Days and Nights in Cambridge, Massachusetts:
The Multi-Colored Prism of NPR
Summary of Chapters 1-17: In the early eighties I came to Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a post-doctoral trainee at MIT after completing my Ph.D. at the Washington State University in Pullman, a campus town in the middle of nowhere but close enough to be impacted significantly by the eruption of Mount Saint Helens, a sleeping volcano in the Western part of the state. 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. Moving to Cambridge/Boston was like re-joining the rich cultural life that we had left behind in Kolkata. We were fortunate to be able to nurture our cultural interests and linkages and make ourselves happy. We also made many friends, particularly with Swapna joining the Massachusetts General Hospital. Through these friendships, we slowly but surely started taking baby steps to join the American mainstream. And I began to discover the many charms of the Greater Boston area, notably the Haymarket.
We moved to Massachusetts in the middle of a dreadful winter with frigid temperatures and a thick cover of snow and ice on everything. Ourfriend had arranged an apartment for us in North Cambridge but my place of work was on the other side of town. To get to work, I needed to walk for about 20 minutes and then catch a bus. After a few days of trudging through snow and slush in frosty temperatures I decided to drive my AMC Hornet station wagon to work. In those days, parking in MIT garages was not expensive. It was my first experience in driving to and from work on a daily basis.
I remember the very first day I was driving to work and flipping through the stations on the car radio to listen to something I would like. These were pre-CD days, and my car didn’t have a cassette player to play pre-recorded music of my choosing. There were stations for pop, rock, jazz, classical music, call-in shows and what not Finally I found a station where a deep and compelling male voice was talking in great detail about the Transcendentalist movement in New England. It immediately caught my attention. The reporting ended after a while, and this man signed off as “This is Morning Edition. I am Bob Edwards.” Soon another voice identified the station: “This is WBUR, your radio station for National Public Radio, NPR”.
The die was cast, and soon it became my habit to listen to Bob Edwards in the morning, and Susan Stamberg in the evening on my drive back home. The real kicker came one day when I heard one of the NPR personalities interviewing someone in Kolkata, asking why Kolkatans have such a love-affair with a city that appears moribund to most others. In reply, this person started playing his harmonium, and soon the airwaves were filled with Rabindrasangeet! I was sold, and this experience made me a slave to the NPR. Many days I would sit in the car, even after reaching home or work, to catch the tail-end of an interesting report.
I grew up in Kolkata at a time when there was no television, and radio ran supreme. On Sunday mornings, there was ‘Sangeet Sikkha’r Asor’ (Forum for learning music), stewarded by Pankaj Mullick, the venerable Rabindrasangeet teacher and artiste. Mr. Mullick in his deep voice would exclaim his oft-repeated phrase – “Naa, hochhey naa, abar korun” (No, you are not getting it, do it over). In ‘Sishu Mahal’ (The world of children) Ms. Indira Debi, much like Mr. Rogers in Sesame Street's Mr. Rogers Neighborhoodwould begin her program with - “Chhotto sona bondhura, valo achho tow sob?” (My dear little friends, are you keeping well?), and all the assembled children would blare out in unison- “Ha-a-a-n” (Y-e-e-e-s)! Then there was Ms. Bela Dey in Mohila Mahal who would talk about sewing, cooking and other domestic things. She made quite a name for herself during the 1962 Indo-China war when she urged her listeners not to waste any part of a food ingredient. Even today, talking about something totally ridiculous we would repeat her instructions: “Kumro-r khosa phele na diye, chhoto chhoto koray katun aar valo koray gawa ghiye mooch-mooche koray vayjay cheenee’r rawsay phelun” (Why waste pumpkin-peels? Chop them up in small pieces, and fry them to a crunchy red in clarified butter. Then dip them in thick sugary syrup). India was a desperately poor country, and clarified butter and sugar were quite expensive items in those days, yet she was suggesting saving throwaway pumpkin skin by using expensive ingredients. In the afternoons and evenings there were ‘Anurodher Asor’ (Songs at your Request) and ‘Chhayachhobir Gaan’ (Film Songs). These two programs were responsible for developing an ear for music for me and many others who grew up in Kolkata in those days.
