives of foreign students had no insurance coverage at all. Pregnancy meant a huge financial burden, usually to the tune of about $3000, roughly equal to a year’s earnings for a graduate student. Some Indian wives did get pregnant – and had to arrange installment payments stretching over several years.

Within a couple of weeks after our grocery trip, Lily-di alerted us to a “for sale” ad in the local newspaper for a “gently used”, 17-inch black-and-white TV for a mere $30. We jumped at the opportunity, and not surprisingly, Bimal-da gave us a ride to the other side of our town, negotiated the price down to $25, and helped us get the TV installed in our apartment. That was a moment of pure joy for Sikha and me. It was our first acquisition of a major appliance, and it soon made a major impact on our lives. We learned the art of tweaking the “rabbit ears” to improve TV reception from “really blurry” to “just blurry”. Sikha began to watch day-time soap operas, ”just blurry” or not, and I got hooked on to evening newscasts by Huntley-Brinkley and Walter Cronkite. And when Neil Armstrong, a graduate of my university, stepped on the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969, Sikha and I squinted our eyes and tweaked our rabbit ears to witness that breathtakingly historic moment. Later that year I took driving lessons, got my license and bought our first car, a used Buick Skylark of 1963 vintage, for the princely sum of $300. 

Did we engage in any kind of cultural activities besides adda? Not really. There was an Indian Students Association (ISA) on our campus but it held only a couple of events a year. ISA organized occasional movie-showings and an annual picnic – and nothing more. There were no attempts to organize Saraswati Puja or any kind of religious activities and no initiative to publish an Indian newsletter or magazine. The basic routine for most Indian students was to study hard during the weekdays and watch TV or spend time with friends during the weekends. Those who wanted real excitement would head for drive-in movies in small groups. Drive-ins were open even during the winter months; portable heaters kept you alternating between uncomfortably hot and chilled to the bones. 

The university offered a large number of first rate shows throughout the year. These shows were usually held in the Elliot Hall of Music, which boasted a seating capacity of 6005, second only to the Radio City Music Hall, New York in size (seating capacity varies but maxes out at 6015). Undergraduate students were admitted free to these shows but graduate students had to buy tickets. Ticket prices were quite steep, and few Indian students could afford to see these premium shows. 

There was one show, however, that created much anticipation and excitement among the Indian students, especially among the Bengali community. In the autumn of 1970, the university announced that “Uday Shankar and his Hindu Dance Troupe” was coming to the Elliot Hall of Music! All the Bengalis (and a large number of non-Bengali Indians) attended the show and were thrilled to see the full house giving a standing ovation to Uday Shankar when he entered the stage. He did not dance much (he was almost 70) but he choreographed and directed the 2-hour show which showcased Indian folk and regional dances in colorful costumes. For all of us, it was a magical experience and an evening to remember.

Another memorable Bengali event that year was a trip to Chicago, 130 miles north, to attend Durga Puja, our first such event in the US. We stayed for only an hour but loved every minute of the unique Durga Puja experience, something we had sorely missed for several years. Afterwards we went to a fabric store to buy lengths of colorful nylon prints, to be used by Sikha as saris. There were no real sari shops, not just in our little town in Indiana but also in the mega-metropolis of Chicago. 

Bimal-da and Lily-di left West Lafayette soon after the 1970 Durga Puja. Bimal-da had accepted a faculty position in Caracas, Venezuela. He did not know a word of Spanish, and we all wondered how they were going to manage in a Spanish-speaking country. If Bimal-da was worried, he kept his concerns to himself. Lily-di was apprehensive and upset and didn’t want to leave the US. But they eventually moved, leaving a big void in our social life. Dr Nag and Minati also left around the same time, leaving Sikha in a funk for a while.

In the summer of 1971, I finished my PhD requirements, and Sikha and I left for Dayton, OH. I joined Aerospace Research Laboratory (Wright Patterson Air Force Base) as a research scientist. Much to our great happiness, we quickly found a small but welcoming Bengali community in the area. As time went by, we slowly but surely drifted away from most of our West Lafayette friends. I saw Bimal-da and Lily-di many years later in Bombay during a business trip. He was working in a nearby research institute and was happy. So was Lily-di. It was good to see them after so many years. 

Author's note: Names have been changed to protect the innocent as well as the guilty. 

(Posted December 10, 2013)

NOTE: Readers interested in commenting on this article should email their remarks to amitabhanj@gmail.com or debsmee572@gmail.com


Comments from DC received on Dec 18, 2013: "I finished your "Graduate Student Life" in one single breath. The story you have told is real, interesting -- and informative to people who immigrated in 1980s or later. In your article the felicity of diction is unparalleled. Thank you very much for presenting a good article like this."

Comments from KC received on Dec 18, 2013: "I really liked the article."

Comments from SJ received on Dec 26, 2013: "I enjoyed your recollection of student life at an American university. Yes, I too saved S&H Green Stamps and traded in the little books for a guitar. I helped some friends from India buy their first car for $300. Being in Texas, the price of gas in a "gas war" would go down to the ridiculous amount of 23 cents a gallon. I could fill my VW Beetle for two dollars at the pump."

Comments from AS received on January 9, 2014: "Wonderful venture. Enjoyed reading the articles. Sometimes could relate them to us, making it a bit emotional too!"