On days of cricket matches we were glued to the radio, listening to ball-by-ball description by commentators Aajy Bose, Kamal Bhattacharya and later on Pushpen Sarkar. Ajay, in his slightly nasal but crystal clear voice would describe every little detail of the game, and often would ask his fellow commentator – “Kamal-da, aapni kee bolen (Kamal-da, what do you say)?” Kamal-da would immediately pick up the hint, and in his dulcet voice would explain the game played in front of him like a poem or a piece of good music. In those days there were no one-day matches, and games were slow and even-paced, as the game of cricket was supposed to be.
On Sunday afternoons I enjoyed listening to audio-plays by legendary theater personalities. The grave yet mellifluous voice of Shambhu Mitra in ‘Raja’ (The King) or ‘Raja Oydipous’ (King Oedipus) still rings in my ear; so does Nilima Das’s superb audio-acting in the Bengali translation of Glass Menagerie, the memorable play by Tennessee Williams. Then there was this annual event of ‘Mahishasuromardini’ (The Slayer of the Buffalo Demon). On the morning of ‘Mahalaya’ (a holy day for the Hindus), everyone in Kolkata would dutifully turn on their radio at 4 o’clock to listen to the oratory of Birendrakrishna Bhadra in his snuff-laden nasal voice. At times his voice would hit the ceiling, and in the next moment he would whisper in his inimitable rendition of Chandi (a holy scripture for the Hindus). Sometimes his voice would choke with emotion. I could clearly hear him sobbing under his breath. Those were the days! In short, I was in love with radio.
I came to the Unites States, as a graduate student, to Pullman, a very small college town in the state of Washington in the North-Western part of the country. For the first two years I was completely engrossed in taking classes, working as a Teaching Assistant and doing research, and I had barely any time to spare besides satiating my physical needs of eating and sleeping. In the third year things became a bit easier, and I went to India to get married to my sweetheart from Calcutta University days and bring her to this country. I also had to move from my dorm room to a one-bedroom apartment reserved for married students.
In those days TV was a novelty to me, but I didn’t have much time to watch it. But soon I learned that it was an absolute necessity if had a stay-home spouse. Before Swapna started taking courses in the same school, she spent her days and afternoons watching TV till I came home in the evening. After dinner we would sit down together to watch TV. Soon I got hooked to watching the evening news, followed by whatever program was on. We also watched TV after dinner. On many cold winter nights we would cuddle up under a warm blanket and watch Archie Bunker snicker at his wife with racist jokes in All in the Family, or Hawkeye Pierce and his team of mischief makers running amok in the field camp with ever-present leg- pulling of ‘Hot Lips Houlahan’ in MASH. Then there was Taxi where we met Alex Rieger and his team of NY city cabbies, and most incredibly Latka Gravas who walked in goose steps and spoke in an invented language. We laughed and cried together, and went to sleep with a smile on our face. Radio was completely forgotten.
However, after our move to Massachusetts, radio came back in a very big way, particularly as a commuting companion. Soon, many NPR personalities became a part of my family. Sylvia Poggiolli reported from Italy and other parts of Southern Europe in her smoky voice, and Nina Totenberg presented legal points and counterpoints with elegance and unmatched brevity. Then one day I listen to a report from Scott Simon hiding in some enclave in Nicaragua, while a war raged on in this small Central American country which found itself in a proxy war between America and the then Soviet Union. Twice a week, Terry Gross in ‘Fresh Air’ entertained us with her amazing array of guests and her cool yet piercing questions. Once in a while Baxter Black, a large animal veterinarian, spoke of mundane aspects of farm life with a ready wit and dark humor. Then there was this elderly lady from Missoula, Montana. One day in late March she was talking about spring arriving in the Montana prairie. Her grandma voice was so ebullient that I could feel and smell spring in the middle of a dreary and melancholy winter in Massachusetts. A warm feeling stayed with me for a long time. It was like listening to those Rabindrasangeets by George Biswas. They stay with you all day, and drench your heart like a monsoon drizzle.
That lady is long gone, Bob Edwards has bid farewell, but many other familiar voices have remained and continued to provide an essential ingredient for my daily life. Many new and exciting voices have also joined in. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports from Africa, and at the end of each report she signs off with “Ofeibea Quist-Arcton from Daa-ka-a-a-a-r”. Each time I hear this long and drawling ‘Daa-ka-a-a-a-r’, a smile appears on my face. Every evening Tom Ashbrook brings in an hour-long discussion and call-ins on politics, literature, cinema, music and any other subject that one can think of. Some people have become almost permanent fixtures. Each Saturday the Tom and Ray Magliozzi brothers* of “Car Talk" lighted me up with their wisecracks about cars and what not. One Saturday I was listening to them in my car, and these MIT alums were talking about things related to space shuttles and astronauts. Suddenly a voice came on the airwaves and started talking about life in a space-shuttle. Soon Ray commented – “You sound like a space-alien”. After a short laugh the man replied – “I am actually calling from a space shuttle”. How often does one get to hear an astronaut live from space? Soon it was discovered that the man actually lived in Cambridge, and used to take his Volkswagen Beetle to Ray’s shop on Sidney Street for repair. Sidney Street is a short distance from the MIT campus, and one day I ventured into the Good News Garage. Ray, a short and stocky person with a heavy Italian accent was minding the shop. I always felt that Ray (*) was a refined person, judging from his comments on a wide variety of subjects ranging from classical music and philosophy to street smartness. To my bewilderment, I couldn’t help but notice pictures of women in skimpy dresses dotting the wall behind him. Somehow that turned me off, and I never took my car to his garage, but I continued to listen to Car Talk regularly and laugh at Ray's wisecracks.
Soon I learned that having fun, even listening to NPR, is not free. Coming from India, I had never heard of a fund-raiser for a radio-station. Thus when WBUR, the local NPR station, started a fund-raiser, and many of my favorite radio-personalities chipped in with an appeal to give to ‘your’ station, I was less than enthusiastic. Actually it was more of an irritant because they stopped the programming frequently to beg for money. But soon it sank into my head that these stations are largely funded through listener contributions, and above all I needed to pay for my entertainment. My postdoctoral stipend was barely enough to make both ends meet for me and my wife. But the tug on my conscience was so strong that I called the radio station and meekly offered a measly amount as my contribution. I was overjoyed when the person on the other side thanked me profusely and requested my permission to announce my name as one of the givers. This was my maiden attempt at philanthropy. An hour later I received an excited call from my wife. She had heard my name on the radio, because NPR was a standard fixture in the laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital where she was working at that time. She thanked me for this decision and let on that she was thinking of doing the same herself. To my amazement I learned that she had also fallen for NPR and its personalities. Now, that was two for two for a family of two!
Listening to NPR has had a longstanding effect on our psyche. Several years ago when we were seriously contemplating about going back to India for good, we considered the many things that we would miss. India in those days was very different from the India of today with her burgeoning wealth. Therefore, we considered missing simple amenities of a comfortable middle class life, like a microwave oven or an automobile of our own. By this time our first son was born, and we were seriously concerned about the quality of healthcare that would be available for him in India. We also contemplated about the somewhat intangible benefits of living in America, like clean air, safe drinking water etc. But at the top of the heap of our considerations was listening to NPR! Those were the days before the rampant proliferation of Internet. After much deliberation we decided not to go back and happily continued listening to NPR.
Fast forward many years. We have grown old in our adopted country and have picked up a lot of her nuances. Now in social gatherings we talk excitedly about whether Bernie Sanders will get the Democratic Party nomination for President, or whether the Celtics will make it to the play-off this year. My love for cricket has waned to almost nil, and listening to cricket commentaries on the radio has become a very distant memory. Our way of entertaining ourselves has also changed dramatically. I always loved to listen to music, and bought a stereo system and a very expensive pair of Ohm speakers at a time when we could ill afford them. Now with the advent of laptops, smart phones, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the like, that stereo system and those elegant wood-paneled speakers stare at me like ghosts from the past. But, one thing hasn’t changed: as soon as I turn the ignition key of my car, NPR comes alive like an old trusted friend.
A few days ago I was driving to my workplace in Boston. It was a miserable morning. The sky was overcast and one could easily smell an oncoming snow storm in the air. This would be on top of the six-foot-high snow banks all over the place! I was crouched inside my old Toyota Corolla with heavy boots, gloves, a parka jacket and a woolen cap. It was one of those days when my mind was laden with worries about work, family, weather and what not. I seethed under my breath. For heaven’s sake why can’t we move to Florida or better yet to Kolkata where things may have gotten much better lately? Suddenly I realized that the radio was turned off. It must have been my son who took the car the day before – I thought and dutifully turned the radio on. Immediately a soothing and warm voice enveloped me. It took me a short while to figure out that it was one of those long segments where they featured live interviews, brought persons with opposing views and above all took the time to elaborate on the issue with great care instead of sound bites. I was ready for a pleasant ride.
The topic was women in the military. The first voice was that of Kate Olson who joined the army in the early 1950s. To my amazement, and also that of the interviewer, she elaborated on how different and difficult it was for a woman cadet at West Point, and later on in the military. I laughed to my heart’s content when she stated with a chuckle that in those days in the army, women had to take training in cosmetics and learn how to dress attractively. “Do you mean you had to learn how to put on lipstick properly or what length skirt one should wear?” the interviewer asked in bewilderment. “Yes, indeed – how to be attractive to male soldiers in the army.” Kate elaborated on how it was so very difficult to be a woman in the army and still raise a family. She was also unequivocal about not wanting her only child to join the army. Then it was the turn for Mandy Olson, her daughter. Mandy was a very soft spoken young lady. She stated that she always looked up to her mother, and when time came for a decision she joined West Point, no regrets. Now Kate spoke with all her maternal instincts – “My child, you have such a gentle personality you can be an academic, but never a military person!” “No, Ma, I am not readying myself for combat. I am planning to join the army medical school and be an army doctor. I simply want to follow your footsteps.”
Last weekend my son took my car without informing me. It was quite annoying because my wife took the other car to work to finish up a project and I had to run some errands urgently. Not surprisingly my son would not pick up his cell phone, so I didn’t have much choice but to wait. An hour later he drove in and I eagerly opened the garage door to quickly get into the car and get to my destinations. That's when I noticed that the driver’s door was half open, and my son was sitting there and listening attentively to something on the radio! The voice sounded very familiar to me.
(*) Recently Tom Magliozzi passed away. The airwave, TV, newspapers, internet were filled with articles, anecdotes, remembrances about this wisecracking person with an ear-splitting laughter.
(Posted April 1, 2016)
Readers interested in commenting on this article should send their remarks to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Comments received from Sharmila C. on April 2, 2016: "Really enjoyed it ! Like you, NPR has been my companion to and back from work and while doing my chores on weekends. Happy to say that the next generation of this household have picked up this habit and are very supportive of NPR! Hope the tradition continues in spite of bad intentions of Republican-controlled Congress ! This is the only place you can listen to unbiased news!"
Comments received from Sumantra G. on April 2, 2016:"Bravo, what a wonderful article! So well written and so full of imageries. We, 60-something Bengali’s in this country, can relate to with more than a tug in our heart. AIR Calcutta was such pleasure those days, and you have captured not just the names and memes but also the inflections in their voices so brilliantly. NPR now is such a breath of fresh air in the midst of the cacophony of 24 hour TV news. It was the high point in my daily drive to Manhattan and back till I retired recently and became part time. I don’t miss office so much these days as I miss Morning Edition or All Things Considered or Fresh Air. Somehow while at home one doesn’t end up switching on the radio. The Internet is such a spoiler."
Comments received from Saroj S. on April 4, 2016: "The Article penned by Rahul Ray is simply wonderful! It has caught a glimpse of Kolkata's cultural life, especially the role of local radio on it, back in the sixties-seventies. It followed from thereon to a superb narration as how it all changed for Rahul once he was in the USA in the early eighties on. But to say the least, the account of the continued connect with RADIO is most interesting. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the narrative."
Comments received from Tultul M. on April 4, 2016:"The article by Rahul Ray, is simply marvelous! It brings back memories of our old 'radio ' days in India. His article tells how NPR serves as an old friend giving company to lonely commuters helping to wipe off the drudgery! Had never been to MA,but Rahul's description is so vivid one can feel the cold, the warmth of the place and at the same time enjoy several joy rides in his car -- of course with his radio turned on! But, the last paragraph has a note of hope. Our children in this world of internet at times listen to the radio too!"
Comments received from Shyam21 on April 10, 2016: "Fascinating article ... brings back lots of nostalgic memories of my childhood and adulthood in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Thank you, Mr Roy!"